Explore Thyself

Column by Chelsea Murray


   Elizabeth Gilbert was born in Waterbury and raised in Litchfield.

    Who knew?

   Gilbert is making waves again with the upcoming release of the most anticipated film of the summer, “Eat Pray Love” based on her remarkable best selling memoir of the same name. Gilbert penned the memoir detailing her year of self-discovery as she traveled to Italy, India and Indonesia. The book reads as if you are a vouyer in her soul. “Eat Pray Love” feels as though Gilbert handed her un-tampered diary of her travels to her publishers and let them release it for the world to peek inside her head.

   Anne Lamott, author of the popular writing manual “Bird by Bird” has called Gilbert’s writing, “wise, jaunty, human, ethereal and heart-breaking.” People all over the world have proclaimed that “Eat Pray Love” has changed their outlook on life and helped lift them out of darkness. It crashed onto the best-seller list in 2006, stayed there for more than 155 weeks, and has been printed in over 40 languages worldwide. Many have deemed the memoir a “self-help” book. The funny thing is, Gilbert believed that this would be a speed bump in her already stellar career since she was mainly defined as a writer of men doing manly things. The subject matter in her earlier books consisted of cowboys, a wild outdoors man and lobster fisherman, as well as many pieces for GQ. She didn’t expect that “Eat Pray Love” would become one of the most popular books of this generation. It was, instead, a book she needed to write for herself. Gilbert figured her loyal followers would come along for the ride and forgive her for delving deep into her journey of self-discovery. The memoir became wildly famous gaining her more readers than she could imagine making it hard to catch her breath.

    Before all the fame and notoriety, Elizabeth (Liz) Gilbert was born in Waterbury and grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Litchfield with her mother, father and sister, Catherine Gilbert Murdock, who is also an accomplished author. Gilbert’s story is the ultimate story of local girl makes big. Her mother, Carole Gilbert described her in an e-mail exchange as a “pretty shy little preschooler, but once she started school she became very social and as she was growing up, she developed a wicked sense of humor.”

   Carole wrote that Liz was a great storyteller and always wrote good ones. Many times throughout “Eat Pray Love” and her latest book “Committed”, Gilbert makes references to the people and places that were part of her childhood in Litchfield. Gilbert graduated from Litchfield High School in 1987 and her mother credits her great English teachers for encouraging her writing.

   In an e-mail exchange with Liz Gilbert she wrote that “I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that valued books and narrative, and my sister and I were both marinated in reading our whole lives. No wonder, then, that we both became authors.”

  Gilbert wrote that a love of reading can trigger a passion for writing. “It’s a very short leap from loving to read to wanting to write,” she wrote. “The same way that people who love fresh produce eventually almost always decide that they want to grow their own,”

   After graduating from Litchfield High School, Gilbert attended New York University and majored in Political Science. Gilbert’s mother says Liz was going to take about six years to try and get something published and was willing to work at any job in order to support herself. Directly following college, Gilbert bounced around the country working on ranches, bartending and waitressing, which would become the fodder of her short fiction collection, Pilgrims. The cult classic film, “Coyote Ugly” about life as a bartender at a saloon on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was based on a short story “The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon” by Gilbert published in GQ in March, 1997.

   Elizabeth, who likes to be called Liz, has been described as a pioneer in the modern women’s movement largely because she grew restless at a time where society was telling her to settle down, reproduce, and  perform good wifely duties. But life did not feel complete to her yet so she set out to discover herself as she traveled from Italy, India and Indonesia over the course of one year. Her memoir has sparked much debate between generations of women causing the older and younger beliefs to clash. A reading group in Woodbury, CT consisting of a handful of women over the age of 60 was split down the middle. Some loved her sense of adventure and others thought it was preposterous that she would throw away her stable, conventional life in order to see the world and explore herself. Younger women have embraced her book because they have witnessed the carnage of marriage and have been encouraged to find their individuality before teaming up with someone else and settling down. Recent studies show that women continue to break from the mold that was set for them decades ago.

   Studies from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey in 2005 show that the gender make up of men versus women in college enrollment has shifted greatly towards the feminine side in the last 40 years. Between 1970 and 2005 women currently hold a 54% majority over men enrolled in colleges. It is hard to pinpoint the reasoning behind this, but a few are shifts in societal beliefs, as well as a balancing of gender role expectations. It is no longer taboo for a woman to command a corporate boardroom or for a man to lug around diaper bags while on full time childcare duty. Men still lead in the workforce, but women are creeping their way up as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Governor Jodi Rell strongly exhibit.

