ATTENTION: I am warning you that this post will be very different from anything I have ever written on this blog before, and If you read the title of this post and thought, “Who the heck is Esther Greenwood?” Then, give me a chance to explain. Oh, also note, this might be very long, when have any of you known me to be concise? I’ve always had a lot to say.
Esther Greenwood is the protagonist character in the author Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar. Which happens to be in my top 5 favorite novels. The story follows Esther through an internship she has in New York at a fashion magazine where it showcases her disinterest in all the frivolous things that her fellow interns care about which happens to be a precursor for the mental illness issues she encounters later in the novel, mainly depression (this is something, I can not relate to the character on) But, then the internship ends and she’s unsure of what to do with life. She goes home to Boston to live with her mother for the summer before her final year at Smith College and decides to write a novel but then realizes she has no life experience. She then descends into her depression head first. During the novel, she explains life events that caused her to arrive at where she was in life, a boy from her hometown who went off to Yale, Buddy Willard, who became her almost fiance. She also explains her precarious situation at Smith College with her scholarship situation. She maintains top grades but at a price, she sacrifices a social life mostly except for Buddy. After New York, and then her summer at home she tries to commit suicide and ends up in a mental hospital. (I know what you’re thinking, how does your perfectly normal life compare to this crazy fictional characters? let me explain.)
I, in no way, shape, or form can relate to Esther Greenwood’s depression in The Bell Jar. I have never experienced chronic depression like Esther or like the author Sylvia Plath did (Sylvia Plath committed suicide a month after this novels completion and publication, tragic I know). I promise, this will become less sad soon so bear with me. I can on the other hand relate to the experiences Esther encounters in the book and the way Sylvia Plath expresses the desires, hopes, fears, etc of this character. I have recalled many passages from the book of Esther’s thoughts throughout my journey. They almost seem to resemble a stage in every young woman’s life at one point. The years between 18 and 22, when you’re still trying to figure out what type of adult you are going to be, which direction your life is heading, what type of college degree to get and so on and so forth. The time in life where every life choice will have serious ramifications for the way your life turns out. As a 19 year old female, I have a lot of life left to figure out (I guess that is how I ended up in Europe…) but luckily I found a checklist by Jennifer Schaffer to help me survive the age of 19:
“Forgive. Forget. Fake it. Chin up. Wear lipstick, make lists, make sure your voicemail isn’t full. Mix protein shakes, send timely thank you notes, sip drinks more slowly, stare at adults’ eyebrows, smile without dimples, develop perfect posture. Be gracious, be kind, eliminate self-pity. Look in the mirror and shift your internal monologue from ‘How do I look?’ to ‘This is my face,’ from ‘What the hell am I doing?’ to ‘This is my life.’ Capitalize your emails, read the news, walk briskly, stay focused, and never, ever let on that you are somewhat lost and sometimes lonely and so completely confused (and would someone please just let me know what it is I’m supposed to do next, where exactly I’m supposed to go–). Just keep going. Go, and do not stop.”
As crazy as that checklist may sound, being a 19 year old girl in this day and age is not easy… In fact, being a young person is no easy feat either. It is a very weird time, the job market kinda sucks and the future is uncertain, but isn’t it always? Uncertainty truly is the only constant in life… (Sigh) Anyways, I find comfort in a list like that. I am learning so many things in Europe, about other cultures, about alternative ways of life and how truly easy life in the United States is and most importantly, I am learning a lot about myself and what kind of person I want to be. I know, heavy stuff right? So, back to the question at hand, how does my life parallel Esther’s?
If you have been following my blog since the beginning of my trip then you know that I wasn’t the happiest camper early on… Here’s a refresher: “During the days I do the coolest things and I’m excited about them but then I come back to go to bed and it sinks in that I can’t contact home and that I’m nowhere near it. That’s the hardest part, knowing I can’t go home. That I’m trapped here… But I’m trying my best to get out of this slump and get over this homesickness. ” <— That was literally the first week I was in Europe and I was already sad and trapped in my own negative thinking. This leads into my first comparison between Esther and I…
1.) Just as Esther was in New York with a once in a lifetime experience, there I was in Europe living the dream. But, nothing within me had changed yet, I was still that same girl from Columbia Heights, Minnesota that left on the airplane and Esther was the same suburban girl from Boston… I should have felt excited in Europe, I should have felt blessed and optimistic but instead my negativity prevailed and like Esther says “I was supposed to be having the time of my life.” But I wasn’t and neither was she… It is all about the way you think about things. My sister Allison let me borrow an awesome book called the Epictetus Club which focuses on how you can control the way you think and react to situations in life by counteracting negative thoughts. I hadn’t let any of those lessons sink in yet and so like Esther says, “How did I know that someday-at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere-the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”, How did I know that I wouldn’t let my negative thoughts consume me like they used to at home? Early on my negativity was already ruining my trip and keeping me from building relationships with my group. Since then, this trip has taught me to control the way I think, to realize what is important. Something Esther could never really do was escape her depression which in my case would be negativity… She says, “It wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, 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.” In my case, I have learned to escape from the sour air. I have found fresh air in positive thoughts and through those positive thoughts I have yielded positive results. My goodness is life a learning process or what?
