If We Didn’t Need to Win, Then What?



Manuel Maria

always blinks tightly


with both eyes,

then opens wide


like he has

a startling

piece of news,


or is waiting for it.


I still don’t understand

why his second name


is Maria. An

American thinks


macho means

so many things


that it isn’t.


He brings out the busty statue

of his wife’s great grandfather:


An admiral and commander

of the Spanish naval fleet,


he sailed to Santiago

to break the blockade.


Now, he is a Spanish

hero. And Manuel is


so proud of his wife.

He says her family

is so connected

or important?


That they even print a newsletter.

Back then, Spain

wanted Cuba,


and now Manuel looks

at night for his wife.


She goes about sleeping

while he turns the pages


of beaten words that antes,

had so much longing.

I come on Tuesdays

to sit down with Manuel


and our languages,

these new ways of


wanting to say something

we think we’ve said before.


Today is a history lesson

about the sea,


and the people you can conquer

with a famous fleet.


As he crafts and molds

his words, I wish I could hear


the melody of El Andalus,

or understand a political uniquity.


I wish I couldn’t

see his pain before me,


or the long, bloody sea

stretching out for spaces


that wars and

fleets won’t win.


-Jennifer Sandberg


The Utility of Looking Back

How I imagined my life in Andalucia, and how closely it resembles the life I actually lived. Here’s why anniversaries are important, why remembering doesn’t tether you to the past but invites you to celebrate where you are right now. I landed in Jersey a year ago today and think I’ve been home now for a long time. But once you live abroad, and you’ve stuck your feet in the muck and mercy and discovery of another country, you’ll never be the same.



From the plane, flying into Madrid—-Spring 2009


Red shoes. New passport. Glossy love, with real smudges. A longer pony. New earrings. Fish by the sea. New waves of my tongue – in Spanish. Liquid water, lightness, sun. Packages to the U.S. A burst of love to Alex and Dylan. Good-bye to Leyden Street and pristine apartment. Good-bye to Safeway, Tommy’s Thai, Andy the hairstylist, and Thursday nights at La Rumba. A history course. An ease with money. A skip down the beach. Meaningful anger. Booming laughter, at myself and others. Writing stories. Opening the windows to salty air and long sunsets. Weaving history, psychology, and language into a web that explains people’s behavior in Spain/DR/US and ??? Poetry. Colorful things in our apartment. Funny ways to name his scoffing. Solidly yet porous-ly myself. A tailor to make pants for accepted, large be-dunk-a-dunks. Engaged, involved, connected. Still a pony, but looser. Kindness to myself. Dispatching judgment. Loved. Squeezed. Hopeful. Inside, a part of, together. My beloved, that breath, that sigh of home and opening. The voice of the mother, the lap of the father, the guidance of the sister and toughness of the brother. All together. Beloved you. Me. Beloved, open, tingling, exuberant sun of days.   ~



For Anyone Who’s Asking



            In Barcelona, Spain


How much are you worth?

That’s really the question

we always ask.


A new pair of shoes for

your bunion feet? A vacation

in a watery paradise?

The shiny earrings dazzling

against a softly blushed cheek?


Sure, there are the ones we’re

told to find.  Like work that

gives us joy or love that makes us glow.

But sometimes the easiest place

to start is in the smallest way:


Stand in front of the fruit stand

on the street closest to your home.

See how quickly a pearl drops

right into your hand.


–Jennifer L. Sandberg



How comfortably do you tell the world who you are? Recently I made announcements for my psychotherapy practice with the addition of my licensed status on them and noticed how long I spent tweaking and polishing them. I took a couple of breaks and went back to them later, noticing more and more that everything works out so much better when I’m not trying to make it work. Thank the gods for moments when something like grace drops in and gives us a mercy ride, a welcome acquittal from the false charge of not being enough.



                        In Rota, Spain


It was in Andalucía

where I found the precise,

red shoes. I had looked for

months, wanted them to say:

Comfort. Baseball.

I am from Minnesota.


Seven euros, a lucky find.

So the timbre of my voice

crawls its way into a question.


I let the Spanish slide in

softly, guess my European size.

