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The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life

“In the wholeheartedness of concentration,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful inquiry into the effortless effort of creativity, “world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.” But concentration is indeed a difficult art, art’s art, and its difficulty lies in the constant conciliation of the dissonance between self and world — a difficulty hardly singular to the particular conditions of our time. Two hundred years before social media, the great French artist Eugène Delacroix lamented the necessary torment of avoiding social distractions in creative work; a century and a half later, Agnes Martin admonished aspiring artists to exercise discernment in the interruptions they allow, or else corrupt the mental, emotional, and spiritual privacy where inspiration arises.

But just as self-criticism is the most merciless kind of criticism and self-compassion the most elusive kind of compassion, self-distraction is the most hazardous kind of distraction, and the most difficult to protect creative work against.

How to hedge against that hazard is what beloved poet Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) explores in a wonderful piece titled “Of Power and Time,” found in the altogether enchanting Upstream: Selected Essays (public library).

Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver

Oliver writes:

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

Oliver terms this the “intimate interrupter” and cautions that it is far more perilous to creative work than any external distraction, adding:

The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.

Echoing Borges’s puzzlement over our divided personhood, Oliver sets out to excavate the building blocks of the self in order to understand its parallel capacities for focused creative flow and merciless interruption. She identifies three primary selves that she inhabits, and that inhabit her, as they do all of us: the childhood self, which we spend our lives trying to weave into the continuity of our personal identity (“The child I was,” she writes, “is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.”); the social self, “fettered to a thousand notions of obligation”; and a third self, a sort of otherworldly awareness.

The first two selves, she argues, inhabit the ordinary world and are present in all people; the third is of a different order and comes most easily alive in artists — it is where the wellspring of creative energy resides. She writes:

Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.

Art by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Oliver contrasts the existential purpose of the two ordinary selves with that of the creative self:

Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?

Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go round.

[…]

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.

Part of this something-elseness, Oliver argues, is the uncommon integration of the creative self — the artist’s work cannot be separated from the artist’s whole life, nor can its wholeness be broken down into the mechanical bits-and-pieces of specific actions and habits. (Elsewhere, Oliver has written beautifully about how habit gives shape to but must not control our inner lives).

Echoing Keats’s notion of “negative capability,” Dani Shapiro’s insistence that the artist’s task is “to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it,” and Georgia O’Keeffe’s counsel that as an artist you ought to be “keeping the unknown always beyond you,” Oliver considers the central commitment of the creative life — that of making uncertainty and the unknown the raw material of art:

Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Van Gogh’s spirited letter on risk-taking and how inspired mistakes move us forward, Oliver returns to the question of the conditions that coax the creative self into being:

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.

Above all, Oliver observes from the “fortunate platform” of a long, purposeful, and creatively fertile life, the artist’s task is one of steadfast commitment to the art:

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.

She returns to the problem of concentration, which for the artist is a form, perhaps the ultimate form, of consecration:

The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.

[…]

It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

Upstream is a tremendously vitalizing read in its totality, grounding and elevating at the same time. Complement it with Oliver on love and its necessary wildness, what attention really means, and the measure of a life well lived, then revisit Jane Hirshfield on the difficult art of concentration.

BP

Big Magic: Elizabeth Gilbert on Creative Courage and the Art of Living in a State of Uninterrupted Marvel

“Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?”

Big Magic: Elizabeth Gilbert on Creative Courage and the Art of Living in a State of Uninterrupted Marvel

“When you’re an artist,” Amanda Palmer wrote in her magnificent manifesto for the creative life, “nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand.” The craftsmanship of that wand, which is perhaps the most terrifying and thrilling task of the creative person in any domain of endeavor, is what Elizabeth Gilbert explores in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (public library) — a lucid and luminous inquiry into the relationship between human beings and the mysteries of the creative experience, as defined by Gilbert’s beautifully broad notion of “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” It’s an expansive definition that cracks open the possibilities within any human life, whether you’re a particle physicist or a postal worker or a poet — and the pursuit of possibility is very much at the heart of Gilbert’s mission to empower us to enter into creative endeavor the way one enters into a monastic order: “as a devotional practice, as an act of love, and as a lifelong commitment to the search for grace and transcendence.”

elizabethgilbert
A generation earlier, Julia Cameron termed the spark of this creative transcendence “spiritual electricity,” and a generation before that Rollo May explored the fears keeping us from attaining it. Gilbert, who has contemplated the complexities of creativity for a long time and with electrifying insight, calls its supreme manifestation “Big Magic”:

This, I believe, is the central question upon which all creative living hinges: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?

