Zibby is joined by Eleni Gage —novelist, freelance writer, and former executive editor of Martha Stewart Weddings— to talk about her incredible personal and professional journeys, as well as her book, Lucky in Love. Eleni shares how she first became fascinated by folklore and rituals, what she learned about love while studying strangers’ weddings on a daily basis, and why she wanted to combine them to make a manual for those looking to plan unique and significant ceremonies.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Eleni. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your many books including Lucky in Love: Traditions, Customs, and Rituals to Personalize Your Wedding, but also your novels and your memoir. You got just so much going on. I don’t even know where to begin.

Eleni N. Gage: Look who’s talking. I’m just saying, moms don’t have time to read, and yet you’re getting everything done. It’s amazing.

Zibby: Barely. I try. Thank you. Let’s talk about Lucky in Love. What made you want to write this beautiful — for people listening, it’s a hardback cover, red book with this beautiful gold, not embroidery, decoration on the front. This is the perfect gift for anybody who gets engaged, by the way. Just store that away in your minds if you need an engagement gift. Actually, my cousin’s engaged, so I could give this to her if I get organized enough to send it, which I will do after this.

Eleni: Congratulations to your cousin. First of all, the red and the gold, red is obviously a lucky color in Asian cultures because of life force and blood. Also, it looks a little bit like a Cartier box that an engagement ring might come in. That’s part of it. I will say, it’s a beautiful book. I have nothing to do with that because I did not do the illustrations, which I love. An artist named Emily Isabella did. As to why I wrote it, I studied folklore and mythology in college. I love rituals. I think they’re so important. I think that’s one of the things that was missing during quarantine. I think our society is losing our rituals and cultures a little bit. We need more. We need to make new ones. I think they feed our soul. Then in my professional life, a few years ago, I was the executive editor of Martha Stewart Weddings. I would read about all these couples and the beautiful weddings they were planning. I would meet with some of them.

I realized all couples want two things, a one-of-a-kind wedding and a lifetime of happiness. Short order. Everyone wants their wedding to be meaningful. A lot of people didn’t know how to get there. I feel like then you end up focusing on the wrong things, like if the colors on the napkins are a little bit off. Really, what makes a wedding meaningful is you and the families you come from and your cultures and what’s meaningful to you and the fact that you met each other and fell in love, which is a miracle in the world. You’re doing this brave thing, deciding to join your lives together. I wanted to write a book for people who wanted to design their own wedding in their own way. Maybe they don’t have a template. Maybe they’re not religious. Maybe they don’t identify with their culture. Maybe they do and they want to learn new things about it, but ways to bring meaning into your wedding that are personal to you and that also connect you to previous generations and to future generations. That’s Lucky in Love.

Zibby: Wow. Wait, go back to talking about the importance of rituals in our culture and the effect of not having them during COVID. Tell me more about that.

Eleni: In college, I learned in my first folk and myth class that societies develop rituals around liminal stages, the transitional stages that make us nervous. Change makes you nervous, even if it’s good change like a wedding. That’s why we have rituals around birth, death, coming of age, weddings. They do a few things. They remind us that we’re not alone. They help us identify with each other. You think of that a lot at a wedding where there’s a couple getting married, but before them, their parents got married. After them, their children will go on to join with other people and create new families. They also make us stop and say, okay, this is important, what I’m doing right now, whether it’s a wedding or a baptism or even just the way athletes will have a ritual sometimes before they go up to bat, stops for minute, centers you, focuses you, connects you to something larger than yourself and makes you feel like this is an important thing. It also calms you. Part of what makes us nervous when things change is that we can’t control the future. We don’t know what’s going to happen. When you do these things, it gives you an element of control. That aspect of it, some people think of it negatively as superstition. I’m highly superstitious. I’m always wearing an evil eye or knocking wood or whatever. I feel like it’s totally a psychological crutch that makes me feel like I’m doing something that’s going to tip things in my favor. Why wouldn’t I want that extra confidence?

