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)

Lucky.

If you are falling. . . dive.

We’re in a freefall into future.

We don’t know where we’re going.

Things are changing so fast, and always when you’re going through a long tunnel, anxiety comes along.

And all you have to do to transform your hell into a paradise

Is to turn your fall into a voluntary act.

It’s a very interesting shift of perspective and that’s all it is.

Joyful participation in the sorrows and everything changes.

 – Joseph Campbell

You can feel the weather beginning to turn in New York. Even with the bitterly cold wind whipping off the Hudson River, even with a recent snowfall that caused – unnecessary – school closures, you can tell: it won’t be like this much longer. Warmer days are coming.

This winter has been my worst season in recent memory, which is not something I say lightly. I’m in a new apartment, renting a room one subway stop uptown from my former (glorious) Morningside Heights sublet. I feel lucky to have landed here. My room is spacious, the rent is – by Manhattan standards – affordable, and I’m able to go month to month without a long-term commitment. Without a job or the desire to sign a lease, this was my best option and I am grateful to have found it.

Still. Transitions are always difficult, aren’t they? I miss the reliable package delivery and in-building laundry and Black and Decker coffee maker of my old apartment. I miss the corner bodega where the old man behind the counter called me “sweetheart,” and the proximity to Morningside Park, and the fact that it took me half as much time as it does now to walk to the gym.

I’ll adjust. I’ll get used to this new place and find things to love about it that surprise me, just as I did with the old place. But in the middle of this transitional period, in the middle of what is still winter, there are other things going on. Hard things. Like an ongoing health condition that has left me anxious and depressed. I am struggling to accomplish the most basic of tasks, and then I get angry at myself for my lack of productivity. It’s a vicious cycle, one that makes me feel overwhelmed and vulnerable. And New York City is not a place where you want to feel vulnerable.

I’ve been through winters before, ones far worse than this one. And what I’ve learned through weathering those storms is that I have to be patient. Beating myself up or spiraling into negative self-talk about how awful I am doesn’t help me. Instead, I’m focusing on the small steps I am taking forward each day. I’m reminding myself to be grateful.

“No one moves to New York for the weather,” someone told me recently. That’s true. But this particular storm is not New York’s fault. What I can see after a year and a half of living here is that the place is not the problem. This place just exposes my problems. Because New York is a place where it’s impossible to hide.

So, after a too-long hiatus from this blog, I’m not hiding any more. I’m struggling and I’m being honest about it, while also acknowledging the fact that I know I’m luckier than most. I have a roof over my head and access to good doctors and a network of kind, caring friends who have been texting, and calling, and checking in. I have love in my life. And I have the knowledge that I have experienced far worse than this and have come out the other side, which gives me confidence that I will again. Because even the worst winters don’t last forever. And when spring comes, I’ll be here. I’ll be ready.

Until next time, friends.

Magic.

Listen to the Mustn’ts, child.

Listen to the Don’ts.

Listen to the Shouldn’ts, the Impossibles, the Won’ts.

Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.

Anything can happen, child.

Anything can be.

– Shel Silverstein

On the eighteenth day of December, I took a walk along Riverside Drive in Manhattan. The air was crisp, the trees barren, the late afternoon sun slipping low on the horizon, spreading its golden glow across the Hudson River and backlighting the New Jersey skyline. In just over twelve hours, I’d be getting in a cab bound for Newark Airport, then boarding a cross country flight back to the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t have time for a walk. I had dinner plans. I hadn’t finished packing. My alarm was set for 3:30 the following morning.

I didn’t have time for a walk, but I needed it. Walking was always when I did my best thinking, and my thoughts were, at that moment, a tangled jumble. I tossed my laundry into a dryer in the basement of my apartment building and set the timer on my phone. I had an hour. Out into the cold December day I went.

From Riverside, I took a left on 116th street and crossed Broadway, onto the campus of Columbia University. It was twilight now, and I entered a tree-lined promenade, aglow in the sparkle of white Christmas lights. The quad was largely quiet, evidence of the impending holiday. Despite my haste, I felt a measure of calm settle over me. I loved school. I had always loved school. Lately, I’d been entertaining the idea of going back for a master’s degree, but I wasn’t sure if that was something I really wanted or just a stalling technique, a costly way of putting off the inevitable reality of making big life decisions.

I had much to do, but I was in no hurry to return to my apartment. Two days earlier, the daughter of the woman I’d been subletting from had filled the living room with boxes and bags of what can best be described as “stuff.” She’d had a crisis in her living situation in Brooklyn and had to move out suddenly, and the result was now sitting in my once clean and orderly living room. My landlord apologized profusely for the disruption and promised she would deal with the mess while I was away over Christmas, but I couldn’t help feeling unsettled by the chaos. It was also a reminder of a truth that was becoming more and more apparent: my landlord’s daughter wanted to return to her old apartment. Soon, I would have to move.

