Starland.

It was early evening by the time I arrived at the building on Drayton Street. I gave my Lyft driver the gate code, he punched it in, and heavy iron doors swung open to let us inside. I’d only been there once before – on a Monday morning in December – and the place looked totally different in darkness. Long, ominous shadows stretched across the parking lot as we wound our way toward the back of the complex.

It wasn’t the type of place you could easily find if you didn’t know where to look. My apartment and its five neighboring units were classified as live-work spaces: airy, high-ceilinged, industrial lofts with unassuming eggshell façades and a stripe of steel blue across their midsections. Two of the units had storefronts facing Drayton Street (one belonged to an acupuncture therapist, the other a waxing studio), but their signage was understated, and didn’t reveal that just beyond the heavy iron gates there were actual people, living actual lives.

My landlord’s son – who lived next door and who was supposed to let me in – had stopped answering my texts. “I’m here!” I typed cheerfully as we drove through the gate, but he didn’t reply. I arrived to find his apartment eerily quiet, with all its lights off.

“You don’t have to wait,” I told the driver, as he unloaded my luggage into the parking lot. “I’m sure he’ll be back any minute.” “It’s no problem,” he said. “I want to make sure you get in OK.”

I knew he was just being polite, but his answer annoyed me. I was tired from the move, the long travel day, and the jumble of thoughts swimming around in my brain, and the last thing I wanted was to stand around awkwardly in a dark parking lot with some stranger. “Just go,” I thought, looking down at my phone again and silently pleading for the text that would rescue me. No text came, but suddenly, something else broke through the quiet evening: the sharp blare of a horn. The noise repeated again, and then again, growing louder and sharper with each subsequent blast. The driver looked at me, a question in his eyes. “Freight train!” I yelled, pointing to the tracks running just beyond the parking lot where we stood.

“That’s loud!” He yelled back, as the train chugged past us. “Does it come through here often?!?”

I shrugged. “Two or three times a day, I think. But the noise doesn’t last for very long.”

He raised a skeptical eyebrow but said nothing, probably because he didn’t feel like yelling. I looked down at my phone again: still no message. I sighed. “I appreciate you waiting with me,” I told him, “But really, you can go. I’ll be fine.”

“Well alright, if you’re sure,” he said, already walking toward his car. “Welcome to Savannah.”

I’ve been here for three weeks now. Three weeks in which time has simultaneously been speeding by and standing still. After I gained access to my apartment (my neighbor, as it turned out, had fallen asleep, which seems a miracle, given the train), I’d barely put sheets on the bed before I went to grad school orientation, picked up my ID badge, and bought a stack of textbooks at the campus bookstore. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I arrived in Savannah, and my life changed overnight. And ever since that first day, I’ve been on a treadmill, trying to keep up.

I’m sure there will come a time in the not-too-distant-future when I come up for air. When I get a Georgia driver’s license, and a car, and start exploring the southeastern coast and the world outside of graduate school. My sanity demands it. But for the moment, most of my time in Savannah is confined to Starland, the quirky midtown neighborhood where I live. Starland’s vibe is young and artsy, populated by enough hip eateries, cool watering holes, and fair-trade coffee houses that it feels like someone took Portland, Oregon, and plunked it down in the middle of the south.

If I have to be stuck without a car, there are worse places. I’m six blocks from Arnold Hall, SCAD’s writing building, where I have all of my classes. In Starland, I can walk to dinner, to coffee, to yoga class, to the local art store, and to a gas station/convenience mart that’s the closest thing I’ve found to a New York City bodega. I can go days without leaving this neighborhood, which, since most of my time is devoted to writing essays and reading large volumes of text, is pretty darn convenient. And though I haven’t seen all of Savannah, I feel pretty confident in saying that fate has already landed me in the most “Sarah” neighborhood in this city.

On the one hand, I wish I could have done the move differently. I wish it hadn’t been such a mad, crazy scramble to get out of New York and that I’d had more time to say goodbye to the people and places of that city. I wish I’d arrived in Savannah with a cushion of time to simply adjust, to do all the life stuff required to make a place feel like home, before entering into a rigorous graduate program that leaves little time for anything other than classes and homework.

But on the other hand, I think it’s probably best I didn’t have time to get “ready” for this, or to think about all the things I’d be giving up to become a full-time student. If I had, I would have found a million reasons not to do it.

There’s so much about life that’s hard right now. But there’s also something else: an unshakeable feeling that all I have is this moment. And in this moment, I’m where I’m supposed to be, and doing what I’m supposed to do.

And that, despite the train tracks running through my backyard, is a pretty good feeling.

Until next time, friends.

Sunrise.

“There’s always a sunrise and always a sunset and it’s up to you to choose to be there for it,’ said my mother. ‘Put yourself in the way of beauty.”

– From the book “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed

I couldn’t believe how quickly the nine days passed. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised: time always moves differently at the beach. I arrived on a Tuesday evening after a long travel day. There was the pre-dawn taxi ride to Newark airport, the two-hour flight delay, the six-hour cross country flight, and finally the hour and a half drive over freeways and winding rural highways to get to the beach.

The day after I arrived, the rain rolled in. Rain that lasted for three days. So much rain, the low-lying plot of land next to my grandfather’s house filled with water and formed a large pond, playing host to a flock of Canada geese that glided serenely across its surface.

I tried to stay on east coast time, going to bed early and rising before the dawn. For the first few days it worked, my internal clock naturally nudging me awake before sunrise. But as the crash and clamor of New York City faded into the tranquil quietude of the fog-wrapped inlet, I couldn’t help it: my body naturally slipped back into what could only be described as “beach time.” Just in time for my return to New York.

