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.
Muchas gracias to those who have supported my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a post-divorce narrative of how 52 Artist Dates healed my heart and pointed me in the direction of my dreams –- and my goal of manifesting blog into book deal. It is a joy to share three more of their stories and how they touched mine.
October 2015. Valencia.
I am enjoying my first solo holiday since moving to Madrid. A pre-birthday celebration.
I’ve rented a bike. Treated myself to a day at the beach — complete with lounge chair, umbrella, and a massage. And feasted on paella with the friend of a friend, and her family. (A real treat — as my air bnb host has informed me restaurants do not make fresh paella for one. Solo diners have to make do with a ration, cooked up earlier in the day — mostly for tourists who don’t know the difference. Remember … “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”)
It is my last evening here. I’m strolling the beautiful, winding streets when I hear … American! Not English, American.
My head spins around, as it does every time I hear my native “twang.” Except this time I am surprised by a familiar face.
It is Gail Mathis. We met just a few weeks earlier in Madrid. And now she is here, in Valencia.
And here, nearly a year later, supporting my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
Thank you, Gail! For your generous donation and for maintaining the connection of chance meetings and serendipity.
I regret I won’t see Gail when we both return to Spain this fall. Our itineraries don’t quite overlap. Plus, I’ll be at writers retreat — with the intention of manifesting a book deal for “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
The Rocaberti Writers Retreat I will be attending this October in Girona, Spain is paid in full!!
Many thanks to Angie Hubbell for donating the EXACT amount needed to help me achieve this auspicious milestone.
Angie has been a co-creator in my life for as long as I have known her.
We finally met in 2007 (We’d shared a mutual friend and had heard about one another for close to 20 years.) when she hosted my then husband and I, visiting Chicago from California, in hopes of finding a home.
After two days of real estate”touring,” we agreed on a condo we wanted to call our own. Problem was, we weren’t sure if we could afford to.
I still don’t know what kind of voodoo mathematics Angie did … all I recall is her scratching down some numbers on a margarita napkin, and showing us we could.
That same weekend our mortgage broker went AWOL. Again, Angie swooped in with a solution — connecting us with a friend of hers who brokered the deal with speed, kindness and grace.
We lived in that house for four years. Rented it for a few more. And sold it last July — days before I moved to Spain. It was the last piece tying my ex and I to one another.
I left for Madrid less than a week later, truly unencumbered. Truly free to inhabit my life. And to discover “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
I feel a bit like a political fundraiser penning a “Thanks for your donation … but there’s still work to do” email.
Yesterday I gleefully posted that the Writers Retreat I will be attending in Girona is now paid in full. What I failed to mention is I am still about $1,500 from my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign goal — as was made apparent when a friend called this morning and exclaimed, “You met your goal!” Aww … “Well, a milestone piece of it,” I responded. (Detailed cost breakdown here.)
… but there’s still work to do.
Isn’t there always?
I am a firm believer that each person we meet changes our world in some way — large or small. I also believe that, if we’re lucky, a few people change the way we live in the world.
Christine Frazita is one of those people.
I showed up in her San Francisco office in the mid 1990s, not long after parting ways with my previous psychotherapist — the one who had briefly dated my then boyfriend. And neglected to tell me about it.
Christine’s couch provided both a literal and metaphoric soft place to land. And while she was, and is, kind beyond my personal understanding or ability … she also pushed me to work hard to change the way I saw the world and myself in it.
I remember telling Christine about that then-boyfriend. How he had lived in Paris for a couple of years. How I dreamed of doing something similar, but for a variety of reasons, didn’t believe I could.
Twenty years later, I not only believed I could. I did!
Muchas, muchas gracias, Christine! For your contribution to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign. And for your help in doing the heavy lifting that got me there.
Christine sent me this sculpture of the Hindu Goddess Durga as a wedding gift. She remembered my religious studies professor at university had mentioned a Goddess particularly appropriate for and inside of me — Durga, Goddess of Power and Strength.
Want to know more about “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — how 52 Artist Dates saved my soul after divorce and landed me smack in the middle of my own life — or how to contribute to my Go Fund Me campaign? Click here.
More words of thanks for those who have supported my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a happily-ever-after, after divorce story … one that offers the possibility of joy without partnership –and my dream of manifesting blog into book deal.
Today I secured a freelance writing assignment … in the bridal space!
