Eat, Pray, Love
Although maybe a bit cliche, I do think Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is one of my favorite novels. I read most all of it a few years ago, and then it was stolen from my car while I was attending a birth, along with a load of cash, some iPads, my favorite leather bag, and some personal items so I didn't replace it for quite a while, irritated that I had been violated. I picked it up again about two years ago, on the recommendation of my bestie, as we were both working through trauma from very toxic relationships. It's one of those books you snack on, little bits at a time; a journey best traveled like a scenic hike, with enough time to stop and capture pictures of your glorious finds.
As most already know or may correctly assume, the author travels through Italy, eating to her heart's desire, then India where she devotes time for inner work through meditation, and finally on the island of Bali, where she finds love. Having just left her marriage and suffered a difficult divorce, and then falling into a toxic relationship post-marriage, her time in Italy is as much about healing as it is about finding pleasure. Gilbert works through her grief, "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."
Those of you who have suffered that first devastating break-up post-divorce can identify with the incredible heartache, worse even than the divorce previously suffered, because it's as if all your past hurts compound upon one another - this subsequent failed relationship enforces all the fears and insecurities you had about yourself, and your inability to be truly loved. Her experience surmises so many of ours, "David's sudden emotional back-stepping probably would've been a catastrophe for me even under the best of circumstances, given that I am the planet's most affectionate life-form (something like a cross between a golden retriever and a barnacle), but this was my very worst of circumstances. I was despondent and dependent, needing more care than an armful of premature infant triplets. His withdrawal only made me more needy, and my neediness only advanced his withdrawals, until soon he was retreating under fire of my weeping pleas of, 'Where are you going? What happened to us?' (Dating tip: Men LOVE this.) The fact is, I had become addicted to David (in my defense, he had fostered this..)." Oh, how I identify.
Coming out of a divorce, broken, unsure who you are, and how you contributed to the divorce creates great vulnerability. Adding to that, most of us failed to invest in ourselves and our partners likely neglected the relationship as well, so we are - for lack of a better word - desperate for attention. We become prime targets for the conniving, neighborhood #narcissist. A bit of love bombing and we're hooked. As we fall into this trap, "the object of your adoration has now become repulsed by you. He looks at you like your someone he's never met before, much less someone he once loved with high passion. The irony is, you can hardly blame him." Gilbert describes this type of relationship as perfectly as I've ever heard, "like having a really bad car accident every single day for about two years." Yep. Exactly. These relationships are both catnip and kryptonite.
Traveling is the Great True Love of My Life
Gilbert shares that "to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice," and I could not agree more. Being bound within a 100 mile radius for more than a decade as a midwife, was like torture for me. It wasn't just midwifery though, my former spouse was very adamantly opposed to travel. He would prefer to tinker around in his garage on days off, to travel, and for whatever reason, I never ventured far from him, hoping someday he would appreciate the desires of my heart and explore with me.
Today, I am much more content traveling on my own. I can make friends and find comfort anywhere. Certainly, it would be ideal to share these experiences with your best friend, a life partner, but as Gilbert so beautifully demonstrates, there is necessary growth and inner work that matures as one steps out on their own. This work can even be done here at home. While I would prefer to go to the local theatre holding hands, with a cute guy who gives me butterflies, this doesn't always work out. Rather than staying home, I push myself to date solo. Learning to enjoy your own company, buying your own flowers builds an inner confidence, an awareness of your worth. Gather experiences. Meet new people. Commit to yourself, as Gilbert says, "Operation Self-Esteem - Day Fucking One."
Thoughts on Our Healing Path
As we walk the path of healing, there are so many one may choose to cope - some healthy, some not - but I suspect a few of us avoid entirely a few more common approaches. Gilbert offers this insight, "I'm still deeply ambivalent about mood-altering medications. I think they need to be prescribed and used with much more restraint in this country, and never without the parallel treatment of psychological counseling. Medicating the symptoms of any illness without exploring its root cause is just a classically hare-brained Western way to think that anyone could ever get truly better."