Explain the predicament of not being

“from here,” and the girl is still.



Was I waiting for a reprimand, a

chuckle? Me again, always explaining:

                       I have a good reason!

                       This is why I don’t sound perfect!


But mercy owned the air this time.

No scoffing at my somewhat Spanish

or other-nationality.

Only easy things between us.


There are moments like slippers:

satin, unexpected, relieving.

We want to put them on

again and again.


-Jennifer Sandberg

Losing It


When I was sixteen I wrote a poem called “Discovery” which in retrospect was really an appeal to adults for acknowledgement, and maybe even an indirect expression of anger. One of the stanzas was, “I am sixteen and lost–because teenagers are–I am seventeen and found–because at eighteen I become you. –I am the lost and found.”  At this age I was in the field, if you will, of beginning to understand how we move in and out of our true selves as a result of programming and socialization. These are topics that continue to compel my attention ceaselessly, topics which I understand for others are likely regarded as simply stultifying. If you are one of those people, this post will put you to sleep!


One aspect of this lost and found dimension is that we actually must lose something to find it, or that we find something else buried under the metaphorical rubble of our lives. Last week I blogged about a sense of grief overcoming me, and in doing so, recovered a sense of refreshment and energy that I hadn’t felt in several weeks. I lost my composure for a few moments and gained a more authentic experience of myself.


Adjusting to a new country, or a new job or anything at all can impact us in this way. My sister is about to embark on a new job within her vocation and I wonder what pieces of herself will become more effervescent as a result. My dear friend Michele with two young girls is juggling the demands of work, marriage, and motherhood and I already see the solid ground rising in her as a result of these new changes. I’m ready to move into a new apartment, after these months of getting my sea legs back and nothing could feel better.  This moment I’m in, which feels so good, has not surprisingly flown in on the heels of so many things I initially felt I lost in returning to life in the states.


When I arrived to Spain back in the Spring of 2009 what I had clearly, and I felt, tragically lost was my profession. But the months of living without it gave me a completely new perspective on who I am. Here’s a personal essay I wrote while I was there with the aim of describing the lost and found en vivo. Have you heard there’s a new book out with that title also? Could that be the butterfly effect?




On Being No One Important

The little sign taped to the glass door of the jewelry hutch read, “Es agradable ser importante, pero es más importante ser agradable.” I translated the words into English and felt my metacognition revving up for an analysis. I always had to think about how I was interpreting the information I read in Spanish in order to understand what I was reading: It’s nice to be important but more important to be nice. I thought it was a thoughtful sentiment to find posted inside a downtown jewelry shop.


A girlfriend had come to visit me in southern Spain and we were trolling around for the perfect ring to add to her collection. I had been living in a little city called El Puerto de Santa Maria for five months and still didn’t feel at home. Of course, I was aware of the stages of cultural adjustment and expected the transition to take some time, even up to a year. But my professional credentials were taking a long time to process and this new dialect of Spanish was giving me verbal paralysis. Sometimes I stayed inside all day just to avoid being misunderstood during simple exchanges at stores and in my neighborhood. What was most shocking about the move to Spain, however, was how unessential I felt as person.


As a Midwestern American, raised with a myriad of messages about proving my self-worth as a worker, I expected I might wrestle with my sense of personal agency in a new country. I had traveled in other parts of the world and knew that the United States had an obsession with professional identity and success. “What do you do?” is one of the first questions we ask upon meeting someone. We seem to feel more comfortable when we can put things and people in their proper “doing” categories. Americans who travel abroad, however, quickly realize that this is not the burning question on most people’s minds in other countries.


In the province of Andalusia, for example, people want to know if you like Spain, if you speak Castellaño, and if you’ve tried the fried fish. They ask about things you like and don’t like, and when they tell you about themselves, they don’t discuss their profession. Someone might say a man is a buen tío (a good guy) or that a woman is friendly. They usually don’t ask about your career, and may even be offended if you ask about theirs.


