The celebrated author of The Last American Man creates an irresistible, candid, and eloquent account of her pursuit of worldly pleasure and spiritual devotion.
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Eat, Pray, Love
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Viking AdultISBN: 0-670-03471-1
Chapter OneI wish Giovanni would kiss me.
Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea. To begin with, Giovanni is ten years younger than I am, and-like most Italian guys in their twenties-he still lives with his mother. These facts alone make him an unlikely romantic partner for me, given that I am a professional American woman in my mid-thirties, who has just come through a failed marriage and a devastating, interminable divorce, followed immediately by a passionate love affair that ended in sickening heartbreak. This loss upon loss has left me feeling sad and brittle and about seven thousand years old. Purely as a matter of principle I wouldn't inflict my sorry, busted-up old self on the lovely, unsullied Giovanni. Not to mention that I have finally arrived at that age where a woman starts to question whether the wisest way to get over the loss of one beautiful brown-eyed young man is indeed to promptly invite another one into her bed. This is why I have been alone for many months now. This is why, in fact, I have decided to spend this entire year in celibacy.
To which the savvy observer might inquire: "Then why did you come to Italy?"
To which I can only reply-especially when looking across the table at handsome Giovanni-"Excellent question."
Giovanni is my Tandem Exchange Partner. That sounds like an innuendo, but unfortunately it's not. All it really means is that we meeta few evenings a week here in Rome to practice each other's languages. We speak first in Italian, and he is patient with me; then we speak in English, and I am patient with him. I discovered Giovanni a few weeks after I'd arrived in Rome, thanks to that big Internet cafe at the Piazza Barbarini, across the street from that fountain with the sculpture of that sexy merman blowing into his conch shell. He (Giovanni, that is-not the merman) had posted a flier on the bulletin board explaining that a native Italian speaker was seeking a native English speaker for conversational language practice. Right beside his appeal was another flier with the same request, word-for-word identical in every way, right down to the typeface. The only difference was the contact information. One flier listed an e-mail address for somebody named Giovanni; the other introduced somebody named Dario. But even the home phone number was the same.
Using my keen intuitive powers, I e-mailed both men at the same time, asking in Italian, "Are you perhaps brothers?"
It was Giovanni who wrote back this very provocativo message: "Even better. Twins!"
Yes-much better. Tall, dark and handsome identical twenty-five-year-old twins, as it turned out, with those giant brown liquid-center Italian eyes that just unstitch me. After meeting the boys in person, I began to wonder if perhaps I should adjust my rule somewhat about remaining celibate this year. For instance, perhaps I could remain totally celibate except for keeping a pair of handsome twenty-five-year-old Italian twin brothers as lovers. Which was slightly reminiscent of a friend of mine who is vegetarian except for bacon, but nonetheless ... I was already composing my letter to Penthouse:
In the flickering, candlelit shadows of the Roman cafe, it was impossible to tell whose hands were caress-But, no.
No and no.
I chopped the fantasy off in mid-word. This was not my moment to be seeking romance and (as day follows night) to further complicate my already knotty life. This was my moment to look for the kind of healing and peace that can only come from solitude.
Anyway, by now, by the middle of November, the shy, studious Giovanni and I have become dear buddies. As for Dario-the more razzle-dazzle swinger brother of the two-I have introduced him to my adorable little Swedish friend Sofie, and how they've been sharing their evenings in Rome is another kind of Tandem Exchange altogether. But Giovanni and I, we only talk. Well, we eat and we talk. We have been eating and talking for many pleasant weeks now, sharing pizzas and gentle grammatical corrections, and tonight has been no exception. A lovely evening of new idioms and fresh mozzarella.
Now it is midnight and foggy, and Giovanni is walking me home to my apartment through these back streets of Rome, which meander organically around the ancient buildings like bayou streams snaking around shadowy clumps of cypress groves. Now we are at my door. We face each other. He gives me a warm hug. This is an improvement; for the first few weeks, he would only shake my hand. I think if I were to stay in Italy for another three years, he might actually get up the juice to kiss me. On the other hand, he might just kiss me right now, tonight, right here by my door ... there's still a chance ... I mean we're pressed up against each other's bodies beneath this moonlight ... and of course it would be a terrible mistake ... but it's still such a wonderful possibility that he might actually do it right now ... that he might just bend down ... and ... and ... Nope.
He separates himself from the embrace.
"Good night, my dear Liz," he says.
"Buona notte, caro mio," I reply.
I walk up the stairs to my fourth-floor apartment, all alone. I let myself into my tiny little studio, all alone. I shut the door behind me. Another solitary bedtime in Rome. Another long night's sleep ahead of me, with nobody and nothing in my bed except a pile of Italian phrasebooks and dictionaries.
I am alone, I am all alone, I am completely alone.
