In this exclusive extract from ‘Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It’, a new anthology that brings together the stories of those whose lives were changed by Elizabeth Gilbert’s global phenomenon ‘Eat Pray Love’, author Jan Haag reflects on how the quest to scatter her husband’s ashes sparked an unprecedented journey of an entirely different kind.
Read Elizabeth Gilbert’s exclusive reflections on a decade of her memoir here.
“Remember what our Guru says—be a scientist of your own spiritual experience. You’re not here as a tourist or a journalist; you’re here as a seeker. So explore it.”
Richard from Texas, Eat Pray Love
My husband, a newspaper photographer, died sitting in a massive Arts and Crafts–style oak chair he’d made in our garage. His sister, a costumer for a major film-maker, helped him sew the leather cushions on her industrial machine. A community college journalism instructor and newspaper adviser, I was in my office at school when I got the call from the coroner’s office. That day I learned that coroners don’t call you to wish you a good day and, long before the tears came, that my universe had toppled in on itself.
It was a complicated marriage; aren’t they all? By the time he died, seventeen years into it, we were living in different towns, though we saw each other on weekends. Most of his coworkers thought he was divorced. We weren’t. We still owned a house together, shared a dog. We loved each other; we were family and stayed that way. He was forty-eight years old; I was forty-two.
“I spent the next few years taking bits of his ashes in plastic film containers to places he’d loved, to places he’d wanted to go, to places I wanted to go.”
I deposited them quietly, illegally, in water, in earth, in the mulchy detritus of autumn leaves, in snow and once, as close as I could get to slowly creeping lava on a big island in the middle of the sea. I stood and watched as Madame Pele gently surrounded him with thick, steaming fingers, then oozed over him, making him part of her.
I came to think of him as my companion spirit, always with me. Sometimes I’d walk in the house and smell him, and I’d say what he used to say when he heard my voice on the phone: There you are.
In that moment a novel was born.
The next summer I went back with my new partner and his camera. We flew in on a float plane, landed on the saltchuck (a mixture of fresh and salt water) and explored the town, which smelled like pines and the sea. We learned about its history as a once-thriving mill town that housed five thousand people at its peak, now mostly empty, the old paper and pulp mill a hull of its former self. It rained for all five days we were there; Ocean Falls turned out to be the wettest spot in western Canada.
“I came home with lots of notes and interviews, with characters and the story of a town the government attempted to bulldoze and burn down before its remaining residents got the destruction stopped. Then I stopped, too. Intimidated, terrified of what lay before me.”
The responsibility I had taken on to tell this story—which no one had asked me to tell, no one had offered to publish—overwhelmed me. Until Eat Pray Love showed up. I, like millions of others, fell in love from the first pages, with Liz Gilbert’s voice and her story. It wasn’t my story exactly, but it was a good one, the very best kind. Immediately I grabbed a pencil and started underlining, because she was talking to me. Richard from Texas was talking to me, too, when he said: ‘Someday you’re gonna look back on this moment of your life as such a sweet time of grieving. You’ll see that you were in mourning and your heart was broken, but your life was changing.’
I realised then that my heart was still broken from the loss of my husband; that all our hearts get broken in the process of these messy, imperfectly perfect lives. But I also knew how grateful I was for the circumstances that led to that heartbreak—for the huge, love-filled, life-changing events that made me, well, me. As Felipe tells Liz in the book: ‘This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something.’
And I knew that was true, too. That I had walked imperfectly through a marriage, that I was, as Liz learned from the Bhagavad Gita, living this life in my own awkward, stumbling way. I had tried. I was still trying.
So I opened my heart to the voices inside, went back to Ocean Falls two more times, did more research, more interviews. I found myself ready to put on the page stories of trees and a town surrounded by mountains and water, inaccessible by road, a small place with people who lived and loved and died. I was helped in this by a writer who didn’t know me, but whom I felt somehow I knew, who chronicled her journey to reclaim her heart by traveling to Italy, India and Indonesia. Her book had helped me to reclaim my heart, too.
She’d helped me to find the confidence to write three drafts of a historical novel, though I didn’t have a publisher waiting for it. Because it was a story I wanted to tell. It showed up on the page, under my typing fingers: There you are.
It took me years to write. It found an agent who loved it. It’s had more than two dozen rejections, but we keep trying. I’ve revised it more than once, each time grateful for the chance to create another version of it. Which, as Eat Pray Love reminded me, we do every day, creating anew with, if we are lucky, big love and thankfulness and surprises—lots and lots of surprises.
I look upon this process as a great adventure. I have tried for something. The writing, the research, the travel to this out-of-the-way place has changed me. My broken heart has healed, even though you can still see the cracks if you look closely. My companion spirit has been joined by others, some of them fictional, all of them alive within me. I am ready to be delighted by what comes next.
Extract taken from Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir, published by Bloomsbury, $18.99, out now