Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Eat, Pray, Read

I apologize for the predictable post title, considering the subject matter.

I decided to read Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love after reading this column by Jessa Crispin over at The Smart Set. Somehow I missed out on this memoir being a huge hit back in 2006. I was probably busy plowing my way through some 1200 page Norton anthology assigned by an over-zealous professor. (Oh god, the tiny 8pt type!)

But I did some research, and wow, Jessa was right about the backlash. Reading some of the reviews on Amazon and other sites, you wonder what these people are so angry about? Why is the idea of a human being living their life the way they want so upsetting to people?

Anyway. If there's one thing I've learned about user reviews of bestselling books, it's that you can't trust them. I've read horrible reviews of popular books I end up loving, and glowing reviews of books I end up throwing out the window.

So I wasn't that surprised when I fell in love with Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, even beyond the fact that it dealt with a few of my favorite subjects: eating, meditation, and travel. I found myself barraging the text with post it notes, scrap pieces of paper, paperclips, etc., trying to mark all the wonderful passages. Here are a few (and apologies, a few are quite long):

Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure. Ours is an entertainment-seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one. Americans spend billions to keep themselves amused with everything from porn to theme parks to wars, but that's not exactly the same thing as quiet enjoyment. Americans work harder and longer and more stressful hours than anyone in the world today. But as Luca Spaghetti pointed out, we seem to like it. Alarming statistics back this observation up, showing that many Americans feel more happy and fulfilled in their offices than they do in their own homes. Of course, we all inevitably work too hard, then we get burned out and have to spend the whole weekend in our pajamas, eating cereal straight out of the box and staring at the TV in a mild coma (which is the opposite of working, yes, but not exactly the same thing as pleasure). Americans don't really know how to do nothing.


How many people have I heard claim their children as the greatest accomplishment and comfort of their lives? It's the thing they can always lean on during a metaphysical crisis, or a moment of doubt about their relevancy--If I have done nothing else in this life, then at least I have raised my children well.

But what if, either by choice or by reluctant necessity, you end up not participating in this comforting cycle of family and continuity? What if you step out? Where do you sit at the reunion? How do you mark time's passage without the fear that you've just frittered away your time on earth without being relevant? You'll need to find another purpose, another measure by which to judge whether or not you have been a successful human being. I love children, but what if I don't have any? What kind of person does that make me?

Virginia Woolf wrote, "Across the broad continent of a woman's life falls the shadow of a sword." On one side of that sword, she said, there lies convention and tradition and order, where "all is correct." But on the other side of that sword, if you're crazy enough to cross it and choose a life that does not follow convention, "all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course." Her argument was that the crossing of the shadow of that sword may bring a far more interesting existence to a woman, but you can bet it will also be more perilous.

I love her mentioning the confusion over family reunion seating arrangements. I was recently at a reunion and I faced the same dilemma. Can't sit with married couples, or the parents, or the old I just played with the kids. I have more in common with 4 year olds, anyway. Why yes, young one, I enjoy Spongebob as well!

It was in a bathtub back in New York, reading Italian words aloud from a dictionary, that I first started mending my soul. My life had gone to bits and I was so unrecognizable to myself that I probably couldn't have picked me out of a police lineup. But I felt a glimmer of happiness when I started studying Italian, and when you sense a faint potentiality for happiness after such dark times you must grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you face-first out of the dirt--this is not selfishness, but obligation. You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.

And finally

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, the come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then they leave. And thank God for it.

Okay, one more

You're wishin' too much, baby. You gotta stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone oughtta be."

And that was my favorite line of the book. I'm looking forward to using it on someone in the future.

By the way, the film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love is coming out in August.

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