Zibby: That is really interesting. I, of course, noticed the lack of rituals, especially surrounding death, during COVID. You could kind of do some of the stuff on Zoom. My kids had bar and bat mitzvahs on Zoom and other things. I’ve gone to some Zoom weddings and whatever. Of course, it’s not the same. The Zooms for memorials just did not feel enough of —

Eleni: — You want to hug the person. You want to celebrate their lives. I do love how during quarantine we got creative about rituals and drilled down to what was important. When you’re designing a ritual, whether it’s a wedding or a memorial and whether you’re redesigning it because you can’t be together or you’re designing it in the first place, it really makes you ask yourself, what do I need out of this? What matters to me? That’s why I think with death, some people, they really want to focus on the celebration of life. Some people really want to focus on the healing for the people who are left behind. Some people really want to focus on their vision of an afterlife. It’s the same thing with any ritual. What do I want the people around me to feel? What do I want to feel? What do I want to get out of this and give out of this? I think everyone should marry in their own way, so this is not too harsh on elopements. I feel like when I was younger, people would say to me, don’t you want it to be just you and your spouse on top of a volcano somewhere? I was like, no, because this is about all the people who got us to this point and who are going to be with us throughout our marriage and our lives together and that sense of community. For me, part of quarantine, what I really missed was that sense of community. Part of what ended up being enjoyable about it was finding ways to build that sense of community, as you did in your anthology.

Zibby: Thank you. I had the chance to have two weddings, actually, so I’m very lucky in that I got to have a do-over and be like, okay, I learned from the first wedding. What am I going to do for the second wedding? All these skills you get, you might as well put them to good use.

Eleni: Totally. I had two weddings on the same day.

Zibby: What?

Eleni: My husband’s Catholic. I’m Greek Orthodox. We got married on the island of Corfu in Greece which has a significant Catholic minority. When I was meeting with the Greek priest — I did all the legwork for the wedding. He had never been to Greece before he showed up to get married. The Greek priest was like, “Your husband’s from Nicaragua? If he’s Catholic, you could get married in the Catholic church first,” so we did. We had a Catholic ceremony. Then we walked down in front of the house of St. Michael and St. George to the waterfront and had a Greek Orthodox ceremony. Then we walked down to the Fortress and had our reception. So we’re really, really married. We’re so married.

Zibby: No doubt about that. Have you always been interested in weddings because of their folklore aspect? Is that how you ended up at Martha Stewart Weddings? How did that happen in your career and your interests and all of that?

Eleni: Don’t you sort of look back on life and feel like everything was leading to certain points? It all comes together. Yeah, I was always interested in weddings because of the folklore aspect. I was interested in folklore because my dad’s Greek. My mom’s not. We grew up with my aunts coming over all the time. I’d be studying for exams. One of them would open the door and wave some incense around because it’s St. Basil’s Day. Because my mom wasn’t of the culture and she appreciated it and could point out, that’s a ritual, that got me interested in observing the things that were around me. I love weddings. I would look at anybody’s wedding pictures because there’s so much there. One of the things, actually, that was really life-affirming about writing this book during a time where there were political divides and everything in the country was that it made me feel — I was working on the chapter about toasts from all over the world.

What I love about folklore is it’s so specific to each culture, but it’s so universal at the same time. It made me realize that we all want the same things. With a wedding, everybody wants to show hospitality. Everybody wants their children to be happy. Everyone wants the generations to continue. It made me feel like, oh, we’re all the same. How I got to weddings was my very first job as an editorial assistant at Allure magazine four days after I graduated from college. I made a ton of friends there, as I feel like one does in their first job. One of them ended up being the editor-in-chief of Weddings, so I ended up working there. I was so thrilled whenever these big packets used to go around with all these stranger’s wedding contact sheets for the photo editor and the designer and the editors and everyone to decide, which weddings should we cover? That was my happiest day when I got to look at forty wedding pictures.

Zibby: I’m the same way. I used to inhale every word even of the Vows column. Now I’m not doing that as much as reading obituaries, for whatever reason.

Eleni: When I walk through Central Park and I see the brides taking wedding pictures or whatever, I always feel like it’s so lucky when I see a bride. I’m always telling my kids, look, look. I’m probably severely damaging them.

Zibby: I was a bride for Halloween as a child. I had the long veil. I looked amazing. I had a bouquet. It was great. It was my favorite costume. By the way, have you heard, it sounds like a lot of millennials are not getting married. People are starting to find it optional. Have you heard about this?

