Photo: Hannah Soyer and Iowa Poet Laureate Mary Swander
Dear Barbara Kingsolver,
It is quite possible that your book has saved my life. Ten years from now, if I had never read The Bean Trees, my body itself might still be floating around in the concoction we call life, but I myself would be missing from this recipe. I knew from the very first sentence of your book — "I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign. "— that Taylor and I had something in common: we were both comprised of the same thing — fear.
I guess you could say that fear has always been a big ingredient in my life. When I was 16 months old, I was diagnosed with a rare version of muscular dystrophy, causing my body to deteriorate gradually. Soon, I became the host to illnesses like flu or pneumonia, which could wrack my body with coughs and vomiting to the point of hospitalization. At these times, fear would well up inside me like an ugly black wave and wipe out any other emotions. Quite simply, I knew I could be dying, and might not have the strength to continue.
Then, as I neared middle school, another type of fear took root inside me. For a while, I had no idea why things were suddenly scaring me more than usual, or why most nights I stayed up crying, adding salty tears to the jumble of emotions swirling around me. In 7th grade, I participated in mock trial, and encountered probably the worst couple months of my life. We were working on a murder trial where the accused man had many anger problems. For an addled mind like mine, it didn't take long to link two and two together: If I were mad at someone, would that mean I would kill them? And wasn't that half murder anyway: premeditation and malice aforethought? As you can tell, I was a mess. When my mom would try to get through to me by asking what I was scared of, I'd sob out "Myself." Then, contrary to the first ten or so years of my life, death would have been welcome. There were nights where I would pray to God to kill me before I harmed someone. I'd go to bed hoping I'd never wake up, never have to live one more day in the presence of fear. Anyone else would have recognized this as depression; I however, was sure I was losing my mind.
I was in the stage of recovery two years later when I picked up The Bean Trees. My grandma had lent it to me, and I hadn't given it much hope — like other things at that time. Imagine my bewilderment when I began to recognize myself in every page of your writing. Taylor, whose burden — the Cherokee refugee child, Turtle — was just as overwhelming as the confusion about who I was, was my ferocious and outspoken side. Turtle, who had lived through an unspeakable past, was the part of me that longed for understanding and a light through the darkness. And Esperanza, with her sadness and despair, her misery and sorrow, was the happy facade ripped away, revealing the most hollow part of my soul.
As I read the line "Esperanza tried to kill herself" a shudder ran through my body. Not waiting to let the impact of this line cut through me, I searched restlessly for some explanation. Suicide is something that still greatly disturbs me. Like Esperanza, there have been many times in my life where I've thought I simply can't keep going. But although the fear has stretched me thin and worn me out, a last shred of hope has always stopped me before completely giving up. Sometimes, though, I've wondered if this will always be enough. Hope is, after all, just hope. Not a cure for the fear that plagued me.
I found my solace as Taylor visits with Esperanza after her attempted suicide. " 'I think Esperanza 's a beautiful name. Estevan told me it means to wait, and also to hope. That in Spanish the same word means both things.... I guess the main thing I came here to tell you is, I don 't know how you go on, but I really hope you 'll keep doing it. That you won't give up esperanza.... it is all you get, no second chances. What you have to do is try and think of reasons to stick it out.' "Tears were welling up inside me as I read this part. Taylor's words seemed to slice though skin and bone, right to my heart. Like most truths, it isn't pretty. But it still is the truth. You keep on living, no matter what. Hope, or esperanza, is really all you get.
The counselor I have started to see once told me about a man who after many years of suffering had been able to call his depression a gift. It wasn't until I read your book that I came to fully realize that my last few years could be a gift as well. Turtle and her ability to overcome her horrendous past was a gift for Esperanza, though the child had once been a reminder of the daughter she had lost. Taylor had spent the first part of her life avoiding tires and motherhood, and was now counting them as a blessing. Turtle, her heaviest burden to begin with, was now opening her eyes to so many things she hadn't known before.
It goes without saying that fear will always be a big part of my life. From now on, however, my life is not going to consist of just this. Taylor's mom once told her "Even a spotted pig looks black at night,' " meaning things usually look better in the morning, when there's light. How true this is. And yet some things, like Edna and Virgie May's night-blooming cereus, are only beautiful in the dark. And some things, like me, can learn to be both.
Thanks to your book, my life will have a different recipe from now on: fear, because it's unavoidable; hope, because it goes right alongside fear; and, as Taylor remarks in the last sentence of your book, "Me. The main ingredient."