Some become addicted to love itself. "I have been entwined in some kind of drama with some kind of guy. Each overlapping the next, with never so much as a week's breather in between. And I can't help but think that's been something of a liability on my path to maturity. Moreover, I have boundary issues with men... But I disappear into the person I love. I am the permeable membrane. If I love you, you can have everything... If I love you, I will carry for you all your pain, I will assume for you all your debts, I will protect you from your own insecurity, I will project upon you all sorts of good qualities that you have never actually cultivated in yourself and I will buy Christmas presents for your entire family. I will give you the sun and the rain, and if they are not available, I will give you a sun check and a rain check. I will give you all this and more, until I get so exhausted and depleted that the only way I can recover my energy is by becoming infatuated with someone else." Familiar? Yeah, I felt attacked too.
She talks as well as journaling, "Here, in this most private notebook, is where I talk to myself." The best way to reach that inner child, that strength within yourself - at least in our opinion - is through written conversation. I've often said, it isn't often I know what I think until I write it down. More importantly though, I've learned I can create a false narrative that supports my desire to be happy, so journaling helps me honor myself by identifying when patterns are occurring and when my healthy boundaries are being violated.
What is Pleasure?
After reading Gilbert's book the first time, I began asking my clients in their wellness visits what they do for pleasure. True to her writing, very few had any real idea what this question even meant. "Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure. Ours is an entertainment-seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one."
"Americans work harder and longer and more stressful hours than anyone in the world today... but we like it... Americans feel more happy and fulfilled in their offices than they do in their own homes. Of course, we all inevitably work too hard, then we get burned out and have to spend the whole weekend in our pajamas, eating cereal straight out of the box and staring at the TV in a mild coma (which is the opposite of working, yes, but not exactly the same thing as pleasure). Americans don't really know how to do nothing. This is the cause of that great sad American stereotype - the overstressed executive who goes on vacation, but who cannot relax."
This really hit home for me when I was practicing midwifery. I could easily, and more often than not, work 80 hours a week, or more. I could work all day in the clinic with clients and remain there all evening completing administrative tasks, only then to be called to a birth which would keep me awake all night long. The work was never done, yet I always felt as if I was on the tail of mastering the next challenge.
Home was not my sanctuary. In fact, most days I returned to a home that although I left clean, now resembled of a fraternity home after rush. School work was untouched. Routines were thrown to the wind. While work overwhelmed me, there was some gain, some evidence of my efforts. Home was a never-ending chore and admittedly, it hurt to come home to a family who had no concern for my efforts. I was driving from one monumental mountain I could never escalate to yet another, daily, growing increasingly hopeless. Pleasure, stepping away for fun, or even self-care - to meet my basic needs, was incomprehensible. I had no mental space for anything else.
Gilbert shares, "Do I really deserve this pleasure? This is very American, too - the insecurity about whether we have earned our happiness." Do we deserve a break if our task list is endless? If so many seek so much from us, how can we take a moment away to relax? "Then comes the reactionary binge. Followed by the remorse." Marketing campaigns, such as Bud Lite's: This Bud's for You! You Deserve a Break Today! Because You're Worth It! You've Come a Long Way Baby! would not work in the Italian culture where people already know they are entitled to enjoyment in this life. The reply in Italy to "You Deserve a Break Today," would probably be, Yeah, no duh.
How do you define pleasure? What would you enjoy doing today? What would bring you pleasure right now? With nobody else's agenda to consider and no other obligations to worry about, consider your options.
Be Like Rome When You're An Old Lady
Gilbert talks about the power struggle across Europe. Cities competing against each other, each striving to outdo one another culturally, architecturally, politically, fiscally. "But Rome has not bothered to join the race for status. Rome doesn't compete. Rome just watches all the fussing and striving, completely unfazed, exuding an air like: Hey, do whatever you want, but I am still Rome. Rome is grounded, self-assured.
