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.”
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.
I hear these words often in recovery circles — usually in reference to romance or finance but its application is universal. Truthfully, I prefer”my time,” but it seems that’s not how things work — not even in writing, of which I have more than a modicum of control.
According to Facebook, “On This Day” in 2016 I launched my Go Fund Me campaign. I wrote:
“For those of you who have asked, ‘When’s the book coming out?’ (And those of you who haven’t …) I need your help! I’ll be returning to Spain this fall for the Rocaberti Castle Writers Retreat, to meet with industry experts who will help me go from blog to book. I received a half-scholarship to the retreat. Please consider a donation to help defray the remaining costs … ”
I hit my goal in October of last year and went to the retreat in Girona the same month. Inside the cocoon-like confines of the castle, I pitched my project to industry professionals, and received constructive feedback and guidance on my manuscript — both one-on-one and in small work circles. The shorthand takeaway was MORE — more details, more lushness of language, let go of the tight journalistic training and “take us there.”
Eight months have passed … and I naively thought I’d have a book deal by now. (Politics aside, I feel a bit like our current president when he said that his job was way harder than he anticipated. Turns out … so is going from blog to book.)
Today’s “On This Day” seemed like a nudge from the Universe to let those who so generously supported this project know the status of it.
What’s Happened Since the Retreat:
Returning home, I began to incorporate the feedback I had received and quickly found myself lost in my own story. So in early 2017, I took retreat mentor Debra Engle up on her offer of a complimentary 30-minute coaching session, to see if she could help guide me out of the weeds. She did, and then some … so I hired her.
We have completed eight of 10 coaching sessions. (I anticipate buying a package of five more for a total of 15.) It has been a slow and enlightening process.
I discovered many Artist Dates included in the original manuscript got tossed out as they didn’t move the story forward, while others that were seemingly less sexy were added because they illustrated the growth trajectory on my journey from “we” to “me” so well.
With Deb’s guidance I have completed a solid Introduction and Chapter One — which took “seemingly forever.” (Again, God’s time, not mine.) According to Deb, this is normal. “You’re setting up the whole book,” she explained. The “why” of the 52 Artist Dates, which received short shrift in the first-draft manuscript.
In addition, I have completed a chapter-by-chapter outline — 54 easy-to-scan one paragraph summaries that show the arc and trajectory of the story.
Once upon a time writers could bypass the agent and take their work straight to publishing houses. This is no longer the case with the exception of small, specialty houses, which Deb suggested I not consider as the story has “universal appeal.”
I am currently working on the proposal to send to potential agents. It includes:
*Chapter-by-Chapter Outline. Status: Done
*Three Sample Chapters. Status: Introduction and Chapter One completed, rewriting third sample chapter to include “more lushness.”
*The pitch — A summary and overview of the book, consideration of the market, its competition, marketing and “About the Author.” Status: About 75 percent complete.
My goal is to have the proposal “agent ready” by July 4 — Independence Day, which seems fitting as I found every Artist Date moved me towards greater emotional and spiritual freedom — and to begin shopping it July 5.
The original “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign was created to defray the costs of the Rocaberti Castle Writers Retreat and related travel costs. Time with a writing coach was not factored in. To that end, I have not formally re-opened the campaign or changed the fundraising goal. However, I am accepting donations towards this cost — $900 for 15, 30-minute sessions.
It is four weeks today since I left Paris. It feels like forever ago.
Not for the reasons most people think. Not because I love Paris, have dreamed of living there for as long as I can remember (even before I had ever visited), and occasionally wake up with French words on my lips – even though I don’t speak the language. Not because a reiki practitioner once told me I have “agreements” with Paris. (I still don’t know exactly what that means.) Although all of that is true.
Quite simply, I left my heart there … and I miss it, and him and what we shared.
What was meant to be 14 days together, zipping up to Normandy on his motorbike (“It will be like our honeymoon,” he said.) was goodbye instead.
I never saw it coming.
We met in October, on my way home from a writer’s retreat in Girona, Spain. It was, as my friend Michelle likes to say, “A romance for the ages.”
We found one another in a church basement – the kind where we both learned how to get and stay sober a number of years earlier – on his birthday, the day before mine. What began as coffee led to a meandering walk through Paris — sharing our stories, and a piece of cake — and ended with three knee-buckling kisses at the Bastille roundabout, my salmon-colored wool and silk scarf blowing in the breeze. One for his birthday, one for mine, and one to “tide me over” until we saw one another again in two days. The stuff of Hollywood movies.
