The Ruthless Month.

“Run the old stuff down, run it out, toss the weight of trash in your heart into the fire. December is the ruthless month. Pick up all your heartbreak and fling it out the window. Call everybody. Make peace and move on. Let those who wish to linger, let them linger and grieve. They will run and catch up to you if you move on. You are the leader when it comes to joy. Move forward towards joy.”

– John Patrick Shanley

Exactly one week before my thirty-seventh birthday, I sat on a white stone bench on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I was alone. It was late November, two days after Thanksgiving, and off-season on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. I had found the spot earlier in the day when I’d been searching in vain for an open restaurant. I’d followed a sign advertising a (closed) café down a steep set of stairs, and discovered a garden terrace, flanked on all sides by deserted villas. It seemed too good to be true: such a beautiful place left unused, and still undiscovered by the gaggle of day-tripping tourists who had descended upon Positano that afternoon by bus.

But a few hours later, looking for a secluded spot to watch the sunset, I returned and found the terrace still vacant, save for one nosy tabby cat, who eyed me suspiciously before moving on. I settled in, opened the half bottle of Chianti I’d purchased at the Enoteca near the town square, and stared out across the water. I watched the descending sun bleed orange before it slipped behind a storm cloud (rain was forecast later that evening), and fixed my eyes on the island of Capri.

One week, I thought. One week I’d been in Italy, and one week ‘til I’d turn thirty-seven in London, before I headed back to see what life looked like in New York.

I’ve always treated birthdays like my own personal New Year, reflecting on where I’ve been and where I want to go, and this one was no different. Thirty-seven. I breathed in the sunset and the waves gently rippling on the surface of sapphire and jade green water, and thought about everything and nothing, all at the same time.

One week later, I rose early, drank a tall glass of water and a single shot of strong espresso, and boarded the Tube bound for Picadilly Circus. The plan was to begin my birthday by accompanying my friend Elena to her Saturday morning yoga class. I hadn’t taken a proper yoga class in years and found the prospect intimidating, but somewhere between the white-knuckle bus ride through the steep, winding highways of the Amalfi Coast and the Tube from Heathrow Airport, I promised myself that thirty-seven would be the year I did all the things that scared me. So, I paid my money, unrolled a yoga mat, and took a spot in the front row of class.

The instructor, a soft-spoken Polish man whose name “Rad,” was clearly short for something more difficult to pronounce, began class by asking us how our week had been.  As one woman released an audible sigh, Rad said, “Just observe your feelings and try not to judge them. Remember that the stories you tell yourself are just that: stories.”

Rad had just returned from a trip to Los Angeles. After class, I told him I lived there for many years, and had only recently decided to move to New York. Rad was an actor, and thought he might want to live in L.A., but after three years of traveling back and forth, he gave up his apartment in West Hollywood and returned to London. “Sometimes you have to go away to appreciate what you have,” he said.

I’ve gone away several times since I moved to New York. First to Montreal, then to a film festival in Miami, and now this latest trip, the longest one by far: eighteen days. If I’m feeling self-critical, I’ll tell you that my traveling is just a form of running away, refusing to settle in a new city where life is difficult. But if I’m feeling more compassionate, I’ll admit I’ve been navigating something profound, something I don’t yet fully understand. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like a revolution in my heart. It feels like finding forgiveness – mostly for myself – and letting go of old wounds. As Rad said that day in yoga class, the stories we tell ourselves are just that: stories. And I’m learning to transcend my old story and write a different one, one in which I’m strong enough to stand in my own skin, without apologies or regret.

Things happen in their own time. There’s a time to take bold and decisive action, and a time to be quiet and listen. And that’s largely what traveling has been about for me: listening. Observing my life from a distance, and gaining the perspective that only comes from meeting new people and discovering new places. From shaking up the every day.

I’m glad to be back in New York. I’m glad to be in the middle of the ruthless month. The trees have shed their leaves, the air is cold, and the days are short. But on the other side of all that’s dark is the promise of something new. A revolution. A rebirth. And a move towards joy.

Until next time, friends.

 

Osteria Da Fortunata.

He was somewhere north of fifty, with a tanned face, chiseled jawline, and salt and pepper hair. He saw me before I saw him. I heard a voice speaking in Italian and turned around, my face a question mark. He switched to English with no discernible effort. “You are not Italian?” He asked. “No,” I admitted. He smiled, taking me in. “Ah. American. But you look Italian.”

I knew it was a line, but I blushed anyway. His eyes followed mine to the shelf of leather journals I’d been browsing, and he lifted one up to show me. It was dark purple, the lambskin soft and pliable to the touch. “It’s beautiful,” I said.

“Thank you. Is it for you, or a gift?”

“For me,” I confessed. “I’m a writer.”

“Ah, lovely. When the book is full, you can replace the pages without a problem. But this cover will last forever, I promise you. I made it myself.”

I bought it – happily – bid him farewell, and wandered off through Florence’s central market to find my friends. I knew I would never see him again, but something about the man who sold me the journal stayed with me, as though a technicolor photograph of our encounter had been imprinted on my memory. In Italy, it seemed that even a simple business transaction could take on a romantic, almost cinematic quality.

