In Search of the Pear Tree

I’ve read Their Eyes Were Watching God almost every year since I was a sophomore in high school. Each experience grounds me deeper into my self, revealing new truths even after I left the last reading assured I learned all there was to know. This time around, I found the life of Janie Crawford drawing me closer to another woman in my life, my great-grandmother. The woman’s life hangs over my family like a legend. Much like Janie, my great-grandmother ran away from home at a young age in search of, I believe, that same pear tree that awakened Janie in her grandmother’s front yard. And like Janie, my great-grandmother paid a price for such curiosity, such fearlessness, such hope.

When Janie’s grandmother sees her granddaughter begin to blossom with the same curiosity, fearlessness and hope that ignited my great-grandmother, she cuts the young girl down with the reality that the negro woman is the mule of the world. I’m not sure if my great-grandmother had gotten that talk from her mother before she ran off, but I can imagine that life sure did to my great-grandmother what Janie’s grandmother did to her: “[take] the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon,…and [pinch] it in to such a little bit of a thing that she [Janie’s grandmother] could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her.”

I wonder often about the woman I’ve never met, but whose life story I can recite as if it were my own. I wonder what pieces of herself she had to hide, like Janie, in order to stay outwardly alive. What had fallen off her internal shelf and did she ever pick it up? Did she ever get to experience what Janie witnessed the bees and the buds of flowers did in that pear tree? Did she ever get time to pull in her horizon and look over what was caught in its meshes? How many of our great-grandmothers lived like Janie, or longed to? These are questions that sparked Alice Walker’s collection, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, and it is one that I think about each time I try to understand my own life. The freedoms, however little they sometimes seem to be, were paid for in gold by women like Janie, like my great-grandmother, who dared to follow their heart.

Their Eyes Were Watching God has, in some magical way, brought me closer to my great-grandmother as I find myself capable of looking at her story as something more than a larger than life legend and something tangible, tactile, like the textures of my own life that change with each new life experience. Though I imagine that a lot of my great-grandmother’s naive dreams were crushed after she ran away from home, I admire her the same way I do Janie Crawford; they were women who were not satisfied being anyone’s mule, women who believed that there was joy and pleasure and sweetness to be had from this life and were relentless in their search for it. They are both women I aspire to be.

Another reading of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel has left me eternally grateful for her own relentless truth telling. She has, yet again, brought me closer to myself. Closer to a self I was almost a century ago in Columbus, Mississippi who snuck away from the well and ran from home in search of that pear tree. Today, I am still searching, as I believe all black women are and should be.

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An American Marriage, review

At sixteen I thought I knew what romantic love was. Head over heels for a boy who turned my world completely upside down there was never a doubt in my mind that what we had was real. And what was real was meant to be held onto, no matter how painful the grip. The idea of “meant to be,” began to feel more like duty than destiny and that is the conflict that ties An American Marriage by Tayari Jones together. Celestine and Roy are two individuals who think they have this love and marriage thing figured out, but life has a way of showing the both of them that they don’t know the first thing about anything. Both their love and notions of duty are tested by an unforeseen circumstance that, while unfair to both parties, reveal truths that were bound to come to light regardless.

I will admit I struggled with the story at first, but the more I kept reading, the more I saw myself in both Celestine and Roy. I understood the duty that Roy and the other men in the novel tried to impose on Celestine, knew it because I felt a sense of duty to stick by the man I had committed myself to at sixteen even when I wasn’t sure he was worth it anymore. And I understood the need for liberation and autonomy Celestine was trying to explain to everyone in the novel who seemed to ignore her voice—it’s what ultimately led me to realize what I was holding onto wasn’t worth the sacrificing of my own life. What I love most about Jones’ novel is how it gripped me in a way I was not prepared for. She has a way of crafting a mirror that so clearly reflects truths people often hide from.

At twenty-five I learned how to let go. Just as Roy realized that what he was fighting for was a phantom of a dream, something that was worthless if it had to be forced. I looked into the eyes of a man I swore I loved and realized I didn’t know him at all. I realized that what I was fighting tooth and nail for was something that did not exist between us anymore, and maybe it never did, but I knew that regardless it was not worth holding onto. I do not imagine that he and I will ever get to the point of where Celestine and Roy find themselves at the end of An American Marriage,  but I can say, confidently, that I have learned something about love: it boils down to acceptance.

The beginning of the first Corinthians scripture about love are probably the most popular, but the line that sticks with me the most is, “Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.” I have come to understand that love is not possible without accepting the truth of who someone is just as it is not possible without revealing the truth of who you are. When Celestine and Roy are able to finally see each other for who they are—not who they want the other to be—they are able to accept one another and unlock a freedom that wasn’t possible before then. I have experienced this in my own life and I don’t believe it would have been possible without my foolish first attempt at love, just as Celestine and Roy would not have been able to arrive at their final destination without going through the journey we watch them navigate throughout the novel. The brilliance of Jones’ book is so unassuming it sneaks up on you toward the end, instantly making you want to start from the beginning again. It’s a feat so astounding I see why Oprah chose it for her book club.

If you want a light read that packs a meaningful punch, I highly recommend An American Marriage. It will stir some dormant questions in you and make you look at love, destiny, and duty in a different light.