Patti Smith on Time, Transformation, and How the Radiance of Love Redeems the Rupture of Loss
By Maria Popova
“Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?” philosopher Rebecca Goldstein asked in contemplating how Einstein and Gödel shaped our experience of time. A little less than a century earlier, just as the theory of relativity was taking hold, Virginia Woolf articulated in exquisite prose what quantum physics sought to convey in equations — that thing we feel in our very bones, impervious to art or science, by virtue of being ephemeral creatures in a transient world.
That transcendent transience is what beloved musician, artist, and poet Patti Smith explores in M Train (public library) — a most unusual and breathtaking book: part memoir, part dreamscape, part elegy for the departed and for time itself.
A person possessing the rare gift of remaining radiant even in her melancholy, Smith grieves for her husband and her brother; she commemorates her great heroes, from friends like William S. Burroughs, who influenced her greatly, to kindred companions on the creative path across space and time like Frida Kahlo, William Blake, and Sylvia Plath; she even mourns the closing of the neighborhood café she frequented for more than a decade, one of those mundane anchors of constancy by which we hang on to existence.
The point, of course, is that each loss evokes all losses — a point Smith delivers with extraordinary elegance of prose and sincerity of spirit. What emerges is a strange and wonderful consolation for our inconsolable longing for permanency amid a universe driven by perpetual change and inevitable loss.
The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.
But every transformation is invariably a loss, and the transformed must be mourned before the transformed-into can be relished. The mystery of the continuity between the two — between our past and present selves — is one of the greatest perplexities of philosophy. Smith arrives at it with wistful wonderment as she contemplates the disorientation of aging, that ultimate horseman of terminal transformation:
I considered what it meant to be sixty-six. The same number as the original American highway, the celebrated Mother Road that George Maharis, as Buz Murdock, took as he tooled across the country in his Corvette, working on oil rigs and trawlers, breaking hearts and freeing junkies. Sixty-six, I thought, what the hell. I could feel my chronology mounting, snow approaching. I could feel the moon, but I could not see it. The sky was veiled with a heavy mist illuminated by the perpetual city lights. When I was a girl the night sky was a great map of constellations, a cornucopia spilling the crystalline dust of the Milky Way across its ebony expanse, layers of stars that I would deftly unfold in my mind. I noticed the threads on my dungarees straining across my protruding knees. I’m still the same person, I thought, with all my flaws intact, same old bony knees…
The phone was ringing, a birthday wish from an old friend reaching from far away. As I said good-bye I realized I missed that particular version of me, the one who was feverish, impious. She has flown, that’s for sure.
In a sentiment reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on the fluidity of past and present, Smith considers what “real time” is:
Is it time uninterrupted? Only the present comprehended? Are our thoughts nothing but passing trains, no stops, devoid of dimension, whizzing by massive posters with repeating images? Catching a fragment from a window seat, yet another fragment from the next identical frame? If I write in the present yet digress, is that still real time? Real time, I reasoned, cannot be divided into sections like numbers on the face of a clock. If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time? Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory. I looked out into the street and noticed the light changing. Perhaps the sun had slipped behind a cloud. Perhaps time had slipped away.
This dance with change on the precipice of past and present is perhaps why the weather plays such a recurring role throughout the book — weather changes are the most universally palpable of transformations, and at their most acute they augur loss. Smith writes about storms with a kind of primal awe — the blizzard that strikes as she and her husband leave the theater after seeing an Akira Kurosawa film on her fortieth birthday, having entered it under clear and sunny skies; the raging thunderstorm through which she returns home alone after her husband dies in a Detroit hospital, forty-five years after he was born in the midst of an electrical storm in his grandparents’ kitchen; Hurricane Sandy, which devastates the Far Rockaways just as she has fallen in love with the community and purchased a ramshackle bungalow as her newfound sanctuary.
Recalling visiting her beloved Rockaways after the Sandy devastation, Smith captures the piercing impermanence that storms swirl us into contact with:
The great storm surges that flooded the streets had killed most of the vegetation. I inspected all that there was to see. The mildewed pasteboard walls forming small rooms had been gutted, opening onto a large room with the century-old vaulted ceiling intact, and rotted floors were being removed. I could feel progress and left with a bit of optimism. I sat on the makeshift step of what would be my refurbished porch and envisioned a yard with wildflowers. Anxious for some permanency, I guess I needed to be reminded how temporal permanency is.
