Not “Most People”

in-the-mirror
In Seville. Sometimes you do eat alone in Spain …

(Originally published as an update to http://www.gofundme.com/awanderingjewess.)

I received my first agent rejection.

I’m smiling as I write this. Perhaps because it means I am “in the game.” I’ve taken another step into a vulnerable and unknown place in publishing.

Last week I began putting “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” in the hands (inboxes, really) of literary agents, hoping one will find this post-divorce memoir with the possibility of a happy ending – no partner required – compelling enough to represent.

It’s taken a long time to get here, far longer than I imagined.

It was a little more than two years ago that I sat in the drawing room of my Madrid apartment and asked the universe for guidance. It came in the form of a single email from an old beau – an introduction to the Rocaberti Castle Writers’ Retreat – and called all of my “one day-s” to task. Did I really believe a blog chronicling my path from desperate divorcee to European ex-pat – told through the lens of a weekly solo sojourn – could be a book? Was I willing to find out?

I decided to say yes … and so did many readers who funded my trip to the castle that fall.

Upon my return, I began working one-on-one with my retreat writing coach. I developed a proposal (story summary, audience analysis, competitive landscape and marketing concepts), a chapter-by-chapter outline and agent query. I spit-shined the introduction and two other chapters and made a list of target agents and a spreadsheet to track my communications.

Last Sunday night – filled with doubt and trepidation, my heart racing – I hit send. At that moment, I truly understood impostor syndrome for the first time. Who was I to pitch a writing project – my writing project – to an agent, anyway?

A few years ago I read that most people would rather fail by not trying than by trying.

I get that. And thankfully, I’ve never wanted to be “most people.”

When I received this note on Tuesday, I was assured I wasn’t.

“Dear Lesley, Thank you so much for querying me. “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain: How 52 Solo Sojourns Healed My Heart and Helped Me Write My Own Happy Ending (No Partner Required) sounds like an interesting project, but I’m afraid I’m going to pass on looking at more. My client list is very full, forcing me to be extremely selective about taking on anyone new at the moment. But please do keep querying other agents, and I wish you all the best with your writing career.”

I’ve taken this agent’s counsel and have continued to query. Meanwhile, a friend suggested I keep all of my rejection letters … “You can have fun with them later,” he wrote. “Maybe include them in the preface in future books.”

Maybe.

 

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On This Day

april 9

My intuition has always been good. I feel things before they happen … usually things I’d rather not know. A sense of dread deep in my core, based on what seem like barely perceptible shifts.

The text that comes an hour later than usual. My every-Monday-at-the-same-time phone call dropping straight into voicemail. The date that doesn’t end with, “When can I see you again?”

People will tell me I’m crazy, that I am overreacting or taking things personally … but I am rarely wrong. These feelings have served me, serving as an alert of what more was to come.

However, sometimes the sensation is more subtle – less dread, more “knowing,” a body memory – like today, skimming Facebook while waiting for an early morning train to Evanston.

On This Day …

“My husband and I met in the Marina District of San Francisco nearly 15 years ago. Ten days ago, in that same place, he asked that we end our marriage. I don’t believe in mistakes. I believe in a grand design of a master quilter. I believe in love. And I believe in friendship. Please hold us both in your hearts.”

That was six years ago. My brain knew the post would reveal itself sometime soon, but my body knew the exact day.

It still hurts … the reminder of the disappointment of a failed marriage, the ending of a partnership that was better than many but not good enough for either us, the sense of rejection. The pain has changed over the years – from chronic and dull to acute and fleeting – these days it feels more like a bee sting than a broken bone.

I know I can change the settings on Facebook so I won’t see it … but the truth is, I don’t want to forget it. I’m not interested in only remembering “the good stuff.”

So I find myself on the platform scrolling through the 81 comments with tears rolling down my cheeks … and in this pain I find that there is “good stuff” right there. Prayers, hugs, love and light. The reminder that I am strong,

A poem from Rabbi Rami Shapiro – “An Unending Love” — sent from my friend, a rabbi in Cleveland. Rainer Maria Rilke’s words, “Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always” – sent from an old boss now living in Sydney, Australia.

