A journey to freedom over three Passovers

May 15, 2016
Lisa Niver

In January 2007, I had what I thought was my last first date ever. I met him online, and we seemed to click immediately. Both lifelong travelers, he had been in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and traveled exotically extensively, while I had sailed the seven seas for seven years at Princess Cruises.

Our early travels were full of challenges, which I attributed to our different travel styles. When I saw red flags, I chose to believe it was a parade. During a year of travel in Asia, during which time we got engaged and I lost 50 pounds, we wrote a book that inspired our website, We Said Go Travel. After we married, we set out on another long-term, low-budget adventure, during which I worked furiously building the site while he played the ukulele and video games.

Things were not going as well as I wanted to believe. After four years of marriage, I woke up one morning in Chiang Rai, a tiny village three hours north of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, and had no idea my entire life would change in that one day. I was literally pushed past the breaking point. After that, I never saw him again. I spent several days crying in Chiang Mai and chose to fly back to America alone.

If I had one wish, it would be to time travel to my crying self two years ago, in February of 2014, to share hope about the future. After returning home to Los Angeles from 18 months on the road in Asia, I often had to pull my car over to the side of the road because I was crying so hard. I never could have imagined I would require such courage, change and compassion, but that it could eventually lead to a wonderful new life.

Passover 2014: I called my friends — our chosen family — to tell them I was back in Los Angeles somewhat permanently. The story of why I had returned was that my mom was ill and in the hospital, but, sadly, my marriage was also unwell. I did not want to talk about all of this at the seder or even admit to myself that it was over.

My closest friends pressed, drawing me out; many of them said similar things. My friend Karyn reassured me: “You are entitled to be sad, overwhelmed and scared, but you have the ability for a whole new life. You have left, and now you need to look for the light at end of the tunnel.” I listened to her and to others who took my tearful calls, and I kept moving forward. At times the grief was overwhelming, but with the support of my family, friends, therapy and my lawyer, I began to rebuild my life.

As I reconnected with my life in Los Angeles, I began to remember my dreams. I Skyped with Nancy, and she asked me, “When did you stop dancing and scuba diving? Why did you stop?”

I began to explore new activities, including tennis and kickboxing, and I took more lessons in hula-hooping and salsa dancing. I even joined Cristian Oviedo’s salsa team in Santa Monica, and we performed several times at Casa Escobar in Malibu and at Zanzibar in Santa Monica. I visited new destinations such as Bermuda, where I filmed a web series with Orbitz, and returned to Park City, Utah, with my family, a place where I used to ski every year but had not been in far too long.

Passover 2015: When we read in the haggadah, “The Jews were slaves in Egypt and now we are free,” I felt I was part of the story.

By then, the State of California had granted me a divorce and my life was improving, but I remained emotionally shackled to my past. My friend Rabbi Faith Dantowitz suggested daily readings by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar about counting the Omer, which talked about courage and change. I wanted to have a new beginning but was afraid I had used up my chance for happiness.

A friend recommended the 21-day meditation series by Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra, which I listened to again and again. I needed to forgive myself and realize that my marriage ending was not all my fault. My grief was not only over the loss of my marriage, but how I had lost so much about myself in the relationship. When I first came back, meditation or yoga only produced tears. Now I was participating and rejoicing.

Returning to Friday night Shabbat services and becoming an active part of the Stephen Wise Temple community again also helped my healing. I met many times with Rabbi Eli Herscher, who shared Rabbi Harold Kushner’s inspirational books with me, in which one says, “What do you do when your dreams are shattered? You dream new dreams!”

When I first returned to America, many people told me I was brave for leaving my relationship and being willing to admit it was not working. It felt like I had given up everything to travel with my now-ex-husband. I sold my car and left my job, my condo and my family. I put all my eggs in one basket and then the bottom fell out. I now had to build an entire new life. Not only did I not believe I was brave, but I actually looked the word up in the dictionary.  Merriam-Webster defines brave as “having or showing courage.” Courage as “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” I have come to see that I do have strength and tenacity, and that I can forge my own unique path forward.

My steps included rebuilding wesaidgotravel.com, which was intentionally neglected during my divorce. It became solely mine and finally had real paperwork as a proper business with an LLC and a bank account. Others began to notice me as a travel professional, and I started to contribute articles to USA Today, Wharton Magazine and SheKnows. When United Airlines invited me as one of five travel writers to the red carpet at the Oscars, I felt like I was getting my career back. I was not sure whether I had lost the opportunity to grow the business when I put the website on hold. I felt like I had won my own Oscar when I was invited to appear on television as a travel expert for Hilton Garden Inn.

After my divorce was finalized in civil court, I chose to pursue a Conservative get, or Jewish divorce, through the Rabbinical Assembly with Rabbi Dan Shevitz. My ex-husband had never come back to America, but he did have to participate in order for me to receive my get. The rabbi was able to communicate with him by email in Asia. So, by last summer, I finally, truly felt divorced. I was ready for the next step, to mark the transition by going to the mikveh at American Jewish University.

I created my own ceremony based on conversations with clergy, readings that spoke to me, and on the seven blessings in Anita Diamant’s book “New Jewish Wedding.”

I felt the blessings represented how I had turned the page to the future: A blessing about creation and a reading about courage, one for the mikveh and choosing action, and the Birkat ha-Gomel, which is said after childbirth, traveling, healing and hard times. The fourth blessing was about thanking God for making me a woman and a reading from Marge Piercy’s poem “A Strong Woman.”

Forgiving myself has been a theme of my healing over the last two years, and I chose a prayer about the power of forgiveness as the fifth prayer. For the sixth, I chose to say the misheberach, a blessing of renewal and healing of the world, along with Judy Chicago’s “Merger Poem.” For my seventh blessing, I selected the Shehecheyanu, the blessing for making it to this time and celebration of new beginnings. Afterward, I said the Shema.

After my immersions, I took time by myself in the healing waters, and then the mikveh guide told me: “When you walk up the seven steps, you will leave the past behind you in the living waters of the mikveh.”

Passover 2016: I have begun this new chapter of my life. My days are full of possibility and I am on a course that, as I go forward, becomes better.

Bring on the matzo!

Lisa Niver runs wesaidgotravel.com and is an on-camera host with more than 700 travel videos on YouTube, Roku and Amazon Fire TV with over one million views. 

June 2017 update: Lisa Niver is a finalist for the Southern California Journalism Awards with this article. Read more here.

July 2017 update: Lisa Niver is a winner at the Southern California Journalism Awards with this article. Read more here.

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