I’m sat with my knees bent, my feet up on the leather seat next to me. Adorned in pink ski socks that come up over the top of my leggings, my toes are attached to a body whose circulation runs slower than my grandma’s dial up internet. It’s snowing outside and it’s bleaker than bleak, but I threw a snowball at my unamused father and my passport gained a stamp. We have just crossed the border in to Montreal and as excited as I am about the next leg of my USA-Canada travels my mind is heavily elsewhere. I have just finished Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids’ and my heart is on fire.
I was rummaging through stacks of second –hand books at a stall called ‘The Strand’ on a corner of Central Park, I’d dragged my dad from East 34th with the hope that the owner’s love of literature would be enough to keep the kiosk open, the fire that warmed the hands to count quarters on an bitter Christmas eve. The excitement rose up as it usually does when I spot the slightly worn spines of novels and I stuck my red, ice-bitten fingertips into the titles. Although my desire often immediately falls upon the classics, copies of Moby Dick carelessly discarded, Dickens in desperate need of love, I knew I needed to purchase something that would suck me in through the gaps between the sentences and find a place for me there. Especially as I am to endure long coach journeys between the cities that await me, the hours spent with pins and needles in my ankles and numb bum cheeks.
It was a hard choice, as it usually is. Three books held like the last playing cards in a game of poker, I closed my eyes and tried to gravitate towards one in particular in the hope that my intuition would feel a gooden. I paid and in my dad’s direction whistled and gestured to leave, but just as we were walking away I stopped and turned my head back toward the books. I’m always a little sad to leave them all behind, like puppies in a pound that I’m abandoning to the harsh conditions of weather with no food or shelter. In the half price section I had glanced at the cover briefly and tossed it back and forth before sliding it back between the others, but I noticed next to the till were a stack of new editions at $20 apiece. Something about the simplicity of the cover and the blurry monochrome photo on the front pulled me in as I grabbed the old copy and thrust $6 towards the rosy cheeked seller.
The name Patti Smith rang a very distant bell in my mind, like the smell of toast that burns holes through the fragile layers of sleep until it finally draws you into the morning, but I couldn’t place her. In all honesty I didn’t know whether this book was fiction, non-fiction or simply just photographs but after reading the summary I discovered I’d chosen the memoir of a poet, artist and rock and roll legend. Unlike anything I’ve read before you could say it was an odd choice for me, but no written word is an odd choice for me, managing to sandwich in a long read on Muhammad Ali between Dolly Alderton’s everything I know about love and a compilation of Sylvia Plath poetry. So sat between two men in oversized coats on the Path train to New Jersey I turned the first page.
For someone who loves reading so much, rarely does a book capture my attention and alter my perspective so deeply. I continue to read whatever comes my way with fervour, with deep hopes of adding to the likes of Cheryl Strayed and William Boyd, Sebastian Faulks and Jonathan Safran Foer, authors who have impacted my growth as a writer and as a person. This honest, clean and truthful storytelling was everything I had been searching for and opened the door to 2019 wholeheartedly and without obstruction.
In a society polluted with the pressures of appearance, aesthetics have outrun art. We put all our time and effort into the perfect selfie, biting the insides of our cheeks for definition and pursing our lips in a Kardashian-created ideology of beauty. We devote our time to the lacklustre activity of shopping, the habit of spending our money quicker than we can make it and sacrificing ourselves to the sorry screens of our smartphones. How often do we use our minds and exercise our right to be creative? How many of you painted at school, shoved glossy acrylic onto the end of an unwashed brush and dirtied an A4 sheet during an art lesson. Did you enjoy it? Who scribbled essays in English with just that little more feverish passion that your classmates, the words falling from your head faster than your hand could write them. I used to cut models out of the magazines my mum collected in the downstairs toilet, sticking them on the front of my carefully designed and hand-drawn ‘WoW’ Magazine and write articles on the ins and outs of their imagined personal lives. In one way or another we are all born creative.
