Earlier this month, Carolyn wrote a piece that has haunted me ever since. In it, Carolyn ponders the famous passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in which the protagonist envisions herself sitting in the crotch of a great fig tree, staring up at branch after branch of ripe figs but starving from the inability to choose just one. Plath likens each fruit to a potential path for her character’s life—a happy family, a burgeoning literary career, world travel—and leaves her protagonist paralyzed by choice until each drupelet has dried up and dropped, leaving nothing. It is bleak.
I have never read The Bell Jar, but I’m not sure I could handle it if every passage sliced to my core as this one does. I played six sports in seventh grade. My smile littered the extracurricular activities pages of every yearbook. My dad called me a “jack of all trades” and kindly left off the “master of none.” I was told I could do anything. But my jungle of interests has always choked out my sapling convictions.
The image of the fig tree looms even larger now than usual for me because, for the first time in my life, there’s no logical next step. I filtered up through the Grand Rapids Christian Schools where my mom works, sauntered a few miles down the road to Calvin College where my dad works, studied education as modeled for me by a couple generations, and graduated to a teaching job in Grand Rapids. Now, having left that job without an immediate desire to teach again, it seems that I’m in the market for figs—figs that I’ve spent hours in the crotch of a couch or seat of a car considering:
One fig is symphonic New York City nights spent strutting down streets beside friends and laughing along with car horns, and another fig is weekends ruffling through the green folds of the Cascades just beyond Seattle, and another fig is quietly sitting at a desk in Switzerland or Portugal and finding the words for a novel, and another fig is dinners with family followed by popcorn and beer with both budding and long-blossomed friends, and another fig is teaching English in Buenos Aires, and another fig is a marathoner with thousands of beautiful miles etched into his legs finally breaking the tape, and above and beyond these figs are galaxies more that I haven’t yet dreamed of.
The fig tree is wondrous, but its expansiveness is intimidating and its limitations are cruel. Thus, I sought to do what I do best: bend and extend the metaphor until it is so bloated and overripe that it splits like a… like a fig, I suppose. (Okay! Okay! That one’s a simile!) I just needed to find the loophole in the analogy that would allow me to turn it upside down, to chop down the fig tree and use its wood to craft a table off of which I would devour every last one of its fat, succulent figs!
So, I typed “fig” into Wikipedia and began my research. I learned that figs actually flower inward, leaving behind the seeds and pink tendrils that characterize its texture. I learned that to pollinate these flowers tiny wasps crawl into a fig, lay their eggs, and promptly die. (Don’t worry! Store-bought figs should be wasp-free!) I learned that the fig tree became the first recognizable tree mentioned in the Bible when it shrouded Adam and Eve’s sinful loins and that it provided shade to the Buddha while he found enlightenment. I even learned that saying a project “contains fig flower” in Hindi implies that it will never be completed.
I had plenty of raw info from which to spin my metaphors, but I ultimately decided two things. First, I decided that Carolyn had already found the most elegant extension of the metaphor: that figs ripen perennially and that we needn’t eat just one. And second, in an unexpected change of heart, I decided that I wanted to defend Plath’s image of the fig tree. After all, the fig tree isn’t at fault; it’s subject to the laws of nature, and the legislature is time. And even if time will continually offer us new crops of figs, we should not pretend that they’ll always be the same ones. Some figs go black and never grow back.
I still recall my summer as a jaded 21-year-old, watching the London Olympics and realizing that I would never march in the Opening Ceremonies. I remember watching So You Think You Can Dance on my friend’s couch and understanding that that fig plopped the second I turned ten and couldn’t execute a plié. In fact, rarely does a week pass that I don’t feel the plummeting of another fig and subsequent inching skyward of all the other figs on its branch. But while this knowledge can be painful, it’s important to live knowing that some chances don’t come back so that we can harvest out opportunities wisely.
My mother and I share a birthday, and this year she will be exactly twice my age (I’m finally turning 20!), meaning that in about a week I will be the exact age she was when she gave birth to me. In that amount of time, my mom got married, created a (ruggedly handsome, incredibly likeable) human, and secured the job that she continues to hold and is universally adored for today. And yet, on any given night, a peak into my parents’ bedroom would reveal towers of travel books—Florence & Tuscany, Provence & the French Riviera, Madrid & Toledo—battered and bookmarked on my mom’s side of the bed, intel for her next adventure.
Meanwhile, I am childless, jobless, and directionless. I don’t feel that I’ve wasted my time, and I don’t feel dismayed, but I’m also tired of feeling crushed under the weightlessness of potential and gawking at figs like stars I could never align. I want to dedicate myself to something, too, trusting that doors to new adventures will always be opening even as others close.
In the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with a few friends and former professors, asking them about how they got to where they are and how they determine their future life trajectories. The answer has been unanimous: one step at a time.
So, I’ve decided to update Plath’s analogy, tailoring it to modern audiences and making it incrementally less terrifying. Rather than sitting in the crotch of a fig tree, I imagine sitting on a barstool at a sleek Asian fusion restaurant where the sushi rolls by on a tiny conveyor belt. Each piece of sushi represents an opportunity. I can eat more than one piece, but the size of my stomach is finite. I can squint toward the other side of the belt and scout future sushi I’d like, but there’s no guarantee that it won’t be snatched away before it reaches me. The best I can do is to focus on the few pieces of sushi in front of me and pluck up the ones that I’m most excited about. Rather than sit paralyzed by the options of life, I want to let life’s limitations work for me and guide me toward my next step.
All this from a man in a fig tree, in love with possibility.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.