This past Friday, the Jack Straw Writers were each paired with a musician who used our writing as inspiration for an original musical work of his or her own. Together, we performed them at Bushwick Book Club, a performance-based literary gathering held at the Royal Room in the Columbia City neighborhood.
A few weeks ago, I met up with Joy Mills, the singer/songwriter who selected my work. We traded notes back and forth, and she opted to use one of the short pieces I wrote from my trip to Chicago called “In Transit” as her touchstone. When I emailed her an edited version (below), she responded:
I’m writing from a theme of wonder, much like your character is wondering all these things while looking at the juxtaposition of the man in the street and the privilege around that bustles around him.
Once I read this, I realized that I have forgotten about the importance of wonder in my project. Over the past nine months, I’ve become so accustomed to being out of my element that even the revelation of travel is losing its wonder for me.
Admittedly, my method of writing has posed a greater challenge than I originally perceived: to travel to a place for a few short days, intently poised on noticing every detail about the city and the people I encounter, to seek connections and a constantly unfolding adventure, to persistently think-think-think then to return home to a full-time job and sundry demands… This schedule leaves little time for the writing and reflecting that actually comprise the book. It makes me sorely miss the two months I spent in Civita where I was able to immerse myself into that tiny microcosm and tease its foundational bits apart one by one… and sleep well each night.
That has not been the case with this endeavor, especially the sleeping part. On Monday as I half-snoozed fitfully somewhere above the Pacific Ocean during my 12-hour flight from Auckland to San Francisco, I inhaled someone’s flu virus from the recirculated plane air. The instant the woman’s sneezing began, I cringed, covering up my nose with my sweater, knowing as a condemned man knows that my prayers of being spared would do no good. Thankfully, the flu shot I got just before departing for New Zealand has reduced the virus’s impact, but I’ve been home in bed this weekend, days before I am to depart for Miami—the last city I am to explore before coming home to write about Seattle.
Honestly, after all these months of anticipating my visit to the Sunshine State, I am not sure that I want to go.
Adding up all the money and time and spirit I’ve spent traveling the nation this year, there’s a part of me that wants to remain at home. Where I once brightened at the smell of airport air as a signal of promise, I’m dreading the tin can of germs that awaits me this week. Admittedly, this is in part because I’m already sick and tired. The other part comes from a calloused perception of people and places, and ultimately, a waning sense of wonder. I’m so close to achieving my goal that I’m wanting to skip to the end just to be finished.
Before Joy explained her selection, I was curious why she picked the piece she did, as I had given her several options. It wasn’t uplifting or romantically touching the way much of her music is. By the time I was done editing it, my prose felt meager and mean, which was also how I felt the evening of the Bushwick Book Club. Before I went on stage, flashes of fever and chills ran through my body; should I have stayed home?
I thought of Slaid Cleaves playing the Saxon Pub before Thanksgiving last year; sick as a dog, he still managed to play a two-hour set. I caught pneumonia from him when Jess and I went to introduce ourselves. I wanted to hear Joy’s song more than anything, so I stuck it out long enough to go on stage with her, blinded by the lights. (For the record, it really is impossible to see much of anything when you’re on a professionally lit stage.)
My heart raced from my illness as much as my anxiety as I read my piece and turned the stage over to Joy. She commented that she liked the idea that my writing was influenced by these people who would never know that I noticed them or that they impacted me. “I think I was also drawn to the notion that we could all be in that position as the person Gabriela writes about,” she added.
Like all of her music, Joy’s song was sweet and haunting, with lines like, “I pushed the door open and let the clouds roll in…” Even in my diminished condition, I felt the sense of wonder that she had made blossom from my words against the gushing rain outside.
I imagined that she sang from the point of view of the man I saw, perhaps just before his life took a turn for the worse—when a kind word or help from the right person might have altered his path. That Joy was able to channel the hopefulness in him through a few of my lines reminded me why I set out to write this book at all. Indeed, it was originally about wonder… and connection.
I don’t feel as good as I might, but I do feel better that I would have without my flu shot. And, thanks to Joy’s infusion of wonder when I needed it most, I think I’m going to keep my reservation and see what Miami holds.
In Transit (excerpt):
I see his feet and legs first, resting akimbo like he’s dead.
My eyes travel up his wiry body, his arms bent awkwardly at the shoulders and elbows. He is both sprawled out and curled up on the sidewalk. His head rests on a grimy backpack propped against the brick wall of the EL station at Adams and Wabash. Lank and hungry-looking even while asleep, he reminds me of a praying mantis that someone squashed with a rock.
I pause because he’s beautiful in a broken way.
Part of me wants to take his photograph; instead, I toss my phone into my bag and commit him to memory with my heart instead.
His shirt is royal blue with red stripes. It’s torn in places.
His brown skin gathers in flaky white patches at the elbows.
His bearded chin juts toward the sky, revealing curly white hairs mixed in with the black ones.
He shudders in his sleep.
His bed is a carpet of leaky cans and bottles, discarded wrappers and sticky pink hills of spat-out gum.
Beneath the dark hollows of his eyes, he looks kind.
What does it take for a person to pass out on the sidewalk at mid-day, to relinquish his defenses against being robbed, abused or arrested? How little must a person have to not fear losing anything?
Before walking on, I glance down at my perfectly pedicured toenails. The throaty purple blush matches both the color of my guilt and my misguided sense of pride at noticing it.