133: Nobody Dreams of Getting Divorced

133: Nobody Dreams of Getting Divorced

Today on our show we share a story by Sally Schwartz called Divorce Shiva. Sally’s story reveals the importance of ritual in helping us go through love and loss. On the day of her divorce, instead of crying at home alone, her friends gathered around and built a giant bonfire. Sally was reluctant to “celebrate” at first, but as she threw her monogrammed stationery into the flames, she realized she needed the ritual.

This story is a perfect example of equal parts heart and art. Sally tells the full truth about divorce. She also artfully weaves her theme throughout, teaches us a lesson in structure, showing and telling, and the importance of specific details.

For more than nine years, Sally Schwartz has worked as a syndicated columnist for The Chicago Tribune, where, until her divorce, she published under the name Sally Schwartz Higginson. Her work has also been published in The Sun, Herstry, The Sunlight Press, Brevity Blog, and Read650. 

We want to thank Nadine Kenney Johnstone for telling her students about Writing Class Radio. Nadine has a podcast called Heart of the Story. For more Sally Schwartz to sallyschwartz.com and on twitter: @heygalsal.

Writing Class Radio is produced by Allison Langer, Andrea Askowitz and by Matt Cundill and Evan Surminski at the Sound Off Media Company. Theme music by Courtney Fox. Additional music by Jamie Lee Wilson and sourced through Megatrax

There’s more writing class on our website including essays to study, editing resources, video classes, writing retreats, and live online classes. Join our writing community by following us on Patreon

For $10/month Andrea will answer all your publishing questions. For $25/month you can join our live First Draft weekly writers group. (Tuesdays 12-1 ET or Wednesdays 6-7pm ET) Write to a prompt and share what you wrote. For $125/mth, you’ll get 1st draft and 2nd Draft. Each week three people bring a second draft for feedback and brainstorming. Join the community that comes together for instruction, an excuse to write, and most importantly, the support from other writers. To learn more, go to www.Patreon.com/writingclassradio.

A new episode will drop every other Wednesday.

There’s no better way to understand ourselves and each other, than by writing and sharing our stories. Everyone has a story. What’s yours?


I'm Andrea Askowitz.

I'm Allison Langer, and this is Writing Class Radio. You'll hear true personal stories and learn how to write your own stories. Together, we produce this podcast, which is equal parts heart and art. By heart, we mean the truth in a story, and by art, we mean the craft of writing. No matter what's going on in our lives, writing class is where we tell the truth. It's where we work out our shit. There's no place in the world like writing class, and we want to bring you in.

Today on our show, we're talking about structure, theme, show and tell, and details, because of the story we're about to bring you by Sally Schwartz called Divorce Shiva. It's such an excellent example of heart and art. I can't wait for you guys to hear it.

Sally Schwartz is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Her work has also been published in the Sun, Herstory, the Sunlight Press, Brevity Blog, and Read 650. Back with Sally's story after the break.

We're back. This is Andrea Askowitz, and you're listening to writing class radio. Up next is Sally Schwartz reading her essay, Divorce Shiva.