[…]

Surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you. I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure. I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.

The hunt to uncover those jewels — that’s creative living.

The courage to go on that hunt in the first place — that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.

The often surprising results of that hunt — that’s what I call Big Magic.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for 'The Big Green Book' by Robert Graves
Illustration by Maurice Sendak for ‘The Big Green Book’ by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

That notion of summoning the courage to bring forth one’s hidden treasures is one Gilbert borrowed from Jack Gilbert — a brilliant poet to whom she is related not by genealogy but by creative kinship, graced with the astonishing coincidence of their last names and a university teaching position they both occupied a generation apart. She reflects on the poet’s unusual creative ethos:

“We must risk delight,” he wrote. “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”

[…]

He seemed to live in a state of uninterrupted marvel, and he encouraged [his students] to do the same. He didn’t so much teach them how to write poetry, they said, but why: because of delight. Because of stubborn gladness. He told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of this world.

Most of all, though, he asked his students to be brave. Without bravery, he instructed, they would never be able to realize the vaulting scope of their own capacities. Without bravery, they would never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, their lives would remain small — far smaller than they probably wanted their lives to be.

But this notion of bravery seeds a common confusion, which Gilbert takes care to dispel:

We all know that when courage dies, creativity dies with it. We all know that fear is a desolate boneyard where our dreams go to desiccate in the hot sun. This is common knowledge; sometimes we just don’t know what to do about it.

[…]

Creativity is a path for the brave, yes, but it is not a path for the fearless, and it’s important to recognize the distinction.

[…]

If your goal in life is to become fearless, then I believe you’re already on the wrong path, because the only truly fearless people I’ve ever met were straight-up sociopaths and a few exceptionally reckless three-year-olds — and those aren’t good role models for anyone.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Click image for more.

Bravery, Gilbert suggests, is the product of a certain kind of obstinacy in the face of fear — and that obstinacy, rather than one’s occupation, is what defines the creative life:

While the paths and outcomes of creative living will vary wildly from person to person, I can guarantee you this: A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner — continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you — is a fine art, in and of itself.

To be sure, Gilbert — whose writing lives in the Venn diagram of Brené Brown, Dani Shapiro, Cheryl Strayed, and David Whyte — is a far cry from the self-help canon of authoritarian advice dictated by a detached expert. What makes her book so immensely helpful is precisely its lived and living nature. She writes:

The only reason I can speak so authoritatively about fear is that I know it so intimately. I know every inch of fear, from head to toe. I’ve been a frightened person my entire life. I was born terrified. I’m not exaggerating; you can ask anyone in my family, and they’ll confirm that, yes, I was an exceptionally freaked-out child. My earliest memories are of fear, as are pretty much all the memories that come after my earliest memories.

Growing up, I was afraid not only of all the commonly recognized and legitimate childhood dangers (the dark, strangers, the deep end of the swimming pool), but I was also afraid of an extensive list of completely benign things (snow, perfectly nice babysitters, cars, playgrounds, stairs, Sesame Street, the telephone, board games, the grocery store, sharp blades of grass, any new situation whatsoever, anything that dared to move, etc., etc., etc.).

I was a sensitive and easily traumatized creature who would fall into fits of weeping at any disturbance in her force field. My father, exasperated, used to call me Pitiful Pearl. We went to the Delaware shore one summer when I was eight years old, and the ocean upset me so much that I tried to get my parents to stop all the people on the beach from going into the surf.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from ‘Meanwhile.’ Click image for more.

