figs

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. ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 7

my greatest fear.

I’m afraid of heights.  I’m not a fan of tight spaces.  Loud noises and bright lights horrify me, especially in the dark when I’m alone.  I don’t like walking in the woods at night.  People, in general, terrify me . These are simple fears.

Perhaps even bigger than those simple fears is my fear of vastness.  The kind of vastness that makes you feel small in a physically vulnerable sense.  Like being alone in a crowd, wondering if you’re surrounded by an army of enemies or just that one crazy guy with a knife and sticky fingers.  Like outer space, a frontier we pretend we know about but are really just fools for pretending like we can handle and explore it.  Like great spaces in the atmosphere, open stages for gravity and better evolved organisms who can fly.  Or like the depths plunging into the core of the earth, like a void opening and you have no say in where you’re falling.  But even worse, to me, is the ocean: you can drown in a puddle, but the ocean gives you that opportunity a thousand trillion times over.  A water that only makes you thirstier.  A depth so deep it would crush you.  An entire planet – the origin of life – still submersed and unknown and perfectly unaware of our feeble existence.  Waves with uncertain power and height.  The Loch Ness monster.

But no, I don’t fear those things at all.  I fear an underlying factor.  I fear: losing control.

I’m afraid of falling, of being crushed, of being overpowered.  I’m afraid of not having a say in what happens to me or how.  That’s my greatest fear, and truly my only fear.  When they say having one fear and it’s fear itself, I think it might be what they’re trying to say: fear of something overcoming you, out of your control, because that is, in a way, fear.

Fear is my own mind.  It’s my perception, my reception, my curiosity and consequent fulfillment.  Maybe that’s why I like Sylvia Plath so much – she, too, feared losing control, at least until she gained control by shutting her head in an oven.  (Her quotes in bold/italics.)

Is there no way out of the mind? 

I fear my own mind because it’s my greatest critic.  It’s never satisfied, always wanting to learn, analyze, and criticize.  Usually, I’m its only subject.  And as my most intimate judge, my mind pains me when it disapproves – as it does so often.  It’s never enough, I’m never enough, and its thoughts are impossible to escape because they are always there, silent but perpetually heard.  An unspoken speech that you already knew was coming because, well, you made it.

I’m afraid of being left to my own devices sometimes, despite always craving time for reflection – or feeling grounded.  But being alone so much can blur the lines between alone and lonely.  I start to compare myself and wonder if the life I’m living is a socially healthy one – or if being social is in actual human nature, not just the society-inflicted one.  I’m always trying to imagine a myriad of life scenarios, wondering which are the most rewarding.  Knowing I can’t control the outcome of anything.  Feeling that hopelessness and loss of control all over again.  Become evermore aware of my insanity.

And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter— they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long.

But gaining control is this odd balance that actually requires letting go of it altogether.  It’s like investing a trust in something and someone else.  Not the kind of trust you hand over, but the kind that is inherently rooted there and which continues to blossom.  It’s being able to walk away from your house with all your doors unlocked and not thinking about it, your house of course being your soul.  And when you find that kind of freedom, and you’re able to carry it across all aspects of your life – well, I think that’s when you’ve finally conquered the fear of losing control, because you’ve embraced it.  You’ve gained control by losing it in the greatest sense of the irony.

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted to lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free.

When you find a home in what you do and with whom you spend your time, and the only thing you can do in that place and presence is to go as you are, and couldn’t imagine not being yourself, and fear or want of something else is trivial and ridiculous… That’s how it is to be free.

This Bell Jar, and Plath.

I love Sylvia Plath.

Yes, she’s rather morbid.  Yes, she had “issues”.  Yes, she eventually killed herself.  But I think it was that internal struggle she was dealing with that made her writing so freely profound, poetic and yet harsh.  She had a way of wording things and of looking at life in a way that was beautiful in the same sense as a deadly storm.

I started read The Bell Jar at the beginning of the year.  It wasn’t until I was recently inspired to read an entire list of “life changing” books that I found online, as well as books on the histories of religions, that I decided it was time to finish up some books I had forgotten I’d started.  I’m kind of surprised I stopped reading The Bell Jar midway – I think it was due to finals and me leaving the country.  But, either way, I finished the rest of it in essentially one sitting.  I feel like there is a lot to take away from it.

OUR OWN BELL JARS

The whole “bell jar” bit didn’t make too much sense to me until, somewhere in the middle of the story, Plath drops the words “…because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

I thought, WOW.  THAT is what the bell jar is.  The bell jar is what we pull over ourselves.  We live in this little world of our own, yet we can let our own negativity suffocate us if we don’t lift that jar every once in a while.  No matter where we go, we carry that emotional baggage with us, a kind of baggage that no change of scenery will alter enough for us to completely forget if we don’t cause some kind of resolution or absolution within ourselves.

I began to think of my own bell jar and what I feel like inside it.  It feels terrible a lot.  Too often, in fact.  But that’s why I bury myself in sports, arts, books, cooking, dance, and especially travel… It’s like my way of lifting that jar a little bit every once in a while, like a small distraction.  But that jar never totally disappears.

DEALING WITH DISAPPOINTMENT IN LIFE

I feel that jar heaviest when others affect me.  I have the tendency to go out of my way too much for other people just to feel useful and have worth.  I don’t expect anything in return.  But when I get stood up or let down, I think it hurts twice to thrice as much.

“If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed.”

Wise words.  I should listen to that.

I’ve come to realize I’m never disappointed when I expect someone to back out, no matter how much they swear they’ve committed.  I just shrug it off.  But that’s hard to accept all of the time, to expect disappointment.  I love the anticipation of something.  It’s what makes the days happier.  Why ruin that with expectations of letdown?  (“I couldn’t see the point of getting up.  I had nothing to look forward to.”)   It just makes one feel inadequate.  (“The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.”)  And Plath’s character continues to struggle under her bell jar for a long, long, long part of the story.

GETTING OUT OF YOUR BELL JAR

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

Yet the whole story isn’t just about depressing thoughts (although, some of them really make you think, like when Plath wonders if the most beautiful thing in the world is actually shadow).  In reality, Plath’s bell jar sealed shut just after the publication of The Bell Jar.  Esther Greenwood, however, the narrator of the story,… she finally flings off her jar and takes a deep breath.

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees, people.  I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.'”

If that isn’t testament to how the best medicine for anything is just a breath of nature and the world, then I don’t know what is.

ACCEPTING BETTER LOVE

Finally, one of the quotes from Plath in general that I recently shared on Facebook (and which received a lot of applaud) is one about love.  I often think about how lousy we can get it when it comes to friendships or relationships, and why is that?  And my answer always come back to The Perks of Being a Wallflower: “We accept the love we think we deserve.”  Not to mix up authors and stories here, but I think that is true.  And I find it particularly interesting to take that notion and juxtapose it with Plath’s quote.  Plath seems to be quite the self-loathing person with little value in herself, should you base her personality off of her writing style, yet she shows strength enough to reject men who don’t strike her very specific fancy.  Here is the quote I adore so much:

“Yes, I was infatuated with you: I am still.  No one has ever heightened such a keen capacity of physical sensation in me.  I cut you out because I couldn’t stand being a passing fancy.  Before I give my body, I must give my thoughts, my mind, my dreams.  And you weren’t having any of those.”

In the words of my mother-aged peer, “What a wise, tragic woman who said that.”