April 9 marks the end of what I have come to call my spring season of grieving; it begins in mid-March and ends On This Day. It includes my husband asking for a divorce, plus two crushing romantic endings and a rejection letter from Yale University’s School of Divinity in the years that followed.

But what I didn’t realize until this morning is that my “spring season of grieving” also included the purchase of a one-way ticket to Madrid, signaling the beginning of my year of living and working abroad, the fulfillment of a childhood dream.

On This Day (2015).

“Holy Crap! I leave in 109 days. Thank the Goddess for Award Travel – one way cost me $145. (And I feel like I might throw up.)”

And the next, April 10, 2015? On That Day my first, real post-divorce relationship began. I don’t even need Facebook to remind me. It ended a long time ago, but I still remember it … both in my brain and in my body.

 

Independence Day, Indeed

with dance friends in Africa
What I did write about … dancing with African dancers, in Africa!

Five years ago today I boarded a plane bound for Kigali.

I was in the middle of a divorce I didn’t quite see coming, and certain I had no idea of where I was going, other than to Africa — a place I had dreamed of visiting since I was a child.

Several months earlier I had signed up to join a group of volunteers from my synagogue, working with two AIDS service organizations in the Rwandan capital. Little did I know that there — under my mosquito net in the wee hours of the morning — I would reclaim my voice as a writer, that I would succumb to the siren of the blue-light glow of my computer to tell the stories of my experiences on my blog — http://www.awanderingjewess.com.

I had secured the blog address about the same time I secured my place on the trip and had a vague notion that I might write about the road to becoming a rabbi. Instead I wrote about the road to Bombogo – a village on the outskirts of Kigali — where students learned to create kitchen gardens that would feed their families.

I wrote about house visits with social worker and part-time saint, Mary Grace, and her clients. The reed thin woman who sat in the dark, her face illuminated by a hole in the metal roof, who was unsure how she would feed her family now that her rabbits — her source of both food and income — had been stolen. And the robust one who replied to the missionary offering to help her build a roof, “Roof? I need a house!” and then built one for her and her daughters, and then another — thus becoming a landlord.

I wrote about painting walls and filling prescription packets. Dancing with a professional troupe in a style close to the one I had been studying for years. And about a room full of girls all with shaved heads, curious about the “Muzungo” with the same “do.”

The trip that began on Independence Day 2012 returned me to my craft after a 15-year hiatus, changing the trajectory of both my life and my blog. It led me to write about my experiences post-divorce, about dating, and mostly not dating — taking myself on solo excursions AKA Artist Dates instead — and ultimately moving to Madrid, the basis for “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”

I recently sent an update on the status of this project, one year after launching it. Many thanks to Tanya Gazdik Irwin, Jan Mekula and AJ Benham who responded to the update with contributions to the “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.

The “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign was created to defray the costs of the Rocaberti Castle Writers Retreat which I attended in the fall of 2016. Additional contributions have been used to pay for coaching sessions with Debra Engle, my retreat mentor, who is guiding me in the process of taking my writing from blog to book to screen.

To learn more about “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain — A Post-Divorce Narrative With the Possibility of a Happy Ending, No Partner Required” — click here, https://www.gofundme.com/awanderingjewess.

Also, please consider subscribing to my blog at http://www.awanderingjewess.com, liking my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/lesleypearl.awanderingjewess/, and/or sharing this message and encouraging your friends to do the same.

Jewish, Solo and Sans Chinese Food. And Merry on Christmas.

jewish-christmasI have never known what to do on Christmas.

It is 1993. I am 24-years-old and about 10 days sober. I am laying in a shallow bathtub when my mother calls to wish me a Merry Christmas.

“We’re Jewish,” I say.

“So what?” she replies. “It’s still Christmas. And it’s fun.”

“I wish I were in Israel,” I say.

