Eat, Pray, Love to City of Girls: A Journey in Being Sanded Down
“I wanted to write about sexually promiscuous women whose lives are not destroyed by their promiscuity…to write very intentionally as a counter to the very tired, old story of the ruined woman…Some of the greatest works of literature are stories about ruined women…and I said - can a woman have a sexually adventurous life and not have to go under the wheels of the train?”
These spectacular sentences coming from Elizabeth Gilbert, as she explained what sparked ‘City of Girls’, made me sit up bolt upright. How amazing that I had never heard this articulated by anyone before, yet isn’t that a sentiment worth harbouring? Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary made for beautiful works of art, as Liz Gilbert says, but in real life, women can live fulfilled lives despite their choices and mistakes. Or maybe even because of them.
Talking to Avni Doshi as part of #JLFLitFest’s Brave New World, from her home in New York, Elizabeth Gilbert enchants her audience with life-truths that pierce the heart. She seems to epitomise “unadulterated” and “bona fide” – gliding effortlessly from spiritual instructions to how her life has been “cancelled” in the last two months.
Her description of love lost to cancer, two years back, and how that emerged as the most “interesting” twist in the plot of her life, was spoken with honesty that took the breath away of every listener. Can we bring back the curiosity in our lives when death stalks us and question our own ability to get past a plot reversal like that? Ask, “Howam I going to continue living when my most beloved has passed away?” and then discover that “apparently the universe thinks I can?” Drawing parallels between living through the pandemic and swimming against the tsunami of personal loss, Gilbert says, “There is no experience in your life that’s too heroic …that if you don’t get very quiet, we can actually find the curiosity about how we are going to do this?”Her erudition weaves words that seem Psalmist, echoing the age-old “Be still, and know that I am God”. We can find the hallowed in each of ourselves in this isolation, despite our struggles, by treating this time as a giant, worldwide retreat.
Describing her own spiritual journey, she says that she does best when she sees everything that happens in her life as an invitation for deepening her experience of life on earth, including its uncertainties. As I reflect on her smiling face on my screen, I figure that this mantra can truly be a gateway to peace and growth.
Returning to ‘City of Girls’, Avni mentions that, to her, it is a story of female friendship. Gilbert breaks out into delighted laughter. “Well done! It is that too.” She goes on to rue her innocent gaffes of youth in trying to find in one man, qualities that can only be found in a group of women.Acceptance, attention, loyalty, devotion – each of these things are held in sisterhood. And Vivian, her protagonist finds all these in her relationships with her friends, each of them being a catalyst that takes her to the next season of her life.
I take my eyes off the screen to fit together the Lego pieces in my daughter’s mini-airport but my ears are peeled to the conversation. Vivian’s narrative in the book is that of her ninety-year old self, looking back with fondness on her life that has been a blend of joy and mistakes. Why did Gilbert choose to fast forward so many decades?
Her response fits in perfectly with my personal Lego puzzle of mother, writer, chef, driver, cleaner and giver of sagacious advice on random subjects.She says that the one word that would be the true embodiment of revolution amongst women is to be “relaxed”.A relaxed woman is rare and she probably has grey hair.This woman has had life “sand her down” to a surrender to life’s terms. Which is true – even in this period of lockdown we continue to battle toxic productivity. Personal goals of working from home, weightloss, reading lists, cuisines cooked, photographs posted, family game nights have filled our isolation with frenetic activity. But the sane way would be to use this confinement to accept ourselves, sit by the still waters of a pool and see our own reflections. Because as Elizabeth Gilbert quotes, “Solitary confinement is a terrible place to find yourself. But solitary confinement is where you will probably find yourself.”