When this book, edited by Santa Fe resident Candace Walsh, came across my desk, I wasn't entirely sure what to do about it. The cover contained a lot of purple, for one thing. Books colored red, pink or purple have let me down on more than one occasion (the literature and poetry sections of the bookstore? Usually earth tones. The young adult, sex, and romance sections? Pink, red, purple). Furthermore, I've never been divorced. I've never even been married. No one in my family has ever been divorced. A few of my friends' parents were divorced when we were kids, but I never had to hang around for the nitty-gritty of it. I had no reason to read this book, I thought. This book was for other
women, not for me.
But something possessed me to pick it up on a slow Friday afternoon. And, as lame as it sounds, I shouldn't have judged this book by its cover.
As I wrote this this week's SFR Picks
"Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On... is not the literary equivalent of a half-gallon of Chunky Monkey, a new pair of high-heeled shoes or whatever other vapid clichés are often associated with women going through the tail end of a wilting marriage. ...The book is not a salve; it is not a bandage. It is a surgical exploration of one of the most heart-wrenching and life-changing events a married couple can go through. ...Its stories are about following what is right and not fearing the possible negative outcomes of the unknown."
Walsh and some of the book's contributors will read 2 pm tomorrow, Saturday, June 13
, at Garcia Street Books (376 Garcia St., 986-0151). Before then, however, I was able to catch up with Walsh through email to pick her brain a bit. She charmingly obliged.
Not all of the women collected in Walsh's book went happily into their divorces. RM Hora's husband supplied her with lavish digs, all the new clothes she could ever want, and a comfortable home life—only to reveal to her on her 40th birthday that he was, in fact, gay. Teresa Coates' husband of nine years left her for his 16-year-old girlfriend. Samantha Ducloux Waltz divorced her abusive husband only to have her church community passive-aggressively shun her. But, no matter what circumstances brought each of these women to their divorce, the same thing happened to all of them after the divorce: They were better off, and they knew it.
HK Brown's essay, "Yanking Tulips," describes her feeling as she drove away from the power-couple house she'd shared with her husband for 11 years.
"I thought my heart was going to implode, and yet this conscious decision and affirmative act was completely within my own control. I can't believe I am doing this. I can't believe I am choosing this. Go home. Turn around. Take the easy way out.
"...Those first few months, I felt like i was hacking off my right arm with a dull pickax. Why was I leaving the person I had spent the last eleven years with, when it was causing both of us such guttural pain? But I kept going."
When I was a teenager someone told me, "Courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you have no strength." By this definition, many of the women featured in this book are infinitely courageous, and every woman can take a cue from them.
It is this fear of the unknown that draws me into this book. Someone doesn't have to have experienced divorce, or have one looming in their future, to appreciate the immeasurable value of closing your eyes and jumping into the known unknown, the unknown known, the unknown unknown. And if one can have enough strength to recognize that, even if the venturing out makes life hard at first, that it will eventually end up the way it's supposed to be, then that is half the battle.
SFR: So, the biggest and perhaps most important question: Why this book?
When I moved out, and started having to tell people about the changes going on for my family, so many people assumed that I felt totally screwed by life. But I didn't. I would have been screwed if I stayed in a marriage just—because—because why? Because that was the "right" thing to do? Why was it the right thing to do if neither of us was happy? Kids know when their parents are unhappy together, and that does not make for a yummy-feeling home life. So strike that reason.
One thing that came out in counseling at the very end was that when either of us would get on a plane for a business trip, the other one of us would have a fleeting hope that the plane would crash. We'd be free of the marriage, and get sympathy. First I was horrified by this. Then I shared in in a monologue performance. An audience of three hundred people erupted into unexpected laughter. I had not thought that would be a laugh line. But, apparently, it hit a common funny bone.
When my former spouse and I got married, we were honoring our truth in that moment of our lives. We both contributed to a lot of positive growth in each other. We were catalysts for each other, and the marriage was a catalyst for our transformations into better versions of ourselves. We had two terrific children. They are the treasures of our lives, to this day. Our marriage led to me moving to Santa Fe—and I love this city. If I hadn't met my ex, I might have ended up one of those weird cat ladies in my 4th floor walkup lower east side apartment. You never know.
And so, the point of this book is that divorce can be a good thing. Divorce can be a neutral thing. Divorce is often both really great and really awful, sometimes simultaneously, and sometimes rapidly cycling back and forth (especially in the beginning). The point of the book is to back up with our received assumptions and to make a little more space around what divorce can actually be for women, men, and the children who are affected by it. Take away the default heaping scoop of stigma generally attached to divorce, and it might be a little easier to walk through it. It's not an admission of failure. It would have been a failure to stoically live it out because some nebulous body of opinion thought that I "should." As Jessica Cerretani shares in her essay, when her marriage ended, "I wasn't scared or sad. I was proud of myself."
How long did it take for you to get from conception of this idea to the actual book launch?
