When “Eat, Pray, Love” first wormed itself into my consciousness I was conflicted. I had a friend who loved it, and who actually bought me a copy because “every woman should read it.” So I had a copy. I had another friend who described author Elizabeth Gilbert as insufferably selfish, and the book as a kind of protracted escape fantasy no better than the offerings of Harlequin et al. I started the book one night, and although it was well written, I found that Liz (may I call her Liz?) and I didn’t have much in common aside from writing. She was leaving a marriage because it just wasn’t right, and I will not judge the choices of others, but I am of the try-really-hard-unless-you-are-abused-or cheated-on school. Marriage is hard work, and divorce is messy, expensive and painful. She also didn’t want children; again, that’s her business and the business of the millions of others who feel the same way. I was looking for an “in,” though, a way to find her sympathetic, and I found not much. She was smart, she wrote well, but two of the most important things in my life were anathema to her. I read all the Amy Tan novels, instead.
About a year later, I read the book. I don’t know what changed; it was long before the movie promos which seem to fill the airwaves with pretty Julia experiencing life to a soundtrack of Florence + The Machine. I actually liked the book (although it was such a cliché that I was kind of embarrassed to be seen with it in public) and Liz and I did have some things in common after all. Italy is my favorite place in the world, and she “got” the essence of it – the food, the pace of life, the beauty of the language. In India she was (if I remember right) at an ashram, meditating and learning to be mindful. In Bali, she went kind of Harlequin, but it was still a good read.
If “the devil is in the details” perhaps God has an option on them, as well; it was in the small, personal anecdotes and tidbits that I found Liz most likeable. I still found her self-absorbed, and found myself thinking that she night benefit from a heady dose of the real life of the average woman (in America, Italy, India or Indonesia) but I understood that she was creating a story that would have been less interesting had it been more mundane. It was a good read, not an exceptional read, and I was finally able to tell my Johnny Gilbertseed friend that I had read it and enjoyed it.
These days, as I believe I’ve mentioned, “Eat, Pray, Love: is everywhere. It has largely consumed network television commercial time, World Market and either HSN or QVC (I honestly don’t remember) that was selling “Bali-themed” bedding and Italian bath gels to breathless callers from Peoria and Yountville. As a cultural phenomenon, this interests me. Why is this story so important and engaging to so many women? Why is it that it can be parlayed and manipulated by Hollywood and various ad agencies into a blaze of Buddha statues, teas, incense, and American women making pilgrimages to Bali in such numbers that the natives are kind of sick of them?
In the same way that Liz constructed a three-part trip as a kind of gimmick for writing about her self-discovery, I have cunningly designed this post to lead to the answer I had already found. This morning I woke up feeling old, tired, and uninspired. I knew that I had to meditate fast, before the phone started ringing, and that I had to get to it before looking at the computer, emptying the dishwasher or saying more than “good morning” to Rob. The issue of coffee loomed large. If I took time to make and drink coffee, would I lose my window? If I didn’t have the coffee, would I fall asleep while meditating? (It would not be the first time). Would I continue to feel so draggy, icky and under a blanket of fog that I would be unable to focus?
I made the coffee. I drank it fast, and then settled on my pillow to “sit.” Instead of focusing on my breath, I thought about whether Sam was really going to want to play football at this late date, where I might get a sports physical scheduled in two days, whether I had enough spaghetti and meatballs left over from last night to make a dinner for my parents tonight, how many pans of potatoes I would have to make to serve 255 people in September 18th, the fact that there was no gas in my car, and whether I had remembered to pay Capital One. My meditation timer went off, and I practically flung the cushion back into its resting place in my rush to get to the “To-Do” list. I have to drive Rob to the airport to get his rental car, grocery shop for my parents, and do at least two hours of my online food safety course. I have exponentially increasing e-mails in my inbox, and the dogs need a bath. There will have to be lunch, dinner, dog walking, laundry…real life. All day long.
So that, dear reader, is the answer to the question: “Eat, Pray, Love” is the fantasy of many women busy with children, older parents, jobs and necessary minutiae. Liz is absolutely free to do as she chooses (and is, in fact, ultimately paid quite handsomely for precisely that), and she can do the things most of us only dream of. I don’t mean the sophisticated, older lover in Bali; I mean eating to her heart’s delight in Italy, having uninterrupted time to develop a spiritual life, and having time to think, dream, putter and savor all that life has to offer. Maybe we’re being manipulated by the media, maybe a pretty-good book has been hyped into more than its actual substance, but perhaps, instead of snark and cynicism, we should consider why it works.
I think we need something, I know I do. I can’t leave my family and run away for a year; even if I could abandon them all, I couldn’t possibly afford the airfare. What I can do is savor more, rush less, and do it in the context of my own messy, encumbered life. I don’t want to be Liz (aside from the profits on the book), but I can learn some things from her. I might even see the movie, but I may not admit it.