Sometimes a book comes along that I need to keep on my person at all times – moving it from handbag to handbag, dipping into it on every train journey; comfort blanket, talisman and Bible, all at once.
When I was much, much younger – I used to carry Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger around with me. For a long time, it became Your Voice In My Head by Emma Forrest – still the wisest and most comforting memoir I can think of, I think that book has inspired me more than any other, and (crucially) made me feel like it’s going to be OK in the end. And, more importantly, that it’s OK if it isn’t ‘OK’. As Emma puts it far more beautifully herself: ‘Time heals all wounds. And if it doesn’t, you name them something other than wounds and agree to let them stay.’
For months now, that book has been M Train by Patti Smith. As I expect you know, the ‘M’ stands for ‘mind’ and it was inspired by a dream in which a cowboy (kind of a Sam Shepard-ish character, obviously) appeared and told her ‘it’s not so easy writing about nothing’. And it is kind of a book about… nothing.
Well, that’s not strictly true. It’s a book about writing itself, about travel, about coffee, about cats. Above all, it is a book about loss.
It’s a very quiet book. And while the young Chelsea Hotel energy of Just Kids is and always has been pretty much my lifeblood, there is something about the elegiac tone of M Train that fits my mood exactly these days. I find myself coming back to it again and again and again. The other day, I bought a new copy of it because I forgot to take it on a long train journey with me.
I comfort myself with the knowledge that I am just like Patti – and not just because I have copied her lightning bolt knee tattoo, not just because I cut my own hair and love Rimbaud and Rilke, and I too believe ‘people have the power’.
Patti and I have the same speed, as we both slouch around town in our flat boots and second-hand overcoats. I work in bed to stay warm, writing furiously rather than putting the heating on, just like Patti. I do all my best writing in bed, in the winter – always have.
Sometimes I go to cafes and sit in the corner with my notebook. I’ve been to Paris and New York alone; I seek out graveyards. When I was a child, I once took a whole roll of film in a French Catholic graveyard, just for fun, before I even knew who Patti Smith was.
It took me a while, but I love living alone. Sometimes I go whole days without talking to another human. I want to spend Christmas alone. Maybe New Year too. How very Patti of me. In the new year, I might get a cat. I enjoy the quiet; I’ve been trying to slow down – and I have. Maybe I’m not so manic, any more.
Then it hits me. Patti is a widow; her children are grown up; she has done the work, all her life. She has earned her silence (incidentally just like Leonard Cohen – or ‘Jikan’, of course).
On my bedroom wall, I have the inside sleeve of her album Wave framed. It is a picture of Patti dancing in a white dress and the Rilke quote:
“For one human being to love another, that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks; the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”
I want Detroit. I want a Fred Sonic Smith. I want French Guyana adventures. I want it all.
I am exactly half her age. I am just a 35-year-old woman staying in bed and freezing to death, typing.
This year has been a shift but my New Year’s resolution should probably be to get off this mind-train and get out into the world more…