Second Acts is a series of interviews with interesting people who discovered new pathways midway through their lives.
I discovered Rita Golden Gelman when a friend sent me a copy of her book Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World (Broadway Books, 2002). It is her account of how, on the verge of a divorce, she shunned convention, sold all her possessions, and began to live her dream of traveling the world. Now in her mid-70s, Gelman has been on the move for 27 years and has also published Female Nomad and Friends: Tales of Breaking Free and Breaking Bread Around the World (Random House, 2010), an anthology of stories and recipes. Her current passion is planting the seeds of a movement in the United States to encourage students to use the year after graduating from high school as a “gap year,” to explore other parts of the globe before going to college or taking a job.
In contrast to the notion that living a life of purpose means one must be doing something, accomplishing something, changing something, making something happen, Rita’s approach is to learn, to find out, to ask, to enjoy. That in itself accomplishes the connection, understanding, and fellow-feeling that we very much need in the world. Really, though, purely enjoying life and the company of others is enough.
And enjoy her company I did when I spoke with her recently. We touched on many things from how she lived with a royal family in Bali to how she learned to make tortillas in Guatemala.
AK: Was divorce your primary transformational event?
RGG: It really started before the divorce. The dream was there. You know, the dream was there as a teenager, too. Of course, I got married and I behaved the way I was supposed to behave. I became a wife and a mother and I did all that.
Then one day I got on an airplane. It was a shuttle plane between L.A. and San Francisco. We didn’t have assigned seats and I followed this woman up the aisle. She was wearing a long caftan and she had a great tan, and I thought, “Who is she? What is she doing?” And I sat next to her. She turned out to be somebody who hires yachts around the world for people, like a travel agency. She was coming back from touring the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.
I said to her, “If I were to do one of your trips, here’s what I want: I want a captain on this boat that spouts philosophy. I want a crew that plays guitar and sings folk songs. And I want to go to a place where there’s more to do than lie on the beach.” She looked at me and said, “Go to the Galápagos.” I had a husband who hated boats and I thought, “I’m going to go!” All by myself. I booked a trip with her and after that, I was never the same. The first thing I did was apply for a Ph.D. in anthropology. I thought, “Okay, at least I can get around the world that way.”
I wasn’t planning on divorcing, but inside of four years at the anthropology department at UCLA, the marriage started to fall apart and I thought, “Okay, if we’re divorcing, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?” And the answer was, “You’re going to live a dream, the one that you had when you were in your teens, the one that you had when you were in college.” I sold everything I owned and I took off and I haven’t stopped. I wanted a new life that was going to open doors that I had never opened before, and I wasn’t going to go back. I was no longer doing what I was supposed to be doing. I was doing what gave me joy. I had found what gave me joy, and it was crossing borders and interacting with other people and learning about the world. I still have no home. I still have no possessions. I have a trunk at my daughter’s house and a box at my son’s house. I have virtually nothing and I am one of the happiest people I know.