Self Expression Magazine

Elizabeth Gilbert: The Coffee Can Revolution

Posted on the 20 April 2015 by Asoloaffair @a_solo_affair

Author Elizabeth Gilbert, best know for her blockbuster memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, is one of my all-time favourites. Sincere and always thought-provoking, Gilbert's books, inspirational writings and talks (remember this awesome TEDTalk?) have a wealth of insight that seem to stir up an energetic sense of optimism within her readers and listeners - including myself.

After Eat, Pray, Love was published woman everywhere wanted Gilbert to explain just how realistic she thought it was for a woman with a life and real responsibilities to drop it all like a sack of soiled laundry so she can travel around the world on a quest to heal her broken heart.

And for years Gilbert didn't have a good enough answer. But she did gain some insight after hearing the story of a 28-year-old mother of 5 whose husband left for work one day and never returned. The post entitled, The Coffee Can Revolution, was shared by Gilbert to her Facebook followers over the weekend and it was just too good that I had to pass it along to all of you.

enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!


Dear Ones -

This is a story I've never told on this page before, though I told it last year on stage on the Oprah tour, and also told an abbreviated version of it once on Super Soul Sunday..

But today feels like the day to tell the whole tale.

Here's the back story:

For years after EAT PRAY LOVE was published, I would constantly get asked this question: "What do you have to say to women who would love to run away and travel the world like you did, but who could never possibly afford it?"

Sometimes that question was asked with real curiosity, sometimes it was asked with deep urgency, and sometimes it was asked with open hostility. (It's amazing how the same words - asked in a different tone of voice - can shape the intent behind a simple question.)

It was always tricky for me to answer this. For one thing, I always felt compelled to remind people that I never claimed that EAT PRAY LOVE was a universal prescription. Running away for a year and traveling was something I did, for my own personal reasons, but I never claimed it was something everyone must do (or could do) and I wasn't holding my life's example up as a pattern that anybody else had to follow.

I also didn't want to pretend that it's easy for people to just leave thier obligations behind and run away - or even that's always responsible...after all, people have all sorts of financial obstacles and family contracts and work commitments (and women, most of all, usually have all three) and I would never want to carelessly dismiss the realities or difficulties of anyone's life.

Because the reality is: Not everyone CAN go travel around the world for a year...right?

Because people have responsibilities...right?

As for me, I was just enormously lucky to get my EAT PRAY LOVE journey...right?

(And believe me, I have always felt enormously lucky.)

So I would just stammer and talk around that question...but my answers never much satisfied me, and they didn't seem to satisfy anyone else, either.

But then one day a woman at a bookstore in Washington DC approached me after a reading, and told me a story that changed forever the way I answered that question.

It's a story that I've never forgotten, because I found it so stirring, so incredible.

The story this woman told me was about her mother. Her mother had been raised in the 1950s in a traditional, conservative Irish-Catholic family, in a small blue-collar industrial city. At the age of 18, she had done exactly what her mother had done before her, and her grandmothers before that, and all the women in her family since time immemorial: She had gotten married, and started having babies.

In short succession, she had five children. And when the oldest child was ten, and the youngest was three months old, this woman's husband left her. He went to work one day and never came back. They never heard from him again. And so this young wife - now 28 years old, with five young children, and nothing but a high school education - was suddenly left alone to take care of her family. And she did it. I have no idea how she did it, but she did it. She worked ferociously hard, and managed to keep everyone fed and clothed and housed and educated. That alone makes her a hero, as far as I'm concerned.

But she did something else, too - and that's why I'm telling her story today. The very week that her husband left her - the very day she realized that he was never coming home again - of course she did hang her head and cry for a while...who wouldn't? But then she mobilized her courage and her dignity, and she made a sacred commitment to herself.

She promised herself that this would NOT BE WHAT HER LIFE WOULD ALWAYS LOOK LIKE - this much poverty, this much hardship, this much stress and sacrifice. Specifically, she made a promise to herself that someday - whatever it took - she was going to see the world.