Eleni: I have. In fact, my sister, who is not quite a millennial, she’s not married. She and her partner have been together for years. They have a baby. I get to spend a lot of time with them, so I don’t feel as cheated as I would if I didn’t. There’s part of me that’s like, don’t you just want me to have a good time? Where’s the party? Where’s the party I get to go to? I helped raise you. Where can I be like, is this the little girl I carried? She’s only two and a half years younger, but still. My sister’s like, “I don’t want to be the focus of attention. It makes me nervous. I don’t want to spend all that money.” I totally get that. I don’t think weddings have to cost a lot. I don’t think you have to invite everyone you know. I think it’s such an opportunity. Life offers us opportunities to celebrate. We should take them all because it also offers us sad things. If we can all get together to celebrate love, the two people that we love, and also just love itself — at our weddings, my husband Emilio gave a toast. He said, “We’re so happy that we found each other, but we’re also so happy that we have all of you in our lives. Tonight, we want to celebrate love in all its forms.” I think that’s what a wedding is. Millennials, you do you. Enjoy. I hope they don’t look back and wish that they had had a moment where everyone was together. I hope they get that down the road. You want to have a wedding with your kids walking you down the aisle? Great, more power to you. Do it in your own way and in your own time, but don’t give up the opportunity to celebrate love.

Zibby: Maybe there’ll be a new tradition that comes, which is, you don’t actually get married, but you can still celebrate your partnership. I don’t know if it’s the legal part of it that people don’t like. I think you’re right that some people don’t want to be the center of attention, and the money and everything, but I think some people just don’t see the point of getting married.

Eleni: I know. The point is to stop and say, wow, this happened. We’re so lucky we found each other. We have you guys. We have something to celebrate. There’s joy in the world, and to stop and honor that.

Zibby: I’m with you. I am totally with you on this, yes. I feel like there’s also this sense of security and commitment within your relationship, but also signaling to everyone else, no, no, no, this is not just a thing. This is really the real deal here.

Eleni: Totally, and we want you to be a part of this. I say in the book somewhere, it’s the first time you’re hosting friends as a unit, as a married couple, and not just friends, but everybody, all the generations. One thing that I feel like is tough in the US as opposed to in other countries is, I feel like unless you’re in a house of worship or in a family home, our generations are so separated and so stratified. All the old people are here. All the little kids are over here being watched over by the little-kid caretakers. All the middle-aged people are over here working. You go to Europe and you sit in the main square, and the grandparents are watching the grandkids running around. The parents are having dinner over there. Everybody’s all mixed up together. A wedding gives us that, unless you’re having a wedding with no kids. I support that too. That’s fine. Rituals give us the chance to all come together across the generations. I think it’s so meaningful.

Zibby: Wait, so let’s go back if you don’t mind. You started after college at Allure. I know you married a Nicaraguan husband. I’ve seen your beautiful pictures. I’ve learned more about Nicaragua than I ever thought I would, and watched the videos, oh, my gosh. I know a few other things along the way, and that you’ve written all these books. Give me the timeline and trajectory of how this all happened. Did you grow up always wanting to write?

Eleni: My parents are both writers, journalists and book writers. No, I didn’t want anything to do with it. It looked like a lot of work. It looked really boring. They spent a lot of time with the computer. I wanted to be a teacher. Then when I was in college, I started writing for the lifestyle magazine of the newspaper. I really enjoyed that. I felt a lot of stress about graduating. I wish I had been the cool kind of person who was like, I’m going to backpack around Europe. I really felt like I needed to know what I was doing next, so I got a job at Allure four days after graduation. I worked there. Then I worked at Elle. Then I worked at InStyle. Then I moved to Greece to the small mountain village where my dad’s from to oversee the rebuilding of my grandparents’ house which had fallen into ruin after World War II and then the Greek Civil War. That was about healing family trauma and rebuilding the house. Also, I wanted to live in this place and build my own relationship to it. We had lived in Greece when I was little, but in Athens, from when I was three to when I was seven. I was going back as an adult. I spent ten months living in this village with senior citizens as my neighbors. I thought it would be meaningful, but I did not think it would be so fun. It was so fun. I had the best time with these people. I’ve been back every year since except during quarantine when I did go to Greece but didn’t go to the village because I didn’t want to risk that I was bringing anything, and the year that I was pregnant with my daughter. Had a great time doing that. I came back. That’s what my travel memoir is about, North of Ithaca.