I almost didn’t make the trip west. The days before I came here were consumed with sorting through and purging my belongings, checking items off an ever-growing to-do list, and preparing to leave New York. It’s nearly impossible for me to believe that by this time next week, I will be settling into a new life in Savannah, Georgia. At the end of next week, I will move into a new apartment, attend graduate school orientation, and be on the precipice of starting a master’s program.

Aaah. Just writing those words gives me a stab of anxiety. I know I’ll be fine; I’ve navigated big scary life changes before (and documented them on this blog). But this feels different. This feels like taking a purposeful step into the future, one that’s full of intention. With this program, I’m committing my time and resources to developing my voice as a writer. And I’m committing myself to finishing the memoir I’ve been trying to write for years.

When I arrive back in New York, I’ll have a mere five days to finish packing and discarding my belongings, saying my goodbyes, and getting ready to move. Five days. The thought of it sends my brain swirling into overdrive. There’s so much to do that my mind can’t contain it all, so instead, I choose to push those thoughts aside and simply enjoy the view.

As I write this, I’m sitting at my grandfather’s dining room table, drinking coffee, watching the sunrise valiantly break through cracks in the thick white fog that hangs over Case Inlet. A small stack of photographs rests nearby. After days of poring over old photo albums, these snapshots are the last handful of images I have left to record on my iPhone camera. Mostly, they’re photos of my mother and I, dating back to my early childhood and teen years, many of them taken right here on this beach.

My mother is everywhere in this place. It’s why I wanted to come here, busy as I was before my impending move to Georgia. In this little corner of the Pacific Northwest, I hear her laughter reverberating off the rocks of the beach and dancing along the shore of the inlet. I feel her in the wind that rustles through the evergreen trees; see her in the snowy apex of Mount Rainier that every so often breaks through the thick layers of grey clouds to say hello.

I wonder what she’d think of me now, as I prepare to embark on this new adventure. I can’t know for sure, but I do know I’m glad I came here. I didn’t know until I arrived how much I needed this time. Time to breathe. Time to reconnect with the place that raised me. Time to honor those who’ve gone before me and whose spirits still reside in this place.

And this morning, I needed to see that sunrise valiantly break through those clouds. Like a beacon of hope. One that said, “Hey kid, you’ve got this. You’re going to be OK.”

And now, here I go.

Until next time, friends.

The farewell tour (part one).

“What we call the beginning is often the end.

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.”

– T.S. Eliot

There’s something downright magical about autumn in New York City. The stagnant summer air lifts like a veil and disperses, offering a gentle respite from the suffocating heat on subway platforms, the stench of garbage bags piled high on sidewalks. The scarves come out, the sleeves get longer, legs that were once bare are covered over in tights. The leaves change quickly – to gold, to crimson, to fiery orange – a reminder of the impermanence of time, inviting you to pause and breathe in their colors before they’re gone.

Fall has always been my favorite season. I suppose it’s odd that I should find this time of year so hopeful just as nature begins to do its dance with death, but I do. The lazy haze of summer has ended, and before the sparkly glow of the holidays descend, there’s a window of time that feels both industrious and optimistic. Back to work, back to school, back to routine. The energy is palpable on the streets of the city: the weather still mild enough to travel by foot, but with crisper air, an accelerated pace, and a sense of urgency that permeates every movement.

I’m in love with New York right now. It might be because I love autumn, or it might be because, soon, I’ll be leaving. Either way, every moment is suffused with wonder, each day brings a new revelation.

It’s joyful, and at the same time, it’s sad. I’m grieving my departure as I would the impending death of a loved one: I’m grateful for the time we have together, yet I can’t help but anticipate the end.

So then, why leave at all? There are many reasons, but the biggest one is this: after spending the last few years floating through life, floating from one temporary situation to another, I am ready for structure, and stability. I’m ready to ground myself in something more permanent, some place that feels like a home. And locating those things in this city – permanence, structure, home – simply hasn’t happened. For reasons both financial and personal, they feel out of reach.

At the end of August, I learned that I was accepted into the MFA writing program at the College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia and offered a significant scholarship. After a visit in late September, during which I toured the school and met with faculty, I decided to enroll. I start classes in January, and while I’m excited about embarking on this next life chapter, the prospect of moving to the southeastern United States has me feeling. . . nervous. Suddenly, I’m contemplating living in the path of hurricanes and red state politics. After selling my Prius and spending two years riding subways, I’ll need to get a car again. After a scary operation earlier this year, I’ll have to surrender my New York health insurance and kick-ass Manhattan doctor in favor of finding a health plan on the Obamacare market in Georgia. And after spending all of my adult life living in two of the world’s major cities – Los Angeles and New York – I’ll be moving to a town with a population of roughly 150,000 people, many of whom travel at a much slower pace than I’m currently accustomed to.

And yet. I can recognize that my life has been stuck. In order to achieve my goals, I need to do things differently. Shake things up. Take some risks. Act a little braver than I feel. And here’s something I’ve learned from the other times I’ve jumped off the proverbial cliff: change is scary, but it’s also necessary. And it’s usually necessary before we are ready for it.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying the hell out of my remaining time in New York. About six weeks ago, just before my trip to Savannah, I reached my two-year anniversary of moving here. As I reflected upon the lessons of the last two years, I wrote them down in a post on social media that I’d like to share with you below:

Two years ago today, I woke before the dawn, finished packing all of my belongings into three suitcases, and drove with my uncle through the still-dark early morning to Sea-Tac airport, where I boarded a plane bound for the opposite coast. Early that same evening, I greeted a landlord I’d never met and moved into an apartment I’d never seen, marking the official start of my new New York life.

Two years. Two years that have contained two surgeries, six play readings, countless applications and rejections and near misses and almost-might-have-beens. Two years that have tested me in ways I never could have imagined. Two years that have reminded me of just how much I still have to learn.

