Today I made the long-anticipated pilgrimage to see "Eat, Pray, Love." I left the theater pensive and moved, my insides humming like a tuning fork, trying to process it all. I read the book two years ago, and resonated, as so many women have, with Liz Gilbert’s desperate bathroom prayer, God, tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I understood her turmoil: if I don’t change this inauthentic path I’m on, it will kill me – my body may still be walking around, but my spirit will be dead. And her risky choice to take the road less traveled.
Been there. More than once.
I know many women who read Eat, Pray, Love felt compelled to imitate her journey, plate by plate, country by country, shaman by shaman. One giddy woman who caught Oprah’s attention even tracked down the holy man Elizabeth spent time with in Indonesia.
Now, I loved Elizabeth’s book and I was amazed by her courage to follow her own star. I was right there with her, fantasizing that I too might hug a tree and swipe my debit card with abandon at ashrams and Italian restaurants across the globe.
But it seems to me the whole point of Eat, Pray, Love was to inspire women to set out on their own journey to authentic living, whether by leaving a sucky relationship, a sucky job or simply carving out physical and emotional space within the context of marriage and family.
We each have our own road to travel. We can take inspiration from Liz, but her journey is her own, no more important or heavy with gravitas than yours or mine. The only difference is that she wrote a book about hers (that just happened to be made into a blockbuster movie).
You’d have a hard time connecting the dots in my 56-year disjointed search for meaning, fulfillment and self-acceptance. Nothing in the first quarter century of my life could have predicted the crazy-quilt life I’ve lived or the path I’m on now. I spent my first 26 years dreaming of adventure, but mired in a series of dead-end, depressing service jobs in one-horse Missouri towns. It didn’t help that I lumbered around with the physical and psychic baggage of 80 extra pounds well into my 20’s. I was the fat kid, the funny kid, the genderless pal to my skinny sisters’ boyfriends. My fantasy was to be a female James Bond, or the next Carole Burnett. But there couldn’t have been a more unlikely candidate for either role.
An insecure daydreamer who flunked the first grade, was clumsy at sports, perpetually depressed and socially inept, I buried my nose in show biz biographies and spy novels. The most ambitious dream my mother could conjure up for me was secretarial work (“Learn to type, honey, and you will always be able to find a job”).
But funny how the dots connect – just like those astronomy charts that connect the stars to draw a picture of Andromeda or the Big Dipper. A casual conversation , a “chance” mention of an experience or place offers a glimmer of something new, sparks a vision to hoist you over the wall of inertia -- changing the way you view your life and what it could be. There really is no “chance” about it. The Universe is always whispering clues, dropping breadcrumbs along the path…. Here. Look. This is where you are meant to go…this is where your real life lies.
In 1979, I was teaching English in a consolidated school in Bunceton, MO (pop. 260), when a fellow teacher, Gloria Bute, and her husband Wayne, invited me to their house to view color slides of their military tour in Garmish, Germany. Wayne had been a German linguist for the US Army. I thought, that’s it! That’s what I want to do! Seeing Goldie Hawn hook up with Armand Assante in “Private Benjamin” added a little fantasy fuel to my quest.
In 1980, I moved back to my mom’s home in Fulton, Missouri. For the next two years, I worked at a nursing home for $3.25 an hour and began a weight loss regimen that included Weight Watchers meetings and nightly walks around the track at Westminster College. In 1982, after dropping the requisite 80 lbs., I joined the US Army, training as a counterintelligence agent, and eventually landed at US Army Field Station Augsburg, in Augsburg, Germany. During my tour of duty, I completed my one and only parachute jump, chased Russian spies around the Bavarian countryside in an Audi Quattro, and explored Europe by train and a chartreuse 1976 BMW 520.
Of course, lodged in the grout of my army experience were dark episodes laced with fear, despair, loneliness, insane recklessness – and the thudding realization that where ever you go, there you are. My inexperience and naiveté led me down paths to heartbreak that are best not autopsied here. But my experience in the army was real and challenged a boatload of self-limiting beliefs.
Stuck, Stuck, Stuck
I am as guilty as anyone of being seduced and shackled by the comfortable, miserable known. Of grasping at the ghosts of times and people who long ago moved on to lives that didn’t include me – so much so that I’ve winced at articles in Oprah magazine written by people bemoaning “toxic” people in their lives – realizing to my horror that in my desperate need to hang on, I had become one of those toxic people.
Last year, prior to my move to Mexico, I jammed all that was left of my material possessions into a 5 ft. x 10 ft. storage unit. As I gazed upon the nearly solid mass of yard ornaments and plastic tubs stuffed with tchotchkes and winter clothes, a question wriggled up from my subconscious: If all this stuff burns up tomorrow, will I still exist? I still grapple with my compulsion to buy furniture for a house and a life that’s defunct.
I think there are no easy or clean breaks from the past. Grieving the end of “forever” friendships, communities we loved, jobs and reputations, siblings who’ve officially washed their hands of us, and all the other things that once anchored our sense of belonging in the world, is a gut-shot, slow slog down a rutted road. We have no choice but to move forward with unanswered questions and unspoken declarations frozen on our lips.
But I believe in a benevolent God who doesn’t leave you forever blindfolded and bound by other people’s labels, or worse, your own self-flagellating thoughts. I believe that Redemption and Renewal are striding determinedly up that road to meet you, even as you lay confused and spent, your compass broken, your ability to cope ebbed to nothing.
I believe there comes an instant when you are centrifugally pressed flat against the old paradigm; just a nano-second before a newly-minted dream and God’s timing are fused and loosed like the stone from David’s slingshot, on an unstoppable trajectory toward destiny. And that “green” smell is a new life calling, pungent with hope, sprouted from the fertile loam of Eden.
The Courage to Be YOU
As for Liz Gilbert’s odyssey and how it applies to your unique journey, remember that it’s not about following someone else’s template. The question is, are you ready to pony up with a machete to hack away at your own uncharted psychic territory?
If you are a writer or visionary, maybe what you learn on your path will resonate with someone else, and maybe it won’t. There’s a strong chance the only trend you will start is a trend to ignore your dumb ideas. It might just be you and the crickets humming your sad little affirmations, with nary a disciple in sight. You might even feel like the stoolie in “Stalag 17” with a bunch of tin cans tied to your ankle and the klieg lights trained on your sorry ass.
It takes courage to be Mickey Rooney pitching to Judy Garland, “Hey, let’s put on a show!” It’s much safer to join a movement already in progress. It takes chutzpah to start a line where there wasn’t one before, to sit down at the empty table and wait to see who sits down with you, rather than always looking for the cool kids who will let you join their clique.
The fear of being ridiculed, ostracized or just plain ignored, is a powerful deterrent to walking a truly original path. Remember Yoko Ono’s recording career? But I’ve learned, just like Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams,” if you build it, they will come. It may not be a mass movement, but so what? Somewhere out there is someone searching for their tribe. And if you can connect with even one person who shares your language, any recognition after that is gravy.