- Elizabeth Gilbert, "Eat. Pray. Love."
As a self-admitted pedant and a book snob I’m a big believer that what you read defines who you are. And somewhat like in “High Fidelity” I judge compatibility with someone based on whether or not our favorite books would “even speak to each other if they met at a party.”
Back in the day when I was in denial about the bitterness I felt over a person from my past starting to date again, it made itself evident in a comment I made about the girl’s reading habit.
“So what is it that you two have in common?” I asked, as if really invested in his well-being. Though looking back I think I was doing a poor job masking my jealousy.
“Well, she reads a lot. And you know how much I appreciate that,” he offered naively. Or maybe purposely: to point out that, no, in fact I wasn’t the only girl that read, and actually I wasn’t “the only” girl that anything.
Surprised by just how much that stung, I spat out, “What exactly? Self-help books?”
Coming from me it was an insult, and it was interpreted as such. And frankly, I still feel that if to you “Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus.” then you should probably not go around telling people that you like reading. Maybe you can list unsuccessful book-shopping as a hobby. But not reading. Granted, you may someday graduate to grown-up books. But until then, don’t tell anyone that you read, because they just might ask you “what?”
Armed with this delightful open-minded approach I encountered Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat. Pray. Love.” a few years back when it had just come out. A friend was going through a tough divorce, and was clutching the book like it was a life raft. “Grow a backbone” I thought. “Is reading about some girl’s divorce and meanderings all over the world in search of her self really going to help you through this?” Besides, I thought, maybe if my friend got a book deal out of her divorce, things would be easier for her as well. Needless to say, I was skeptical when the book made The New York Times Bestseller list so many weeks in a row. And all the ooh-ing and ah-ing that accompanied the obvious financial success, the tossing around of words just as “self-discovery” and “emotional voyage” arose an absolute aversion in me. And then came the worst of all evils, the absolute death of a good book, the death sentence handed to a piece of art by making it into a piece of popular culture: the movie. Things went from bad to worse when it turned out that the author/the main character were to be played by Julia Roberts.
“Buh-bye Elizabeth Gilbert, it’s been nice not knowing you. Enjoy the cheesy movie and rolling around in all that dough…”
But then my writing instructor mentioned “Eat. Pray. Love.” in class as a good example of a successful pattern in a memoir book. The book, she said, was split into 3 sections: one for each country where the author had travelled. The 3 parts of the title each spoke of the experience she had had in each respective country. The number of chapters, 108, was split evenly among the 3 different sections: 36 each. And the total number of chapters wasn’t arbitrary either; it corresponded to the number of beads in a japa mala: traditional Hindu or Buddhist prayer beads that are used during prayer and meditation. Something akin to Western rosary beads.
Well, if you put things this way, I just may be curious enough to get the book. Although, Ms. Gilbert, don’t expect me to contribute to your amassed fortune – I bought the book used.
And even still, this was nothing more than just professional curiosity, seeing as we were learning about how to use pattern in our writing. But boy, was I surprised when I started to read and it dawned on me that I had dog-eared half of the first 50 pages. As reluctant as I still am to admit it, this book just may actually have some wisdom to it. Not only that, but also this wisdom comes to me at a time when it is most needed. I read and I see my thoughts reflected in the author’s thoughts, my worries and my internal battles ravaging somebody else’s mind, my conclusions finding the words to come to life through this book that I fought tooth and nail not to read.
The “Eat” section of the book, which describes Gilbert’s experience in Italy, I devoured in less than a day. “Pray”, detailing her life in an ashram in India, is going a little more slowly, mindfully. I find myself putting the book down and allowing myself to really muse on some thought or another quite frequently. I haven’t made it to Indonesia yet. But even if I get nothing more from this book, it’s already given me plenty. There were enough cues to initiate insight and churn my thoughts and direct them in the right channel. And I’m actually really glad that I was so adamant against reading this book before. That’s another little Liz Gilbert wisdom for you: all in its due time.
“I saw the other side of my passionate romantic hero – (he) was solitary as a castaway, cool to the touch, in need of more personal space than a herd of American bison.”
“God never slams a door in your face without opening a box of Girl Scout cookies.”
“My heart skipped a beat and then flat-out tripped over itself and fell on its face.”
“Often I was still overcome with a desire to sacrifice everything for the love of him. Other times, I had quite the opposite instinct – to put as many continents and oceans as possible between me and this guy, in the hope of finding peace and happiness.”
“… Never (…) use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.”
“I disappear into the person I love. I am the permeable membrane. If I love you, you can have everything. You can have my time, my devotion, my ass, my money, my family, my dog, my dog’s money, my dog’s time – everything. If I love you I will carry for you all your pain, I will assume for you all your debts (in every definition of the word), I will protect you from your own insecurity, I will project upon you all sorts of good qualities that you have never actually cultivated in yourself and I will buy Christmas presents for your entire family. I will give you the sun and the rain, and if they are not available, I will give you a sun check and a rain check. I will give you all this and more, until I get so exhausted and depleted that the only way I can recover my energy is by becoming infatuated with someone else.”
“We loved each other. That was never the question. It’s just that we couldn’t figure out how to stop making each other desperately, shriekingly, soul-punishingly miserable.”
“… How can I accept that bliss when it comes with this dark underside – bone-crushing isolation, corrosive insecurity, insidious resentment and, of course, the complete dismantling of self that inevitably occurs when (he) ceases to giveth, and commences to taketh away.”
“People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that’s holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life. A true soul mate is probably the most important person you’ll ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then they leave.”
“You gotta stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone oughtta be.”
“Time – when pursued like a bandit – will behave like one; always remaining one country or one room ahead of you, changing its name and hair color to elude you, slipping out the back door of the motel just as you’re banging through the lobby with your newest search warrant, leaving only a burning cigarette in the ashtray to taunt you.”