Brian Sousa's Blog

September 25, 2013

This Dream of You - An Essay on Finally Seeing Bob Dylan

People tell me it's a sin
To know and feel too much within

Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks is playing on my stereo, and I’m blowing the dust off of old photos, and paging through the weathered journals that I find next to them.

In short, I am packing. We are moving.

When I look through my tattered diaries, the words dig into my palms. It’s funny: the paragraphs and lines provide snapshots of my life more vivid than many of the pictures, which in contrast, seem blurry and out of focus. Was that really how I looked in college, my hair long overgrown? Or in snow-drenched Lake Tahoe after college, all of us young and howling up at a limitless bundle of stars? The pictures resemble slides from unwatched movies, not pieces of my life.

But I’m drawn to the seemingly insignificant dates and worn covers. Time slows down and then stops, the pages feel brittle in my hands, and I notice, not for the first time, that the same questions repeat: Who am I? Where am I going?

I barely keep a journal anymore. But I still ask myself the same questions when I write. I find myself writing most in times of ensuing change, and as Sam Cooke would say, “A Change is Gonna Come.” Or, it already has: My girlfriend and I are migrating to Colorado after over ten years in Boston. As we traverse state to state in our tiny Honda Civic, I plant words on pages until they threaten to burst.

But me I'm still on the road
Heading for another joint

Which leads me, indirectly, to the great Robert Allen Zimmerman, aka, the infamous Bob Dylan. I knew instantly, when he walked out on stage a few weeks ago--my first time seeing Dylan, as part of the Americanarama Tour, with My Morning Jacket and Wilco--that I would write about it. I just didn’t know how soon.

Traveling offers immediate distraction, but Dylan has taken up permanent residence in my head since he tipped his hat. He’s crawled into my psyche from the poster next to my bed, peeled himself off of T-shirts and DVDs and unfolded himself.

He was always with me, Bob Dylan, found in the records my parents listened to, the used CDs I bought in high school at Tom’s Tracks in Providence, the covers that my favorite bands, such as the White Stripes and Phish, played. I’ve used Dylan’s lyrics in the classroom, I’ve referenced him in album reviews and even struck away at the chords of his songs.

But last night was different.

There was something jarring and bittersweet about Dylan’s set, right from the outset. A kaleidoscope of reactions descended on me, crackling my synapses with confusion. I’ve seen plenty of concerts at Great Woods, (now regrettably called the Comcast Center, in Massachusetts) most notably a plethora of Phish shows, and before that, the Dave Matthews Band, in those high school days when drinking beer and getting high with your friends is pretty much the best thing you’ve figured out how to do, and you can’t imagine it ever slipping away.

They sat together in the park
As the evening sky grew dark
She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones

When Dylan walked out, the crowd, which had admittedly thinned, seemed to band together in anticipation, or in order to brace themselves. Dylan waved somberly, a flipping of hands, and took his seat at the piano.

My eyes were drawn to him, but it was my ears that were immediately disappointed. The band began to click and cruise their way through the set, but who was this small, frail man who bent over the keyboard, growling feebly? He seemed frustrated, and there was no sense of his trademark snarl; no wit, no sense of confidence or irreverence. Where was the enigma from the Rolling Stone interviews, the Rolling Stone from the pages of his irreverent book, the reluctant rebel who refused to speak for the generation who championed him?

Dylan leaned to one side and pulled and yanked his sounds from the keyboard, but he didn’t seem to be holding the band together. Rather, they held him up, encircling him with melody, supporting his spindly frame with rhythm.

It felt like a punch to the gut. Maybe it was the beers and rum we’d drunk, three old friends from Rhode Island tossing the frisbee in the gray light of dusk, growing blurry around our small grill and telling stories. Or maybe it was the stormy darkness that had overtaken the sky, the lack of sleep, the week of hard work and hot sun, which made me so susceptible to these feelings. But I’ve always felt too much, and far too deeply. I think that’s why I write.