When I was growing up, my cousin Wendy hosted an annual “Chanukkah Party on Christmas Day for Jews Who Have Nothing To Do.” It was a raucous affair with latkes, dreidels, wine, and even a couple of nuns Wendy worked with at the Sisters of Mercy, where she managed their pension fund.

But that was many years ago.

In 1994, the year after my bathtub lament, I moved to San Francisco. There, with my Irish-Catholic roommate Tim, I purchased my first Christmas tree and participated in the post-holiday “tree toss” out the second-story window of our Haight-Ashbury apartment – Tim spotting from the sidewalk while I heaved the heavy trunk out the curved glass window.

A year later, I experienced the Jewish Christmas tradition of Chinese food and a movie for the very first time  — an experience I had missed due to Wendy’s parties.

One more orbit around the sun had me hosting my very own Christmas Eve dinner — an effort to assuage my British boyfriend’s longing for family and Christmas cake from Marks and Spencer. The guest list was made up of friends who filled my home for Rosh Hashanah and Passover dinners, and I cooked up a pot of risotto while my partner made chocolate pie.

By now I had discovered most San Francisco transplants don’t return “home” for the holidays – Thanksgiving or Christmas — and the city is ripe for a Jewish-British Christmas dinner party followed by a bike ride or a movie and dim sum the next day.

In 2007, now married, we moved to Chicago — where everybody goes home for the holidays. To the suburbs. To Michigan or Ohio. Indiana or Wisconsin. Where there are few strays or orphans.

For the next four years, each December we would ask ourselves “to gather or not to gather.” Sometimes we did — opening our home and our hearts. Other times we simply facilitated — reserving two large, round tables in Chinatown and waiting to see who would join us. Occasionally, we were invited to someone else’s celebration.

We spent our last Christmas together in Seattle – where we had moved a few months earlier. I made a final vat of risotto while my friends Earl and Jesse jammed with my husband on guitar.

A year later we were divorced and I found myself once again in Chicago – scrambling for a plan. I have no recollection of what I did that year. And only vague ones of dinners at Min Hing in the two seasons that followed.

Last December, I spent Christmas in Cologne with my sixth-grade lab partner. I was living in Madrid, just a few hours flight away. She picked me up on Christmas Eve with a trunk full of food – explaining the grocery markets would be closed until December 27. At 5 p.m. the airport Starbucks had already closed.

We cooked, ate, talked for hours and went for long walks down wide boulevards that reminded me of Chicago’s Logan Square. On Boxing Day we visited the Christmas markets and stuffed ourselves with giant potato pancakes topped with sour cream and applesauce. It was, without a doubt, my best Christmas.

This December, as the days grew near, I waited to hear if anyone would be “gathering the troops” for Peking Duck. But all I heard was silence. I considered spearheading the process as I had so many times before, but frankly felt too exhausted.

It seemed I would be alone … that is, until an ex-boyfriend phoned a week before the holiday.

“Why don’t you take the train down and join mom and me for Chinese food and TV back at the house? You can spend the night or if you prefer, I can drive you home,” he said brightly, adding, “Mom is really excited to see you.”

Lovely. And yet.

His invitation felt intimate and familiar. Too intimate. Too familiar. A little girlfriend-y. Except I wasn’t his girlfriend anymore.

I sat with his invitation for nearly a week until the morning the words “What do you want to do?” slipped off of my pen while journaling. And then, “What would be fun?”

“A Writers Retreat.”

The words came quickly, followed by, “Meditate. Exercise. Read. Face mask. Bath salts. Beautiful food.”

When I mentioned this to my friend Nikki, she offered up her apartment as a “retreat facility.” She and her husband would be traveling to Wisconsin to be with family. A few days later my friend Clover suggested I open one of her Chanukkah gifts to me early. It was a turmeric and gold clay face mask. “For your retreat,” she explained, smiling.

That night I wrote my ex-boyfriend a note — thanking him, but declining his invitation.

I thought about my 45th birthday. The first one I spent alone – by choice — waking up in Rome and going to bed in Paris.

Upon hearing my plans, my mother asked, “Will you like being alone on your birthday?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “We’ll find out.”