The Augusteum is yet another lesson in itself. This big, round, ruined pile of brick which started as a mausoleum, built by Octavian Augustus, destroyed by barbarians, left in ruin and collapse in the Dark Ages. The emperor's ashes were stolen. Renovated in the twelfth century to guard the Colonna family, later transformed into a vineyard, then a Renaissance garden, a bullring, then a firework depository, then a concert hall. In the 1930s, Mussolini seized the property and restored it, yet today it stands as one of the quietest and loneliest places in Rome, buried deep in the ground. The city has grown up around it. Traffic spins above it and no one really goes down there, except maybe to use the bathroom. The building sits awaiting its next incarnation.
This endurance is reassuring. Like trees that drop all their leaves in the fall, knowing they can let go and turn in, because they will bloom once again. Gilbert describes the Augusteum as a person who has led a crazy life - "who maybe started out as a housewife, then unexpectedly became a widow, then took up fan-dancing to make money, ended up somehow as the first female dentist in outer space, and then tried her hand at national politics - yet who has managed to hold an intact sense of herself throughout every upheaval."
Maybe, if we consider the Augusteum, our lives really haven't been so chaotic. Maybe it's just this world which is chaotic, bringing changes to us that no one could have anticipated. "The Augusteum warns me not to get attached to any obsolete ideas about who I am, what I represent, whom I belong to, or what function I may once have intended to serve. Yesterday I might have been a glorious monument to somebody, true enough - but tomorrow I could be a fireworks depository. Even in the Eternal City, says the silent Augusteum, one must always be prepared for riotous and endless waves of transformation."
What do you Deserve in Life?
Gilbert has the most amazing opportunity - one which I am envious of more than maybe any other thing I can think - of traveling for a year, writing about her many epiphanies. Who doesn't deserve this, right, "to have no greater ambition than to find the next lovely meal? Or to learn how to speak a language for no higher purpose than that it pleases your ear to hear it? Or to nap in a garden, in a patch of sunlight, in the middle of the day, right next to your favorite fountain? And then do it again the next day?"
Of course, "one can't live like this forever. Real life and wars and traumas and mortality will interfere eventually." But can you sit in not-doing? Can you truly rest and relax? I remember not being able to enjoy a massage. It was near torture. Never could I have done something like yoga. It didn't move fast enough, wasn't productive enough. I drove fast, way too fast. I was always multi-tasking and assuring that all those around me were contributing to my productivity. This is sympathetic dominance; this is fight-or-flight.
Gilbert shares, "My life had gone to bits and I was so unrecognizable to myself that I probably couldn't have picked me out of a police lineup. But I felt a glimmer of happiness when I started studying Italian, and when you sense a faint potentiality for happiness after such dark times you must grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you face-first out of the dirt - this is not selfishness, but obligation. You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight. I came to Italy pinched and thin. I did not know yet what I deserved. I still maybe don't fully know what I deserve, but I do know that I have collected myself of late - through the enjoyment of harmless pleasures - into somebody much more intact."
I found this same pleasure in #yoga, then hiking. While this doesn't seem quite the same legacy to leave as catching thousands of babies, saving lives, and improving maternal health outcomes, to leave the world having changed just myself, is in fact, a work of great worth in this world.
Our Deeper Divine Nature
"Taoists call it imbalance, Buddism calls it ignorance, Islam blames our misery on rebellion against God, and the Judeo-Christian tradition attributes all our suffering to original sin. Freudians say that unhappiness is the inevitable result of the clash between our natural drives and civilization's needs. The Yogis, however, say that human discontentment is a simple case of mistaken identity. We're miserable because we think that we are mere individuals, alone with our fears and flaws and resentments and mortality. We wrongly believe that our limited little egos constitute our whole entire nature. We have failed to recognize our deeper divine character."
"Meditation is both the anchor and the wings of Yoga. Meditation is the way. There's a difference between meditation and prayer, though both practices seek communion with the divine. I've heard it said that prayer is the act of talking to God, while meditation is the action of listening." Gilb