When a good friend gave me a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love a few years ago with the obligatory, "You gotta read this," I immediately thought, Dear Lord, this is going to be some canned feel-good Oprah book and I'll want to find one of those Bridges in Madison County and jump off it with a rope tied round my neck. At the time, the Mighty-O had not yet sunk in her media mogul talons into the property. At the time, it wasn't even a "property." It was just a book, a story about one woman's journey from a doldrum-filled mess of a life into a gloriously exotic mess of a life. I read it and became completely caught up in Gilbert's personal journey of awakening. It was messy, full of moments of palpable self-loathing, but graced with the sincere desire for change. Plus copious amounts of pasta and booze. Her lonely moments of sitting on the bathroom floor, sobbing helplessly over one's state of existence and waiting for the voice of God to somehow seep through the renovated travertine to reach a lost soul are achingly familiar. Only to discover the almighty voice with an answer was one's own, with the simple and sublime advice to go back to bed. Much like the clicking of the Ruby Slippers, we must be our own champions.
Gilbert provides a painfully honest account over her unceremonious exit from a world she never felt comfortable in. Her marriage and dilemma of family are the perfect representation of the gilded cage of Normalcy, however that false sense of reassurance carves the pound of flesh that sublimates one's own hopes and dreams. Her ex-husband isn't a hateful demon; he seems a decent enough fella and Gilbert makes no bones about being complicit in this anesthetized life. But she's gasping for air and needs space to breathe -- enter the impossibly dramatic break from the norm. Her self-prescribed adventure includes a year divided in Italy, India and then Bali, delivering her from the fate of a doomed Sylvia Plath heroine to a woman with an empassioned ravenous spirit. Not just for food or faraway lands, but the experience of being present in one's own life and taking each interaction as a self-critical lesson. She uses travel as a means of discovery and not the escape that vacation hobbyists hide behind. Here was a godless woman opening herself up towards the concept of something spiritual and self-healing, to realize on her own terms that all paths lead to God, and ultimately a sense of forgiveness for her own choices. I couldn't help but cheer for Gilbert's journey, in all her neurotic grace, because at the end of the day, she's a likeable enough soul who's able to embrace spirituality without getting annoyingly crystal-crunchy. One's own inner-voice starts to reason, if Elizabeth Gilbert can dare to navigate her own path to the unmapped realms of personal choices, why not me? And why shouldn't I eat that pizza in one guiltless sitting?
Fast forward another few years, after the Cult of the Oprah Book Club, and now a feature film adaptation, I found myself eagerly anticipating the big screen adventure delivered by the toothy grin of Julia Roberts. I went the opening weekend and wasn't disappointed. The movie retained the spirit of Gilbert's book, all while staying within the acceptible two hour marker of no unnecessary pee breaks. It's a great movie, so I was a little surprised at the level of anti-Eat Pray Love sentiment, mostly from people who never read the book or men who assume it's a chick flick in travel diarist's clothing. It doesn't bother me when my boyfriend rolls his eyes when I say I'm going to see the next silly Katherine Heigl romp, but it disappoints me that he won't give Eat Pray Love a chance. We both saw the adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake without much kicking and screaming, but that's because it's about a man's journey of self discovery. And by that irritating logic, the movie about a guy with the daddy complex who sees dead baseball players in an Iowa cornfield becomes a cinema sensation, yet a woman who chooses to leave an unfulfilling marriage, deliberately check the "no" box for children, and travel the world to investigate the space one's heart truly inhabits -- oh, no that's surely a crock of emotional frippery. Whatever, Haters. They just don't understand there's something beyond the picket fences of conformity. Or maybe they just don't realize social norms are not what solely defines a person, and that there's no shame in wanting more.
A good friend once told me the best advice after a spectacularly awful breakup: There needs to be a You. If there's no You, then there's nothing for someone to love. At some point in everyone's life, as illustrated in Gilbert's book, our actual selves disappear. It's inevitable because there's just too many must-do's and never enough time for the wanna-do's. This loss of self is an unseen rite of passage that has yet to be recognized like puberty or being old enough to drink legally. Our real selves become buried under responsibility, professional ambition and expectations of others, and if we're very lucky, a Moment of Zen happens, equivalent to the clip from The Daily Show of a head-sized watermelon getting pulverized by a pair of meaty karate hands. Trauma as a blessing. We're jarred to our senses, we look at ourselves in the mirror, terrified that it's a stranger, and we're given the awful but empowering opportunity for change. It doesn't have to be as severe as leaving a marriage or the continent, it can be as simple as daring to go back to school, redefining one's career, and hopefully eschewing the need for a red sportscar and a younger mate, but it's no less cathartic if it means rediscovering the person who once had a true thirst for life.
Jaunty Fine Print: photos by Denise Sakaki