Then she got an old coffee can and hid it in the back of her closet, where the children couldn't find it. And beginning that very week (the worst and lowest and most humiliating week of her life) she started a practice of putting one dollar every day into the coffee can, saving for her dream of traveling the world.

Just one dollar.

Every. Single. Day.

Her reasoning was this: she and her children were always broke, always desperate, always in a state of financial emergency. But there was never a day when one single dollar bill was going to make or break the fortunes of this family. So every day, she peeled off one dollar bill for herself, and put it in the coffee can. (And you know that dollar was not always easy to find. But she found it.) When that can was full, she started another....and....another and another.

And once those dollars went in the coffee can, she could never again take them out - that was the rule. No matter what the emergency, that money could never be touched. (And you have to figure - five kids? That household was probably facing nothing BUT emergencies!) But she never touched that money. Because those hidden coffee cans were hers, and only hers.

It took almost 20 years. Almost 20 years before all the children were grown and educated and the last of them left the house. She had safely escorted them all into adulthood and now she was alone for the first time in her life. That's when she cashed in the coffee cans. She took the money and bought herself ticket on a cargo ship sailing around the world.


The cargo ship would sail into a new port every few weeks and she would get off the boat for a few days to explore...and that's how she saw the world.

(Another great detail: The captain and crew of the ship were Polish, and she was the only paying passenger aboard. She had done her research and determined that cargo ship travel was the cheapest way to go, and so she had written some letters to cargo ship companies, and the captain of this ship was so touched by her story that he invited her on the ship at a steep discount...and every night, he and the ship's crew got dressed up to eat dinner with this woman, whom they treated with extreme old world courtesy, as though she was royalty - the honored guest - which, of course, she was. AND she learned to speak Polish. Which is awesome.)

What I find amazing about this story is that this woman's adult children - including the one who told me the story - were absolutely astonished when their mother suddenly took off like this. They never saw it coming. For one thing, they never knew she had the money - which is understandable, because she kept it hidden from them all those years - but more than that, THEY NEVER KNEW SHE HAD THE DREAM.

They never saw their mother as anything other than the caregiver, the nurturer, the womb, the life source. They never imagined that she wanted anything whatsoever out of life except to serve her children. And she did want to serve them, without a doubt - and she served them beautifully. She was a great mother, and she took that responsibility seriously.

But being a responsible mother was not all she was. There was something else within her - a longing, a hunger, a voice that was calling her to her own quest, her own destiny. And she never gave up on that, no matter how long it took.

She answered her own call.
I also think it's funny (and very human) that while she was out there at sea, finally, sailing around the world all alone on her great heroic journey, back at home all her friends and neighbors were saying, "Man, she's so lucky. I wish I had her life..."

But we know better, right?

Luck had nothing to do with that story.

That woman WROTE her own story, and she wrote it with her own hand. Patiently. Stubbornly.

I also like to think about how - for those difficult two decades in which she raised her five kids all alone - putting that one dollar into that coffee can every day must have felt so empowering. It was a thin lifeline to some other part of herself - some part of herself she never gave up on.

Maybe putting that one dollar a day in that coffee can was the one thing that kept her from falling into despair.

I have never forgotten that story, and I never will. And now I tell that story whenever people ask me, "What do you have to say to women who would love to run away and travel the world but could never afford it?"

Because it speaks to the power of patience and possibility.

Because if she could do it, maybe anybody can do it?

Because there's hardly a bigger obstacle than being an impoverished, undereducated, abandoned mother of five children...right?

What that story taught me is this - that you may indeed be longing for a journey that is impossible today....but that doesn't mean the journey will never be yours. If you are willing take the long view, perhaps you can make anything happen.

You just have to get your own coffee can going...whatever that means to you.

But in order for the coffee can revolution to work, you need to have a dream.

You need to give that dream a name.

You need to believe that you are entitled to full ownership of that dream.

You need to lay claim to that dream with every muscle and fiber of your being, and never let go of it.

And then you put your first dollar bill into that coffee can today, and you dig in for the long haul...however long it takes...and you wait for the day when the whole world will be yours.

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