Eat, Pray, Poly: Non-Monogamy On the Road

On the evening of my 28th birthday, I was sprawled on the bed in a tiny hotel on the Greek island of Crete, soaking up the cool air being pumped out by the little Japanese air conditioner mounted on the wall.  My place back in Athens had no climate control, and just the day prior it hit 106 degrees with sauna-like humidity.  Just to be able to spend 2 minutes without sweat dripping down the small of my back was sweet relief.  

Being in a time zone 10 hours behind, my friends and family back in the States were just starting to wake up, and the birthday text messages and Facebook notifications were rolling in.  A text message from my best friend from high school popped up:

Happy birthday lil sizzlie! I hope you are spending it eating praying and loving! Xoxo

It took me half a second to catch on, and then my rusty pop culture databases whirred to life.  Ah yes, Eat, Pray, Love, the breakout hit from author Elizabeth Gilbert.  Back when it landed in 2006, I’m pretty sure every woman I saw was reading it, which naturally set off my inner-hipster-anti-conformist alarm bells.  I resolutely avoided the book, gaining only a vague understanding (mostly through osmosis) that it had to do with a woman traveling alone to….somewhere.

Fast forward to 2015, and here I am traveling.  Alone. Somewhere.  My friend’s message inspired me to give Eat, Pray, Love a shot.  I’d recently been very inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on inspiration and genius; her viewpoint of placing the source of both creativity and failure outside of yourself is an excellent psychological trick that has helped my own writing process immensely.  Maybe I could quiet the inner-hipster-anti-conformist alarm bell by just watching the movie version in the privacy of my hotel room.

Two and a half hours later, and I was an odd mixture of inspired and incensed. (...Inspensed?)  I, too, am in the middle of a long-term vision quest.  I am also eating rich and exotic dishes, praying and lighting candles in all the old Orthodox churches, and loving whichever local Tinder matches can hold a conversation that isn’t about hooking up.  I am also nursing the wounds and picking over the memories of a recently-ended relationship.  I could relate, but I was also revolted.  The IHAC alarm bell wasn’t happy.  

But a deep impression was made nonetheless, and the gears have been turning ever since.  Did I get rid of my stuff in LA and run off to become a nomad all because of some subconsciously-planted idea?  Did I just watch Under the Tuscan Sun too many times as a teenager?  (My high school boyfriend was obsessed with that movie, for some reason.  I still have yet to solve that mystery.)  I threw myself into this absurd adventure, but did I do it because deep down I think it will all get resolved nice and neatly, Hollywood-style, with a feel-good ending and a new hot guy?

Don’t get me wrong. If Javier Bardem wearing reading glasses saunters into my life, I am not going to kick him out of bed, literally or figuratively. 

                                                                                                                            Yes. Please.

                                                               Yes. Please.

Señor Bardem aside, I’m intrigued by the emerging trope that I’m apparently now a part of.  Privileged white woman has her heart broken, flees to foreign country, takes part in a few unnecessarily long eating montages, finally learns to love herself and move on, then lands in the lap of tall, dark, and handsome.  Roll credits.  Is this just what happens to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl after she’s grown up and gone through her first divorce?  Is the Pokemon-style evolution of the MPDG: the Whiny Wandering Woman?

Notice that I mentioned privilege.  Conveniently, money is never really mentioned in these stories, and in Elizabeth Gilbert’s case, it definitely wasn’t an object.  Her publishing company’s advance of $200,000 fueled her trip around the globe.  And here I am submitting silly book proposals about polyamory!  In 2010 Bitch magazine published a scathing article entitled Eat, Pray, Spend: Priv-Lit and the New, Enlightened American Dream.  The concept of priv-lit is pretty self-explanatory: literature or media focused on the concept of attaining happiness and enlightenment through dedication, self-acceptance, and patience, but with an unspoken heaping dose of consumerism and socio-economic privilege.

I don’t have a publishing company financially backing me (yet!), and I don’t even make enough to be considered part of the American middle class.  However, the fact that I could even make the choice to leave everything behind and travel the world is completely the product of the socio-economic privileges that I have enjoyed my entire life.  With no dependents, a wide safety net of family and friends, and a lifetime of good education, I have a whole world of opportunities that others do not.  

