The Woolsey Fire… A Chronology of Evacuation and Loss

📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo

📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo

Today is the one year anniversary of the day the Woolsey Fire tore through Malibu and changed the lives of so many forever.

Tragedy does that.

It alters lives and disrupts realities. It happens every minute, of every day, in every part of the world, in different ways.

Just yesterday, right here in Malibu, there was a fatal car accident on Pacific Coast Highway. A 17-year-old died, and the crash clean up and investigation shut down the highway in both directions for six hours. It was a huge inconvenience for some commuters; but a tragic, life altering event for the loved ones of the young girl who lost her life in a blink of an eye.

Loss happens, affecting some minimally, and others monumentally.

The Woolsey Fire brought loss to so many… a few lost their lives, some lost their homes and all their worldly possessions, others lost access to their unscathed homes for days or weeks, and still others lost a sense of safety and security they previously felt in the town in which they lived.

It has been a challenging year for my community, my family, and me; and one that not only changed my life circumstances, but also changed me.

Our home survived the fire, but we battled through tough challenges in the aftermath. The wildfire ignited injuries and suffering that I never could have anticipated… and we faced states of emergency and disaster zone conditions that were hard to endure from one day to the next.

It was a year of forced sacrifice and unexpected hardship. It was physically painful, mentally exhausting, and emotionally draining.

Still, it brought me here.

Alive. Grateful for life. Persevering. Cultivating resilience. Thriving.

At peace with the past. Content in the present. Optimistic about the future.

The photos I captured a year ago, in the hours leading up to and during our evacuation, tell the story of my individual experience of the Woolsey Fire better than any words could do.

It’s not the full story, and it’s not anywhere near the most tragic, but it is mine.

4:03pm - November 8, 2018 - Smoke from the Hill Fire in Ventura County making its presence known over the Pacific Ocean. (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

4:03pm - November 8, 2018 - Smoke from the Hill Fire in Ventura County making its presence known over the Pacific Ocean. (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

The Woolsey Fire started the day before it hit Malibu, on November 8th, but was far away from us when it began. On that Thursday, the Hill Fire in Ventura County was more of a threat to our home. We saw the smoke encroaching into our view and eclipsing the sun that afternoon as the hot Santa Ana winds blew the palm trees in front.

4:25pm - November 8, 2018 - the smell of smoke grew potent and ash began to fly through the air outside. (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

4:25pm - November 8, 2018 - the smell of smoke grew potent and ash began to fly through the air outside. (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

Just like the Thomas Fire a couple years prior, the Hill Fire was a potential threat to us because our little pocket of homes at the edge of the expansive Santa Monica Mountains is located in the western most part of Malibu and under the jurisdiction of Ventura County.

So while most of the Malibu community went to sleep that night in their own beds, we were given a mandatory evacuation around 8:15pm because of the proximity of the Hill Fire in Ventura. We decided to stay over a friend’s house further south in Malibu, since our kids still had school the next day, and according to what was being reported, none of the Los Angeles County part of Malibu was in danger from fire yet… the Woolsey Fire was still many miles away.

With my car packed to the brim with birth certificates, passports, hard drives, photo albums and other irreplaceable possessions, we drove fifteen miles south on PCH to our dear friend’s house for an impromptu sleep over. It was way past the kids’ bedtime, but we finally got them to sleep in anticipation of waking them up for school the next morning.

I myself didn’t sleep very soundly that night. The wind was howling outside, knocking tree branches against the house and my concern for the safety of our home, and any other people or property in the line of fire, was weighing on my mind.

4:56am - November 9, 2018 - Mandatory Evacuation zones in red, excluding most of Malibu except for our mostly uninhabitEd Section up the coast.

4:56am - November 9, 2018 - Mandatory Evacuation zones in red, excluding most of Malibu except for our mostly uninhabitEd Section up the coast.

5:50am - November 9, 2018 - the Woolsey Fire was moving fast and it was time to evacuate Malibu.

5:50am - November 9, 2018 - the Woolsey Fire was moving fast and it was time to evacuate Malibu.

On the morning of Friday, November 9th, I was up by 5am, and the fire update was devastating. We were notified an hour later that school had been cancelled for the day and most of Malibu was now under a “precautionary” evacuation. The Woolsey Fire had moved into Calabasas overnight, crossing over the 101 freeway and heading into the mountains of Malibu.

It took a bit to get the kids up and out, as we were all glued to the fire coverage on the live TV broadcast. When we finally left our friend’s house, bound for my sister’s in South Pasadena, we saw an enormous cloud of smoke looming overhead, the size and density of which I had never seen before. The sight of it slowly beginning to eclipse the clean blue sky of the Malibu coast was scary and disconcerting; and we stood in disbelief on their driveway for a few minutes before piling in the car to leave.

8:13am - November 9, 2018 - woke up to this sight over Corral Canyon where we had stayed for the night (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

8:13am - November 9, 2018 - woke up to this sight over Corral Canyon where we had stayed for the night (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

8:25am- November 9, 2018 - Intersection of PCH and Corral Canyon as we started our journey evacuating MALIBU (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

8:25am- November 9, 2018 - Intersection of PCH and Corral Canyon as we started our journey evacuating MALIBU (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

We drove down the canyon and reached PCH close to 8:30am, and I knew immediately we should have set out to leave sooner. The mass exodus had already begun, and it appeared that PCH was presumably backed up for miles.

8:42am - November 9, 2018 - we were amongst hundreds of cars lined up, frozen in gridlock while trying to go south on PCH (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

8:42am - November 9, 2018 - we were amongst hundreds of cars lined up, frozen in gridlock while trying to go south on PCH (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

It was. We crawled up the hill toward Pepperdine University, in a state of gridlock that moved slower than any traffic jam of which I have ever been a part. I put the car in park and got out to take photos, since we didn’t move an inch for several minutes at a time, and I had to keep myself occupied somehow.

It was hard not to worry, and a sense of helplessness and desperation was growing inside me. The anxiety in my body was palpable, especially in my neck and shoulders, and I kept taking deep breaths to keep myself calm and focused. I just wanted to get my kids out of the area safely and as soon as humanly possible.

They, on the other hand, were blissfully content while immersed in the fantastical realm of Harry Potter, watching a movie together on the car entertainment system. The bluetooth headphones they were wearing blocked out their awareness of what was transpiring outside, and I had never been more grateful for technology than I was in that moment.

10:12am - November 9, 2018 - passing Pepperdine University (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

10:12am - November 9, 2018 - passing Pepperdine University (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

It took us almost two hours to drive 2.5 miles. The kids started a second movie. From the top of the hill near Pepperdine University, the smoke plume looked much larger than it had at the bottom of the hill. This was when the gravity of the situation intensified for me, and I wondered if this would be the last time I’d see this place as it looked then.

10:30am - November 9, 2018 - PCH south of Malibu Canyon, heading south toward the Malibu Creek and Pier (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

10:30am - November 9, 2018 - PCH south of Malibu Canyon, heading south toward the Malibu Creek and Pier (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

The northbound side of Pacific Coast Highway was now closed, but they had yet to open it up to southbound traffic when we were passing through. All the canyons leading into Malibu were closed as well, so traveling southbound on PCH was the only way out of Malibu at that time. It was nerve-wracking to sit there and realize there was now only one exit route out of there available to us… unless we wanted to abandon our car and jump into the ocean and swim out.

10:52am - November 9, 2018 - gridlock on PCH and Webb Way (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

10:52am - November 9, 2018 - gridlock on PCH and Webb Way (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

We could see that most of the cars sitting in traffic with us had only people and pets in them… few were as fully packed up as ours was, or even moderately packed. I presume the majority of the people in the cars around us hadn’t expected to be evacuated that morning, leaving their homes in a hurry with only the clothes on their backs or a few items they managed to grab. I counted us lucky in that moment for being evacuated the night before, giving us enough time to thoughtfully pack the car. I just wished I had decided to escape to my sister’s the night before instead of now being forced to sit in this purgatory of gridlock.

10:59am - November 9, 2018 - Approaching Cross Creek Road (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

10:59am - November 9, 2018 - Approaching Cross Creek Road (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

We had been told it was only a “precautionary” evacuation that morning. In the news reports, it seemed that there was no expectation that this fire would ever reach all the way to the ocean. It just couldn’t. It was up in the mountains, miles and miles away still… surely they would stop it there? A fire that started so far away, traveling that far, that fast, was unlikely and improbable. Yet, coupled with the ferocious Santa Ana wind conditions, the unstoppable force of Woolsey stunned us all.

11:01am - November 9, 2018 - traffic light at Cross Creek Road (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

11:01am - November 9, 2018 - traffic light at Cross Creek Road (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

I kept looking back and snapping photos of the smoke, in utter disbelief of its size. I knew our home was underneath it somewhere, but since we had left it over fourteen hours prior, I had no idea how close the fire was to consuming it, or if it already had burned, at this point in time.