Four days later, my last in Paris, he told me he loved me, and that he was in love with me.
“Is that crazy” he asked over a steaming bucket of mussels and live accordion music that wafted up the stairs.
“Yes,” I replied. “But I get it.”
He also told me he didn’t want to think about me every day, that he didn’t want to know how I took my coffee.
“But you already know how I take my coffee,” I said, smiling.
We agreed that we wanted to continue getting to know one another and that neither of us knew exactly what that meant. The next morning, boarding a plane back to the United States, I received a text, “Still love you, babe.”
Later that week, during the first of many marathon phone calls, he asked if I would come back in the spring. I said yes without hesitation and purchased a non-stop return ticket from Chicago to Paris for $500 the following day. I had never paid so little to fly to to Europe and chose to see it as a sign — a nod from God.
We spent the next six months writing long emails and sexy Facebook messages, talking on the phone for hours and eventually Skyping. What joy it was to finally see one another again.
I felt like I had met my twin. Funny enough, one of the last things he said to me was, “I met myself when I met you.” That was four weeks ago, when we said goodbye.
One month earlier, I had received an email, “I have some difficult news …” he wrote.
His son’s mother had asked once again if they might get back together. This time she said “all the right things.” This time, it was he who didn’t hesitate to say yes.
Brokenhearted would be an understatement.
Ten days later we Skyped and I asked if I might see him in Paris … to say goodbye.
“You’re still coming?” he asked, visibly surprised.
“My ticket is non-refundable. I’m going on to Barcelona, but I’m still flying in and out of Paris.
“Can I see you? To say goodbye?”
He agreed, and so we did. And when we did, he reminded me that his nine-year-old son lives in Paris … so he lives in Paris.
I knew he had certain ideas about the family he wanted – what it looked like – and believed he was healing some childhood wounds by giving his son what he had wanted most, stability and love, and the picture of family that he himself craved.
“I’m portable,” I said, reminding him I had said this all along.
He said I wouldn’t like living in Paris. (I disagreed.) That it is extraordinarily hard to get work there as a non-Parisian, even teaching English. That he never wanted a long-distance relationship.
He also said that we were “magic,” that I was his “vacation” and his “fantasy.”
What he didn’t say was, “Move in, lean in … we’ll figure it out.”
And so, with seemingly no other choice, I dropped the rope.
The day I had asked if I could see him in Paris, he asked if we might still be friends. “This,” he said, gesturing heart-to-heart, “I’ll miss this.” I said probably one day, but that I would need time — brave words that fell apart once on the other side of the Atlantic, when I hopefully asked, “Will we stay in touch?” even though I had been the one to ask for space after our goodbye.
“I don’t think so … I’d prefer not to,” he said. “I want you to go back to Chicago and write to me and tell me you found a man there who can give you a real relationship.”
I was crushed. Writing these words now, my heart aches.
But a funny thing happened when I returned to the United States, something that had never happened after a breakup before — I respected his wishes.
We agreed I would let him know when I arrived home and that I would send some of my writing to him – musings about our time together. I did both and he responded warmly, but without opening any doors. “I’m not ready to read this just yet, but it’s good to know it’s here” he wrote, and thanked me for sending. Seems this ending is difficult for him too.
Now there’s nothing left to do but grieve.
I’ve never had a clean break before.
In my 20s, breakups included language like, “Of course we’ll be friends,” which seemed to mean something entirely different to my former partners than to me, which looked like me acting as if nothing had changed, except for the addition of some teary, “I miss you’s” and “Are you sure’s?” In the end my ex’s usually had to push me away, it seemed the only way I could give time and space apart.
Since my divorce five years ago, I’ve had only one other relationship, which only sort-of ended when I moved to Madrid in 2015. We spent my year abroad in a liminal space which, while not exactly ideal or exactly what I wanted, seemed to suit me on some level. It was never entirely over until I moved back to the United States last July.
So this is new, this clean-break thing, and here’s the rub – it still hurts like hell. There’s nothing to do, nothing to be done. This clean break means there’s no drama around calling or not calling, writing or not writing, dissecting every bit of conversation. The not-clean-break means I can feel like I’m still in something. There’s some kind of crazy hope, but with this there is none.
Just memories. And sadness.
Yes … I have days where I’m not really sure we’re done. Others say that about us too. But I know, at least for now, we are.
Michelle was right. I did have a romance for the ages … and I haven’t even shared a tenth of it. I haven’t written publicly about it at all, until now. It was tender and private and new. It was ours. It still is. But it is my story too and I am a storyteller.