New York, I’m sorry for every time I cursed your name. You were only trying to teach me that who I had been was no longer enough. That if I wanted to do all the things I had always talked about doing, I’d have to work harder, become stronger, push myself farther than I ever thought I could go. You were a tough teacher and I hated you for that. But boy, did I learn.

Sometimes your heart has to break before it can open. You did that for me, New York, and then rewarded me by unfolding an epic love story at my feet.

It’s no secret that I may not be calling you home for much longer. But for as long as I’m here, I promise you this: I will take in your towering skyscrapers and your sunsets over the Hudson River and your autumn leaves falling amber with aching wonder. I will move through this great city with gratitude for every moment that I have left. And as I do, I will remind myself again and again that I did this. That two years ago, I came here alone, with no plan, and I made friends and told stories and fell in love.

And that is something, New York.

That is everything.

In the words of T.S. Eliot, “What we call the beginning is often the end.” And now here I am, at the beginning of my New York farewell tour. But maybe this beginning won’t be the end, after all. Maybe instead – two years later – it’s just the place where I’m starting from.

Until next time, friends.

Seven years.

“Maybe it’s okay

if it takes time,

to be okay.

Maybe

healing is a road that is

lined with endless grace.”

– Morgan Harper Nichols

Dear Mom,

How do I begin? Usually, I’m the one other people come to when they need help figuring out what to say. But in trying to figure out what to say to you – my best friend, my first phone call, the person I miss most of all – I am utterly lost. My fingers are clumsy on my keyboard. A heavy brick sits squarely in the center of my chest.

But still, I will try. I will try because you deserve it. You deserve to know all of the things I have been thinking but haven’t been able to say.

Seven years. Seven years since I got the worst phone call of my life. Seven years since all the color bled from the world and the sky turned black and nothing would ever look the same again. Seven years since you left.

Seven is an impossible number. It is impossible for me to believe it has been seven years since I’ve seen your face, or hugged you in an airport, or heard the familiar, “Oh hi, Sar,” on the other end of the telephone.

But seven is an impossible number for another reason. It is impossible to believe how quickly the years have elapsed since you died. It seems so cruel that time has marched on, indifferent, and that I have lived and loved and struggled and succeeded and hoped and failed throughout most of my thirties without you. How unfair that the worst thing I could possibly imagine happened to me, and all I could do was survive it? How awful to learn that I not only could go on without you, but that I would go on. I would go on to become a better, braver, more compassionate person in your absence, and that better, braver, more compassionate person is someone you will never get to meet.

Damn it, it’s so unfair. And yet, it is. The unfairness of life is one of the most profound lessons I have learned from your death, Mom. As children, we are taught to believe that kindness will be rewarded and the good guys will win and that everything will work out in the end. And sometimes, those things do happen. But other times, they don’t. Other times, life shocks you with its randomness. Sometimes, terrible things happen that don’t make any sense and there’s nothing to do but accept them.

For a while, I was angry with you, Mom. I was angry with you for dying. I was angry with you for leaving me at the worst possible time. Dad was dying, and Grandma was losing her mind, and Grandpa was wheelchair-bound and depressed, and you just checked out. You left the building and left me to deal with the mess you left behind.

When you died, I was in the prime of my life. I was thirty-one, living a sun-soaked existence in Los Angeles, doing exactly as I pleased. Before you left, my biggest concerns centered around whether my agent liked my new headshots or how many auditions I was getting. And then suddenly, everything changed. Suddenly, there were a million hard decisions to make. There was probate court. There were health care directives and funerals to plan and boxes and boxes and boxes of belongings to sift through. There was a home to sell. My family home, or at least it used to be, before I watched you unravel within its walls. And then, there was Grandpa. Your sweet, heartbroken father, who could not reconcile the fact – no matter how many times I tried to explain it to him – that someone who was only sixty years old and in seemingly good health could suddenly just die.

It was relentlessly unfair, Mom. And I was not ready for any of it. In fact, for a while, I was convinced it would kill me. I was convinced that I would die. Yet, for whatever reason, I didn’t. Even though everything was horrible and gut-wrenching and wrong, I survived. And a funny thing happens when life deals you the worst cards you can imagine and you continue to breathe in and out. You learn something about yourself. The world is suddenly, irrevocably, different, and you are different in it. You can’t go back to the way you were, and you find you don’t want to.

I am going to say some things now that will probably sound awful, but I have to admit to them because they’re true. If both of my parents had to die, I’m glad you went first, Mom. Because my relationship with my father needed repairing and those last few months with him were a gift. I’m grateful for the dinners we had and the football games we watched and that there was nothing left unsaid between us. I’m grateful he got to plan his own funeral, and that I was able to carry his ashes down the aisle of the church, and sit in the front row with Deirdre and Dave and Matt and pretend to be the good Catholic girl he wanted me to be. If you hadn’t died, Mom, I wouldn’t have done any of that. I would have been too busy holding you up.

And even though I blamed her cruelty for causing you to turn to the bottle in the first place, I’m grateful for the daily phone calls with Grandma before Alzheimer’s erased her memory. I’m grateful for the realization that even though she was a terrible, abusive mother, she was still in pain over losing you. I’m grateful for the knowledge I learned earlier than most: that love is complicated and people are too, and most of us aren’t working with a full tool kit when it comes to matters of the heart.

I think you already know this, Mom, because I choose to believe that you see and know everything I do, but I will confess it to you anyway: I have lied about your death. I’m not sure how many times, but there is one time in particular that stands out. It was after we found out Grandpa was dying, and I was on a plane headed back to Seattle to be with him. The woman seated next to me was one of those busy body, Matriarch types, and before I knew it, I was telling her my entire life story. And when she asked me how you died, I lied and said “Cancer.”