Walking across the Seine, looking out at the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, a thought rose up inside of me. “I don’t wish a man were here. I don’t wish a friend were here. That I wore something different or ate something different. I don’t wish anything was different than it is.”

It was a revolutionary idea. One I didn’t choose to think. Instead, it lived inside of me, speaking with its own voice.

Two years later, I returned to Paris — alone — for my 47th birthday.

And Christmas?

I woke up in Chicago and went to bed in Chicago. And in the hours between, I ate smoked salmon, pomegranates, chocolate and fresh dates. I slathered my face with gold clay and soaked in the bath reading Julia Child’s “My Life in France.” I wrote. I meditated. I danced, napped and wrote some more.

I didn’t wish I was in Israel. Or Cologne. With my ex-boyfriend or ex-husband or a friend. Eating dim sum, riding my bike or watching a movie. I didn’t wish anything was different than it was.

I was Jewish, solo and sans Chinese food. And Merry on Christmas.

From Mikveh to Madrid, Now … More

rocaberti-table
Dinner at the Rocaberti Castle. Food for the belly. Food for the soul.

Five days, 12 writers, 3 mentors, a genius staff who could both dream and deliver. Chefs who fed our hearts and our bellies. A castle, many missed photo opportunities and so much unbelievable talent.

I knew I was truly immersed in the moment when I received an email from my mother “just checking in” because she hadn’t seen me on Facebook in a while. (Sweet, right?)

It is only now, after leaving the “bubble” of the Rocaberti Writers Retreat, that I am able to begin reflecting on all that I experienced. All that I learned. All that happened. And all that has yet to happen.

In the cocoon of the castle, I was able to practice pitching “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” to mentors — three individuals steeped and successful in the business of movies, television and publishing — as I would for agent representation or a book deal.

I introduced my work as “Eat, Pray, Love” meets Dora the Explorer, and was immediately met with the challenge — “Why a cartoon character?”

Quite simply, because I could not think of a single happy ending for a solo female protagonist over the age of 12. Think”Ramona the Brave,” “Harriet the Spy,” and yes, Dora.

Our resident feature writer and producer, the one who had challenged me, was able to summon just one — Holly Hunter in the 1987 film “Broadcast News.” One.

In that moment I knew I was on to something. And yet, I already knew. Because of all I had experienced. All I had written. The support I had received via Go Fund Me. And the feedback from my retreat mentor — one on one — and from my colleagues in small group sessions.

In addition to learning about my own work, I received a practical education on next steps and the nuts of bolts of publishing. And opened my mind to the possibilities of film and television.

And now? More…

I’ve been asked to let go of my newspaper training and blogging terseness and to let the lushness of my language fill in the blanks. To tell the story of how I went from mikveh (the ritual bath used in a Jewish divorce) to Madrid. The experience of 52 Artist Dates and how they changed me … that when given a chance at the kind of love I had called out for, I ultimately chose myself.

Artist Date 6.2: Crazy Time

I love the smell of paper.

It is one of the many reasons I prefer bookstores to the ease of Amazon. That and the sense of possibility. Of community. Staff picks. Book Club reads.  All laid out on tables, ripe for reading. A smorgasbord of words.

Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein. Grunt by Mary Roach. M Train by Patti Smith.

I pick up each one and tuck it under my arm, carrying a small stack with me through Women and Children First Bookstore. Artist Date 6.2 (122).

Because I know of Leigh but I do not know her. Because we belong to the same women’s writing collective, but we have never met.

Because I heard Terri Gross’ interview with Roach on Fresh Air while I was living in Madrid. Their English sounded so good to my American ear and home didn’t seem so far away.

Because just this afternoon, my friend Spencer suggested Smith’s book to me.

m-train

I feel connected to these stories. Like I want to hold on to them.

Others I don’t.

Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Lang.

Because I fear there is no room in this conversation for my voice — my manuscript, They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain: How 52 Artist Dates Healed My Heart and Landed Me in the Center of My Own Life. Traveling alone. Living abroad. Writing a book. Because I fear I have nothing new to add. Because I believe publication might finally allow me to be “done” with my divorce.