The universe has a sense of humor.
I was a little worried when I applied for the position as my most recent published work (Washington Post, XO Jane ) has been about divorce. I assured my new employer I would be delighted to write “from the other side” for a change.
Maybe I’m getting ready to pen “a new chapter?” Or perhaps it’s just a nod to my moniker as writer, a reminder that I have lived and can tell many tales. And that I am a fun and flexible storyteller … like my friend Tanya Gazdik.
Many thanks Tanya for your generous support of the “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign. And for your unyielding support of my writing for the past 25 years (Tanya was my first newspaper editor!) and my journey.
(The State News — where Tanya and I worked together.)
Early memories of writing …
Journals on lined paper. I told my teacher, Mrs. Blum, the words I wanted to say. She wrote them and I copied them on the line below. A sentence or two. Sometimes I would draw a picture … me in my pink ballet shoes. My mother saved all of these until I was 25 and she and my father sold my childhood home. I insisted they had to go. But first, we read each of them.
A book on Paul Revere. We glued wallpaper scraps onto cardboard to create the cover and stitched the binding by hand. “One if by land, and two if by sea …” I had a tough time drawing a horse.
Letters to my aunt in California. She owned a stationery store and sent beautiful cards and paper for me to write on. She was my first (and only) pen pal. I often wonder what I wrote. And marvel at her commitment to corresponding with an 8 year old.
Several years later, upon my graduation from university, she sent me a Waterman pen. A luxurious elegance celebrating my commitment to my craft.
Yesterday, I received her donation to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign, along with a note: “No gift needed. The gift will be knowing that you will fulfill your dream (and a book).”
Thank you to my “somewhat anonymous aunt” … for supporting me in every step of my writing journey.
“They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a post-divorce confessional, offering a contentedly solo happily- ever-after ending — promises to be a bit juicier than my 8-year-old letters or retelling of the ride of Paul Revere … but hopefully, equally heartfelt and true.
(Photo taken the same year I wrote about Paul Revere.)
Around the time I was leaving Chicago — for the first time, in 2011 — my friend Lisa said to me in passing, “I think you’re going to write a book.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Because I do.”
Lisa has an economy of words that I am in awe of. She is a careful listener. Has (clearly) good intuition, the patience of Job, and a big, shiny heart.
Many thanks Lisa for your generous donation to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign, and for helping me tell the story of how 52 Artist Dates saved my soul, my sanity and my serenity after my divorce. How 52 Artist Dates gave my life creative structure, taught me how to really be okay with being alone and led me to a life I had only dreamed of. A life as a writer. A life lived overseas.
(Me and Lisa … before I left Chicago, the first time.)
Want to know more about “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — how 52 Artist Dates saved my soul after divorce and landed me smack in the middle of my own life — or how to contribute to my Go Fund Me campaign? Click here.
I posited that this was what I needed to move forward in my writing … to tie up the past 3-plus months neatly, in context, with a bow (or a blog, or three). Tidy, clean, presentable.
And under this, tugs the idea that now that I am “up to date,” am I also “up to date?”
I’m not so sure.
In addition to writing little about my days here in Madrid, I’ve written precious little about the relationship I left in Chicago. Precious being the key word. Because it was. Because it still is. Because I wanted to, and still want to, honor his privacy…and mine.
And also because I was hopeful. Hopeful that even though we’d been doing the dance of “not long distance,” a nameless cha-cha of “I love you, but you live in another country so I don’t know exactly what we are but we certainly aren’t what we were” – that we would do long-distance. That I could have my romance and have my adventure too.
Not unlike my marriage. My marriage that ended for many reasons, among them perhaps that I often appeared more single than partnered. Not romantically or sexually single. But uncompromising. Independent. So when I moved to Chicago, and then Seattle, for my then-husband’s work, more than one friend expressed surprise…thinking I might opt to stay put and stay married.
It’s been painful to find love again and to leave it. Even though we both knew I was leaving from the moment we met. I don’t think either of us expected to tumble so head over heels over head for one another.
Upon seeing this, my friend S. – the master of turning things on their head just to get perspective — has more than once suggested I return to Chicago to “play things out, to see what happens.”
I explain that my lover never asked me to stay. That he has never asked me to come back.
“I didn’t ask you that,” he replies. “I said if you want to go find out about the two of you…then go.”