I came back. I worked at People magazine. I was their first beauty editor. Worked there a couple years. I really wanted to write a novel. I knew I wouldn’t do it because as a journalist, as someone who gets paid to write, I knew I wouldn’t sit there and spend all this time writing something without a deadline. I went to Columbia to get my MFA. I wrote a novel sort of inspired by my college roommate. It’s about an Indian American psychiatrist who thinks that her family’s been cursed. It’s called Other Waters. I was really fascinated by this idea of a scientific person who still believes that there are other forces at play, larger forces at play. I sort of believe that. I think there’s so much more in the world than we recognize. I was at Columbia. I wrote that novel. I was teaching writing there. That was around the time I met the Nicaraguan. I’d been single for a million years. In 2008, that college roommate who was Indian got engaged. She had an engagement party in Strongsville, Ohio. I went. There were lots of elderly Indian people including this gentleman who’d been an engineer for Ford Motors or something, but he did astrology on the side. He did my charts. He looked at my palm. He said, “The time I see for marriage is September 2010.” I told my roommate that. She said, “Oh, ’s great, but he’s always a month off.” I said, “Okay, then I’ll get married on 10/10/10.” Really, I was thinking that’s way too soon. It’s April 2008. I would have to meet a guy tomorrow, date him for a year. We’d have to be engaged for a year. Never going to happen.

I came back, went out to dinner with my girlfriends, told them I’m getting married 10/10/10. One of them pulled out a datebook and went to write it down. She was a lawyer. She said, “I’ll need to take time off work.” A year passes. I still haven’t met anybody. Then one night, the same roommate who had gotten married on New Year’s Eve in India — I went and brought my mother and sister. She texted me while I’m out at a concert with all my Greek friends, a Greek concert. She says, “I’m in a bar,” with her husband, “watching the Duke game. I’m the only girl here. There’s all these cute guys. It’s a man buffet. You should come.” I was like, “I’ll stop by in between the concert and the Greek dancing.” I stopped by. There were all these guys there who’d gone to Duke including this Nicaraguan guy who said he worked in coffee. He was cute, but I didn’t catch his name. Then the next day, I met up with another friend of mine. I asked how her sister was. Her sister was in business school at the time. She said, “She’s great. She’s going to spend the summer in Nicaragua working for an NGO.” I said, “Oh, that’s so funny. I just met a guy from there, but I can’t remember his name.” She said, “She doesn’t know anyone from there, so if you could put them in touch, that would be great.” In the meantime, another one of the guys there had Facebook friended me and circled back. I said to him, “Hey, your Nicaraguan friend, would he talk to my friend?” This guy said, “Yeah, we should all get together in a month after I turn in my dissertation.” We did. We chatted. Emilio went on the trip. He was the Nicaraguan guy. I went on a trip. When we came back, we started hanging out as friends. Started dating.

Ten months later, we were in Buenos Aires on a trip. We saw a family with kids walking by. He said, “How soon can we have kids?” I said, “We’d have to get married first.” He said, “How soon can we get married?” I said, “Well, somebody once told me I’d get married on 10/10/10.” This was May 2010. He was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I messaged my cousin on Corfu. I was like, “Go talk to the priest at this church. See if it’s free.” I messaged the sailing club at the Fortress. They were like, “You want to get married in October? Everyone gets married in the summer. Yeah, of course, we’re free in October.” I got married on 10/10/10. Actually, that day, a Greek newspaper interviewed me because there were all these couples getting married. Even the priest was like, “I have five weddings today. It’s October. Why?” I was like, “I think people think that the numbers are lucky.” It all came to pass. We moved to Miami. My husband, he has a coffee brand now, but at the time, he was a coffee trader. We moved to Miami for his work. In that timeframe, I got inspired by a story he told me about his grandmother who was Nicaraguan and went to Catholic boarding school in New Orleans like a lot of Nicaraguan women of her era and class did in the early fifties, late forties. There, she fell in love a Cuban guy and was sort of torn away from him at the altar. I started thinking about her and the women of that generation who had gone to boarding school and learned how to get in and out of cabs gracefully and all sorts of useless skills. Then their kids ended up, in many cases, starting the Nicaraguan revolution.