11:30am - November 9, 2018 - south of Duke’s Malibu Restaurant (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

11:30am - November 9, 2018 - south of Duke’s Malibu Restaurant (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

It was now after 11am, and the smoke had finally drifted over the Pacific Ocean. The further I drove away, the larger it seemed to grow. It felt like we were trying to outrun an enemy invasion; and in a way, we were.

12:16pm - November 9, 2018 - The last photo I took of the smoke consuming Malibu from PCH in Santa Monica (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

12:16pm - November 9, 2018 - The last photo I took of the smoke consuming Malibu from PCH in Santa Monica (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

When we finally reached Santa Monica, we had been in the car for over four hours and traveled only fourteen miles.The kids began a third movie. I took a final photo of Point Dume across the ocean, with all of Malibu seemingly completely engulfed in smoke, before entering the McClure Tunnel and getting on the 10 freeway toward Downtown L.A.

The drive from that point was uneventful. It was just slowed down considerably by the usual L.A. Friday traffic nightmare and the added congestion from the influx of Malibu residents evacuating. Once we finally arrived at my sister’s house in South Pasadena just before 2pm, we spent the rest of the afternoon watching the news and searching for signs of hope that our home and our community wasn’t burning to the ground.

2:24pm - November 9, 2018 - a shot of the news on the Television at my sister’s house (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

2:24pm - November 9, 2018 - a shot of the news on the Television at my sister’s house (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

Yet from what we could tell from the live news reports, it seemingly was burning to the ground. We saw footage of flames burning bushes on the beach side of PCH just north of Zuma Beach. The fire had, in fact, reached the ocean.

Fire trucks were racing north on PCH in the clips we saw on TV. Our home was less than ten miles north of this location on the screen, so things were looking pretty bleak. The sun was blocked out by the smoke, so it was dark, gray, brown and hazy, and the wind was still blowing hard.

We heard reports that the high school and the local supermarkets had burned. We imagined the worst in the absence of proof to the contrary. It was growing dark, the first responders couldn’t see, and the air drops weren’t feasible in the wind conditions. It all seemed impossible to control; and for a while, it was.

Waiting and wondering if we would have a home, or even a town, in which to return was excruciating. Neighbors texted us photos that night showing the mountain behind our home completely engulfed in flames. They had disregarded the mandatory evacuation and were there when all the open land around our neighborhood was ablaze.

November 9, 2018 - the mountains behind our neighborhood on fire (📷: Sean Newhouse)

November 9, 2018 - the mountains behind our neighborhood on fire (📷: Sean Newhouse)

November 9, 2018 - the fire creeping down the mountain toward our home (📷: Sean Newhouse)

November 9, 2018 - the fire creeping down the mountain toward our home (📷: Sean Newhouse)

The firefighters arrival forced their overdue evacuation, but they still stopped across the street and shot photos in the dark of the fire ripping down the mountain toward our street. I was in shock and disbelief. We went to bed that night resigned to the possibility that we would probably wake up to the news that it was all gone… our home, our neighborhood, our city.

We truly thought it was all going to burn.

Thankfully, we found out the next afternoon, after the first wave of winds subsided, that our home did not burn the previous night. The firefighters saved our entire neighborhood of homes. We were extremely lucky. The school was still there, as well as the markets; but the fires and the winds were far from over, so any comfort in the fact our home survived was delayed for many more days. The winds picked back up again and the fire continued to burn out of control, and we knew it was far from over.

Of course, there was some relief our home was safe at that point; but our good news came simultaneously with word of what had happened to other parts of Malibu in our absence. After the first day of the fire, we discovered through social media reports that eight close friends/families lost their homes.

Over the course of the weekend, that number of families increased rapidly, climbing up every day as the news spread of homes burned in the local neighborhoods of Malibu Park, Malibu West, Point Dume, and Latigo Canyon. By Monday, we had confirmation that 30 families whom we knew personally lost everything they owned to the fire.

November 22, 2108 - Kanan Road Tunnels surrounded by black and burned mountains (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

November 22, 2108 - Kanan Road Tunnels surrounded by black and burned mountains (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

News of more losses came as time went by. The days, weeks, and months that followed were some of the hardest of my life.

We were evacuated from our home for one week. Ash covered everything, power and internet was out for weeks, a generator was eventually delivered to service our street, and everywhere we looked, the landscape was black. We lay in bed each night and heard a loud fuel truck pull up to fill the generator parked on the street with gas, and wondered when it would all stop.

I didn’t take many photos during those first few days home, mainly because we weren't really allowed to drive through PCH anyway. Downed power poles and debris kept many sections of the highway closed. Photographic images from others of fire damage around town were also not in short supply; and they were all so heartbreaking.

During those first few weeks, it was hard to fathom how well, and how long, we were going to live in that state of disaster.





Feruary 2019 - Leo Carillo State Beach - skeleton of a burned lifeguard tower still sitting on the shore (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

Feruary 2019 - Leo Carillo State Beach - skeleton of a burned lifeguard tower still sitting on the shore (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

February 2019 - Black and Burned Trees on a hill in our neighborhood (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

February 2019 - Black and Burned Trees on a hill in our neighborhood (📷: Lisa Butala Zabaldo)

Today, I am so grateful to be on the other side of it all, beginning a new chapter and forging a new path. This community is stronger for it, and life goes on for all who suffered loss in all its varying degrees.

We are indebted to all the people who supported us during that difficult time. Those who took us in, hosted us generously, offered us their service and assistance, called or texted to check in on us, and kept us in their prayers.

To all of you… thank you.

Mourning (is not) Routine

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It has become a sort of routine, a tradition… every year on October 10th, I pick the kids up from school and we begin the drive.

We stop for flowers at the same Trader Joe’s along our route, where they each pick out the bouquet they want to give their grandma. My daughter always picks red roses because I told her years ago they were my mom’s favorite; but my son likes to pick a unique colorful bouquet each year.

We usually arrive at the cemetery with about a half hour to spend before they close for the night. We unearth the hidden vases that flank her headstone from beneath the grass and dirt, pour in water and flower food, trim the stems, and insert the bouquets. I say a few words to my mom on behalf of all of us, while my son waits impatiently to unleash the energy that has built up inside him during the hour long drive there.

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When I give him the okay to take off, he and his sister flit around the park, running down the grassy hills, chasing each other, and exploring the rows of flowers, pinwheels and flags left in memoriam by hundreds of other daughters and grandchildren. While they are gone, I take a few moments to myself under the tree near my mom’s grave, sometimes sitting quietly and watching them play together, sometimes saying a few private words to my mom, and sometimes shedding a few tears as I think of how much I miss her.

I then summon the kids back when it’s time to go, they hop in the car, and we wind our way through the park, reaching the exit a minute or two late, with the guard there waiting for us to leave so he can close and lock the gate.

Short, sweet, simple, familiar.

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Yet this year, for the first time during one of these annual visits, my now almost thirteen-year-old daughter asked if she could have a few minutes alone at the gravesite. My son and I got in the car and closed the doors and windows to give her some privacy; and she sat down to talk to her grandma, sharing her thoughts and feelings without us listening. 

Not to be outdone, my son then asked for his own time alone. So they switched places, and my nine-year-old boy kneeled in the grass next to the flowers he brought and said a few words. I couldn’t hear what either of them said on their turns; but I saw their lips moving and their faces solemn with reverence and honor. I smiled in silence as I watched each of them claim their own personal and separate relationships with the grandmother they never met… the grandma to whom they have brought flowers since they can remember.

As for me, something was different this year too. A lightness. A level of peace and acceptance I have not felt before. On this 13th anniversary of my mother’s death, I felt more grounded than ever before while gazing down at her grave marker. I felt a resolute acceptance of life being full of disappointments, heartbreaks, losses, and sadness, while simultaneously being full of joy, love, hope and possibility.

I feel a varied amount of grief as time passes, but it’s not a linear progression. It hasn’t gotten successionally easier or hurt less with each passing year. Whatever I have experienced during any given year or the state of mind and heart I am in on that day of my visit can determine how I approach it, what I am feeling, and how I move forward after the visit. Some years have been easier than another year that has followed, when the void my mom has left felt more expansive to me than the previous year.

This year, November 2018 until the present, brought so much change to other areas of my life… so much devastation, upheaval, and discomfort… from wildfires, evacuations, physical injuries, power outages, mudslides, and illnesses. Coming out from the other side of all that turmoil made this day easier to approach, our peaceful ritual counterpointed by what we had endured.

Ironically, the Santa Ana winds were sweeping through the valley in force that afternoon (and sadly more wildfires broke out that very night), so the trees were rustling loudly and the air was crisp and Fall-like. The rocky mountains surrounding the memorial park were comforting in their familiarity, as part of the backdrop of my childhood. Here in my hometown, this distinct scenery and the characteristic windy weather harkened back to the years I was growing up, in the city I was raised, by the mother who was now laid to rest there.

I spoke to my mom lovingly, telling her I wished she was here with us. I said happy birthday, as it would have been her 73rd the day before on October 9th. And in the brief moment I had to myself, I felt a sense of gratitude for the health of my family, for the freedom my life affords me to make this trip and keep this tradition up each year, and for the beauty of the park which accommodates my mother’s final resting place.

