Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Can A Story Come Too Late?

I was fifteen years old. I had this oversized gray jacket that made me feel scrawny. My feet didn't touch the floor in my biology class chair. I was nowhere close to getting a driver's license. All my friends had the other lunch. I wasn't a career AP student like some of my friends, but the workload was enough to crush me. I won't say I was depressed-that's a mental health term and it belongs to the mentally ill-but I had gray days more often than not.
Life got better. I'm seventeen now, not any taller, but I can adjust the seat enough to reach the brake, so it doesn't hurt me. That jacket lives in the back of my closet. I'm taking slacker classes, like film studies. Today our teacher had us watch Dead Poet's Society. "If you haven't seen this yet, you're in for a treat."
She was right. School-weary students crushed by their parent's expectations. Clandestine poetry readings. True friendship. An inspiring teacher, played by Robin Williams, no less. And then there's that phrase they keep tossing around. Carpe diem. Seize the day, seize the day.
I can appreciate it now. I laughed at all the right parts and plenty of the wrong ones. While my friends did math homework by the screen's light or hid phones under their desks, I was enraptured. But I couldn't escape this sense that it had come too late. Dead Poets Society is brain candy for me now. But two years ago it would've been a pill.
This summer I read Jane Eyre for English. I picked it up sophomore year, read the first 200 pages, then ditched it for other books. There were times I wished I'd kept going. Jane struggles with loneliness. Maybe she would've lifted me out of my own.
Then there's this beautiful quote:
"Laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation. They are for moments such as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour. Stringent are they, inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I could break them what would be their worth? They have a worth, so I have always believe, and if I cannot believe it now it is because I am insane. Quite insane, with my veins running fire and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this moment to stand by: there I plant my foot."
I didn't have to look that up. I copied it down into my phone, iPod, journal, writing notebook, and this 30,000 word document on my computer called Rant Space. The words are seared into my mind. Aren't they pretty?
Maybe they aren't. Not for you, not for now. Would some context help? This is what Jane says to herself after the Mr. Tall Dark and Brooding Rochester asks her to become his mistress. If she leaves, she'll be penniless and alone once more.
But that's what she chooses.
And Rochester respects her for it.
More importantly, so does Jane.
To me, to me now, these words are powerful. They're all about how choosing to resist temptation is just as much of a choice as choosing to give in. They talk about that tipping point when you can feel yourself slipping and you just want to fling your agency into the wind. And then we get to see the aftermath. Jane's homeless for a few days. She nearly starves to death under a bush, but then she finds friends who feed her and goes back to Rochester eventually.
But at fifteen? Maybe I would've skimmed over that paragraph. "Blah blah don't know what stringent means blah blah just ditch him, Jane. How long is this book?"
This happens a lot. I read something. A book or a blog or an article, and I think, "Where was this when I needed it?"
My English teacher told me there's no such thing as reading a book too late. Humans are like Russian nesting dolls. The person you were is still the person you are, she's just hidden somewhere deep down, somewhere close to your core. When you pick up a book, the words penetrate the layers and they mean something to her-even though your new self has different problems and passions.
I'd like to agree with her. But I don't know it I can. Maybe I needed some distance from my sophomore year before I could even recognize the healing power of Jane Eyre and Dead Poets Society. Maybe they've hit me at the right time after all.
The other night, I watched Back to the Future with my fourteen year old brother. He doesn't need dead poets. He lives for laughs. There's a scene towards the beginning where Marty clings to the back of a truck while skateboarding. I found it stupid. "What's he doing? That's a good way to get yourself killed." But my longboarder brother? "That's genius!"
A boy in book club wrote this in my yearbook: "Remember, there's no such thing as a bad book, just a good book read at a bad time." I hope I can stay in touch with my inner layers. I hope I can find a way to make every book the right book at the time. I hope I can harbor some piece of myself that smiles when Marty hitches a ride.
What do you think? Is it better to run into a good story to early or too late?

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