I can’t help but see in this tragicomic anecdote a magnificent metaphor for the psychology of trolling. The impulse to attack others who have dared to put themselves and their art into the world springs from the same fear-seed. What is trolling, after all, if not a concentrated effort to stop others from going into the surf — not because trolls try to protect the rest of the world from the perils of bad art but because they seek to protect themselves from the fear that if they dare plunge into the surf, their own art might wash up ashore lifeless.

Kierkegaard knew this when he contemplated the psychology of trolling two centuries ago, and Neil Gaiman knew it when he delivered his spectacular speech on courage and the creative life. All of us know this on some primordial level when we contemplate the metaphorical surf, for every time we decide to swim we must also allow for the possibility of sinking, which seems decidedly less mortifying if there weren’t other people swimming while we sink.

Gilbert considers the somewhat mysterious, somewhat perfectly sensical stimulus that eventually sent her on a life-path of plunging into the surf:

Over the years, I’ve often wondered what finally made me stop playing the role of Pitiful Pearl, almost overnight. Surely there were many factors involved in that evolution (the tough-mom factor, the growing-up factor), but mostly I think it was just this: I finally realized that my fear was boring.

[…]

Around the age of fifteen, I somehow figured out that my fear had no variety to it, no depth, no substance, no texture. texture. I noticed that my fear never changed, never delighted, never offered a surprise twist or an unexpected ending. My fear was a song with only one note — only one word, actually — and that word was “STOP!” My fear never had anything more interesting or subtle to offer than that one emphatic word, repeated at full volume on an endless loop: “STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!”

[…]

I also realized that my fear was boring because it was identical to everyone else’s fear. I figured out that everyone’s song of fear has exactly that same tedious lyric: “STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!” True, the volume may vary from person to person, but the song itself never changes, because all of us humans were equipped with the same basic fear package when we were being knitted in our mothers’ wombs.

Far from a uniquely human faculty, this fear is there for a reason — an evolutionary mechanism that aided us in our survival, much like it has aided every living creature that made it to this point of evolutionary history. Gilbert writes:

If you pass your hand over a petri dish containing a tadpole, the tadpole will flinch beneath your shadow. That tadpole cannot write poetry, and it cannot sing, and it will never know love or jealousy or triumph, and it has a brain the size of a punctuation mark, but it damn sure knows how to be afraid of the unknown.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a special edition of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Click image for more.

And yet the human gift, Gilbert reminds us, is the willingness to march forward — in terror and transcendence, and often alone — even though we too flinch beneath the shadow of the unknown:

Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.

What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all.

We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.

We are terrified, and we are brave.

Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.

Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.

In the remainder of the wholly electrifying Big Magic, Gilbert goes on to explore the building blocks of the bravery that makes that wonderful privilege available to each of us. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on why creativity requires leaping into the unknown, Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense advice on faith and humility, Brené Brown on creative resilience, and Anaïs Nin on why emotional excess is essential for creative endeavor.

BP

I Work Like a Gardener: Joan Miró on Art, Motionless Movement, and the Proper Pace of Creative Labor

“Art can die; what matters is that it should have sown seeds on the earth… It must give birth to a world.”

“Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos,” Saul Bellow told an interviewer in 1966, “a stillness which characterizes prayer.” Few artists have captured this stillness more movingly than the Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miró (April 20, 1893–December 25, 1983), whose masterpieces upended the conventions of visual art by giving life to a new aesthetic of vibrant stillness.

One late November afternoon in 1958, the French artist, author, and art critic Yvon Taillandier sat down with sixty-five-year-old Miró for a long conversation about the artist’s creative process and his philosophy on art. The result was Miró: I Work Like a Gardener (public library) — a beautiful bilingual volume in French and English, published as a limited edition of 75 copies in 1964. This out-of-print treasure remains the most direct and comprehensive record of Miró’s ideas on art.

Joan Miró

Miró begins at the beginning:

By nature I am tragic and taciturn. In my youth I passed through periods of profound sadness.

[…]

The thing I consciously seek is tension in spirit. But in my opinion it is essential not to provoke this tension by chemical means, such as drink or drugs.

The atmosphere propitious to this tension, I find in poetry, music, architecture — Gaudi, for example, is terrific —, in my daily walk, in certain [sounds]: the [sound] of horses in the country, the creaking of wooden cartwheels, footsteps, cries in the night, crickets.