Crazy Time by Abigail Trafford.

Because it takes me back to a time before Artist Dates. Before traveling alone and living overseas and writing a book. When I was just embarking upon my divorce.

I am still living in Seattle, still sharing a home with my soon-to-be ex-husband – but sleeping in separate bedrooms.

I am head-over-heels-over-head for my friend M in Chicago. He is also going through a divorce and we prop one another up through our disbelief and fear, talking on the phone each night into the wee hours of the morning.

I am also a wee bit obsessed with my friend (another) M in Seattle. He is the first man to see me naked – other than my husband or my doctor – in 15 years. We kiss endlessly, stopping only to share our stories — whispering under a blanket that smells faintly of dog.

But only once.

Since then we seem to be dancing a familiar “come-here-go-away” cha-cha. I know the tune, but still haven’t mastered the steps.

My therapist Saundra tells me about Crazy Time.

crazy-time

“Because it is a crazy time,” she says, speaking from both personal and professional experience. She says to tell Chicago M I have to go to sleep. She rolls her eyes at the mention of Seattle M.

“You told me I get to make mistakes.”

“You made yours,” she says.

We look at one another, a little bit shocked by her frankness and laugh.

“You don’t get to say that.”

“I know,” she says. “But it’s true.” And it is.

Saundra believes it is preferable I grieve the end of my marriage before jumping into another relationship. She says if I don’t, I’ll only run from the pain of it – from bed to bed, relationship to relationship – rather than addressing the source and healing.

It doesn’t sound so bad, really.

And yet, it is not my path.

I pull Crazy Time from the shelf and begin thumbing through it – only half reading.

“It starts when you separate and usually lasts about two years. It’s a time when your emotions take on a life of their own and you swing back and forth between wild euphoria and violent anger, ambivalence and deep depression, extreme timidity and rash actions. You are not yourself. Who are you?

“Then at the height of Crazy Time, you may get a reprieve. You fall in love – a coup de foudre – and the block of lead in your chest miraculously melts; you can’t believe it, you laugh, you dance. You know it’s too soon, too much like jumping into a lifeboat that you know leaks and has no oars. But you smile, feeling so good after feeling so bad for so long. Therapists call this the search for the romantic solution. But it’s usually not a solution.

“You crash… Now you’re really scared. You can’t believe how frightened you are; about money, your health, your sanity. In all the feel-good rhetoric about divorce being a growth opportunity for the new super you, nobody tells you about Crazy Time.”

Four years have passed since my divorce was made final by the courts.

Since then, my ex-husband has bought a home that he shares with the woman he’s been seeing for a couple of years. Chicago M is about to become a daddy. And according to Facebook, Seattle M — the one with the dog blanket — is “In a Relationship.”

I pick up Smith’s M Train and take it to the register, first slipping the other books back into their proper places on the shelves.

Still traveling alone. Still writing. Sometimes still in Crazy Time.

 

 

 

 

Fully Funded

With gratitude for those who have supported my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain — How 52 Artist Dates Healed My Heart and Landed Me In the Center of My Life.” For those I have know in Spain and in Chicago. For those who have loved me enough to tell me the truth about myself. For those who have brought me to my fundraising goal! Muchas gracias.


September 20

I spent some time on the phone this morning, talking with a woman I’ve known for a long time but haven’t spoken to in years. She had recently opened an old email address inbox and happened upon a history of my blog posts.

“You inspire me,” she said, having read them. “You really do take lemons and make lemonade.”

I was touched and humbled by her words. And a bit tickled by the divine timing of our conversation. I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who inspire me. Not by grand heroics, but just by going about their days — stepping fully into their lives with a generous heart, and showing me what is possible.

People like Lynn Merel.

Lynn doesn’t love winter. But rather than grouse about the inevitable, she has arranged her life to spend the worst Chicago months in warmer climates.

