It’s very rare that I read for pleasure, or even read at all. It’s an even more rare occurrence that I read a book and find myself in the pages.
I read Fahrenheit 451 last night and that was one of those times.
I first picked it up when I was about 13 out of my parents’ book collection. I didn’t have what I needed to completely grasp it, I think. I was a smart kid. I could understand the words and the concepts, but I never finished it because it wasn’t relevant at the time to what I was going through. I didn’t have enough of myself in me to be able to see my reflection in the pages.
I don’t think I would have understood the book in the way I did last night had I even read it a month ago. For the last month – no, several months – I have been learning how to question. Question what was told to me as a child and teen. What was told to me in church. What was told to me in college, all of my colleges. I was taught to question in college, but the lessons always had an undertone of “question the way WE want you to question”, as though they were expecting you to do the opposite of what happened here. I was taught to question growing up, but never in a way that went excessively out of the realm of “reality”.
Reality. Along with truth, everyone has their own version of it, even if two people claim to have the same perception. And so it went – people trying to keep me grounded ultimately became scared of me, I think, and then tried to keep me sane. I felt from around the age that I first picked up Fahrenheit that my emotions had to be convenient to others or else they were strongly encouraged to be managed and damn near suppressed. As the years went on, though, it became apparent that my emotions – specifically anger and sadness – were not convenient, could not be neatly expressed, easily gotten over, or fully escaped. I was not one of those houses in Fahrenheit, fireproof. I was, rather, the fire. I was a destroyer.
As mentioned in a previous post, I saw myself as deserving nothing more than to be labeled as such because I wasn’t “normal”. I wasn’t someone easily handled. Potential romantic partners fled, and that’s when I began to resent myself. I wanted to be like the girls who got that guy, and I asked myself, why did I have to be such a house fire? Why didn’t I give anything to the world? Why did I feel so damn strongly?
In high school, when I asked what I should do to get a guy, the answer in its simplest form was “be less intense.” This usually came with advice such as “don’t answer so many questions in class” and “wear more makeup”.
I tried that for a bit. It was as much a betrayal of myself as it would have I pretended to be someone completely opposite me. So I went back to being myself to the best of my ability.
I think some people were scared of me because of my sadness and anger. As 2016 drew to a close, my anger festered. My dad had died less than a year before, I carried a hated so bright it could be seen from space after the end of a traumatic relationship, and I had just left a college that felt like home for Texas and then Idaho. The environments couldn’t be more different.
I went from questioning books to questioning God, even though that was not the effect that the college wanted. I had learned to some degree how to wrestle with a book, and I supposed wrestling with God would be similar. My anger continued to rot.
It never felt safe to express emotion to some, for their response would be without fail some variation of “are you taking your meds?” or “have you told your therapist about this?” I listened to these people more than others because I felt they knew me. I had hurt them, and I was convinced that only those whom I had wounded truly knew me. So I listened to them forgetting all the while that there was some possibility that I wasn’t crazy, or on the brink of a manic or depressed episode, or even a full on meltdown. In the end, though, they were wrong.
That small motion, the white and red color, a strange fire because it meant a different thing to him. It was not burning, it was warming.Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
In the novel, firemen start fires, not stop them. Guy Montag is one such fireman until he meets a girl who starts to make him think. From there the meaning of fire starts to change. It goes from a way of life, the status quo, to a weapon, and finally a source of warmth and salvation.
He hadn’t known fire could look this way. He had never thought in his life that it could give as well as take. Even its smell was different.Fahrenheit 451
I started to go from wanting to be like one of the fireproof houses in the novel to accepting my role as the fire upon my move to Alaska. My husband changed everything for me.
Towards the beginning of our relationship, I challenged very little of what I had been told about myself. I thought about gender sometimes, but even that was deeply suppressed because how could that possibly be a part of me? I’d been told it wasn’t me when I went through it the first time, and I’d seen enough evidence to know it was correct. But something was still missing, it couldn’t be that? I was just a house fire, right?
It took months into our marriage to start changing my mind. My husband and I talked at length about how I might NOT have bipolar disorder. The doctor upheld the concerns that all of us had about my meds and ordered that I start lowering the dose on one and tapering off another entirely. I learned a few days later that the bipolar disorder diagnosis had been removed. It was some of the best news I had ever heard.
That’s why I love Fahrenheit so much. Montag went from accepting that things are perfect the way they are to learning there is much work to be done for there is nothing okay with the current situation. There are some in the novel that refuse to change and hear the truth, like Montag’s wife, Mildred, in the end:
“Montag, falling flat, going down, saw or felt, or imagined he saw or felt the walls go dark in Millie’s face, heard her screaming, because in the millionth part of time left, she saw her own face reflected there, in a mirror instead of a crystal ball, and it was such a wildly empty face, all by itself in the room, touching nothing, starved and eating of itself, that at last she recognized it as her own…”Fahrenheit 451
The people in Fahrenheit hide from themselves, the world, and self-awareness. There’s no real external government censorship involved. The citizens have chosen for themselves. Thinking is scary, and those who think for themselves are branded as insane. This is another reason why reading this novel was so vindicating – people who think and are branded as insane are the ones who triumph. And along with them, the meaning of fire changes.
The meaning of my fire has changed. Breaking free from what I have been told, thinking for myself – I’m no ordinary house fire.
I sang once in a song I wrote called “Gone”,
“And the cities we built, they stood for a time, but I will rise like a phoenix from the ashes they left behind.” “Gone”
I have risen like a phoenix from the ashes I have left behind. Maybe that’s why I write so much about fire.