It embarrasses me now that I did that, Mom. Why should I care what a complete stranger thinks? But at the time, I was trying to protect you. Or rather, I was trying to protect us both. I was afraid that if I told the truth, the busy body Matriarch seated next to me would think you were a terrible mother. Or I was a terrible daughter. Or there was something wrong with our family. Or – worst of all – you didn’t love me enough to stay alive.

I know that none of this is true, Mom. What is true is that for most of my life, you harbored a deep, dark sadness. A sadness I didn’t understand and didn’t know how to fix. And you drank to feel better, and the alcohol worked until it didn’t. Until it killed you. But I don’t think you wanted to die, Mom. I don’t think you wanted to leave us. As one of your friends once told me, “Your mother was so tired. She just wanted to sleep.”

Shortly after you died, the man I used to be married to told me he was jealous of our relationship. He said he was jealous of how close we were, because he didn’t have that with his own mother. His words caused me to fly into a blinding rage. I was so furious at the unfairness of losing you, so devastated by the gaping hole your absence had only recently carved into my life, that I simply couldn’t hear it. But looking back, I’m glad he said it, because he only illuminated what was true. In thirty-one years, I never doubted how much you loved me, Mom. Not once. You gave me everything you could, and I am the luckiest person on earth to be able to call you my mother. Nothing will ever change that. Not even death.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in losing you, and in losing Dad, and Grandma and Grandpa, is that healing is a road that runs straight through forgiveness. In order to move on, you have to let go.

It has taken me seven years to be able to say this, but here it is: I forgive you, Mom. I forgive you for dying. I forgive you for leaving me at the worst possible time. I forgive you for needing to sleep.

And I forgive myself, too. I will have to say that again and again in order to believe it, so I guess I better start practicing now. I forgive myself. I forgive myself for not being able to save you. I forgive myself for every horrible, awful, selfish thing I did in the years since you died. I forgive myself for the mistakes I made, for the time and the money I wasted, and for all the ways I hurt myself. I forgive myself because I can see now that I was doing my best. I can see now that I was only trying to survive.

You stayed alive for me as long as you could, Mom. And now, it is my turn to stay alive for you. But I won’t just do that. I will do you one better. I will write the story of your life, and my life, and the story of all the ways in which our two lives are irrevocably intertwined. And as I do that, I will put this sad, seven-year season behind me and move forward into the future with a still-fragile yet hopeful heart. Because, do you want to hear something crazy? Even after everything that’s happened, I’m still an optimist. Even after all the evidence to the contrary, I still believe in happy endings. I still believe that people are good, and love is real, and we will be OK. And most of all, Mom, I believe that being your daughter is the greatest gift I could ever have asked for.

Thank you for being my mother.

I love you.

Sarah

Motherland.

“my mother

was my first country.

the first place I ever lived.”

– Nayyirah Waheed

I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest for nearly three weeks. The weather has been glorious, reminding me of all the childhood summers I spent on this same beach in front of my grandparents’ house: digging for clams with my mother, collecting driftwood to build bonfires, combing the shores of Case Inlet for colorful sea glass we’d use for our art projects.

Most of the people I spent those childhood summers with are gone or come to this beach no longer. New neighbors and new, fancier homes have cropped up all along the inlet. And these days, sea glass is hard to come by.

But every now and then, you still find it. Like the evening a week ago, when I emerged from a saltwater swim and spotted a weathered, rectangular piece of transparent lavender peeking out from among the rocks. Its color reminded me of the four walls of my high school bedroom. A bedroom with no windows, where I affixed blue, glow-in-the-dark stars to the ceiling. A bedroom in a house that someone else calls home now.

Every month, the full moon bears a different name. In January, it’s called the Wolf Moon. In June, it’s Strawberry. And a handful of nights ago, as I sat under the August moon – Sturgeon, named for a fish – I turned that piece of sea glass over and over in my hand and did something I haven’t done for a while. I talked to my mother. I asked her for help.

There are some conversations too personal to share. In the nearly seven years since my mother died, my conversations with the inlet are like that. Because if my mother is anywhere, she’s there, in the water that raised her. The water she loved her whole life. The water where we scattered her ashes, sending her back to the place where she began.

So, last week, I sat on the deck of the beach house and rested my feet on its railing and asked the inlet some questions. I watched that big, bright, full Sturgeon moon cast a golden stream of light across the inky, mirror-like expanse of water and I confessed my secrets to the sea and the sky. And that night, I dreamt that I was swimming underwater, exhaling huge air bubbles into its depths. And when I broke the surface, I saw that the beach was covered with sea glass. Polished, weathered, sparkling glass, glinting in the moonlight. As far as the eye could see.

I’m going back to New York soon. I don’t know what I’m going to do, only that I’ll be there until December, and beyond that, the future is uncertain. But after three weeks on this beach, uncertainty doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. Because over the last three weeks, I was reminded that I can still sit under the night sky and confess my secrets to the inlet. That saltwater swims still have the power to heal me. And that rare and beautiful things can still be found among the rocks on this beach.

This is where my mother is, as much as she is anywhere. And because of that, no matter what else I do, I will always return here. Because of that, no matter where else I go, this is the place I will always call home.

Until next time, friends.

The soft season.

the hard season

will

split you through. . . /

but do not worry. . . /

keep speaking the years from their hiding places.

keep coughing up smoke from all the deaths you

have died.

keep the rage tender.

because the soft season will come.

it will come. . . /

up all night.

up all of the nights.

to drink all damage into love.

– From “therapy” by Nayyirah Waheed

It was the kind of perfect August day I’d spent the last two summers hoping for. For the last two summers, there had been fires. Terrible fires, fires that rained ash and turned the sun an angry red and smelled of acrid smoke that stained the usually pristine Pacific Northwest sky. Fires that were alarmingly evocative of the fire seasons I’d grown used to during my years in California, when flames jumped freeways and burned the hills above L.A.