“I can’t,” I say.
Because I am here. Because I committed to being here. Because I always dreamed of living overseas and it was such a crazy, distant dream that I never imagined I’d do it. And yet here I am, doing it!
Even when it’s hard. Even when I’m not sure that I am here for any reason other than to say, “I tried it. I did it. I had the experience.”
Even though Spain might not be my long-term home. Even though teaching English might not be my long-term career.
I made a commitment — a commitment to myself.
I tell him that I don’t know when I might have this opportunity again.
That I followed my ex-husband’s dream. That it was easier than thinking about my own. But that this is mine. A sometimes vague, not-fully formed but finally-owned fantasy.
“So stay,” S. says. “But it is your choice.”
It is my choice.
And I am reminded of making the very same choice a few months before I met D. Before I decided to move to Madrid…when teaching English overseas was still in the “maybe, just maybe” stage.
It is winter. Sunday morning. I am driving to work, leaving my friend P. at my apartment. He is visiting from Michigan.
P. is a shaman and a writer. He is funny and sweet and sexy. Flirtatious. But P. is not interested in me that way. We have discussed it.
Before I leave the house he traces the space between my eyebrows – my third eye — and kisses me there. Driving, I think, “It is too bad P. doesn’t like me that way…”
And in the silence of Sunday morning, sunlight bouncing off the snow, a voice, mine…but smarter than me, whispers, “His dream is to have a retreat center in Southwest Michigan. Yours is to live in Europe.”
And I realize, for perhaps the first time in my life, I have a dream bigger than love.
I am flummoxed.
And it seems I still do.
It all sounds very Ms. magazine-esque. Strong and empowered. And at moments it is. But at other times, a lot of the times, it feels incredibly lonely and stupid. And yet, the thought of returning to Chicago before my one-year visa has expired sounds more lonely, more stupid.
And I return to the question…am I “up to date?” Here? In Madrid? I see a friend of mine embark on her first Tinder date just weeks after announcing the end of her 20-plus year marriage and I’m pretty sure the answer is no.
Kudos to her. But I just haven’t been “up to” it.
Maybe because I haven’t wanted to let go of “us.” Maybe because it was, and we were, that good.
Maybe because I’m a little bit scared to open my heart again. Maybe because I am dubious about what is or is not out there.
Or maybe, just maybe, because I’m a little bit afraid of losing my dream again…the one bigger than love. So, for now, I’m holding on tight.
I’ve had the same Weight Watchers “Before” photo for nearly 12 years.
It is of me and my ex-husband, drinking wine at an outdoor cafe in the Fifth Arrondissement in Paris — the day after my 31st birthday.
My friend Nora calls it the perfect before photo, pointing to the visible roll at my belly, the buttons straining at my pre-reduction breasts, gaping fabric, and my somewhat distorted face.
I share this photograph with new Weight Watchers members as a way of creating rapport and earning credibility — as if to say “I’ve been there…I know” and also, “this is possible” without uttering a word.
Some gasp. Others laugh uncomfortably. A few offer up kind words like, “You were still cute.” Occasionally I am asked, somewhat rhetorically, “This is you?” to which I reply “the other is my ex husband,” and sometimes add, “it is his ‘before’ photograph too.”
Last week I heard something different, something I hadn’t heard before — twice, from two different people.
“Are you still with him?”
I was taken aback. It seemed out of context, but also surprising, as for so many years, so many of the members knew him — or at least of him.
He was the one pushing the basket at Trader Joes. The bike racer turned massage therapist turned doctor who helped guide this girl who failed gym class into a reluctant athlete who dabbles in bike centuries and triathalons. The one who asked if I earned more activity points in the winter, as I surely burned more calories trying to keep warm. The reason I left California and then Chicago — choosing to flank him on his journey from medical school to residency to doctor.
But I rarely, if ever, mention him in Weight Watchers meetings anymore.
Thursday, after my lunchtime meetings closed, I shared the twice-asked, seemingly unusual question — “are you still with him?” — with my colleagues and added, “I think I need a new ‘before’ picture.”
It feels like more than a gentle nudge from the universe telling me to “move on” — to find another 35-pounds-heavier reminder of who I used to be, because offering up a photograph of the two of us more than half a dozen times each week is no longer serving me.
And so I wonder what else I might be doing that doesn’t contribute to my “moving on.”