I addressed my aunt as well, for this was our first visit there since we laid her ashes alongside my mom’s in the ground below us just a few months ago. The new split headstone that will mark the shared grave of the two sisters is on order and will be installed next month; so this will have been the last time we see the original stone we created for my mom 13 years ago.

Since my aunt passed away this year, this was also the first time she wasn’t here to visit my mom’s grave on this day. With cleaning supplies in hand, she lovingly cared for this stone, coming here often to wash it along with my grandparent’s shared stone located right above my mom’s. Soon there will be a new stone in place that will adorn my aunt’s name next to my mom’s, and we will inherit the task of cleaning and maintaining both stones for all four of them in her absence.


But for now, my mom was given a precious gift by my children that day. Aside from the annual flowers, they shared a part of themselves with her directly, without my assistance or prodding, showing a respect and love that transcends the earthly relationship they weren’t able to have with her.

They have only seen her face in photographs, and have only witnessed her as an animate being in our wedding video, in which her smile, voice, and lovely aura was frozen in time a year and half before she died. My aunt’s wedding gift to us was hiring the videographer to document the day, so we have her to thank for those precious images of my mom captured on video.

These phases of life, death and mourning will continue to end and begin again. As much routine as you may fall into while mourning the loss of loved ones, the actual rituals you maintain may be the only constant. There is nothing routine about grief or the emotional aspect of mourning itself. It is a non-linear, wholly organic process that will take you by surprise, comfort you, temporarily break you, empower you, galvanize your intentions, and fill you with so many different feelings that you never know what will come next.

Life is unpredictable, and death is part of life. We all are touched by it, and we all are better for the process of going through these phases. Going through it and being affected by loss means we have loved; and there is nothing greater for our souls than that.

Morgan & Rapinoe in SB

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Last night in Santa Barbara. UCSB Arts & Lectures event with World Cup Champions 🇺🇸⚽️ Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe. 

At the close of the hour+ talk, a Q&A session began, and I was shocked when my twelve-year-old daughter stood up to ask a question. There wasn’t much time left, so unfortunately the majority of the young female soccer players, who lined up for the opportunity to use the microphone at the front of the stage to address these soccer stars, didn’t get to ask theirs. 

Luckily, my daughter was sitting in the seventh row, so she quickly got up there before the long line formed. When she stepped up to the 🎤, she projected her voice and asked: “How did you decide when to transfer to a club team rather than the recreational teams?” 

Her question sparked long replies from both Alex and Megan, about the benefit of staying on rec teams in multiple sports while you’re young, experiencing different coaches, environments and mental/physical challenges, and only deciding to choose one sport when/if you are ready to make that bigger commitment. 

Alex didn’t join a club team until she was 13, because her rec/city team was great and she played volleyball and other sports and didn’t want to give them up until she was ready to devote all her athletic time and energy to soccer. 

Megan agreed, saying the trend for girls as young as seven to join club teams is ruining the sport for some kids because they tend to burn out faster and don’t enjoy playing through high school, quitting early because they were overloaded with it too young. 

Honestly, my daughter’s question, out of the fifteen or so that were asked, sparked the longest answers from these intelligent and articulate women, and it seemed to provide the most useful and insightful information to the parents and young athletes in the audience during the Q&A. 

I am so proud of my daughter... she seized the opportunity to address two women whom she emulates, asked an intelligent question, and didn’t let any nerves (or knots in her stomach, as she said she had!) stop her. 

A great and memorable night. 💙

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#ucsbartsandlectures #morganrapinoeSB

*Originally posted on Instagram and Facebook

Your Magic is Missed

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My mom, the early 1970’s, Waikiki.

She was in her mid-twenties, married, and already had a couple kids. She had style, grace and beauty. She was strong, funny and kind. I am in awe of what she accomplished, how she lived, and the challenges she survived. She was amazing. I know that more than ever now that I have a family of my own.

Today is her birthday. I spent it with my husband and kids at Universal Studios. I watched my children walk around the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, wearing their Gryffindor robes, waving their wands, surrendering to the magic, and soaking in the fantasy. I thought about how much fun my mom would have had with them today. She loved make believe. She was a hopeless romantic and she was a HUGE movie fan. She is responsible for MY love of film, and the passion I cultivated for it strongly influenced my career choices early on.

My mom was an all around creative... a writer, a photographer, an organizer... an orchestrator of plans and parties and life and fun. She was a sensitive and beautiful soul who loved to create, and who lived to give to and connect with others. If I possess even a fraction of the talents that she had in spades, then I like to think I inherited them from her.

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She would have been 73 today. It’s hard for me to picture her as a 73-year-old grandmother. She never lived to be one; and she was still so youthful when she died. But if I try to picture her like that, there with us today at Universal, I imagine her dressed in full Gryffindor garb, with a wand for herself, walking between my kids like they were the three musketeers, chatting about their favorite Harry Potter characters or which movie was the best.

What a beautiful fantasy. What a magical thought. I wish they could have had that moment with her. I wish she could have had this day with us. I know that her spirit lives on in me and my kids; but it’s hard not to miss seeing her smile, hearing her laugh, and being on the receiving end of her hugs.

Happy Birthday, Mom.
Your magic is missed.

#happybirthdaymom #hiltonhawaiianvillage

*Originally posted on Instagram and Facebook

Sliding Doors Closed

The view from the house at which I stayed During My birtHDaY getaway this year - sailboats at Crystal Cove, Newport Coast, CA - May 27, 2019

The view from the house at which I stayed During My birtHDaY getaway this year - sailboats at Crystal Cove, Newport Coast, CA - May 27, 2019

Sliding Doors. A metaphor for alternate realities.

For the last six years, I have created an alternate reality for myself while away for my birthday, escaping my real life circumstances to frolic and play in the coastal towns of Orange County each year since 2014.

Sliding Doors is also a feature film starring Gwyneth Paltrow in which this metaphor is rooted. The film is centered around this concept of alternate realities… the “what if’s” of a hypothetical life that we usually don’t get to explore in the linear narratives of our real time lives. The film jumps between two storylines, following two possible paths the main character's life could take depending on which side of a subway train’s sliding doors she ends up during one life altering day.

In my previous birthday getaway posts, I have mentioned this concept of sliding doors a few times, and the proposed alternate reality in which I began to indulge while away on these weekends. Spending my last six birthdays in towns adjacent to Irvine, CA, the city in which I graduated from college twenty five years ago, lent a whole host of what if’s to surface over the years; and each year, I explored various ones in my mind and heart.

This year’s getaway in May, my sixth consecutive, was the culmination of all that I have realized through my previous glimpses into the parallel life I imagined during these visits. It was the longest trip yet - five days, fours nights - and by the end of it, I emerged from the other side of the sliding door with a clearer sense than ever before of how to move forward in my own reality.

Top: In 2002, I was working in the Feature film department At the Walt Disney StudioS in Burbank, CA,, and was dating the man who would become my husband in 2005.  Bottom: In 1992, Ten years earlier, I was a junior at UC Irvine, had just declared my film Studies major, and was a member of the Women’s fraternity, Delta Gamma.

Top: In 2002, I was working in the Feature film department At the Walt Disney StudioS in Burbank, CA,, and was dating the man who would become my husband in 2005.

Bottom: In 1992, Ten years earlier, I was a junior at UC Irvine, had just declared my film Studies major, and was a member of the Women’s fraternity, Delta Gamma.

I attended The University of California Irvine from 1990 to 1994. During those highly impressionable years, I made pivotal decisions about my life and career, as most college students do, between the tender ages of 18 and 22. These decisions steered my life in a specific direction that brought me to where I am today. Yes, stating the obvious, I know; but the path on which I expected to be then, and the one I actually traveled down, ended up being very different.

I left Irvine after graduating in 1994 with the solid intention to work in the Hollywood film industry. Not as an actress, but as a creative… a filmmaker - a member of the visionary creative teams that make movies possible. And that is what I did, at least for the first ten years.

When I returned to my college stomping grounds for my first birthday weekend getaway in 2014, my life looked starkly different from what I envisioned twenty years prior. I was married, had two children, was no longer working in film, and had just begun my journey as a writer who shares her writing with others instead of keeping it hidden in a journal or in a file on her computer.

That first visit changed me; and I have since come to realize that in some ways, over the five years of birthday weekends between that first and this last one, I had been intermittently chasing the feelings I experienced that first transformative weekend away, trying (at times, in vain) to replicate them.

I have never been one to chase ghosts. I tend to look ahead with hope for better tomorrows rather than pine away for the past. But when I was down there - in Newport Beach, driving the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between the Balboa Peninsula and Crystal Cove, running along PCH and Balboa Island, and walking around Fashion Island, Pelican Hill, and Newport Coast… or in Costa Mesa, shopping South Coast Plaza mall and spending time in the parks, hotels, and neighborhoods… or in Irvine, roaming the campus of my alma mater and visiting the dorms and greek housing where I lived - the smiles and excitement and hurts and faces in my most vivid memories of these places would materialize, often without effort or intention.

