I read “Eat Pray Love” soon after it came out, just as it was beginning to become The Book, and I identified perhaps a bit overmuch with the author’s dramatically romantic around-the-world quest to find herself (and bag a Wealthy Older Foreign Devastatingly Handsome Love Interest, to boot). As the book started to gain popular momentum, I was soon ridiculously flattered by the friends (more than a few) who read it, too, and exclaimed to me, “B____! This is your life! You could have written this!”
(Because I, too, was recently divorced and found myself both free and flailing to follow the path of my own choosing. I, too, had fallen crazily in love at earlymiddleage and then had to step gingerly out of the shards when it broke all around me. I, too, have … ummm … traveled. Even internationally! Even to India! Uncanny, ain’t it?)
It really did hit me in the solar plexus, though ~ her descriptions of diving into love with all (too much?) of your being, the shock of discovering that not only wasn’t it enough but that you’ve lost yourself in the bargain, the wonderful terrifying opportunity to rebuild the life you want to lead only to find the myriad choices too dizzying to comprehend … and then, slowly, discovering that if you wait, and breathe, a right path rises up to meet you.
Even so, the more popular it became, the less I cared to admit how deeply “EPL” affected me. I have a book snob’s distaste for books that become “too” popular, at least those written during my lifetime. I have never read a single "Harry Potter" book, not a one of the "Twilight" series. (The snobbery extends to movies, too ~ I still haven’t seen “Top Gun” or “Pretty Woman.”) So the more popular Gilbert became, the more embarrassed I was to have loved her book so much. By touching so many people, it makes my personal relationship with it ... well, less personal.
Then the merchandising came out. That’s right ~ merchandising. You can now buy “EPL” pillow covers or candles or prayer beads. I am not making this up. Somehow, that killed any authenticity for me. No writer with a Deep Lifechanging Message works out a marketing deal with Bed Bath and Beyond. There are no Philip Roth table runners, no Toni Morrison patio dining sets. Dostoevsky did not ink a deal for a Crime and Punishment Getaway Weekend (complete with lodgings in a Russian hovel!).
Now, of course, there’s the movie. With Julia Roberts. Julia Roberts!?! Julia Roberts is not the protagonist of “EPL”. Julia Roberts is not a quirky, vintage-clothes-wearing, bookish but hip, smart but foible-filled litchick who has to hoist herself, hand over hand, out of the depths of society’s expectations and shattering heartbreak, and into a self-determined, hard-won life of independence and really good food and international escapades. Most important, Julia Roberts looks nothing like me.
And Javier Bardem … well, OK, Javier Bardem I can take. Javier Bardem I can quite easily
fantasize imagine myself with. (Sadly, there is not, as yet, as far as my extensive research has uncovered, any merchandising of an Official EPL Wealthy Older Foreign Devastatingly Handsome Love Interest Who Looks an Awful Lot Like Javier Bardem. Now, that’s some marketing I could get behind.)
Anyway. Not going to the movie. (I am, however, rereading the book, which fell into my possession even as I was thinking of writing all this, and that’s a coincidence you just don’t ignore, embarrassed as you might be to be going along with the popular crowd.)
* * *
EPL came back into my mind last week after I read “Twilight Sleep,” an Edith Wharton novel that arrived in my mailbox courtesy of the Peace Corps library. Written late in her career and life, “Twilight Sleep” is no “House of Mirth” (one of my Top 10 books ever read ~ go check out that one or nearly any other Wharton novel; “Summer” is another personal favorite). Written and set in the Jazz Age, a couple of decades past the New York turn-of-the-century aristocracy that was Wharton’s treasure trove, Wharton’s characters and writing both come to feel as superficial as their fast-paced exterior lives.
Most superficial of all is Mrs. Manford, the upper-crusty dowager bent on Doing Good Works while Finding Enlightenment and, most of all, Eliminating Frown Lines. From one guru to another she flits with the waves of public sentiment. One week the Mahatma holds the keys to world and inner peace. Next week he’s out and she’s a devoted follower of the Inspiration Healer. Etc. In between her spiritual quest and all of her benefits and society gatherings and personal betterment, and it’s clear Mrs. Manford is trying her very best to run away from independent thought ~ to keep from being still long enough to truly know herself.
(If only the Marketing Tie-In had existed in Wharton’s Day. The New York Tour of Self-Help Guides! The Nora Manford Flapper Party Dress! Free facelift with every major donation to a third-world country!)
All this fictional searching made me wonder about my own tendency to follow one idea or hobby or desire, and then another, and another, until I get so caught up in doing that I don’t have time to reflect. I could focus on my yoga practice ~ really dig into it instead of halfheartedly starting or giving up again. Or I could finally start “really” writing. Or really teach myself how to cook. Learn how to make jewelry. All things that could provide opportunity for self-realization … or simply diversion from the same.
Peace Corps itself can be that escape, if you let it. Why did I choose to do this in the first place? Was it selfless, or an escape? (Or a trap door?) A quest, or a bravado-filled personal one-upmanship? Have I been seeking, or hiding? Questions that are all bubbling up again as the end of this volume nears and I prepare to return home. (And is “return” the right word? And if it is, is it the right path, or is it a step backward?)
With so many choices available, and so much work to do to realize any one of those choices, the result is an endless game of freeze tag with myself. The path of least resistance is to do none of it ~ to, instead, lie here on the sofa in an overwhelmed stupor, eating cookies and rereading books I’ve already read.
In preparing to go home, I see so many opportunities to reintegrate into my community through volunteer work. The literacy council. The food bank. Mentor an international student at the university. Be a Big Sister. My previous gigs at Community CROPS, Planned Parenthood. All causes I want to support, and things I’d actually enjoy doing. But doing it all leaves little time to do justice to any one (not to mention time for gainful employment). And doing it all may be just yet another way of running away from myself.
Maybe I need to start thinking of my own marketing tie-ins. Ride the Emotional Rollercoaster! The Hairshirt of Self-Doubt ~ it’s the fashion accessory of the season! All-Expenses-Paid Trip to Angstville with every purchase!
Random thought of the day:
Is it bad that I’ve taken to eating my meals (stirfry, rice/veggies, etc) straight out of the pot it’s cooked in … and bringing a spatula to table with me so I can catch every last dreg?