HT Brunch Cover Story: Elizabeth Gilbert and the art of living
I have a date with Elizabeth Gilbert. Perhaps the stars aligned. Perhaps it is because we share a publisher. The fact is that we are chatting under a garden umbrella in the sprawling lawns of her hotel in Jaipur and enjoying the warmth of the winter sun over idlis and cups of steaming masala chai. A few days ago, I’d met her briefly at the Jaipur Literature Festival. So struck was I by Gilbert’s openness and exceptional warmth that I felt I had to meet her again. So here we are today, chatting about life, love, writing and womanhood.
She is draped in an exquisite grey pashmina with blue peacocks embroidered all over it. We are women, after all, we must get the conversation about shopping out of the way first. “Isn’t it just stunning? Alexandra (Bloomsbury) bargained for me, I am really bad at haggling,” Gilbert tells me conspiratorially. She’s managed a good bargain, and presently I hear myself asking for the details of the shawl seller.
Gilbert is thrilled to be back in India after 17 years. There was always some “catastrophe” preventing her from returning to the country that changed her life (as she wrote in Eat Pray Love). “Illness, death, and at one point even a lawsuit,” she says. Then she ran into her old hairstylist. “When she mentioned she was going to India in January to a women’s festival outside Jodhpur, I told her, ‘Oh, I’m going as well,’” Gilbert says. “She asked if I had been invited too. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I just found about it right this second from you.’”
This is an enviable degree of spontaneous living, I tell her. She says she has always been this way. There is such an aura of easy calm about her that I am curious to know if she ever has moments of self-doubt or anxiety. “Oh! Let me tell you, every single day I wake up depressed, anxious, frightened and doubtful of shame, every day of my life. My first waking thought is panic, terror, dread, depression or anxiety.”
I cannot deny I am not a little surprised to hear this. Only a few minutes in her presence and you begin to worry that you will never be this cool. And then Gilbert tells you seriously that she starts her day at 5am to look this ‘put together’ by 10am.
That is the thing about her, she owns it all – her highs and her lows, her joys and her sorrows, and everything else in between – and this is what makes her who she is – a childlike woman with the soul of an ancient mystic. When you spend time listening to her, you walk away understanding life a little better.
I am keen to know how she anchors herself.
“I do a bunch of practices,” she says. “The first thing I do in the morning is hit my knees in desperate prayers: ‘Please help me through this day. Please help me navigate this mind. Please take away my character defects. Please bring me into faith. Please take these feelings away from me. Please help me.’”
Her morning ritual includes dancing and then meditation. I mention how restless I get when I meditate, and she prescribes dancing for me as well. “Tire yourself out a little. Be rid of that extra energy. Then meditate.”
Greys, not blues
Our conversation is interrupted a few times by the hotel’s hospitality staff who need to discuss her schedule with her and get her to sign books for them. She listens to them intently, smiling warmly. This is what made me want to meet her again: the fact that she is intent upon forming a connection with the person in front of her. I ask her about it. “Why would I miss a chance to meet somebody?” she says. “But I balance it out. I spend a huge amount of time alone. I just came from spending 17 days in Goa without seeing anybody other than the waitresses. The older I grow, the more I enjoy my own company.”
While we are on the subject of growing older, I do the impolite thing of asking Gilbert what being 50 feels like.
“So happy to be 50. It takes a really long time to become a person. We’re born with no information, and you’re dropped into whatever the culture is, whatever your family is, whatever your gender is, whatever your obstacles are. And, you’re navigating this thing, led by people who don’t know how to navigate either. But, I feel like, ‘God, it’s so good now, finally!’”
Living in an ageist society as we do, most women are scared of ageing while Gilbert is cheerfully declaiming, she’s happy. This is unusual, isn’t it?
“I’ve never met any woman whose life hasn’t gotten better when she got older. I love hanging out with myself. I couldn’t bear my own company when I was 25.”
“Ageing is the greatest game in town. First of all, it’s so much better than the alternative; that is to die young. As so many people whom I love have. I had a friend who died of cancer when she was 32 and I remember her saying, ‘My greatest wish is to be alive and to age.’”
But women tend to feel invisible with age, I point out. I have often heard my mother say how surprised she is when someone younger than herself engages in a conversation with her at a social gathering.