Last night I listened to a TED Talk by Anne Lamott. In it, she said, “You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your own heart, your stories, memories, visions and songs – your truth, your version of things – in you own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.”
It was those words that inspired me to write. That, a fire in my belly, and the memory of blogging about every other romance gone astray since my divorce. Sharing my story and opening it for conversation had felt both vulnerable and healing. There is something about speaking one’s truth, being witnessed, and hearing, “me too.”
It’s what we do in those church basements where he and I got sober and where we keep going so we can stay sober. As my friend Bob likes to say, “A problem shared is cut in two.” If that is so, then posting this hits it with a sledgehammer – cracks it right open sending sharp little shards in every direction that I will be picking up off the floor for months to come, even when I’m certain I’ve vacuumed them all up. The sun will hit the hardwood in a certain way and I’ll find another little piece.
I guess that’s what great love does – cracks us right open and destroys us. I hate it. And I wouldn’t change a single thing.
The words tumble out of a book I recently unearthed, one I began reading together with a friend last year in Spain but never finished. Written on a card, I assume acting as a bookmark, decorated with gorgeous greens and oranges, purples, pinks and blues. Flowers and faces.
It is one of a deck, a gift from my friend Michelle — given to me when I left Seattle for Chicago in 2012, following my divorce. A few years later, I tucked them into one of two suitcases that accompanied me on a year-long sojourn to Spain.
I’ve pulled them out from time to time when I needed inspiration. In writing. In life. But this time I didn’t go looking for it. It found me.
Riding the 9 Ashland bus on my way to work, the card slides out. I smile, thinking of Michelle, and of the changes I am twisting against, and turn it over.
“Safe and Change …
“If you have drawn this card, some kind of change is afoot. It is, after all, the only constant thing! With change comes fear and questions and the ground becomes shaky with uncertainty. This card is a reminder that change would not be happening unless somehow the timing was right. Although it may be edgy and challenging, the universe intends to keep you safe. Courage does not exist in the absence of fear. And faith cannot exist without ‘not knowing.’ Remember that the true unsafety lies in not changing.”
I wonder if the artist could have envisioned the state of our nation when she wrote this. That I, and so many other Americans, would feel sucker punched in the gut every day following the inauguration of our 45th president — watching the principles this country was built upon summarily dismantled. Our country run by a handful of wealthy, straight white men who seem bent on growing their interests alone. Fearful of waking up and no longer recognizing the place we’ve called home. The place I deliberately returned to when my student visa was up for renewal.
I’ve never been so emotionally effected by politics in my life. Perhaps this is good. Perhaps this is the change. The shift my friend Rachel says she is trying to lean into. She mentions it following my post of a Mahatmas Gandhi quote on Facebook – poached from another friend’s newsfeed.
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, always.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
The words are like a balm.
Within hours, nearly 100 people have clicked “like” or “love.”
My heart swells and glows yellow, as it sometimes does. I am reminded of the power of hope and of community, and of the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “ … That where there are shadows, I may bring light.”
That night, I decide to limit my news sources to a chosen few. Since then, I’ve begun to feel a little more peace …
Which leaves room to twist against the other shifts and changes in my life … but only if I choose to.
I woke up this morning feeling the stillness of my neighborhood and I knew. I knew we had a new president. One I did not vote for. And I felt afraid.
I still do.
As a woman. As a Jew. As an American. As a being of light and love.
I realized that fear prevailed. And now I am the one afraid.
How do I not be?
How do I live in a place of love and light? How do I be a part of the solution and not the problem?
Yesterday, I believed we would elect the first woman president.
I was so proud to cast that vote. So uplifted by the photos and stories on #pantsuitnation. Unable to tear myself away from the words of people who had chosen to say, “I’m with her.”
The Muslim woman covering her head with an American flag scarf. The white, straight, self-proclaimed “Southern redneck” who totes guns and had voted Republican his entire life. Until now.
Recent immigrants who believe in the values this nation was built upon. Men in skirts. Men in heels. Women in pantsuits and Army fatigues.
People voting from hospital beds – their ballots brought to them, notarized and returned. People whose absentee ballots never arrived and flew back to their “home” states to cast their votes.
I sat on the bus. In the doctor’s waiting room. On my couch. Reading these stories of hope, struggle, strength and peace. And the cheers of support around them. Around us.
I want to believe in that America.
Four months ago, I returned to Chicago following a year abroad. People asked why.
