My younger sister Olivia, my dad, and I all went out for dinner in New York City.
I live in Hawaii (mostly) these days. Miss O is based in Colorado. Dad’s in California. It’s unusual that we’re together in the same location. I wanted to make the most of this rare, precious moment.
And so, we ordered whiskey and crusty bread and garlicky Brussels sprouts. Dad regaled us with stories about his favorite opera composers and their unbelievably scandalous lives. Olivia described her new apartment, which she can’t wait to move into, her favorite grad school courses, her hopes for the future.
I listened to my dad’s stories. I nodded when my sister spoke. I smiled when it was appropriate to smile. I politely thanked the waiter for each item. But, to be honest, I wasn’t completely in the room. My mind was only halfway present.
I was ruminating on…other things. Mainly, the heartbreak I experienced last year, which still hangs heavily over my body like a lead blanket of grief. Also, the deadlines looming. The new emails (that I haven’t answered yet) inquiring about the old emails (that I also haven’t answered yet). An internal clanging of loss and sorrow and unfinished to-do lists and self-created pressure.
While collecting our coats at the exit, the restaurant hostess smiled at me and said, “It’s wonderful that you got to have dinner with your dad tonight.”
“Yeah, uh huh, for sure,” I said, or something to that effect. Only half-listening. In a thick fog. Rummaging around in my bag for a stick of gum.
“My dad died last year,” the hostess added, very quietly. Her voice was so soft, nearly drowned out by the din of the bustling restaurant. “I miss him every day.”
I looked up, meeting her eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
I stepped outside and immediately linked elbows with my dad, holding him very, very close as we walked arm in arm back to the hotel.
Sometimes, I fall asleep in the middle of my own life. Until something, or someone, reminds me to wake up. Because all of this is temporary.
My friend Sherry once said to me, “I’ve often wondered, why do we wait until someone’s funeral to say how much we love them, how much we appreciate them, all the reasons why we adore them? Why don’t we say it now, to their face, while they’re alive? Why do we always wait until it’s too late?”
It’s a very good question.
. . .
If there’s something you want to do, do it now.
If there’s something you want to say, say it now.
If you’re reading this on a phone in your bed, put down your device and hold your partner instead.
The emails can wait.
One day, all of this ends.
But for now, here we are.
And today is not over yet.
It was the night of my sixteenth birthday. I was throwing myself a party. And I was terrified that nobody would show up.
I was a quiet, painfully shy teenager. During lunchtime at school, I’d make a beeline for the computer lab or the library rather than chatting with my classmates. Kids at school would often ask, “You’re new, right? When did you transfer here?” And then I would awkwardly explain, “No, actually, I’ve been at this school for two years just like you.” The part I wouldn’t say aloud: “It’s just that I’m really good at making myself invisible.”
But right before my sixteenth birthday, I became determined to make some new friends. I had recently taken a big leap out of my comfort zone—signing up for a theater class at school—so I invited a few of the “drama kids” to attend my birthday party.
I checked out a book from the library (written in the 1970s) with a title that was something like, How To Entertain Your Friends & Be The Hostess With The Mostess! Second Edition. The book suggested making three types of fondue—cheese, chocolate, and then, to really blow people’s minds, Japanese sukiyaki with slivers of meat—and that is exactly what I did. I labored for hours, creating an elaborate table with fondue, bread chunks, apple slices, baby tomatoes, raw meat and raw eggs for the sukiyaki, toothpicks, bubbling vats, and little handwritten signs indicating all the gourmet pleasures that awaited your tastebuds.
And then, as my various fondues simmered expectantly, I perched myself at the edge of my parents’ couch and I waited stiffly…staring at the doorway…hoping that someone would show up.
This was the pre-cellphone era, so nobody could text me to say, “I’m on my way” or “See you in five” or “Heart – shooting star – birthday cake emoji.” I had no idea if anyone would come. So I just sat there, in that empty room, listening to the clock tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Each tick, a little needle-jab in my heart.
Fiiiiiiiiiiinally, there it was—the blessed sound of a car pulling into the driveway. Feet on the gravel. The doorbell. I leapt to my feet.
The first person to arrive was Heléne, an incredible singer, like a tiny blonde Aretha Franklin. She took one look at my fondue table, laughed hysterically, and then hugged me. “You made all that? You are adorable,” she declared. (She would soon become one of my closest friends.)