“My mom says that too,” Gilbert says. “Ever since she told me that, I seek out the grey-haired women in the room. I know from my mom that they’re the most interesting ones. You can’t control who talks to you, but you can certainly control whom you talk to.”
Gilbert has a light touch. Even as she imparts these life lessons, there is nothing even remotely preachy about her and all you wish for, is to somehow osmotically absorb all this magnificent, non-theological wisdom of hers. Like when she speaks or writes about loss, as she recently did on Instagram in a moving post about her partner Rayya, whom she lost to cancer two years ago. I ask her how she is coping with loss, because having lost my father a few years ago, I often find myself wondering about how I am able to go on living normally, even as I struggle to come to terms with his passing on.
“Here’s how I like to look at it – No matter how privileged or cushioned your life may have been genetically, you’re the descendant of hundreds and thousands of years of survivors. There’s a woman (Kate Braestrup) who’s written a beautiful book called Here If You Need Me. She’s a minister who works with police departments. Her job involves knocking on the door with the worst news you’re ever going to hear in your life; that a family member has died. She says most people physically hit the floor, yell and sob. But it doesn’t go on for more than 15 minutes because the body can’t actually sustain that level of collapse. The very next thing they do is ask really sane and reasonable questions like, ‘What do we need to do now?’” she says.
So, the brain starts to focus on practical concerns to distract us from the pain, I say. “Exactly!” says Gilbert. “That’s how fast we are created to get used to the new reality. So I do the same thing you do. I live in the new reality. It’s shocking, isn’t it? ’Cause you really do think you should throw yourself on the funeral pyre.”
Gilbert and Rayya used to be best friends. She was still married to her husband of 12 years when Rayya was diagnosed with cancer. That changed everything for Gilbert.
“I’d say five to six years prior to us getting romantic, she had shifted into full ownership of my heart. I lacked the language to say what she was. I used to say I had my husband and I had Rayya, my person. It was hard to articulate,” she tells me. “This is also what is amazing about the human mind; there are things we’re not allowed to know yet. Even if they are right in front of your face.”
Her husband, she says, wasn’t surprised. “Everybody else had guessed how we felt. In that sense, both Rayya and I were the last to know.”
Gilbert saw a spirit medium and “kept Rayya very close” after her passing to be able to carry on. “I would do anything to get out of suffering. That is what my life is about. I will do anything. I am stubborn about it. I also think the Western idea of letting go is so inhumane. Look, you let go of the body, but why in the world would you let go of the love?”
Gilbert wrote City of Girls “in celebration of Rayya’s life.” A lot of her other writing has been full of humour and life-affirming. She repudiates the notion that good writing comes from deep inner sadness even though there are enough writers in this world who fetishize suffering. “It’s a very male, and a very 19th Century European notion that suffering is the badge of honour that proves that you’re a serious person. I have no interest in that mentality,” she says.
Gilbert’s writing process is very intense. While researching a book may take her years, she shuts life out for seven to eight weeks at a stretch to finish her manuscript from start to finish.
“I find it easier to write fast. I took a circus class when I was at New York University, where I learned to walk on a tightrope. So I clear my schedule so I can just run across those pages. I don’t stop. Have you seen somebody drunk, staggering down the street? If they stop, they’ll fall. So I write like a drunk person on a tightrope,” she laughs.
I tell her she is fortunate to be able to hibernate while writing. Men with families can go off to some corner of the world to meditate on their next book undisturbed, but not every woman can afford to do that.
“Yeah, because men normally have a wife at home taking care of everything.”
This means I need a wife
“Yes, you need a wife! I had a friend who started a business in New York, years ago, called The Wife’s Wife. The name tells you everything it was.”
She wants to know about my kids. I tell her much as I romanticise the idea of freedom, I dread being an empty nester one day.
“That’s going to be an exciting moment. I would say don’t be so quick to fill that emptiness. Amazing and creative things can come out of that emptiness if you have the courage to sit in it.”
Did I mention time spent with Elizabeth Gilbert means you come away wiser?
Author bio: Shunali is an author and an avid traveller who has authored Love in the Time of Affluenza. Follow her on social media at @shunalishroff
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From HT Brunch, March 15, 2020
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