Having spent close to three months in Rome, Liz Gilbert comes to a useful if sobering conclusion: the Eternal City is lovely, but not hers to live in. Unable to put her finger on why, her Italian friend Giulio offers a curious theory:

“Maybe you and Rome just have different words.”

“What do you mean?”

He said, “Don’t you know that the secret to understanding a city and its people is to learn — what is the word of the street?”

Then he went on to explain, in a mixture of English, Italian and hand gestures, that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. If you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought. Whatever that majority thought might be — that is the word of the city. And if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you don’t really belong there.

The two then debate the words of various cities. Giulio is convinced that Rome’s word is ‘sex,’ which would explain Liz’s out-of-place-ness — she’d decided she wouldn’t have any while she was there. The Vatican’s word is ‘power,’ he says, and in Naples, it’s ‘fight.’ Meanwhile, Liz suggests the word of New York City is ‘achieve,’ which is similar, albeit different, to Los Angeles’s ‘succeed,’ while her friend from Stockholm claims the word there is ‘conform.’

But then Giulio asks Liz the next-most-obvious, yet really difficult question:

“What’s your word?”

Several weeks later, she’s still at a loss for an answer. But pondering this question has led her to an interesting point: our word keeps changing.

I know some words that it definitely isn’t. It’s not MARRIAGE, that’s evident. It’s not FAMILY (though this was the word of the town I’d lived in for a few years with my husband, and since I did not fit with that word, this was a big cause of my suffering). It’s not DEPRESSION anymore, thank heavens. I’m not concerned that I share Stockholm’s word of CONFORM. But I don’t feel that I’m entirely inhabiting New York City’s ACHIEVE anymore, either, though that had indeed been my word all throughout my twenties. My word might be SEEK. (Then again, let’s be honest — it might just as easily be HIDE.) Over the last months in Italy, my word has largely been PLEASURE, but that word doesn’t match every single part of me, or I wouldn’t be so eager to get myself to India. My word might be DEVOTION, though this makes me sound like more of a goody-goody than I am and doesn’t take into account how much wine I’ve been drinking.

I don’t know the answer, and I suppose that’s what this year of journeying is about. Finding my word. But one thing I can say with all assurance — it ain’t SEX.

I’m not done reading Eat, Pray, Love, so I can’t tell you how Liz’s story ends. But I do know this one thing: you have a word too and it’s dominating your thoughts right now. A hidden theme, subtly exerting its influence on your every move. Which makes the next-most-obvious, yet also difficult question:

What’s the word that defines your life right now?

Is it ‘work?’ ‘Money?’ ‘Retire?’ ‘Health?’ ‘Fame?’ For most of my childhood, my word was ‘carefree.’ My high school town’s was ‘frustrated.’ I guess that’s why I had to leave. My first two years of college it was ‘struggle,’ and when I lived abroad it was ‘question’ — both the verb and the noun.

What I only discovered recently — and what I’m not sure Liz knew by the time she told this story in her book — is that our word is something we get to pick.

Today, I try to be deliberate in setting my themes, and while it gives me an anchor I can return to, it doesn’t always mean they define me the way I’d want them to. Life is complex and we’re not mere characters in a book. We all strive to be the architects of our lives but, often, we end up being pulled by our environment like puppets on a string. Severing this string and taking back control means knowing what it’s made of. After all, you can’t cut a copper wire with a pair of scissors. That’s why our words slowly transform with time and why I find looking for this unconscious, common thread so valuable.

Maybe, your city’s word has gotten the best of you. Maybe, your friends have drifted into ‘indulgence,’ ‘superiority,’ or ‘rut,’ and you slid along with them. Maybe your age is yelling ‘marriage’ or ‘baby’ or ‘loneliness,’ but it’s the opposite of what you want and need. Learning to see this requires time, compassion, and a lot of self-reflection.

In any case, the word of your life quickly becomes your life if you let it. But, like the city you live in, the people you hang out with, or your relationship status, it’s a variable you can choose. You just have to remember to do it.

It might take a while to find and even longer to sink in, but at least you won’t roam the streets of your town, wondering why you don’t belong. Speaking of streets, they say all roads lead to Rome. I guess in this case, it’s a reminder to make this effort. To choose the words of our lives deliberately.

For as long as we do that, we’ll feel at home wherever we go. We’ll always belong to ourselves.

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