There isn’t much of our past surrounding me — I left most of it with him in Seattle. A cooking pot, French coffee press and a three-season sleeping bag. My Italian road bike, a pair of snowshoes and a lithograph by an African artist called “Masks of the Healer #2.” It hangs over my dining room table, a sort of talisman watching me as I write.
I also removed him from my feed on Facebook after being “greeted” by a photograph of him, his girlfriend and his new cats on Christmas Day. It wasn’t the image of him and another woman that bothered me so much (I’d seen photographs of the two of them before.) It was the juxtaposition of him in his new life, wearing his old bathrobe — a plaid flannel, L.L Bean — that got to me.
And yet, I was still typing part of his name and social security number several times each week — using the combination as a secondary password. So yesterday at work, I changed it to something more me-centric.
But finding the right before picture is more challenging. We were together for 15 years, so he is in many of my photographs. (My mother’s too. She cut him out of the one on top of her bureau.) Also, I didn’t keep many photographs of me 35 pounds ago. I had ceased to be that woman.
And I’ve ceased to be that married one as well.
There are other befores. And there will be other afters.
I haven’t heard from my ex in more than a week. This isn’t unusual, except I have reached out to him twice during this time — once to ask for medical advice (I forget he is not my doctor), a second time to ask if he might talk with a friend of mine about the later-in-life path to medical school — and that is unusual.
Except for when it isn’t.
We recently saw one other for the first time since I moved out of the house we shared in Seattle and returned to Chicago, more than two and a half years.
I cried when I saw his blue polar fleece stocking cap — the one that makes him look like a tall Smurf– bobbing above the crowd as he got off the train, across from our favorite Lebanese restaurant. Again when we embraced. And again when, looking up for the menu, I inquired “The usual?” to which he replied, laughing, “That is what I was going to say.”
And so it was over chicken schwarma, hummus and fattoush that he admitted that the times he hadn’t called me back — there weren’t many — he simply, emotionally, could not.
This may be one of those times.
At first, I didn’t think too much of it when I didn’t hear back from him. It was Valentine’s Day weekend. I thought, perhaps, he might be out of town with his girlfriend. A thought followed by strong intuition — “He’s moving in with her.” I said the words out loud, as usual, to no one in particular. “He doesn’t want to tell me.”
Later that day, I saw an MLS listing for a bungalow on his Facebook page, forwarded by his girlfriend.
When I reached out to him a second time, a week later, and again did not hear back, I was fairly certain of my inner knowing. And much to my surprise, I felt rattled and sad.
Not so much because he may or may not be buying a house with his girlfriend. (I still do not know for certain, nor is it really any of my business.) But because, in that moment, I realized I had been holding on to an unspoken agreement we never made. Something like, “We may be divorced but you and I are in this together. Forever.”
I was shocked. I had no idea.
I have often referred to mine as the “lucky divorce.” (Which sounds like it should come with soup, egg roll and an almond cookie.)
For a long time we were one another’s “In Case of Emergency” person. We left passwords unchanged, and nursed each other’s broken hearts in post-divorce attempts at romance.
I never had to hunt down my spousal support. I knew the money would be in my account on the 15th of the month, the same way I knew he would always be there. Until he wasn’t.
Perhaps my divorce wasn’t so “lucky” after all, as it seems more than possible that this underlying, unspoken (not even to myself) agreement may have kept me from truly seeking out another partnership, or at the very least, being open to one.
I shared all of this with my friend Robin. She replied, “He’s not your husband anymore.”
Not exactly news. And yet, on some deep, gut, primal level — it was. And I finally “got it.” So perhaps I can finally let go of it.
It reminds me of when I returned to an old boyfriend, many years after we had broken up, to make amends for where I had been wrong in that relationship.
“You wanted a partner, I wanted a parent,” I said. (Not surprisingly, he was 17 years my senior.) Tears streamed down his face as the words slipped past my lips. He hugged me hard, harder than he ever had in the time we were together.
“Why are you crying,” I asked.
“Because I am.”
I understood. I saw the truth. I saw what he knew all along. Finally. It was as if I had slipped back through the rabbit hole and we were living in the same reality, more than 15 years after the end of our brief relationship.
A few weeks ago, over dinner, a woman I know asked me who traveled with me to Italy.
“No one,” I answered. “Myself.”
