The Fig in the Hand

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2018 was a year of slowing down and settling in for me. In some ways feeling settled is in fact unsettling for me. A hallmark of my adult life has been movement. Moving homes, moving countries, moving through different mountain ranges. But despite always being on the go, the knowing place in me has always known that there is real value to staying instead of going and to being instead of doing.

But pressing pause on the action is hard for me. As Jonathan Safran Foer captures so well in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: “Sometimes I can feel my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.”

I’ve always related to Sylvia Plath’s image of the paradox of choice in the Bell Jar: “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 is, of course, a wildly privileged lament. One that Kierkegaard, aptly named, “the despair of too much possibility.”

It's not an affliction I’m especially proud of, but it is one that is present for me. A desire to live all the lives. A sadness that reality dictates I have but one life, and nobody knows how long that life will be.

Part of my tendency to do more, be more, and see more is an attempt to subvert this reality of only one life…of limited time. But there is a perversion to this mentality too because so much is missed when you race across the surface and never dive deep where you are.

I know this intimately because for six years I’ve spent a month moving at a slow hiker’s pace through the wilderness. These months in the wild have been my antidote to my tendency to rush. Cell towers haven’t yet penetrated the Wyoming wilderness, and so your whole backpacking world is the world that is directly around you, and nothing more. And the pace of life is slow. And the beauty that exists in an unknown field of wildflowers out there is more exquisite than any art collection I’ve ever seen. And the contentment with life as it is grows naturally.

But I’ve never known how to translate that capacity to slow down into life in the front country. 2018 was my first year where my regular job dictated that I couldn’t go lead a monthlong backpacking trip. And so it felt important to find ways to slow down even while living in the buzz of a city. I’ve been experimenting with slowing down while remaining in the city for the last few months. In September I shut down my social media accounts. Given my tendency to want to live all the lives, it was a little too much having a visual playground of the many lives I was not leading. And it was a distraction from the good that was directly at hand in my own life.

I committed in a more significant way to my meditation practice. I am abysmal at staying with my breath, but I practice anyways. I practice because I am abysmal at the art of staying present. I practice because even though I’m abysmal at it, I get slivers of the freedom such a practice can deliver.  

And I intentionally worked to “close doors” on some relationships. I’ve never been a hoarder of stuff. Growing up with a mom who is a professional organizer who espouses the virtue of enoughism, I drank the Koolaid early that too many material things leads to indigestion of the spirit. But I am a relationship hoarder. Closing doors on relationships—even ones that have run their course and should be let go—is profoundly hard for me. But it’s impossible that every relationship will run the course of one’s life, or that it should. So I’ve been considering Paulo Coelho’s advice, “Close some doors. Not because of pride, incapacity or arrogance, but simply because they no longer lead somewhere.”

None of this is to say, I’ve radically altered who I am or how I imagine my life unfolding. I’ll always have wanderlust and will want to go and see new places and meet new people. I’ll always struggle with closing doors. I imagine no matter how long I practice I’ll remain a meditation novice. But as 2019 opens, I know that the life I am living…the fig in my hand…is a truly incredible life. And I’m experiencing the value of going deeper rather than racing in a wide arc across the world. And my hope for this year is that I will continue to become more and more adept at savoring all the good that exists in this present moment.