I’ve never been very cool.
In elementary school I was hopelessly awkward, understated as a nerd and definitely not a fashionista in any capacity.
It just got worse in middle school. I had a bad perm, my glasses were thick plastic frames, and I was always the last one picked in any social event. Around my peers, my nickname became “white dog” and “Garth” (yes … from Wayne’s World). There were many days I called home to have my mom come and get me from school because the kids were being so harsh. On occasion she would actually come and get me. Most days she would just tell me to ignore them and leave me to the wolves. (OK … a little exaggerated.)
Needless to say, I didn’t have many friends. I had books though. Every week my class would go to the library to check out books. Every week I left the library with seven-to-10 books that I typically finished within the week. As sad as it may sound, these books were my friends. I took them with me everywhere. I read while I walked; I read in class; I read in church … thus being the one thing my parents would ground me from. (Reading, that is.) I was always devastated when they told me I couldn’t read. Usually, I would sneak a book anyway, incognito under the mattress of my bed.
You laugh, but I’m really not kidding. With these books, I was able to enter another world. For those couple of hours, I could escape and become any character I wanted to be. I was Mandy solving mysteries and getting myself into trouble. I was Christy who had the unquenchable thirst for what these “God-Lovers” had, not to mention irresistibly attracted to that good-looking surfer named Todd.
I was Nancy Drew.
I was one of the Boxcar Children.
It got a little better in high school, I became a cheerleader and with that my shyness trickled away. I was still made fun of, though. And up until my senior year, not many people truly understood me.
I still had my books though, and at this point, I had discovered the cathartic exercise of writing. Many nights would be spent in my room with the Mandy Moore CD playing in the background, and I would write what I thought was an angst filled story of unrequited love and the pressures of being 16.
If only I knew.
Once I got to college, I had never been more excited. Classes centered on literature! Not just the typical English class—no—this was American Fiction and Women in Literature and Studies of Hispanic Fiction. There were even classes on writing! I was sure I had died and gone to Barbara Kingsolver’s version of heaven.
It was in college that I met Dr. Cole.
Ahh …Dr. Cole. The petite red head that is definitely more energetic and passionate than any athlete I know. I remember in the first class I had with her—Shakespeare my junior year—she consistently wore a pin with a phrase that has changed the way I look at literature forever: ART SAVES LIVES. I would sit there and read that phrase, over and over again, and every time I would remember a certain book that had taught me a lesson or saved me from social annihilation or entertained me for hours on end. (The latter is harder than you think.)
I think of the first time I read The Great Gatsby, and really understood the hopelessness of searching for something that is truly unattainable. “The American Dream,” in and of itself, is this something. This is why I think so many people aren’t satisfied with their lives—they are looking for the white picket fence mentality to meet them where their wallets are empty and make them instantly happy, beautiful, skinny, popular and wanted. Even Gertrude Stein noticed this epidemic and said about her own peers, “we are all a lost generation.” Despite the level of success, wealth, popularity, there is always something more. That green light is always shining in the distance … beckoning. I became so attached to this novel (and still am, to be honest) that I was willing to risk insanity and write a 16 page paper over it my sophomore year in college. I got an A.
I also think of when I read The Poisonwood Bible and was spellbound by Kingsolver’s melodic writing and the way the words just danced off the page with a rhythm of their own. I remember finishing the novel and aching to be in Haiti again, in the jungle that has captured part of my heart and has never let go; much like the Congo does to the characters in this novel. I remember praying that I would never become a Nathan Price, so bent on my view of Christianity that I miss opportunities to share Jesus with someone who has never heard his name. I had a Bonnie Gerard moment (another influential professor) when I completed the novel for the first time and promised myself that someday I would teach a class that had this novel in the syllabus. I’m almost there.
I’ve always had a love affair with reading. But it never got personal until Dr. Cole. The characters had always been my best friends. The words on the page always haunted me with hidden meanings and allusions begging to be found. But I never fully understood the impact literature could have on someone until I encountered that phrase. Art saves lives.
Perhaps literature has saved my life. Perhaps it’s saved me from a life void of any meaning and reflection. Regardless, I know that if it hadn’t been for literature and the brilliant minds that etched the words into chapters and chapters into novels, I don’t know where I’d be.
God is the ultimate story teller, and His literature speaks of passion and calling. Each of us has this burning inside of us that is uniquely ours, breathed into us by the author of life Himself. I think I found mine in the green lights and lush jungles of the written word.