There is a show on Netflix called Master of None, which was created by Aziz Ansari. There is only one season (comprised of ten episodes) in existence right now but the show is so culturally aware and well done, especially the finale. Aziz Ansari’s character attends a wedding with his longtime girlfriend and after the wedding he starts evaluating his life and the commitments he is and is not ready to make. Aziz’s character and his girlfriend are thirty, and at that point in their lives, their stability is supposed to be dependent upon settling down. He meets with his father, who tells him to read about “the fig tree” in Sylvia Plath’s 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.”
For the past few weeks, I’ve been carrying this uneasy feeling around with me. Since my birthday last month, I’ve been oddly fixated on my new age. It’s not so much an extension of vanity but more of a realization. I’m not a teenager anymore (thank God) but the thought is still scary. There is so much pressure on my generation to be successful in our twenties. We’re expected to have a full-time job with a salary high enough to pay off our student loans as soon as we graduate, and get married and have kids in between making copies and attending staff meetings. The definition of success that society places upon young adults is more harmful than encouraging at times. It’s easy to feel like we’re falling behind, that we’re missing out on something – and most of the time we’re not quite sure what we’re missing out on. Which is why I love that Aziz Ansari chose to use Sylvia Plath’s fig tree passage to capture these sentiments – it’s an interesting contrast to the rest of the culture that was interwoven with the show and its characters, but it’s still fitting. I have not been able to stop thinking about the fig tree and how it relates to this past year of my life, and this new era of my life – the twenties.
The year 2016 was, in a word, breathtaking – and this can go either way. The past twelve months have knocked the wind out of me in ways I never imagined possible. And it kills me thinking I haven’t written enough about the events that unfolded within these months, although in actuality I know that this year will be the most memorable of the twenty that I’ve been in existence.
New Year’s Day I found myself in a stranger’s kitchen on the East Side of Cleveland, slicing assorted cheeses and arranging them on an artisan cutting board with grapes – I was assisting a wealthy couple’s New Year’s Day party as a catering worker, a seemingly random gig that was presented to me by my mother. I was dressed head to toe in black – a button down shirt and trousers, and my hair was done in a tight French braid down my back. I stayed put in the kitchen washing dishes and replenishing food displays – guests came up to me and handed me their empty plates while my stomach grumbled. The hosts fed their pampered miniature dog shrimp, which of course added insult to injury. It was undoubtedly an odd situation to be in – there I was, in someone’s lavish home, in uniform, only being approached when something was needed from or expected of me. Yes, I was working a job, but it was dehumanizing noticing how separated I was from the privilege that surrounded me. The expensive art on the walls, the grandiose fireplace, the shelves lined with volumes of books about Post-Impressionism, the many beautiful artifacts in the rooms of the house that represented a life that was worked for. I wasn’t admiring the host’s home out of envy but of longing and curiosity – Will I end up like this one day? Will I have the kitchen with the stainless steel appliances and the smooth marble counter tops? The fireplace? The wine cabinet? The embroidered hand towels? And I realized that maybe no, I wouldn’t, considering at that point in time I was attending a college I couldn’t afford and took a job in a stranger’s house on New Year’s Day to get textbook (and cell phone bill) money. And miraculously enough, I was back in that same house, a week later, working the host’s mother’s 90th birthday party. There was a slideshow of old photographs on the plasma screen TV and guests chatted about the greatest hits of the birthday girl’s ninety years, including old boyfriends, love letters, and dresses made from scratch. After everyone sang happy birthday, I was assigned to cut the cake – I handed Opal (the woman of the hour) her plate with a smile and said “Here you go, birthday girl!” and everyone in the room clapped. In that moment an overwhelming sense of warmth and togetherness washed over the room: while clapping for Opal we were all connected despite our many differences – age, class, etc.
Putting this year into words is much more of a challenge than I thought it would be. Thinking about everywhere I’ve been and everything I’ve been through makes me tired, confused, sad, and happy all at once. I had to say goodbye to a lot of things this year, including the life I thought I was supposed to have – going to college out of state was just too good to be true, a bittersweet sentiment that stuck with me the moment I moved into my dorm and tacked up my Starry Night poster. I still get a lump in my throat when I think about all of the things I miss about Ithaca, and one is forming right now as I’m typing this. Early mornings walking to the catering servery half-asleep and highlighting my name on the call sheet. Spreading tablecloths and gently placing saucers, salad plates, silverware, and water glasses on their surfaces. The one night I was assigned to do a pick-up and I dragged a heavy cart (that included a glass bulb full of ice water) down a hill and through an eerie, empty campus. Celebrating Holi on the arts quad at Cornell at the end of April and laughing as hundreds of strangers doused me in colored powder. Being holed up in the library for hours memorizing the fourth and fifth declensions of Latin. Having writing conferences with my professor about my essays and feeling at home in that office, feeling like an adult, feeling confident about opening up myself to writing and the many triumphs and downfalls that come with it. I could go on and on. I spent my last free day (by free, I mean the one day I didn’t have finals) in Ithaca on Cornell’s campus rather than my own school’s campus. I was always starstruck in Cornell’s presence, which even now seems silly to me. I was captivated by its history, the architecture of the buildings, the otherworldly sense of the Ivy League that always lingered – it was such a cool, beautiful place to hang out and yet I felt like an impostor whenever I was there – I had such a complicated, complex relationship with it and Ithaca itself, and I still do.
While there were many heartbreaks this year, there was an abundance of beautiful takeaways – visiting the Women’s Rights National Park in Seneca Falls, getting lost in the Met during a day-long excursion to New York City, visiting my little brother’s college open house and watching him grow up before my eyes, watching a vivacious 90-year-old enter a new year of her life, hugging my boyfriend for the first time in four months after being separated for an entire semester, being surrounded by 1.3 million people in Downtown Cleveland to celebrate the Cavs NBA Finals Championship, going to my first college football game at a Big Ten school, blowing out the candles on my sunflower-covered birthday cake, and finding the bravery to cut toxicity out of my life.
With everything going on the world, it’s hard to see what 2017 will be like. We gained, and lost, a lot this year, and 2016 had a gloomy air to it. But I want to spend 2017 taking better care of myself and being more positive, more open to love and everything else. I know that I have to keep working hard to get to where I want to be – I want my fig tree to have a lot of branches.
Have a safe and happy New Year, everyone.