She is a working artist. Lynn paints, and makes paper and greeting cards. (Check out http://www.lynnmerelart.com!) When I converted to Judaism in 2011 — committing to the faith I was raised with but not born into — she planted a tree in Israel in my honor.

People like Meghan Harkins.

Meg is an actor and a musician. She gives great hugs. Teaches kids ukelele and piano. And has been known to send a text from the train, inviting me on an impromptu Artist Date to the Art Institute for free-after-5 p.m. Thursdays.

We recently had a conversation about money and miracles. The power of saying no to work that doesn’t serve you. And the gift of giving money away.

Like she did by contributing to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign. Like Lynn did too.

Muchas gracias, mis amigas. For your generosity. And for showing me abundance and possibility in living a creative life.

distant-city
Distant City 1. Copyright 2013. Lynn Merel

September 21

Anonymous
Adjective. anon·y·mous ə-ˈnä-nə-məs
1: of unknown authorship or origin
2: not named or identified
3: lacking individuality, distinction, or recognizability
(Source: Meriam-Webster’s Learning Dictionary)

To date, I have received 69 donations to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign. Many of them are anonymous (not to me, but externally facing) — definition two. But of those, none are three.

Their stories, how I know them — not how we met, but how we “know” one another — are distinct enough to render them no longer “unrecognizable.” So I won’t tell them here. But I know them. And they do too.

Connections and tales that span the globe. From Madrid to the Midwest. All along the left coast and across all aspects of my life. The movies in my heart — that I know by heart.

I feel recognized (further dismantling definition three) — truly seen — by their generous support. As I am. As a writer.

Muchas gracias, sweet friends. You know who you are …

in-the-mirror
Alone, but never anonymous, in Seville.

September 22

My “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign is fully funded!!

As I wrote early this morning on Facebook, I am in awe. Humbled and honored by the support around me and this project. Graced by this opportunity.

This is not the update I imagined writing today.

I had one planned about the friends who love you enough to tell you the truth about yourself. Like my friend Kiki who generously doles out servings of no-nonsense affection and reflection in her kitchen, along with a side of her killer homemade soup.

Like my friend Pam, who is both a truth-teller and a channel for my 12-year-old self. We can talk about “boys” for hours and laugh so hard I pee myself. (I only did that once!)

I had one planned about friends who witnessed my life in Spain. Like Lindsey, who flew from Chicago to Madrid and joined me in exploring Malaga, Granada and Tangier. Who carried an inflated mattress across town with me — her bed while staying in the capital city. And watched me clumsily communicate in the South of Spain, insisting I do in fact speak Spanish.

Like Nicole, who I knew only a little while living in Chicago … but who made time to meet me at Mox in Malansaña (one of Madrid’s funkiest neighborhoods) for an American-sized salad. And who I have grown to know more deeply since returning “home.”

But instead, I woke this morning to an $86 donation (the exact amount necessary to meet my $4,250 goal) and these words from Harriett Kelly, “Go write your book!” I laid in bed for a while, tears streaming down my cheeks — laughing and crying.

Thank you, Pam. Thank you, Kiki. Thank you, Lindsey. Thank you, Nicole. And thank you, Harriett. For your generous donations. And for supporting my dream and my story — a post-divorce narrative with the possibility of a happy ending, no partner required. One you can write yourself. Like I did.

Yes, Harriett … “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain: How 52 Artist Dates Healed My Heart and Landed Me In the Center of My Life” is written. The manuscript was sent to my writing retreat mentor at the beginning of September.

Next stop is Girona — where I will meet with an editor and other publishing professionals whose job it is to tell me the truth about my work. (Thanks for the training, Kiki!) What I need to do to bring my story to market. And how to manifest a book deal.

I leave in 13 days. I’ll send “postcards” and updates from the road here.

with-lindsey-and-camel
In Tangier with Lindsey … I asked, but forgot, the camel’s name.

I’ve been asked if the campaign is still open for donations. Yes! Any additional funds raised will be used to support the publication and promotion of “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.” Think book tour! Want to know more about”They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain?” Click here: https://www.gofundme.com/awanderingjewess