But there were no fires on the day we took the boat out. Just a layer of morning fog that burned off surprisingly quickly, causing me to strip off my jacket and settle into my seat, enjoying the sea spray and the sun on my face as we zipped along the inland waterways of Puget Sound toward Boston Harbor.

When I booked my flight to Seattle, the length of my stay – three weeks – felt like an eternity. But as Rick, Karrin and I ate lunch on a covered dock, overlooking boats bobbing on sunlit, sapphire blue water, it suddenly seemed like scarcely enough. “I can’t believe I’ve been here a week already,” I lamented. “It’s going so fast.”

Rick laughed. “Of course it’s going fast. Time only goes slowly when you’re doing something you don’t want to do.”

That’s so true, I thought. Over the last week, I have felt a persistent urge to slow down and hold time in my hands, savoring the fading moments of summer before they become memories.

My big plan was to come here and make a plan. I would update my portfolio and my resume and apply for jobs and write essays. I would use this serene, tranquil environment to put my nose to the grindstone and work, so that by the time I went back to Manhattan I would be clear headed enough to answer some of the big life questions I’d been putting off.

But instead of finding focus, I’ve felt my edges blur. I’ve felt my insides softening, and nostalgia for years past welling up inside of me. I’ve taken long walks in the woods and picked wildflowers and spent hours upon hours sitting on the deck of the house that belonged to my grandfather, watching the birds and seals and occasional boats travel along Case Inlet.

And I’ve been swimming. It always takes a small act of courage for me to take that first plunge into the water, but once I’m past the initial shock of cold, I know the result is worth it. I’m not sure what it is about saltwater, but it fixes everything. It feels like hope.

On the day of the boat ride, I almost chickened out. The daylight was rapidly fading and a not-so-gentle breeze picked up over the inlet. I stood there, ankle deep in the water, wearing my grandfather’s faded, half-disintegrated orange swim fins, and tried to talk myself into it. You know what? I thought, shivering. It’s too cold. I should just wrap myself up in my oversized towel and watch the sunset from the safety of the deck of the beach house.

But as I stood there, half in, half out, watching the waning sun spread its rosy glow over steel blue water, something bigger than my fear took over. I thought about how much my grandfather had loved to swim in that bay, and how heartbroken he’d been when he no longer could. I thought about how, even on days much colder than this, my mother never hesitated to jump into the water with delight. And I thought about the morning two months earlier, long after both of them were gone, when I sat with my boyfriend in Central Park and cried, because I had just seen my doctor and signed a whole host of pre-surgery consent forms and was afraid I might die.

Do it, Sar, I thought. Do it for all the people who no longer can. And do it for yourself, because you still can.

And so, I jumped in. I hit the water hard and screamed as the bracing cold hit me back. I took a few deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling saltwater, trying to slow the hammering in my chest. For several moments, I just floated, staring up at the enormous pink sky. And then, I felt it: relief. I was all alone with the inlet and the sky and the world got quiet, and I got quiet too. And I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself for wanting to slow everything down. Maybe slowing down was exactly what I needed right now.

“It takes as long as it takes,” I heard myself say aloud, to no one in particular.

It takes as long as it takes.

Healing.

Forgiveness.

Finding your way in the great big world.

It takes as long as it takes.

And then I thought:

Relax, kid.

You’ve got plenty of time.

California.

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”

― Miriam Adeney

Getty Center Garden

Two hours after I got off the plane in L.A., a dog bit me. It was late afternoon, and I was hungry. I dropped off my bags at my friend Jen’s apartment and went out in search of food. Minutes later, on a familiar stretch of Robertson Boulevard just a few blocks from where I used to live, a seemingly-friendly Chihuahua wagged its tail, then lunged at me as I walked past.

“Oh my god!” his owner screamed. “Did he just bite you?”

“Yes,” I answered, in disbelief. I was already light-headed from the early wake up call, the cross-country flight, and the lack of food, and as I looked first to her, and then to her smiling dog – still wagging its tail – the whole thing felt like a dream. “It didn’t hurt,” I reassured her. But as I looked down, I saw it: a gaping hole in the left leg of my favorite pair of yoga pants.

“Dammit,” I swore. “Your dog bit a hole in my pants.”

“Rocco!” she scolded him. “Bad dog!”

And then, to me: “I’m so sorry.”

On another day, I might have said, “It’s OK.” If I was less exhausted, less hungry, and if I hadn’t been standing in the hot sun, I might have chosen to take the high road. But I didn’t. Instead, I just stood there, glaring at her, waiting for her to offer to replace the pants her dog had ruined. She didn’t. She didn’t even really seem sorry, even though her mouth had formed those words. After a momentary standoff, I finally looked her in the eye, shook my head, and stomped away. And on a familiar street, in a neighborhood I used to call home, one thought began to play on a loop in my brain: You don’t live here anymore.

Palisades Park

Two weeks before I flew to L.A., I sat in a chair in my doctor’s office as she inspected the incisions from my surgery. They were healing nicely, and she was pleased. “It’s like we were never even in there,” she said.

She told me the tests came back, and my cyst was benign. Additional tests, on cells they took from inside my body, also showed no signs of cancer. I had a clean bill of health. After months of uncertainty, I had been given the best possible news: I was going to be OK.

I should have been elated. And I was. Or at least, part of me was. But in the days that followed my doctor’s visit, I felt something else: depressed. Because now that the health scare that had been holding my life in limbo for the last several months was over, I no longer had an excuse to put off the future. The future was here, and it demanded an answer to the question so poignantly expressed by my favorite poet Mary Oliver: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

The incident with the dog aside, my week in L.A. was wonderful. As I revisited favorite places and reconnected with old friends, I could almost believe I still lived there, that I had never even left. Almost. Despite the fact that some familiar restaurants and stores had closed, and new building developments were springing up everywhere, Los Angeles still felt mostly the same to me. There was the same soul-crushing traffic on the 405 freeway; the same impossibly tall palm trees; the same smog-shrouded view of the skyline as seen from the high perch of The Getty Center; the same soothing stretch of the Pacific Ocean bending north toward Malibu.