Only a smattering of people harness this creativity and take it with them through life. Those who doodle on a Saturday night in front of the telly or spend time editing the perfect photo. Those who stitch patches to denim jackets or embroider hearts on their jeans, those who write poetry in the black silences of night or cry at the hardships of the characters they created in the stories they may tell or never tell. Those whose finger tips are as hard as the stones we skim across glassy waters, whose ears hear the songs before they’re written. The people who devote a portion of themselves to art are gifted with a window of the world that so many embrace in childhood, suppress in adolescence and shut out in adulthood.
Why don’t we announce our genius when we recognise it, as if the face of modesty is a better display than the realisation of good art. We have become so accustomed to playing down our skills and talents, shying away from compliments and choosing to be humble over proud. If you make something you believe to be brilliant, then into it you must breathe brilliance. You are only ever as great as you believe yourself to be, if you love what you create and it makes you feel something then show it, to see somebody noticeably passionate about their work is rare and should never be mistaken for arrogance. In the book, Robert would tell Patti ‘it’s genius isn’t it, isn’t it genius?’ and she would answer ‘yes, yes it is.’
I lose often lose sight of what’s important in this world. Problems with mental and physical health have clouded the memory of the person I used to be. Reading Patti Smith, looking at pictures of her and Robert Mapplethorpe in their tatty clothes, badly styled hair and handmade jewellery reminded me of the carefree, wild girl that I tore down in the midst of my troubles. I played 60s/70s/80s records in my underwear and traced badly drawn henna tattoos onto my wrists and the arches of my feet. I wore floral dungarees, ill fitting shirts and green desert boots and wore lipstick and pined for rock and roll. I lit incense and wrote poetry. And I think the reason why I loved this book so much was that it reminded me of how happy I was in the centre of that self-expression, how confident I felt that my outside so beautifully captured my inside and was such an accurate representation of the vibrancy of what I felt I could offer.
It’s no secret that as we get older the world and everything in it will try to strip us of our freedom. The necessity of working and earning, raising a family and being responsible, these tasks require an effort that before was perhaps channelled into other areas of our lives. I look at myself now and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, but I’m not proud that I have somewhat succumb to societies idealism of perfection. That I have abandoned a portion of my identity to try to comply with unrealistic beauty standards that don’t reflect nor compliment my personality. But it’s so hard to dress in baggy dresses and turtlenecks, tied t shirts and cropped jeans, ‘unflattering’ cuts that don’t highlight your bum when all around you are girls whose bodies make your eyes water. I want to be feminine while simultaneously dress like a boy and be accepted for it.
Patti Smith sets the scene of a messy wonderland of Alice’s and Mad Hatters. She underlines what I love about past generations, the hippy movement and the freedom of expression. She reinstates what I had forgotten about the importance of art, the unimportance of money and material wealth and most perfectly through honest prose, her life with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
I loved the love between them. The length of it, the weight of it and the pure, unquestioned strength and awareness of it. As someone who personally feels the stars align to help push us in the right direction, stories such as that of these two just reaffirm my faith in divine intervention. It’s slow burning and it warms you to the core as you grow with the characters, some familiar and some not. You meet them at their weakest, tiny, featherless birds, blind and waiting for food in the nest and you watch the blossom into the people they were supposed to become. But throughout the story and the lives of these artists the consistency of love between Patti and Robert is concrete, despite the art, the drugs and the appearance and loss of other people.
Two human beings who understood that throughout it all, the success and the failure, the change in sexual direction, the discovery of themselves through trial and error and through an undying love of art- that they needed to be near each other. That despite separating from a romantic relationship the soul connection they both shared rose above the petty qualms of jealousy or resentment and remained a thing of beauty and solidarity. I am so thankful I stumbled across this pile of pages and I wept like a child when it finished.
It’s so important that we hear the stories that others share with us. That we take the time to listen and appreciate the intricate webbing of memories and events that build a life, that we try our best to immerse ourselves in the creativity of others even if it doesn’t mirror our own. It’s imperative that we shift superficial desires to one side, even for a day, to allow room for deeper pursuits. To allow creativity to bleed through. Because when we’re old and the beauty has faded, when our joints don’t support our gym addiction and we’ve dieted ourselves dry, the only things that remain will be the photo’s we’ve taken of the people we love, the drawings we’ve drawn, the books we’ve read and the stories we’ve created.
Ask yourself what really matters and go after it with everything you’ve got.