In found pockets of spare time – the five minutes before needing to leave to make an appointment; the fifteen minutes between emails – I’ve been updating my list of books on this blog. I’m not sure too many readers want to know what I was reading back in 1998, but for me, going back and typing in my notes from that year brings pleasure. Sort of looking through a photo album from a vacation taken a decade ago: Oh, yeah, there’s that woman I sat with on the bus! Or, Huh, I’d forgotten about that blouse. Except that with books, we’re reminded of whole words: characters, preoccupations on the page, as well as what we were doing while we were reading, say, an issue of Ploughshares. So that when I write down Austerlitz and Marie Antoinette (both read in 2002), I recall the puke-green vinyl armchair I sat in for hours as I turned their pages, luxuriating in the quiet of my own studio tucked in an old barn in the foothills of the Blue Ridge while on residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Ruth Rendell mysteries will always evoke Sea Ranch in August and a B & B in St. Andrews, Scotland, in dark-at-4 p.m.-January.
One of the books I read this year was Just Kids. Patti Smith fascinates me, as does New York City before I knew it, and I admired her direct style in describing love and friendship, even if I felt a little impatient at the end. Yes, I know she really did hang out with Sam and Janis and run into Jimi outside Electric Ladyland, but it started to feel a tad name-droppy.
My indelible Patti Smith moment, however, came not through the pages of her book, or even through the lyrics of her music but in person last fall, when she played on the Towers of Gold stage at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park. It was October 4, and she knew the saint for the day. Appropriate, given the city we were in – but not at all expected. Patti read St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer, the entire thing:
Where there is discord, my Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen
The audience roared its approval, and I had the uncharitable (very un-Franciscan) thought that most of them probably hadn’t listened. Really listened. How judgmental and cynical of me, to assume that Francis’s message, steeped as it is in Jesus’ teaching, wouldn’t be welcomed by the crowd. And then she barrelled into “Because the Night,” the fog rolled in through the eucalyptus, I leaned back into my sweetie’s arms, and for a brief instant – one of those instants you remember forever – everything clicked into place. Grace at a rock concert, cynicism vanished, and I wasn’t even stoned. Patti had done this.
Punk had always frightened me during its heyday – the raised-middle-finger aesthetic, the horrific hair, the slam dancing – but I liked enough of the music to entertain something of what a grad-school professor once termed “good ambiguity.” This appreciation deepened when, maybe ten years ago, I saw a photo of Smith sitting on a twin bed with her teenage son, both of them holding guitars. They looked cozy, and happy, and gentle. Smith was smiling, ruffling her son’s hair. (OK, I’m making up that detail, but it speaks to the feeling I recall from the photo.)
I was mature enough by then to know that music tastes mean a lot more than hairstyle and clothing and don’t dictate parenting style. I did like some Ramones songs, didn’t I? Punk, seemingly so hostile, had – like all hostility – a seed of brokenness inside, a tender place calling out. I became fascinated with Patti Smith, the seeming dichotomy of someone termed the Godmother of Punk appearing as a sweet mom.
Yes, I keep a book list partly to remind myself of what I have read so that when people ask I can mention something other than People magazine at the mani/pedi place. And, yes, to recommend books. Just Kids: read it!
But the really fun reason is what just happened this morning, remembering the godmother of punk quoting the gentle revolutionary. Amen.