Every time I returned, memories of the past, both distant and recent, would come to the forefront, and I would either bask in them or dread them, depending on how I felt in my “real life” - my present reality back home. I was reminded of the actions I had taken and decisions I had made, both twenty five years ago and five years ago, that shaped who I was going to become… and who I was now. Some good, some not so.

I think what I was doing by going down there each year was exploring an alternate path that my life could have taken since college, when my “grown up” life had just begun. I wasn’t trying to go back in time. I was entertaining a fantasy - the “what could have been” of my life had the stars aligned in a different pattern. Had the years unfolded differently. Had I made different choices.

This may sound like I regret the decisions I did make that led to the life I currently lead. Honestly, over these last few years, I have sometimes felt like I did… like I wished I had known myself a little better to choose better, and wished I had developed a healthier mindset that didn’t allow fear, hurt and insecurity to guide those decisions that end up shaping one’s life.

But if I really am honest, in my heart, I don’t see any of the choices I made as bad or wrong. This is a hard one to reconcile, as we all have some things we have done that we wish had played out differently, or rendered vastly different results. It’s okay to have hoped for alternate outcomes that never came to be, while still believing everything that’s happened has happened as it was meant to happen.

My choices have made me who I am; and after a lot of inner work, healing and acceptance, I like who I am today. ALL of my choices (even the presumably regretful ones) put me here, in this beautiful now. They have brought me to where I am, how I think, what I have, and who I love, in my imperfectly charmed life.

But aside from the good in it, my life has never been, and will never be, free of hardship. No one is immune to bad times. There are experiences survived, mistakes made, and lessons learned that are gifts. When it’s hard and things feel bad or overwhelming, they certainly don’t seem like gifts, but they are. Even the biggest mistakes are gifts. Those actions taken and words said that make us feel initial regret, guilt or shame… those are the greatest gifts of all because they make us human, and teach us what we want and don’t want in the future. They teach us who we want to be, and who we don’t want to be. 

So, had my life been the alternate reality I had often envisioned on my birthday weekends in Newport Beach or Costa Mesa, I know I would still have had hardships. I don’t know what they would’ve looked like, or what difficulties I would’ve faced, but it’s possible they would have been less desirable than what I grapple with now. Who knows… maybe I would’ve wanted to escape to Malibu for my birthday weekends and dream of a life like mine.

It is the unknown - the possibility of what “could be” or “could have been” - that beguiles us. It is safer to dream or hope for something that, in our minds, still has the potential to be better than what we already have than to accept and enjoy what we do have, even in the most unfulfilling moments. Keeping your head and heart in a fantasy temporarily protects you from facing the disappointment that what is real is not perfect. Reality will always pale in comparison to the fantasy unless we change our perspective on our lives, and alter how we interpret the challenges and perceived barriers to happiness with which we are presented.

2014 was the year it all started; and every birthday since, I anticipated with excitement, and a sort of desperate desire, to relive or recapture the feeling of renewal I felt that first year. Now in 2019, it doesn’t serve the whole of my life to look forward to one weekend a year to be a person who wants to lead a different life. Now I am looking to integrate that weekend into my life in a way that doesn’t dishonor my current existence, but rather enhances it. To have an experience that strengthens me, rather than one that elicits me to look back with longing.

The me that I am is the only one I can be. I may not ever be that college student who has the chance to pick a different discipline and start my life with a different career. I may not ever be that sorority girl who has the chance to date a boy in college who changes how I see the world, and thus alters the trajectory of my life. I may not ever be that twenty-something young adult who has my whole life in front of me, with infinite options from which to choose, and the chance to find my passion and true calling twenty years sooner.

But I can be the woman and the writer I am now… with all the knowledge and love and wounds and growth and wisdom to stay on and enhance the path I did choose, not because it is my only choice (it’s not), but because it is what I want for my life right now.

Life doesn’t present choices only when we are young and starting out. It continually offers us opportunities to compose and edit our own story. We often don’t get to decide every detail of the outline, but we always get creative control over the content of our minds and hearts. We choose who and what we let in, and of whom and what we let go.

There comes a time to say goodbye to phases and feelings and circumstances that no longer fit. To end a chapter. To close a door. To move on... This is mine. The only thing left to do is to say thank you. Thank you Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Irvine, and all that I enjoyed there. For the roles you played in my life. For the joy you brought me. For the love, excitement and possibility I got to feel. For the escapism, the relaxation, and the reconnecting of myself as a woman. And for all you taught me.

Sliding doors closed.

POSTSCRIPT: A little backstory for those new here, or those who have not yet read any of my previous birthday getaway posts…

I have written about and reflected on my annual birthday weekend getaways every year since 2014 (except for 2015). Staying in either Costa Mesa or Newport Beach each year, I have walked down memory lane in many ways on these trips, re-visiting places I lived and loved as a college student and alumni, both in Newport Beach and on the campus of my alma mater, The University of California, Irvine.

2014, the first year I escaped to Orange County for my birthday, was the catalyst to many important changes in my life. With a 7-year-old daughter and 3.5-year-old son at the time, I experienced a taste of freedom from being a wife and mother that I had never felt before. Having sacrificed so much of myself for my children those first seven years, I had unwittingly abandoned who I was and ignored my needs as a woman and individual to the point of desperation, with an overwhelming desire to reclaim my autonomy and a sense of myself that I had lost along the way. I wrote Saturday Night Live(s) while I was away that weekend, and Beautiful Mommy in reflection upon my return.

In 2015, I had just completed an intensive yoga teacher training and certification in March, away from home alone without my husband and kids for nine days while in Davis, CA. I also enjoyed a 10th wedding anniversary trip with my husband to the Pacific Northwest that April; so a big birthday weekend getaway in May was not in the cards for me that year. I did go down to the OC for one night that weekend anyway, visited with some people, and got a massage. I guess I didn’t feel the need to write about it, because I didn’t. Life was good.

In 2016, I wrote Birthday Weekend Away. In Short. Gratitude. in a stream of consciousness, with excessive punctuation. That year I was feeling especially nostalgic, in conjunction with the many challenges I was dealing with back on the home front.

In 2017, I used no punctuation at all when writing mind body soul truth self love attraction birthday wishes and hotel beds, after being challenged by a friend to write in the opposite form from the year before. Feeling especially strong and confident that year, I enjoyed my stay in Newport Beach at the Island Hotel immensely… that weekend was the most like my first year away in 2014.

In 2018, my written reflections on my weekend away in May weren’t completed until September, when I shared No Mom Is An Island, as well as a poem I composed entitled Forty Six.

And so this was my entry for 2019, four months after my sixth annual birthday weekend getaway during the memorial day weekend in May. As mentioned in the piece, I’ve decided that this year’s getaway was to be my final one spent in Orange County. I have already made plans elsewhere for my birthday getaway in 2020!

From Daughter to Mother in a Year


“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ― Theodore Roosevelt

Public nursing challenges at the Mall - Me with my ten-month-old daughter - Nov. 23, 2007

Public nursing challenges at the Mall - Me with my ten-month-old daughter - Nov. 23, 2007

This is the face of a new mother.

Not new, as in minutes new; but new, as in ten months into it new.

This is the face of a mother without a mother. A woman who was a bit lost in the world, after losing her mom and birthing her first child, almost simultaneously.

It’s not a particularly uplifting image or story; but it’s real, and it’s the truth.

A dear friend often says “it’s ok not to be ok.” I wholeheartedly agree. To be, wherever and however we are, allows us to feel and process our feelings, not run away from them. It’s a generously forgiving and nurturing attitude, toward ourselves and others; yet unfortunately, it’s not one many people adopt.

I have been doing this for years… not pretending I’m okay when I’m clearly not. The problem with this for other people is, when you’re not okay for a good long while, you start making them uncomfortable.

I was not okay when my daughter was born, and I knew and accepted that was just how it was going to be for a while. Almost every fiber of my being was grieving the sudden loss of my mom three months prior, while every other fiber was reveling in the birth of my daughter.

People around me wanted me to be okay, sooo bad. I too wanted to be... for my daughter, my husband, and me. Those who loved me wanted me to feel nothing but love and gratitude for this child, while taking comfort in the belief that my mom was “looking down on us smiling.”

But I wasn’t okay. It wasn’t comforting and I didn’t care to believe that my mom was up there, wherever they thought “up there” was, looking down on us, experiencing the joy of this child along with us. I didn’t care. I didn’t agree. I wanted her here with me, and with this baby. I knew that wherever her energy was now, there was no way she could be experiencing it quite as good as if she had been alive, holding her first grandchild in her arms.

I am not sure why my husband decided to capture the somber moment above. I don’t even remember him taking it. I look like I was in a trance while breastfeeding my daughter. That whole year after my mom’s death, the stark reality of enduring the challenges of motherhood without her support made me sad; and it permeated my days.

As if the grief was not enough, I was also dealing with hormonal imbalances, sleep deprivation, post partum depression, nursing discomfort, and an almost complete surrender of the person I formerly was. The challenges I faced as a new mom changed my face for a while. I often didn’t have the energy, nor the inclination, to cultivate a positive attitude or conceal the sadness.