A day later, we walked Via dei Fori Imperiali, a promenade lined with ruins that cut through the center of Rome. The sky was blue, the sun surprisingly warm. When we reached the Coliseum, the sight of the ancient, towering structure caused a shooting sensation to travel up my legs and set small fires inside of my arms. Vertigo was the last thing I expected to feel – not here – but suddenly, there it was. I decided not to plunge into the panic that was sure to come if I pressed forward, and instead stayed behind to write. I carved out a space on a dirty cement ledge outside of the entrance, and began to scribble in a cheap paper notebook, occasionally pausing to glance up through the Coliseum’s arching, open windows and contemplate the sky. My head swirled with images, information, and the dulling edges of jet lag, and I craved nothing more than a respite from the constant assault of voices: the hustlers, the street vendors, the people everywhere who wanted something, be it money, information, a photograph.

It was my fifth day in Italy. I’d traveled from New York on an overnight flight to Heathrow, followed by a morning flight to Venice, to celebrate my friend Jen’s birthday. On that first, cold, damp day trudging along the canals – a day that followed a long, sleepless night – I quickly realized I’d grown accustomed to traveling solo, and the sudden need to negotiate meal times, to calculate the division of the check, and to slow my stride to match the pace of the group required an adjustment I wasn’t sure how to navigate.

So, when I could, I set off on my own. My decision to skip the Coliseum had been the third time in five days that I’d peeled off from the group, and I knew it wouldn’t be the last. It was knowledge that made me feel vaguely guilty – after all, this wasn’t my trip – but now that I was in Italy, I couldn’t deny the draw toward my usual manner of traveling: avoiding tourist sites and crowds in favor of wandering city streets like a gypsy, pausing to browse in shops and linger over a notebook in a café or a bar.

The next night – our last in Rome – capped another long day that began with a three hour tour of the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, and continued on to several city highlights including the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. By the time dinner rolled around, it was late and I was ill-tempered. We had an early wake up call – Jen’s mother was returning to Chicago and the rest of us were traveling on to the Amalfi Coast – and the wait was long at the restaurant recommended by our hotel. We debated back and forth for a good twenty minutes, when suddenly, a busy waiter hustled over, threw down a yellow table cloth, and set a table for five. Decision made.

As we tried to decipher the Italian menu and watched with wonder as two women perched in a window seat hand rolled pasta for everyone to see – part of the draw of the restaurant, Osteria Da Fortunata – one of the members of our group, Erica, raised her glass and wished us all a Happy Thanksgiving. And then she announced, “Order whatever you want. Dinner is on me.”

Romans had been wishing us “Happy Thanksgiving” all day, but being thousands of miles from home in a country that didn’t celebrate the holiday, it scarcely felt real. That is until Erica said it, and made an offer of generosity that instantly diffused the tension of the long day, the fatigue, the hunger, and the stress of coordinating the logistics of transportation to our next destination. Suddenly, we were just five people who’d shared this journey and now sat around a table on a lovely late November evening in Rome, about to share one last thing: a meal.

And after everything I’d felt the last six days, the only thing left to feel was grateful.

Until next time, friends.

Mile End.

The train was late leaving Montreal’s Gare Centrale. I stood near the front of the line, talking to a middle aged couple from Boulder, Colorado, as we watched our departure time tick later and later on the neon screen above our heads. They were taking the train to Schenectady, renting a car, and driving to meet their daughter in New Haven. She used to live in New York, they told me, but the stress of the city became too much and began to affect her health. As soon as she arrived in Connecticut, she felt better. “New York is a wonderful town,” said the man, whose name was Pete. “But it can be a lot.” “I’m still new there,” I told him. “I guess time will tell.”

It was Canadian Thanksgiving – “Action de Grâces’’ in Montreal – and after four days away, I was eager to begin the eleven-hour journey back to Penn Station. The trip had gone too quickly, as trips tend to do, but my “Things to do in New York” list was long, and I was ready to get started on it.

I had been in New York just three weeks when I boarded the Montreal-bound Amtrak train, and it still didn’t feel like I lived there yet. The three weeks had gone quickly, consumed with the business of settling in: buying household items and assembling furniture, shopping trips to Bed, Bath and Beyond and Fairway Market, sending “I’m here,” emails to friends and acquaintances, unpacking boxes shipped from L.A., navigating my new neighborhood.

The urge to get away swelled within me from the moment I’d arrived in the city, a common occurrence when the here and now threatens to overwhelm me. I had wanted to visit Montreal for years, ever since my niece Nora began studying art at its Concordia University, and the $150 round trip train ticket with its scenic route through the Hudson River Valley and the Adirondacks was too good to pass up. Plus, Nora’s punk band “Dish Pit” had a show that weekend, at a joint called Bar Le Ritz. How could I miss that?

I booked an Airbnb in Little Italy, on the border of the Montreal neighborhood Nora told me was her favorite: Mile End. I could immediately see why. Vibrant street art, hip cafes and bars, trendy boutiques and vintage shops. It was an artists’ haven, full of color and life and youthful enthusiasm.

I explored much of the city on foot, canvas bag containing a notebook, umbrella and ear buds slung over my shoulder. I walked from Petite Italie through Mile End, into Plateau and then downtown. I sampled bagels at the famous St.-Viateur bagel shop, tried on delicate lace dresses at a boutique on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, ordered meals in broken French, and bought a faux fur trimmed denim jacket at the hipster hotspot Annex Vintage. I caught up with Nora over dinner, met her school friends – and was wowed by her guitar-playing skills – at Bar Le Ritz, and traded stories about love and life as we wandered around Chinatown searching for a rare and expensive monkey oolong tea.