Getty Center Garden Maze

Los Angeles felt the same, and that sameness was comforting. But I felt different, in a way I couldn’t quite place. The feeling tugged at me all week, as I bounced around from lunches to dinner dates, from happy hours to beach walks. The drumbeat of You don’t live here anymore that echoed in my brain after the dog bite had faded, yet something still felt off, like a key that wouldn’t turn in a lock.

My week in L.A. culminated with an unplanned trip to Universal Studios. Jen worked on the lot, and after dinner, we stopped by her office on the way back to her apartment. Even at night, the place was a buzz of activity. I watched from the passenger seat of her convertible as crew members zipped by on golf carts, and a whole host of memories came flooding back. I remembered the first time I had been there, as a young actress working as an extra on a big movie, and how magical it all felt. Back then, the world stretched out in front of me, and anything and everything seemed possible.

We left her office and drove around the lot, cruising past darkened movie sets, pausing to snap a photo of the brownstones on New York Street. Then we headed for Laurel Canyon. As we wound up the mountain and I watched the city lights spreading out like a blanket of stars below us, a feeling I’d almost forgotten sparked within me: hope.

Driving through the hills above L.A., top down, wind in my hair, I suddenly remembered what it was like to hold dreams so tightly they made your heart swell. I remembered what it was like for a moment to take your breath away, to want to pause it forever. And I remembered what it was like to be certain, despite all evidence to the contrary, that everything was going to be OK.

New York Street, Universal Studios

I don’t live in Los Angeles any more. I left because I no longer felt the world stretching out in front of me there, no longer believed that anything and everything was possible. And I went to try to rediscover that sense of possibility in another place.

But as we drove home that night in L.A., I realized something: the place wasn’t the problem. The problem was me. I was the one who had decided that hope was too expensive, that happiness was too elusive. I was the one who had decided that believing in magic felt too vulnerable, and that the best way to protect myself was by holding my dreams at a distance.

I miss Los Angeles, but I have no regrets about leaving it. Because I don’t believe we are meant to stay in one place forever. We are meant to expand and explore and experience new things. And then, when – and if – we do return to the place that we left, we get to see ourselves anew, through the perspective that only time and distance can provide.

That was exactly what happened to me last week in California. I was reminded of who I am. I was reminded of who I want to be. And I was reminded that though hope is expensive and though happiness is elusive, they are also worth fighting for.

Until next time, friends.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean

Recovery.

When the past has passed from you at last, let go. Then climb down and begin the rest of your life. With great joy.

– Elizabeth Gilbert

I could tell by the look on his face that I was going to be OK. An hour earlier – give or take, time was slippery – I awoke to a blur of fluorescent lights. “Don’t touch your face!” a nurse barked, as she wheeled me down the hallway of Mt. Sinai hospital. She parked my gurney in a curtained recovery area and looked at me. “How’s your pain?” she asked.

“Umm. . .”

“On a scale of one to ten.”

I tried to lift my head and a sharp, searing pain shot through my shoulder blades. Waves of hot, heavy cramps traveled across my abdomen. I slowly lowered my head back onto my pillow.

“Five?” I offered.

Tired, confused, and still feeling the effects of anesthesia, I struggled to put facts together. I remembered the long morning in the hospital, the paperwork, the blood draw, the pleasant, reassuring face of my doctor as she cheerfully told my boyfriend Jake, “We’ll take good care of her,” just before wheeling me off to surgery.

I remember thinking the operating room looked nothing like the ones depicted on TV. It was too crowded, too brightly lit. As I lay on the table, doctors buzzing around me, discussing their plans for me as though I weren’t there, panic rose within me. I can’t do this, I thought. The anesthesiologist leaned in close and adjusted something on my IV. “How do you feel?” he asked. “A little nervous,” I confessed, my voice small. “That’s perfectly normal,” he said, his tone as warm as the heated blanket my doctor had just placed on top of me. And then, I fell asleep.

“What time is it?” I asked Jake, when he appeared at my bedside.

“Five o’clock,” he said.

I had been in the hospital for eight hours. I was out of surgery. And I was awake and talking. It felt like a miracle. I could tell by Jake’s face that he thought so, too.

I barely slept that night. Even with the aid of Percocet, the pain was intense. The only thing that alleviated it was standing and walking, so, off and on throughout the early morning hours, I hobbled around my apartment, trying to disperse the Co2 gas that had been pumped into my body during the laparoscopic procedure. When I did sleep, I dreamt of my mother, my mind circling around something my uncle said when I told him about my upcoming surgery: “You are your mother’s daughter.”

Like me, my mother also had a large ovarian cyst that had to be surgically removed. When I was a child, her stories about the cyst haunted my imagination. Not just because it was big – the size of a grapefruit – but, because – creepily – it had hair and teeth. “It means I was supposed to be a twin,” my mom used to tell me. Whether or not that was actually true, I have no idea. But she said it, and I believed it.

After my cyst was diagnosed, I avoided the internet. I didn’t want to know anything about it, didn’t want to have an understanding of how large it was. It was enough that my doctor winced when reviewing my ultrasounds. “You’re really not in pain?” she asked.

The day after the surgery, with the mass safely out of my body, curiosity got the better of me. A quick google search led me to a chart comparing tumors to pieces of fruit. Ten centimeters was the equivalent of a grapefruit. My cyst, when they pulled it out of me, was fourteen.