I was down on Dylan, and besides, I’d been sad all weekend. My grandfather had passed away a few days back. He was 87, and one of the most giving, positive people I have ever known. In a complex twist of fate, my sister welcomed her second healthy, beautiful boy into the world two days after he passed, on my grandfather’s 88th birthday.

“He almost made it,” my dad said. Almost. For me, the week became emblematic of the strange paradox that is time and age, irony and mortality. It was a sign from the universe, perhaps, a reminder that there is a whole lot of randomness in this existence. That life is sometimes an exercise in contradiction. That we can’t really explain anything, and that we have to seize what we have: all the hours, all the spontaneity, any source of love we can find.

It was then he felt alone and wished that he'd gone straight
And watched out for a simple twist of fate

I looked around as Dylan, who has always been a master of contradiction, slumped his way through one of my favorite songs of all time, “Tangled Up in Blue.” The verses that I’d memorized were mangled, and he attempted to make up for it by repeating words over and over, adding some glossy piano flourishes. To my right, my two friends were attempting to bob their heads, to make some sense of the chaos.

The questions floated to the surface again. But this time, they were directed at Dylan. I knew why I was here: because I’d jumped at the chance to see someone who I’ve looked up to for almost all of my life. Bob Dylan’s songwriting gift, his ability to transform himself, the fact that he has written many of my favorite songs; this was why I was standing twelve rows back from the stage.

Why else was I here?

Maybe because it was time for me, too, to begin to face reality? A conversation from a few hours ago with the good friend who stood next to me played over on repeat. “You gave the music thing a good shot,” he said.

“I’m still...” I’d said, and paused. I’m still what? My band wasn’t playing anymore, and I was moving away. I play guitar every day, but the dreams that I had a few years ago seem like just that, dreams. My writing career is beginning to take over, even as I leave the teaching profession for an uncertain future. Maybe I needed to face the facts. To grow up a little. My head swirled. Why was I here?

And why was Dylan here now? Was it art? Money? Did he actually think that he sounded good up there? What did it mean that he was still willing to give himself to the crowds, the tour, the backstage rooms and the miles on a bus and the smell of stale beer that floated over the hot night in Massachusetts?

Where down the road would the tour bus go? It seemed pretty clear as he coughed out a sharp remark between songs that no one could understand: he was going where we are all headed eventually, to that big record store in the sky.

We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view

I like to picture my grandfather, Joaquim Henriques De Sousa, young again, his stomach no longer protruding, his trademark thick white hair made longer and darker. He is playing soccer in Portugal, light and fleet-footed, and the sun has just begun to go down over the Tagus River. Maybe it is the day of legend, the story that my dad often tells, when he miraculously scored two goals with an injured knee.

The day after he passed, after the wake, I had a hard time falling asleep. Finally, I dreamed of my grandpa. He wasn’t as young as I thought he’d be; he was comfortably in his middle years. Happy. He sat in his old house in a green sweater that said “Sporting Lisbon” on it, and laughed when I cried and croaked out that I loved him. That I wished I’d been able to tell him that one more time.

“I’m fine, Bri,” he said. “I’m fine.”

Was that real? Was it a dream? I’m not able to approach that question. It certainly didn’t feel like a dream. Then again, my dreams never do. They feel like scenes stolen from some different version of life, a sequel, perhaps, where the reel of film is still spinning.

There must be some way out of here", said the Joker to the Thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth

Standing before the stage that night, my thoughts flickered with the light of the torches beside the stage, elongating and shrinking again. Then the next song began, and an interesting thing happened. The thin, crooked man wearing the round hat stepped out from behind the piano and began to play the harmonica. He improvised. He bent his knees and dug in.

And he broke into a solo that was utterly full of soul.

If you listened closely, you could perhaps hear what he was saying: “I’m not gone yet. Listen to me. This is why I’m here. This is why I was always here.”