As much as I love to travel, my favorite thing about going away is how different home looks when seen from the perspective of another place. And New York had not been home for very long. In fact, it was the first time I answered the question “Where are you from?” with “New York,” an answer that still felt strange and foreign rolling off the tongue. And it was the first time, when asked by a customs agent what I did for a living, I said, “I’m a writer,” which didn’t feel strange at all. It also wasn’t technically true. Technically, I was unemployed, and was living off my savings, money I’d inherited from my parents and my grandfather’s life insurance policy. But that was far too complicated (and potentially problematic) to explain to border patrol. And besides, I had begun to learn the lesson that if I said a thing enough times, I would start to believe it, and then I would find a way to make it true. After all, that was how I ended up in New York in the first place. I simply told enough people I was moving there, until eventually, I had no choice but to go.

It had only been four days since I’d made the trip north to Montreal, but in those four days the fall colors had already intensified. Alongside golden amber leaves were branches dressed in accents of ruby red and flaming orange. I paused from scribbling in my journal to intermittently rest my head against the window of the southbound train and watch with tired eyes as October rain fell across the changing landscape. I pulled out my pocket planner, filled with its inspirational quotes, crossed out and rewritten plans, and counted the days: thirty-eight. There were exactly thirty-eight days until my flight to Heathrow, where I’d meet one of my dearest friends and we’d continue our journey on to Venice, Florence, Rome, Positano and Sorrento to celebrate her birthday. Thirty-eight days. Just over five weeks. Five weeks, during which I would write and work and enjoy the fall in New York City. Five weeks, and then I’d be off on another adventure.

But for now, I was ready to go back to New York.

I was ready to go home.

Until next time, friends.

April.

On the first day of April, I woke early, well before the sun came up, well before my alarm. There was something about this new month – the first full month of spring – that had me on edge. But not in a bad way. More in the way that it’s hard to sleep before a long voyage. Or a big job interview. Or the opening night of your play. The anticipation is palpable. The anticipation is the thing.

I traveled back to Los Angeles from London on the first day of spring. It was the longest spring day I can remember. Nineteen hours of travel all together, beginning by navigating morning rush hour traffic to Heathrow, then stuck at the airport with a delayed flight, then eleven hours on a plane, then arriving at LAX just in time for Los Angeles’s evening rush hour, then finally, blissfully, home. And as the sun sank behind the lone palm tree that towers over my little stucco bungalow, I thought about the fact that I’d spent nineteen hours chasing that very sun, pushing ever westward. And now that the sun had finally gone to bed, so too, would I.

I feel the shift to this new season in the core of my body, coming as sweet relief after winter months I carried around with me like a weight. People say that we don’t have seasons in Los Angeles, but January and February were unusually stormy and cold, pummeling the Southland with the most rain I’ve seen in my eighteen years here. But it wasn’t just the unusual weather patterns that had me feeling melancholy. It was a sadness I’ve been carrying within me for months, a sadness that’s rooted in fear and uncertainty over my future, and worries over whether I’m on the right path.

But as March wound down and the days grew longer and warmer, a newfound optimism grew within me too. Suddenly, I feel determined, rather than defeated. It’s a change that – frankly – has come as a surprise, given how quickly and abruptly it occurred.

To tell you the truth, I feel like I’ve been living (and writing about) a life in transition for practically forever. And I have been. But I think that part of the reason I still feel stuck is because many of the changes I’ve made over the last few years were changes that were forced upon me, rather than ones that I actively chose. Life got crazy – and crazy difficult – and I adapted, in order to survive.

It is quite a different thing to feel like I’m in the driver’s seat of my own life again. To be honest, it’s scary. For all my awareness about the ephemeral nature of life, I still find myself in a sort of holding pattern, paralyzed over making the big decisions I know I need to make in order to truly change. I can’t tell you how many times over the last year I’ve asked myself, “Isn’t there someone else who can do this?” But there isn’t. There’s only me.

A friend recently told me she has adopted the motto of beginning each day by tackling the most unpleasant task on her to-do list first. I like that. No time to work yourself into a frenzy worrying about it. Just do it, and be done.

So, I’ve decided that’s what April is going to be, for me. Walking right into all the things I’m worried about, as fast as I can, before I have too much time to think. Just do it, and be done. And I’m sure that’s why, as this new month dawned, I couldn’t sleep. But if I’m honest, I know this decision is the only way forward. I know I have to clear away the bad, the scary, and the difficult in order to make way for the good. I know that the only way for me to cross the bridge between where I am and where I want to be is by walking directly through all the fears and doubts that stand in my way.

So, ready or not, April, here I come. I have a feeling you’re going to be a big month.

Until next time, friends.

Le Marais.

The more you see the less you know
The less you find out as you go
I knew much more then t
han I do now

 Neon heart, day-glo eyes
The city lit by fireflies
They’re advertising in the skies
For people like us

 – “City of Blinding Lights” by the band, U2

Today is my last full day in Paris. As much-anticipated voyages tend to do, this trip has gone quickly. I’m writing this dispatch from the sweet little apartment I rented in Le Marais: a small but well-appointed flat tucked away in an historic old building on Rue des Tournelles. As I sit near the window of my third-floor walkup, occasionally glancing out at the romantic cobblestone courtyard, I realize that though I’m still here, I’m already leaving. I find myself struggling to remain present and enjoy this moment, even as my mind drifts back to London, where tomorrow, my train departing Gare du Nord will take me, and then further afield, where my plane departing Heathrow will carry me back across the Atlantic, back to Los Angeles, where life is waiting.

