“I have to do something every day to sort of prove my worth. Even though I’ve worked in a factory, in a bookstore and certainly labored as a mother, I don’t tend to gravitate toward those tasks.
“I feel that every day I have to show some human worth, you know, something that I’ve done. You know, if I’m not doing something politically or to help my fellow man, at least that I’ve written a good sentence, I’ve taken an interesting photograph, that this gift that I feel I’ve been given – because I believe gifts are God-given.” ~ Patti Smith
I’ve quit before. I’ll quit again. My friend’s double dare didn’t really phase me. But now, a single mom with a mortgage, I hear my dad’s voice: “You need the money.” And I feel the press of the “right thing” bearing down on me – the societal, one-size-fits-all, prescriptive right thing. Of course, there is no such thing. But we all listen to it anyhow. Besides, after doing the supposedly wrong thing in terms of work for so many years, it occurs to me that maybe the right thing is sort of the wrong thing – or vice versa? Maybe.
This discussion of whether to quit or stay in the offending job comes after a really horrific day. “Really horrific” needs to be put into perspective. No one said anything slightly mean to me. There was no workplace hazing. No threat of being hit by some machinery on the factory floor. No blisters or burns from chemicals. No leers from men. Not even any requirements to complete a certain amount of work – or else.
Rather, my form of horrific meant feeling like an utter moron as I sat in front of a computer with someone trying to show me back alleys of Microsoft Word that I never knew existed. As my trainer went on – and on – seeming to present information to me in my native language but somehow sounding like an undersea Portuguese translator, my throat constricted, the floor dropped a few feet underneath me, and my tongue gripped the roof of my mouth. I remembered what another woman who works at the same place had already told me: “I took tranquilizers a few times in my first weeks to get through. But now I’m better.”
This is the paradox – to live somewhere between Right Thing and True Self.
My friend who is now listening to me describe the experience while I sit forlornly on my kitchen floor, a glass of Pinot Noir gripped tight, encourages me to listen to myself; “You’ll know what to do.” Up to this point, I’ve been proud of myself for taking a job that in so many ways is not a good match but will pay the bills. I am conscious of my role as Breadwinner; I also try to be conscious of not losing myself. In other words, I try to listen to myself, but I’m not sure which voice is right.
This is the paradox – to live somewhere between Right Thing and True Self. To be true and responsible. To take care of the people in my life, while remembering that that sometimes means demonstrating how to take care of myself.
Later that night, after the Pinot Noir, after the kids were asleep, I sunk both my despair and my hope into Just Kids, Patti Smith’s biography of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. The earliest section is one of the loveliest accounts of a soul recognizing its true intent. Without any artists in her life to serve as role models, Smith knew that’s what she wanted to be. Even as she got older and lacked a specific art form, she still knew what she wanted to be.
If you believe her memory, poverty and lack of a medium didn’t deter her. At 20, after having given a baby up for adoption, she moved to the city and started writing for music magazines and working in a bookstore. Mainly, though, she befriended artists, the first among them being Mapplethorpe. She became a student of the Beat poet Gregory Corso and was charmed by a young cowboy writer who turned out to be the playwright Sam Shepherd. Gradually, through trial and error – just as Mapplethorpe was experimenting with different art forms, largely selecting those that were the cheapest because he was so broke – Smith landed on singing. After a poetry reading-cum-electric guitar performance at the famed St. Mark’s Church, the Godmother of Punk was born.
Patti Smith in the suburbs? Like spotting Hemingway at a Bed, Bath and Beyond, or Julia Childs at a Jack-in-theBox, nothing makes sense about it.
I read quickly through the chapters on Smith and Mapplethorpe’s parallel rising fame. Sure, it’s interesting to catch of Hendrix in a stairwell one night or to meet the glittering Euro-wealth who became Mapplethorpe’s patrons, but I was intent on getting to the part where Smith becomes a mother. In 1979, she left New York to live in Detroit with her husband, guitarist Fred Sonic Smith. There, they eventually raised two kids in the St. Clair Shores. Patti Smith in the suburbs? Ever since I learned this odd fact of her life a few years ago, I’ve turned it over and over, trying to find a reason to the rhyme. Like spotting Hemingway at a Bed, Bath and Beyond, or Julia Childs at a Jack-in-theBox, nothing makes sense about it. Still, it is incredibly intriguing.
How did this unbridled spirit enter motherhood? She gives us no hint. Rather, she gives us silence. In Just Kids there is a break of seven years during which time she moves to Detroit and has her first child. Pregnant with the second, she receives a call from a friend that Robert, her soulmate, has AIDS.
“That confidence that he instilled in me at 20 years old, I’ve never lost it. I mean, I’ve had tragedy in my life, I’ve not wanted to get out of bed, I’ve gone through a lot of difficult things, but I’ve never lost that confidence that he instilled in me and it’s right now blossoming.” ~Patti Smith
What Smith was doing in Detroit, there is very little record of. I suspect there’s very little record of the lives of most mother-artists – even recent ones. It’s our hiatus. Our downtime. Our private time. In 1996, Smith told the New York Times: “I did all the usual things, laundry and tending to children. But I also did a lot of studying, which I have always really loved. I’m completely happy just immersing myself in something. I studied 16th-century Japanese literature, I studied painting again. And I wrote diligently through the 1980’s, novels. There are about five books that I haven’t published yet.”
At the end of Just Kids, the last photo that Mapplethorpe took of Smith is reproduced. She is smiling, her hair in loose braids, she is holding her infant daughter. The strung out-looking, pale, black-tie-wearing hermaphrodite of her early career is hardly recognizable. She is very nearly an earth mother.
Based on the performances Smith has given in recent years, some of which can be found online one would be wrong to think that those years of laundry and “studying” made her soft. She cared for her children. She lost her best friend. She lost her husband. She lost her brother. Not to mention countless other friends who died from AIDS and drugs. She is resilient, a woman who has through choice and circumstance swum deep into the darkness but who willingly, joyfully resurfaces in the light.
She is still the person who believed in Art as a young girl growing up in a relatively poor family, and who was electrified by her one and only visit to an art museum as a kid: “I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs. But secretly I new I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not. I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, but I hungered to be one.”
The hunger. The trips through the darkness in order to find the light. This is what we do. But it looks and feels so different with kids journeying next to us. Which is why I so want to know more about the days that Smith spent in St. Claire Shores, what I imagine to be a bucolic sliver of Detroit. How did she go from running into Hendrix and Warhol, from writing a play with Shepherd and posing for Mapplethorpe to carrying babies on her hips, shopping for groceries, picking socks out of the back of the dryer? What was happening inside her?
Patti, I didn’t adore you back when I was young and should have. But I do now. I love your forthrightness. Your gentleness. Your joy. Please, please write a book about those years in the suburbs. Please tell us how you kept burning with your rock-n-roll heart while taking kids to preschool and choosing diaper brands. What did the woman who posed for Mapplethorpe, all bleach white and sinewy, make for dinner each night, and when did she write?
Now, as I consider the job once again, I think, “What would Patti do?” This woman who seems to have held on to her working class roots and not shied away from life’s hard jobs, but who radiates the energy of a poet. I’m not sure. The Right Thing and The True Self clearly both exist in Smith. She found a way for them to co-exist. I’m still searching.
So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear
For joy shall conquer all despair
*quotes above in purple are from an interview with Smith on the Tavis Smiley show.