Chicklit my ass: an apology to Elizabeth Gilbert

September 5th, 2014

liz_03I just finished reading The Signature of All Things, the new novel by Elizabeth Gilbert. I polished off that huge whomping five-pound hardcover late last night. I had to, because it was due back to the library today. You know, there is a hold queue on that puppy six months long, and it can’t be renewed. So I just had to knuckle down to the deadline. I was even prepared to pay the 30-cent-a-day overdue fine if i had to, but nevermind. I made it, under the wire.

But before I go on about The Signature of All Things, I need to come clean about something.

In case you are truly clued out, Elizabeth Gilbert is a Very Famous Writer—listed, in fact (and according to her bio on the inside flap of the book) as one of the New York Times’ 100 Most Influential People in the World. Yes indeedy. She has written several[ novels and non-fiction books, but what hoisted her onto the Most Influential list was her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love.

For years, I deliberately avoided reading Eat, Pray, Love. I would see it everywhere—in bookstore windows and in magazine ads and on friends’ bookshelves—friends with taste—and my lip would curl in disdain. Oh no…it’s that gushy icky romantic book, that so totally Oprah book… that book, all done up in pastel colours and floofy fonts, totally marketed to the ladies… and wasn’t there a crappy movie with Julia Roberts? … it’s…it’s… omg, it’s CHICKLIT. Yes, that’s it: chicklit. Shelved right up with the Ya Ya Sisters and the Travelling Pants Sisterhood and 500 Shades of Grey or whatever, and all those other books with ‘sisters’ in the title and pink covers with titles in embossed gold script. Ew, barf. But then, every now and again when my friend was out of the room, I would pick up the book and flip it open. Ready to be irritated. But, my god, it read well. It was sharp. It was ballsy. It was very funny. It was … it was chicklit! I wanted to keep reading but then I would hear my friend coming back into the room and i would quickly shut the book, put it down, and pick up the Derek Jensen lying nearby. Feeling a little bit dirty. Like i’d been peeking into somebody else’s porn.

Then one day i spied Eat, Pray, Love in a used book shop for a couple of bucks, and I finally dared myself to read it. I caved, and bought the book. Of course, I did not take it with me to read over an espresso on Commercial Drive. I would have been mortified to be caught reading chicklit in public. I buried the book deep in my tote bag, brought it home, shut the door, and opened it to page one.

For my legion of dedicated blog followers (both of you), I won’t bother detailing Eat, Pray, Love, but briefly: it comprises Liz’s memoir of a year of travel and self-examination, as precipitated by a shattering divorce and existential meltdown. Over the course of one year Liz spends four months each in Italy (chasing the perfect foccacia), India (hiding out in an ashram), and Bali (falling in love…and other peculiar stuff). I’m not saying Eat, Pray, Love is absolutely the greatest book i’ve ever read in my life, but seriously: it is a REALLY GOOD BOOK. It is tough-minded, well crafted, courageous, and often hilarious. Liz describes what it is to be a chldless, single woman in her late 30′s more acutely than anyone I have ever read. Her reflections on the monkey mind in action and the mundane realities of ashram life are both hilarious and profound. And she regards herself and human relationships, in all their twisted complexity, with unflinching honesty. If any man wants a small window into the female psyche he should read this book. And there is the irony. Many men claim to want to understand women, but most men do not have the cojones to read Eat, Pray, Love.

An exception to this sexist generalization is Michael Stone, who has remarkable cojones. Just last week, I participated in a yoga/dharma/activism program with Michael at Hollyhock. I just about jumped up and cheered when, during a discourse about how we create stories around ourselves and others, he actually quoted a line from Eat, Pray, Love: when, in describing her crashed marriage, the author says of her relationship to her ex-husband, “I was in love with his potential.” That, is the sort of razor-blade retrospect that cuts to the bone, and it is the stuff Liz is made of.

So anyway, when I finally read Eat, Pray, Love, it spun my head around, and I was truly disgusted with myself. I felt like I had unwittingly bought in to a lynching. Because here’s the thing: I had heard the book dismissed repeatedly as self-indulgent, humourless, mushy, New-Agey, lame and self-pitying. And I had unquestioningly accepted that verdict, while in fact, it is none of those things. The book struck me as powerful, drily witty, and, while self-forgiving, also brutally self-pitiless. Most of the people who gave me that impression had not even read your book, and without having read it myself, I accepted their prejudice (prejudice: to ‘pre-judge’) and dismissal. I had really believed that a book by a woman, about the lives of women, must be fluff. I recognized my own internalized sexism. And worse: I was a snob.

I also set to wondering just what the hell was going on here, in the bigger picture. I think that the reason people scorn Eat, Pray, Love is because the perspective of a white, American, upper-middle-class woman is not seen as a valid or respectable point of view. And that the intellectual and spiritual insights of such a protagonist can only be trivialized. I heard Eat, Pray, Love described as ‘self-indulgent’, and I have to think that that is because, women aren’t supposed to write about their real down-and-dirty, smart-but-conflicted, not-always-pretty selves. Men can do it and earn respect, but women can’t—or, if they do, they get filed away under ‘chicklit’ and banished to the afternoon talk shows.