On one of our daily beach walks - Malibu, CA - Aug. 19, 2007

On one of our daily beach walks - Malibu, CA - Aug. 19, 2007

Every Mother’s Day, I think of my mom, obviously, but not reminiscing on past years on which I celebrated her as my mother. Instead, I think of all the Mother’s Days that she’s missing. The ones we never were or will be able to celebrate as mothers together.

I have now celebrated twelve Mother’s Days as a mother, not a daughter. Today will be the 13th. Those people who say “It’s just a day” are probably the same people who tell the families who lost everything in the Woolsey Fire here in Malibu six months ago that “It’s just stuff.”

Until it happens to you, you have NO idea what you are talking about.

In 2006, I celebrated Mother’s Day with my mom, as I did every year, and didn’t know I was pregnant yet. The following year, I spent the day without my mom and with a child of my own, both for the first time. In the course of that one year, everything changed.

I don’t remember that first one. Maybe I have a photo from it somewhere, but I have no memory of it. I think I was sort of detached from the concept of it… how was I, all of a sudden, the mother on this day, in this scenario?

From the very beginning, I was this kid’s world. As a baby, she would sit, listen, and take in everything I said. When I would talk, she would just stare at me, absorbing every word, even though she didn’t understand them. When I wasn’t talking, she still had her eyes on me, observing.

She Always had her eyes on her mama, and still does - Malibu, CA - July 22, 2007

She Always had her eyes on her mama, and still does - Malibu, CA - July 22, 2007

She was my beach baby, my walking buddy, my everything. Even though the void in my heart left by my mom would never be filled, she filled in places I never knew existed.

Feeding at the Gaviota Beach rest stop - Sept. 1, 2007

Feeding at the Gaviota Beach rest stop - Sept. 1, 2007

She brought light into a dark time, and her smile, dimple, and big blue eyes brought me hope and kept me moving and living and working hard to be my best for her.

Beach fun in Pismo Beach, CA - Sept. 2, 2007

Beach fun in Pismo Beach, CA - Sept. 2, 2007

Nursing an eight-month-old in Downtown LA - Sept. 22, 2007

Nursing an eight-month-old in Downtown LA - Sept. 22, 2007

A night out at the Cerritos Performing Arts Center, - Dec. 9, 2007

A night out at the Cerritos Performing Arts Center, - Dec. 9, 2007

I know it looks very different for some, and involves a lot of effort and heartache for many women who want to have children. But for me, becoming a mother was the easy part. I was fortunate that it happened without me doing much of anything, except having a bit of pleasurable fun, and then growing a human inside my body without too much complication.

11-month-old on the verge of walking, Malibu, CA - Dec. 19, 2007

11-month-old on the verge of walking, Malibu, CA - Dec. 19, 2007

The hardest part of my pregnancy was the last three months while dealing with my mom’s absence.

But learning to LIVE life as a mother, without a mother, was the absolute hardest thing I have ever done. And being a mother, in general, is the hardest thing for me to do… harder than losing my mom in a car accident, harder than accepting marriage isn’t what I expected it to be, and harder than bearing my soul and exposing my vulnerabilities in writing.

As Teddy Roosevelt said in the above quote… if nothing worth having comes easy, and if the hardest fought challenges and rewards in life are the most sweet... then motherhood must be the sweetest and most worthwhile venture in all of human existence. At least that’s what I am banking on.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom (& Grandma)

from both of us…

My 2nd Mother’s Day with my 16-month-old - May 11, 2008

My 2nd Mother’s Day with my 16-month-old - May 11, 2008


(and her little brother too.)

POSTSCRIPT: I went through years and years of photos while searching for pictures of my aunt to include in the memorial slideshow that was going to be shown at the luncheon after her funeral on May 3rd. The photos that I found from my first year as a mother, a few of them included above, sparked vivid memories and feelings from that time; so I was inspired to sit down and write about it.

Reflecting on the difficulties that I experienced reminds me of how far I have come and how much I have surmounted. More than anything else, my children’s presence in my life has challenged me to heal, grow, evolve, and live as authentically as possible. Acknowledging our pain and allowing ourselves to feel it is the ONLY way to process, work through, and heal from it. There aren’t any shortcuts or detours to avoid them; that is, if you intend to heal from them. So each time I write and reflect on my wounds from the past, I heal from them just a little bit more.

You Make Me Cry

Flowers covering Jan’s grave site after her burial - May 3, 2019

Flowers covering Jan’s grave site after her burial - May 3, 2019

My Aunt Jan, my mother’s younger sister, died on April 13, 2019.

We had her funeral this past Friday, May 3rd, at which I gave the eulogy. She did not have children, and her father (my grandfather, George), her only sister (my mother, Judy) and her mother (my grandmother, Helen) all passed before her, in 2000, 2006, and 2009 respectively.

After scripture readings, a gospel, and brief homily by the deacon, a few words from my aunt’s former partner, Richard, with whom she was in a relationship for 17 years, a bible reading and powerful personal message from my older brother, Anthony, and a poem and Anne Lamott book passage read aloud by my older sister, Rebecca… it was my turn.

It took me about nine minutes to deliver the eulogy I wrote, speaking to a full chapel of over one hundred of Jan’s close friends and family. I didn’t know maybe half of the people in attendance, those who knew my Aunt Jan from other walks of her life; so I had decided to greet as many old friends and former co-workers of hers with a smile and a handshake as they walked up to the chapel doors.

I thought that if I was able to introduce myself to most of them, then we wouldn’t be complete strangers when I stood before them to say what I had prepared. I was nervous to speak, but I was confident in the message I was there to deliver.

After the service was over, we all walked from the chapel to the grave site to bury her cremains. Many mourners I had just met hugged and thanked me for what I wrote, as we shared this powerful experience of saying goodbye to someone we loved. The love and energy Jan had given in life to those for whom she cared, inspired me to write the following words to honor her in death, as I shared that day...

Jan’s Eulogy 5.3.19

I have written a lot about death and losing people I love. I write to make peace with the fact that they’re gone, and with why they are gone. I write to process how I feel about it, and about them, and how their words and actions affected me.

But I also write to honor them in death as best I can, aiming to share more of who they were and what they meant to me and others in this life. Today, I’m going to communicate with you some thoughts and feelings I got down on the page when I sat to write and reflect on my Aunt Jan’s life.

As a writer, not a public speaker, I would much rather post this where you all can read it yourselves. But since delivering a eulogy at a funeral doesn’t work that way, I’ll read it to you, and do my best to convey through my voice what came out through the strokes of my keyboard in silent reflection.

Jan and I share a middle name. Marie. She was Janice Marie and I am Lisa Marie. She called me “Lisa Marie” my whole life, so I recently began calling her “Janice Marie” in texts and when I saw her. But before that, while growing up, I simply called her “Aunt Janny.”

Aunt Janny & me on the Parachute Sky Jump at Knott’s Berry Farm - 1976

Aunt Janny & me on the Parachute Sky Jump at Knott’s Berry Farm - 1976

Aunt Janny was a cool aunt because she was ten years younger than our mom. She was 16 when I was born. She often babysat my siblings and I, and for as much as I can remember, she let us run wild and do what we wanted.

Once on her watch, I fell and hit my head on the corner of our coffee table while jumping on the couch. I have a scar next to my eye from the injury, and Jan often liked to remind me of this mishap… a running joke that amused her. Somehow she equated it as her proof that she was not fit to watch over little kids.

As a 20-something girl, she possessed a gentle ruggedness that made her intimidating, yet approachable. When I saw her, most often it was in shorts washing her car in the driveway of my Grandma’s house on Tuba Street in Chatsworth.

She did this A LOT. Like every couple of days, a lot. She always had a potent air freshener hanging from her rear view mirror, and religiously applied Armor-All to her car tires, dashboard, and leather seats.

Jan’s happy place was in her immaculately clean sports car, cruising and blasting her favorite tunes. She would drive us to Malibu in her powder blue Chevy Malibu… her love for the beach trumping her dislike of sand inside her car.

Just picture it… a 23-year-old Jan driving three little kids over Kanan Dume Road to Paradise Cove Beach in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s. The winding canyon road, windows down, wind whipping through our hair, and our little bodies sliding across the back bench seat, saturated with Armor-All.

Aunt Janny with my brother, sister & me - Easter 1976

Aunt Janny with my brother, sister & me - Easter 1976

No seat belt law meant we were untethered and at the mercy of Kanan’s sharp turns and Jan’s slippery, lubed-up leather. We would be crushed up against one another, pinned between a sibling and the car door, until a turn in the opposite direction catapulted us to the other side of the car, all the while a soundtrack of 70’s soft rock hits blared on the car radio.

No, none of the songs she played were AT ALL appropriate listening for the 7, 9, and 10 year old kids that my brother, sister and I were. But even though the lyrics went over our heads, the choruses were burned into our brains.

