The title of the invitation to submit our story is “Eat Pray Love made me do it”… and fans of the book were encouraged to share something amazing/wonderful/unexpected that they did in their life as inspired by Eat Pray Love. Following is my submission:*
Truthfully, I can’t attribute one specific change, habit, or experience for which EPL is responsible in my life. Rather, this book is the one I reach for time and again, in times of need, comfort, sadness… different words from the book speak to me during the different seasons of my life…. Eat Pray Love didn’t making me do anything in particular. Instead, it took up residence in my heart.
“I look at the Augusteum, and I think that perhaps my life has not actually been so chaotic, after all. It is merely this world that is chaotic, bringing changes to us all that nobody could have anticipated.” (EPL page 75)
I don’t remember which year I first read Eat Pray Love, but it was definitely not 2006, the book’s release. Of that I am sure, because that was the year when my life, in its ordinary wonderfulness, took an unexpected turn. I had time for absolutely nothing — most certainly not reading for pleasure, almost as necessary to me as breathing — beyond caring for my tribe.
On the first weekend of January 2006 I happily waved goodbye to my husband, our energetic boys (ages nine and six), and my dad. They were all decked out in our college colors, complete with car flag flapping madly as they drove off, to watch our alma mater (hopefully) win the national football championship. I was thrilled to cheer from home and to care for our scrumptious four-day-old daughter.
I should have known something ominous lurked ahead when our undefeated team lost in a final-moment heartbreak.
For, just a few weeks later, on the same day my beloved father was receiving the cancer diagnosis which would cut his life short, my husband was fighting for his own.
That was the morning Husband went to work with his characteristic enthusiasm, and just a few hours later was on life support as a bloodstream infection rapidly took over and his organs began shutting down. We were 37 years old.
Suddenly, instead of making the typical Wednesday afternoon decision (what am I going to feed everyone tonight that won’t involve dragging these kids to the market), I was signing a paper promising that I wouldn’t hold the hospital liable in case they accidentally paralyzed Husband while shoving a breathing tube down his throat.
“Is the tube absolutely necessary?” I questioned the doctors, thinking I might have a choice. It was. I didn’t. I signed.
“Oh, but it wasn’t all bad, those few years…Because God never slams a door in your face without opening a box of Girl Scout cookies (or however the old adage goes), some wonderful things did happen to me in the shadow of all that sorrow.” (EPL page 22)
For one thing, my husband survived, and came home to us (after two months in three different hospitals) even though he lost both his feet. The medicine which allowed him to survive the ordeal strangled his extremities, and his feet essentially died.
For another, we all got four more years with my dad. What a gift for my young kids, especially tiny Daughter, to have these cherished men back in their lives, even though their days with Grampa were finite. But I suppose all of our days are finite, which is why we need to be deliberate about living each day out loud, right?
In 2009, we had to let go of my dad. Despite wanting to be strong for my babies, and EPL’s advice (“you should never give yourself a chance to fall apart because, when you do, it becomes a tendency and it happens over and over again. You must practice staying strong, instead.” page 137), I sank. It was just easier to fall into grief’s chasm, to curl up on it’s hostile canyon floor and plan to never escape. But, in it’s endless dance of take and give, life offered up a way out. Unexpectedly, I came to find relief, comfort and (most gratefully), joy, in learning Italian.
I find this ironic for two reasons:
First, EPL has long been at the top of my list of favorites, but even after reading it a couple of times, I was not inspired to learn Italian. I admired Elizabeth Gilbert for jumping wholeheartedly into a pursuit which she loved but struck me as, well… quirky. It never occurred to me to do the same. I did give serious thought to finding a purely joyful interest, but the dust never settled long enough for me to figure out what that might be.
Second, I was raised in an Italian-American family with an Italian-speaking grandfather who emigrated from (no surprise): Italy. Growing up, Italian was no big deal, and though I had every opportunity to learn, I never had the interest or inspiration. But a funny thing happens when you feel like you have dodged a bullet, and Husband and I were determined to start experiencing items on our bucket list, not just writing a longer one.
So it was that just months after losing my dad, Husband and I were wanting to finally take the kids (now 13, 11 and 4) to Italy. He bounded in one day with his signature enthusiasm — thankfully still intact despite his ordeal — and made a quick announcement. “Let’s rent that house in Tuscany! Let’s take the kids! We’ll look up your family in Bari! And we’ll learn Italian!”
That innocent statement changed the course of my days and in this way, Italian unintentionally found me. Italian, in it’s lyrical and lovely words, saved me. In the occasional quiet moments, instead of ruminating over every excruciating detail of my dad’s final days and how I could have prevented the unpreventable, my destructive thoughts were slowly being replaced. My newly found Italian brain would offer me little games like, “I wonder how you say ‘car’ in Italian (macchina — beautiful!)”, or “how might I conjugate avere (to have) in the present tense?” or better still, “andiamo, (let’s go), that’s fun to say! Say it again!”
“I felt a glimmer of happiness when I started studying Italian…” (EPL page 115).
And that’s exactly what I felt too. Essentially, studying Italian gave my grief-filled mind and heart a productive place to rest. That glimmer that Liz wrote about, that little seed of hopefulness and joy, has grown inside me, and has become a permanent part of me. I feel fulfilled and nourished by Italian. I feel connected to my roots, to my heritage and to my sweet father, all of which felt lost to me in losing him. I feel relieved of grief’s burden.
I have lost count how many times I have re-read Eat Pray Love over the years, appreciating its comforting presence time and again during what has been the most difficult decade of my life. I’ve struggled with finding and maintaining joy. I’ve felt resentful that my little family wasn’t granted a free pass from other hardships after all we’ve been through. Which is why I was caught completely off guard earlier this year with a scary and lifelong diagnosis (thankfully stable right now) for cherished first-born son, just as he heads to college and with so much possibility ahead.
I feel the tug of wanting to swirl down again. But again, words save me.
“I don’t like asking, ‘will you change this or that thing in my life that’s difficult for me?’ Because — who knows? God might want me to be facing that particular challenge for a reason. Instead, I feel more comfortable praying for the courage to face whatever occurs in my life with equanimity, no matter how things turn out.” (EPL page 32)
I work to follow Liz’s lead by praying for the strength, courage and wisdom to surmount the difficulties placed before me. I can’t plan to never face strife again, but I can try to meet my challenges head-on, with composure, dignity, and hopefully, grace.
Has my life been so chaotic? More than I pictured, yes. But really, Liz’s words ring true and constant: it’s not my life that’s chaotic. It’s just life — everyone’s — which is chaotic. For me, the chaos is health challenges for the people I love. For others, it may be money worries, or addiction or other demons, things “manifesting in different ways, bringing changes to us all that nobody could have anticipated.”
Words which remind me that in worry and uncertainty, I am not alone. Words which encourage me to continue forward motion. Words like a warm blanket around me.
*This piece was written and submitted for the writing contest, “Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It!” Winners were to have been notified of their inclusion in a 10-year anniversary edition of EPL by September 15. While I never heard back and thus assume my piece was not selected :), I am proud to share this writing with you all. All quotes taken from Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. This post is also a nice follow-up/supplement to “A Beautiful Ordinary“, recently published on Mamalode.