Because my visa expired. Because I’m not Spanish. Because Madrid wasn’t home.
I believed I was meant to be here during this time. That it was important for me to be here during this time.
And now I am. Here. In this place that doesn’t much feel like home either.
I don’t believe “the answer” is somewhere else. I think it is inside of me. Inside of all of us.
But it is hard to believe when I am in fear. Hard to believe when hope rises and then falls.
And then I turn to the words and wisdom and stories of others. (The power of social media used for good.) Of a woman I dance with, who remembers having to drink from a “colored only” fountain when she was a kid. “Do not let fear cloud your judgement and reason … this country has gone through shit before; if you’ve never had to go through it, it can be terrifying … but you know what? That kind of shit got ended …”
Of a woman I’ve known since I was 12, whose husband is black and whose children think my baldish head is beautiful. “It is time for women to get barefoot and pregnant with new ideas and give birth to a new movement, mother it and take anyone down that tries to hurt it. We are just getting started.”
Of a mother on #pantsuit nation, a woman I do not know, whose six-year-old daughter put on her suit jacket this morning, the same one she wore to school yesterday, and asked “What do I need to do to become president?” And upon hearing, “work really hard in school, get in to a top college and then a top law school, and understand the law so you can change it,” replied “Okay,” full of confidence, adjusted her lapel in the mirror and went to school.
And hope rises.
Today, I will adjust my lapel, say “okay,” full of confidence, and go out into the world carrying love and light – knowing I am meant to be here, knowing there is work to be done.
An Italian friend of mine once remarked, “I can always spot the Americans.”
I was expecting to hear something about white sneakers, loud voices and fanny packs. Instead, she said, “They smile for no reason. Are super friendly and talk to everyone … they also have nice teeth.”
I remembered her words when I was living abroad … the many, many times I was surrounded by people but felt utterly disconnected. Partly a language barrier, with the onus on me to improve my Spanish. But also a cultural difference. In my experience, most Europeans don’t engage in idle chit chat with strangers the way Americans do.
It is one of the things I missed most about the United States when I was living in Spain — the chance for serendipitous connection.
I received that gift in spades this morning … waiting in line to cast my vote, one day before elections.
Nikki and I arrived in Welles Park a little before 9 a.m. The line had just begun to form. Or so it seemed. The sun was shining on an unseasonably warm November day. And we watched through a window as the voting stations filled before us, oblivious that it would be two hours before we would arrive in that place ourselves.
During those two hours we met the granddaughter of a Turkish immigrant and her beautiful six-month-old daughter, swaddled in pink and strapped to her mother in a Baby Bjorn. She joked about being Muslim. Her husband being Mexican. And that if things went the wrong way, it would be hard to know who would be deported first.
During those two hours I met a neighbor of mine. He seemed familiar to me but I wasn’t sure if I had been looking at him for so long that that was the reason. Turns out we live on the same street. And that he lived in Madrid for a semester abroad in 1988. We talked about architecture, food, travel and the fall out of Franco. How the north feels more French. And how physically safe we felt living there.
During those two hours I learned that our wait was comparatively short compared to the people who voted yesterday. That most voters had been patient and nice. And that Nikki’s shoes will always be a source of conversation – today’s choice, a pair of red, white and black Fleuvogs.
I watched the kindness of strangers as the baby in pink started to fuss and one man volunteered, “Go ahead of us. No one will mind.” And everyone agreed. Instead, she fell asleep pressed to her mother, waking just as it was “their” turn to vote. I took a photograph so mom could tell her about this one day.
When it was finally my turn, I was directed to a voting booth just next to my neighbor. I smiled and whispered to him, “Do it right.” He winked back.
And then I stood in silence. Heart beating wildly. Fingers trembling. Nodding and teary-eyed as I pressed the button casting my vote for the first female president of the United States. A vote I wasn’t sure I’d ever have the opportunity to make in my lifetime. I then completed the ballot and reviewed it once, twice, three times to make certain I had marked the correct box.
I received a paper bracelet with the words, “I Voted. Did You?” on the way out. I quickly peeled off the sticky label, wrapped it around my wrist and waited for Nikki. A few minutes later she emerged, along with the man who had told the baby’s mother to “Go ahead.”
The three of us put our wrists together, took a photograph, and exchanged names – which I promptly forgot. But it didn’t really matter. We had shared a moment together where we had hoped to make history – three smiling-for-no-reason, friendly, talk-to-everyone Americans with nice teeth.