I don't remember exactly how I bumped into Walt Whitman. I hadn't read his poems in 10 years. A few months ago, I took a break from studying performance reports at work and decided to surf online for poems instead. At the time, I was handwriting poems on the dry erase wall in my living room at home. I read them out loud with my daughter so she would learn to live with poetry. I searched for poems in natural settings with easy words she could memorize. But the poem I found that day wasn't meant for my daughter. Whitman wrote it for me.
WHEN I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
I once lived unencumbered. Never more so than in the summer of 2002. I graduated college and moved to San Francisco for a summer job. My friend and I were giving away free samples of root beer from a food truck we parked near high traffic tourist traps. I spent what I earned on cheap food and good beer. I carried around a worn-out messenger bag with a small flask of Jack Daniels and a treasured copy of On the Road. I dreamt of becoming a free-wheeling American mystic like Kerouac.
That summer I got a phone call from my ex-girlfriend, Laurie. Life got complicated. She was diagnosed with a rare disease that ate away at her bones and eventually fractured her spine -- what amounted to a broken neck. She needed emergency surgery. A positive outcome was not guaranteed. We hadn't seen each other much in three years, but I had an unmistakable feeling of destiny. Without her asking me to, I jumped into my banged-up black mustang that night and drove half awake until I reached her in Los Angeles.
Thirteen years later, I sat in my office working a rewarding job, earning a decent income for my daughter and our future. But after reading that poem I glanced back at the performance report on my desk and then stared blankly out my window facing the Hollywood Hills. It struck me that I had become the learn'd astronomer. I got up from my desk, walked outside, and decided it was time to quit my happy life once again, and step back out into the mystical night air.