How long had this thing been growing inside of me? It was impossible to know. I had been avoiding doctors for years, terrified of them after a string of deaths in my family. But suddenly, it all started to make sense: the frequent stomach cramps I’d chalked up to stress. The strange sensation of something tugging on my insides. I’d told the truth when I told my doctor that I wasn’t in pain. But for as long as I could remember, there had been something else. Something more elusive. A persistent feeling that something was wrong.

These last few years, I have worked hard to heal, to stay positive, to change my life. But no matter what I’ve done or how hard I’ve tried, something always, inevitably, pulled me low again. Over time, I’ve become used to my sadness. I’ve harbored a secret fear that I was permanently broken.

Until last week. Until the endometrioma – a benign mass filled with blood – was cut from my body. And then I began to wonder: what if this thing, this growth, was the physical manifestation of watching my mother slip into madness? What if it had stored up all the memories of my father’s physical decline, my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s Disease, the weeks I sat with my grandfather while he died? What if all the terrible things that happened over the last seven years needed somewhere to go, and this was where they went?

I don’t know if, in the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, the past has passed from me at last. Maybe it never will. And maybe that’s OK. But over the course of this last week – as my pain has subsided and my strength has returned – I have been awed by the power of my own body. I am embarrassed that I have neglected it, and grateful beyond measure to discover that it is healthier and more resilient than I could have imagined.

I still have some hurdles to clear. Some medical tests to pass. And some big decisions to make. But I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. I feel like I’ve turned a corner, one I’m only beginning to understand. And for the first time in a long time, I feel like everything is going to be all right.

Until next time, friends.

Savannah.

I didn’t stay long on Tybee Island. It was hot and humid, and I was alone, and I didn’t want to risk leaving my belongings unattended on the beach while I went for a swim. But I had taken the half hour Lyft ride from downtown Savannah for the sole purpose of putting my feet into the Atlantic, and I wasn’t going to leave until I did it. So, I found a bench at the edge of the beach, took off my shoes and socks, placed them into my canvas tote bag, and walked down toward the water. My toes sunk into wet sand and warm ocean waves washed over my feet as I stared out at the sea. The Atlantic wasn’t my ocean, and yet, as I gazed across its vast expanse, I felt the same thing I always did when in the presence of its west coast cousin: peace.

Tybee Island

I had only been to Savannah once before, in my early twenties, when I took a road trip there from Nashville with my college roommate Rachel. We spent two days wandering through old town squares, drinking mint juleps from plastic to-go cups, and joining the crush of revelers on River Street. Savannah was hot and dreamy and intoxicating, a place unlike any I’d ever been, and it left its mark on me. I vowed to come back, and soon.

But life got in the way, and somehow fourteen years went by. It wasn’t until I started writing a new play that Savannah returned to the forefront of my consciousness. After the play’s two characters meet and quickly fall in love, Savannah is the place their reckless romance draws them to. It’s a place that looms large in my female heroine’s imagination, a place haunted by ghosts both real and imagined, a place, where, as she describes it, “time doesn’t exist.” Over the course of the story, Savannah is the place both of these characters long for, but one they ultimately never return to.

A month before my second trip to Savannah, I sat in an exam room near Columbus Circle and reviewed the results of two ultrasounds with my doctor. The bad news was I would have to have surgery. But the good news was much better. My cyst was benign. After weeks of fearing the worst, my doctor sat across from me and offered a reassuring smile. “Take a deep breath,” she said. “You’re going to be fine.”

Forsyth Park

So, I scheduled my surgery, and immediately thereafter, I booked a trip to Savannah. For the last several months, I had been anxious and unhappy. Wanting to change my life but paralyzed to take the first step. And then: a health scare. And suddenly nothing else mattered until I heard those five words: “You’re going to be fine.”

I arrived in Savannah last Tuesday evening, by way of a fifteen-hour train ride from Penn Station. It might seem crazy to opt for such a long journey when I could have flown there in a few hours, but the truth was, I’d always had a thing for trains. Something about siting near the window, watching the landscapes whizz by with a journal in my hand and thoughts swirling through my brain had always seemed inherently romantic to me. And as the southbound Palmetto Line pressed on through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, I alternated been sleep and waking dreams. It was perfect.

I spent my first full day in Savannah wandering cobblestone streets and re-orienting myself to the city. I got lost but cared little, because there was nowhere I had to be and nothing I had to do. I covered nearly ten miles on foot, my skin glistening from the warm, humid air, my limbs feeling surprisingly light from the effort. By the time I sat down to dinner and watched the sunset settle over the Savannah River, I knew I’d made the right decision.

Bridge over the Savannah River

Savannah continued to cast its spell all during the course of my stay. I walked along the river and ate lemon custard ice cream. I browsed trendy boutiques on Broughton Street while jazz music wafted in from outdoors. I went to Bonaventure Cemetery and gaped at the gothic gravesites draped in Spanish moss. And on my second to last night there, as I joined a group of tourists on a ghost tour through the heart of Savannah, a sort of fantasy began unspooling in my head. Could I live here? Compared to New York City, the cost of living was surprisingly affordable. I was enthralled by the architecture, the wide boulevards shaded by live oak trees, the town’s quirky, offbeat charm and the slower, southern pace of life. For years, I’d been flirting with the idea of getting an MFA, and one of the most famous art schools in the country was right there, in Savannah. Without even really thinking about it, I pulled up the website for the College of Art and Design, looked up graduate degree programs, and sent in a request for information. What’s the harm in applying? I thought. If I get in, I can always decide not to go.

I went to Tybee Island on my last day there. Once my feet were in the water, it was difficult to tear myself away. I stood in the ocean for several minutes, enjoying the sensation of waves pooling around my ankles. But the hot southern sun was also beating down on my skin – pale skin that had seen little sun during the long New York winter – and I wanted to get off the island before that evening’s parade snarled the traffic. And then there was the matter of the next morning’s early train to New York. I reluctantly called a Lyft.