I certainly noticed these cultural differences, but understanding them conceptually and applying a new way of being to my personhood were not the same things at all. I was becoming aware of the possibility that perhaps my move to Spain was going to be more complex than I had anticipated. But since I had always believed that external changes can bring about positive internal changes, I could hardly run away from this belief now. Being a non-working foreigner in Spain was going to deepen my understanding of who I was. No longer having a professional identity to rely on, I would have to allow other parts of myself to emerge. And I would need to relate to myself and to others differently. It seemed like a perfect fit.


But as I waited for my friend in the jewelry shop, I noticed how uncomfortable I was with the notion of just being, for example, a nice person. It didn’t seem like enough. I could feel my chest getting tight as my breathing became increasingly uneven. Even though the words I had read on the jewelry hutch seemed to offer a very gentle truth, I could tell that being nice wasn’t going to do it for me. Simultaneously, I felt embarrassed about this recognition. Was I just some seemingly educated but hollow vessel relying on my job to make me feel worthy? I was ashamed to admit I felt invisible and forgotten, surrounded by a new language and a new culture where nobody knew who I was and probably didn’t care what I did for a living. Who was I without my profession? If I couldn’t name the category to which I belonged, then what? It was a difficult subject to digest on a Saturday morning stroll through the jewelry shop.


The store owner’s son waited patiently while my friend sorted through the rings and tried on each of the sparkly possibilities. He chatted with us, smiled, helped other customers, and easily followed his parents’ instructions as he manned the jewelry booths. They stood quietly by and watched the customers shop. I wondered whether the announcement hanging on the hutch behind the son had seeped into his values like the need for a professional identity had seeped into mine. I watched his response as my girlfriend decided against the rings and we turned to leave the store. There was no discernible disappointment or chagrin in his face, but he had been very nice to us. I had the sense that if he didn’t sell one piece the entire day, his countenance wouldn’t change.


I stepped outside the store and looked down the narrow street ahead of us, like the months ahead of me I would adjust to this new terrain. I wondered if I could learn to feel at peace with being kind or thoughtful, and whether it would be enough. Suddenly, I tripped on a patch of uneven stones that had popped out of their cobblestone pattern and I laughed aloud. If I was going to learn to be a person with some meaningful inner qualities instead of someone with an important career, I might as well go down in a truly klutzy fashion as well. I laughed again as I watched myself already trying to turn this new opportunity into work. I was going to have to fumble around for several months before I finally started feeling at ease with being no one important. And once I did, I noticed that I was calling Spain my home.


–Jennifer Sandberg

Process is not just an intelligent concept

Almost nine months ago, I left a city in southern Spain that had become my home. Since time seemed to move so lusciously, and so slowly there I can hardly believe I’ve been back in the states for three quarters of a year. Half of me, or more than that, is still often there. It would feel so refreshing to write a post filled with vitality and excitement about what’s happening here in Denver. And there is a lot happening. But time and age will heal us if we let them, and will teach us that vitality sometimes only comes through doing the work that’s vital for us in any given moment. Mine is learning to befriend my weeping, to stay awake in the razor’s edge of longing without reaching for relief, to tell a friend who thinks I’m “together” that I’m actually quite sure I’m falling apart. No one can predict how a personal transition will unfold for us,  although we like to imagine there are evenly structured lines and stages. Even Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the creator of Stages of Grief, fought and screamed as her own body moved toward dying. As much as I’d like to see myself as a more worldly and widely trekked soul after living in Spain, what I see right now is merely a decision to allow this pain to overwhelm me. It doesn’t fit my westernized view of  resolution at all, but at some mysterious point, the only way out of pain, is through it.





I miss the water in Spain

with every hair on my head.

The curled waves unraveling

themselves to make their white spools,

all tumbling gently toward our walking feet;

I said it was a reverent process.

It was how I wanted to come to you.

But my spools and yours

were wound so tight.

We missed our soft unfurlings,

couldn’t feel our own feet walking.

You wanted to carry me, or I you.

It was an alluring, heavy habit.

Now, with every flutter of my feet

touching water, I miss the hope

I had for us.

With every walk to somewhere new,

I marvel at the work it takes.



-Jennifer L. Sandberg

Nothing Like a Pueblo Blanco to Make You Go WOOT WOOT!!