I’d had a good run in New York, and I knew it. For what I’d been paying in rent, I should have been living in a shoebox in the Bronx with at least one roommate. Instead, I had a seven hundred fifty square foot, eighth-floor apartment with a balcony perched over Broadway all to myself. The space was beautiful and tranquil and safe. My cheap rent had enabled me to take writing classes and write a new play and work on my memoir without the urgency of having to look for a real job. The co-op even had a theater company in the basement of my building, a theater company that would be producing a reading of my new play in January. I’d arrived in New York with no plan, and somehow, landed exactly where I needed to be.

But now what? The question nagged at me as I trudged north along Amsterdam Avenue. I had some ideas about temporary living situations but anything even semi-permanent would require paying real rent and a renewed urgency to find a real job. Did I want to look for work in New York and try to root myself there? Or did I want to call time on the Big Apple experiment and return to the west coast? I didn’t know. I missed California and my friends something fierce, but after fifteen months in Manhattan, I wasn’t sure I belonged in L.A. any more.

I have a bad habit of assuming the worst-case scenario. When something good happens, I can’t enjoy it, because I’m already preparing myself for when it goes away. The concept of “living in the moment” is something I struggle mightily with.

I wasn’t always like this. At least, I don’t think I was. I’ve been so altered by the events of the last six years, I don’t remember the person I was before all the bad stuff happened. I don’t remember who I was before my mom’s alcoholism, my dad’s cancer, my grandmother’s dementia, my grandfather’s hospice, my divorce, and all the deaths and devastation that ensued. I know I used to feel young and carefree and that the world was open and full of possibility, but that all seems vague and ephemeral now, like a dream I woke up from after sleeping too long.

Worst-Case Scenario Sarah is not only annoying, she has profoundly affected my ability to enjoy New York. She has left me fists clenched, steeling myself through winter, sweating through summer, unable to allow myself to indulge in the most basic, touristy activities like walking the Brooklyn Bridge or taking in the city from atop the Empire State Building or marveling at the Manhattan skyline from the deck of a ferry boat.

This is a revelation about myself I’ve only come to recently. It began a few months ago, when I first learned my landlord’s daughter was applying for jobs in New York. Bemoaning my fate over whiskey on a patio in Williamsburg, my friend Kirsten waxed poetic about the New York apartment shuffle and proposed a question I couldn’t wrap my head around: “OK, so you have to move. But how do you know you won’t find something even better?”

I didn’t say it out loud, but my brain immediately spat out the following: Impossible! How could it possibly get better than what I have now? I knew this good thing would go away. It was only a matter of time.

The day after my walk, I arrived in Seattle, and some dear friends picked me up at the airport and took me out to lunch. As we caught up over Pacific Northwest seafood and pints of dark beer, I told them about the latest: I had a play reading in January, I’d signed up for a new memoir class, and soon I’d have to move and didn’t know where to go or what to do.

I may be Worst-Case Scenario Sarah, but fortunately I have the good sense to surround myself with Glass is Half Full People. As I explained my situation and my uncertainty about the future, my friend Karrin offered: “It sounds like you’re letting your creative work dictate your decisions. And that’s pretty cool.”

The next morning, writing morning pages by the fire in Grandpa’s beach house, I found myself scribbling that phrase over and over again. Let your creative work dictate your decisions. And I decided something: even if I had to move before my memoir class was over at the end of March, I would find a way to stay in New York, and finish it. I loved that class, loved the people in it, loved the instructor, and I knew it was helping me do the hard work of writing my book.

My last assignment during the last session of Memoir II was to write the reflective ending of my book. It was incredibly difficult because it meant I had to force myself to answer some big questions. What is the point of my story? How do I want the reader to feel? And what have I learned over the course of this very personal journey?

I wrote about the week before I moved to New York, when I gathered at the beach with some of my closest friends. One day, while we were getting ready for a boat ride, my friend Vim spotted a sight that is quite uncommon in the protected cove of Case Inlet: three Orca whales – two calves and their mother – swimming close to shore. Everything about the future was uncertain, but in that moment, experiencing the magic of seeing an old place through the new eyes of my visiting friends, I suddenly believed it would all be OK.

This is the last paragraph of what I wrote:

I don’t know what my life will look like in New York. I don’t know what I’ll do, or who I’ll meet, or how things will change. I just know I’m no longer afraid to face an uncertain future. Grief taught me that life unfolds as it will, whether we like it or not. And it also taught me that if one day can change your life for the worse, then it certainly can for the better. And I’m ready for that. I’m ready to embrace whatever lies ahead. Because the mystery of all the things we can’t know is what makes life exciting. It’s what makes me glad I’m alive.

