Now, I'm the kind of person who, when a ninth-generation Indonesian medicine man tells you that you're destined to move to Bali and live with him for four months, thinks you should make every effort to do that. And this, finally, was how my whole idea about this year of traveling began to gel. I absolutely needed to get myself back to Indonesia somehow, on my own dime this time. This was evident. Though I couldn't yet imagine how to do it, given my chaotic and disturbed life. (Not only did I still have a pricey divorce to settle, and David-troubles, I still had a magazine job that prevented me from going anywhere for three or four months at a time.) But I had to get back there. Didn't I? Hadn't he foretold it? Problem was, I also wanted to go to India, to visit my Guru's Ashram, and going to India is an expensive and time-consuming affair, also. To make matters even more confusing, I'd also been dying lately to get over to Italy, so I could practice speaking Italian in context, but also because I was drawn to the idea of living for a while in a culture where pleasure and beauty are revered.
All these desires seemed to be at odds with one another. Especially the Italy/India conflict. What was more important? The part of me that wanted to eat veal in Venice? Or the part of me that wanted to be waking up long before dawn in the austerity of an Ashram to begin a long day of meditation and prayer? The great Sufi poet and philosopher Rumi once advised his students to write down the three things they most wanted in life. If any item on the list clashes with any other item, Rumi warned, you are destined for unhappiness. Better to live a life of single-pointed focus, he taught. But what about the benefits of living harmoniously amid extremes? What if you could somehow create an expansive enough life that you could synchronize seemingly incongruous opposites into a worldview that excludes nothing? My truth was exactly what I'd said to the medicine man in Bali--I wanted to experience both. I wanted worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence--the dual glories of a human life. I wanted what the Greeks called kalos kai agathos, the singular balance of the good and the beautiful. I'd been missing both during these last hard years, because both pleasure and devotion require a stress-free space in which to flourish and I'd been living in a giant trash compactor of nonstop anxiety. As for how to balance the urge for pleasure against the longing for devotion . . . well, surely there was a way to learn that trick. And it seemed to me, just from my short stay in Bali, that I maybe could learn this from the Balinese. Maybe even from the medicine man himself.
Four feet on the ground, a head full of foliage, looking at the world through the heart . . .
So I stopped trying to choose--Italy? India? or Indonesia?--and eventually just admitted that I wanted to travel to all of them. Four months in each place. A year in total. Of course this was a slightly more ambitious dream than "I want to buy myself a new pencil box." But this is what I wanted. And I knew that I wanted to write about it. It wasn't so much that I wanted to thoroughly explore the countries themselves; this has been done. It was more that I wanted to thoroughly explore one aspect of myself set against the backdrop of each country, in a place that has traditionally done that one thing very well. I wanted to explore the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India and, in Indonesia, the art of balancing the two. It was only later, after admitting this dream, that I noticed the happy coincidence that all these countries begin with the letter I. A fairly auspicious sign, it seemed, on a voyage of self-discovery.
Imagine now, if you will, all the opportunities for mockery this idea unleashed in my wise-ass friends. I wanted to go to the Three I's, did I? Then why not spend the year in Iran, Ivory Coast and Iceland? Or even better--why not go on pilgrimage to the Great Tri- State "I" Triumvirate of Islip, I-95 and Ikea? My friend Susan suggested that perhaps I should establish a not-for-profit relief organization called "Divorcees Without Borders." But all this joking was moot because "I" wasn't free to go anywhere yet. That divorce-- long after I'd walked out of my marriage--was still not happening. I'd started having to put legal pressure on my husband, doing dreadful things out of my worst divorce nightmares, like serving papers and writing damning legal accusations (required by New York State law) of his alleged mental cruelty--documents that left no room for subtlety, no way in which to say to the judge: "Hey, listen, it was a really complicated relationship, and I made huge mistakes, too, and I'm very sorry about that, but all I want is to be allowed to leave."
(Here, I pause to offer a prayer for my gentle reader: May you never, ever, have to get a divorce in New York.)
The spring of 2003 brought things to a boiling point. A year and a half after I'd left, my husband was finally ready to discuss terms of a settlement. Yes, he wanted cash and the house and the lease on the Manhattan apartment--everything I'd been offering the whole while. But he was also asking for things I'd never even considered (a stake in the royalties of books I'd written during the marriage, a cut of possible future movie rights to my work, a share of my retirement accounts, etc.) and here I had to voice my protest at last. Months of negotiations ensued between our lawyers, a compromise of sorts inched its way toward the table and it was starting to look like my husband might actually accept a modified deal. It would cost me dearly, but a fight in the courts would be infinitely more expensive and time-consuming, not to mention soul-corroding. If he signed the agreement, all I had to do was pay and walk away. Which would be fine with me at this point. Our relationship now thoroughly ruined, with even civility destroyed between us, all I wanted anymore was the door.
The question was--would he sign? More weeks passed as he contested more details. If he didn't agree to this settlement, we'd have to go to trial. A trial would almost certainly mean that every remaining dime would be lost in legal fees. Worst of all, a trial would mean another year--at least--of all this mess. So whatever my husband decided (and he still was my husband, after all), it was going to determine yet another year of my life. Would I be traveling all alone through Italy, India and Indonesia? Or would I be getting cross-examined somewhere in a courtroom basement during a deposition hearing?
Every day I called my lawyer fourteen times--any news?--and every day she assured me
that she was doing her best, that she would telephone immediately if the deal was signed. The nervousness I felt during this time was something between waiting to be called into the principal's office and anticipating the results of a biopsy. I'd love to report that I
stayed calm and Zen, but I didn't. Several nights, in waves of anger, I beat the life out of my couch with a softball bat. Most of the time I was just achingly depressed.
