Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Defining Herself

I want to start by speaking very bluntly about this book (say it like you eat it, right?). I don't think it's very literary, it's uncomfortably personal and really the only reason I find it uncomfortable is because of how whiny Gilbert is.
She made decisions about her life which were right for her, and that's wonderful. But she struggles because not everyone supports those decisions. Really the only two people who seem not to support her are herself (at first anyways) and her ex-husband. And who can blame him, he built a life with her based on what seemed to be a mutual agreement and mutual expectations and she pulled the rug out from underneath him. It bothers me that she had all this anxiety about having children and losing her life and being trapped in normal social conventions and she seems to have never talked to him about it. But, be that as it may, she made her decisions and executed them in the best way she knew how and I think her decisions were right for her.
The problem is, though, that she doesn't seem to think those decisions are right for her - or perhaps it's more accurate to say she doesn't seem to feel they are right for her. She had to go to the extent of creating a voice inside herself but seemingly from outside herself to give acceptance and permission. As I was complaining to Dave about this, right around her first month in Italy, he reached over and thumbed through the remaining 200+ pages and said, "Well, it looks like she still has a way to go, maybe she stops whining."

And that's what the book is about. It is a beautifully told, funny, realistic, and very personal story of her journey of self discovery. At one point she says that if you don't follow the conventions of society, "Where will you sit (at the hypothetical family reunion)?" To me, the answer seems glaringly obvious: Wherever you choose to sit. Mingle, catch up, play with other people's kids, have some wine and don't worry about whether it's you or your husband driving the whole family home, don't worry about what the kids are doing or when the baby needs another bottle. I know that may seem easy to say from someone who has a family, but I actually lived on the other side not too long ago. In 2004-05, before I met Dave, I lived alone for a year. My son lived with his father, although I had him every single weekend that year. I 'gave him up' to live with his father to escape the terrible relationship his father and I had had. Like Gilbert, I don't want to just tell my side, but suffice it to say: I left that relationship with actual post traumatic shock disorder. I spent a year, living alone and basically doing what Gilbert does (only not in Europe, India, or Bali). And at the end of that year, I pulled myself together, filed for full custody, and got it. I met David shortly afterwards and have never looked back. Also, as a disclaimer, I never wanted to a family or to settle down either: I wanted to travel and write and eat and love, and just basically be what she longs to be but resists.
So I can understand her dilemma, except for the self-inflicted agony. No matter what phase I've been in and no matter what decisions I've made, I have committed myself to them and made them work. And even when I briefly went on anti-depressants, even as I second-guessed myself for letting my son live with his father, even as I struggled with my honest desire not to have another child last year, I never could give in to despair the way she almost does (or does, in some ways) because that is taking a step back.
But the medecine man was right, she is lucky, and she is a happy person. And she has the chance to do her travels, to go on her journey of self discovery and self definition. And despite some of my personal issues with the way she handles adversity, she takes us along for a wonderful and inspiring journey to gain some of the insight and perspective she gains. And that is mainly what she is doing: gaining perspective. By seeing it from the outside, she understands herself, her life, and her country (America) better. And that is a valuable understanding for every American to have. I think as Americans we have that luxury: to be able to define ourselves against and according to other cultures, because we have so many aspects of those other cultures and we are in the position (if we choose to be so open-minded) to see the stark contrasts, too. We do not allow ourselves to be defined by other cultures, try as they may, because we are individuals and we will reject any label we don't like, keep the ones that fit, and adapt to the ones that inspire us.
This is basically the process that Gilbert tells us about in her string of beaded tales.

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