2.) Ok, so I’ll try to go through this as chronologically as possible. When I was feeling homesick and negative early on I thought that I would just write about it, I love writing after all and it is very cathartic. As I sat down to write one of my first journal entries from Europe I remembered this part from the Bell Jar when Esther is trying to write her novel, “At this rate, I’d be lucky if I wrote a page a day. Then I knew what the problem was. I needed experience. How could I write about life when I’d never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die? A girl I knew had just won a prize for a short story about her adventures among the pygmies in Africa. How could I compete with that sort of thing?” I thought about this and all I had written up until I had left for Europe, I have about 10 years’ worth of journal entries, I wrote an 80 page book for high school sophomore year, like I said, I’ve always had a lot to say. But after I reached Europe and stepped just a little bit outside of myself… I realized how most of the stuff I had written up until now had been trivial and purely superficial. I hadn’t experienced anything yet! My dad always used to make fun of me when I would act like I knew everything which still happens sometimes unfortunately and he would say,“You don’t know shit and you haven’t seen shit.” I always deep down knew he was right but would of course never admit it. Thankfully as I have gotten older I feel like I know less and less instead of knowing everything… Kind of a scary process. Nonetheless, I sat down and tried to write and found that I couldn’t formulate a single sentence. This has been the most jam-packed, intense, trying, exciting, overwhelming time in my life and I can’t even write a page of reflection on any of it. I am beginning to be able to now but for the first month or so I couldn’t even grasp for the words of what my life had become. I have to thank my dad though because if he had never said what he did to me I would have never realized how much growing and learning I had left to do.
3.) Another thing I had become painfully aware of during my trip was another thing that caused Esther’s depression to worsen, which was that I can only live one life and I have already spent 19 years of it. I am currently a Rhetorical Communications and Political Science Double Major. This definitely sets me up to enter the political sphere (not as a politician, no thank you.) As a lobbyist, or a press secretary, something exciting but who knows if that will make me happy? Esther says it better than I can (and by Esther I mean Sylvia but they truly are one in the same), “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.” One of the hardest things to cope with and understand as a human are my limitations. There are some things that I will never be able to do and even as much as I envision the way I want my life to be, God has an infinitely better plan for me than I could ever create for myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with wanting things to go my way but if they don’t then I have to understand that God’s is for me, it’s like my youth pastor, Nick Foulks, said when I used to attend Substance churches youth group verve, “Settle in your heart that God is for you.” To have that in my heart will be the biggest tool in not feeling like opportunities and future plans are shriveling around me because I am not apart of all of them. I must trust that I am where I am supposed to be. Like Nick also used to say, “If my plans for the future stop God’s plan for the now… Then my security is in the wrong place.” I must place my security in God.
4.) So, there have been times throughout my trip where I have been very frustrated, homesick, negative, etc… but once again, wise words from Esther,“My mother said the cure for thinking too much about yourself was helping somebody who was worse off than you.” I know my mom probably agrees with this statement considering she is one of the most giving and thoughtful people there are. So, these words came to me in times of discomfort and selfishness and I tried to then make breathing a little bit easier for someone else on those days… by recognizing other people’s needs and meeting them. I tried to take a page out of my mom’s book and be self-sacrificial for once instead of dwelling on my own circumstances. This really did help me get through the hard times to know that I was helping someone else or at least trying to focus on them instead of me. That was an important lesson for me to learn. Granted what this looks like for Esther is that she volunteers in a pregnancy ward and that increases her depression, I have begun to find joy in serving those around me, even at the risk of being in discomfort myself. It is truly humbling and honoring to God when you do that.