Meanwhile, David and I had broken up again. This time, it seemed, for good. Or maybe not--we couldn't totally let go of it. Often I was still overcome with a desire to sacrifice everything for the love of him. Other times, I had the quite opposite instinct--to put as many continents and oceans as possible between me and this guy, in the hope of finding peace and happiness.
I had lines in my face now, permanent incisions dug between my eyebrows, from crying and from worry.
And in the middle of all that, a book that I'd written a few years earlier was being published in paperback and I had to go on a small publicity tour. I took my friend Iva with me for company. Iva is my age but grew up in Beirut, Lebanon. Which means that, while I was playing sports and auditioning for musicals in a Connecticut middle school, she was cowering in a bomb shelter five nights out of seven, trying not to die. I'm not sure how all this early exposure to violence created somebody who's so steady now, but Iva is one of the calmest souls I know. Moreover, she's got what I call "The Bat Phone to the Universe," some kind of Iva-only, open-round-the-clock special channel to the divine. So we were driving across Kansas, and I was in my normal state of sweaty disarray over this divorce deal--will he sign, will he not sign?--and I said to Iva, "I don't think I can endure another year in court. I wish I could get some divine intervention here. I wish I could write a petition to God, asking for this thing to end." "So why don't you?"
I explained to Iva my personal opinions about prayer. Namely, that I don't feel comfortable petitioning for specific things from God, because that feels to me like a kind of weakness of faith. I don't like asking, "Will you change this or that thing in my life that's difficult for me?" Because--who knows?--God might want me to be facing that particular challenge for a reason. Instead, I feel more comfortable praying for the courage to face whatever occurs in my life with equanimity, no matter how things turn out.
Iva listened politely, then asked, "Where'd you get that stupid idea?" "What do you mean?"
"Where did you get the idea you aren't allowed to petition the universe with prayer? You are part of this universe, Liz. You're a constituent--you have every entitlement to participate in the actions of the universe, and to let your feelings be known. So put your opinion out there. Make your case. Believe me--it will at least be taken into consideration."
"Really?" All this was news to me.
"Really! Listen--if you were to write a petition to God right now, what would it say?" I thought for a while, then pulled out a notebook and wrote this petition:
Please intervene and help end this divorce. My husband and I have failed at our marriage and now we are failing at our divorce. This poisonous process is bringing suffering to us and to everyone who cares about us.
I recognize that you are busy with wars and tragedies and much larger conflicts than the ongoing dispute of one dysfunctional couple. But it is my understanding that the health of the planet is affected by the health of every individual on it. As long as even two souls are locked in conflict, the whole of the world is contaminated by it. Similarly, if even one or two souls can be free from discord, this will increase the general health of the whole world, the way a few healthy cells in a body can increase the general health of that body.
It is my most humble request, then, that you help us end this conflict, so that two more people can have the chance to become free and healthy, and so there will be just a little bit less animosity and bitterness in a world that is already far too troubled by suffering.
I thank you for your kind attention. Respectfully,
Elizabeth M. Gilbert
I read it to Iva, and she nodded her approval. "I would sign that," she said.
I handed the petition over to her with a pen, but she was too busy driving, so she said, "No, let's say that I did just sign it. I signed it in my heart."
"Thank you, Iva. I appreciate your support." "Now, who else would sign it?" she asked.
"My family. My mother and father. My sister."
"OK," she said. "They just did. Consider their names added. I actually felt them sign it. They're on the list now. OK--who else would sign it? Start naming names."
So I started naming names of all the people who I thought would sign this petition. I named all my close friends, then some family members and some people I worked with. After each name, Iva would say with assurance, "Yep. He just signed it," or "She just signed it." Sometimes she would pop in with her own signatories, like: "My parents just signed it. They raised their children during a war. They hate useless conflict. They'd be happy to see your divorce end."
I closed my eyes and waited for more names to come to me. "I think Bill and Hillary Clinton just signed it," I said.
"I don't doubt it," she said. "Listen, Liz--anybody can sign this petition. Do you understand
that? Call on anyone, living or dead, and start collecting signatures." "Saint Francis of Assisi just signed it!"
"Of course he did!" Iva smacked her hand against the steering wheel with certainty.
Now I was cooking:
"Abraham Lincoln just signed it! And Gandhi, and Mandela and all the peacemakers. Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Teresa, Bono, Jimmy Carter, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson and the Dalai Lama . . . and my grandmother who died in 1984 and my grandmother who's still alive . . . and my Italian teacher, and my therapist, and my agent . . . and Martin Luther King Jr. and Katharine Hepburn . . . and Martin Scorsese (which you wouldn't necessarily expect, but it's still nice of him) . . . and my Guru, of course . . . and Joanne Woodward, and Joan of Arc, and Ms. Carpenter, my fourth-grade teacher, and Jim Henson--"
The names spilled from me. They didn't stop spilling for almost an hour, as we drove across Kansas and my petition for peace stretched into page after invisible page of supporters. Iva kept confirming--yes, he signed it, yes, she signed it--and I became filled with a grand sense of protection, surrounded by the collective goodwill of so many mighty souls.
The list finally wound down, and my anxiety wound down with it. I was sleepy. Iva said, "Take a nap. I'll drive." I closed my eyes. One last name appeared. "Michael J. Fox just signed it," I murmured, then drifted into sleep. I don't know how long I slept, maybe only for ten minutes, but it was deep. When I woke up, Iva was still driving. She was humming a little song to herself. I yawned. My cell phone rang.
I looked at that crazy little telefonino vibrating with excitement in the ashtray of the rental car. I felt disoriented, kind of stoned from my nap, suddenly unable to remember how a telephone works.
"Go ahead," Iva said, already knowing. "Answer the thing." I picked up the phone, whispered hello.
"Great news!" my lawyer announced from distant New York City. "He just signed it!"