My brother collectively dubbed them, “Janny Beach Songs,” as we still refer to them today. Over the years, Jan loved when we would list these classic songs from memory and sing a few bars of “Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover,” “Hot Blooded,” “Afternoon Delight,” or “Hot Legs.”

Jan loved music. She loved sports, and she loved shiny colors, especially RED, on her cars, her lips, and her nails.

But bright, neon colors… those, she most often wore on her feet.

Great Aunt Jan with my kids - March 2014

Great Aunt Jan with my kids - March 2014

(I brought out a pair of Jan’s neon orange Nikes from behind the podium and placed them in front of me)

I don’t know exactly when her obsession with the blindingly neon-colored athletic shoes began; but I do know the dizzying number of pairs she had, like this one, are a perfect analogy to Jan herself during the years she wore them.

They are sporty, but stylish…

flashy, but comfortable…

casual, yet expensive…

Just like her.

Jan loved what she loved, and embraced it all with vigor.

She was sentimental… about family, her favorite songs, and her precious memories. I actually don’t remember her being sentimental in her youth; but what do kids really know about the inner emotional life of the adults in their lives, unless those adults open up and share it with them.

Some people say we get more sentimental as we age… that things a younger person would deem “sappy,” like TV commercials and greeting cards, can easily bring older people to tears.

I don’t know if age has as much to do with it as maturity does. I think sad things that make us weep, or happy things that make us cry, elicit these emotions, to those that are paying attention, because they are just that… sad or happy enough to provoke a physical release in our bodies… grief or joy, manifested through tears.

The grief and the joy are not necessarily stronger or more potent for most older people than they are for younger people. It’s just that most young people, and unfortunately some grown adults, have not yet developed the tools to let feelings flow without fighting them… their restraint often rooted in fear and shame.

Our culture has taught us that emotions are for the weak, that holding back tears is a sign of strength, and that being or appearing vulnerable should be avoided at all costs.

I think society got it wrong.

Janice Marie & me on my birthday at The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach - May 2014

Janice Marie & me on my birthday at The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach - May 2014

My Aunt Jan had this way of pushing her lower lip out to communicate something was causing her to become emotional. I think it was her way of feigning crying to avoid actually crying; although sometimes she did begin to cry too when she just couldn’t stop herself.

She did it when she told me how something I had written affected her.

She’d say to me, “You make me cry, Lisa. You’re such a good writer. Your words are so beautiful.”

And she would say it almost like she was a little mad at me for rendering her helpless to her own tears. Like I had found her Achilles’ heel and she was being forced to unwillingly surrender to her emotions when she read what I wrote.

Of course, she didn’t have to read the pieces about my mom, or marriage, or life being challenging or hopeful. She could have avoided them and not subjected herself to riding a roller coaster of emotions. But I think she liked taking the ride, and letting me bring her on a journey to that place she wouldn’t let her daily life take her.

That place of vulnerability. That place we go as humans when we surrender to what we feel so completely that, often in a flood of tears, we are relieved of a heavy burden. For those who don’t ever allow it, or who don’t allow it often, crying is like a valve being loosened just enough to release the pressure of what has been held inside for too long.

My writing brought Jan to that place. With every lower lip pout or tear she cried, I think she got a little relief from what she often held inside: sadness, pain or just the feeling of really missing her nuclear family… her mom, dad and sister… the three people who loved and shaped her and brought her up in this world.

Janny is not here to read this; but I can picture her now being overwhelmed by it… her lower lip in full effect, holding back tears, and lovingly reprimanding me for “making” her cry.

Well, Janice Marie, I’m sorry/not sorry. I am honored to be someone who loosened the valve on your emotions every once in a while. I’m content to believe that this would have elicited your tears as well.

But in truth, I know that if you are feeling anything comparable to the human act of crying in this moment, it is not because my words “made” you do it. If you are crying, I believe they would be tears of joy in seeing your family and friends show up to honor you today. It would be from the overwhelming joy of being reunited with your nuclear family again.

Jan with her dad, mom & sister in Studio City, CA - Summer 1969

Jan with her dad, mom & sister in Studio City, CA - Summer 1969

I can imagine the four of you together in a tight group hug… you with my mom, Grandma Helen, and yes, even Grandpa George. I imagine him as a beautiful light embracing his wife and daughters closely and tenderly, his soul now free from what held him back from doing so while he was here.

I imagine you wanting all of us to know that you are okay. Wanting us to be happy for you… happy you are with your family, and happy you are at peace.

And I AM happy for you. I am SO happy to also imagine you as a light, shining bright outside the confines of your human form. As bright as your neon Nike’s, with no need to wear Nike’s anymore.

I imagine your energy soaring through this chapel and through all the people here who love you. You touched us all with your energy, and you will continue to do so each time we think of you.

RIP Janice Marie

November 18, 1956 - April 13, 2019

Aunt Janny with my older sister & Me - 1975
2019-04-30 13.01.14.jpg

Smells Like Tween Spirit

Joce Vegas 9-23-18.jpg

From birth, she had the most expressive eyebrows I had ever seen on a baby. Not that I paid any attention to babies’ eyebrows, or to babies, for that matter, before I became a mother. I was not someone who ever dreamed of having kids. The closest I came to enjoying the company of children as a young adult was when I worked as a camp counselor during the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college.

My counselor “nature” name was Brook, and the six and seven-year-olds with whom I played at camp endeared themselves to me with their wide-eyed innocence and wonder for the world around them. They would yell out “Brook!“ and smile when they arrived each day, happy to see me, giving me a glimpse of how intoxicating it was to care for them. Once I got to know the subtleties of their precious vulnerabilities and experience how much they began to rely on me for their safety and comfort, it was hard not to get hooked… at least for the summer.

The experience reminded me of the joys of childhood, the possible joy of parenting, and how it may be fun to spend some time with little ones once in a while. But that was as far as it went. I babysat kids in Newport Beach here and there while attending school at UC Irvine; and their young parents, who must have been in their early thirties, looked so old and mature to my twenty-year-old self (yet ironically, they were probably much younger than I am now with the same aged kids!). When I arrived to relieve them of their parenting duties, the moms and dads always seemed like they couldn’t wait to be free of their children. I didn’t understand then that it was most likely their date night, and they needed the break from parenting to stay sane and keep their marriage together. From my naive perspective, there wasn’t much joy in parenting for them, as it seemed more of a burden from which they were looking to escape, even if just for the night. This observation stuck with me.

After graduating a few years later in 1994, I dove head first in my career and didn’t give kids a second thought. Even having a boyfriend wasn’t a priority to me those years in which I worked fifteen hour days and slept in between. I didn’t see how kids would fit into my life with the big career I had originally envisioned for myself… back when I thought I was going to make movies for a living.

Twelve years later, after many memorable experiences, life lessons, and stark realizations, I was married and pregnant with my first child… this child, whom you see above, the one with the tween attitude and the expressively arched eyebrow. She came into my life by surprise, not by plan, and the expectation of her arrival was the biggest thing that had happened to my family in a while. She would be the first grandchild in my first family, an unexpected gift we all couldn’t wait to receive. But this big thing that was about to happen got eclipsed by an even bigger thing. My mom died. The woman whom she was going to make a grandmother didn’t survive a car accident and left this Earth just three months before she was born into it.


So when she was delivered to me, under a cloud of grief, her huge blue eyes, single cheek dimple, and raised eyebrows soothed my hurt and gave me purpose, when all reason and sanity seemed to have abandoned me. She smiled and laughed and furrowed her brows, and she showed me how much joy one person can bring into another’s life, even in the worst of times.

I didn’t know what I was doing, I just knew she was the most important thing in life. I knew she needed me, but I didn’t realize then how much I needed her. My life felt out of control, like all of its biggest decisions were being made for me without my input, and I was forced to just ride the ride, regardless of whether or not I was a willing passenger. Without my mom there to support me, or to assure me everything was going to be okay, I felt lost as a woman, but found as a mother. The void my mom left was dark and deep, and I don’t think anyone, not even me, understood how much losing her would change me. I wasn’t sure of anything except that this little girl needed me to love and take care of her. I knew I could do that, I was going to do that no matter what, but I really didn’t feel like I could do much else.


Once again, twelve years later, and this child turns twelve years old… today.

She is bold and she is beautiful. She is shy and she is stubborn. She is like me in so many ways and nothing like me in so many others. I see my mom in her sense of humor. I see my dad in her blond hair and blue eyes. I see how being my child has shaped her. I see her strong sense of identity rearing it’s head out from under her childhood innocence, and I see the baby I once knew still very much alive in her big eyes.

I am not ever one to say, “Where did the time go?” I have not said or written that statement, not once. I know where it went. I have spent almost every day of the last twelve years with this kid, and these twelve years have been unforgettable. They have been a mixture of happiness, sadness, and feeling a love never known before. There were times I felt content in the life I have built, and other times I struggled with unrest and wanderlust when my autonomy felt sabotaged by motherhood, and when my individual desires and personal aspirations got the best of me.

