It is a great album with the title song, Ballad of Hollis Brown, With God on Our Side, and Restless Farewell. But the song that got me—and always has—was Boots of Spanish Leather.
The song opens with
"Oh, I'm sailin' away my own true love,
Sailin' away in the morning.
Is there something I can send you from across the sea,
From the place that I'll be landing?"
The song was written about his love for Suze Rotolo who was leaving for study in Europe. Every Dylan fan knows the story.
But Dylan once said, “It’s not important what I mean. What’s important is: What does it mean to you?”
Bob Dylan is a phenomenal poet. He is a prophet. I read his lyrics with the same rapture with which I read Rumi or Homer or Hopkins.
When I was 14 years old, I had started jotting down quotes that meant something to me and I would tape the quote to my mirror in the bedroom. Then, every time I would brush my hair (LONG time ago!) or tie a necktie, I would look at those quotes.
Quotes from Epictetus or Vergil or St. Paul or Chaucer or Tolkien. They were all lighthouses to me; warning me of the rocks and serving as beacons of home.
I bought the album The Times They Are a-Changin’ when I was 15 years old. Two lines from Boots of Spanish Leather hit me very deeply. I wrote those lines down and put them in a prominent place on the mirror.
"Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled
From across that lonesome ocean"
It wasn’t about a girl (I really didn’t date in high school. I was looking ahead to university studies and I wasn’t about to get side-tracked.). No, I wrote the lines to me and about me. Let me explain. And forgive me for being far too auto-biographical, even for my own tastes.
Even at 15 years of age, I knew that life was already a weird trip. I had a father and a younger sister whom I loved very much. My mother was another story. If dad was the eye of the storm, she was the hurricane. Life in the house with her was a nightmare.
I didn’t know what the future was going to bring but I would read the Dylan lines and keep telling myself to just come back to myself unspoiled.
Two marriages almost shipwrecked me on “that lonesome ocean.” Before my first marriage ended, I had looked at my reflection in the mirror and said aloud to myself, “I don’t even know who you are.” The second marriage separated me from my family—I wasn’t even allowed to speak about my children or my father or sister—and I was denied old friends. Even old photographs of family had been thrown away.
Again, talk about a lonesome ocean.
But today, I am listening to Boots of Spanish Leather and I went into the washroom to splash water on my face. I looked up and saw myself in the mirror, 43 years after having taped that quote to my mirror in my old bedroom.
I thought of what life is now. I thought of Nicole finding me adrift and taking me to safety. I have been “through many dangers, toils, and snares.” Looking in that mirror, I realized that Bob Dylan’s words, that I appropriated to myself, had been fulfilled.
I have come back to myself somehow unspoiled.
And I get to be in a community that doesn’t care about all that but accepts me as I am.
And a girl who sees me for exactly who I am—better than anyone ever has—and only cares that I am here with her right now.
And I am unspoiled.