Nothing encodes this temporal permanency more palpably than our treasured objects, imbued with memories and haunted by former versions of ourselves, and there is nothing we imbue with memory more intimately than the worn stories of our clothes. Like life itself, these wearable micro-museums of memory are woven of both love and loss. Smith captures this beautifully in the story of one such cherished possession:
I had a black coat. A poet gave it to me some years ago on my fifty-seventh birthday. It had been his — an ill-fitting, unlined Comme des Garçons overcoat that I secretly coveted. On the morning of my birthday he told me he had no gift for me.
— I don’t need a gift, I said.
— But I want to give you something, whatever you wish for.
— Then I would like your black coat, I said.
And he smiled and gave it to me without hesitation or regret. Every time I put it on I felt like myself. The moths liked it as well and it was riddled with small holes along the hem, but I didn’t mind. The pockets had come unstitched at the seam and I lost everything I absentmindedly slipped into their holy caves. Every morning I got up, put on my coat and watch cap, grabbed my pen and notebook, and headed across Sixth Avenue to my café. I loved my coat and the café and my morning routine. It was the clearest and simplest expression of my solitary identity. But in this current run of harsh weather, I favored another coat to keep me warm and protect me from the wind. My black coat, more suitable for spring and fall, fell from my consciousness, and in this relatively short span it disappeared.
Smith’s husband, Fred, believed that when such beloved possessions disappear, they enter “the Valley of Lost Things.” When he was a child, his favorite toy — a red plastic cowboy he had named Reddy — suffered a similar fate after Fred’s mother, dusting the bookcase, inadvertently knocked Reddy into domestic neverland. But he miraculously reappeared some years later, emerging from the floor when boards had to be replaced. When Reddy returned, Fred proudly placed him on the bookcase in the couple’s bedroom.
Smith reflects on this dance of disappearances, which so aggrieves us precisely because objects concretize our longing for permanence:
Some things are called back from the Valley. I believe Reddy called out to Fred. I believe Fred heard. I believe in their mutual jubilance. Some things are not lost but sacrificed. I saw my black coat in the Valley of the Lost on a random mound being picked over by desperate urchins. Someone good will get it, I told myself, the Billy Pilgrim of the lot.
Do our lost possessions mourn us? Do electric sheep dream of Roy Batty? Will my coat, riddled with holes, remember the rich hours of our companionship? Asleep on buses from Vienna to Prague, nights at the opera, walks by the sea, the grave of Swinburne in the Isle of Wight, the arcades of Paris, the caverns of Luray, the cafés of Buenos Aires. Human experience bound in its threads. How many poems bleeding from its ragged sleeves? I averted my eyes just for a moment, drawn by another coat that was warmer and softer, but that I did not love. Why is it that we lose the things we love, and things cavalier cling to us and will be the measure of our worth after we’re gone?
Then it occurred to me. Perhaps I absorbed my coat.
Smith examines this question of what is lost and what is redeemed in recounting a rather allegorical experience she had while journeying to a picturesque canyon in Mexico:
It was breathtaking though dangerous place, but we felt nothing but awe. I said a prayer to the lime-dusted mountain, then was drawn to a small rectangular light some twenty feet away. It was a white stone. Actually more tablet than stone, the color of foolscap, as if waiting for another commandment to be etched on its polished surface. I walked over and without hesitation picked it up and put it in my coat pocket as if it were written to do so.
I had thought to bring the strength of the mountain to my little house. I felt an instantaneous affection for it and kept my hand in my pocket in order to touch it, a missal of stone. It was not until later at the airport, as a customs inspector confiscated it, that I realized I had not asked the mountain whether or not I could have it. Hubris, I mourned, sheer hubris. The inspector firmly explained it could be deemed a weapon. It’s a holy stone, I told him, and begged him not to toss it away, which he did without flinching. It bothered me deeply. I had taken a beautiful object, formed by nature, out of its habitat to be thrown into a sack of security rubble.
I took the stone from the mountain and it was taken from me. A kind of moral balance, I well understood.
The book is, above all, a reminder that love and loss always hang in such a balance — perhaps not a moral one, for morality presumes meaning and some losses are senseless, dealt out by a universe impervious to human concerns and conceits, but a balance nonetheless. Smith captures this devastating and transcendent truth in recounting the days following Fred’s death:
My brother stayed with me through the days that followed. He promised the children he would be there for them always and would return after the holidays. But exactly a month later he had a massive stroke while wrapping Christmas presents for his daughter. The sudden death of Todd, so soon after Fred’s passing, seemed unbearable. The shock left me numb. I spent hours sitting in Fred’s favorite chair, dreading my own imagination. I rose and performed small tasks with the mute concentration of one imprisoned in ice.
