This column takes its theme from the title of a semiautobiographical poem by Bob Dylan, “My Life in a Stolen Moment,” written in the liner notes of his fourth album, released in 1964. It’s always struck me as beautiful in its direct simplicity, similar to many of Bob’s songs. Enshrined among the music gods of the 20th century, Dylan, of course, is the name everyone likes to throw around. But to me it’s Bob, the tousle-haired folk singer I discovered on the Christmas I was 13, the toothy-smiled, skinny figure striding arm-in-arm with a girl down the streets of New York on the cover of “Freewheelin’.” His rough voice sang of justice and love yet everything that was right and wrong and in between, and spoke to everything within me that felt old and out of place among my peers, and at the same time felt so dangerously young and open. It didn’t matter to me that Bob’s heyday had been over 40 years ago. Something about the whole scene—the folk world of the Village, the New York of the ’60s—made me want to go, to do something there. I never had a clear idea of what that something was, although being a writer seemed like the best description for the undefined need to explore and express what I felt.
I was romantic, like so many of us who came here with an outsized, outdated picture of what the city means. We’ve all had to let go of and reshape our dreams and visions. It’s a good experience—to love something strongly enough to be faced with its harsh reality and to question what you’re chasing because of the road it has led you down. It is my last semester, and looking back, one of the best lessons I’ve learned here is how to look through a lens that is not constructed of definitions or accomplishments. Instead, we can find great value in the incidental: the minute occurrences and unplanned encounters, the temporary graces—the stolen moments. We spend so much time running around fulfilling obligations that sometimes, momentary musings and appreciations have to be seized and guarded. I don’t know if this is what Bob was getting at with the title, but it is what I like to think of when I’m looking for something to hold onto and make sense of the world with.
And for Bob, the stolen moment is at the essence of creation. In the poem, he speaks of his influences beyond the well-known Woody Guthrie and Big Joe Williams, asking, “But what about the faces you / can’t find again / What about the curbs an’ corners an’ cut-offs / that drop out a sight an’ fall behind / What about the records you hear but one time / What about the coyote’s call an’ the bulldog’s bark / What about the tomcat’s meow an’ milk cow’s moo / An’ the train whistle’s moan.” Where life ends and inspiration begins, where one becomes the other in the filter of the human mind, are pretty indistinguishable.
The world leaves millions of footprints on our nerves every day. Art, of any form, can be seen as a crystallization of those stolen moments, a distillation of their possibilities into a frame or meter or choreography. Art lets us freeze those snapshots of our lives that are filled with the most ordinary objects and yet contain truth—the mystery of everything we are and seek and will never know.
Each of us, not only artists, can benefit from this kind of creative vision of life. The curbs and cut-offs and corners are really what we bounce off of and push against in the daily molding and shaping of existence.
Emily Neil is a Barnard College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. She is a former Spectator theater associate.