READ: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

I stayed up late the other night finishing “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert because I wanted to see how it all turned out. “I want to see how everything is going to turn out” is the signature phrase of my Great-Aunt Nancy, and it fits her to a tee. Her curiosity has played a strong part in keeping her alive, and sharp, into her 90’s. The main character in “The Signature of All Things,” Alma Whitaker, has that same inquisitive trait (she reminds me in many ways of my Great-Aunt Nanc) and the story of her life makes for a fantastic read. I loved this book. It is an essential read.

I learned a lot while I read “The Signature of All Things,” but I didn’t realize it until I finished because I became so lost in the narrative. Gilbert masterfully provides her readers with science and history lessons, all seen through the eyes of Alma, one of the most fully developed characters I have encountered. Curiosity and a thirst for knowledge sustains us. Gilbert’s narrative demonstrates that searching for answers, asking questions, and looking for meaning are all human traits that are absolute gifts (most of the time).

The Signature of All Things

Alma Whitaker is born in 1800 into a privileged life on an estate in Pennsylvania. Her father and mother have high expectations for Alma’s behavior and attitude, so every moment of the day is filled up with opportunities for her to learn and experiment. The house she grows up in has a steady stream of esteemed visitors, who must be interesting, articulate, and intelligent to meet the intellectual demands of Alma’s father. One of my favorites scenes in the book occurs when an astronomer creates a solar system at a party held outdoors. I don’t want to spoil the scene for people who haven’t read it so I won’t describe it in detail, but at one point Alma becomes a comet. Gilbert writes:

Astonishingly, at some point, a sputtering torch was thrust into her hands. Alma did not see who gave it to her. She had never before been entrusted with fire. The torch spit sparked and sent chunks of flaming tar spinning into the air behind her as she bolted across the cosmos-the only body in the heavens who was not held to a strict elliptical path.

Nobody stopped her.

She was a comet.

She did not know that she was not flying.

Her knowledge gives her confidence, and one of the characters tells her that “The entirety of your being is reassuring, Alma.” As a woman in the 19th century her opportunities were limited, but she makes the best of her circumstances and eventually her life leads her to places and to people she would never have imagined. Alma does not have a perfect life, but it is a full, meaningful life. Really, what more can we ask for?

More than anything Alma likes to study and theorize. She devises theories of time and thinks of them in four groups: Human Time, Geological Time, Divine Time, Moss Time. Alma thinks, “The most striking characteristic of Human Time, however, is that it moved with such amazing quickness. It was a snap of the finger across the universe…She was a mere blink of existence, as was everyone else.” Her descriptions of all the Times are beautiful and thought-provoking.

My favorite line of the book, which brought tears to my eyes because I thought of my Great-Aunt Nanc, is when Gilbert writes that Alma, “…still wanted to see what happened next, as much as ever.” Because we all live in Human Time, as Alma would say, we don’t get to see what happens next. We need to make the most of the time we have.

Aunt Nancy when she was about 85. She had just made us pull over when we were driving so she could look at plants growing on the side of the road.
Aunt Nancy at about 85 years old. She had just made us pull over when we were driving so she could look at plants growing on the side of the road.

LIFE: Meditation

I am on Day 5 of the Oprah and Deepak 21-Day Meditation Experience. I encourage anyone reading this to join in on this free three-week series. It is the third time I have participated and it is a great way to experience the benefits of meditation. The theme of this three week journey is Desire and Destiny, finding your passion and purpose.

I understand that time is a luxury, but it is crucial to find time for things that improve our well-being. Depending on the day, I’ll meditate in the morning or on my lunch hour. I prefer to do it first thing in the morning and begin with a cup of coffee as I listen to Oprah and Deepak introduce the meditation. Each session is about 8 minutes of them talking about desire and destiny, and then 10 minutes of meditating. This morning Oprah reminded listeners to “Pursue the moments that light us up.”

Birch trees in Upper Michigan
Birch trees in Upper Michigan

Mantras and visualization help me when I meditate. A mantra is a phrase that is repeated in our mind to help us relax and concentrate. Deepak gives a different mantra each day of the 21-Day Meditation Experience. If I forget his mantra while I am meditating, I start to use my favorite mantra, which is Om Shanti. To begin the meditation I picture myself at places that I love, like on my Aunt Nanc’s porch in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula listening as the wind goes through the trees. When I start thinking about things I have to do I re-direct my focus to the mantra and to a place where I am calm.

Some days are harder than others to meditate. I try really hard not to judge myself and to keep doing it. You can’t do meditation right or wrong, you just need to do it. I find that I am a more considerate and aware person on days when I meditate, and that is why I do it. I know this sounds new-agey, weird, hippyish…but it works for me and I wish more people would do it every day.

Like a lot of women my age, Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” was a life-changing book for me. It came to me in 2006, at just the right point in my life, and I feel like it helped me through a lot of things I was working on. (A few years ago, I was at a talk by one of my heroes,  Bill McKibben, and he said, “The Holy Spirit is the one that puts one book in your hand instead of another one.” I know that is true. Books always seem to enter my life at just the right moment – I plan on writing lots more about that in this blog.) Italy (Eat), India (Pray), and Indonesia (Love) are all a part of Gilbert’s journey; the India section spoke the loudest to me because of her descriptions of her meditation experiences.

She writes, “Why have I been chasing happiness my whole life when bliss was here the entire time.” She describes all of the frustrations that came up while she was practicing meditation at an Ashram in India, more importantly she talks about what the meditation does for her spirit. Gilbert writes, “The Yogic path is about disentangling the built-in glitches of the human condition, which I’m going to over-simplify define here as the heartbreaking inability to sustain contentment.”

If you have not read “Eat, Pray, Love” I think you should. It is an ESSENTIAL read. Also, it is not to late to join the Oprah and Deepak 21-Day Meditation Experience. You can still start at Day 1.