“Listen to this!” I said to Ben.
“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.”
“Did you write that?,” he asked.
“No, a writer called Sylvia Plath did.”
“Oh! It sounds just like something you’d write.”
“I know,” I said, looking and sounding a little depressed.
If you know, then you know. If you don’t, it’s likely you never will. To be interested in hundreds of different things, to see a different life unfolding in your mind’s eye every day and sometimes every hour, to finally think you’ve decided only for the decision to come crumbling down minutes later, to feel time passing, to feel your life passing as you continue to agonise over what to do and which path to take, to feel the very real and glorious potential bursting from within yourself but to see it go unrealised because of this deep and painful struggle to commit – I truly wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
Someone recently described this very same experience to me in their own life and then reflected to me that I’d done such a good job sticking with my writing and poetry. Ohhhhhhhh, ha ha. It’s amazing how something can appear to others when the internal reality feels very different.
The draw to write is very strong in me (although I’ve gone through many moments of ebb with this too) and so I’ve been able to keep it up in some form for a long time. (I started writing on the internet in 2012.) But believe me when I tell you that most of my adult life has, on the inside at least, been defined by exactly this experience that Syvlia Plath describes in her book The Bell Jar.
The typical advice to decide on and do one thing simply does not work for some people. In fact, it’s advice that can make us feel defective as we try and fail again and again to decide and commit. We can see that it makes sense. We can see that it works. And we really wish we could do as others do. And yet…we can’t. No one in their right mind would continue to put themselves through this experience if they could simply stop.
That said, here are a few things that help me (somewhat) as I continue to navigate the challenges of being pulled in multiple directions.
First, it feels important to acknowledge that this is not a defect or something that needs fixing. It’s challenging and sometimes painful, but not more painful than telling yourself that there’s something wrong with you and that you need to somehow, against every natural instinct in you, become like ‘everyone else’.
Secondly, even though the number of things I’m interested in and become interested in hasn’t diminished the older I get, it has become somewhat easier to distinguish between something I want to do as ‘my work’, something I just want to do in my life, and something that I actually don’t want to do at all. It hasn’t become easy, but it has become easier (and faster).
In just the last few months I’ve thought about training as a herbalist, starting a plant/flower/gardening related business, cooking community meals, training as a Foot Health Practitioner and ditching the internet all together to help Ben full time in his business whilst keeping the house and garden.
Each new idea is very compelling to begin with. But as I sit with each one and play the scenario out in my mind, I inevitably get to the part about the ways in which that business could make money. And I realise that I’m not all that interested in doing any of those things. This is especially true when I take into account everything I now know about myself, my values, my preference for lots of quiet and alone time etc.
And so I always come back around to writing, which for me is this magical thing that allows me to incorporate so much of who I am and what I’m interested in. For instance, I don’t need to become a professional flower farmer to express my developing obsession with flowers. It’s more than enough to learn to grow them in our garden and write a poem that includes a flower.
Thirdly, I try to remain rooted in the idea that my work life is a series of mini projects, rather than one long static ‘thing’.
Fourthly, it’s good to consider the possibility that you might be like the extra mature cheddar currently sitting in our fridge – you get better with age. The older I get, the more I can feel the threads of my life coming together into something more cohesive. It’s as if I’ve needed the whole first half of my life to explore and gather information and the second half of my life is where I get to weave something beautiful with those threads. That’s what I’m excited about in this season of my life.
We’re very conditioned to believe that our lives are supposed to be linear stories of upward progression, but that is only one possible trajectory for a life. There are many other possible trajectories, including the one where you have multiple careers, or the one where you feel like a failure for your entire first act, only to realise it was all preparation for what was to come.
And finally, just really simple stuff like getting out for a walk can truly help. When I’m in a thought loop and feeling overwhelmed by all the new figs I can see on the tree, all the energy is stuck and I can easily become overwhelmed and think I’m doomed. Often, fresh air and movement is enough to open up my perspective, even if it’s just a tiny bit.
I don’t expect my fig tree to stop growing any time soon. Or indeed ever. It’s good to acknowledge this. To accept this is as part of who I am so I can not only bring more self love and compassion to the experience when it feels particularly frustrating but also recognise that there is beauty in being like the honey bee.
These are just a few of my current thoughts. Do you see yourself in the quote from The Bell Jar? How do you navigate this? Pleeeease share your experience and perspective in the comments below. I know this will be helpful to so many others who read this.
Love and courage,