TO CHOOSE A LIFE | Alexandra Burton on what happens when the world is not the oyster you were told it would be.
by Alexandra Burton
When I was younger I thought I could choose everything, and in doing so make no choices at all. ‘The world is your oyster,’ people assured me. I would pry it open and let its weight slide onto my tongue, tasting the richness of every flavour it had to offer.
Time stretched out like an open plain that continued far beyond the horizon, feeling infinite in its vastness. I could give each mile a dream – travel, art, a career, a family – stacking them end to end like dominoes, and still have room for more. My life would be vast and full: I pictured an enormous bowl of sweets so plentiful I could run my fingers through them like marbles and never reach the bottom. I would feast myself on abundance, constantly satiated by variety and the pleasure of never having to say no.
In adulthood, I have learned that the infinite plain is a cruel illusion. There is always an end, and everything – time, energy, the heart – has a finite capacity. If I decide to spend it in one place, I am deciding in the same breath not to spend it elsewhere. Every ‘yes’ is attached to an implicit ‘no’: there is no choosing something without sacrificing something else. The world is not like an oyster but instead like Plath’s famous fig tree, and my nose is filled with the bitter scent of rotting fruit.
In another life, I stare out at wide open seas. Arms spread against the wind, I hope a gust might catch me and send me soaring above the ocean, untethered from the world as I have come to know it.
In another life, I spread my arms atop the crest of a mountain as freezing air whips my cheeks.
In another, amidst the gentle oppression of a forest.
In the corner of a quiet village that rises with the sun.
In the middle of a city where nobody knows my name.
I wish I could roll up all these lives and plot them on one expansive timeline. My heart pleads for adventure but my brain knows only how to be afraid, has learned that it is safer to want from a distance. I spend so much time with my nose pressed against the glass, pretending not to feel the weight of a key in my pocket.
“My heart pleads for adventure but my brain knows only how to be afraid, has learned that it is safer to want from a distance.”
In this lifetime, my fear breeds inertia. I allow my timeline to drift into a popular narrative because it is safe and known. It is nudged along by nods of approval from others, a pointed silencing of doubts grounded in nothing but their experience of the same steadiness. What comes first: a choice, or the conviction that there is nothing better?
In my failure to decide, I watch as I indirectly choose a life that leaves me feeling ‘almost’. Almost complete. Almost satiated. It is almost enough, yet decidedly lacking.
Occasionally, I still convince myself I am drifting in the right direction. I consider everything I might opt out of by turning my back on safety, and the way I package them without flaws tells me it would be foolish. Would it be so bad, I ask myself, to have the things I’m told I should want and nothing more? Would it really be so awful to accept the persistent, cavernous need in the pit of my stomach in exchange for an otherwise contented life?
In the wake of a new decade, I wonder whether it is too late to steer into a different tide. I imagine beginning each day with a lightness in my chest, a romanticised consequence of having made a decision that soothes my instinct. Probably, that decision would come with its own leaden weight resting just above my heart. I might be lonely, or distressed, or afraid for a myriad other reasons. I am certain I would be quite petrified. But I would sooner be afraid of the unknown than tethered to a weighty familiar, reminding me that of all the lives I could have chosen for myself, I made a half-choice and earned a half-life in return.
Alexandra Burton | @alxndrabrtn | Instagram: @alxndrabrtn | alxndrabrtn.com
Alexandra Burton lives and works in the North of England. When she’s not writing you’ll find her on the yoga mat, at the climbing wall, or tackling her growing TBR pile.