The crowd took note, and applauded louder than they had all night, and he took over the next song with a heartfelt piano solo. These were not technically proficient escapades, but there was a distinct voice there. Reaching out. Aching, perhaps, for years gone by.

Listen to me, Dylan was saying. I’m still here, on stage, and I still have something to say. Where am I going? What does it matter? I’m right here. I’m in the moment, and you should be, too.

As the set went on, Dylan’s voice, his playing, even his band, grew stronger. Heavier. And you know what? I grew lighter. It had been a week full of bad news and good news and coping and wondering. Of expectation and distraction and hammering nails in the summer heat, hoping to think only about the nails, and not what existed before or after, in the tired morning of coffee and emails from my dad, or the blank night of beer and phone calls and texts from my mom and sister.

But it would pass. Maybe it didn’t matter why I was here, or where I was going. I just needed to stay in the moment, and listen to “Watchtower,” a song so familiar that it feels like a favorite T-shirt, stretched and faded into form.

There are many here among us,
who feel that life is but a joke

If there is one thing Bob Dylan knows, and that we realize as we get older, it’s that life is not a joke. It sounds trite, but well-crafted lyrics are like small road-signs that point to something bigger. In this case, that something bigger is the idea that birth and death exist around every corner. This is why we write, why we create art, and sometimes, why we need to escape.

Why are we here, then?

To experience it all, I guess. When I got the call about my grandfather this week, I was drinking an icy beer at a co-worker’s house, after a long steamy day of shoveling dirt. My back ached, my fingernails were black. I went outside to the deck and listened to my mother’s flattened voice, watched the clouds drift across the hot summer sky.

The wetness of the can made dark circles on the wooden railing; I traced them with my palm. In that instant, the reel spun, and I remembered everything I could about him: how he watched all of my soccer matches, how he invented games like “crazy ball” for us to play in the stairwell of his house, how he woke me up every morning at 6am when we went to Portugal together. His wry sense of humor, his trademark grin and gentle laugh. As much as my dad calls himself “the Mad Portagee,” referencing his (and my) temper, Grandpa Sousa was calm. Mellow. Content with life, and able to cope with the changes it threw his way. His sense of joy came from the family orbiting around him. I could stand to learn from this; we all could.

I traced over and over the memories so I wouldn’t lose them. I thought, then, of my sister, who was in the middle of creating her own memories, about to have her second child. I thought about life and death and love and time and birthdays and irony and reincarnation and was lifted to all the sorts of strange places that the mind travels to.

And then I did what I had to do; what we all have to do sometimes. I went on with my life with a lump in my throat, with sleeping and eating and worrying and planning and loving and laughing. And writing. As I finish this essay now, I overlook a soaring range of mountains that don’t feel at all like home. Everything is changing. Everything is always changing.

And there stood Bob Dylan, singing the encore cut, a new arrangement of an old, old song, one he wrote when he was just a kid. When his future was distant and hazy, ready to be cracked open. His voice rasped and rattled, but he stood tall. He tipped his hat. He bowed. And he walked offstage. The crowd, rejuvenated; howled.

I will probably never see him again. But you know what? I’ll take him with me on my next journey, along with my memories, a stack of journals, and my copy of Blood on the Tracks.

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind...the answer, is blowin’ in the wind
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Published on September 25, 2013 09:50 Tags: brian-sousa-writing

July 2, 2013

Truckin' with the Grateful Gardener

10am. My left thumb throbs, victim of a mis-timed hammer whack, and my shins are covered in fresh red scratches from disobedient metal fencing. 3 hours before this, bleary-eyed and sore, I’d munched a banana in the hot dim light of our Boston apartment, then filled my thermos and water bottle and edged through Massachusetts Avenue traffic. Now I’m gripping an electric sander, and my arms are coated in sweat and sawdust.

And you know what? I’m surprisingly content.

For the past seven years, I’ve been an adjunct instructor of writing in Boston. But right now, I am an urban farmer. Let me immediately amend that, since I know absolutely nothing about topsoil: I am a part of the Builds and Installs crew of Green City Growers, a sustainable farming start-up out of Somerville, MA.

