Containing Multitudes

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December 2004 I was nearing the end of my four-month home-stay in Varanasi, India, where I lived with a very generous and welcoming family in tidy, but humble (by American standards), quarters with a bucket shower and a squat toilet. December 2005 I was with my own family wearing the equivalent of a wedding dress, making my "debut" (a bizarre and antiquated tradition) at a southern country club. These incongruous experiences separated by a mere trip around the sun have become emblematic of an overarching feeling in my life—that I don’t belong to one specific “world,”—that nowhere is fully home, so in return anywhere can become a kind of home.

Learning to live in this no man’s land has been a focus, albeit a subconscious one, of my recent years. And the reality that there are so many worlds I could live in and so many lives I could lead has been a paralyzing notion as often as it has been liberating one.

I’ve heard it said that the one thing you can never take away from a person is his or her ability to choose his or her response life’s vicissitudes. I find this to be a fairly reductionist idea. Choice for an oppressed person hardly seems to exist in the same family as the kind of choice I am talking about. My choice is a privileged choice. Privilege has afforded me the opportunity to see first hand myriad ways that a person can choose to live his or her life. And this exposure raises the question again and again: How is it that I want to live in this world?

Whenever these thoughts arise it is Sylvia Plath’s image of the fig tree from The Bell Jar that comes to mind:

 “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.”

This image of the figs of possibility has resonated so much with me that I internally refer to the different life paths I could take as “my figs.” The fig of being a wife and a mother; the fig of living in a small mountain town, rooting in, and devoting myself to an intimate community; the fig of never truly settling down, of living out of my backpack, and continuing to explore the world; the fig of being a writer; the fig of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail; the fig of ushering Human Becomings into a full vocation. Imagining all those figs twinkling out on the branch, and knowing that in choosing one I give up another gives weight to Kierkegaard’s insight that there is such a thing as “a despair of too much possibility.”  

So how do you choose (if you are lucky enough to have such choices)? Because the truth is you cannot have them all. Or rather, you can perhaps sample many figs, but if you want to truly savor one, then you have to let some doors close and let some paths remain unseen. And I'm getting to a point where I know that while a feast might be alluring, a simple meal is what I actually want. 

Every time I have elected to let one life path go, I’ve been filled with sadness, and sometimes even incredible grief, and always a curiosity of, “what would that path have been like?” I think these feelings are normal, but not altogether helpful for finding contentment in the life I am actually living.

Walt Whitman gave voice to one of the greatest paradoxes of human life when he asked, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” I have to imagine that the many figs on the branch are manifestations of the many aspects of an individual human being. One thing that feels essential to me, is that whatever life path I pick, it must have space for the multiple, contradictory elements that are part of my sense of self. There is not enough time, even if I live to a ripe old age, to live out each and every life fantasy, but I do believe that it is essential to choose an external path that creates space for exploring the full inner landscape. And perhaps that is all the guidance I need for making my choices.