On the morning of my wedding, I lingered in bed, thinking about all that lay ahead. Motion and purpose filled my parents' house, with details planned for breakfast through to the time my groom and I would drive away in a car decorated with streamers. There was an outfit for breakfast, an outfit for lunch, and a gown and veil steamed and ready for the evening. The transition from being single to being wed involved ritual, costume, and a slew of family and friends. On the morning of my divorce, I again lingered in bed. There was no bustle in the house. My husband had moved across the country, and both girls were away at college. There was no special breakfast planned. In just a few hours, the unentangling of my 23 year marriage would be over. No more explaining to my family why Tim preferred staying at home instead of joining for dinner, or why he'd be leaving a family event early because he had so much to do. No more worrying about his increasing reclusiveness. No more pretending I believed in his business, in his ideas, in his ability to succeed. I no longer cared how he spent his days, and I stopped caring about his lack of interest in how I spent mine. It had been refreshing at first not to dwell on unpleasantness, which was the term Tim used to describe anything leading to conflict. Then our combined aversion to difficult conversations led to an ominous silence that moved into our house and settled around us like cellophane, sucking the air out of our lives just a bit every single day. What started as a good run diminished into the quiet loneliness of parallel lives. Tutoring and cycling kept me busy while my husband's startup consumed him. By the end, we were two people living next to one another, focusing only on our own interests. Before getting dressed, I paused. What does one wear to her divorce? Funeral clothes felt morose, and the one suit I owned felt too formal. I chose a wool dress in a shade not quite brown and not quite beige. It wasn't the color of death, and it wasn't the color of hope. It was the color of sadness. I grabbed along a crew lace scarf. Brides wear lace, I thought as I hung it around my neck. I would wear lace to my divorce, letting the delicate material mark the beginning and now the end. At the courthouse, the judge asked if anyone else would be present. I shook my head. My husband had chosen to remain in Boston, leaving the process of legally ending our marriage to me bawling up the ends of the scarf. I started to cry. The force felt like a failure. As much as I needed to break free from our quiet unhappiness, there was also deep sorrow clinging to me like cigarette smoke. The judge offered a tissue, which I took. I blew my nose and tried to smile. It's just every little girl dreams of getting married, I explained. No one dreams of getting divorced. The entire process lasted about ten minutes, and then I was no longer married. Back home, as I climbed the porch steps, I breathed in the cold November air deep into my lungs. With every inhalation, the realization became clearer. After years of feeling submerged, I had finally come up for air. When I first got my court date, my friend Nancy said, what are you doing to celebrate? It's not something I want to celebrate, I said. It's supposed to be sad. I know, Nancy said, but still, you need to have a party. You need to burn shit. The idea of hosting a party to celebrate my divorce bothered me to my core. My marriage had failed, and my children were aching. I'm not having a party, I said, but I could burn some shit. That's my girl. Nancy said. Send an invitation. There are a lot of us who want to help you with that fire. And so, to a few beloved friends, I sent the following email dear women, I adore. As you all know, I am in the final weeks heading into my divorce. I have been issued a court date, and my lawyer assures me that though I will awaken that morning a married woman, I will retire for the night fully divorced. It seems coarse to celebrate because it is not a happy occasion, but it feels wrong not to mark this transition. You are all invited to my house on November 5, anytime after 06:00 p.m.. There will be liquor, there will be food, and there will be a blazing bonfire. Dress code. Clothes suitable for standing outside in inclement weather for this intemperate event. Mood cautiously optimistic, with an overarching sense of relief. Gifts. Bring anything you'd like to throw in the fire and burn to ash. After the invitation went out, I began to refer to the gathering as my divorce shiva. In the Jewish religion, sitting shiva is the ritual of mourning a loss and accepting the comfort others offer. Friends come with food and kindness, nurturing the bereaved through their grief. Calling the evening a divorce shiva made no sense because the divorce is not what died. My marriage is what died. My nuclear family is what died. My sense of order and my faith in the way things worked out in the world, that s what died. But what rolled off my tongue were the words divorce shiva. And so a divorce shiva is what I hosted the night I once again became single. As people began to arrive, I made an announcement. I am sad. This is sad. You are my friends and you're here to support me, not to congratulate me. So there is food and there are adult beverages, but there is no cake because this is not a party for a fact. I took a hefty swig from the glass I was raising. One more thing. No photos. None. No posting of anything anywhere. I looked around, striving for meaningful eye contact. My daughters are hurting. My ex is hurting. I'm hurting. One more swig. And then I added, but lots of burning of shit. Who wants to join me at the fire pit? It wasn't lost on me, this feeling like we were a covenant of witches gathered for some ceremonial ritual. We stood in the moonlight, pitching whatever we could find into the fire. I tossed the last of my formal stationery into the flames. The ones engraved with Sally and Tim Higginson. The ones I'd used to thank my parents for the antique fish knife they gave us on our first anniversary. The ones I used to thank my college roommate for the baby sweaters she knit for our first child and then our second. The ones I used to write my mother in law following every Christmas. Detailing my appreciation for the way she orchestrated the family's celebration. From the stockings to the goose. Throwing my married identity into that pit and listening to its sizzle felt cathartic. Poking the embers and feeling the warmth emanating from them was healing in a way sitting inside alone could never be. The night of the dissolution of my marriage, I was surrounded by friends. They came out in force to offer love and support. They helped mark this moment in time. Instead of a hookah, there were flames. Instead of dancing, there was standing. Instead of revelry, there was solidarity. I didn't know how much I needed the ritual until I was immersed in it.