It was pretty fast. I pitched the proposal in the fall of 2007, signed the contract in May of 2008, and turned in the complete first draft of the manuscript October 1, 2008. It then went through a few edits and was sent to the printer in late March. In other words, it was very accelerated. I think this book so needed to be "out there" that it had its own pace and we were just along for the ride.
How did you decide on contributors?
I wanted to have a wide variety of voices. At some point as an anthology editor, you're at the mercy of what comes in. You can't exactly go club someone on the head and make them write you an essay, as much as it would fill in perceived gaps. But, I had a wealth of essays to choose from, and at some point, I did have to choose between the amazing and the very good.
After the majority of essays were in place, it came down to balance. What did we need to most balance out the book? I received two very good essays on dancing as a way to transcend divorce sadness, and I ended up dropping one. I had two about women who got celebratory post-divorce tattoos, but I kept them both because the women were SO different. One is a seventy-something Jewish grandmother who was born and raised—and still lives—in Chicago, and one is a twenty-something advocate for sex workers in Scotland. Their differences made their similarity all the more interesting and noteworthy.
In this current moment we're living in, with the concept of marriage being so embattled, it was valuable to be able to include an essay by Laura Andre, which touches on about how divorce as definitive closure is actually a privilege that heterosexuals take for granted—along with all of the other privileges marriage endows to straight couples. Most of us agree that divorce isn't usually the most pleasant thing in the world—but at least the process gives a person closure, and a better chance of leaving the contract with the financial share you have coming to you.
Did you encounter any resistance from either contributors or anyone else?
Very little. Instead of drag, I felt like the process was greased lighting. So many women were like, "Thank you. Exactly. I've been waiting for someone else to approach divorce with this angle." There was one writer who sent me her very sad and angry and bitter essay with the insistence that I must want it, since of course divorce was always and irrefutably a tragedy. That was an easy one to decline.
Encountering resistance from others is one thing - encountering doubt within yourself is another beast entirely. Did you ever think, "Maybe this isn't such a great idea," perhaps in reference to your own essay in the book?
Kind of. When I was asking Mary-Charlotte Domandi for an essay, she asked me if I'd be writing one too. "I'm not sure," I said. "Why?" she asked. "Because I'm scared, and kind of don't want to go there." But that made me realize: how could I ask contributors to face their fear, and go there, if I was afraid to? How lame is that? I never thought it wasn't a great idea. When I sat down to write, it rolled out of me, and it felt deeply gratifying, deeply scary, very intense, very important. Once it was out of me, the energy that I used up just remembering the specifics of it all—that energy was freed up to do other things, have new experiences, remember new parts of my life that were unfolding. At the same time, I had to balance speaking my truth with taking responsibility for my role in things—and being as clean as possible. I didn't feel like I had any axes to grind—which is why I waited two years to really cover that part of my life in the form of an essay. It takes time to get out of the thick of Splitsville acrimony.
I've never been divorced (or married, for that matter), yet while reading some of the essays in this book I found myself questioning the "can't"s in my life that I have always viewed as a standard ; the theme of divorce is very specific, while the theme of not fearing the unknown and shrugging off the preconceived "norms" is a larger, and perhaps more relateable theme. While you were putting the book together, did you imagine that it would be such a source of empowerment even for never-been-married women?
Yes! I felt that this book would be relevant to all women. People do have to work very hard not to wear the blinders our society tends to place on us vis-a-vis what we want out of life and the "right" way to get it. Divorce blasts those blinders off, and there we are, blinking in the sunlight, with the opportunity to create our own version of what we want from the ground up. Other things can blast those blinders off as well—death, travel, childbirth, rites of passage. But I hoped that women who had not gone through marriage quite yet would maybe learn from our collected lessons in that book and avoid a mistake or two. There is a lot of silence around things like what marriage is really like, what childbirth is really like, what divorce is really like, if you're one of the uninitiated. Why? Why are we so tight-lipped when we could share some really amazing stuff with each other and not have to re-invent the wheel so often?
Now that it's all said and done, are you seeing a No, Really, Come On, Ask Me About My Divorce! Part 2? I think this could go on successfully for a few volumes.
I would love to do more editions. I think we've just scratched the surface in terms of storytelling about this topic.
What can we expect at Saturday's reading at Garcia Street Books?
Six foxy women, from twenty-something to sixty-something, speaking their sassy truth in under an hour. This is going to be lively, heartfelt, and often funny. We've already done a reading in LA, at Skylight Books, and if it's any indication, people came close to rolling in the aisles. Comedy is indeed tragedy happening to someone else, especially when those other people know how to play pathos for laughs.
Three of the readers are Santa Feans—Rozella Kennedy, Sally Blakemore and me; one from Albuquerque, Laura Andre—and two out-of-staters: Julie Geen (Virginia) and Elisabeth Kinsey (Colorado). We're going to have "Ask Me About My Divorce" pins (just like the one on the cover) available free with the purchase of the book. That makes me happy. Especially since the pin is so cute.