And frankly, I bought into that attitude myself. I’m embarassed. But I’ll make up for it, I promise. I now display Eat, Pray, Love brazenly, on my bookshelf, right next to the Michael Chabon, the Martin Amis, the David Foster Wallace and Hunter S. Thompson that I so love to despise (as my friend Terry observed: I’m a sucker for the asshole protagonist). Elizabeth Gilbert is just as tough as Martin and Hunter. Chicklit, my ass.

And hey: when Liz’s next novel comes out I promise I’ll actually buy a copy instead of borrowing it from the library. At least, I will, when it comes out in paperback. Hardcovers are just way to heavy to take to the beach on my bike.

Will post about Signature of all Things soon. But if you haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love yet, its not too late. There are plenty of used copies around. Don’t be a chicken, I dare you.

P.S. Here is a beautiful essay by Elizabeth Gilbert: Thoughts on Writing

Freedom and security

August 23rd, 2014

birds3Freedom and security are flip sides of the same coin. Both complete illusions. Both entirely within our grasp.

I struggle constantly with the idea of freedom. People see my wandering ways and they tell me they envy my freedom, but i wonder, would they trade what they think of as my ‘freedom’ for what they think of as their ‘security’? Would I trade mine for theirs?

My personal favourite flavour of dukkha is the usual first-world problem: too many choices. Its not that I fear that any of the myriad possibilities in my life will turn out regrettable or hellish – but which one to pick, which way to turn, that is my suffering. Storm-tossed i wish for some rock to cling to. Sometimes i feel completely exhausted by the options in this unfettered world and i swear i would trade my free-floating life in about half a moment for one big old anchor. For the feeling of purpose and place. For warmth in the night. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s my potty

August 3rd, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Where’s your bathroom?,” asks a visitor to my little green schoolbus-home in the forest.

Ummmm….well, that depends what you have in mind. If you want to take a bath i’m afraid you are SOL, but there is a lovely ocean right at the bottom of the bluff—warmish, by Canadian (not Carribean) standards. A shower? The garden hose coiled onto a hook in the fir tree delivers clean water, gravity-fed from the reservoir at the top of the hill — and because of the black pvc water line, on a sunny afternoon the shower can actually be hot! Read the rest of this entry »

Gears are for lazy people

July 17th, 2014

Shifting-GearsI got an Orions 10-speed for my 15th birthday—my first real grown-up bike. It was serpent-green and had curly drop bars. It looked way cool, but I was confused and intimidated by the dual shifters. I fumbled around and eventually chose one speed at random, deciding that one would do just fine. I rode that bike for close to a decade, and here is my true confession: I never learned how to use the gears. It wasn’t until I got my orange rocket with its sexy old-school Campagnolo downtube shifters that I finally learned how powerful a bicycle could be. Read the rest of this entry »

Its not me. Its the bike.

July 11th, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next person who leans out a car window and gushes at me, ‘oh i really admire you it’s so amazing that you ride your bike all over the island‘ is gonna get popped in the head. Listen: Its not me. Its the bike.

I am a five-foot-nuthin 51-yr-old woman. I’m no athlete, and I’m also no masochist. I’m a lazyass. I ride my bike because its fun and because it is easier than walking. Easier?! Yes. Riding a bike is actually supposed to be easy. And here’s another shocker: it’s not supposed to hurt. Read the rest of this entry »

My heart is with the starfish

June 29th, 2014

galiano-island-purple-starfishThis is a hard post to write. The starfish are dying. Don’t panic: it is true.

The starfish are dying, right here on pristine Cortes Island. They shrivel and wither, their arms fall off, and then they are dead. They do not leave behind pretty exoskeletons to pick up on the beach and take home as vacation souvenirs. They collapse into bleached and rotting blobs, and then the surf comes and washes them away. There is no dignity in their death. Read the rest of this entry »

Beating Resistance

June 25th, 2014

wallI am locked in a fight with Resistance. She’s been kicking my ass for a while. Resistance lobs grenades at me, mortar shells, spit balls, and mean names. She shows up at my door every evening with a bottle of cheap wine and a stink bomb, hidden in bunch of fake roses. Every day she says: not here. Not now. Not you.

Resistance tells me to relax. Watch a movie. Smoke some weed. Take a day off, take a load off, take a vacation. Take a life off. Resistance whispers in my ear that I am not quite ready to do my life’s Work. Who are you, she says sarcastically, to do this? When I get riled she says hey, hey, don’t take it so personal. You can start your life’s work…tomorrow. Or the next day—I hear the weather’s supposed to be good on Thursday. Or maybe, the day after that. Read the rest of this entry »

Feeling in dreams

June 17th, 2014

fantasies__a_frank_n_furter_fanfic__ch_2_by_mistresstara-d57e4gl.pngBetween the madness of early morning birdsong, the braying of neighbor’s donkeys and peacocks, the pink-gold sunrise streaming through the forest into my bus, and the intermittent hot flashes where I wake all sweaty, mop down get chilly bundle up and go back to sleep — odd and intense dreams keep me entertained. Sleeping in my bus in the forest, my nights are busy.

Roshi Joan said, pay close attention to dreams. Not the content so much. Don’t worry about symbolism or story line. But pay very close attention to what you feel in your dreams. What you feel, and how you respond to that feeling, is the core of the dream and the stuff to bring back to waking life.

I usually don’t bore people by relating my dreams – an activity second only in tedium to detailed descriptions of acid trips — but this one was such a rocker I just gotta. Check it out: Read the rest of this entry »

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