Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation.” — Elizabeth Gilbert
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert came out in 2006, but it didn’t cross my radar until 2008. The book entered my life as an empathetic friend that I carried with me for several months. When I needed to, I re-read parts I’d underlined. For a time I had the friend I needed in a magical object that gives us access to the mind of another human being: a book.
By the time Gilbert’s memoir reached me, I’d already leveled my life as an earthquake does a stone house: jobless, divorced, custody of the dog given over to my ex, living in Australia working on a masters in creative writing. I was thirty-eight years old. Everything I’d worked towards over twenty years and tied my self-worth to was gone.
In 2008 I traveled to Bali. It was there, at a small resort on the north coast, far from the tourist beaches at Kuta, that I first encountered Eat Pray Love. A friend, whom I’d met there, gave her copy to me. She recognized grief in my eyes and thought I might connect with the story.
Yes, I knew grief. Eighteen months earlier, my whole self was engorged with it. It settled into my bones, my muscles, my heart and gut, as well as my mind. I was still living in the same house as my ex-husband. There were carpenters and plumbers raging through my home, they and their machines straining our line of credit. The renovation that we’d embarked upon to build our dream house turned into one designed to flip it instead.
P finally admitted that he’d checked out of our marriage years earlier and that he was sleeping with the ex-librarian at his engineering company. I’d already found the Viagra he’d hidden in the antique sideboard I’d inherited from grandmother.
I wasn’t working, nor was I looking because I was doubled over with grief over infertility. I was writing shitty short stories instead. And crying. A lot. I even cried during corpse pose in my yoga class.
When not crying, I walked the dog.
I stopped eating and dropped two dress sizes.
My mother was diagnosed with endometrial cancer and wanted me to go to the doctor with her. I had a flat tire on the day she met with the surgeon and couldn’t get there.
My dog accidentally punctured the fleshy part of my hand with an incisor when I was trying to get something out of his mouth. It wasn’t a big deal, and I ignored it until it was obvious that an infection was tracking up a vein in my arm. I went to emergency. I had to endure five days of intravenous antibiotics administered 7/24 through an automatic drip system that strapped to my waist. The veins in my hands were small. The damn needle kept slipping out. I drove myself to the emergency room in the middle of the night to restart the IV more than once.
Meanwhile, P ambled down the steps each night fresh out of the shower, a little blue pill in his pocket.
I was not only sad but pissed off.
I found a therapist. She helped me to identify the heart of my problems: My life reflected the pain and sorrow lived by my mother, father, and brother. She understood that I’d been trying to fix something and failing. She showed me how I’d denied my own needs for a long time, creating a narrative that marginalized my own nature. I was an artistic type damn it, and it was time to figure out what that meant.
So, by the time Eat Pray Love came along, I was already in the throes of a mid-life transformation, I was ready to read the book with an open mind instead of judging it as self-indulgent pap. Eat Pray Love affirmed that it was okay for me to experience my life as it was currently unfolding, that I wasn’t alone in my search for not only happiness but wholeness, a sense that I was enough. Gilbert’s story gave me permission to work on my relationship with myself and to trust how my life was unfolding rather than try to control it. The book didn’t make me jump from a metaphorical cliff into the unknown, but it was a story I related to in a profound way.
Elizabeth Gilbert and I were grieving dead marriages and so much more. Grief visits us after many types of losses: death of a loved one, unemployment, diagnosis of illness, fractured relationships, and even when our ideals flame out. Grief makes us vulnerable. It stops us in our tracks. Feelings and thoughts bubble to the surface that prevent us from ever being the same again. Experiencing it brings us closer to our humanity.
Yet, in our culture we’re supposed to pick ourselves up and carry on without making anyone else uncomfortable by exposing our vulnerability to them. Gilbert exposed herself all over the page, and she did it with great humor and compassion. The act of writing in itself made her vulnerable. I understood that. I was halfway through a creative writing thesis, a novel that on the surface addressed broad social themes, but was really about mothers and daughters.
Before then, I might have judged Eat Pray Love as an effort that reaffirmed the “me” in the “me generation.” But by 2008 I’d already had my my own crisis of the soul and realized that salvation lay in my willingness to open to vulnerability. That’s what Gilbert’s memoir did for me. It helped me to name what was happening to me and to know that it was okay, even desirable, especially if my intention was to extend compassion and happiness to others. Sure, we both fucked up along the way, but that was and is a desirable thing. How else are we to learn a new way of being? We learn from our screw ups, not our successes. She made herself vulnerable. She screwed up. She rebuilt her life. I was doing the same.
There was a huge question on my mind during the time I was reading Eat Pray Love: How do we unburden ourselves from the suffering we have no business carrying around? By this I mean the suffering of others, the intergenerational suffering we unwittingly inherit and may not recognize at first for what it is. Or, perhaps we do recognize it as belonging to someone else, but we strap it to our backs anyway out of a sense of duty and responsibility that may be misplaced. Sometimes this becomes a smokescreen for avoiding our own emotional work, the kind of work that helps us evolve toward maturity and gives us the will to take risks such as ending a marriage, quitting a job that meets our material needs but neglects our souls, forgiving a family member and letting them go.
Richard from Texas was a great friend to Liz. He disarmed her with love rather than shaming her. I wish the friend who was with me during the breakdown of my marriage had done the same. One night she looked me in the eye and asked, “When are you going to get over this?” It was spoken as a barb. An attempt to shame me into apologizing to her for my misdirected negativity. The lesson was two-fold: First, don’t take your pain out on your friends; second, when a friend who is in a dark place is unkind to you, don’t shame them. Hug the nasty out of them instead. It might save your friendship. Our memories for feelings are stronger than our memories for logic.
Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that
deep grief sometimes is almost like a specific location, a coordinate on a map of time. When you are standing in that forest of sorrow, you cannot imagine that you could ever find your way to a better place, but if someone can assure you that they themselves have stood in that same place and now have moved on, sometimes this will bring hope.”
Reading Eat Pray Love made me feel less alone in a time when I was lonely and grieving. And isn’t the point of literature to communicate something true about the human condition and to demonstrate empathy?