How did this happen? Each May, I’m cast out into the dizzying world of unemployment, where I usually patch together some sorry, deluded mix of tutoring, summer-school teaching, credit card debt, and loans from family members. Each prior fall and spring semester I guarantee myself that I won’t let myself fall into the dank pit that is the adjunct-summer-conundrum, but classes and meetings and prep and above all, grading, all steamroll those honorable intentions.

This May, though, I swore it would be different. I’d wake up early each day, but instead of working on my second book or recording music, I’d hit Craigslist. About a week in, I stumbled on an add for a work crew. I believe the add said something like “if you like digging, then...” (did I like digging? I had no idea if I liked...digging) but I drove over to GCG on a warm early-June day anyway, more focused on seeing one of my favorite bands that night, than a new job.

Inside the cavernous office, reggae music drifted with the hot summer air, and a few people were locked into computer screens. They didn’t pay attention to me, but a tiny black dog barked at me as I paced, unsure. Like most people, I hate the strange awkwardness that comes with applying for jobs that you’re not even sure that you want. But pretty soon I was munching on fresh-grown asparagus from the garden in the back, and telling Erik that I would start tomorrow in order to help with the Rooftop Install. I had no idea what a Rooftop Install was, but I nodded along with the twangy flash of the Grateful Dead coming from the radio.

On the way out, I took in the power tools, two-by-fours, and shovels and rakes, and almost tripped over a bag of peat. I thought about saying something about the gear, like you can with sports. “Oh, are the Sox winning?” Great line to end an interview. “Oh, is that the new Craftsman drill?” There was no chance I could pull that off.

“Cool, Man.” Erik stuck out a calloused hand, then clicked on the sander and disappeared into a drone of sawdust.

The next day we loaded the truck with tools and buckets, two flower beds, more dirt, ahem, soil, than I’ve ever seen, and a ladder (A ladder? I signed up for this?) and took off.

“You know what we need to do first,” Erik said solemnly.

I nodded as if I knew. Probably something to do with a power-tool.

“Get sandwiches.”

I’d already stuffed down a combination of coffee, fruit, and peanut butter; that I was tired and hung-over from the concert, and also aware that I hadn’t really done any “work” in years. Did the gym, home of falsified, pointless labor, count? Or would I end up in a pool of last night’s Pabst Blue Ribbon, unable to keep up?

We spent the day hauling dirt to a woman’s rooftop and mixing soil. It was damp, dirty going, and I welcomed the moment when Erik asked me to drive the dump truck back to the base to get some more drip-wire. There were only 3 problems: I’d never driven a dump truck (especially not in the tight streets of Cambridge), the GPS on my phone died and I became instantly lost, and I had no idea what drip-wire was.

But somehow, I made it through. By the end of the day, I was covered in top-soil and blisters, sore, and exhausted. But I’d figured it out, and it struck me that I hadn’t had to do that in a while: navigate the way out of a new situation.

Over the next few days, I simply worked. When I nailed something wrong and the wood started to split, I had to figure out how to patch it up. When I was going through too many fresh pieces of sandpaper, I had to learn how to adjust my technique. When the sharp-as-hell wire mesh that lines the flower beds won’t bend the right way, I have to hammer it on anyway. It’s akin to being in front of the class and having to suddenly switch gears, which all good teachers can do, but it also feels so different that long-dormant parts of my brain have been stretched into action.

After years of teaching writing to enthusiastic upperclassmen and sometimes-enthusiastic freshmen, rushing from college to university each day, there is a simple satisfaction in the claw and tack of the hammer. It feels good to be dead tired at the end of the day, each muscle aching. It’s freeing to work in the dirt, as opposed to worrying about the new coffee stain on my button-down before a lecture. I wear shorts and a T-shirt to work, and eat my PBJ for lunch outside in the shade with my co-workers, many of whom ditched office jobs to free their legs and their minds.