Architecture in the historic district

“Where are you from?” my driver asked, as I settled in for the ride back to town. I hesitated. Where was I from, anyway? These days, I wasn’t so sure. “Right now, I live in New York,” I told him. “In Harlem.”

“Ah,” he said, his already pleasant demeanor turning even more amiable. “My wife and I moved here from New York two years ago. We lived there for many years.”

“What brought you to Savannah?” I asked. His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror and he smiled, then stretched out his arm and pointed toward the window. “This,” he said, indicating clear, sunny, blue skies, and miles of lush vegetation stretching along the highway as far as the eye could see. “Can you blame me?”

Mercer House

“No,” I admitted. “To tell you the truth, I’ve sort of been thinking the same thing myself these last few days.”

By the time he dropped me off at my Airbnb, the Notes app on my phone was full of recommendations for my return visit, and my head was full of information about Savannah’s low cost of living, booming economy, and the community of former New Yorkers who’d relocated there. “Are you sure you don’t work for the Chamber of Commerce?” I joked. “I’m sure,” he laughed. “But if you’re serious about moving here, my wife is a real estate agent. You can friend her on Facebook.”

I have no idea if my infatuation with Savannah is just a passing flirtation, or if the seeds planted during my few days there will grow into something more serious. What I do know is that life is far too short to continue living the way I have been: held in the grips of fear and self-doubt. I don’t know if that means changing my location, but a change of some sort is definitely in order. And last week, on my trip to Savannah, I took what felt like an important first step in that direction.

Until next time, friends.

River Street

Westeros.

The day before the season seven finale of Game of Thrones, I left Los Angeles. All that remained of the eighteen years I’d spent there was contained in three suitcases, a duffle bag, and four cardboard boxes. The luggage was coming with me, on a one-way flight to Seattle; the boxes would be shipped to my new address in New York City, once I knew where that was.

Daenerys, Tyrion and the dragons (from IMDB.com)

I had no job and no place to live, a fact that should have concerned me more than it did. But as I bid farewell to my roommate Jen, bound for the vacant house in western Washington that once belonged to my grandfather – the house where I planned to “figure things out” – my priorities were elsewhere. “I can’t believe I’m not watching the finale with you!” I wailed. Jen and I were friends who, for years, had dissected every GOT plot point and character arc like it was our job. “What am I going to do?”

More than a year and a half later, I’m looking forward to the epic series’ final season with both eager anticipation and a palpable sense of loss. For eight years, Game of Thrones has been my companion throughout the most difficult experiences of my life. When it premiered in 2011, I’d never lost anyone close to me; before season three was over, my parents, my grandmother, my dog, and a close friend from college were all dead. As I grappled with disorienting grief, the brutal, you-win-or-you-die rules of the world GOT unfolded before me provided welcome catharsis. A show where the writers didn’t hesitate to kill off beloved characters was – oddly – comforting. No one was safe. Anyone could die. Just like in real life.

Watching Game of Thrones in L.A.

At my father’s funeral in the winter of 2013, I sat at a table with his younger brother, Jimmy. The last time we’d seen each other, I was four years old and the flower girl in my half-sister’s wedding. With no relationship as adults, we had little to talk about. Jimmy was also gravely ill, requiring an oxygen tank to help him breathe. But he’d been a professor of film at a university in Nevada, and somehow, Game of Thrones came up. Our stilted, awkward conversation quickly gave way to a spirited discussion about Jimmy’s favorite character, Daenerys Targaryen. Jimmy died a few months later, and, in the years that followed, whenever Daenerys conquered a city or triumphed over one of her enemies, I felt a nagging sadness that he didn’t live to see it. “Jimmy would have loved that,” was my common, wistful refrain.

There are no knights in my story, no dragons or sorcerers or white walkers. But so often over the last eight years, the struggles of GOT’s characters have felt like heightened, fantastical versions of my own. I have loved them, learned from them, cried and cheered for them. But nowhere in the Game of Thrones universe did the stories of two characters resonate more personally with me than those of Arya and Sansa Stark. While their brothers were off getting killed (and occasionally, coming back to life!) or turning into a three-eyed raven, those two sisters were learning to survive in a world that constantly underestimated them. My life circumstances were – obviously – far less dramatic, but like Arya and Sansa, I too knew what it was like to suddenly lose my parents, to have my family ripped apart, and to be thrust into a new reality where everything felt cold and cruel and unfair. Every time one of them was hurt, I was outraged. Every time one of them triumphed, I saw it as a personal victory. Which is why the season seven finale, when they worked together to finally bring justice to the man who had been the architect of so much of their family’s suffering, was so, damned, satisfying.

Arya Stark (from IMDB.com)

There are plenty of people who will say GOT is just a TV show, and plenty more who will brag about the fact that they’ve never watched an episode. But for me, it’s more than just a compelling drama. The community that formed around watching Game of Thrones made me feel less alone during the loneliest period of my life. As Vulture.com pointed out in a recent article, in the age of binge watching, GOT might be the last show we watch together, each episode an event that must be experienced in real-time, with all of its awe and horror unfolding before our eyes. Which is why, even now, with so many of my friends and loved ones three thousand miles away on the opposite coast, I’ll still feel like, tonight, when I tune in for the season premiere, I will be watching right alongside them.

The final episodes of Game of Thrones are done. All that’s left to do now is wait, and watch. I am equal parts excited to see how my favorite characters’ stories will end, and terrified to learn their fates. And while I know no one is safe in the land of Westeros (or in the lands beyond), I do have one final request. Hey David, D.B. and George R.R.? Please don’t kill Arya and Sansa. I have survived many things in my life, and I’m sure I can survive that, too. I’m just not sure I want to.

Until next time, friends.

Jon Snow and Sansa Stark reunite (from IMDB.com)

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