   The idea of a woman traveling on her own was also a foreign concept until a few decades ago. In the 19th century Victorian era women rarely traveled and if they did it was with family or their husbands to specifically chosen destinations. A feminist website claimed that women rarely ventured out on their own to travel except for a few brave souls without children, husbands and fear of the unknown. In recent years more women have begun to head off for walkabouts around the world penning guidebooks, journals and blogs that inspire other women to search and explore. Since “Eat Pray Love” was published in 2006 more women have set off on journeys of self-discovery to remote places around the globe. It is not uncommon to sit in a café in Europe and observer a young woman reading a book and sipping on a coffee completely alone and content with her solitude.

   Many women are enrolling themselves in self-defense courses and learning to protect themselves to further assert independence. Times have changed where it is acceptable for women to feel empowered instead of relying on men for safety and security. In Angelina Jolie’s latest movie, Salt, her character seriously kicks some male butt. In the past this role was always reserved for a male and it would not have been socially acceptable for a woman to star in an action film even a few decades ago.

   The wild success of “Eat, Pray Love” has launched an entire industry behind it. Travel companies have created trips to emulate Gilbert’s journey to Italy, India and Indonesia crunching it down into three weeks and capturing the attention of women around the globe. The tours will take you to the restaurants where Gilbert chomped on pizza and pasta in Italy, to the holy sites she visited in India, and to the old Yoda looking Indonesian medicine man, Ketut, that she befriended in Bali. A recent article in the USA Today spoke of the rising popularity of the “Eat Pray Love” brand and said that it has inspired a “movie and a lot of stuff including perfumes, specialty teas, jewelry, and Borders is partnering with Sony Pictures and STA Travel for a contest to win a 21 day trip to Italy, Bali and India.” It is strange to think that one woman’s journey to find peace within her soul has launched so much hype. What’s next? Elizabeth Gilbert toys in every Happy Meal at McDonald’s?

   So much of the hype misses the larger point that Gilbert set off on a unique path of self discovery to Italy, India and Indonesia that cannot be duplicated by simply following in her footsteps. Individuals can and should be inspired by Gilbert’s brave journey, but they need to find their own path.

   Gilbert must have felt like she had been stuck in a tumbling washing machine for the past few years as her book catapulted her to worldwide fame. But just as her life was settling down it was announced that America’s Sweetheart, Julia Roberts would portray her in the film version of “Eat Pray Love” which opens in theaters on August 13. Wouldn’t it be bizarre to watch a gut wrenching and magical time of your life portrayed on the big screen by one of the most bankable and likeable actresses on the planet? Twenty years ago Gilbert was watching Julia Roberts swim around in a bubble bath singing Prince lyrics in Pretty Woman, and now Roberts will portray Gilbert on the big screen.

   “Surreal,” was the word that came to Carole Gilbert about the upcoming movie. “But our lives have not changed that much because of ‘Eat Pray Love’ except that we now sell our daughters books at tree sale time.”

   Not every person likes to read. Not everyone can read. Therefore a film version of this powerful book will reignite the popularity of the story for people all over the world.

    I may have never discovered the brilliance of Liz Gilbert’s craft had it not been for my literary journalism class during my final semester at Marist College. Gilbert fortuitously fell into my life by chance. Our last assignment in my class was to do a major presentation and paper on the literary journalist that is assigned to us by the professor. I was given Elizabeth Gilbert simply because of my seating arrangement, but I fell under her spell the moment I cracked “Eat Pray Love” open to read it.

   The fact that she was born in Waterbury and grew up in Litchfield just a few miles down the road from our home in Morris made me all the more intrigued. And when I found out that we had purchased several Christmas trees from her parent’s farm over the years I felt oddly connected. The funny thing is that I had purchased ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ for my father for Christmas a few years back and neither one of us read it. The book collected dust as I enjoyed my first few years of college and traveled to Thailand and Guatemala before spending my junior year abroad in Greece.

   Thank goodness for that Literary Journalism class because Gilbert has tweaked my outlook on life. I have always loved to travel, but her story and book encouraged me to find myself and dig deep within my soul in order to find true happiness in life. It is important to have learned this lesson at this delicate and exciting time in my life, directly following my college graduation. My life is a wide open book and Gilbert’s lesson has taught me to live my life for me and stay open to the world around me. She has encouraged me to continue to explore the world. On the eve of printing the August issue of the Observer, my father and I are loading up our backpacks, taking care of loose ends, making sure we have extra strong bug spray and rain ponchos as we take off for a journey to the mountains of northern India as a graduation present to both of us. We have always loved to travel, but something about “Eat Pray Love” will stick with me throughout our journey.

   Although she no longer resides in Connecticut, Elizabeth Gilbert is a state gem for the impact she has made on the globe with her writing. Waterbury has embraced many hometown heroes in the Waterbury Hall of Fame for winning Oscars, catapulting into space and being governor, so why not acknowledge one of the most talented writers of this generation and claim her as our own? Her journey began in Waterbury and we should celebrate that fact.

   And we should all attempt our own voyage of self-discovery. Finding yourself and your true calling can lead to overall happiness. A belief in yourself is the key.