5.) So, to say that the first week in Vienna when I was homesick and negative was the only time I was like that would be a lie. When my parents came, I realized how much things had gone on without me at home, but that was comforting knowing things were still the same. When they left, I realized I had to enjoy every moment of Europe because soon I would be going home to my old life as a new person and I had to soak this all in while I could. That doesn’t mean I didn’t get a tad bit homesick sometimes when my group was traveling like a band of vagabond gypsies with no rest in sight. There was this moment in Milan, where the homesickness came back in a small wave, I longed for home, for comfort, for people who truly know me and love me and I was choked up, and there I was walking around the Duomo in Milan, one of the largest Cathedrals in Europe, almost in tears. That was when I ran into a boy from my group, Tyler and just by the look on my face he could tell something was wrong, he began by asking “Are you okay?” I choked out a quick response, “I’m okay, really I am.” He let it be, thank God for that. We began to talk about the statue in front of us. It was by Marco d’Agrate, the statue was of St. Bartholomew, who was said to have been martyred by being skinned alive. Below is a photo of the statue. It is him holding his own skin… I looked at him and couldn’t’t help but think some very sad, negative thoughts… Like, I’m like him, every nerve ending in my body, every emotion, everything is exposed just like him. I am fragile. I was as exposed to the world as he was. Across the ocean from my home, my family, friends, support, traveling from place to place every other day, always feeling lost, confused and unsettled. I don’t know why that wave of homesickness struck me then but, it did, and Esther, once again, articulates what I am feeling: “I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of the throat and I’d cry for a week.” Luckily, Tyler kept my mind off of it for a short time until I could get out of the Duomo and think about something else.
6.) So, after Milan my group went to Paris and then Geneva, Switzerland. Switzerland is beautiful and cold… a lot like home. Geneva happens to be the home of the United Nations, the other main United Nations operating conference building is in New York. So, I’m in Geneva, Esther is in New York… Coincidences everywhere. So, when I found out my group would be attending the United Nations for a tour, I about cried. As a Youth In Government participant, I have participated in Model United Nations and as a Political Science major, I was so excited for this. When my group arrived our tour guide was showing us conference room after conference room and I was in awe. We saw one room where a public meeting was taking place so we were able to watch with headphones from the gallery and all of the countries represented had placards that they had to use when speaking, just like in Model UN and I was just mesmerized by it all. Esther also visits the UN in New York in the Bell Jar because of a simultaneous interpreter she knows, Constantin. A lot of people in my group kept saying things like, “Abby, would you ever want to work for the UN?” and questions like that because they knew how excited I was and how far up my alley this was… For the record, No, I would not want to work for the UN ever. But anyways, someone asked what a requirement for working for the UN is and she said well you should probably be able to speak French and English… and I’m like, oh man good thing I don’t want to work here anyways because I am already screwed. Esther explains the way both of us seemed to feel at the UN, “For the first time in my life, sitting there in the sound-proof heart of the UN building between Constanin who could play tennis as well as simultaneously interpret and the Russian girl who knew so many idioms, I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.” It is hard to realize our limitations as humans and also to acknowledge that there are people out there who are much smarter, more talented, and just overall better at things. I realize that and I am comfortable with that but inadequacy is still never a fun thing to be confronted with.
7.) After Geneva, my group went to a ski village in Switzerland called Zermatt, where the Matterhorn and Swiss Alps are located. On the border of Switzerland and Italy. Here, my group was to go skiing in these aforementioned Alps. I have never skied before in my life, ever. My first go at it was in the Alps, great. Esther also ski’s in the Bell Jar for the first time in her life, Buddy her almost fiancée insists that she must and forces her to. She loves it and writes this,“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.” She is right, when I was skiing down those mountains, I thought about that exact line from the Bell Jar because I finally understood it. Granted, Esther’s first run down the mountain leaves her with a broken leg, mine a few bruises but overall I was fine. It represents something larger though, there are moments when I feel like “this is why life is so amazing, ah I love it.” And then something crappy happens and I’m like, what, why… no, things were so good. I am learning to revel in the good times and not dread that something bad is right around the corner because I am just setting myself up for it then. In happy moments I must remember to acknowledge them and in crappy moments I must realize that they are what make the happy moments that much sweeter.
8.) As I am coming home in 8 days, I remembered this line by Esther, “I thought it would be the way I’d feel if I ever visited Europe. I’d come home, and if I looked closely into the mirror I’d be able to make out a little white Alp at the back of my eye.” I doubt there will be a little Alp in my eye especially since I was such a bad skier, but I am sure there will be a change that people will notice in me when I come home. Throwing myself back into the environment that I left 3 months ago will be very interesting and hopefully gratifying. To see how much I have changed will be an awesome learning curve for all of the preexisting people in my life and I am both excited and apprehensive. But, whether I am ready or not, I will be home in 8 days and I’m excited to figure out what my life will look like from here on out and after this experience.
With all of that said, I realize that Esther’s life is sad and also fictional but I can relate to so many things that she says that I thought it would be a good tool to use to show you all where I am at since I haven’t been updating you all on how I am doing but instead just telling you what I have been doing. Thank you all for reading these. So, as Sylvia Plath writes in the Bell Jar, “Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences.” I mean that is all I am really trying to do with my life in the end anyways. Right?