That being said, I find the Bitch article, and several other Internet critics, to be a little too harsh.  Enlightenment is enlightenment; inner peace is inner peace.  It’s worth arriving there by whatever means you can muster.  For some it could be hallucinogenic drugs, hours of meditation, church every Sunday, or living in a Tibetan cave.  For me at this moment, it’s travel.  If I couldn’t afford to travel, it would be something else.

But putting the quest for personal Nirvana aside, I’m also fascinated by the way that relationships fit into the story of the Whiny Wandering Woman.The WWW tales highly revolve around the fetishization of The One.  The relationship that ends at the beginning of the movie clearly was Not The One, though our protagonist may have thought that he was at one point.  Once the WWW has endured trials and tribulations and attained the right amount of personal growth, then The Actual One shows up.

While I’ve never believed in The One (obviously), I can all-too-readily relate to escaping the pain of a failed 3-year relationship.  On the podcast we frequently admonish the practice of meriting the success or failure of relationships based solely on their length.  In this case though, there was just a lot of fail.  He didn’t fit into the role of Not The One, but ironically I would have considered him one of my soulmates by Elizabeth Gilbert’s own definition of the term.  

Much like the WWW, my days are punctuated with memories from that relationship, frequently uninvited.  In the process of mentally and emotionally organizing and packing up the detritus of the last three years, the good and the bad come bubbling up to the surface.  Cue camera push in to the heroine’s faraway look, cut to flashback scene.  

And yet, my psyche isn’t entirely absorbed with trudging through the grieving process.  My heart is also enlivened by maintaining connections with my partners at home, continuing to build those relationships in a positive, healthy way, even with the long distance.  I also get the pleasure of going on dates, meeting new people, and getting to talk about those experiences with my partners. On any given morning I might wake up simultaneously feeling crushed by unhappy dreams about my ex, as well as giddy about an upcoming Skype date with my paramour, and also excited about going on a first date later.  The seemingly contradictory emotional experience is both fascinating and disorienting.

This strange mix can actually be quite common amongst non-monogamous folk, considering that each relationship will always have a different rhythm of ups and downs.  In the WWW stories, our protagonist experiences this spectrum of feeling, but on a linear timeline.  Experiencing these sensations in concert is akin to being pulled in two opposite directions on my worst days.  On my best days, however, it feels like an awe-inspiring expansion.  My emotional borders irreversibly stretch beyond their former capacity -- painful and releasing, frightening and relaxing -- and ultimately leaving behind an inner space that was larger than what was there before.  

Unlike the WWW, I’m not on a quest to heal my emotional wounds with a new-found lover.  I’m eternally grateful to already have an abundance of that love in my life.  I don't have a heady desperation to find my next great love, which allows me to organically enjoy my dating experiences, free of expectations.  Instead, my healing process is marked by a re-acquaintance. In only 4 and a half weeks of travel, I’ve rediscovered a person that I haven’t seen for the last 3 years. Someone who is smart, self-reliant, confident, attractive, and riding a runaway streak of creativity.  In essence, I’ve already fallen into the lap of tall, dark, and handsome, and found it to be myself.  And I am just as intoxicated and love-stricken, even though I’m average height, pale, and a part-time model.  

So is my own wanderlust movie already at the end?  Not quite. I still have a few months of travel ahead, possibly longer.  I’m sure I’ve got enough eating, praying, and loving ahead of me to make a long-running epic fantasy television series.  By stepping away from my familiar surroundings and past grudges, I found there’s a whole landscape of discovery to be made, regardless of my location.  

Elizabeth Gilbert will probably continue to act as my philosophical frenemy, but I can throw the girl a bone by leaving you with a somewhat sappy yet apropos quote of hers:  

“I've come to believe that there exists in the universe something I call "The Physics of The Quest" — a force of nature governed by laws as real as the laws of gravity or momentum. And the rule of Quest Physics maybe goes like this: "If you are brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting (which can be anything from your house to your bitter old resentments) and set out on a truth-seeking journey (either externally or internally), and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue, and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher, and if you are prepared – most of all – to face (and forgive) some very difficult realities about yourself... then truth will not be withheld from you." Or so I've come to believe.”

Challenge accepted, Liz.