The Fig Tree Revisited

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I started 2019 out with a Blog Post titled “The Fig In the Hand.” It’s more of a prayer than a post. A prayer that perhaps I’ll be able to savor what is good in my life in the moment rather than dwell in Kierkegaard’s aptly named, “despair of too much possibility.” Or what we call, less elegantly, in modern parlance: FOMO (fear of missing out).

The fig tree quote from Slyvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has taken root in my imagination and become an important metaphor in my life.

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.

With friends, when I talk about “my figs,” they know I am referring to my ghost lives. The lives I watch from the shore of reality, sometimes with incredible angst or nostalgia, and sometimes with great relief and peace.

A few weeks ago I got a message from a friend who was reading The Bell Jar. It’s been quite a few years since I read the book in full. And so I was surprised and delighted to get a photo of the page that follows the fig tree scene. The next page unfolds like this:

I don’t know what I ate, but I felt immediately better after the first mouthful. It occurred to me that my vision of the fig tree and all the fat figs that withered and fell to the earth might well have arisen from the profound void of an empty stomach...I felt so fine by the time we came to the yogurt and berry jam that I decided I would let Constantin seduce me.

Along with the quote above, my friend, who is also a student in the despair of too much possibility, wrote, “She could have just been hungry. Something for us to consider.” There is something refreshing about considering the possibility that despair could have a tangible remedy. That yogurt and berries can, on occasion, move a person from existential dread to wanting to a romp with Constantin.

Not all problems have such a simple solution. Slyvia Plath’s life famously ended in suicide. But, it is worth holding onto the possibility that distress can be fleeting. That distress, can sometimes even be fixed.

When my world was thrown into chaos this spring by my dad’s reveal of his hidden life, I heard many things from many people. From one person, I heard: set an alarm to remind yourself to drink water.

The basics: water, food, sleep, are all part of “psychological first aid.” When everything is falling apart, by necessity you need to focus on just surviving. Just remembering to drink water. To eat. To get in bed to try to sleep. And it helps. Not a lot, but a little.

One of my friends works as an Ayurvedic Health coach—bringing the wisdom of an ancient Indian healing system into modern American life. So much of what I’ve learned from her is about attending to the basics in an intentional way.

So I’m adding to my list of possibilities that I maybe should just eat a fig, instead of lusting after metaphorical figs.

I say this knowing full well that I will spend the rest of my life feeling nostalgia for things being “the way they were” with my dad. But “the way they were” is gone. And surviving the void needs solutions great and small.