I’ve always been fascinated by older women. I like writing from the point of view of older women. I feel like as women, we sort of take it upon ourselves to learn how society works and functions. We throw the birthday parties. We write the thank you notes. We do all the things that keep the world moving. Just when you figure out how everything works, it all changes. I think that happens to all of us, but I think there are certain moments in time where that’s especially noticeable. For the Nicaraguan women of that generation, it was that moment in time. Whereas in Europe, I feel like World War II changed a lot of things historically. So we’re married. We’re living in Miami. I’m freelancing. I write The Ladies of Managua, which is a novel about three generations of Nicaraguan women, each with their own secret. Then I got the job offer to be the executive editor at Weddings. We were ready to come back to New York. I couldn’t pass up writing about weddings all the time, so came back. I worked there for three years. We had my daughter in Miami. We had my son here after a lot of effort. I wanted to spend more time with him, so I freelanced again and along the way, wrote Lucky in Love. Then I took another job as articles editor at O, The Oprah Magazine. When that ceased monthly print, I went freelance again. That brings us to today. What else do you want to know?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I loved that.

Eleni: I told you everything. You’re sorry you asked.

Zibby: I’m not at all sorry I asked. I found that totally fascinating. I was hanging on every word. That’s such an interesting journey through the world of women’s magazines and publishing and love yourself. That was great. Are you now freelancing while you do book promotion and stuff? Are you going to go back to a publication? What are you thinking?

Eleni: I don’t know. You tell me. What should I do, Zibby? I heard you talking to Tia, who was a beauty editor back when I was too, Tia Williams who wrote Seven Days in June. You were like, “Let me try and fix your migraines.” I was like, can she fix my life?

Zibby: I might need a little more time. I usually do have ideas for people right away. I don’t know. Maybe you should start a podcast.

Eleni: I don’t think I have the tech skills. I am freelance now. I am definitely open to another job at a magazine. People ask me, are you writing another novel? I would love to. I remember running around the reservoir, which I now never do, and thinking about the characters in The Ladies of Managua and thinking to myself, what do people who aren’t writing a book think about while they run? I said that to a friend of mine. She looked at me sort of pityingly and was like, “Their own lives.” I feel like right now, on the moms don’t have time to write front, I can write articles. I can write gift books. I could write about folklores until the cows come home, like Lucky in Love. To write another novel, I feel like I can’t be responsible for any more lives, real or imagined. I’m hoping that something overtakes me and I just am impassioned to wake up early and write, and stay up late and write, and the story sort of pours out of me the way The Ladies of Managua did. Right now, there’s nothing captivating me enough to make me take on more lives, real or imagined, for the same reason I tell my kids they can’t have a pet. I’m like, I can’t be responsible for one more living thing, just you guys.

Zibby: I know that feeling very well. Although, now we have a dog.

Eleni: Now you have a dog and you’re writing like five different books from what I can keep track of.

Zibby: Gosh, I feel like you researched me so well. It makes me feel so good. Thank you.

Eleni: Oh, no, I love it. Social media makes me feel like I know all these people.

Zibby: You know, it’s funny, I’ve started actually now meeting people that I know well on social media. This is so weird. I’m like, hey kids, here’s my friend who I met on the internet. It’s so bad. You can really get to someone very well through Zoom. This is really a type of meeting, I like to think.

Eleni: Totally. You feel for them. It’s happened to me where I meet people in person and I want to be like, how are you doing after this or after that? Then, a little bit, I’m like, am I creepy stalker?

Zibby: I know. There are people who I meet in real life and I’m like, oh, my gosh, I have to hug you. That’s so weird of me. I’m being very weird now. I realize this, I say to myself. Wow, what a great career. You could also do something about that whole trajectory of publications. There’s so many other people who have gone through the women’s magazine world, or not even just women’s, People and everything else.

