Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Thoughts on Eat Pray Love

A few of you had mentioned that you wanted to know what I thought when I was done with it, and so now, unaccountably, even though I've got a boatload of grading, book edits to do, etc., I am done. My short reaction: I liked it. It's worth reading.

But you know I can't just leave it at that.

I suppose I'll begin with why I decided to read it in the first place. My friend J., a non-academic, periodically recommends books to me, and usually these books are from the book club circuit. Generally, when she recommends something to me, I try to read it, because left to my own devices I either read stuff for work or I read total shit. And I reread either my favorite shit books or children's lit before bed. So left to my own devices, I'm not a terribly well-rounded or widely read reader. I rely on others to recommend things from the what I think of as the "normal" reading world to round out my booklist. Well, that and airport bookstores, but even then I'm likely to pick up a piece of shit before I pick up something that's passably good.

But J.... She's an interesting friend because on the one hand she's this wild and crazy person who kind of careens around getting herself into these outlandish situations. She's 35, never been married, she travels a ton, she's super-successful in her career, but she also tends to have a lot of high highs and low lows. When she hits one of the low spots, she tends to go into what I think of as periods of intense over-correction. So for about six months she'll be going out like a crazy person, have all this drama with guys, be just generally out of control, and then she hits a limit and will decide, "I'm going to lose 50 lbs., go to church every Sunday, never go out to bars, start therapy, and quit smoking." All at once. And then she'll do all of that for about 6 months or a year and be kind of like a shadow of her crazy self. And then, lather, rinse, repeat. She's back to Crazy J. again. Until the next time.

But the thing about J. is that she's a person who's always searching and trying to be a better version of herself. She's thoughtful and caring and a friend that you can count on in any situation. She really cares (and I say this unironically) about the betterment of her soul. It's a strange mix.

But so anyway, J. recommended the book to me, and demanded that I read it because she found it so evocative and wondered what I'd think of it. And so, since you know, I'm supposed to be doing all of this other stuff, I decided to read it.

Now, I should probably preface my actual remarks on the book with the fact that I would never call myself a "spiritual" person. I'm not particularly interested in exploring different religions, and I've never tried meditation, been to therapy, done yoga, any of the stuff that most people who I think of as "spiritual" or who define themselves as "spiritual" do. That said, I've got a little statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe in my kitchen, one of the few Christmas decorations I have and put up faithfully is a nativity scene, I pray every night before I go to sleep, and I have in my adult life have realized that since I was a kid I actually instinctively do practice some common meditation techniques to shut my mind off, but I never learned those anywhere and they're just something I've always sort of known how to do. I've been known to go to church (though I'll admit I'm in no way consistent in doing so, and I'm pretty much a Christmas/Easter sort of Catholic). That's right, I was raised Catholic. I attended Catholic school until I was 13, and I still consider myself a Catholic, although obviously a sinning and pro-choice Catholic. But I believe in the saints, I believe in the Virgin Mary, and I pray. I think that the rituals of Catholicism are beautiful. One thing I can be counted on to do any time I travel is to visit at least one church, sometimes even for mass. I suppose I just don't think all too much about it. I feel like I have a relationship with God, but it's kind of a regular relationship, like one I have with a friend. I've never been.... a spiritual seeker. Or no, that's actually not true. When I was 7 I did have a few months where I really LONGED to have a vocation to be a nun, and I said the rosary every night and stuff, but then I realized that I'd never be able to have kids if I were a "bride of Christ" and I realized that a life of devotion was not one for me. I made that choice, and I never looked back.

And so reading Elizabeth Gilbert's account of her year of searching for emotional and spiritual clarity and centeredness is probably not something I'd have done had a good friend not told me to do so.

But I liked it. In spite of the fact that I'm not terribly spiritual or "God-y."

Ultimately, the book is about one person's realization that she's totally fucked up and that she's got to do something to restart her life. And that is interesting, whatever form such a journey takes. And the version of spirituality that Gilbert describes is not one that is preachy but rather one that is about finding divinity within ourselves, something that I can totally get on board with. During the section where she's at the Ashram in India, she writes the following: "God dwells within you as you yourself , exactly the way you are. God isn't interested in watching you enact some performance of personality in order to comply with some crackpot notion you have about how a spiritual person looks or behaves. We all seem to get this idea that, in order to be sacred, we have to make some massive, dramatic change of character, that we have to renounce our individuality. [. . .] To know God, you need only to renounce one thing - your sense of division from God. Otherwise, just stay as you were made, within your natural character" (192). That's probably as close to what I believe about God as anything.

But while the book is filled with such kernels of wisdom as that, it's also funny and irreverent and, well, regular. Elizabeth Gilbert isn't some holy saint who's never made a mistake (and she admits hers freely), and she doesn't try to be. And the people to whom she introduces us aren't holy saints either (with the possible exception of her Guru, whom we never meet). They're just regular people, from all over the world, from all different life circumstances, who are all trying to find their way. And so reading about them, and her developing friendships with them, is... well, it's uplifting.

That said, there were things that did irritate me about the book. Most notably, there are moments when she talks about "this yoga" that she practices, and something about the phrase "this yoga," like "this yoga teaches...." or "this yoga demands...," annoys the crap out of me. It's all a little too new-agey for me. I think that the book is actually strongest in the center, when she's at the Ashram, and I felt a bit let down by the final third, when she goes to Bali, finds Happiness and Peace and a Boyfriend, which ultimately bored me. While I loved the first third, about Italy, what I loved most were the descriptions of food, and descriptions of food will only get me so far in loving a book (though that destination is quite far indeed). But what redeems the book for me, even at moments when I felt like it was a bit uneven, is that it really does give an account of what it is to make searching for balance in one's life a priority. Does one need to take a year and travel around the world to do that? I don't think so. But it does make for a better book if one does.

And Gilbert's prose is a pleasure to read.

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