I didn’t do nearly as much writing as I had planned on this trip, but I did do a lot of thinking. Thinking and daydreaming and exploring and meandering. All the things you’re supposed to do in Paris. I drank double espressos and delicious Bordeaux and ate decadent deserts and filled my (wine-stained) journal with pages full of what is probably mostly nonsense but might also contain a few kernels of good ideas, like the beginnings of a new one-act play, the outline of an essay, and some sketches of new scenes for War Stories.

I spent an entire day at my beloved Musée d’Orsay, taking as much time as I wanted, and realizing in the process that though I’d always considered Van Gogh to be my favorite Impressionist – owing to his textured, swirling brushstrokes – this time it was Renoir who drew me in and held me. How had I never appreciated the dreaminess of his palette, especially the blues? I sank into royals, teals, aquamarines and sapphires like some sort of soothing bath, and the warmth and light he seemed to infuse into all his work made me feel settled and safe.

It turned out that the Marais neighborhood was the perfect place for me to land. Call it a lucky guess via Airbnb. Centrally located and a mere stone’s throw from the Bastille Métro station, it is easy to get everywhere from here. And yet it still feels like a local’s spot, crammed with charming cafes and boutiques, a place where I don’t feel like I’m on constant high alert for pickpockets the same way that I do in the more heavily trafficked tourist areas.

It is still early here, on this Thursday morning, so once I finish writing I plan to walk down to the Seine, cross its banks, and spend some time at a bookstore that charmed me the day after I arrived: Shakespeare and Company. I know: an English language bookstore in Paris. How gauche, right? But the truth is, its appeal is less about the fact that it carries books in my native tongue and more about the fact that it embraces a deep love of all things literary, feeling like some sort of quaint, rustic, cozy old library that I could spend hours browsing in. After all, I did come to Paris for inspiration. So, who am I to judge where that inspiration comes from?

I find myself leaving Paris just as I’m getting the hang of things here. Just as I’ve figured out the right touch on my apartment’s finicky Nespresso machine, or that the building’s stairwell has a timed light switch, so that I don’t have to climb the three flights back up to my flat in the dark. I’ve only just figured out which cafes I want to try and the fastest shortcut through the neighborhood to Place des Vosges and how to order my meals in (semi-confident) French.

And though there were many things about this much-anticipated return to Paris that I expected, there were some that I did not. Like the wonderful afternoon I spent with a new friend (introduced to me by London host), who gave me the loveliest historical tour of Le Marais. Or the buskers on my train to Tuileries who played the liveliest set of New Orleans style jazz. Or the fact that I – surprising myself – felt compelled to light a candle at the Église Saint Germain de Prés and thought about my mother and felt just a little bit better.

But even in Paris, there are reminders of what awaits me at home. While I’ve been away, I received the exciting news that a website averaging thirty million (!) unique visitors per month wants to republish one of my posts from this blog and share it with their readers. Of course – after asking them a few questions – I agreed. And I must admit, receiving that email was a good feeling; some much-needed encouragement that even in this transitory period of life, I’m on the right track.

One more day in Paris. And then – now that I’ve (finally) adjusted to the time difference – one more weekend in London that will be, blissfully, jetlag-free. And then it’s back to L.A. Back to sort out all of those pressing, challenging, exhilarating, life questions. Ready or not, here I come. That is – I mean – after just a few more days away. . .

Until next time, friends.

Valle de Bravo.

My driver, Jose Luis, laid on his horn, adding another angry beep to the chorus of honking as his black SUV inched along the gridlocked street toward the bus station. Finally, throwing up his hands in exasperation, he turned to me. “La estación de autobuses está aquí,” he said. I looked out the window in the direction he was pointing and saw a narrow gap between two chain link fences, and in the distance beyond it, a row of buses. Even though my knowledge of Spanish was virtually non-existent, I understood what he meant: in this traffic, this was as close as we were going to get.

“Get out here?” I asked. “La estación está aquí,” he repeated, looking at me like the dumb American I felt like. I didn’t need him to tell me again. I grabbed my bag and jumped out of the car, just before the vehicles that had been at a standstill in front of us began to move. “Hasta luego,” he called, delighted – I was sure – to be rid of me.

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A half an hour later, after having hungrily scarfed down two chicken tacos my twenty-one-year-old niece, Nora, ordered for me from a street vendor, I settled into my seat in the back of a commuter bus and proceeded to recount the story of that morning’s harrowing Uber ride. Jose Luis, obviously confused as to why a Gringa like me would want to leave her fancy hotel in Polanco for the crowded Metro Observatorio bus station, called a friend for help. “English,” he insisted, thrusting the phone into my hand. But “Becky,” the woman on the other line, was not only unhelpful, she asked me such strangely personal questions that I began to wonder if this whole thing was a shakedown. And as the SUV pushed further into the sprawling, unfamiliar city, I alternated between frantically texting Nora and wondering if I should bail out of the car.

Nora, on the other hand, seemed completely unfazed by the series of events I described. “If you were looking for a relaxing vacation,” she quipped, in between making me a cheat sheet of common words and phrases she titled ‘Spanish for Dummies,’ “You came to the wrong place.”

No kidding, I thought. I had been in the Ciudad de Mexico for less than twenty-four hours and already I had wondered numerous times what I had gotten myself into. I wondered it after awkwardly stumbling through immigration and receiving a stern scolding from the customs agent for filling out my paperwork incorrectly. I wondered it after fending off a strange man at the airport who offered to “help” me with my luggage. I wondered it after I realized that my naïve (and lazy) assumption that traveling to a global, world city meant that everyone would speak English was acutely incorrect. And I wondered it the night before, when Nora casually informed me over dinner that a student from her university had just been kidnapped, shortly before my arrival.