Eleni: I would love, even, a story — I was so single for so long, it felt like. I was so disheartened about all that. I do sort of look back on that time as a novel, almost, a story. In terms of magazines and my life and things like that, part of me feels like, do people really need to hear about my life right now? My mom’s always like — during quarantine, we were here for the first nine weeks. I have all these pictures of my kids skating in the empty fountains in front of the Met and stores boarded up that say, “We’re all in this together.” Then we came back. The heartbreak of hybrid and remote schooling, I was posting all of this. My mom’s always like, “You should get together your photos and your posts and write about parenting during quarantine and being in New York and all this.” I’m like, “Listen, everybody lived it. Nobody wants to read that. Thank you, Mom, for being interested in my life, but I don’t know that my quarantine story is the one everyone needs to hear right now when there are doctors and nurses and frontline workers who really went through it all.”

Zibby: That said, just playing devil’s advocate here for a second, the things that happened during that time are much more interesting than if you just put a blanket term of how parents got through a pandemic. There was so much that went on. There were so many emotions and feelings. It didn’t even have to be about the pandemic. It was just, what happens when life as you know it completely changes? That’s a very interesting question. That’s something that I think each family story is really interesting to me, not necessarily, how do you go to Zoom school or whatever? which I never want to think about again. What do you do when life throws something really challenging your way? I’m interested in that. I’m interested in hearing how people cope with anything, with loss or addiction or whatever. The pandemic is one example of that. In that way, I actually would be really interested in what happened with you. The ice skating is really interesting. Not to say you should write a whole book about it.

Eleni: What’s been interesting for me to watch is how different age groups are affected in different ways. My daughter was in third grade when quarantine started and went through fourth grade. No big deal. She could chat with her friends online, this and that. I’d be thinking about kids who were high school seniors and college seniors and how difficult that was. My son, who was four when it started and is six now, he won’t remember a time before masks or before quarantine. His conscious memory won’t exist. Remote school is not developmentally appropriate for that age. He didn’t think the teachers could see him or hear him and was so upset. We’d find him crying in the closet and be like, “What’s wrong?” He’d say, “The lifecycle of the salmon, it’s so sad.” He learned on Wild Kratts only one in a thousand salmon make it swimming upstream. It is really sad. Thanks, Wild Kratts.

Zibby: Love Wild Kratts, by the way.

Eleni: Right?

Zibby: Yeah, shout-out to Wild Kratts.

Eleni: Maybe I can get a job on Wild Kratts. The way different age groups will be impacted, I wonder about these generations who — how do you teach kids other people aren’t always dangerous when they just remember having to wear masks and not touch people? He didn’t want to wear a costume for Zoom school on Halloween because somehow in his mind, a costume equaled trick-or-treating, which equaled death. I said, “Why don’t you want to wear a costume?” He was like, “I don’t want to get corona.” I’m real glad that it looks like full-time school in the fall for us.

Zibby: Me too. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Eleni: Oh, gosh. My advice would be, just write all the time. I used to think about writing a book, and it seemed daunting, whereas writing an article seemed doable. Then just thinking about what you need to write that day or the next day. What I loved about writing The Ladies of Managua, it’s three different women’s voices, the daughter, the mother, and the grandmother. They go in the same order. The chapters alternate. Their voice is in the same order. I always knew who was going to talk next. I had a general idea what they wanted to talk about. Otherwise, I was kind of making it up as I went along. Having that structure was really useful to me. The other thing I learned in grad school was, I used to think I need a whole day if I’m going to do creative writing. I can edit articles and stuff here and there, but I need a whole day to write fiction. Then I was like, no, I need four hours. No, I need two hours. I realized if you just have the small piece that you want to be working on, just do it in the hour. Even if it’s terrible, you can come back and edit it later. So much of writing is just editing. For me, the hard part is getting the whole thing down. Then you can hack it into something, a topiary. Growing that tree or that bush, that’s the hard part.

Zibby: Awesome. I’m sorry I don’t have a perfect answer for you right now, but I’m going to keep thinking about it.

Eleni: You don’t have enough to do, Zibby, so you need to take that on.

Zibby: It’s going to circle in the back there.

Eleni: Moms don’t have time to be career counselors. That’s your next.

Zibby: It was so great to connect with you. I hope we stay in touch and all that good stuff.

Eleni: Me too. I will bump into you on the street one day and give you a hug whether you like it or not.

Zibby: Perfect. I would love it. We’ll hang out. Take care.

Eleni: Thanks so much.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Eleni: Bye.


LUCKY IN LOVE by Eleni Gage

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