My good friend Tara came to Puerto de Santa Maria to soak up some sun, do some yoga, eat tapas, marvel at the Giralda in Seville, and take copious pictures of sunsets. I believe she accomplished all of that, and much more. We were lucky enough to be accompanied by my friend Manuel and his wife, Amparo, to two little pueblo blancos I hadn’t previously had the pleasure of meeting.

On the way to our destinations we stopped at Venta Andres, a roadside restaurant which is also well-known for its adjacent economical fruit stand. Ventas are drop-in restaurants off the highways in Spain which usually have traditional, home-cooked food and waiters who are happy to make recommendations for “what’s good today.”

Manuel was very deliberate about wanting conejo, (rabbit) but somehow he and the waiter settled on a variety of other dishes for all of us to share. We ate a salad with hearts of palm and anchovies, then a stew with deer meat, and finally rabo de toro, also known as bull’s tail. Would you believe a bull’s tail is so enormous it actually has a bone in its center? I couldn’t! I thought bull’s tail was just a name used to represent an important part of Andalucia’s culture. But it is actually the tail. It was a very tender, juicy and fatty meat that tasted like a well-done roast. We also enjoyed menudo, classically known as the “stew of intestines” by many expats. Tara expressed later she did, in fact enjoy the flavor of the sauce, and ate the garbanzos but left the intestines. I couldn’t blame her as they did look somewhat hairy.

First we made our way into Medina Sidonia, a little village of about 10,000 people, perched, as we might have guessed, on the top of a hill. Like many cities in Andalusia, cities were built high to see oncoming invaders and were surrounded by fortress walls. The buildings were painted white, I realized recently, to help manage the scorching summer sun and keep buildings cool inside. Every pueblo blanco I’ve been to has had its own unique flavor and once I soaked in the narrow streets and unending charm, I could pay more attention to how people interact. Watching men, women and children converse and play, and experiencing their openness to talking at length with strangers has been one of the highlights of my time here in Spain. People can enjoy one another here in such a simple and present way. It might be why once, a Spanish woman said to me, “This whole concept of learning to slow down and enjoy life….I don’t get it.”

From a terrace overlooking Medina Sidonia

Now I understand it’s because she had always lived that way. Why does there need to be a philosophy for feeling naturally at ease in your skin and with your people? Well, sociology might tell us a thing or two about why. But what’s sticking to me most is what joy it has generated within me to experience this here. I’m quite sure that reverse culture shock is already knocking on my door as  I plan my return to the U.S.

In Medina Sidonia, Tara and I bought an assortment of famous bakery goods from a lovely-smelling shop called, “Amarguillos.” Amarguillos are simple but delicious pastries whose center is filled with almond marzipan. They are of Arabic descent, and all of them reminded me of the pastries I tried in Morocco over a year ago: white, small, and just slightly bitter, which makes the immense amount of sugar used more tolerable. Amargo means bitter in Spanish, so the translations of these tiny delights might be Little Bitter Cakes. Tara and I ate them nearly hour by hour until she left Spain!

Later we made our way to another village called Alcala de los Gazules. Al-Qala in Arabic means castle or fortress. And according to my favorite Andalusia information site, http://www.andalucia.org, the city was named “of the Gazules” for the Gazula tribe that lived there, who were of Berber origin. While my knowledge of the Berber people is scanty at best, I’ve heard they are the indigenous people of Northern Africa and tend to be Sunni Muslims. They were responsible for building the Giralda in Seville, as well as the Torre of Oro (tower of gold).

Driving into Alcala de los Gazules

While walking down from the main plaza of the city, we spotted a man weaving what looked like a basket handle. He had an easy, nearly toothless smile and all the time in the world. While he mentioned that young people don’t seem interested in such traditions, he certainly didn’t seem vexed about it. He laughed and sat in his doorstep making jokes. He was joyful. It was lovely.

Finally, we made our way to Chiclana to watch the sun setting over the Atlantic. We took pictures, laughed together, and found a fancy hotel to drink Kas and cafe, the lime soda and typical coffee served in Cadiz. We made jokes about the strange chairs and wondered about the flashing lights we saw in the sea. My coffee was poorly put together, but I don’t remember that part at all.

Sunset from the Torre de Puerco, Chiclana