|We interrupt the pattern of this column – books about working moms, their issues, and their kids – to bring you something different, a book about the spiritual journey of a 30-something woman who has no children and doesn’t want any. The book is Elizabeth Gilbert’s wildly popular, Eat, Pray, Love, that’s been on the NYTimes Best Seller list for ages and is a hot number on the book club circuit which, as we know, is dominated by women. But first, a confession: I’ve been known to proclaim that I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. By this I mean that I’m totally rooted in the solid, empirical earth. I believe in things I can see and touch and I’m often impatient with those who aspire to a transcendent reality, who attempt to climb the metaphysical heights. On my best days, I might be tolerant toward them, but I will never be one of them. So I approached Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir of her own spiritual longing with hearty a degree of skepticism. This isn’t exactly my sort of book.|||
Literature boasts a long tradition of spiritual quest narratives, from St Augustine to Sir Thomas Merton to Simone Weil to C.S. Lewis, each of whom was, in his or her way, searching for a higher meaning through a higher being. Gilbert’s book both fits and doesn’t into this mold.
In its arc it resembles the more contemporary (and now numbingly conventional) recovery memoir. You know, the kind that opens with the protagonist in the dregs of desolate degradation and follows her on the long and painful road to redemption, cured of all but her optimism. And sure enough, the impetus for Gilbert’s journey is her despair over a life, complete with a decent husband, a nice house in the suburbs, and the intent to have children, that has become untenable. It’s a life that no longer fits, if it ever did, the person she is. And so, after an agonizing divorce and a rebound relationship that fails to promise lasting happiness, this professionally successful but personally wretched writer sets out to - how shall I put this? - find god. Or at least to discover “what to do,” by which she means, “how to live.”
Casting herself as a spiritual seeker, she heads first to Italy, where she wallows in the world of the appetite and through daily infusions of pasta and gelato, reclaims her ability to experience pleasure. Fifteen pounds heavier but lighter in spirit, she heads then to an ashram in India. Here she wrestles strenuously with the discipline of meditation and prayer, the arduous path to spiritual commitment, and actually does have a transcendent experience of god. Her journey ends in Indonesia where she sits at the feet of an elderly Balinese medicine man, hoping to learn balance. Part recovery memoir, part travelogue, part spiritual quest, we know from the title alone not just how this book is structured, but how this journey will end. She’ll recover from her depression. She’ll find god. She’ll come home to write about it all. Very predictable.
Why, then do I like this book? First and most important, I like her. As a narrator, Gilbert is just about irresistible. She’s smart, funny, self-aware enough to be self-deprecating when it’s called for, forthright when it’s not. I love her voice, ironic and colloquial, yet capable of luxurious lyricism. I like her courage. She’s brave enough to undertake the journey in the first place, and even if she has always loved to travel and is fearless about doing it alone, the task she’s set for herself this time is serious and scary. In other words, even if it’s one I would never undertake myself, I admire the sincerity of her quest, (Actually, maybe it’s because I would never undertake it that I admire it.) I like the power of her narrative and her ability to provoke and sustain my interest. As she moves from trattoria to ashram to Balinese garden, she takes us with her, along the way introducing us to a quirky and charming cast of characters and letting us in on fascinating bits of culture and history. She’s a terrific writer. I like her confidence in and commitment to her beliefs, among them that it is a farce to pretend to be anyone but ourselves. The book, like her search, proceeds from her belief that we each inherently possess an inner peace, poise, if we only know how to find it, how to calm our “monkey minds, the thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl.” I like that she remains smart enough to know that the search for even momentary equilibrium, doesn’t ever end, that it’s an interminable process, and I like most of all Gilbert’s generosity, her offering of her experience not as a model, but as simple possibility. This was her journey; as for the rest of us, she says, “I think you are free to search for any metaphor whatsoever which will take you across the worldly divide whenever you need to be transported or comforted…You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.”
Finally, and most important for us working moms, I like the metaphorical power her search exerts on those of us seeking not necessarily to commune with a higher power but to discover some measure of balance and contentment in the midst of our complicated lives, to feel unburdened by self and world, at least for a few moments at a time. We may not choose to meditate or to pray, but we might very well pause and be moved to think about how to achieve those moments of peace.