But regardless of the phases I have gone through, there has always been intense gratitude for the privilege of getting to watch this beautiful creature live, learn, evolve and grow.


She has been a joy, a challenge, a heartbreak, and a saving grace. Sometimes she makes me feel on top of the world, and sometimes she wounds me to my core and momentarily crushes my soul. The way I feel as a person and as a woman affects how I relate to her, and the wounds I carry from my own childhood affect how I behave in some of her childhood circumstances.

There is so much I wish I had done, worked on, or figured out before I had her. There is so much I wish would have been different before she came into my life, the most significant thing being having my mom here to be a part of it. But mainly, I wish I had figured out who I was a bit more before motherhood made it’s mark on me.

I have been sharing my writing on this site for almost five years now, trying to better understand who I am, what I feel, and where my greater purpose lies beyond motherhood. This does not lessen my commitment to being a mother, nor does it reflect a dissatisfaction for being a mother. But as I watch my daughter grow, and see all the possibilities for her life that are coming around the corner for her, I want her to experience the best version of me, and I don’t think I have found it yet.

But above all, what I try to remember, however hard it is to keep at the forefront of my mind, is that nothing will ever be perfect or ideal, and no one ever is truly ready to become a parent. Even if you think you are ready, you don’t know what you are in for when a child takes over your life and your heart. I know I never could have imagined this kid.

She is innocent, but she is wise beyond her years. She’s been called an “old soul” so many times by so many different people who all see the same thing in her eyes. There is something intangible there that makes her seem like she knows more than she logically should at her age. She has the normal tween angst, hormonal mood swings, and irrational attitudes that a typical twelve-year-old girl does; but there is an added layer to her.

I sometimes think that her awareness to inherently know things that she doesn’t quite understand yet, or have the emotional capacity to process at her age, casts a cloud over her head. She is more pensive and somber than most of her peers, and doesn’t consistently possess the carefree nature and lightness that they do. As such, I have wondered if that cloud she walks under was formed soon after her birth, during her first few years in which she was with me every day as I was dealing with a lot of sadness and did a lot of grieving.


There is no way to know for sure. What I do know though is that she is still the most important thing in life.

Along with her brother, she brings an elevated purpose to my existence…

She brings eternal hope to my heart…

And she brings so much joy to my soul…

Even if she crushes it occasionally.


Happy 12th Birthday to my sweet girl. Thank you for choosing me to be your mom. I am eternally grateful.


November 2018 - An Inspirational Disaster

Leo Carillo State Park campgrounds devastated by the Woolsey fire- Malibu, CA 📷: Sgt. John Regan, CA State Parks, Lifeguard Supervisor, Angeles District

Leo Carillo State Park campgrounds devastated by the Woolsey fire- Malibu, CA 📷: Sgt. John Regan, CA State Parks, Lifeguard Supervisor, Angeles District

Pacific Coast Highway through Leo Carillo State Park after the fire - malibu, CA 📷: Sgt. John Regan, CA State Parks, Lifeguard Supervisor, Angeles District

Pacific Coast Highway through Leo Carillo State Park after the fire - malibu, CA 📷: Sgt. John Regan, CA State Parks, Lifeguard Supervisor, Angeles District

The entries I posted on Instagram in November 2018 started off inspirational, but ended up in disaster, full of news and updates on the unexpected tragic events that took place that month. After my last Instagram entry on November 26th, I went offline and took a seven week hiatus from posting on or even looking at social media.

I completely checked out from it all, needing to focus on the care of my injured daughter, and the healing of my own hurt body. So amidst living through the frightening fire disaster, returning to a home in an area that looked like a war zone, and contending with the debilitating injuries and illnesses that befell me and my family, I remained offline through the whole of December, and made my best effort to enjoy the holiday season in gratitude for my family through to the new year.

A devastating wildfire, a painful spasm, and a serious fracture did a number on life around here for a while, and the following words and images chronicle how everything unfolded in November…

(I’ll get to December later.)


It’s hard to live life sometimes. It’s hard to keep it all together when it feels like it’s all falling apart. It’s hard to be consistently responsible, helpful, kind, and generous, while also feeling happy, joyful, and sane. It’s challenging to do the right thing all the time. To resist sadness, anger, selfishness, laziness, and pessimism when they rear their heads, and when there are plenty of legitimate sources to justify their existence.

It takes discipline, awareness and intentional positivity to resist being swallowed up by the overwhelm of the big picture, the state of our world, and the perils of humanity. It takes courage and a strong will to resist collapse under the weight of our own quiet heartbreaks and peaceful resignations. To suffer soul crushing defeat, survive it, and rise above. It takes hope, intention, and an unwavering desire to build rather than destroy... our homes, our families, our kids’ spirits, and our own sense of peace within.

But we do it. At least we do our best to do it. We do it because we love life. And because we just plain LOVE. Holding love in our hearts can move mountains. It can get us through the worst of storms; and it can bring us to our highest purpose. It is our saving grace.


Thousand Oaks is part of an extended community for many residents of Malibu. My kids and I are over there often, most recently this past Tuesday, the day before the Borderline Bar & Grill shooting, at a restaurant only four miles from where shots were fired and twelve lives were violently lost. Newbury Park, a town within the city limits of Thousand Oaks, is both where the shooter lived and where I take my kids to see their pediatrician. We dine, shop, and run most of our errands in this community, just over the mountain from our home.

I took this photo of my son in February 2017 at the mall when we were out in T.O. for our mother/son night while my husband and daughter were attending their annual father/daughter dance back in Malibu. It is just minutes from the Borderline Bar and Grill where the shooting took place. “It could have been us” has entered my mind more than once today, and I have had to qualm feelings of unrest for my kids’ safety as we go about our lives. The fear of losing loved ones has been more pronounced for me since my mom went away for her birthday weekend and never returned, killed by a driver under the influence of prescription drugs.

When these senseless shootings happen, as a victim of unexpected tragedy myself, I go back to how I felt the day I was informed by the police officer on the scene that my mom had died in an accident. I relate with and weep for the those whose lives have been forever changed in a blink of an eye. I know first hand how they have been blindsided by such news, how their existence has been severely altered, and how they now have to reconcile their new reality of living without. They have been pulled into the abyss of tragic loss these last 24 hours. Darkness has blocked out the light and they are just beginning their journey through it. My heart and my thoughts are with them. Even though the rest of us are left to process another senseless shooting in whatever way we can (again), we are the lucky ones this time.


The Borderline Bar & Grill mass shooting last night and now the Hill Fire in the same town of Thousand Oaks, right over the mountain from us. We have the car packed for evacuation, which may come at any moment; as we have heard they’ve already evacuated five miles north of us. Hoping we can stay in our home tonight and all will be ok... but for now, we are thinking of all those over the mountain that are already mourning the loss of victims in the Borderline shooting, and on top of that, are now battling wildfires.


Mandatory evacuation for all of Malibu from #VenturaCountyLine to Malibu Canyon/Las Virgenes. We are in the car stuck in solid gridlock on PCH right now trying to leave Malibu. Our home had a mandatory evacuation last night, but we stayed in Malibu at a friend’s house further south where there were no evacuations. Now we are part of the mass exodus to leave, wishing we had just left the area entirely last night. Hoping we will have a home to return to in a few days, and praying for the safety for all the Ventura County Fire & LA County Fire fighters and all residents in the affected areas. 🙏

#woolseyfire #hillfire


My home is (or was, as the jury is still out on that) located about 18 miles up the coast from where I took this photo, somewhere behind and under that huge cloud of smoke. This was at 11:00am yesterday, and the kids and I had already been in the car for two and a half hours but had only traveled a mile. We stayed at a friend’s house further south from our home down PCH on Thursday night, having left our own home at 8:45pm under a mandatory evacuation.

I quickly packed up photos and various irreplaceable items, as much as would fit in our car with my two kids in the back seat, and walked out the door, leaving 99% of our possessions behind. It is now a day and a half later, and with each passing minute, it becomes more of a real possibility that I may not ever see my home again, except as a pile of ashes where it used to stand. I am heartbroken for my community, as so much of it has already burned; and so many of my friends are already dealing with the devastating news that their homes are gone.

Now, I sit here at my sister’s house waiting to hear the fate of mine - for the other shoe to drop. Yes, my immediate family is safe. Yes, the things we left behind are just possessions. But it is also our home... where I lived when I got married, pregnant, found out my mom died, grieved her, birthed two babies, nursed them, put them down for naps, fed them solid foods for the first time, watched them take their first steps, and took their first day of school pictures each year. Where we measured and marked their heights in pencil with a line and their names and the date on the wall next to the entry closet.

It may all be gone. It may all still be there. Either way, what has happened to Malibu is devastating. I know we will survive, and I know our community will rise up, support those who need it most, and get through this tragedy together. I am just so sad, and I need to allow this feeling for a moment before I face what is to come.

#hillfire #woolseyfire

Our home in Malibu did not burn down on Friday in the #woolseyfire and #hillfire, per the report I received Saturday afternoon. However, the danger is far from over and my sigh of relief will be forever stifled, since at least eight families we know already lost their homes, and those are just the ones confirmed.