Okay, I freaking love this story. I love it. I really loved it. I thought her voice was smooth and clear and strong and confident. Beautiful. Yeah, right from the beginning, I loved it. There's two things that struck me about this piece that I want to talk about, and then I want to talk about a million other things. But one was the structure, and the second thing is the commitment to the theme of ritual that is, like, woven over and over again throughout. And I heard it in a slightly new way again just now. Let me just start there, because I was so excited. The stationery that she's throwing away when she talks about what she used that stationary for, she brought up other rituals, like Christmas, and even, like, the ritual of, like, thank you notes. It hammered home what, to me, this story is about, which is, like, the need for ritual, and then it ended.

But also the stakes. It increased the stakes because we get that this was a woman where that was like, a marriage that really satisfied all her moments in time and her family, and we see what it was. And now that it's falling apart and burning in ash, that made it to me like, oh, yeah. So much more intense.

Those are the details that she brought in that I thought another thing that I thought she did so well is she gave us a full picture of this marriage. While this story is not really about the marriage, curious minds want to know what happened. Yeah.

No. She says, no more explaining to my family why Tim preferred staying at home instead of joining for dinner, or why he'd be leading a family event early because he had so much to do. No more worrying about his increasing reclusiveness. No more pretending I've lived in his business. All that was everything.

I so got it. She even said what started as a good run. I totally got that. They had this marriage that just sort of started to drift, and she stopped believing in him, and she stopped wanting to apologize for him. I felt the disappointment. I felt it. But I also felt this beautiful she respects her ex, and I heard that in two places. Like, she didn't she's sad, of course. Yeah.

She's 100% sad.

So I thought that that was so real. It's like a 360 degree full circle. Am I making any sense? But she's painting the full picture is what I'm saying.

Yeah, but a lot of times we receive these kind of things, and it's a rant, and you almost cannot handle it. And this was not it was a beautiful dissolution of a marriage.

I thought, I know it's a real story.

It's sad, but it's beautiful. The way they handled it and the way she writes about it, I just thought that was really incredible. Didn't you love hearing her thoughts in the closet? I know at one point we had talked about that, but I really loved knowing. Before getting dressed. I pause. What does one wear to her divorce? Funeral clothes felt morose. I felt like I was there with her. She owned a suit. It felt too formal, like just knowing the color of death, all that stuff, and what she thought got us to understand who she is. Like, I just felt like I was her friend and I was in the closet, and we were picking out this outfit, and it just made me feel so comforted, so connected to her and so connected. Yes.

So I want to talk about structure because I want to get to the closet. She starts with, on the morning of my wedding, and then she builds this picture of what I think most people know what a wedding is, but she builds this picture of, like, the hustle and bustle going on in her house. The outfit, the friends, the family. This is the morning of her wedding, and then she goes right to the morning of my divorce. So now we know what this story is about. It's about her divorce. And then it's sort of like parallel structure. She's like, there's no special meal, no family. The kids are gone. But then she gets to the outfit. And actually, first she gets to what happened in the marriage, which we already talked about, which is so satisfying, like, okay, time for divorce. And then she gets to the outfit, and the outfit is part of the ritual. What am I going to wear to my divorce? And then, didn't you love that she wear lace? I'll wear lace to my divorce. Yeah, I loved it because that's what you wear to your wedding. There's, like this mirror structure of wedding divorce. And then Nancy is the friend.

I love Nancy.

I love Nancy, too, and I loved our narrator's use of dialogue. There, like it's just so perfect. Yeah, but we have to burn shit.

And I want to jump in. I want to talk about show and tell. People talk about all the time. Just show, not tell. But what I think wait, can I.

Just follow my train of thought with ritual? Sure. Sorry. Okay. Because Nancy says lots of us want to help with that fire. And I got chilled because it felt to me like the family and the friends, the people who gather around the love that comes to you during rituals. And then they were a covenant of witches, which is another ritual. And then there they are with their own ritual, throwing the stuff in the fire. Awesome.


So I just want to hammer home the ritual bit that I loved.

I want to talk about how she uses show and tell. So many people say, Just show, don't tell. But we love the concept of showing and telling. So what I mean by that is we're getting the dialogue, but we're only seeing in this story. She gives us what she's thinking in addition to the dialogue. So, for instance, she says, the idea of hosting a party to celebrate my divorce bothered me to the core. My marriage had failed, and my children were aching. And then she gets to the quote, I'm not having a party. I said, But I could burn some shit. So if she just said, I'm not having a party, I could burn some shit. We're not 100% sure why and what's going on in her mind, but because she does that, it's super powerful. And I just thought that was amazing. And she did that a number of times in here.