Joan Miró: ‘Horse, Pipe and Red Flower,’ 1920

Echoing Virginia Woolf’s beautiful notion of the “shock-receiving capacity” of the artist, Miró reflects:

For me an object is alive; this cigarette, this matchbox, contain a secret life much more intense than certain humans. I see a tree, I get a shock, as if it were something breathing, talking. A tree too is something human.

He considers the central role of stillness in his art. The translator’s dubious decision to translate immobilité as “immobility,” where “stillness” is much more elegant and befitting a choice, dulls the artist’s words. But if we were to substitute “stillness” for “immobility,” they come alive in a new way:

[Stillness] strikes me. This bottle, this glass, a big stone on a deserted beach — these are motionless things, but they set loose great movements in my mind… People who go bathing on a beach and who move about, touch me much less than the [stillness] of a pebble. (Motionless things become grand, much grander than moving things.) [Stillness] makes me think of great spaces in which movements take place which do not stop at a given moment, movements which have no end. It is, as Kant said, the immediate irruption of the infinite in the finite. A pebble which is a finite and motionless object suggests to me not only movements, but movements without end. This is translated, in my canvases, by forms resembling sparks flying out of the frame as out of a volcano.

[…]

What I am seeking, in fact, is a motionless movement, something equivalent to what is called the eloquence of silence, or what St. John of the Cross meant by the words, I believe, of dumb music.

Joan Miró: ‘The Birth of a Day,’ 1968

Perhaps because human beings seek to create that which we lack and our coping mechanisms become our art, Miró reaches for this vital stillness from a place of enormous inner tumult:

When a picture doesn’t satisfy me, I feel physical distress, as if I were ill, as if my heart wasn’t working properly, as if I couldn’t breathe, and was suffocating.

I work in a state of passion and compulsion. When I begin a canvas, I obey a physical impulse, a need to act; it’s like a physical discharge.

Of course, a canvas can’t satisfy me [immediately]. And in the beginning I feel this distress… It’s a struggle between me and what I am doing, between me and the canvas, between me and my distress. This struggle is passionately exciting to me. I work until the distress leaves me.

Joan Miró: ‘Catalan Landscape,’ 1924

He returns to the notion of “shock” as a central stimulus for his art — the trigger that sets into motion the Rube Goldberg machine of expelling his distress:

I begin my pictures under the effect of a shock… The cause of this shock may be a tiny thread sticking out of the canvas, a drop of water falling, this print made by my finger on the shining surface of this table.

[…]

And so a bit of thread can set a world in motion. I start from something considered dead and arrive at a world.

But Miró’s most potent point deals with the proper gestational period for art and the painstaking care that goes into any worthwhile creative labor. In an age when the vast majority of our cultural material is reduced to “content” and “assets,” factory-farmed by a media machine that turns creators into Pavlovian creatures hooked on constant and immediate positive reinforcement via “likes” and “shares,” here comes a sorely needed reminder that art operates on a wholly different time scale and demands a wholly different pace of cultivation. (I’m reminded of Susan Sontag: “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.”)

Miró defies this factory-farming model of art with the perfect metaphor:

If a canvas remains in progress for years in my studio, that doesn’t worry me. On the contrary, when I’m rich in canvases which have a point of departure vital enough to set off a series of rhythms, a new life, new living things, I’m happy.

I consider my studio as a kitchen garden. Here, there are artichokes. There, potatoes. Leaves must be cut so that the fruit can grow. At the right moment, I must prune.

I work like a gardener… Things come slowly… Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water… Ripening goes on in my mind. So I’m always working at a great many things at the same time.

Joan Miró: ‘Harlequin’s Carnival,’ 1924–1925

In considering what makes a great painting, Miró captures the heart of any substantive work of art, whatever its medium:

In a picture, it should be possible to discover new things every time you see it. But you can look at a picture for a week [straight] and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life. For me, a picture should be like sparks. It must dazzle like the beauty of a woman or a poem. It must have radiance, it must be like those stones which Pyrenean shepherds use to light their pipes.