Power lines have burned and our community is still evacuated. Wind ceased to blow most of the day Saturday, giving firefighters, first responders, and volunteers a reprieve, and a chance to make some headway on fire containment. Unfortunately, the winds picked up again Saturday evening, and more fires ignited in Malibu. It is going to be another rough day (or maybe days) of wait and see.

One of the many sad notes of Saturday was the news that Leo Carillo State Park was burned significantly. The landscape on and around my favorite Leo hiking loop is going to look vastly different than it does here above (taken last week) when I finally am allowed to hike up to this ocean vista point again and survey the scene. I am weeks away from that reality, but I know it will be hard to look out on what the fires have done to it from this spot.

For now, I must stay focused on the reality before me. Thank you to everyone who checked in and left notes of love and encouragement on Instagram, Facebook, or via text. I deeply appreciated all of your kind words and concern, and felt the love communicated from near and far. 🙏❤️

Hope for another day begins now. Hope for the safety and protection of those battling, and the victims of, these fires. Hope that peace and comfort will eventually soothe those who have already suffered tremendous loss. And hope that all life and property that has been spared thus far will stay safe and unscathed over this night and into these next few days.

These palm trees stand on our property, just feet from the side of our home. This mountain behind the palms, the sone in the second photo, is above us, right behind our home. The whole mountain burned, the fields adjacent to our home on both sides burned, and the open land in front of our street burned. Miraculously, our home did not burn. We have been assured our home is now safe from the threat of fire... well, at least from this fire. We are relieved and grateful. We are one of the lucky ones.

The list of Malibu families we know whom have lost their homes has grown to 26; and I expect that number will rise as information continues to spread. Kids in my kids’ classes lost their homes. Teachers at my kids’ school lost their homes. Moms I love and have worked with volunteering at school and in the PTA have lost their homes. My daughter’s best friend lost her new home, the one she just moved into a few weeks ago, as well as the home from which she just moved, where she grew up and had my daughter over for countless play dates, hang outs, and sleep overs. Educators and mentors who have inspired, supported, and just been there along the journey of our lives in Malibu the last 16 years, have lost the homes in which they had lived for over 30 or 40 years.

They are all suffering tremendous loss right now. Please pray 🙏 or keep them in your thoughts... or however you chose to send out positive energy 💫 into the world.

Donate to the many relief efforts that have been formed: @onelovemalibu @malibufoundation @bgcmalibu90265, offer a hand to help where you can, or just foster a little more gratitude for the safety and security of your own home, if you are reading this from afar, miles away from Malibu.


Last Monday night, four days after being evacuated from Malibu, we were still taking refuge in my sister’s South Pasadena house. After sleeping in their cousin’s room for three nights, my kids came to snuggle with me, missing home, and their beds. They drifted off peacefully, while I lied there feeling the unrest and sadness of the last several days fully palpable in my body. My neck, where I hold my stress, had been tight for months, building since May, getting worse with difficulties endured in June, July and August, leading to its present state of stiffness and knots.

A yogi and runner, I had knowingly neglected my self care and exercise regimen in the face of adversity for months... a big mistake. Even though my home was safe, I didn’t feel relief. The damage to my body had already been done. The wildfire was the catalyst to my body finally raising the white flag in surrender.

At 5:30 the next morning, I was awoken by a muscle spasm that shot down my neck. My back was frozen in pain and I didn’t know how to make it stop. Bending my neck up lessened the spasm, so I held it in that position. I couldn’t move without pain taking over, so I just lied there, paralyzed in the dark, while everyone else in the house slept. I felt helpless, scared, and I had to pee. I needed to get up, so I silently gritted through the pain. It got worse from there as the hours passed, spreading down my right side to my arm, hand and fingers.

Thus began what is now going on seven days of chronic pain that hasn’t relented, except for some minutes here and there, and while I’m asleep, when I can sleep. I have seen three professionals ~ healers, therapists and doctors ~ and have had several treatments and tests, with no quick fixes in sight... just the expected weeks of physical therapy.

My body has drawn a line in the sand. It has told me it isn’t going to be ignored or neglected anymore. The wildfire that threatened my home and ravaged my town was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and mine. It was a huge wake up call. I am finally returning home today, still immobilized by pain, to begin the work of healing... not only the physical healing of my body, but the mental and emotional healing of myself and my community.


Finally arrived back home yesterday afternoon, and witnessed the first sunset here in ten days. A sight for sore eyes.

The mandatory evacuation has been lifted for most of Malibu, but there are still some canyons in which people are not allowed to return to their homes, or to survey the damage done to their property. I am feeling a mixture of gratitude for still having a home to which to return, and sorrow for all the loss suffered by my friends and the challenging times ahead for all of us to rebuild our community.

Anyone interested in helping, you can donate to @onelovemalibu, @malibufoundation, @bgcmalibu90265, or you can visit @gabbyreece to find out what is actively being done for the relief effort locally, not only in Malibu, but other affected areas like Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley. Several groups have been formed to help victims of the #woolseyfire in all areas, and she has been disseminating information through her IG posts to help galvanize people into action. 🙏❤️💪


My sister and brother-in-law have created a wonderful Thanksgiving tradition at their home for my family and my brother’s family, and they outdo themselves each year with an amazing meal and this beautiful setting.

Thanksgiving was especially memorable yesterday, since we had been evacuated here and stayed at their house for five days when the Woolsey Fire hit Malibu two weeks ago. So many lives have been turned upside down since then, and I am feeling so many different feelings about it. Most of all, I feel gratitude for the safety of my family and our home from the fire; but I also feel sadness for all of my friends who lost their homes to it.

When tragedy strikes, clarity for what you value most can often hit you soon after. I feel overwhelming love for the people dearest to my heart, and an aching desire to be with the ones I love whom are not in my physical realm right now. 💗 I feel the void of their presence and miss their touch, while simultaneously feeling the fullness of my heart with love for them. A testament to how much love our hearts can hold.

Amidst all the love and giving thanks, I’m still feeling the debilitating effects of my back injury from a week and a half ago; and now my daughter is also injured from an accident she had on her scooter the evening before Thanksgiving. It landed us in Malibu Urgent Care right before they closed, and luckily they were able to stitch up her chin that had split open when she fell face first on the asphalt street in front of our home. She scraped some other body parts too; and beside the pain in her chin, her jaw is stiff, her teeth are sore, and she ran a 102 temperature for the duration of our Thanksgiving celebration.

We woke up this morning, both of us bedridden and sore, and I was feeling a bit in a state of “when it rains it pours.” Yet I recognize that these physical challenges and injuries we are nursing still pale in comparison to losing everything in the fire. I know we will be fine soon. We’ll heal our bodies over the next few weeks, and then we will be ready and stronger than ever to help our friends rebuild their lives, and help rebuild our beautiful community.

#malibustrong 💪💙


In bed. Looking up from the flat of my back. Visions of love, loss, limbo, lust, and light abound. 💫💛✨

#backinjury #bedstretches #yogainbed #youwilllookupatmefromtheflatofyourback #aknightstale #william #heathledger

Before all the hills in my neighborhood off the coast of Malibu burned, including this bluff I often hike in the Santa Monica Mountains, I began writing #thirtydaysofinspiration posts, starting on Nov. 1st. I only wrote and posted on day 1-7 before the Borderline Bar shooting occurred in nearby Thousand Oaks the night of Nov. 7th.

The next day, the Hill Fire in Ventura County, the Woolsey Fire in LA County, and the Camp Fire in Butte County, all began to burn up the state of California. I never got to my day 8 inspirational post, instead writing about the bar shooting. The wild fires took over our lives on Nov. 9th, and they burned their paths of destruction through the city of Paradise up north and my city of Malibu here down south.

Tragedy and loss have competed fiercely with inspiration during these difficult days from Nov. 8-25. Still, many examples of bravery, kindness and perseverance emerged amidst the rubble by the first responders, fire fighters, law enforcement officers, community members, and people from near and far, either working to prevent loss, or helping those who have suffered loss. Inspiration at its finest.

Today, on day 26, I wanted to resume my posts on these last days of this very difficult November; but I find I don’t have it in me right now. I feel sad and overwhelmed. I need time to process some things and do some healing. In the absence of my attempt to write something inspirational to share, I want to show some love and appreciation for those on my Instagram feed who often inspire me.

Inspiration can take many forms... in words and images, in art and intellect, and in humans who embody love, courage, strength, beauty, emotional intelligence, kindness, and ⚓️ hope, as they share their gifts and vulnerabilities, and expose their humanity.

Thank you for inspiring me:
@nayyirah.waheed @changeurperception @createthelove @beingisbeautiful @mindfulmft @abbywambach @estherperelofficial @bzblooms @herbadmother @thelastburstofspring @fodadaclothing @timhortonphotomalibu @julieellerton @projecthealthybody_ @dallashartwig @briana_leonard @rootsnwings_malibu @wearemanenough

Thank you all for the truths you share, and the light you shine. 🙏 💙 xo- Lisa