LET'S TALK: AGE, MORTALITY, AND THE FIG TREE

THE FIG TREE

Hello.

How've ya been? Sorry to have let you guys alone for as long as I did. It's been a very long couple of weeks. 

Last week Thursday morning, I left Cape Town and a barrage of imminent, increasingly-urgent deadlines to head to my hometown of East London. A small stain on the map of South Africa, I once considered East London to be place where all exciting things went to die wilted deaths. Now that I'm a bit older and better equipped to judge the town's charms unaided by the grunge phase I rocked for far too long, I can see that East London has its moments. 

Last Christmas time, for example, G, myself, and my younger brother spent hours traipsing around places called 'Gonubie Lagoon', and 'Mermaid's Pool' - which were just as magical as those names suggest. There we applied sunblock, ate fruit, and walked alongside tiny tropical fish in rock pools. Not to mention East London is the birthplace of none other than kick-ass Apartheid-resistance leader, Steve Biko. So, a far cry from the dark and damp image of this small city that I had carried with me as a teenager and young adult. Go figure.

Anyway, I wasn't flying back home to do any vacationing. I was actually flying down to join my family for a cross-country road trip to visit my grandparents. You see, my grandfather has been very ill following a fall after his second hip operation. In the weeks leading up to my visit, he had seemed distant, drugged, and needy on the phone - not the same man who I had known for all my life.  I tried to picture him and how he might be, so as to be able to manage my response to any obvious changes.

The last time I had seen him was around this time last year, when G and I met my family in Swellendam for what turned out to be a heavily spider-infested weekend. It was the first instance where I had seen him in a wheelchair, and he seemed somewhat withdrawn. It was strange to see him like this, just asit was strange to hear him sound so ill on the phone. But neither my grandpa as he was withdrawn, nor my grandpa as he was in a wheelchair, could prepare me for how my grandpa actually looked - how he must still do now as I write this.


I suspect that everyone treats evidence of mortality differently, which accounts for sayings like, 'Everyone grieves in their own way'. For me, to become very aware of the brevity and fragility of life feels like a battle between urgency and futility; the urge to learn from this experience in order to make the most of one's time, and the feeling of uselessness that emerges when one realises just how few people are able to live and die without regret. 

 People say it often enough. 'Regret nothing'. But how? I've just finished reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963) - late, I know - and apart from the book's insistence on eliminating questions of race from its major theoretical project, I consider the book to be an excellent reading companion for many women in their teens, twenties, and thirties today. And that's not because it's packed full with advice for issues arising for these groups, but rather because it's so capable of explaining these issues in full. 

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 (1963)

 

In that passage, Plath writes about a kind of precipice. One which young women today are still confronted with, even more markedly than in the 60s thanks to the rise of feminism and its consequent rise of career and life options for women. Actually, this passage also applies to men - all genders, really. We're at a time in history where gender roles are being dissolved - gaining fuzzy edges where there used to be hard lines and more than ever before, people have options. 

And you'd think that this was inherently a happy thing in that it is good, but each of those paths, each of those figs, represents a myriad of unique problems, triumphs, setbacks, and honey-sweet wouldn't-trade-it-for-anything moments. Each fig represents a complex life available to the individual alive in 2016, and choosing a given fig seemingly doesn't bring more or less happiness than choosing any other. But to choose a life is to discard all other options. And so we sit on this precipice and wait for the answers, all the while we watch as the figs begin to fall with rot.

Since culturally we are now less attached to set ideas of a 'good' or 'bad' life, we must struggle to find our own definitions for these. To paraphrase Thought Catalog's Sluts (2013), we don't know what this new kind of empowerment looks like yet. But, crucially, we feel we must choose and make do with something, and soon. This makes the unfulfilled life a necessary consequent of human experience.

You're damned if you don't choose the right fig, you're damned if don't choose one at all, and certainly, you're damned if you'd never had a choice - like the very many people in history whose lives were less because they were urged to buy into unjust social principles of gender and race. 


I remember my grandpa once took us as a family to the local botanical gardens. He knew a lot about trees and birds. When we were together last week, I reminded him about that outing, and later he needed to be reminded of my name. 

It looks very much like my grandpa has dementia, so he struggles to recall the names of things, and some words. Even so, many of the conversations we had last week revolved around what he wished he could do, and what he wished he could have done. They were clearly important conversations for him to have. Through his condition, I think he's accessed sentimental parts of him that he couldn't show as a healthy man.  

I looked at my grandpa as he cried about my mother's childhood dog and the way all the other abandoned hopefuls at the SPCA had longed for attention when he'd gone to pick him up, and I got so mad for him. The world failed him. Here is a man in his eighties who is trying to communicate decades of pent-up emotion he carried as a burden because it was custom for men to do so. I thought about all the women his age who were aching for what they had to do, or what they couldn't do, just because they're women. How did we let this happen? What could ever have been worth this? 

My anger for my grandpa later turned into fear for myself. How do I avoid this happening to me? How do I pick the fig that wasn't influenced by societal oppression? What's going to ensure that when I'm eighty, I have less to cry about than my grandpa?

And happiness isn't necessarily the answer, to boot. In The Promise of Happiness (2010), Sara Ahmed discusses the real value of happiness in relation to the image of the 'happy housewife' - itself an answer to feminist critiques of this (predominantly white) position of both privilege and oppression.

Ahmed asks whether happiness resulting from the alignment with goals set out initially by a patriarchal structure is really a 'good' we should aim for. Ahmed, with allusions to Plath's fig tree, goes on to show that the decision to live happily as a housewife necessitates a movement away from other pursuits that may not have made one happy, but may have made one's life filled with another (better?) form of worth. 


Does worth trump happiness? Does only 'worth' bring 'true' happiness? I used to think so. It's partly why I've stayed in the video games industry as long as I have - no matter how relatively short that is. I'm not happy, but surely it's worth it? I really no longer know. Just like I don't know if I should get married, or have kids, or both or neither of these. I don't know how  to avoid regret, and I don't even know what regret looks like anymore. Is regret being unhappy? Is regret a life of false happiness? Is regret inevitable?

I don't know. What I do know is that you and I have now really had our fair share of rhetorical questions, so I'll end off here. 

See you soon.

 

Alez Odendaalthe fig tree