TweetEvery year I write a reflection about the past year of my life and deliver it on my birthday. This year, the address will be given twice. Once to my husband Nick, who is in Rhode Island, using FaceTime at midnight. The second time address goes to a dear group of friends, my dinner guests, to help celebrate 34 big ones.
I could eat 34 avocados over the next year.
I could throw a quarter, a nickel, and four pennies into a fountain with a hefty wish.
I could donate $340 to my favorite charity. I could run for 34 minutes.
I could write a 34 word haiku, or even write a 34 word haiku everyday for the next 34 days.
It seems that that’s what birthdays have come to mean to a lot of people, doing something to commemorate the number of years they’ve survived lived.
I’m not doing any of those things. Instead, I sit down and give myself the curse gift of an honest reflection. Once a year, I become a coroner over the body of a life I lived for the past year, investigating the scars, the stretches, the entry and exit wounds of the bullets of life. All the evidence is gathered to be delivered in a report I call The State of the Self. And it’s not just the wounds that are noted, but the signs of growth, ghost trails of joy, mapping personal achievement and meaning over the past year. This is the seventh year I’ve done this and still, like every year before, I struggle to convey what a year of life, my life, can mean in words.
It was the year of breaks and break-throughs. Friends and neighbors died. Break. Nick finished his MBA program. Breakthrough. My book was picked up by a publisher. Breakthrough. The publication journey began. Break. Praise finds me, blithe criticism follows.
The year went on like that. Life goes on like that.
In my Catholic peer circles, when they found out I was 33, would often remark, “Oh hey! It’s your Jesus year!” To which I thought, “Oh, awesome! That’s the year he was betrayed by his closest friends, tortured, arrested, wrongly convicted and crucified. Excellent.”
No, 33 took a different route than crucifixion. It was the year that I radically accepted the mysterious paradox of making life choices. I relinquished Robert Frost’s most beloved image – the diverge in the wood and the less traveled by road making all the difference - in favor of Sylvia Plath’s terrifying image of a fig tree as my touchstone:
“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 Constantine 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
My figs are beautiful and plump, and represent different parts of me. Upon intense scrutiny, they all seemed to have my initials imprinted on them. One fig was a tireless journalist. Another was an artistic photographer. One fig is a respected novelist. Another fig was a psychotherapist working with survivors of violence and trauma. Yet another fig was a gender and women studies professor. Another fig was a zumba instructor. Another fig was a mother of four. Another fig was a nomadic missionary. A priestess fig. A globe-trotting human rights lawyer fig. A smashing activist fig.
The fear of failure, of things and life ending, the fear of publicly stumbling, the fear of turning around and finding oneself alone in a crusade, the fear of being wrong impedes the fig-selection process. Fear is a contagious mental illness, the mouth that never stops whispering. Despite those devilish whispers, we must choose.
I’m tempted to write an ending that describes the fig I chose, but the significance isn’t which fig I chose, it’s the fact that I actually and tentatively chose one. For now. Unlike Sylvia’s figs, which wrinkled, darkened, and fell to the ground, mine did not follow suit. Sylvia watched her figs die and I refuse to sit as she did and starve into the bend of a tree. Off the page and in real life, Sylvia Plath took her own life, the violent refusal to choose any fig at all.
My figs are still glowing, but the real milestone of 33 was not the choosing. It is the knowledge that even if I did watch some figs die, I know that I am not. I look back at 33 and see a woman of choice, deliberation, and active honesty, sometimes painfully so. Yes I am afraid, but I am not paralyzed. I know my figs won’t last forever, but they’re here now and so am I.
The coroner’s report read three simple words: She chose well.