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Soul Sister: Elizabeth Gilbert

Nov 07, 2013 07:16AM
Bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) opens up about her newfound emotional health and popular new book, The Signature of All Things.

With the release of her groundbreaking 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love, the world got to know author Elizabeth Gilbert and the post-divorce year she spent searching for personal truths and new love in the trattorias of Italy, the ashrams of India and the lush gardens of Bali. The book—a number one New York Times bestseller that sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and was translated into more than 30 languages—landed Gilbert a spot on Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people and was made into a 2010 movie starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem.

Gilbert didn’t stop there. She continued to forge new inroads with readers in her 2010 sequel, Committed, as she explored the convention of marriage, both culturally and from her own experience as she prepared to wed a Brazilian businessman she met and fell in love with in Bali. Through her honest and beautifully wrought prose, Gilbert ventured where other writers dared not go, baring her soul as she navigated the delicate balance between relationships and personal fulfillment. Subsequently, she became a guru on life and love for scores of readers worldwide.

The Connecticut native now lives in Frenchtown, NJ, where she owns an eclectic home décor shop called Two Buttons. Gilbert has just released her critically acclaimed sixth book, The Signature of All Things, and says she is in a healthier, wiser, happier and more settled place than ever before thanks to a personal journey full of life lessons. We recently sat down with the warm and approachable Gilbert, 44, to discuss how she’s grown since her Eat, Pray, Love experience and the advice she offers for achieving greater emotional health.

What are some of the lessons you learned about yourself following the experiences you chronicled in Eat, Pray, Love and in Committed?

Gilbert: The writing of those two books helped me enormously just to know myself. I spent my twenties and early thirties flinging myself at life in such wild and experimental ways, and it was only after a complete breakdown that I finally stopped and faced myself. I guess I had hit that wall we all eventually run into, the one with the graffiti on it that reads: “You are the common denominator in all your life’s problems, lady.” It was painful and exhausting to finally start to pick that reality apart and see where my own destructive behaviors kept bringing me the same troubles again and again—both in my own life and in the life of others. I don’t think I could have become an adult if I hadn’t set aside the time, alone, to finally start to sort all that out. And I certainly would have had no business getting married until I’d really recognized the roots of my own suffering. Without that recognition, I would have continued to trade out partners forever, always looking for the perfect match who would somehow complete me. It wasn’t until I completed myself that I was ready to embark upon a relationship again.

How do you feel you’ve achieved a healthier and more balanced lifestyle in the last several years?

Gilbert: OK, I have a confession! Over the last 10 years, I’ve grown really averse to the word “balance”—only because I think it’s become yet another word that we now use to beat ourselves up and punish ourselves with. We’ve all been trained that we must seek balance in all regards, which comes dangerously close to sounding at times like “perfect.” I’m not sure I’ve ever met a perfectly balanced person—and if I did, I’m not sure I would want to be friends with her.

To live is to fall in and out of balance constantly; this is the human universal. We exist on a slippery, spinning unstable planet and our minds are often slippery, spinning unstable neighborhoods. We achieve balance for periods of time, and then we teeter and totter and lose ourselves and tumble and then try again. I would hate for somebody to abuse herself because her life hasn’t reached that point of perfect equilibrium. That said, I do love the word “healthy,” which I believe includes a healthy sense of self-forgiveness for the times we fall short.

You’ve inspired so many readers to become more independent, to move on from regressive behaviors and relationships and to find that which truly drives them regardless of what others think. Any tips for readers as they relate to letting go and identifying and pursuing the life they’re meant to live?

Gilbert: The question I ask people when they come to me for advice is, “When was the last time you were on the trail?” Generally, they understand my question immediately and can usually give an exact date. When was the last time you truly felt like you were walking your own path, following your own compass? What happened between then and now? How far away from your trail have you drifted? Do you think you could find it again? Would you ever allow yourself permission to seek it? I can never know the answers to these questions—only the person herself can know. But I love stories of people rediscovering their trail.

I always tell the story of a woman who told me that after she’d read Eat, Pray, Love, she realized that she hadn’t felt truly happy and free in her body since she was 14 years old, which was the last time she’d been figure skating, a pursuit she’d once adored but had given up when she reached puberty. Amazingly, this woman was now 44, which meant that she hadn’t felt free and happy in her body for 30 years. So she decided to take up figure skating again. Not professionally, just out of love, just three mornings a week, early in the day, allowing her husband to get the kids off to school while she went to skate. She signed up for classes at a local rink and just gave herself that time on the ice, alone in her own body. I love this story because it doesn’t involve her getting a divorce and moving to India; all it took was three mornings a week and a pair of ice skates for this woman to give herself permission to feel joy again, to feel the moment, the simplest flow of life. And the story doesn’t end with her winning an Olympic medal—nor does it need to. It ends with a woman allowing herself to walk (or in this case, glide) on her trail once more.

Your new book, The Signature of All Things, was released last month to rave reviews. Anything you’d like to share about the book or how the experience of writing it was the same or different for you relative to Eat, Pray, Love?

Gilbert: It’s a historical novel about a fictitious female botanical explorer and her adventures in the world of science, love, intellect and travel. I worked on it for four years and it contains my entire heart. My readers will see all of my old favorite themes in there—unconventional women’s lives, passion, travel, curiosity and redemption. I’m excited for it to be out.

Who are some of your favorite authors and why?

Gilbert: I love all of the great 19th-century novelists and always have—Dickens, Austen, Trollope, James, Eliot. I love their broad, sweeping storytelling and mastery of language, but mostly I love the confidence of their narrative. We lost the idea of a reliable narrator somewhat in the last century, but I love to be told a story by an expert who knows what they’re doing and to be taken by the hand and led on a wonderfully crafted adventure. In my writing, I always aspire to be that narrator for my readers.

Finally, how do you feel about where you are in your own personal journey and do you have any final tips to help readers enhance their emotional health?

Gilbert: There’s no doubt that I’m a far healthier person after Eat, Pray, Love than I was before. I’m less inclined to injure myself through too many excesses (emotional or otherwise), and when I do slip up, I’ve learned how to be more gentle and forgiving of myself. I think the best we can hope for is a life where we harm ourselves and others as little as possible—to me, that’s health.

Freelancer Susan Bloom writes for New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press, New Jersey Monthly magazine and USA Today and specializes in topics related to nutrition, fitness and healthy lifestyles. November 2013.

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