Several years ago my friend Diane handed me a book, saying, “I know you’re a fan of Henry Rollins, and I thought you might like this.” Little did she know how much I needed to read that book and I am quite sure, as dramatic as it may sound, she had no idea it would change my life forever. Much like art books are, to me, very personal things, picking out a book for someone else would be a task almost as daunting as selecting a painting for that person; and while this particular book had a profound effect on me, I am not sure it would evoke the same response in someone else. Take love stories for instance—there have been times when someone has given me a cheesy romance novel and I get about two chapters deep only to think, “What the fuck is this crap? Who on earth would read this shit?” But to each his own—some people can’t get enough of love stories. I, on the other hand, have always preferred “grittier” writing. I like the stuff that turns your world and your brain upside down, and from the moment I started reading “Smile, You’re Traveling” on the plane to Key West, I found it very hard to put down. Typically, vacation is the last place I like to read; yet I found myself up early, on the porch, morning coffee and book in hand, reading until it was finished.
The book is basically a journal of Henry’s travels from 1997–1998, with some Black Sabbath stuff mixed in. But it wasn’t just the stories of the countries he visited that had me riveted—although fascinating and frightening, quite frankly they had me wondering why any sane person would want to visit them—it was the book’s takeaway message that I found so rousing: “Get up, get off your ass and experience life. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do. This is your fucking time, don’t be a spectator, be an active participant!” It seemed as if the book came to life, kicked me in the ass, then delivered a slap across the face for good measure. I have to admit, it was a little scary and a little painful; but it was oh so necessary.
For a very long time, I had felt forced to live my life in limbo, constantly wishing away large blocks of it at a time. The first block was the three “Waiting for Trial Years,” next up were the two “Prison Years” and lastly we had the final four, the “Parole Years.” By the time it was all said and done, I had wished away nine years of my life. I spent so much time waiting for things to be over that I had literally forgotten how to enjoy the moment.
Sure, events happened during that period that I found joy in. I started dating Mike, we bought our house and got married—but the threat of returning to prison loomed over my head. I knew I was doing all the “right” things and there was no reason I should be sent back, but I had seen good intentions fail, many times before. I had been living in my self-absorbed bubble for so long that I had almost forgotten there was an entire world going on outside. That book literally burst the bubble that I had made for myself, and in a spectacular way. After reading it, I finally felt like I was not the center of the universe. There was so much shit going on outside of my life, and it made me more aware of the planet as a whole.
Most Americans spend their lives in a bubble just like the one I created for myself. We tend to think of other people as being more unlike, rather than like us. We have a real problem being empathetic towards anyone we perceive as “different,” and we have a real issue with thinking it’s our way or the highway. Henry’s book drove home the fact that, in essence, we are all “One Human Family,” and even if there are some differences, what we should never lose sight of is that we all share this planet, no one is any more or less worthy to be here than another, and if we can find some common ground—whether it be the Ramones or something else (as if there is anything else!)—we should concentrate on that.
I will never forget the first time I saw Rollins perform his spoken word. It was the dead of winter at a club in Brooklyn. He was onstage for no less than three hours, and each story was more entertaining, eye-opening and heartbreaking than the last. My ass was numb by the end of the night, but I would have sat there another three hours had he continued on. Since that night, I have seen him perform at least a dozen times, and he has yet to disappoint me. There have been stories of his travels to Africa, Syria, Iran, Pakistan and North Korea, just to name a few. He has been questioned by U.S Customs, visited with the Masai, knelt with Muslims in the streets of Pakistan and visited countless Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors while working with the USO. You may not agree with his politics—hell, you may not even like his music—but fuck, you have to respect that.
One of the most kick-ass things about Henry is that he doesn’t go to these places with a film crew; for the most part, he goes on his own. He prefers to walk the streets solo and experience the journey on his own terms. How many of us could do that? How often do we allow ourselves to break through our preconceived notions and see things with our own eyes? It seems like almost everything we Americans know about the world is told to us by the media or our political leaders. How many of us would be brave enough to take a flight to Iran, or walk the streets of Pakistan the day Benazir Bhutto was assassinated? I know that’s not feasible for most of us, myself included, but in this day and age of social media, there are other ways we can broaden our knowledge and open up our minds to see beyond the American bubble.
In today’s world, where bad behavior makes you a star, being vapid is emulated, and following the status quo is the new “exceptional,” Henry Rollins is a national treasure. I really don’t like to put people up on pedestals, but with Rollins I can’t seem to help myself. There is so much in my life that might not have happened had I not read that book—my involvement with veterans, being a part of the alternative media, becoming more aware of the political landscape, discovering how truly shitty it is and realizing that all of us have a responsibility to change it.
Life is funny, sometimes. Just when you think the things you want are the house, the car, the good job, the padded 401k or even the end of parole, you wake up and realize that’s not what you want at all. The things that are really worth fighting for are equality, justice and freedom. I want to see wars end, I would like humans to show this beautiful planet much more respect and I want to see all people strive to live their lives to their full potential. Sure, something else might have happened down the road to spark my own personal “awakening,” but I can trace it all back to the moment Diane handed me that paperback. A book is a powerful thing, but a voice is the most powerful of all. Thank you Henry Rollins for helping me find mine.
About the Author: Cynthia Cone is an Ex Con with no college education and very bad punctuation. She is currently living in Long Island, NY where she pays extremely high taxes and likes to drink.
Contact Cynthia at firstname.lastname@example.org