It’s time

MazdaI found myself having to shop for a new car last week, an activity most people seem to enjoy, but was not an experience I was looking forward to.

Initially, I thought my discomfort was mostly the anxiety of having a payment again. I’ve worked really hard over the last few years to be more financially responsible, but lately it’s felt like I’m taking one step forward and three steps back. And while the end of my current car’s life wasn’t entirely unexpected, I thought I had more time. We always think we have more time.

But when I went for my annual inspection, I learned the car needs more than it’s worth. Its time is up.

I didn’t do my homework when I bought my little orange car seven years ago. I liked it, so I bought it. The experience was not so good, though, because the dealer pressured me to pay a lot of more than I should. And not long after, it started to have problems that weren’t covered under warranty.

So when I set out last week to find something new, I was determined to make a more responsible choice. I started with my budget, pulling out potential memberships and activities I could cut, if needed. Then I stopped to recognize I am fortunate to have things I can cut. Some aren’t so lucky. Gratitude can help to get through stressful times.

I came up with a number and started looking at my options, eventually narrowing my choice down to two. One of them I liked better, but the other was more affordable. I almost settled for the cheaper option, but my gut told me to hold off. So I went back and asked the other dealer to match the price of the first car, and she did. Sometimes we settle for things without recognizing we can have what we want. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking for it.

I thought I ended the week on a high note, but something was still bothering me. I’m getting a new “toy” with all the fun little bells and whistles of my old one, but an upgraded version that shouldn’t have any major problems for a while. I made a smarter financial decision this time. And it’s looking like I’m not going to have to cut the fun stuff from my budget. I should be happy, right? But I wasn’t.

Then I came across something online this morning that helped me recognize my problem: Change is hard. Even positive changes in our lives can be difficult. We sometimes hold onto things – jobs, bad relationships, worn out material possessions – that no longer serve us because we’re familiar with them, even if the familiarity brings discomfort.

Take my car for instance. I’ve been avoiding drive-through windows for the last three years because a switch is broken in the window, making it difficult to go back up when I roll it down. I’ve gotten into the habit of checking the oil every other fill-up because it burns one to two quarts between changes. I still change it about every 3,000 miles.

Then there’s the inhibitor switch, which is the first problem I had after buying the car. I’ve dealt with it the entire time I owned the car because it was merely an inconvenience and wasn’t a budget-friendly fix. Basically it means that the car doesn’t recognize it’s in Park, causing the shifter not to work without intervention.

Initially, it meant that the car wouldn’t even start unless I first shifted it into neutral. But then two years later something interesting happened.

Some might call this God’s work, or cosmic intervention, but at the very least, it was coincidental. The same week I started a program to help me deal with how addiction and alcoholism in my family has affected me, it started working on its own. I left work one day, and not thinking about it, I just turned the key. It started. I’ve never had to start it in neutral since.

But the problem wasn’t entirely fixed. It starts in Park, but the shifter doesn’t always move. It’s about 50/50. Someone I know figured out I can stick a pen tube into a hole to get it unstuck. So that’ how I’ve been dealing with it.

The interesting thing is, at times it has gone for several weeks without me having to use the pen. But then, usually when life is extra stressful, that’s when I have a problem.

About the same time I learned the pen fix, I also discovered it was burning oil. That was also about three years ago, when the window switch broke.

These things happened during a major transition in my life, and I dealt with them because I had to.

But with the help of the program I was in, I started to make connections to the issues I was having with my car and my personal life. Coincidentally, the car burned more oil during times I wasn’t taking care of myself. God or cosmic intervention, I don’t know. But at the very least, I learned to check myself every time the car started to act up.

The thing you learn in recovery programs is that often people affected by another person’s addiction neglect themselves while trying to save the person who is addicted. Eventually, you learn to save yourself.

The most difficult thing I have had to do, multiple times now, is walk away from someone I love, and live my own life while they are destroying their own.

Maybe I’m a little more attached to my car than I should be. The extra effort it required helped me learn to take care of myself. Getting rid of it almost feels like abandonment, even though I tell myself, “Geez, Sarah, it’s just a car.”

But really, I think it has more to do with recognizing I am no longer the person I used to be. I have had some very difficult challenges over the last few years, and those challenges have helped me grow.

The new car represents all the new in my life. It is my ability to let go of all the familiar, yet uncomfortable circumstances I used to tolerate.

I want to hold on to my old car, as much as I feel pulled to try to help people who don’t want to save themselves. And yet I know I need to let go. It’s time.









She Lived

My step-aunt, Debbie, was hit by a drunk driver and killed when I was 13.

Her car broke down on the highway after work late at night, and she was attempting to walk to a nearby service station to call for help. This was in the mid-1990s when most people didn’t have cell phones.