Gradually, a few more people arrived. Ethan. Kendall. Dylan from down the road. To my great surprise, there was very little interest in my international fondue table, but people found a bag of potato chips in the kitchen and plopped onto the ground, forming a semi-circle on the rug. Pretty soon, a rousing game of Truth or Dare was in progress.
And then it happened.
My secret crush, Gus—the real reason I’d wanted to throw this party in the first place—arrived. He had curly brown hair and was wearing a colorful Hawaiian shirt, a leather jacket, and cargo shorts, which may sound like a strange combination but let me tell you, this look was working for me. He smiled and said “happy birthday,” and I melted into a puddle of fondue-goo. Gus joined the game of Truth or Dare. The next several hours passed in a happy blur.
Later, as things were winding down for the night, Gus asked if we could go somewhere “a little more private.” We went into the spare room that my dad used as his office, and then—right by my dad’s combination fax + Xerox machine—Gus said:
“I was kinda disappointed that nobody dared me to kiss you.”
(Me, internal dialogue: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
And then he said, “Is it okay if I do that…now?”
(Me, again: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
I got my first kiss on the night of my sixteenth birthday.
It was sweet and precious and perfect in every way—one of my favorite memories of all time.
The whole moment almost didn’t happen…because I almost didn’t throw that party…because I was so nervous that nobody would show up.
“But what if nobody shows up?” is an intensely paralyzing fear. It grips your throat and tightens your stomach and blocks you from sending important emails and starting new projects and taking new risks. It’s a fear I’ve felt so many times throughout my life, in various ways.
“What if nobody hires me?”
“What if nobody buys my book?”
“What if nobody registers for my workshop?”
“What if people do register, but then everyone flakes out at the last second and no one actually comes to the event?”
“What if, even worse, only one person shows up—and then it’s one solitary person and me, looking like a pathetic loser?”
“What if I spend all this money buying various types of cheese and then nobody shows up for my party?”
The underlying fear is: “What if I take a risk and it doesn’t immediately ‘pay off’ in the way that I envision?”
Let’s assume nobody shows up. So what? What does that actually mean? What’s the absolute worst that could happen?
The worst that could happen is you eat some cheese by yourself, alone in a quiet room, and you read your favorite book, and have a nice peaceful evening. Is that really so awful?
The worst that could happen is people don’t hire you and then you re-write the program description on your website and later, you try again. Is that so horrendous?
The worst that could happen is you run short on money and you have to get a part-time job to help fund your dream, or apply for a loan or a scholarship or a grant…or you wind up with extra tickets that you can give away to friends and family…or you find yourself with extra copies of your book that nobody bought so you donate them to libraries and schools…or you wind up with some extra cake that nobody ate so you share it with your neighbors. None of these situations are fatal.
The worst case scenario is usually not that bad.
The best case scenario is you get to make art, make money, make new friends, make memories, or even make-out with your crush by the Xerox machine.
Throw the party.
People might show up, or not. Things might go exactly as planned, or not.
Either way, you’re going to survive. Either way, it’s going to be a beautiful night. Either way, you can feel proud of yourself for taking a brave step. Either way, it’s a move in the right direction.
Either way, you win.
I know a woman named Christina. She married a wonderful man, earned several university degrees, and built a satisfying career. The present was joyful and bright–and the future, even brighter.
Then one day, a blade fell and sliced her world into hideous ribbons. Her husband Bjarne. Cancer. Stage four. He died at age thirty-five, leaving Christina a widow with two young children at home.
After this horrific loss, Christina felt imprisoned inside “the waiting room of grief,” as she calls it. That limbo space where your old life is over but your new life hasn’t begun. You’re not dead. You’re not alive. You’re not here. You’re not there. You’re in between two worlds, feeling unable to move forward, up, down, anywhere. Paralyzed. Numb.
“Just give it time,” Christina’s well-intentioned friends and colleagues told her repeatedly. “Time heals everything. You’ll see.”
Years passed. Many birthdays and parent-teacher meetings and winter holidays. A great deal of time. But Christina didn’t feel like she was healing–at least, not fully. Yes, she was functioning. She had a consistent routine. Kids were being fed. Bills were being paid. But she didn’t feel alive. The house was still standing, miraculously, but the lights were shut off.