I also don’t bring my work home with me anymore. The other day, I was shocked by the fact that I was home by 6, the rest of the night not anchored by the guilt of grading, but mine to fill with writing and music. And, there is absolutely nothing like an ice-cold Harpoon IPA after eight hours of digging trenches in the summer sun.

That is not to say I am a natural at this type of labor. Most of my friends have laughed in my face when envisioning my “writer’s hands” handling a drill. I’ve never been good mechanically, really, with anything (I once broke open a video game when I was a kid because I thought it was a tiny book).

“Is that your first time with a staple-gun, man?” Erik cracked once as I shot a staple into entirely the wrong place. I’ve stained flower beds with too much stain, I’ve over-sanded. I’ve hammered my thumb, bumped my head on the workbench, dropped loads of dirt on sidewalks, almost crashed a dump truck, fallen into a flower bed after tangling with the wheel-barrow.

This is also not to say that the job, like anything else, can’t drag; during the afternoons around 3pm, the humidity seems to slow down the clock hands, and I find myself dreaming of a swim in the ocean, or even an air-conditioned classroom. But sometimes the monotony allows me time to think. After so many years of having to be “on stage” in front of the class, I’m in the background now, a rhythm player who can step back from the spotlight.

I joked to a colleague the other day that I’ve gotten more positive reinforcement at this new job than in seven years as an adjunct instructor. I was kidding. I’ve worked my ass off for some really great evaluations, and received thank-you notes and cards from students that convinced me that my hard work and low pay is worth it. But teaching--especially as an adjunct--is an isolated post. I drive or bike to my colleges, I teach, I have office hours...I go home. At GCG, Erik and I will spend hours discussing the repercussions of the death of Jimi Hendrix, or the process of writing creative nonfiction, while shoveling. My co-workers have all offered me different things: conversations, laughs, one woman even sent me a Kombucha recipe. I’ve learned about life from our customers, too. Some come out to hang out and talk, offer us cold drinks when it’s 90 degrees, even tip us. Others refuse to come out to pay, ignore us altogether, or leave us to wait in the rain (it happened).

We were taking a break, leaning on our shovels and watching cars pass by, when Erik said: “whatever you go on to do, man, this will still be here, whenever you drive by.” It’s a cool thought, that we are creating order from the chaos; sustainable food from the dirt we shovel. I’m glad to be a part of it.

I’d like to think that my students will remember my class years from now, that the roots will grow. But I’ll probably never know.

Maybe next semester I’ll bring my classes out to a site, use the flower beds as a metaphor. Or maybe I’ll just keep working with my hands, and forget about academia for a while. After all, my palms are full of callouses now, I’ve got a pretty good grasp of what drip-wire is, and you should see me shoot a staple-gun: I own that thing.
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Published on July 02, 2013 19:36 Tags: almost-gone, brian-sousa, grateful-dead

May 22, 2013

"This was supposed to be the summer of George!"

This year, the routine ended before I even noticed. Everything that defines the end of the semester: earnest students strapped with North Face backpacks asking to meet about their writing; GPA-obsessed students (also hefting North Face backpacks; this is BC, after all) asking to meet about their grades; driving to work, late, and spilling coffee on the shirt that I was too tired to iron; planning classes as I biked to work; all of it ended before I had a chance to notice. I locked in all my grades over two long, caffeinated days, and then Katie and I took off to California. We traipsed and hiked through Big Sur, Pacific Grove, and Santa Cruz, I got to do a reading from my book in Sausalito, and we caught up with all of our friends and family on the left coast. We came home last week, tired and broke and hungover, our feet covered in the sand and salt of the Pacific.

And here I am, sitting in an empty apartment, the silence punctuated by the slam of the door. Katie just left for work, and even though I went running this morning to clear my head, and even though the afternoon stretches out before me, empty, my mind feels stuck in the wash cycle. Clogged. Since I've been back, I've started what seems like hundreds of job applications, songs, and short stories. I've sent my new novel to an agent, and researched writing grants. But the money I managed to save this year is ebbing, and as an adjunct, my last two paychecks have already been mostly spent.