Like the silence I heard when I was a we, and responded to the question “Do you have children?” with a simple “No.” The quiet, uncomfortable space while they waited for some sort of explanation. Something to make them feel more comfortable with the answer that made them uncomfortable.
The same silence that often greets me when responding to the question, “Are you seeing anyone?” with “No.” The same quiet waiting, for “But I was…” or “Well there is this guy I just met.” Or my friend Patsy’s genius answer, “I am seeing a lot of different men.”
For a while I acquiesced…talking about my not-quite-relationships. My Divorce Buddy. The Southern Svengali. The friendships, flirtations and occasional dalliances that made me feel like I had something going on. The relationships that ended seemingly before they even started. I think it made us both feel better.
This time was different. I felt no need to explain my solo voyage. In fact, I was downright chuffed (to turn a British phrase), pleased with myself and the situation I consciously and happily put myself in – alone for 17 days in Italy.
A few days later, I was asked the same question about travel mates. And I watched as the woman’s smile wrinkled into a pained frown. “You were alone…on your birthday?” The same question my mother asked me before I left. The same question I had asked myself.
“Yes! It was awesome!”
I told her about my 15-hour layover in Paris. About walking along the Seine, seeing Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, laughing out loud, asking no one in particular, “Who goes to Paris for dinner on their birthday?” and replying, “I do.”
I told her about being present to the moment. About the real birthday present – of not wanting anything to be other than it was. Not wishing for a man or a friend. Not wishing I had worn something different, eaten something different, stayed in a different apartment.
She looked confused.
I’ve been thinking about why this trip was different. Why I was different.
I have traveled by myself before – on press trips and volunteer projects and meeting up with friends on the other end. But only truly “alone” once before – in the few days before and after participating in a volunteer project in the south of France.
I had longed to travel alone. It represented who I wanted to be. Adventurous. Glamorous. Strong. A world traveler. And yet, when I arrived in Paris alone in 2006 I only felt sad, scared and alone.
My answer, or at least part of it, came in an email from my friend Melinda. In it, she mentioned going to a play reading – by herself – completely spur of the moment.
“It kind of reminded me of your Artist Dates.”
Artist Date. Balm to my soul. Savior of my heart and mind. The simple suggestion by Julia Cameron in the book The Artist’s Way of a once a week “walkabout” to fill one’s creative coffers.
I took on the challenge nearly two years ago. Newly divorced and painfully licking the wounds of my first forays “back out there.” I had heard others talk about feeling free, having great sex, or at the very least, a lot of it, following the dissolution of their marriages. My efforts and experiences only left me feeling scared, desperate and crazy.
In a moment of grace, I turned away from convention, from the promises of partnership, and toward myself through weekly Artist Dates. To the opera. To the Art Institute. To ethnic grocery stores and new neighborhoods. To theatre and concerts. Alone.
Reading Melinda’s email, it occurred to me that perhaps all of this “structured aloneness” had prepared me for this – a seeming marathon of solitude.
Arriving in Rome alone last month, I felt the same anxious fear that had accompanied me to Paris. But this time I didn’t try to act cool. I didn’t try to pretend I was a local or that I even knew where I was.
I held a map in my hand, asked a lot of questions and opened myself to the possibility of getting lost, or worse, of looking stupid.
I challenged myself to not take cabs. To depend on trains, buses and trams.
On my feet. On myself. And the time-tested kindness of strangers.
Strangers who reminded me I was never really alone. Leonardo, the 19-year-old man/boy, who saved me from boarding the wrong bus – twice – in Arezzo.
Delilah, another volunteer at Altrocioccolato – the fair trade chocolate festival in Umbria where I began my journey – who sent me to her brother, his wife and cousin in Florence for Aperitivo – the Italian version of happy hour, but with a much better buffet, and a drive through the city.
Who organized a dinner party – which became my birthday party, complete with candles, singing and gifts – among her English-speaking friends when I arrived in Rome a few days later.
Seems my Artist Dates, my time alone, prepared me to be alone. For long walks, shopping at flea markets and eating fatty pork sandwiches while sitting on the edge of a fountain in Campo De Fiore.
It also prepared me to be with people – with ideas and experiences to share.
But mostly it prepared me for my life, the one I dreamed of not so many years ago in Paris— Adventurous. Glamorous. Strong. A world traveler.