Friday, September 9, 2011

Eat, Pray, Love in Highlands Ranch

I've wanted to write about Elizabeth Gilbert's book Eat, Pray, Love for a long time, and after seeing the movie this week I decided it's time.

Depending on who you talk to, this particular memoir is a landmine. Let's start with the obvious. In the first few chapters of the book Gilbert launches into a solipsistic tirade about her divorce (which was her own fault), and the hardships of being lonely, single, and generally unloved. When you couple her self-centered pity party with her abrasive personality, it is easy to see why people put the book down and declare it is everything that is wrong with our society today.

On the flip side, for those readers who interpret this story as a prescriptive method of finding happiness in life, you are bound to be disappointed. I know few people who have emerged from divorce feeling that they have finally Arrived, and I know fewer people who have the time and/or means to gallivant around Italy, India, and Indonesia wondering What It All Means. The concern that this book will influence disillusioned women to endorse Gilbert's narcissitic worldview is valid, and the phrase "monkey see, monkey do" comes to mind. So what's left to talk about?

For me, watching the movie version of Eat, Pray, Love helped enormously to distill the central draw of the story. The most immediate divergence from the book was actress Julia Robert's success in softening Gilbert's character, smoothing her edges, and eliciting compassion and sympathy from the audience. The focus of the narrative shifts away from Gilbert's self-pity and hones in on the more palatable aspect of the story, which is her subsequent search for spiritual peace, healing, and fulfillment. Some will maintain that Hollywood worked its usual magic, applying just enough foundation to cover up the warts. But notwithstanding the ruffles and glitter, I believe the movie successfully unearths themes and topics worth thinking about.

I've read Eat, Pray, Love several times, and each time I marvel at my willingness to endure the sob story. As an unsympathetic reader I could hardly understand its seemingly magnetic appeal. But watching Roberts perform the same motions, only from the perspective of an infinitely more likeable person, it suddenly clicked. For me the real and true part of the story isn't the person; I loathe most everything about Elizabeth Gilbert. Yet suddenly I recognized within the movement of the narrative myself, and fifty other women I know. How many of us quietly move through our lives harboring the exact same questions, impulses, and doubts that plagued Gilbert? Find me a woman who hasn't laid in bed weeping, wondering why she can't seem to land on her feet, feeling disoriented about what she wants and who she is meant to be. I'm not specifically referring to marriage either. That may have been the crux of Gilbert's identity crisis, but there are countless reasons for the loss of spirit and gradual untethering among women. That terrible aloneness is the human condition and without spiritual conviction, or even on days when it's there but hard to reach, we're all susceptible.

When I returned home from the movie Jeremy asked me about my favorite part. My knee-jerk response was watching Julia Roberts eat her way around Italy (a long time dream of mine!), but the real answer tumbled out right after it, suprising both of us. My favorite part of the movie was when she got down on her knees and prayed. Out loud. To God. How many popular, main stream books or movies depict religious devotion in a respectful way? Jean Val Jean from Les Miserables and Jeremiah Land from Leif Enger's novel Peace Like a River? Of course there are more, but my point is that it might take you forty minutes to come up with a working list. In a culture where religion is definitely not in vogue, seeing someone kneel in prayer asking for help blows my mind. And for me, that's it. That's the draw. The thematic exploration of spiritual longing is both relevant and much needed in our society.

I suspect that many readers who are secure and well-versed in a particular religion might feel a tad impatient with Gilbert's spiritual dog paddling, or even disdainful of her sojourn to the Indian ashram. Of course spiritual peace and a knowledge of God do not require foreign, exotic vacations, but they often do require that we step outside our normal, everyday lives. For Gilbert perhaps this required more dramatic action, since it appears her life was already slightly glamorous by the standards of our culture. But what is significant to me about this entire process is that she is doing it! However melodramatic, misguided, or self-absorbed her reasons, at the end of the day Elizabeth Gilbert is just a person who was trying to set her life right. And regardless of her method, I think the core purpose of what she wanted to accomplish was, in its own way, noble. And frankly, I know a lot of women, myself included, who would benefit from trying harder to center their lives and become more spiritual people.

As I sat in the darkened theater watching the exquisite cinematography of Italy, India, and Indonesia, what struck me wasn't how far away and unreachable those places and those experiences felt, but how similar the process is for all of us. Wherever we live, the privilege to eat, pray, and love is ours for the taking.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant. I feel the same way about the spiritual aspect of this book. I read this book during the time that I was losing touch with the Mormon church, trying to find something else to fulfill my need for spirituality. I've since regained my belief in the Mormon church, but the spiritual dedication that I learned from this book still applies.


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