When I first began reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, I felt as though this woman must have been camping out inside my head for the last year and a half. Gilbert has, for the most part, a resoundingly familiar voice. Her wry, self-deprecating (and I realize that term has been fittingly overused in reviews of her work) style has a kind of “one size fits all” ring to it. I mean, who among us hasn’t, at least figuratively, found themselves prone on the bathroom floor at midnight realizing that they needed an intervention of the highest power?
Gilbert weaves an amazing story of a year-long search for pleasure and devotion, and, ultimately, a well-balanced mix of the two in a clever series of 108 short tales inspired by the 108 beads in the traditional Indian japa mala. As the devout would finger each bead one by one during prayerful meditation, so Gilbert fingers each tale, exploring the nuances as one might feel the intricately carved beads under one’s touch.
As a journalist for GQ, Elizabeth Gilbert lives the life that exists only in my parallel universe. She travels extensively and, as she freely admits, she does so in a completely haphazard and utterly unfettered way. Armed with nothing more than weather appropriate clothing and a round trip ticket, Gilbert embarks on her first post-divorce trip of self-discovery to Italy. Here is where she indulges in a full-on appreciation of the beautiful language and even better food. I salivated my way through Italy as though I were her companion during her four-month stay in Rome.
As a spiritual seeker, Gilbert initially won me over with her non-denominational approach to “God”. Again, I felt a kindred spirit when she explains, “why I used the word God, when I could just as easily use the words Jehovah, Allah, Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, or Zeus. Alternatively, I could call God ‘That,’ which is how the ancient Sanskrit scriptures say it, and which I think comes close to the all-inclusive and unspeakable entity I have sometimes experienced.” Although this spoke to my soul, it was her brutally honest and forthright manner of prayer that really stole my heart, “What I said to God through my gasping sobs was something like this: ‘hello, God. How are you? I’m Liz. It’s nice to meet you….That’s right—I was speaking to the creator of the universe as though we’d just been introduced at a cocktail party.'”
From Italy, Gilbert moves on to India with the intent to spend a six week stay at an Ashram in order to facilitate her search for a personal relationship with her cocktail party companion. It was here that the author and I began to part ways and as she stumbled into long essays on the history of transcendental meditation I found myself avoiding the book altogether. Although open to Eastern ideas, I am firmly entrenched in a Quaker upbringing and initially balked at the idea that one could find Nirvana in a cave in India by emptying one’s mind. Clearly, I needed to open my own mind even further and accept that Gilbert truly experienced the divine intervention she had keened for on that cold bathroom floor a few years prior. I found that even in my reticence to slog through the heavier parts of her story, I was mirroring Gilbert’s own resistance to the path she herself had set before her.
The third and final part of Gilbert’s memoir lands her in Indonesia to sit at the side of an ancient (somewhere between 65 and 123 year old) medicine man. His off-handed and casual predictions begin with an unexpected friendship and an even more unexpected lover. As her life evolves from total chaos to one of balance, I found her tales of generosity and worthiness to be a bit too self-congratulatory and self-important, albeit probably well-deserved.
In the end, Gilbert walks that fine line between pure pleasure and spiritual gratification that is such a rare commodity these days. Her lack of responsibility (children, 9-5 job, etc.), coupled with freedom and monetary means allowed the author a physical journey that spanned the length of one year but gained her a lifetime of knowledge. In our own lives, we can set ourselves upon that same path, weaving our quest throughout the entanglement of our day-to-day lives. In the meantime, read Eat, Pray, Love and live vicariously through Gilbert’s amazing slice of life.