So the buying part is it bothered me to the core. So that's the telling. And then the showing part is what was the showing part? Right there.

So she shows the conversation. I'm not having a party. I said, But I could burn some shit. So dialogue tends to show us. But then the thought bubble behind it is the other part that surrounds the dialogue, and that's what made the dialogue so effective. Her. Nancy says, that's my girl. Send an invitation. And then oh, my God. Can we just talk about the invitation? Dear women, I adore. I mean, everything was in here. I just want to copy it. I mean, I'm not married, but where's my invitation? Well, she didn't know us yet. Next time.

That's true. Yeah. I want to be adored by this woman.

I know. And you're adored by me and all the other people who love you. But you're not getting divorced.

Oh, I'm not going to write this. No, I'm not going to send this out. I'm saying I wanted to be invited, right, because I wanted to be part of this.

But she even includes the dress code, the mood, the gifts, I mean, everything about it. And then when everyone comes, she's also telling them, like, we're drinking, we're not celebrating. There's no cake. She's very definitive, and I love her. We really get a sense of who this woman is, which I thought was amazing. And we learned something about the Jewish religion when she talks about divorce shiva.

I know.

You want to talk about that?

No, I'm just excited because I know she taught us what a shiva is, and she did it so smoothly. And even though divorce Shiva is not really right. Yeah, I'm down with divorce shiva based on her explanation.

Same. And she also gives us a little backstory. My nuclear family is what died, my sense of order and my faith in the way things work out. And the world is what died.


So we really understand that what's going on.

It wouldn't sound as cute to say sense of order shiva no. Death of nuclear family shiva? No.

Did you already talk about the details in the stuff she burned?

A little bit. What I was talking about in terms of how the stuff she burned related back to what is a ritual, but the details, like what was that knife she burned? Antique fish knife that she got for her first anniversary.

I just thought the details in this story were so strong, and to me, it's what made the story so good because it's not a new story, somebody getting divorced. But this narrator made it into a very cool, relatable, awesome story.

Well, one thing that's slightly new is and we do like to think about like how do you take your experience and put a slight new twist to it? I mean, I've heard of divorce celebrations, but not really. Have you?

No, never. This was new to me.

It's a pretty new idea. And the way that she created divorce, Shifa, all of that was new.

A little humor in there, so it wasn't so serious. But we did feel just the intensity of the story, too.

The thing that happened so the thing that happened is she created and celebrated or not celebrated, she hosted a divorce shiva. That's new. That's a new idea. Very cool. Fucking awesome. Thank you for listening. And thank you, Sally Schwartz, for sharing your story with us. And thank you to Nadine Kenny Johnstone for telling your students about Writing Class Radio. Nadine has a podcast called Heart of the Story. Check it out. Writing Class Radio is produced by Allison Langer, Me, Andrea Askowitz, and Matt Cundill and Evan Surminski at the Soundoff Media Company. Music is produced by Courtney Fox. There's more writing class on our website, writingclassradio.com, including essays to study, editing resources, video classes, writing retreats, and live online classes. Join our writing community by following us on Patreon. Yeah. Yeah. For $10 a month, I will answer all of your publishing questions. For $25 a month, you can join our first draft weekly writers group. So now we have two options. You can join Allison's class Tuesdays from twelve to one eastern, or Zorina Fry's class Wednesdays six to seven Eastern. You'll write to a prompt and some people get to share what they wrote. If you're looking to take your writing to the next level for $125 a month, you'll get first draft and second track. Okay, so here is the greatest thing Writing Class Radio has to offer: it's second draft and first draft. In second draft three people get to bring in a piece of writing that they've worked on at home for feedback. Second draft happens on Monday from eight to 09:00 p.m. Eastern or Thursday from twelve to one Eastern. Join the community that comes together for instruction and is an excuse to write and most importantly, the support from other writers. To learn more, go to patreon.com/Writingclassradio. A new episode will drop every other Wednesday. There's no better way to understand ourselves and each other than by writing and sharing our stories. Everyone has a story. What's yours?

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