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Five Pearls of Wisdom From Patti Smith’s ‘M Train’

MUNICH, BAYERN - JULY 13: Patti Smith performs at Tollwood Festival on July 13, 2015 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Stefan M. Prager/Redferns via Getty Images)

Patti Smith has always been something of a cultural enigma. Spending the early part of her career merging poetry, blues, and punk rock, the musician, writer, and visual artist has, to date, released 11 albums (she’s currently celebrating the 40th anniversary of her debut, Horses) and, in 2010, won legions of literary admirers with her first autobiography, Just Kids. This week, she’ll no doubt capture another wave of readers with that book’s outstanding follow-up, M Train.

Smith’s initial first-person volume portrayed her early years in New York City and relationship with artist and roommate Robert Mapplethorpe, but M Train, though still circling the five boroughs, is largely set in the present. She makes habitual stops at her favorite neighborhood café, marathons foreign crime dramas, and decamps to Rockaway Beach, where she purchases a small bungalow, contemplates the meaning of Haruki Murakami’s portal-well in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and struggles with the writing process, among other solitary activities.

But Smith is not one to plant her feet on the ground for long — the book frequently hurtles us back to lost moments in time, spanning her relationship with her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith; the death of her brother, Todd Pollard Smith; her travels to distant countries; and visits to the graves of famous writers.

She also spends much of M Train creating entire imagined personas for CSI characters, her two cats, and even café table snatchers. Each break from reality ends up processed into a life lesson of sorts, as only Smith can articulate. We’ve rounded up a few of our favorites below.

1. The people we’ve loved and lost live on in us. 

Eventually I left Michigan and returned to New York with [mine and Fred’s] 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 Smith’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 [her late husband] Fred, skies of blue, clouds of white, hoping to penetrate the veil of a congenital sorrow.

2. Live life by your own timetable.

Fred finally achieved his pilot’s license but couldn’t afford to fly a plane. I wrote incessantly but published nothing. Through it all we held fast to the concept of the clock with no hands. Tasks were completed, sump pumps manned, sandbags piled, trees planted, shirts ironed, hems stitched, and yet we reserved the right to ignore the hands that kept on turning. Looking back, long after his death, our way of living seems a miracle, one that could only be achieved by the silent synchronization of the jewels and gears of a common mind.

3. Change is inevitable, though we’ll always resist it. 

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.

4. Your mind is the key to beating long-term melancholy. 

All doors are open to the believer. It is the lesson of the Samaritan woman at the well. In my sleepy state it occurred to me that if [Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird] well was a portal out, there must also be a portal in. There must be a thousand and one ways to find it. I should be happy with the one. It might be possible to pass through the orphic mirror like the drunken poet Cégeste in Cocteau’s Orphée. But I did not wish to pass through mirrors, nor quantum tunnel walls, or bore my way into the mind of the writer.

In the end it was [Haruki] Murakami himself who provided me with an unobtrusive solution. The narrator in [The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle] accomplished moving through the well into the hallway of an indefinable hotel by visualizing himself swimming, akin to his happiest moments. As Peter Pan instructed Wendy and her brothers in order to fly: Think happy thoughts.

I scoured the niches of former joys, halting at a moment of secret exaltation. Though it would take some time, I knew just how to do it. First I would close my eyes and concentrate on the hands of a ten-year-old girl fingering a skate key on a cherished lace from the shoe of a twelve-year-old boy. Think happy thoughts. I would simply roller skate through the portal.

5. You’re more resilient than you know.

As a child I thought that 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.