Around 2010, I sat on my friend’s worn plaid couch discussing the book Eat, Pray Love during one of our monthly book club gatherings. We hadn’t read Eat, Pray Love (I fear there may have been blood spilled if we had), but it had come up and my, my, my did people have things to say about it.
“Oh so, if we’re upset with our spouse we should just get divorced and ‘live our dream.’”
“I just feel sorry for all those women who think they have to take a year traveling the world in order to be happy and ‘find themselves.’”
“Because guess what? Not all of us can afford to not work for an entire year. Privileged much?”
“It just is such a tangible example of what is wrong with the world today- people obsessed with themselves at the cost of others.”
“Yeah what you think I’m never mad at my spouse? I’m mad at my spouse every day, but I made a COMMITMENT!”
I nodded my head, joining in the righteous indignation.
I didn’t read the book, and yet that didn’t stop me from parroting back my friends’ sentiments in any conversation in which Eat, Pray, Love came up through the years. Sometimes I even legitimately forgot I hadn’t read it. And everyone I ever talked to about it agreed with me. Now, granted, mostly I talk to LDS women about such things, and in fact, I’ve YET to meet an LDS woman who liked Eat, Pray, Love. (Please comment and let me know if you are one of these unicorns!)
After all, isn’t that what was wrong with the world? Selfishness taking on the guise of self-exploration or self-care? Denying duty and service and obligation?
Fast forward a decade, a friend recommended Liz Gilbert’s book on creativity, Big Magic so highly to me that I temporarily decided to lift my otherwise air-tight ban of all things Liz Gilbert to give it a shot.
I absolutely loved it. Couldn’t put it down. My favorite book I read that year. I decided to give her podcast, “Magic Lessons” a shot. Same. It was becoming increasingly difficult to hate Liz Gilbert. But even so, recently I found myself telling my Instagram community to read Big Magic and felt it necessary to state, “Now, I HATED Eat, Pray Love and had sworn off Liz Gilbert, and I know many of you did too, but give Big Magic a shot.” Why did I think it necessary to say this? I’m not sure. Probably some deep down need to fit in with my in-crowd who have formed their identity around being a wife and a mother and feel understandably threatened when they hear a proclamation of one who has shrugged off both.
I started to love Liz Gilbert so much that I took a deep breath and thought it might just be time. Time to face my fears and crack open the dreaded, the condemned, the black-listed EPL.
At the time of this writing, I started reading two days ago. I’m having a hard time putting it down. My sentiments could not be more different from 10 years ago about this book.
Right from the beginning, from Liz Gilbert’s reflections on its 10 year anniversary, Liz speaks precisely to the criticisms of my friends and I. She says her book was never meant to be an edict for all women to get divorced and sow their wild oats to “find themselves” by traveling the world. She says,
“My truth is not your condemnation.”
“Don’t do what I did; ask what I asked. Ask yourself what you are willing to risk or change, in order to find a sense of freedom, joy and reanimation within your own life.
‘Who am I?
Who does my life belong to?
What is my relationship to divinity?
What have I come here to do? Do I have the right to change my own path?
With whom do I want to share my path—if anyone?
Do I have the right to experience pleasure and peace? If so, what would bring me pleasure and peace?’
It is true that—for most of world history—women were not allowed to ask any of these powerful questions, but we can finally ask them today.”
I read that and burst into tears. Right there sitting on my lumpy bed while my 2 year old son napped in the adjacent room. Right there while my other three were at school. Right there in the hour of 2-3pm where I fought a daily losing battle to use that hour for “me time.” Right there under my old pink comforter and t-shirt sheets. I wept. I wept for women past and present who for whatever reason haven’t had the privilege of sovereignty over their lives, or who felt they didn’t.
That’s Liz Gilbert’s conclusion as to why Eat, Pray Love had such an impact. Not because everyone needs a year off for self-exploration, but because it brought up the radical idea, “My life doesn’t have to be this way. I get to choose what my life looks like.”
It’s still giving me chills.
As I read the section where Liz finally leaves her husband and starts living alone, I felt the tingles all over. She says,
“I was beginning to sense that—even though my life still looked like a multi-vehicle accident on the New Jersey Turnpike during holiday traffic—I was tottering on the brink of becoming a self-governing individual. When I wasn’t feeling suicidal about my divorce, or suicidal about my drama with David, I was actually feeling kind of delighted about all the compartments of time and space that were appearing in my days, during which I could ask myself the radical new question: ‘What do you want to do, Liz?’ Most of the time (still so troubled from bailing out of my marriage) I didn’t even dare to answer the question, but just thrilled privately to its existence. And when I finally started to answer, I did so cautiously. I would only allow myself to express little baby-step wants. Like: I want to go to a Yoga class. I want to leave this party early, so I can go home and read a novel.”
I think this had such an effect on me because just now, for the first time since I became a mother 10 years ago, I’m starting to ask myself the radical new question, “What do you want to do Celeste?” And most of the time I don’t dare answer the question, but am privately thrilled to its existence.
I’m allowing myself little baby-step wants, “I don’t want to play with my kids this afternoon, I want to read Eat, Pray Love.” “I don’t want to do the dishes this morning.” “I want to go on a hike.” “I want to write a book I have little business writing.”
It feels like salvation itself to allow myself these baby-step wants. It feels like breathing in the sea and learning how to fly. It feels wild and scary, but thrilling and holy all at once.
Reading Eat, Pray, Love tastes like honey and feels like the wind on a sunny day.
It feels like my desires matter. If only even to me.
For most of my life, my only goal in decision making WASN’T to figure out what I wanted to do, it was to figure out what God has planned for me to do. What was the right choice, what was the wrong?
As a righteous woman, I thought everyone’s desires had to come first. As I walked through my day the last question on my mind was “what do I want?” It was first and foremost “what does God want” and my answer always seemed to be “What does everyone else want or expect from me?” More service, more sacrifice, more disappearing. Never enough.
When I was preparing to be a missionary, I heard for the first time the song “Window to His Love” by Julie De Avezedo. Some of the lyrics are, ” And with each passing day, I want to fade away, till only he can be seen and I become a window to his love.” When I first heard this, it sent shock waves through my system. “That’s it!” I thought. I had never heard my life’s ambition put so clearly or beautifully before. I wrote down all the words. I memorized them and thought of them often. When I returned home, I printed them out. I put the words in my journal, on my New Year’s Resolutions page for years. “And with each passing year, I want to disappear…..”
I still love the idea of being a window to His love, but to “disappear” is no longer my goal. I don’t think we have to fade away to be a window to his love (and quite frankly, I suspect Julie De Azevedo Hanks would agree). I think we shine as brightly and uniquely as the God who made us. We don’t have to disappear because we are Godly. We are made in His image. We take that God piece in us and we nurture it through our unique talents and personality and we let that shine as brightly as we possibly can.
The biggest breakthrough came when I realized that God is not exclusively a force existing outside myself. I am his daughter meaning A PART OF HIM LIVES IN ME! Meaning God is at least partially internal as well. Meaning I CAN TRUST MYSELF! I can trust my desires! I can trust my decisions!
I don’t have to receive CONSTANT heaven permission before making a decision and CONSTANT heaven approval after. I can make decisions and trust my inner God to let me know when I’ve veered off course and need to course correct. I don’t have to be so hard on myself. I don’t have to strive for perfection. I can be enough. Just as I am today.
Because I am good. I am worthy. I am safe. I am loved. Just as I am.
And my desires matter.