A few months ago, I wrote and read this spoken word poem in my literature class. Just a few weeks before graduation, I was feeling anxious about my future and overwhelmed by the infinite options I could choose from. Luckily, I had an outlet to voice these feelings, and I incorporated a Sylvia Plath concept, advice from my ever-wise lit teacher, and the perpetually frustrating question of “Can you have it all?” into one sort of pessimistic, really earnest piece.
I’ve been thinking about these words as my first day of college draws nearer, and with it adulthood and “the real world.” Today’s my 18th birthday, and it all feels so close. It’s a bittersweet feeling, I guess.
If I’d known the poem would get the attention it did, I would have memorized it like my teacher wanted me to—but, of course, I read it from my iPhone (so ignore that!). The video’s a bit blurry, and the audio isn’t perfect, but the poem’s meant to be heard as well as read.
Watch the video here: “You Can Have It All”
Here’s the text:
“You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once.”
She is my lit teacher,
A formative feminist influence,
And her words ring with the wisdom of 35 years of teaching teenage kids
Hungry for and scared to death of their huge futures.
“You can have it all”
The doors are there, she’s telling me, every door I want to enter,
Every achievement and position,
Power and prestige,
If only I dare open them.
“But you can’t have it all at once.”
Here are all the doors.
A line of doors extending miles
Their paint blue and brown and glossy
And if I open one door
Hear the creak of its protesting hinges
A deadbolt down the line slides shut.
The more knockers I lift
The more boards get nailed against the jambs of all the other doors.
I am a somewhat unstable teenage girl who likes poetry
And like most unstable girls with loves of poetry I like Sylvia Plath,
I read The Bell Jar in tenth grade and thought she’d written it for me,
The older I get the more solipsistic I become in that regard.
She writes of a towering fig tree
Branches heavy with fruit.
Each fig symbolizes some fantastic future ahead.
One is a happy family,
Another the life of a famous poet
Another a position as a brilliant professor
Foreign lovers with foreign names
If you choose one fig, clamber up the trunk to a single branch and pick one fig,
Pluck your forbidden fruit of choice,
The rest fall and rot in the dirt
Their possibilities lost to you.
No takebacks if you pick the wrong fig. Store policy is no returns. So instead of inching up the tree,
Instead of pursuing your fig with all your vigor,
You stand at the base,
Paralyzed with fear.
Rather than choose the wrong one
Or choose one at all
You abstain from fig-picking completely.
The fruit drops before ever touching your fingers
And the tree withers away
Felled by your fatal uncertainty.
“You can have it all”
But I know I can’t
I know that having one thing means losing another
And nobody believes any different.
I know it because when I wanted to be a doctor
People told me I wouldn’t be a doctor
They said I’d get married instead.
I know it because when I told my dad I wanted to be a journalist
He said I couldn’t do what I love and not starve to death.
How can you choose when every choice is equally attractive and repulsive to you?
I want baby blankets and sticky fingers and I want lullabies and forced piano lessons I want the joy I can have when I make something out of my own body and blood
And I want pantsuits and I want a professional position and I want glossy photos and blocked typeface I want red pens and people that answer to me
And I want conflict and war I want tears and shrapnel I want to talk to refugees in dirty desert camps and I want to cover rebel soldiers in clandestine locations I want to get captured and held for a ransom no one will pay for a lowly war correspondent
And I want long Saturdays shut up with a keyboard in a shaded office on my home’s second floor and I want the smell of Sharpie and my signature on a page and I want my name on a dozen front covers in glossy script
And I want a Dr. before my name, a name written upon a chalkboard every fall and I want to teach impressionable college students to do something bigger than themselves and I want to spend my whole life cramming my brain with knowledge
And I want to learn how to play upright bass and join an indie band I want to tour the country playing music I make to audiences who don’t give a damn what our clever band name is.
And I want to run a girl’s orphanage in Peru I want to mother fifty girls and make sure they have bras and tampons and lunches and all the things I’ve never had to ask for
And I want to own a small bookstore I want to buy secondhand paperbacks with pen in the margins I want to recline on a leather chair all day reading Aristotle and Austen and Poe
And I want to live in Buenos Aires I want to live in Spain I want to live by dirty canals and hear song in a hundred languages I want to live in a jungle or a savannah I want to live somewhere where for the first time in my life I can get a tan I want to climb to the top of the world and see what I can see from up there
I want everything
And I can’t have everything.
The tree is so vast
And I am such a slow climber.
I can’t have it all
And I definitely can’t have it all at once.