And now here I was, wondering it again, as the city faded from view and our bus plunged deeper and deeper into the Mexican countryside. As the scenery grew more remote, my iPhone reported back that there was “No Service,” and I switched it into airplane mode to preserve the battery, silently cursing myself for leaving the charger behind at my hotel.

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About two hours after departing the Metro Observatorio, we descended into the pueblo of Valle de Bravo, a picturesque town on the shore of Lake Avándaro. As the bus navigated through curving cobblestone streets, there was no denying the charm and beauty of the remote village. And as we pulled into the tiny depot and climbed out of the bus, there was also no denying that myself, Nora, and Nora’s two college friends – Americans and Canadians, all – were definitely, obviously, not from here.

There is a story I like to tell myself. The story is that I’m brave and fearless and a real badass. But that story is, sadly, untrue. What is actually true is that I’m afraid of everything, all of the time. More often than not, when I do something that other people consider to be brave, it’s only because I jump into it quickly, without thinking about the consequences, before my rational brain has a chance to talk me out of it.

Mexico City was like that. If I had taken the time to do my research, or had considered the size and scope of the city, with its population of twenty-two million (!!!) people, or had heeded the concerns voiced by friends and family about reports of foreigners being kidnapped, and drug trafficking, and police corruption, I probably never would have gone there. But all I really thought about was that my beloved niece was studying there on exchange from her university in Montreal, and visiting her sounded like a fun thing to do.

And now that I was in Mexico, I was along for the ride, and my travel companions to Valle de Bravo – as it turned out – were much braver than I was. Which I suppose is how I found myself, in spite of my tremendous fear of heights, saying yes when asked if I wanted to see “the best view in town.” An hour into a hike that was supposed to take “twenty minutes,” our foursome arrived at a small house at the base of a mountain, and was greeted by a man charging five pesos to climb to the summit of La Peña. So we paid him, and continued to climb stone steps along a densely forested pathway, ascending further and further, my body covered in sweat from the humidity and the exertion, my legs shaking with every view of Lake Avándaro, each one higher than the last.

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I stopped just below the summit, knowing my limits, knowing that the open-air plateau high above the sea would trigger in me a near paralysis-inducing vertigo. So I hung back and sheltered in a cave just below the top, while the other girls clambered over boulders to reach La Peña’s highest point. And while I waited, keeping a careful eye on a giant spider spinning a web nearby, minutes feeling like hours, I suddenly heard a loud “Boom!” and looked up nervously toward the increasingly darkening sky. “Boom!” There it was again. There was no doubt about it: that was thunder, which meant that lightning couldn’t be far behind.

“Guys?” I called. I checked my phone: 6:00 PM. The last bus back to Mexico City left in one hour, but at this point, we had more important things to worry about. “Guys,” I called again, unsure if they could even hear me. “We really need to go.”

And go we did, a few minutes later, trudging down the hill as fast as our legs could carry us. And soon the lighting flashed and the rain came down in sheets, soaking us to the skin. We found shelter at a fruit stand at the base of the mountain, huddling beneath an umbrella while we waited for a taxi. And though taxis were strictly off limits for us foreign girls in Mexico City – because of, you know, kidnapping – we decided it would be OK here because we were in Valle de Bravo and there were four of us, and besides, we didn’t have a choice in the matter anyway, not if we wanted to make it back to the station in time to catch the last bus back to the city.

Seventy two hours after that rain storm in Valle de Bravo, feeling – there’s no other word for it – elated to be back in Los Angeles, I wheeled my suitcase up to a customs agent at LAX’s Tom Bradley International terminal and handed him my passport.

“And where are you coming from?” he asked.

“Mexico City,” I replied, surprising myself at the pride I heard coming through my voice.

“Vacation?”

“Yeah.”

“Welcome home,” he said, smiling, handing me back my passport. And I returned his smile with a genuine smile of my own. Because I was happy. Happy to be home, of course, but also happy that I taken the trip in the first place.

mexico-butterfly

The scary moments during my trip to Mexico didn’t end after that day in Valle de Bravo. In fact, I could write an entire blog post about the madness of the metro: the crush of people and the constant pushing and shoving, the women-only subway cars (implemented for safety), the machine gun-toting police officers, the Saturday afternoon encounter with a man who was high as a kite, lurching and leering, the young Mexican girl – who couldn’t have been older than twelve – who warned Nora and I to “Be careful,” because the subway stop we were heading to was “Very dangerous.”

So yes, there were scary moments. But there were also great ones. And if I hadn’t gone to Mexico City, I never would have experienced them. I never would have marveled at the stunning turquoise waters of Lake Avándaro from high above Valle de Bravo. I never would have absorbed the art and culture and history of a nearly three-hour mural tour through the city center led by Nora’s employer, Street Art Chilango. I never would have met David, the charming artisan at Coyoacán market who sold me a beautiful leather journal made by his own hands, and who, when Nora told him that I was a writer, insisted that I write something for him (and I did!).

And most importantly, if I hadn’t gone to Mexico City, I never would have spent four amazing days with my niece. I never would have witnessed, first hand, the way that she’s thriving, both in her life and in her art, and the incredible woman she is becoming as she is immersing herself in a language and a culture that are both entirely new.