Grasping this reality, I let go of my bag, drop to my knees and press my forehead against the floor. There, I offer up to the universe a fervent prayer of thanks.
First in English.
Then in Italian.
And then-just to get the point across-in Sanskrit.
Chapter TwoAnd since I am already down there in supplication on the floor, let me hold that position as I reach back in time three years earlier to the moment when this entire story began-a moment which also found me in this exact same posture: on my knees, on a floor, praying.
Everything else about the three-years-ago scene was different, though. That time, I was not in Rome but in the upstairs bathroom of the big house in the suburbs of New York which I'd recently purchased with my husband. It was a cold November, around three o'clock in the morning. My husband was sleeping in our bed. I was hiding in the bathroom for something like the forty-seventh consecutive night, and-just as during all those nights before-I was sobbing. Sobbing so hard, in fact, that a great lake of tears and snot was spreading before me on the bathroom tiles, a veritable Lake Inferior (if you will) of all my shame and fear and confusion and grief.
I don't want to be married anymore.
I was trying so hard not to know this, but the truth kept insisting itself to me.
I don't want to be married anymore. I don't want to live in this big house. I don't want to have a baby.
But I was supposed to want to have a baby. I was thirty-one years old. My husband and I-who had been together for eight years, married for six-had built our entire life around the common expectation that, after passing the doddering old age of thirty, I would want to settle down and have children. By then, we mutually anticipated, I would have grown weary of traveling and would be happy to live in a big, busy household full of children and homemade quilts, with a garden in the backyard and a cozy stew bubbling on the stovetop. (The fact that this was a fairly accurate portrait of my own mother is a quick indicator of how difficult it once was for me to tell the difference between myself and the powerful woman who had raised me.) But I didn't-as I was appalled to be finding out-want any of these things. Instead, as my twenties had come to a close, that deadline of THIRTY had loomed over me like a death sentence, and I discovered that I did not want to be pregnant. I kept waiting to want to have a baby, but it didn't happen. And I know what it feels like to want something, believe me. I well know what desire feels like. But it wasn't there. Moreover, I couldn't stop thinking about what my sister had said to me once, as she was breast-feeding her firstborn: "Having a baby is like getting a tattoo on your face. You really need to be certain it's what you want before you commit."
How could I turn back now, though? Everything was in place. This was supposed to be the year. In fact, we'd been trying to get pregnant for a few months already. But nothing had happened (aside from the fact that-in an almost sarcastic mockery of pregnancy-I was experiencing psychosomatic morning sickness, nervously throwing up my breakfast every day). And every month when I got my period I would find myself whispering furtively in the bathroom: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you for giving me one more month to live ... I'd been attempting to convince myself that this was normal. All women must feel this way when they're trying to get pregnant, I'd decided. ("Ambivalent" was the word I used, avoiding the much more accurate description: "utterly consumed with dread".) I was trying to convince myself that my feelings were customary, despite all evidence to the contrary-such as the acquaintance I'd run into last week who'd just discovered that she was pregnant for the first time, after spending two years and a king's ransom in fertility treatments. She was ecstatic. She had wanted to be a mother forever, she told me. She admitted she'd been secretly buying baby clothes for years and hiding them under the bed, where her husband wouldn't find them. I saw the joy in her face and I recognized it. This was the exact joy my own face had radiated last spring, the day I discovered that the magazine I worked for was going to send me on assignment to New Zealand, to write an article about the search for giant squid. And I thought, "Until I can feel as ecstatic about having a baby as I felt about going to New Zealand to search for a giant squid, I cannot have a baby"
I don't want to be married anymore.
In daylight hours, I refused that thought, but at night it would consume me. What a catastrophe. How could I be such a criminal jerk as to proceed this deep into a marriage, only to leave it? We'd only just bought this house a year ago. Hadn't I wanted this nice house? Hadn't I loved it? So why was I haunting its halls every night now, howling like Medea? Wasn't I proud of all we'd accumulated-the prestigious home in the Hudson Valley, the apartment in Manhattan, the eight phone lines, the friends and the picnics and the parties, the weekends spent roaming the aisles of some box-shaped superstore of our choice, buying ever more appliances on credit? I had actively participated in every moment of the creation of this life-so why did I feel like none of it resembled me? Why did I feel so overwhelmed with duty, tired of being the primary breadwinner and the housekeeper and the social coordinator and the dog-walker and the wife and the soon-to-be mother, and-somewhere in my stolen moments-a writer ...?
I don't want to be married anymore.
My husband was sleeping in the other room, in our bed. I equal parts loved him and could not stand him. I couldn't wake him to share in my distress-what would be the point? He'd already been watching me fall apart for months now, watching me behave like a madwoman (we both agreed on that word), and I only exhausted him. We both knew there was something wrong with me, and he'd been losing patience with it. We'd been fighting and crying, and we were weary in that way that only a couple whose marriage is collapsing can be weary. We had the eyes of refugees.
