Tag: miles davis

How My 23-Year-Old Self Spoke to Me — New York in the Fifties

Tonight, I’m listening to Monk’s Dream by, who else, Thelonious Monk.  The track on right now is Body and Soul.  When it comes to music, I often think that I’m stuck in the past.  I mean, if I was living in the 50s and 60s, would I have even known who Monk was?  Would I have appreciated him?  Would I have seen him on television?  And I find myself wondering,  who is Thelonious Monk today? You know, I’m scared that he might just be some DJ or electronic guy, and I have been missing the boat.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about tonight.  What I want to write about tonight is a message I received from the past.  Yes, the past.

In graduate school, I took this class called New York in the Fifties, taught by Dan Wakefield.  In that class, we read Salinger, Baldwin, Miles Davis’ autobiography, Kerouac, as well as others.  For the final project, we had to write an essay on a book we were reading and how it related to the class.  Well, being the smart ass that I am, which I’m some what proud of — my grandfather, Poppy, would probably be pissed.  He always told me not to be a smart ass — I wrote a personal essay on how Kerouac’s On the Road changed me.

Well, it was the first time I really wrote about my mother’s mental illness.  It was the first time that I confronted those memories on paper in a way that wasn’t just journal entries.  And well, rereading the piece inspired me.  I’m about to share a piece of that writing with you.

But first, a bit of context: Honestly, yesterday I was having a tough day.  Freelancing is tough.  You don’t get paid much right away, and it’s difficult to come to terms with having no security.  So, I had this idea to pitch a piece on Kerouac.  And I pulled out the essay from Wakefield’s class.  And it brought tears to my eyes.  Not because I thought it was good writing, but because I heard a voice, my voice, speaking to me, reminding me, of the principles and thoughts I had when I was younger.  That I should continue to have today.

Here is that piece of writing:

“I see many similarities between the 50s and now, and it is the reawakening of a great spirit.  The American spirit.  The spirit Kerouac saw during his travels.  I see this spirit in Obama…I see this spirit in my friends who are trying, desperately,  to create art in the face of a recession.  I see this spirit in my little brother, waiting to graduate high school so he can take on his road.  I see this spirit in myself.  This spirit is madness.

“I’m only 23, but I’ve driven all over the country, taken trains across Europe, and I read and listen and search all forms of art and thoughts for a truth.  Kerouac has changed my life and millions of other people by showing us that we’re all mad in a certain sense.  He showed us that there is a way to react against the delusions of American values by pursuing the true American Dream — the promise of adventure and discovery and equality.  I know this is all highfalutin ideas, and I’m not grounded, really, but I’m finding a great relief in this writing process.  I’m finding a great freedom in my mind.  I’m not scared anymore…But here are my thoughts on Kerouac and the 50s and what I’ve learned from your class.  My whole life I’ve wanted to be special.  I’ve decided on writing.  I’m often scared that the way I see the world is so different and my values are not shared.  I often fear going forward with my writing career.  But if many of the standards of America are delusions, than so is my fear of failure within that system.  I’m mad.  I know it.  I’m going to find my own way to express myself one day.  One that fits.”

Well, it was good to hear my voice.  And for a moment, I couldn’t be happier.  Because whatever it is that I’m after, I’m still trying to find it.

Can I Pay for that with a Poem?

Right now, I’m sitting outside of my apartment listening to Miles Davis’ “A Kind of Blue.”  Hendrix, my dog, is watching the night’s sky, and I’m taking a break from a piece I’m writing on the LA poet laureate.  I need to take a break and kind of think away from the page, away from the assignment, to reorient my thoughts.

So, I’ve been trying very hard, over this last month, to find ways to make writing pay.  To use words as commerce, as funding for a life.  But I find myself, right now, wondering about poetry.  It’s a form that I love, but it’s a form that no one, hardly, will pay for.  And I have found that I’ve been writing less and less poetry.

Well, what is the point of poetry?  What is the point of writing it?

When I was in graduate school, I thought about switching from a concentration in Fiction to Poetry.  But in the end, I sort of thought about poetry in a similar way to a hydrogen car.  Lol, let me explain.  The way I understand a hydrogen car is that the by-product of the reaction that takes place is that water is produced.  All this machinery working hard to power an automobile, to have an object move us around the grid, and it produces water — the building block to life.  I sort of thought about poetry in that way.  That when I was writing fiction, the machinery pumping, the byproduct was poetry.  That I would find the poetic moment by working at something else, and it was difficult to force that moment.

But now that I am out in the world, trying to survive without graduate school, I am starting to realize I had it all wrong — poetry is the goal.  It is a job that is “unproductive” and financially suicidal, but it provides me with so much spiritual satisfaction.  When I find the poetic moment, today, it strikes me as something so valuable and rare that it almost startles me.  I want to keep this in my life.  I want to cultivate these moments rather than allow them to startle me.

So, the other night, I found one of these moments at 2:00 a.m. when I was looking for a cab somewhere just outside of Downtown Long Beach.  I called a cab about a half an hour earlier, and I was staring at my phone, waiting for them to let me know they arrived.  I needed to get home.  It was way too late.  So, finally, my phone rang, and I bolted out the door and stepped outside to find the cab.

Nothing there though.  I kept walking down the streets, looking for the cab.  It was late.  The neon lights from a liquor store were blinking like eyelids, and I was lost.  I didn’t even know what street I was on, and, suddenly, I was struck with a sense of fear — was I in a dangerous part of town?

I looked around to gage my surroundings.  A woman walked out of the liquor store, banging on a pack of cigarettes.  I looked into a puddle, and I saw a reflection of the sky, the few visible stars mirrored in the water, when a car drove through it, scattering the parallel world.  I looked up, and I noticed the actual stars for the first time in nearly three weeks.  And across the street, two men were sitting on a bus stop, rapping.

I was no longer scared.  Then the cab pulled up and brought me home.

Whether or not I was successful in relating the significance of that moment, it was something I treasure, because most of the time I’m just rolling stones up a mountain and watching them fall back down.  I treasure the moment that meant nothing and everything at the same time.