The story that I like to tell myself is that I’m a badass. The truth is, I’m not. I’m afraid of almost everything, almost all of the time. And there were many moments during my visit to Mexico City where I had a reason to be afraid. But I also had a reason to go there. Because life is worth experiencing. And adventures are worth having. And without a little fear, can we ever, truly, have either one?

Until next time, friends.

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Wanderlust.

“Why don’t more people live on Maui?”

My brother-in-law poses this question to my sister and I as we sit, sipping Mai Tais, on the patio of an oceanfront bar in Kihei. Our faces pointed toward the Pacific, we admire the soft sandy beach, the sunlight glinting on topaz water, the crisscrossing cluster of palm trees extending into a clear blue sky that’s increasingly tinged with fuchsia and tangerine as the late afternoon presses on toward sunset. In the distance, someone spots a Humpback whale and restaurant patrons crane their necks to catch a glimpse of a tail fin or a water spout.

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“I mean, think about it,” he continues. “Look at all these tourists. Why don’t more of them say to themselves: This is beautiful. This is paradise. I should find a way to live here.”

We throw around some ideas. Hawaii is too expensive. Not enough jobs. Island fever. Paradise, while great for a vacation, is a little too perfect for everyday life.

Do we actually believe that, the “paradise is too perfect,” part? Do we think we should only be granted brief, idyllic respites from our otherwise stressful and crazy-making lives?  Do we secretly harbor the belief that it’s simply too self-indulgent to seek out a life of bliss? Or is the root of this belief a bit more complex? Could it be that we fear that if we actually do it – take the leap, uproot our lives, and relocate to a tropical paradise – we’ll realize that problems happen to people in “paradise” just as often as they happen to people everywhere else? After all, paradise is where we come to escape reality, not to live it, and if we make paradise home, where will we escape to then?

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Escapism has been my thing for a while now. I’ve always loved to travel, but never more so than these last few difficult years, when hopping on a plane to somewhere – anywhere – consistently holds more appeal than the here and now. While I think it’s too reductive to classify a searching wanderer like myself as someone who’s simply “running away,” there is some truth in it. I look toward each new voyage with hopeful eyes, wondering if this trip will be the trip: the magic cure-all that changes everything. Of course, it never quite works out that way.

My sojourn on Maui was no different. Don’t get me wrong: I am grateful for both the time I spent there, and for the suitcase full of memories I returned with. The island was stunning, the weather warm, the vegetation lush, the food scrumptious, the ocean soothing, the time spent with family happy. But in the spirit of the old “wherever you go, there you are,” cliché, real life intervened. I had work on my mind, with the deadline to finish the second draft of my play War Stories looming large. The family dynamic – never free from complication – was especially complicated on this trip. And whether it was jet lag or anxiety or some mixture of both, I couldn’t sleep, spending several nights awake for hours on end, leaving me tired and short-tempered the next day. Wherever you go, there you are.

I’m about to embark upon an interesting experiment, one I’m not sure if I’m ready for. My contract job is all but over, and then the future is mine, to make of it what I will. A prospect that is both exhilarating and terrifying. I’ve been craving this type of free, unstructured time for so long, craving it the way I crave my next vacation, but I can’t help but worry that, like my recent trip to Maui – like every trip, really – it can’t possibly live up to the hype.

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The immediate future will be busy. In June, I’m producing War Stories at Hollywood Fringe Festival, and the spring will be filled with rewrites, rehearsals, production meetings, marketing, mixers, and (hopefully) an abundance of creativity and fun.

But beyond that? I don’t really know. I have lots of ideas but nothing – and I mean nothing – is set in stone. For a meticulous planner, this is uncharted territory: a future where everything is uncertain, everything transitional, everything in the wind.

Which also leaves me at a loss as to how I should end this blog post. Normally, I’d try to wrap it up with something that provides a sense of closure, something that circles back to how I began the piece, something that ties it all together in a neat, tidy bow. But I can’t do that this time, because life isn’t like that. Not right now. It’s not conducive to neat, tidy endings. It’s fluid and changeable and open-ended.

But I suppose that’s the beauty of it. I suppose that – right now – is the point.

Until next time, friends.

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Jet Lag.

Just over a week ago, I penned a hopeful dispatch from London’s Heathrow Airport in the pages of my journal.

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It was afternoon, and I was squeezed into a tiny table at a crowded café in terminal five, scribbling notes about my trip as I waited for my flight to Los Angeles to begin boarding. After two weeks in Europe, I was homeward bound, and I was more than ready to return. I was ready to return to my life and to once again take up the big, important projects – both career and life – that I’d been putting off. I was ready to hit the ground running with a renewed sense of purpose.

And return I did, after a sleepless ten hour flight, a terse exchange with an LAX cab driver – who kicked me out of his car after he learned I’d be paying my fare with a credit card – and a foggy few days spent trying to catch up and reintegrate myself, amidst strange sleep patterns and cloudy, confused dreams in which I existed both in the place I was and the place I’d been, simultaneously. Palm trees in Prague . . . what the??

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But my jet lag wore off. And reality set in. And as it did, I found my sense of hopefulness waning. It became difficult, once again, to keep my spirits up.

My post-vacation hangover made me realize something simple, yet true: it’s easy for me to feel optimistic when I’m away, because it’s easier to look at my life for what it could be, as seen from a distance, than for what it actually is, when it’s right up close. Strolling the banks of the Thames or the Vltava, bundled up against the February chill, my L.A. life looked like some sort of sun-soaked dream. A dream that I couldn’t wait to return to.