From what I recall, police believe the driver of the truck swerved onto the shoulder where she was walking. They said she was killed instantly.

She was just 25.

Death is difficult to process, but it’s especially cruel when the person was young. How is it fair that some people get to live to be 100 and others don’t get half the years? Some, like Debbie, get much fewer.

The thing I remember most about Debbie is that she was a lot of fun. She liked to go two tracking or to a local demolition derby or car race. She lived full-throttle. She had a carefree attitude toward life. As far as I can recall, she didn’t care about living up to other people’s standards of perfection. If her apartment was a mess, “oh well,” she had a life to live. She’d get to it, eventually. Maybe.

My step-mom, her older sister, tells stories about Debbie as a child. She’d get filthy helping out with a neighbor’s farm animals in the morning, and they’d have to quickly clean her up so she didn’t smell like a barnyard at school. But  Debbie didn’t care. She did what she loved to do anyway.

Debbie’s life was cut short. But while she was here, she lived.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to live. I started asking the question as I came to realize I had not been living much of my own life. I’ve worked too much, spent too much time on chores and to-do lists. I’ve been afraid to take risks because I was worried I would fail. I care too much about what other people think.

The question becomes more difficult when we’re stuck in the murky waters life sometimes drags us into. I’ve struggled with it a lot lately as I’ve watched the suffering of people I love.

Life can be beautiful, and it can be horrible. Sometimes it can be both in the same day. I had one of those days yesterday. I spent the afternoon basking in the sun and listening to the waves. Seventy degrees in February is my perfect kind of day. But then later I got one of those phone calls that makes everything stop.

I like to believe there is a plan, and that somehow we’re all connected. There are no coincidences. Everything is supposed to happen exactly as it does. And sometimes the plan just sucks.

But I think that’s the point.

People die. People die young. Bad things happen to shake us up; to wake us up in our own lives. To teach us how to live, and to teach us how to love.

We spend our lives going through the motions, getting sucked into the noise. But then the phone call comes, and none of that other crap, none of it, even matters.

Debbie had to die young so I could learn that life is fragile. Any one of us can die tomorrow, maybe even today. She had to die young to remind me of what is important, to teach me not to waste my own life.

But there’s something else I learned.

I was a brat to Debbie in the weeks before she died. I was an emotional teenage girl going through a difficult transition in my life. So, when I didn’t get my way, I lashed out.

But God gave me a small gift.

A few days before she died, I went to stay with my mom for  summer visitation. And on my way out the door, I passed Debbie on the stairway. She stopped, gave me a big hug and told me to have fun. That was the last time I saw her.

I am blessed to have that be my last memory with her when I know it could have gone the other way.

People–we get so caught up in the bullshit. We dig our heels in when we don’t get our way. We allow petty differences to separate us from people we love. But the problem is, that’s not love.

Love is not getting our own way all the time. It’s compromise because that person is more important to you than the problems between you. Love is not about trying to change a person to make them live up to your expectations. You love them exactly as they are, every little flaw.

Sure, we all get angry sometimes. We get annoyed. We’re human. But love is recognizing that at the root of another person’s bad behavior is often their own suffering. Don’t judge them or try to fix them. Just love them. Love people even if they hurt you. Because when it’s all said and done, people are all we have. And when that phone call comes, other people are the only way we get through.

What does it mean to live?

I think everyone has to answer that question on their own. But with each day, I get a little closer to answering it for myself.

Epidemic of pain

Last night, three blocks from my apartment, a man jumped from the 19th floor of a building and ended his life.

Someone I love is drinking himself to death, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. This person, who has bent over backward for me and other people, is unable to cope with his own pain. His soul is peppered with old wounds that were cut before he was old enough to have a say. He never learned how to heal, so he numbs with alcohol, even though he knows it’s killing him.

Across the U.S., we’re seeing a spike of heroin and other opioid overdoses and deaths. People run around shooting each other because they never learned other ways to solve conflicts.

We hear the terms “shooting epidemic” and “opioid epidemic,” but what we really have is an epidemic of pain.

Some people choose to numb it with drugs or alcohol, and we shame them because we say it’s their choice. And, yes, they can choose, but we don’t know how difficult it is for them to make that choice. Others end their lives to end the pain. And we judge them. We call them cowards. Yet we have never known their desperation. We have never felt like there was no other way out.

I go out to homicide scenes and listen as mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, scream in the streets. When that trigger was pulled, the shooter didn’t just take a life, he or she forever changed the lives of the people who loved that victim. The act, the pain, is unforgettable.

How does one get to that point where he or she is willing to take another person’s life? I don’t know. I’ve never been there. But I do know from my own experiences that people who are hurting hurt other people.

