Friday, June 24, 2011
I recently read Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids (Ecco Press, 2010, New York). It is a wonderful book in which she writes of the love she shared with the legendary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. They were young and barely getting by in Greeenwich Village. They moved in together, shortly after they met, and the relationship would have a lasting effect on their lives. Even though they would eventually go their separate ways, a deep love and respect endured through all the changes that life was to bring. Mapplethorpe would go on to become a world famous photographer and would mingle with the heady in-crowd of the art and fashion world of New York. Patti Smith would follow her muse into the realms of rock music, poetry, art and photography. “Just Kids” won the National Book Award last year. It is a delightful read, the story of a young woman’s deep and strong first love. Mapplethorpe would die at a young age, at the height of his fame. Patti kept in touch with him and promised him she would write the book of their time together and the gift that he was to her. Her prose is heightened by a memory warmed by love, the love she innocently found and kept for many years. It was a love that stayed with her long after she and Mapplethorpe parted ways. It was as if the best of their relationship survived and even grew through the separation caused by miles and even other loves.
She kept a diary from her years with Mapplethorpe, and was able to build a narrative based on the small and seemingly unimportant things of day to day life – cutting Mapplethorpe’s hair, what she bought at the store, what was in the paper on any given day. Who she met, where they went.
Reading her words, I was struck as to how Patti Smith took risks. She left home at a young age and headed straight for New York City. She loved the French poet Arthur Rimbaud and his words inspired her to roam into the different and enticing realms of dreams and spirits and excitement. She writes beautifully, with a healthy sense of life’s highs and lows and her need to savor them all and live, write, sing and photograph from them.
I was in college, and then in the seminary, when Patti Smith was seeking out her path in life, a path that led her to New York and then to the Chelsea Hotel and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. In many ways, some might look upon her whole adventure as highly unorthodox and far, far off the tried and true paths laid down for us by religious institutions and cultural mores. I certainly followed the lights I was given and ended up studying theology and being ordained a priest. But with those lights, I have come to see other lights, on different but no less wondrous roads. I have come to believe that they are on the road of every life, given us that we might see what is of value along the way. Patti Smith has taken trinkets she has found all along her road and made of them bracelets, songs, poems, pictures, and a beautiful book. She has written a richly beautiful book in which these living trinkets are rediscovered by her and shared. She writes with a respect for life and a love of its mysteries. I think many of us have struggled and somehow suffered to find the same wondrous things in life. I was once just a kid, too. There are days when that time seems so long ago. But Patti Smith’s book makes me wonder if we really never lose what we thought was given us only once, in our teens – the capacity to wonder, to take risks, to love in crazy and breathtaking ways. Love is the always open door to life. And we never need pass it by for good. It opens again and again, and all we have to do is enter. Just like kids always do.