But my actual L.A. life isn’t exactly a sun-soaked dream. It is much more difficult than the palm trees would have you believe. It’s full of traffic jams and smog and grown up decisions and a high cost of living and endless bills to pay. It’s creative burnout and failed relationships and an ongoing struggle to make peace with my past. More than anything, life in LA. these days is a struggle to figure out who the heck I am after I’ve been so many versions of myself and none of them have worked out.

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Yes, I am feeling sorry for myself. And yes, it’s disgusting. Let’s get real for a second. I’ve just returned home to Los Angeles, which, weather-wise, is pretty damn pleasant compared to what most of the rest of the world is experiencing in late February. I just spent two weeks in Europe on an incredible adventure – the type of self-indulgent trip that most people only dream of. And all around me in this sprawling, massive, city, there are reminders that my life, for all of my complaints, is not really that bad.

As I scribble these words into my journal, I’m sitting in another café, half a world away from the one at Heathrow. But you can’t really call it a café: it’s a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Right in front of me, in the middle of the afternoon in broad daylight, is a most unfortunate business transaction: an exchange between a prostitute and her pimp. She: edgy, nervous, eager to please, fingernails caked in dirt (that’s how close she is to me) with a tiny, scruffy dog in her lap. He: cold, disinterested, rude, and treats her so callously, it’s obvious that he sees her as nothing more than property. My stomach turns and I try to pretend I don’t see them, but it’s impossible. I feel guilty for obsessing about my own stupid problems, ashamed when the girl’s eye briefly meets mine, and then sad, as I look away and cast my eyes downward, toward the floor.

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The best thing about my trip to Europe was that it reminded me of the carefree, hopeful girl that I used to be when I lived in London as a twenty-one-year-old college student, when the world stretched out wide in front of me, when possibility seemed limitless and I still believed that nothing bad could happen to me. The worst thing about my trip to Europe was that I returned, knowing for sure that I am no longer that girl.

Real life is very unlike my European vacation, and much more like the scene I witnessed at the Coffee Bean. It confronts you with its realness, with its complexity. Sometimes it’s gritty and sad. Sometimes it forces you to look away.

Every time I leave town, I’m happy. For a time. But then I come back, and the old problems are still here, and I’m still here. And time is passing and life is happening all around me. And I’m not really any closer to figuring it all out.

So I have decided that it’s time. Time to say yes to the here and now – even if the here and now is gritty and difficult and real. Even if it makes me sad. It’s time to commit and connect to my real life in a way that I’ve been avoiding. Time to buckle down and do the hard work. Because you can’t correct what you don’t confront. And the hour is growing late.

This might be the craziest adventure yet. Wish me luck?

Until next time, friends.

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Stare Mesto.

It’s Saturday in Prague. It’s also Valentine’s Day, a day which marks the two year anniversary of the death of my father. But I don’t think that’s particularly sad. Not the fact that Dad died, which, of course, is sad, but the fact that he died on Valentine’s Day. I think the date of his death is symbolic of the love he had for his children, and of the fact that he passed peacefully and quickly, in his sleep, after a battle with cancer. I think the fact that his death was as quiet and as gentle as it was when it could have gone so differently was a gift – from him, from God, from the universe, from fate, from whatever force it is that was working its cosmic magic. I consider his love a gift, his life a gift, and the peace we made before he died the ultimate gift.

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But I didn’t set out to write a post about my father (I did that more eloquently last year, here), only to acknowledge that today, as I pass another day in this mysteriously beautiful city, so far away from home in the middle of a stark, cold European winter, I have been thinking about him. And I have been thinking about love.

Ever since they died, I have been trying to strike a balance between the parts of my mother and father that are contained within me, of which there are a great deal. Sometimes I feel their echoes in my worst behaviors. But often, I recall the good in them and I aim my aspirations in that same direction.

Dad was adventurous, bold. I think he’d be proud of me for taking this trip to a far off, foreign place all by myself. For unapologetically shrugging off the curious glances when I sit down to a meal or sip espresso while journaling in a café or drink cognac in the hotel bar, alone. Leave it to other people to cling to the security of another body. I don’t mind being on my own, and during my travels, I have found that I am, in fact, quite good company.

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I think Dad would be proud of my hotel choice, as well. Dad always liked to go big, and my hotel does not disappoint. It’s a sleek, modern, five star European beauty located in Stare Mesto – Old Town – within striking distance of the main square, the Vltava River and the Charles Bridge and just down the hill from Mala Strana (“Little Quarter”), a steep hill leading up toward Prague Castle and breathtaking views of the city seen from on high.

My hotel is central and yet, it’s removed from the madness at the end of a quiet street – Parizska (“Paris”), aptly named for the posh luxury boutiques that populate it; brands like Cartier and Porsche Design and Dolce and Gabbana and Escada and Tod’s of London and the like.

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I couldn’t believe in my wildest dreams that I could afford such a hotel, with its spectacular gym and spa – no joke, it rivals some of the gyms I’ve seen in L.A. with its aerobics garden, weight room, cardio room, stretching room, enormous glass roofed swimming pool, sauna, luxurious showers and spa treatment rooms – its rooftop restaurant, cozy lounge bar, buffet breakfast overlooking the Vltava River, its opulent guest rooms with spacious marble-tiled bathrooms, Tempur-Pedic mattresses, customized pillow menu (you can choose from six different styles, adjusted to your comfort), and satellite television with channels in six different languages. Oh yeah, and there’s the breathtaking view of the gothic buildings in Old Town Square as seen from out the window of my 7th floor room, courtesy of an upgrade from the handsome hotel desk manager. Simply because I told him this was my first visit to Praha.