We lash out at people who think differently than we do. We get caught up in our political beliefs. We mock other people, and in turn they lash back because no one wants to feel threatened. We take it personally when another person is driving too fast or too slow. We leave nasty notes on car windows when another person who has parked too closely to us pisses us off. We take it all personally. We lash out.

We’re all human. No one is perfect. Someone else’s mistake or bad day usually has nothing to do with you.

In our culture, we look for pills and other “easy” solutions to fix the ills that fester inside. We distract. We numb. But I’ve learned from dealing with my own pain, that the only way is through.

We get through with love, compassion and human connection.

That’s the magic, yet it’s often difficult to find. It is especially difficult for the people who are difficult to love.

People who are hurting hurt other people, and the cycle continues.

I challenge you to stop the cycle.

I’m with him


Two days after Donald Trump was elected to our highest office, I changed my Facebook profile photo to purple. I was tired of the mud slinging from both sides. It was a plea for unity. I was asking my friends and family to try to see the other side’s point of view. In my usual rose-colored glasses fashion, I just wanted everyone to get along.

I like my rose-colored glasses, by the way.

But really, I was exhausted. I was torn.

The thing I failed to recognize when I changed my photo, is that the one I’d had for nearly the last year-and-a-half already represented unity. It was just a little more difficult to see.

The picture was taken by Judith Lowery, a photographer at the Daily Press in Newport News, Va. I was reporting about a firefighting camp for at-risk boys in neighboring Hampton, and I put on a helmet so I could rappel. I was a professional reporter. But the thing no one else knew at the time was that a seed had already been planted. I was thinking about becoming a firefighter, too.

I saw during this election many of my public safety friends – both from my home state of Michigan and my state of residence, Virginia – cast their ballots for Trump. And many of my reporter friends were Hillary supporters. Let me be clear, I recognize that is not true for everyone, but that is the theme I saw.

I lost friends after I expressed my disappointment with Trump. But my post had nothing to do with politics. It was his character. His comments dug right into all the insecurities I have ever felt as a woman. His words are the reason it never occurred to me, as a little girl, that I could be a firefighter. His message echoed comments from men who said it was OK for me to build muscle, just don’t get too big. “Nobody wants that.”

I’ll leave it at that.

The people who deleted me did so because they don’t know me, or at least not well enough to know that I don’t fit into any sort of box. But after I calmed down, I recognized that the people I love and respect on both political sides don’t fit into boxes, either.

We are all simply just trying to get our needs met. But we are a melting pot, and our collective needs will never be the same. I choose to respect that. I choose to put down my sword and walk away.

The most difficult learning curve I had as a new reporter is that people did not trust me simply because of my job title. I wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake them and say, “Look, you don’t know me. That’s not who I am.”

I had the same feeling throughout this election while I watched people go back and forth with sweeping generalizations about voters on each side. I felt under attack. I wanted to scream: “That’s not who I am! That’s not who I am!”

Who am I?

I am a resident of a blue state who cast my absentee ballot from a red state.

I was raised in the rural Midwest in a working-class community. I am a first-generation college student who chose a liberal career path. I did not decide to be a reporter because I am an elitist or because I want to stir up drama. I did so because I like telling stories, and I thought that by sharing other people’s stories, maybe I could do some good.

But to truly understand my system of beliefs, you need to know about the man who raised me.

My dad is the only man I know who will walk into a voting booth wearing a National Rifle Association hat and cast his ballot for a Democrat. Not because he is on welfare or is an elitist, but because he knows what it feels like to go to bed hungry.

My dad, a former firefighter, a retired Michigan Department of Human Services employee, worked hard to rise out of the poverty in which he was raised. He made sure I never knew what it was like to split hot dogs with my siblings for dinner or sleep in an unheated attic during a Michigan winter.

My dad spent his final years at DHS working to identify and punish people committing welfare fraud. Yet, he won’t support eliminating social programs because he knows that without them, he would have starved to death as a child.

The problem with our political system, I think, is that we are either way too far on one side or way too far on the other. And when we feel our own beliefs are under attack or we are at risk of not getting our needs met, we lash out at the other side.

We are all different. It’s time to accept that and figure out a way to meet in the middle.

I asked my dad for his permission to share his story before I wrote this. I told him I was frustrated with how we are so quick to judge. This is what he said:

“Everybody’s got a chance on my plate. I can’t discriminate against anybody because I am no better than anybody else.”

I’m with him.

Fairy Kites

photo (9)

I spent the Saturday before Mother’s Day flying kites with a 9-year-old girl I mentor. It was something she’d been looking forward to for the past several weeks. The weather was perfect: sunny, breezy, temperatures in the 70s.

