Wednesday, February 27, 2008

It's OK to Be Happy

As I've mentioned before, I'm currently reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Right now I'm in the Eat/Pleasure/Italy section of the book, and the following paragraph in Chapter 21 really struck me, for multiple reasons:

"I walked home to my apartment and soft-boiled a pair of fresh brown eggs for my lunch. I peeled the eggs and arranged them on a plate beside the seven stalks of the asparagus (which were so slim and snappy they didn't need to be cooked at all). I put some olives on the plate, too, and the four knobs of goat cheese I'd picked up yesterday from the formaggeria down the street, and two slices of pink, oily salmon. For dessert - a lovely peach, which the woman at the market had given to me for free and which was still warm from the Roman sunlight. For the longest time I couldn't even touch this food because it was such a masterpiece of lunch, a true expression of the art of making something out of nothing. Finally, when I had fully absorbed the prettiness of my meal, I went and sat in a patch of sunbeam on my wooden floor and ate every bite of it, with my fingers, while reading my daily newspaper in Italian. Happiness inhabited my every molecule."

This paragraph was part of a discussion of how to experience pleasure without feeling guilt. Gilbert talks about how much Americans seem to struggle with enjoying simple pleasures and how hard we work (and seem to enjoy working). Once she's in Italy, however, they think it's perfectly acceptable (and good!) to take time in your life to do nothing but experience pleasure! She still has to fight her ingrained guilt about being self-indulgent, but Italians certainly help with that fight. She discovered a market near where she was staying in Rome, bought some asparagus from a woman and her son, and the above paragraph followed.

I, and I'm sure many of you, can sympathize with the concept of feeling guilt over being too self-indulgent. But once you are able to figure out that seeking pleasure and being a productive member of society are not mutually exclusive, you can do some of those self-indulgent things that make you happy AND productive in your life. At least, that's what I try to tell myself.

I love the idea of "making something out of nothing." The lunch sounds like such a simple assortment of things you might have sitting in your cupboards, but the sum is greater than its parts. What a great way to go through life - taking the ingredients, parts, qualities you have access to and turning them into something more!

This paragraph also paralleled an incident early in my first year of college. I was feeling that strong sense of "existing in a bubble" that comes with living in a dorm on campus. One Sunday, my roommates were both gone, so I took the opportunity to get out of the bubble and do something on my own. It was a very small thing, and it will probably sound very silly, but to someone in my position, what I did made a big difference. I walked to the nearest Subway to get myself a sandwich, bought a Sunday newspaper at one of those little stands on the street, took it all back to my dorm room, and dug in. Sprawled across the floor, I think I read every word in that newspaper because I was so starved for information outside of campus (this was before I had internet access - my computer ran Windows 3.x). I enjoyed that sandwich that I bought BY MYSELF (remember - this was at a time when none of us did anything by ourselves - you had to do everything with SOMEbody to BE somebody). It was quite liberating - being OK with the idea of doing something without my roommates.

So if you've been kind enough to read this whole thing, you can see why that paragraph struck me. Eat, Pray, Love has been excellent so far. I don't identify with Gilbert in many ways, but I identify with many of her questions and desires. I'm not the adventurous, gregarious person that she is (I'm much more like her sister), so I will happily experience the journey through her eyes.


Anonymous said...

Too true. You really figure this out when you don't have a job. It's easy to get stuck in a rut and sometimes you need outside forces to jolt you into reality, or fantasy, whichever gets you moving forward.

Astarte's Student said...

Yep - being forced into free time certainly means that you have to make a decision on how to use that free time. It's great though when you allow yourself be open to those (positive) outside forces.

NY Spender said...

Life in Italy is definitely different than in the States. A lot more importance is given to social life and simple pleasures... a lifestyle I believe closer to the real nature of men.
Born and raised in Italy, but living in the States for many years now, I know that I can go back to that way of life as soon as I step out of the plane in Italy, but it's really hard to be like that here in NY.

astarte's student said...

NY - it sounds like that saying about working to live vs living to work. It Italy, you work to live, while in the US, you live to work. Does that sound like a reasonable generalization? ;)

This could even go back to a discussion I was having with someone on My Inner French Girl about how often we ask someone 'so what do you do?' in social situations. If your job is your passion or life's work, more power to you, but we shouldn't have to define ourselves by what job we do, rather by how we live our lives.

Anonymous said...

This book is lovely and the quote you chose made me that much more envious.

Astarte's Student said...

F of T - I agree! I can't wait to hear what else you think of the book. Richard from Texas (in the India section) is a very entertaining person. :)