This is definitely the fanciest hotel I have ever stayed in, but because the dollar is strong right now, especially against the Czech Crown (Korun), and it’s the middle of winter and bitterly cold, and I got a cheaper rate for staying six nights, I am actually paying less per night for a five star hotel in a European capital than I have spent to rent a room in a Best Western. Ridiculous. And wonderful. And anyway, who cares that it’s freezing outside? I never want to leave the confines of this glamorous hotel, with its well-heeled, fur-swathed, international clientele.

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But leave the hotel I have, to explore this gothic city, to climb the hills, to wander the cobblestone streets, to gape at elegant centuries-old buildings with cheerful watercolor facades. I came here with no plan as to how I would spend my time, which is pure my mother and so very unlike me. When mom traveled, she hated to be rushed or kept to an agenda, preferring instead to laze about her hotel room for hours. This behavior drove me – the compulsive planner – insane, but mom could care less about cramming in touristy, sightsee-y things. She just wanted to pick out a few specific activities that she knew she would enjoy and spend the remainder of the time resting, enjoying lengthy meals, and beating to the tune of her own drummer.

Which is exactly what I’m doing in Praha. Who cares that I traveled thousands of miles to be here? This is my trip and I am spending it exactly how I want. Which includes a fair amount of wandering, a fair amount of writing in cafes, a fair amount of lengthy meals, a fair amount of enjoying my lavish hotel, and just a little – but not so much – of the really touristy stuff.

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I’ve been here for three days, and for me, the jury’s still out on Praha. It is unquestionably beautiful, quite unlike any other city I’ve seen in my life. But it’s a dark beauty, with an unshakeable heaviness to it. There’s something formidable and slightly ominous that pervades through the steep hills and the narrow cobblestone streets and the hearty, heavy food, and the quietly dignified people and the gothic spires that extend into the wintry grey sky.

When I first decided to come here – inspired by my Grandpa Popelka’s Czech heritage – I had certain ideas about what this trip, what this place, would be like. It turns out that Prague, like all things in life, is very different than the picture I had in my mind of what it would be. But also as in life, it’s quite curious what we find when we don’t go looking for it. Like the fact that within this cold, dark, place, I have found a surprising amount of light. Both within my heart, and within my writing. Curious, indeed.

So thank you, Praha. Here’s to 2 ½ more days of embracing your mysterious beauty. Here’s to one more day after that in London, here’s to the long journey home to Los Angeles, and here’s to the even longer journey of finding a more permanent home, when I’m done with all the wandering.

Until next time, friends.

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Things my mother never did, part two.

I dreamt about my mother last night.  It was the first time I’d dreamt about her in awhile, at least that I remember.  I used to dream of her often after she died.  They were horrible, wrenching dreams.  Dreams in which she cried out to me to help her, but in which, one way or another, I was never able to.  Inevitably, I woke from these dreams sweating, sobbing, sometimes crying out.  And like my mother, unable to be helped.

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Last night’s dream was different.  My mother and I were alone in a vacant old house.  She was as rail thin as I remember her the last time I saw her, six weeks before she died.  Her eyes had the same vacant, staring look, like black holes peering into the distance.  I pleaded with her to eat something, but she just shook her head no.  And then I noticed something strange:  my mother had in her possession a large black satchel full of food.  She had refused to eat anything, no matter how much I pleaded with her, yet she was hoarding food, stockpiling it.  To what end?

I woke to a still dark apartment in the early morning hours and I sat, frozen in my bed, utterly stunned by the sharp clarity with which I remembered every detail of my dream.  A phrase popped into my head:  “There was nothing you could do.”  And then another:  “It wasn’t your fault.”  Both phrases circled through my brain over and over until I became dizzy and I wept, hoping they were true.

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I don’t know why my mother appeared to my subconscious mind in such a strange fashion after so long of an absence.  It may have something to do with the fact that as I write this, I’m sitting in the international terminal at LAX, waiting to board a flight that will take me the furthest away from home I’ve been for the longest among of time I’ve been away since my mother died, the prospect of which has me both exhilarated and terrified.  Or it may have something to do with the fact that since WordPress republished my blog post Things My Mother Never Did two weeks ago, I’ve heard from hundreds of people all over the world in countless heartfelt messages.  Messages of encouragement, of heartbreak, of hope, of loss, of dysfunction and love, all revolving around the most fundamental, yet often, the most anguishing relationship out there:  that of parent and child.  And over and over again, throughout all of the messages and the reblogs, the overwhelming theme has been this:  “Thank you for writing this.  I thought I was the only one.”

How can it be that there are so many of us, yet we still feel so desperately alone?  Well, let me be the first to tell you, friends, you are not alone.  As scary as it is for me to tell my dark family secrets, I will continue to do so.  Because the only way out is through, and for me, through is a road paved with honesty.

My mother was the love of my life.  I’m still angry with her.  I’m still racked with guilt that I couldn’t save her.  And I’m not running from either one of these truths.  But, as I embark on this journey, the first big scary adventure of my new life – the life dedicated to all the Things My Mother Never Did – I hope that for all of you out there who have so lovingly and kindly reached out to me, I hope that I can offer you some inspiration about forging a path back to acceptance and love, a path forged straight through forgiveness.  A path in which you are the architect of your own life.

Thank you to everyone who wrote me.  You have no idea how grateful I am.

Here I go!

Until next time, friends.

x

Sarah

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