She waited and waited and waited. Waiting for time to work its healing magic. Then one day, while researching neuroplasticity–the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and adapt to new situations–Christina had an epiphany: You don’t build a new brain–or a new life–just by giving it time. Time is not enough. You also need action.
Action. Movement. Forward momentum. Even the smallest step–taking a breath, opening the window to let in some fresh air, trying on a new shirt, checking out a new book from the library–begins to reshape the architecture of your mind.
Action is the medicine that brings you back to life.
Surviving the biggest heartbreak of my life has required…a lot of action. For me, the action plan includes a weekly appointment with my therapist. And also, plunging into the ocean and screaming underwater like a battle-mermaid, and painting, and talking to my parents on the phone about everything and nothing, and yoga like never before, and writing things down and burning the paper, and praying and meditating and chanting, and ho’oponopono, and finding “that one song” that somehow encapsulates everything and blasting it at a spine-shuddering volume, and going to an empty studio at night and dancing, dancing, dancing, dancing, dancing, and glowing in the dark, and running until my legs are wobbling, and watching the eclipse, and selling the house that B and I bought together, and buying all new underwear and other things, and writing the phrase “You’re doing a great job” at the top of my checklist every single damn day just to remind myself…I am.
All of these actions, and thousands more, create little splinters in the ceiling of the waiting room. Cracks of gold. Light pours in. First, just the tiniest sliver. Almost imperceptible. Then it widens. Then more.
Six months ago, I called my older brother and–through choking, hysterical sobs–I told him I was going to be celibate for ten years, minimum, and that I could never love again, never trust again, never believe anyone’s promises ever again, and everything I used to believe is dead, etc. He told me, “You feel like that now but you won’t forever, I promise.”
I told him he was wrong. He said I owed him a dozen of his favorite bagels from a special bakery in Montreal, shipped to his home, once I realized he was right. I told him, “You’re never getting those bagels.” He said, “We’ll see.” I told him my heart will never be the same. He said, “You’re right. Things will never be the same. But that’s a good thing.”
Beyond the waiting room is a strange and beautiful new world. I feel myself moving closer to it. Today’s actions compounding upon yesterday’s actions–actions laying new pathways in my brain. New energy. New dreams. New hope. Maybe one day, even bagels.
You live inside the waiting room until one day, you don’t.
Everything feels impossible until one day, it’s not.
Every time I stand near the ocean, there’s a debate between my hut (that’s what I call my heart + gut) and my brain.
“Get in the water,” says my hut. “You love being in the ocean more than anything. You will not regret it. You will feel so alive. Go! Dive in! Just get in for one minute! This is your one and only life! What are you waiting for?”
“But it’s a little cloudy today,” whines my brain. “Also, it might be cold. And besides, you’re not even wearing a bathing suit. You didn’t pack a towel. You just blow-dried your hair. It looks like it could rain. You have a lot of emails to answer. You have a meeting starting in an hour. And what about sharks?! Today isn’t an ideal day for swimming. Come back tomorrow. Not today.”
One morning, I found myself at this familiar crossroads. Get in? Or not? Hut and brain, battling it out. I stood at the edge of the water, a blur of blue, gray, and green. Waves rippling up and down, a never-ending electrocardiogram, a liquid pulse.
I wanted to dive in. But my feet weren’t moving forward. I began mutter-chanting to myself, “Don’t think, just get in. Don’t think, just get in. Don’t think, just…”
“Imagine you are the main character in a movie,” a friend once said to me. “The movie is your life. Everything’s rolling along. And then, there’s this moment when you’re faced with a choice. Right or left. This or that. Seize the moment…or not. Imagine the audience in the theater is watching you wrestle with that choice. They’re biting their nails and hoping you do the right thing. All those people sitting in the audience…what are they hoping you will do? Whatever it is…do that.”
I think about this invisible audience a lot. I imagine them groaning, slapping their palms to their foreheads, and rolling their eyes with disbelief when I do something cowardly, lazy, or apathetic. I imagine them cheering, leaping out of their seats, popcorn flying all around, when I do something brave.
The best choice isn’t always comfortable, at first. I know this. There’s a shock of cold water before the reward. Sometimes you have to mute your brain and crank up the volume on your hut. Sometimes a split second decision—one tiny burst of courage, one phone call, one email, one application, a knock on someone’s door, ten seconds in the water—can change the whole story.
I tore off my shirt and ran into the waves.
Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t think.
Get in. Get in. Get in.
Today. Today. Today.
“When the eruption began,” Kanani told us, gesturing towards the distant volcano. “It was old lava, not fresh. Very old. Heavy, thick, viscous. Lava that was trapped underground, we believe, left over from previous flows.”
As we sat cross-legged on Honoli’i Beach, Kanani told us to close our eyes and listen for the voice of the land. The river meeting the sea. The waves hitting the smooth gray pebbles. The distinctive soundscape that’s unique to this beach, and this beach alone.
Then she told us her theory about last year’s eruption on the Big Island of Hawaii.
“Everything old, everything that needed to be purged and released,” she told us, “It was time for everything to come to the surface.”
That’s definitely how 2018 felt for me. It was a year of upheaval, disruption, and unexpected transformation. I’m not alone in feeling this way. Almost every single person I know—friends, family, clients, colleagues—seemed to have their own personal “eruption” last year. An illness. A harrowing phone call. A major change of heart. The lava came and it covered the earth and it could not be stopped.
“It swallowed the road,” Kanani continued. “Many homes were lost. And our favorite swimming hole,” she added, pointing south, “The lava took it from us. Gone forever.”
I remember that exact swimming hole. I’d been there just a month before the eruption began. A natural thermal pool, gently heated from beneath the earth. Sweet and serene. It was there for generations. Now it doesn’t exist. Erased.
“We lost so much,” Kanani added, speaking slowly, unhurriedly, not sprinting to make her point. She told us to watch the sky. When the clouds were burnished with a hint of gold, that’s when we’d begin our sunrise chant to greet the day. Then, and not a moment sooner.
“We lost our favorite swimming hole, but…we also received a gift,” she told us. “Because of the volcano, we gained four new swimming holes. Four. And a beautiful black sand beach. Now, there is more than before.”
Now, there is more than before.
These words have been echoing in my mind.
I can’t think of an elegant way to transition into the next paragraph, so I will just say it.
Last year, my relationship with Brandon ended.
This is the first time I have typed that sentence. Seven very difficult words.
We spent five years together. We built an empire of love. We started a restaurant business that grew from two employees (just us) to a thriving team of ten. We bought a house. We got a dog. We planted a garden. I wrote three new books and dedicated all of them to him. For Brandon.
We wandered through fish markets in Tokyo. We swam naked through biting, icy rivers. We held each other’s hands through broken bones and surgeries and recoveries. We made one million memories. Our dream was to somehow live to be 130 years old and then die at the exact same moment, transitioning into the next world together. We’d be cremated, we decided. Our ashes would be scattered in a sun-drenched vineyard so we could turn into vines. Forever and ever, we’d grow together, separate but entwined, side by side.
“I love you foreverly,” I would tell him.
“Do-si-do,” he would reply, our secret code for “snuggling close with our arms and elbows secured together.”
Everything was beautiful.
And then, with the explosive force of a volcanic eruption, everything changed.
I am not ready to write about “what happened with me and Brandon” in any specific detail. Maybe later, I will. Right now, it’s still too fresh.
I will say that after our relationship ended, I was wracked with a level of grief, rage, rejection, bewilderment, disappointment, and agony that I’ve never experienced before. I would get into my car, drive to an empty lot, roll up the windows for privacy, and howl like a wounded animal. I cried until every drop of salt water had been wrung from my body. I was tormented by my own mind. I tore through thousands of memories, trying to discover “what I had missed” or “what I could have done differently”…even though this mental-spiraling brought me no answers and no peace. This didn’t feel like a “break up” or a “divorce.” It felt like a death. The one thing, more precious to me than anything, anything, anything…gone.
Now, there is more than before.
When Kanani spoke to all of us, I felt like she was speaking directly to me.
As I write these words, I am looking at the ocean. Today, the water is silky, calm and still. Tomorrow, who knows? I’m sitting just a few miles away from the world’s youngest black sand beach. The beautiful newborn beach, forged from last year’s disaster.
Hawaii has five hundred acres of new land that didn’t exist before. Loss brings new life. Grief brings the opportunity to rise and begin again.
Even though my heart is still very tender and bruised, even though my optimism has been shaken and tested, I am choosing to believe that the best years of my life are not in the past. The best is still yet to come.
Many things have ended. Many things will be born.
Now, there is more than before.