But about 10-15 minutes after we got to the beach, the kites ripped. The wind was a little too strong for the materials. She started to cry. I put my arm around her and told her she was in luck. We were just a hop, skip and jump away from a store where we could buy new kites.

On the drive over to the store, she said she was so disappointed in how horrible the day had turned out. She said it was tragic. I laughed. “No, this is not tragic,” I said. “A tragedy would be something like getting into a bad car wreck. Broken kites, I can handle. That’s an easy fix.”

She went on by saying she was worried the store might not sell kites. And if it did, there might not be another one with a fairy on it. And maybe the new kite would rip, too. I told her I was sure this store sells kites, and we’d look for ones that were a little stronger. A fairy kite, though, I could not promise.

It turned out I was right, but of course. there were no fairy kites. She moped around the store a while, and I tried to encourage her to pick out another one she liked. I offered to drive her around town looking for a new fairy kite, but I reminded her that if we did, we’d be burning up all our kite flying time shopping. She finally gave in and picked one out.

Back at the beach, the new kites soared into the sky with little effort. I soon noticed she was having fun. Then I caught myself, I was having fun, too.

Afterward, we stopped to get ice cream. She noticed the sign on the door posting Mother’s Day hours. Her mood shifted. “Oh, Mother’s Day,” she said, looking toward the ground. I didn’t pry because I understood how she felt. Mother’s Day is hard for me, too.

When I decided to become a mentor, I did so as a way to give back. I turned out OK because people came into my life and stepped up when I needed them. I can not replace this little girl’s mother or give her the childhood she deserves. But I can step up. I can support her and show her she’s worthy, despite the circumstances that might make her feel like she’s not.

I’ve spent the last year or so of my life grieving a number of things that didn’t turn out the way I wanted, including my childhood and not having kids of my own.

I’ve been grieving fairy kites.

Like this little girl, my history has taught me to keep my expectations low. Why hope for anything better when kites rip; when all you want is a fairy kite and the damn store doesn’t have one?

But then I bring myself back to the beach when I  was able to appreciate that simple moment of joy she and I shared. We didn’t have fairy kites, but the day turned out OK.

The truth is, I get just as much out of my relationship with this kid as she does from me. I am reminded that we don’t always get what we want, but life can be good anyway.


First published May 8, 2011

With closed eyes, I breathe in the aroma of coffee and humidity. The constant chirping outside my window is lost in the gray sky and mist in the air. My blinds are closed, and except the sleeping dog beside me, I’m alone. I feel centered, thoughtful and maybe at peace.

It’s a rare opportunity to feel this way. I am often at angst about my uncertain future, complicated by the noise of everyday life. While I have learned anxiety does nothing to fix problems, knowing something and living it is more difficult in reality than it is on paper.

While I’m alone right now in my thoughts, the stress of the unknown and urge to steer my life in a desirable direction, is not my own. It seems I have noticed more often that others seem stuck in the same boat. It’s not that we don’t have paddles to get us to the shore, but we are so focused on getting there, we lose what could be gained from the journey: the fish we could catch, the conversations we could have along the way, or the opportunity to just float for a bit and see where we end up.

Most of us are terrified of floating. We will paddle harder and push ourselves beyond our limits to avoid it.

I have stopped wondering why we live our lives this way. I can think of a dozen or so influences that have planted this seed of self-destructive thinking inside me. But even when I strip away what has fueled this drive for so many years, human nature is still at the core. The urge to compete and strive for perfection, to some extent, lies within us all. The speed of technology and creative marketing has only increased our desire to possess more and be more successful than the next guy. Very few people express being completely content with what they have today, every day.

I told someone last summer I felt I had been living on a treadmill, silently repeating, “If I do this, this and this, then someday I will be happy.” She asked me what I thought would make me happy today. I gave my best explanation and she reflected. I had told her I used to think if I went down this road, took a right and headed east, I would find happiness. But I’ve realized happiness isn’t east anymore, it’s west. So I still hadn’t stepped off the treadmill. I had just rearranged the equipment in my workout space for a better view. It wasn’t until several months later that I learned to leave things where they are and sit down already. I still have a difficult time staying in my seat.

The mist has turned to a hard rain and those birds are still singing. Humans may have a leg up on other species when it comes to creativity and intelligent thinking, but I believe Mother Nature already has happiness figured out. My dog doesn’t care if we live in a million dollar house on the beach or a shack in the woods. He doesn’t mind if he passes basic obedience the first time around or has to repeat the course 10 times before he gets it right. He’s content chasing a ball, taking a walk or going on a car ride. He doesn’t plan extravagant vacations. He’s happy basking in the sun in the back yard. Now only if we humans can learn to live this way. If we could learn to appreciate the simple things, enjoy today and stop worrying about what we can not control, maybe then we will discover we’ve been sitting on happiness all along.