Musings on “I Contain Multitudes”…

When I heard Bob Dylan’s second surprise song a couple of weeks ago I thought, “Wow.” I frequently stop and wonder how he puts words together in a manner that is powerful and engaging, tells a story yet leaves almost everything unsaid, and, most of all,  draws us all into his reality…

Where did the title come from? I wondered.  It sounded vaguely familiar.  Emphasis on vague.  It was Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” from his turbulently-received tome Leaves of Grass…and that got me to thinking…

about my senior year at Bucknell University, in Pennsylvania.  It was traumatic, to say the least.  But it was not as devastating as the reason behind it.  In the winter of my freshman year my Father almost succeeded in ending his life.  My Mother told me by letter that he was in a hospital in New Haven, Connecticut, not far from where we lived in Fairfield.  Unable to comfortably deal with the abrupt change in our family dynamics, and unable to return home, as my Mother insisted I remain at Bucknell, I found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable.  I felt helpless and trapped. So I put together a plan to spend my Junior year abroad.  This was before the plug and play programs we have today. I did everything myself.  I landed a spot at the barren and freezing cold Scotland the University of Edinburgh.  Every university in England already had its full quota of Yankees.

So in the late summer of 1962 I transited via the SS France to the UK, and, with my Bucknell roommate Carol, found digs in a lovely brownstone not far from the US Consulate.  Little did I know that a few weeks later I would be knocking on the door, pleading to be allowed in, to safety, and to get information about the unfolding Cuban Missile Crisis, or that I would have to be protected by bobbies from the madding crowd of demonstrators who crowded around me and block the street as far as the eye could see.  Oh, Carol hid.  She was the smarter one, of course.

But after the Russian boats turned around and things got back to normal, I found I had the blissful task of hearing a lecture every day on a work of Shakespeare.  Sitting in a dim, gray barn of a hall, half-gloves keeping my fingers from turning white as I scribbled notes, I relaxed and listened, and dreamed about the plays and the characters. Portia, Cordelia, King Lear, King Richard, the poor young princes, all burst to life in front of me. The two other courses — history– paled in comparison.

And so it was until it was time to leave.  I had an overwhelming sense of dread about returning to the US.  I did everything I could to stay for another year, but to no avail. Transiting back on the Nieuw Amsterdam, standing on deck in awe in the humid mist of the early morning as we slid under the new Verrenzano Narrows bridge into New York harbor, I sensed that yet again everything would be overwhelmingly different.

On a beautiful summer day at the end of November, our library studies came to an abrupt halt as news of the shooting of President Kennedy and Gov. Connally chattered on the transistor radios outside of the library.  Going home to Connecticut, glued to the TV, along with the rest of the nation, we watched Lee Oswald shot before our eyes.

In an ongoing state of numbness I began to collect all the information I would need to graduate the following spring.  I had been told my UofE credits would transfer, and they did.  But nobody told me about the English and American comprehensive exam I would have to pass to earn my major.  Oh boy.  I had missed all those classes my junior year. And so, with barely weeks to prepare, I crammed. Morning and night.  It was insane.  I passed the test.  But I had retained almost nothing.  It was all a blur.  Then it was gone.

And so, yes, in this roundabout manner, we return to Dylan’s song.  He had read Walt Whitman, I had no doubt.  He probably even understood it, which I did not.  He searched and found a profound concept of who he is today.

And so, with a sense almost of awe, and appreciation, I ordered for myself a copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass.  And, during this time of almost unprecedented upheaval, am sitting in the sun under a tree blissfully reading and contemplating the gifts and character of the bards who created so much controversy and upheaval with their work…

Thanks, Dylan…

 

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