More than the picture itself, what counts is what it throws off, what it exhales. It doesn’t matter if the picture is destroyed. Art can die; what matters is that it should have sown seeds on the earth… A picture must be fertile. It must give birth to a world.

In a sentiment that Cheryl Strayed would come to echo decades later in asserting that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice,” Miró reflects on the relationship between the deeply personal impulse animating the artist and the universal resonance of his or her art:

A profoundly individual gesture is anonymous. Being anonymous, it allows the universal to be attained… The more local anything is, the more universal.

[…]

Anonymity allows me to renounce myself, but in renouncing myself I come to affirm myself more strongly. In the same way silence is a denial of [sound], but as a result, the slightest [sound] in silence becomes enormous.

The same practice makes me seek the [sound] hidden in silence, the movement in [stillness], life in the inanimate, the infinite in the finite, forms in space and myself in anonymity… By denying negation one affirms.

Complement Miró: I Work Like a Gardener with Kandinsky on the spiritual element in art, O’Keeffe on art, love, and setting priorities, and Rothko on the transcendent power of art, then revisit some of today’s most celebrated artists on what it takes to be a great artist.

BP

Patti Smith on Prayer, the Love of Books, and How Illness Expands the Field of Creative Awareness

“Lying deep within myself … I seized a most worthy souvenir, a shard of heaven’s kaleidoscope.”

Patti Smith on Prayer, the Love of Books, and How Illness Expands the Field of Creative Awareness

Roald Dahl believed that physical illness powers creativity. It’s a perplexing proposition, but the diaries of celebrated artists, writers, scientists, and inventors are strewn with accounts of how fever-induced creative revelations — perhaps because fever shakes off the chronic constraints of the conscious mind, sparking a sort of openness that enlarges the locus of ideation and broadens the field of creative vision.

Artist and punk rock icon Patti Smith relays precisely this type of experience in Just Kids (public library) — her altogether magnificent memoir, which also gave us her lettuce soup recipe for starving artists.

Patti Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe (Courtesy of Tate Museum)

Reflecting on her early childhood, Smith — who was raised in a deeply religious home — writes:

My mother taught me to pray; she taught me the prayer her mother taught her. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. At nightfall, I knelt before my little bed as she stood, with her ever-present cigarette, listening as I recited after her. I wished nothing more than to say my prayers, yet these words troubled me and I plagued her with questions. What is the soul? What color is it? I suspected my soul, being mischievous, might slip away while I was dreaming and fail to return. I did my best not to fall asleep, to keep it inside of me where it belonged.

[…]

As time passed I came to experience a different kind of prayer, a silent one, requiring more listening than speaking.

My small torrent of words dissipated into an elaborate sense of expanding and receding. It was my entrance into the radiance of imagination. This process was especially magnified within the fevers of influenza, measles, chicken pox, and mumps. I had them all and with each I was privileged with a new level of awareness. Lying deep within myself, the symmetry of a snowflake spinning above me, intensifying through my lids, I seized a most worthy souvenir, a shard of heaven’s kaleidoscope.

Smith eventually came to find the electrifying exultation of this quiet prayerfulness not in religion but in reading:

My love of prayer was gradually rivaled by my love for the book. I would sit at my mother’s feet watching her drink coffee and smoke cigarettes with a book on her lap. Her absorption intrigued me. Though not yet in nursery school, I liked to look at her books, feel their paper, and lift the tissues from the frontispieces. I wanted to know what was in them, what captured her attention so deeply. When my mother discovered that I had hidden her crimson copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs beneath my pillow, with hopes of absorbing its meaning, she sat me down and began the laborious process of teaching me to read. With great effort we moved through Mother Goose to Dr. Seuss. When I advanced past the need for instruction, I was permitted to join her on our overstuffed sofa, she reading The Shoes of the Fisherman and I The Red Shoes. I was completely smitten by the book.

I longed to read them all, and the things I read of produced new yearnings.

Just Kids is the kind of book that leaves you completely smitten and full of innumerable yearnings. Complement it with Smith’s advice on life, her poetic tribute to her soul mate, and her beautiful homage to Virginia Woolf.

BP

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