I first read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath during my junior year abroad in Paris, in the days before email and internet, when I would spend afternoons and evenings with a hot chocolate or a coffee in a cafe reading. I wrote down this passage into one of my Common Place books:I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 7
I changed famous poet to famous artist, but pretty much all the other things seemed like reasonable and attractive futures, even the Olympic lady crew champion. I decided not to decide and just live my life–hopeful that I wouldn’t starve in my indecision. And in that living, I took more of the track of Europe and Africa and South America with my path being Arizona, San Francisco, the Caribbean, Australia, Europe and the Pacific and on and on, so sort of deciding.
The passage haunted me as the years passed and I saw some figs drying up for me, and I watched some of them plop to the ground. Unsure of how to handle my disappointment–
Now, at 42, some of the figs have definitely dried up and plopped to the ground, for example, it’s unlikely that I will ever be any sort of Olympic champion. Same for the happy home with children. But I am pretty confident that I will do a pull-up one day, and I’ve learned that a happy home doesn’t have to have children. One thing Plath didn’t acknowledge, is that while some of those figs are drying up and plopping to the ground, there are other figs just beginning to sprout. Some figs that you couldn’t even begin to imagine would form. (I definitely didn’t see that pull-up fig, or the mountain biking one, or the love of nature one, or the pet one or how my family and friends have evolved figs.) I know that there are many more figs to come, ones that I can’t even imagine right now.
So I am going to continue to live my life, looking forward to the figs that remain, and not dwelling on the ones that have plopped to the ground.
(Life your Life print inspired by interview with Maurice Sendak by Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2011, and it’s finally finished!)