Most people follow a plotted path when it comes to living life. It’s a path that has been well worn many a time. It is the tried and tested route, so called because it seems right and it can bring happiness. Choosing to follow another route might bring bliss, or it might bring disaster. Then you have to scramble back onto the tried and tested route, desperately making up for lost time. Elizabeth Gilbert is married with a beautiful home and a successful career. The decision over whether or not to have kids forces her to acknowledge a drastic and life changing truth: Liz is unhappy, with her man and marriage, and with the designated path. She doesn’t want babies and she doesn’t want marriage. She makes the heart breaking decision to terminate her marriage, dealing with the guilt and regret that emerge in the aftermath, but she also experiences a new sense of liberation as she decides to search for happiness by dedicating four months to the pursuit of pleasure in carnal Italy, four months to devotion in spiritual India and four to balance in blissful Bali.
I was drawn to Gilbert’s work whilst undertaking my own voyage of exploration – volunteering at an animal sanctuary in Phetchaburi, Thailand. The book was sitting on the shelf, and I decided to pick it up. I’d bypassed the furore surrounding this book when it first emerged on the scene blazing a trail for bored, out of their twenties women who weren’t sure what they really wanted to be doing with their life’s. Julia Roberts portrayed Liz in the film (which I have not yet seen) although I think, in her younger years, the role would have been a perfect fit for Meg Ryan.
Gilbert was for me very relatable. She was very human. At times whiny, self-oriented, obsessive and irresponsible, she also struck me as honest, endearing and courageous. Who wouldn’t want to travel the world and follow their dreams if they had the finances and freedom to do so? Her story struck a chord with me. Chronically unsure that I ever want marriage or babies (I hate anything with a label and I’m not particularly maternal – although at the age of 23, this might be more an age thing – I’m still waiting for the magic marriage and baby fairy to strike), living a life devoted to pleasure, spirituality and balance seems rather attractive to me. Imagine leading a life dedicated to journeys, adventures, causes, new people, new places, joy, freedom, romance, magic…of course this might all be incredibly naïve. But the truth is I admired Gilbert for daring to step away from a life that was not the right fit for her and plunging into the unknown, facing nights of loneliness and depression before the nights of gorging on pasta and finding her fluent feet.
Ultimately, Liz ends up back where she started. After eating lots of Roman cuisine, scrubbing temple floors and shacking up with a medicine man, Liz falls in love, and due to circumstances beyond her control, ends up marrying. The moral of the story then, is not a ‘Revolutionary Road’ style attack on the domestic sphere and the domain of the husband, wife, family, house and career, but a story about following your heart and trusting that it will lead you to the right places. It might lead you to a man, a job, a country, a language, a type of food, a musical instrument, but trust it when it’s aching, pulsing, beating, begging you to take it somewhere, to do something. As such, there was no attack on marriage, or babies, or domesticity, but just ensuring that it’s the right marriage, the babies you wanted and the domesticity you can enjoy. The biggest lesson for me was one of balance. How many wives and mothers turn their backs on their passions, hobbies, dreams and friends when they settle down? How many lifelong travellers ignore the need for roots and purpose? Liz’s story reminds us that whichever path we choose, conventional or unconventional, we need to balance our own happiness with that of others by ensuring that our families, friends, communities and cultures, and those of others are respected as much as possible. You can be a mum and do something for yourself, and you can be a traveller and fall in love. Create your own story; know when to fight the good fight and when to walk away. Trust in your heart, your gut instincts and realise that the path you walk is always your own, no matter how similar it may appear to someone elses. As such, you have a duty to yourself to ensure that there are a few flowers along that road…