Monday morning spent in company with my mother, who in the gently deepening twilight of her years is afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease. So she totters here and there, her arms and hands waving uncontrollably like a battalion of lobster legs. Each effort to move is now an act of conscious will. My father had gone for a while to attend an exercise class. We had had morning tea of coffee and raisin toast and now, with father gone, we were at leisure to sit on the ramp outside the house in the sunshine overlooking a garden thick with native trees and shrubs.
The weather was mercifully mild as it is after a couple of days of steady rain, being sunny with patches of fluffy clouds still inky and heavy but nonetheless harmless and not bound to cover the sun with for any length of time soon. Mum had brought out an old book she had written of a family holiday in 1973, rich with photos of wildlife, forests we had trailed through, mountains we had climbed and rivers we had boated along. She wanted to know how old my cousin Geoffrey, with his broad shoulders, his mooch and his wild, blond-streaked surfer’s hair had been at that time. She had always had a great love for him, his wit and his imaginative, bizarre and often hilarious drawing and writing. I suppose he had been the son she had never had, having had three daughters.
We saw a couple of Cuckoo Shrikes, elegant birds like large, svelte pigeons with their black faces and grey-blue plumage and Mum heard the call of the Pied Butcher Bird. Currawongs cried their lilting cadence somewhere in the airy space beyond the sight of the houses in the street. This sunny patch of time was a place where nothing in particular needed doing. The rest of the world was going about its business, working and building, always building with some distant sounds of sawing and hammering echoing in the air and just the two of us were left, skylarking sedately on the landing.
I have finished ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ by Elizabeth Gilbert and briefly discussed what bothered me about it with Mum. Mum believes that we are not born with a purpose in life. Maybe she is right, that we are free to just sit and observe the roots of the large, slat-barked cypress tree in front of us hung with festoons of pale grey lichen and to feel that one’s life is not just a means to an end, but an end in itself. Amidst all this chaos of plant life, sunlight and birdsong there is surely plenty of time for whatever purposes one is inclined to, to take root and grow.
We of course could do whatever we wished beyond the necessary chores revolving around the business of keeping ourselves alive. With this capacity for aimless observation and pleasure in the mere fact of existence in mind, why do we need lessons on making the most of life at all?
‘Eat, Pray, Love’ appears to be about the author’s search for some kind of deeper meaning in her life. Elizabeth is a thirty-something, successful writer living in New York, earning the kind of income many people could only dream about, with a mortgage to a lovely house and a husband eager to start a family. Only Elizabeth just isn’t happy. The prospect of a happy marriage and children fills her with dread. In fact she is almost suicidal, crying all the time. Something from deep within her is desperate to make a break, but to what and to where?
I can relate to that feeling of being in the wrong life, of feeling my life unfold before me while I went through it in a state of living death. Only for me, these catastrophic feelings preceded a psychotic breakdown from which I emerged 7 years later, broken, traumatised, but nevertheless determined to get myself a regular job. After years of tormenting delusions, controlling phantoms and voices from nowhere, it was a relief to finally see that a chair and a table was just that and nothing more and that psychiatric counseling and medication could actually help me live the normal life that I wanted.
At that time, running around with fellow pizza-eaters in Italy was far from my mind, as was heading for an ashram in India, or blissing out and falling in love in Bali, which is basically what Gilbert goes ahead and does in the book. This is after her divorce, (which was messy, painful and acrimonious) and a doomed love affair with some arty, yogic man in New York that leaves her apparently more confused and upset than ever.
Much as Gilbert honestly tries to portray the culture of other countries in this book, which has some interesting snippets of information and reflections on things such as the Italian language, a brief history of the Balinese people, or the mystic, labyrinthine beliefs and customs of her Balinese friends, I can’t get away from thinking how much of a tourist she is, whilst seeking to steep herself deep into the by-ways of foreign cultures.
There is a temptation to declaim how these Americans cherry-pick the philosophies, cultures and ways of other people’s lives in foreign countries and treat them like pawns on the chessboard of their easy and affluent existences. But I don’t want to type-cast all American people, especially when it isn’t just the Americans that are doing it.
Hindu and Buddhist mysticism, Yoga and meditation are fruits on trees that entrepreneurs in the New Age wellness industry have been assiduously picking, packaging and purveying for decades now. Gilbert’s profile on how ‘Swamiji’ brought yoga and meditation to a bored, disillusioned, middle-class, white America in the 1970s was one of the first of them. Nowadays there are yoga, meditation and spiritual therapy courses based on supposedly ancient, mystical Eastern practices everywhere all promising to open the yearning, troubled psyche up to a new and enlightened awareness of life. But maybe all these worried but otherwise well people learn from it is a new language for the same old neurosis.
Then there is Gilbert’s relationship with God. I can’t believe she puts so much effort into such an intense and prolonged head trip with this posited deity, when she has more than enough sound New England common sense of her own to use. It’s gob-smacking to me how fortunate people fritter away their perfectly good mental health in silly, borrowed conversations with an imaginary entity.
Sorry, I’m an atheist. Really, if Gilbert wants to go swim in a sea of faith, run head-first over a possible cliff and call it ‘a courageous act of humanity’ then let her do it and good luck to her. But when I read passages like:
“I’m not interested in the (spiritual) insurance industry. I’m tired of being a skeptic, I’m irritated by spiritual prudence and I feel bored and parched by empirical debate. I don’t want to hear it any more. I couldn’t care less about evidence and proof and assurances. I just want God. I want God inside me. I want God to play in my blood-stream the way sunlight amuses itself on water’”
I’m annoyed at such relentlessly navel-gazing guff. Surely just stopping by on a walk to watch sunlight dancing on water is happiness enough. Personally, I never get tired of doing that. Why does the simple appreciation of such a sight have to involve all this intensive (and expensive) labour, guidance and ritual? I wonder why people spend so much more time on this canting, arcane and solipsistic business of spirituality, this fake engagement with a supposed inner self, than they do in discovering the truth and the beauty of the reality that lies outside the human imagination.
The traditional dismissal of the outside world as transient and unimportant, so extolled by mystics everywhere, is especially dangerous for a humanity on the brink of destroying the earth and dealing out the threat of death and extinction to every living thing. Thankfully however, India has its rationalists (http://www.srai.org/science-and-rationalists-association-of-india-humanists-association/) too, fighting to stem a tide of superstition and hidebound ignorance that this author has cut a piece of to take home to America and put into a best-selling book.
Meanwhile tomorrow, I will be taking a walk down to my local wild-life reserve to watch sunlight dancing on water, maybe even see that Pied Butcher bird again, or observe a flock of maned wood-ducks and other things. I will be voting in the up-coming election to protect the environment. You should too.