“Most of what makes a book ‘good,’” wrote Alain de Botton, “is that we’re reading it at the right moment for us.” The art that means the most in my life—the art that has profoundly resonated with me—has just as much to do with where I was—both physically and mentally—when I first encountered it as it does the artist’s original intentions. And sometimes, when you experience that kind of art, it can feel like the art found you instead of you finding it.
If we’ve had a conversation about movies sometime in the last year, there’s a good chance I begged you to watch Liberal Arts, an independent film written, directed, and starring Josh Radnor, of How I Met Your Mother fame. It is one of those films that feels like it found me exactly when I needed it most. I have no idea where I heard about it or why it was the movie I decided to download it before I flew to San Francisco to look for apartments. I found myself sitting on that plane, embarking on the biggest change in my life so far, thinking about the apartments I’d be looking at, working out logistics from the airport, and terrified to be moving across the country; yet this movie gave me a strange comfort.
Liberal Arts centers around Jesse, a 35-year-old college admissions officer following a recent breakup. One of his English professors invites Jesse back to speak at his retirement dinner and Jesse suddenly finds himself back on his college campus, feeling like his time there was the best in his life—a time where he could read all day and talk about ideas with others like him. He meets a 19-year-old sophomore, Zibby, and after striking up conversation over a shared interest in books and music, they become pen pals and a relationship blossoms. The film follows the build up and unraveling of that relationship through the tension between nostalgia for youth and the desire to move into the future.
That’s something I can relate to. It’s easy for me to long for my college years; to think of them as the best years of my life or just want to skip it all and jump into the future. Those thoughts tend to creep in at the crossroads. Jesse feels them after he finds himself newly single and dissatisfied with his job and I felt them before I make the leap to move across the country. But life moves forward at its own pace whether we’re ready for it or not. As much as we’d sometimes like, we don’t get to do it over. We can try to resist it—to prolong the next stage—but life doesn’t stand still. “Change takes time,” one of the characters tells the confused Jesse, “give it a few minutes to settle in.”
Perhaps more than art finding us when we need it most, the best art are the pieces that grow with us and each repeated interaction reveals something new, something we need at this moment. I watched the movie again last week and a line jumped out at me in a way it never had before. Towards the end, Jesse is in a bookstore talking with the clerk. “I’m actually starting to read less. I started to feel like reading about life was taking time away from actually living life,” she says to him, “So I’m starting to accept invitations to things, say hi to the world a little more.” Man, that line practically knocked me out of my seat. I know what that’s like. I’ve been there. I might be there now; turning down invitations because I’d rather be alone with a book.
And perhaps that’s really what this film is all about. It’s about saying “yes” to life. We can waste so much of our energy thinking about our past and worrying about our future but today is what is important; everything will sort itself out in the end. Change takes time, just give it a few minutes to settle in.