I so badly want to own this. I want to abandon Worst-Case Scenario Sarah in favor of someone who not only believes good things will happen, she expects them. That’s why I wrote that passage. Call it an attempt at manifestation, call it faking it ‘til I make it, it’s my sincere hope that by the time I finish my book, I will have arrived at that last paragraph.

On my second day at the beach – December 20th – I sat in the living room, bundled up in blankets, waiting out a storm. When suddenly, I saw something that made me rush outside. It was a vibrant, unbroken rainbow, forming a perfect half circle from one end of the bay to the other. And for some reason, I thought about the poem by Shel Silverstein I began this blog post with.

Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.

I may not totally believe that yet. But man, am I working on it.

Until next time, friends.

 

Onward.

“Do you faint?”

It was not a question I was expecting. But then, the size of the needle the doctor was wielding was not something I was expecting, either. She was going to put that thing in my eye. OK, my eyelid. But still.

“Umm, I don’t think so? I mean, I never have. But I’ve also never done this before.”

“OK. I’m going to recline you, just in case.”

I’d been at the ophthalmologist’s office for forty-five minutes. My pupils were fully dilated, the room was a too-bright blur. And after two weeks of antibiotics, the cyst on my eyelid was not getting any better.

“Well,” the doctor said, leaning back in her chair, “I could inject you with a steroid, which may bring down the swelling. But since you’ve already been on steroid eye drops for two weeks, I’m not sure if that will do any good. And if I do the excision, I’m going to give you the steroid anyway. So, I really think the excision is your best bet. But it’s up to you. Do you want to do it?”

It’s up to me? I thought. Why? She’s the doctor; shouldn’t she just tell me to do it, rather than giving me an out? I mean, obviously, if given the choice, I’d rather she didn’t cut into my eyelid, but I’ve had this infection for over a month. I can’t wear contact lenses or makeup, and I’m putting burning, stinging eye drops in my eyes every four hours. And nothing is helping. If I want to get rid of the infection, what choice do I have?

“Well,” I said slowly, palms sweating, secretly hoping there was another way. “I think I should do the excision, but I’m a little scared. Can you talk me through it?”

“Sure!” she said, pulling up a chair next to me with such enthusiasm she may as well have been detailing the itinerary of a girls’ weekend in Vegas. “First, I’ll inject you with lidocaine, so you won’t feel anything. Then, I’ll take your eyelid and flip it, and excise the growth from inside the lid. Then I’ll patch you up, to stop the bleeding. We don’t want you walking around, scaring children.”

I tried to laugh, but it came out like strangled air. I was, at the moment, a tough crowd.

“Uh, OK. How long will it take?”

“Shouldn’t be more than five minutes.” She leaned in, confidentially. “I don’t know what is going on, but you’re my fourth one of these today.”

Don’t be a baby, Sar, I told myself. It’s going to be just fine. “OK,” I said, before I could chicken out. “Let’s do it.”

I didn’t faint. I did emit a sort of low squeal as the needle pierced my eyelid, filling it with fluid. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the doctor said, as she rubbed her gloved hand over my eye to distribute the steroid. I felt a tremendous pressure, almost as though my eye would burst, then a burning sensation, and then, I was numb.

It has been a month since the excision. It wasn’t fun, and the healing process took longer than I’d hoped, but I’m doing much better now. And in the end, the procedure was far less traumatic than the worst-case scenario version of events I cooked up in my overactive brain.

And while I’ve been healing, life has continued on, as it tends to do. The weather has turned cold in New York; the first snowfall has come and gone. And in a few days, I’ll mark another birthday.

I always get introspective around my birthday. It has a lot to do with where it falls on the calendar: on the heels of Thanksgiving and close to the end of the year. I think about what I’m grateful for, and what I’d like to see or do in the year ahead.

The future is as uncertain as ever. It’s possible I’ll have to move in the coming months, and that this time next year I’ll call a different city home. But I’m trying not to worry about that now. This time last year, I never imagined I’d have eye surgery, or that I’d travel to Washington D.C. to see a friend perform at the Kennedy Center, or that I’d produce the first reading of a new play in the wine cellar of an Italian restaurant in Harlem. Yet in the last several weeks, all of those things have happened. The mystery of the unknown is what keeps life exciting.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me an email to wish me well on the eve of my play reading. This person is a new friend, someone I’ve shared intimate details of my life with in a writing class but who I’m only just beginning to know.

She wrote:

My wish for you – onward. So much to give and a thirsty public with so much need. Please take the experiences of your young life with an uneven balance of sadness and move forward. In the tiny space of each of our lives we can do so much. 

That’s the word I’m holding on to as I approach my next birthday: onward. Reminding myself to stay open, and grateful, and hopeful. Rejecting my worries and worst-case scenarios. And remembering that life is not a thing to be controlled, but rather a great, continuous unfolding, meant to be walked through one foot in front of the other, one step at a time.

Until next time, friends.

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