The many reasons I didn't want to be this man's wife anymore are too personal and too sad to share here. Much of it had to do with my problems, but a good portion of our troubles were related to his issues, as well. That's only natural; there are always two figures in a marriage, after all-two votes, two opinions, two conflicting sets of decisions, desires and limitations. But I don't think it's appropriate for me to discuss his issues in my book. Nor would I ask anyone to believe that I am capable of reporting an unbiased version of our story, and therefore the chronicle of our marriage's failure will remain untold here. I also will not discuss here all the reasons why I did still want to be his wife, or all his wonderfulness, or why I loved him and why I had married him and why I was unable to imagine life without him. I won't open any of that. Let it be sufficient to say that, on this night, he was still my lighthouse and my albatross in equal measure. The only thing more unthinkable than leaving was staying; the only thing more impossible than staying was leaving. I didn't want to destroy anything or anybody. I just wanted to slip quietly out the back door, without causing any fuss or consequences, and then not stop running until I reached Greenland.
This part of my story is not a happy one, I know. But I share it here because something was about to occur on that bathroom floor that would change forever the progression of my life-almost like one of those crazy astronomical super-events when a planet flips over in outer space for no reason whatsoever, and its molten core shifts, relocating its poles and altering its shape radically, such that the whole mass of the planet suddenly becomes oblong instead of spherical. Something like that.
What happened was that I started to pray.
You know-like, to God.
Chapter ThreeNow, this was a first for me. And since this is the first time I have introduced that loaded word-GOD-into my book, and since this is a word which will appear many times again throughout these pages, it seems only fair that I pause here for a moment to explain exactly what I mean when I say that word, just so people can decide right away how offended they need to get.
Saving for later the argument about whether God exists at all (no-here's a better idea: let's skip that argument completely), let me first explain why I use the word God, when I could just as easily use the words Jehovah, Allah, Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu or Zeus. Alternatively, I could call God "That", which is how the ancient Sanskrit scriptures say it, and which I think comes close to the all-inclusive and unspeakable entity I have sometimes experienced. But that "That" feels impersonal to me-a thing, not a being-and I myself cannot pray to a That. I need a proper name, in order to fully sense a personal attendance. For this same reason, when I pray, I do not address my prayers to The Universe, The Great Void, The Force, The Supreme Self, The Whole, The Creator, The Light, The Higher Power, or even the most poetic manifestation of God's name, taken, I believe, from the Gnostic gospels: "The Shadow of the Turning".
I have nothing against any of these terms. I feel they are all equal because they are all equally adequate and inadequate descriptions of the indescribable. But we each do need a functional name for this indescribability, and "God" is the name that feels the most warm to me, so that's what I use. I should also confess that I generally refer to God as "Him", which doesn't bother me because, to my mind, it's just a convenient personalizing pronoun, not a precise anatomical description or a cause for revolution. Of course, I don't mind if people call God "Her", and I understand the urge to do so. Again-to me, these are both equal terms, equally adequate and inadequate. Though I do think the capitalization of either pronoun is a nice touch, a small politeness in the presence of the divine.
Culturally, though not theologically, I'm a Christian. I was born a Protestant of the white Anglo-Saxon persuasion. And while I do love that great teacher of peace who was called Jesus, and while I do reserve the right to ask myself in certain trying situations what indeed He would do, I can't swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God. Strictly speaking, then, I cannot call myself a Christian. Most of the Christians I know accept my feelings on this with grace and open-mindedness. Then again, most of the Christians I know don't speak very strictly. To those who do speak (and think) strictly, all I can do here is offer my regrets for any hurt feelings and now excuse myself from their business.
Traditionally, I have responded to the transcendent mystics of all religions. I have always responded with breathless excitement to anyone who has ever said that God does not live in a dogmatic scripture or in a distant throne in the sky, but instead abides very close to us indeed-much closer than we can imagine, breathing right through our own hearts. I respond with gratitude to anyone who has ever voyaged to the center of that heart, and who has then returned to the world with a report for the rest of us that God is an experience of supreme love. In every religious tradition on earth, there have always been mystical saints and transcendents who report exactly this experience. Unfortunately many of them have ended up arrested and killed. Still, I think very highly of them.
Excerpted from Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of a story collection, Pilgrims (a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award), a novel, Stern Men, and, most recently, The Last American Man, a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. As a journalist, she wrote for GQ for five years and was nominated three times for the National Magazine Award.
- Hudson Valley, New York
- Date of Birth:
- July 18, 1969
- Place of Birth:
- Waterbury, Connecticut
- BA, New York University, 1991 (Political Science)
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