When I was a teenager, I came across two pieces of writing that profoundly effected me. They aren’t, by most standards, great pieces of writing, they just happened to be there precisely when I needed them—you know, that book that comes into your hands exactly when you think that no one in the world has ever felt the way you do and goddamn it if it isn’t exactly about where you are at. For me, these pieces of writing were Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans and Bob Dylan’s “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.”
Flash back in time to the late 90’s. I am seventeen years old, and one of my first boyfriends has broken up with me via telephone (not even by text! oh, the 90s). I lock myself in my bedroom to cry for a few days, and sitting on my bed is a book I picked up at the local independent bookstore that I haven’t yet read. It’s Kerouac’s Subterraneans. At this point, I had read On the Road and a few other beat memoirs/novels/poems, but didn’t know what this thin volume held. And what did it matter, anyway? My boyfriend (isn’t it telling that I can’t remember which boyfriend, but I can remember which book?) was gone! And I had loved him! Actually loved him! How could I even read at a time like this?
Luckily, I did. In this book, Kerouac goes on a several-day-drug-fueled rant about a brief, intense love affair. Though I’m sure if I reread it today, I would be appalled by Kerouac’s misogyny and racism, at seventeen this was it. This was what love was about. This was exactly what I felt.
And some of it is beautiful. Take, for example, these lines, still today some of my favorite about the details that make you love another human being:
The second piece of writing came to me under somewhat darker circumstances. At age 23, I was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, my first experiences with the disorder came when I was a teenager, specifically after a week of LSD and cocaine use, when I spent days unable to sleep, unable to turn off my racing thoughts, feeling like I was about to lose my mind or die or both. My family and friends were at as much of a loss as I was as to what was happening, but days into the episode, I turned on my CD player late at night to discover words I could not form myself coming out of the mouth of my then favorite poet, Bob Dylan.
“When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb
When you think you’re too old, too young, too smart or too dumb
When yer laggin’ behind an’ losin’ yer pace
In a slow-motion crawl of life’s busy race
No matter what yer doing if you start givin’ up
If the wine don’t come to the top of yer cup
If the wind’s got you sideways with one hand holdin’ on
And the other starts slipping and the feeling is gone
And yer train engine fire needs a new spark to catch it
And the wood’s easy findin’ but yer lazy to fetch it
And yer sidewalk starts curlin’ and the street gets too long
And you start walkin’ backwards though you know its wrong
And lonesome comes up as down goes the day
And tomorrow’s mornin’ seems so far away
And you feel the reins from yer pony are slippin’
And yer rope is a-slidin’ ’cause yer hands are a-drippin’
And yer sun-decked desert and evergreen valleys
Turn to broken down slums and trash-can alleys
And yer sky cries water and yer drain pipe’s a-pourin’
And the lightnin’s a-flashing and the thunder’s a-crashin’
And the windows are rattlin’ and breakin’ and the roof tops a-shakin’
And yer whole world’s a-slammin’ and bangin’
And yer minutes of sun turn to hours of storm
And to yourself you sometimes say
‘I never knew it was gonna be this way
Why didn’t they tell me the day I was born?”’
As my life went on, and I began dealing with my addiction and disorder, the words still meant a lot to me. Today, I have “Your sun-decked deserts and evergreen valleys/turn to broken-down slums and trash-can alleys” tattooed across my back. It’s a constant reminder of who I am, and that as alone as I have felt, I was not the first to feel this way.
Today, as someone resembling an adult, I more often find books that speak to me than books that speak for me. Today the books that I identify with are often calls to arms–recently That’s Revolting (a book about queer activists resisting the assimilation politics of the mainstream LGBTQ movement), Fire on the Mountain (an alternate history in which, through the tactical brilliance of Harriet Tubman, John Brown succeeds in his raid on Harper’s Ferry and establishes a rebel army of abolitionists and slaves in the Blue Ridge Mountains), a few years ago The Coming Insurrection (which, for all its flaws and doubletalk and lack of strategy or specifics, I found really sweet and inspiring)–but there is something to be said for the books we find when we are young and inarticulate and the world inside us is as strange and unspeakable and confusing as the world outside us will later reveal itself to be. The books that spoke to me when I was younger are stories about being basically human. Stories about love and confusion and searching. And when you are young and searching, sometimes it is a wonderful feeling to take, through words, the hand of someone who is searching, too.