Eventually I left Michigan and returned to New York with our children. One afternoon while crossing the street I noticed I was crying. But I could not identify the source of my tears. I felt a heat containing the colors of autumn. The dark stone in my heart pulsed quietly, igniting like a coal in a hearth. Who is in my heart? I wondered.
I soon recognized Todd’s humorous spirit, and as I continued my walk I slowly reclaimed an aspect of him that was also myself — a natural optimism. And slowly the leaves of my life turned, and I saw myself pointing out simple things to Fred, skies of blue, clouds of white, hoping to penetrate the veil of a congenital sorrow. I saw his pale eyes looking intently into mine, trying to trap my walleye in his unfaltering gaze. That alone took up several pages that filled me with such painful longing that I fed them into the fire in my heart, like Gogol burning page by page the manuscript of Dead Souls Two. I burned them all, one by one; they did not form ash, did not go cold, but radiated the warmth of human compassion.
This, indeed, is the book’s greatest gift: The sublime assurance that although everything we love — people, places, possessions — can and likely will eventually be taken from us, the radiant vestiges those loves leave in the soul are permanently ours, and this is the only permanence we’ll ever know.
Echoing Italo Calvino’s unforgettable assertion that “every experience is unrepeatable,” Smith writes:
Nothing can be truly replicated. Not a love, not a jewel, not a single line.
I have lived in my own book. One I never planned to write, recording time backwards and forwards. I have watched the snow fall onto the sea and traced the steps of a traveler long gone. I have relived moments that were perfect in their certainty. Fred buttoning the khaki shirt he wore for his flying lessons. Doves returning to nest on our balcony. Our daughter, Jesse, standing before me stretching out her arms.
— Oh, Mama, sometimes I feel like a new tree.
We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.
With lyrical lucidity, Smith reminds us that the only liberation from the shackles of change lies in its acceptance, in the act of willful surrender:
Shard by shard we are released from the tyranny of so-called time. A curtain of purple wisteria partially conceals the entrance to a familiar garden… In a wink, a lifetime, we pass through the infinite movements of a silent overture.
Indeed, we move through this world both mutable and abiding, and it is the movement itself that anchors us to ourselves. Returning to the Möbius strip of our personal continuity, Smith writes:
I believe I am still the same person; no amount of change in the world can change that.
I believe in movement. I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. I believe in midnight and the hour of noon. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond. I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose. When we are young we think we won’t, that we are different. As a child I thought I would never grow up, that I could will it so. And then I realized, quite recently, that I had crossed some line, unconsciously cloaked in the truth of my chronology. How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron-colored hair. Now I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket. But I would also keep on living, refusing to surrender my pen.
Stubbornly writing the story of our own finitude and impermanence, Smith seems to suggest, is our only true homecoming to wholeness:
Home is a desk. The amalgamation of a dream. Home is the cats, my books, and my work never done. All the lost things that may one day call to me, the faces of my children who will one day call to me. Maybe we can’t draw flesh from reverie nor retrieve a dusty spur, but we can gather the dream itself and bring it back uniquely whole.
Complement the wholly enchanting M Train with Smith on the love of books, her stirring poems for her departed soul mate, her advice on life, and her homage to Virginia Woolf, then revisit Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful meditation on love and loss.
For a bewitching immersion in Smith’s radiant spirit, treat yourself to her conversation with the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber, part of these nine fantastic podcasts for a fuller life:
If we walk the victim, we’re perceived as the victim. And if we enter … glowing and receptive … if we maintain our radiance and enter a situation with radiance, often radiance will come our way.
William Blake … being a sort of a victim of the Industrial Revolution … was a great poet, a great songwriter, an activist, a philosopher, a visionary. He gave us beautiful books, paintings, ideology — and yet William Blake in his lifetime was never appreciated. He had no real success. He was often ridiculed. He died poverty-stricken, but he also died full of joy. He never let go of his vision, he never let go of that radiance, he never let go of the language of enthusiasm. So I try to remember now when I feel sorry for myself to give a little thought to William Blake.
Published October 19, 2015