I'm not complaining -- this is my reality, and I signed up for this many years ago. I don't get paid during the summer, only while I teach. Each school-year I promise myself that I will secure something for the summer, but the toll of teaching four classes, tutoring ten hours a week, and trying to write, becomes a blurry blind spot in my vision, obscuring everything but the present. And this past teaching year, more than ever, with my first book coming out, it has been a struggle just to keep up with the clear-and-present, never mind the blurred future.

But then suddenly, the future is here: arguably my favorite time of year. The long hot days fading into dusk, the lights of Fenway shining, the lure of the ocean on the weekends in RI or on the North Shore. Yet I'm completely unsettled. I find it hard to concentrate on anything, because the voices in my head can't agree on anything. "Ah, the summer off to write," a colleague said to me once in May. Well, not really. "Well, you must be making bank off of your book," said a friend in San Francisco. "I always see it on Facebook." But the reality of that is way, way different. This is my first book, and I'm just lucky and happy enough to get it out there. To have people read it.

I search everywhere for a gig, networking and researching, and come up empty. I ask Katie if she will support me this summer if I fulfill all required domestic duties, and to prove it, I go shopping, make dinner, drop off the dry cleaning, do the dishes. "Thanks for doing that," she says, laughing, "now get a job."

Finally, I sit down to write. But at some point, I realize I can't really find my characters, because half of me is saying that I should be finding a job, a way to pay my loans and bills. If I can quiet that voice, the others creep in. My time is too wide, too vast--I'm not used to having any of these loose hours to shape with my bare hands. I could work on my new short-story collection, market my current book, write music, write poetry, look for a full-time teaching job...oh yeah, and find a job for RIGHT NOW, since I'm broke.

It's overwhelming, isn't it? All of it; all the possibility out there. I'm just venting, I guess. I'm aware of how insanely lucky I am to be stuck in this privileged limbo. The news continues to spin sad stories in our ears each night, and if there is anything comforting in it, it is the idea that everything changes. Soon, I won't feel as frozen on these hot summer days, and I'll probably miss them. I'll miss the chaotic force of everything, running through my head, mixing with the salt air of summer drifting off the Atlantic.

I just hope I can write some of this down.
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Published on May 22, 2013 07:30 Tags: almost-gone, brian-sousa

January 31, 2013

The Long Road to Being Almost Published

There are a lot of ways that I could begin this. Almost Gone almost didn’t make it to the page. Almost Gone almost made me lose faith in the written word. Almost Gone almost forced me to realize that I should have stuck with being a parking lot attendant.

Or, Almost Gone was a result of sweat and patience. It was an indirect result of trips from California to Boston to Spain to Brazil to Portugal and back again. It was a direct result of reexamining and re-envisioning my roots.

But it was more than that. For six years, Almost Gone was almost a piece of me. A phantom limb in limbo, like a soccer match ending in a tie, or a bare-bones melody without harmony.

This is not a story that can be neatly untied. Rather, the notes here come in the form of a sprawling, disorganized road map. And it’s probably best to start at the beginning.

In 2004, I went back to school at Emerson College in Boston. I’d only been out three years, and I’d spent most of them in Lake Tahoe. There’d been a brief stint in Brazil, where I was fired from my job and spent a few months backpacking through sweaty surf towns, sleeping on buses full of squawking chickens, and writing. To my cement-block basement apartment (which housed spiders, cockroaches, and one curious rat) I carted back a bunch of unfinished poems and stories. Years later, one story, based on the real-life experience of being hustled in the city of Salvador, would see print. Another, featuring a protagonist living a transient life in Fortaleza, would fall into place as the first chapter of Almost Gone...
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Published on January 31, 2013 06:35 Tags: almost-gone, brian-sousa