yourself with older eyes
by Aqeela Naqvi
i have always wondered what people mean when they say, certain stories greet you differently every time you read them. that as your story changes, so does the story for you on the page.
a while back i took up the task of revisiting those many mandatory high school classroom reads – both the ones i loved and the ones i hated (except The Scarlet Letter… anything but The Scarlet Letter) – to see if they read differently the second time around.
the first book on the list (which also happened to be the first book i had ever read for a high school english class) was A Separate Peace. which i had picked up last? when i was fourteen.
i remember being sprawled on the couch with the windows open, a light breeze drifting in, the symphony of crickets the only sound to keep me company on the last few summer nights before my very first day of high school, completely engrossed in Knowles’ words. from the turn of the first page, i felt a heaviness settle in my chest as i ventured into my earliest exposure of the gritty, heart-wrenching, sometimes light sometimes shadow complexities of friendship, betrayal, pain, and loss; the innocence of youth that is lost too soon.
A Separate Peace became one of my favorite books. but after having read it once (and then having been forced to thoroughly over-analyze and take apart and twist and turn it in ways i doubt Knowles himself even knew it could be turned) i doubted i would ever pick it up again.
but then, when i was twenty-two, a friend of my youth died.
for the first time, i found myself dealing with emotions complex, twisted, caught in the present but so inextricably tied up in the past, filled with the bittersweet nostalgia of a time that had been long-since marked as passed – but, through death – could now never be returned to again.
winter. cemeteries. frost-bitten ground. funerals.
with shaking hands, learning to navigate the waves of unpathed and stormy seas.
for many months afterwards, i avoided so many of those hometown places that were still too raw to return to. some days, the taste of memories was like flowers; others, like the taste of copper in my mouth. after some time, it started to become clear that i had to return to that place. to the high school, the drive-by route of which i had long avoided, but which now, it was finally time to face.
returning to that olden brick building, with its hollowed stairs my feet had so often walked; looking across the peeling paint of cracked-open windows and entryways; taking in the ancient trees overhanging the U-shaped drive once lined with the rumble of yellow buses and the clamor of teens… i felt a finality in my chest of a grassy lawn that was now nothing more than silence, shadow, and the remembered laughter of ghosts.
caught in contemplation, a passage suddenly flicked across my mind – a passage i had not thought of since i last left it on the scribbled final-exam page of a freshman year classroom. words that had not drifted across my brainwaves for eight years, but which now appeared and refused to leave; an apparition, another haunting ghost.
“Moving through the soaked, coarse grass I began to examine each one closely, and finally identified the tree I was looking for by means of certain small scars rising along its trunk, and by a limb extending over the river, and another thinner limb growing near it. This was the tree, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age. In this double demotion the old giants have become pigmies while you were looking the other way.
The tree was not only stripped by the cold season, it seemed weary from age, enfeebled, dry. I was thankful, very thankful that I had seen it. So the more things remain the same, the more they change after all—plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change. Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence.
Changed, I headed back through the mud. I was drenched; anybody could see it was time to come in out of the rain.”
-Chapter One, A Separate Peace
the moment i got home, i fumbled through my closet looking, looking, until there – the tattered cover of that paperback novel i had not touched in nearly a decade, but which had reached out to find me once more.
the turn of the first page – and i was fourteen again. but this time, i was not reading, embarking on, soaking in the idea of days of youth still to come. this time, i had already lived them.
this time, i had returned to finally say goodbye.
i had always wondered what people meant when they said, certain stories greet you differently every time you read them. that as your story changes, so does the story for you on the page.
eight years later, i had finally begun to understand… and in this understanding, i was struck by how unaware we are of how much life changes – how much we change – until we return to a place of the past and realize that it hasn’t been one life, but many lives we’ve lived in between. that who we are now is much of what we were, but also much of what we’ve become.
it is something else, reading a younger memory of yourself with older eyes.