I stumbled upon Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids on one of those fall days where the weather is just becoming chilly and the fresh new quality of the school year is fading along with the vibrancy of the leaves on the sidewalk. I needed to read something great, to say the least. I walked into the library looking for something “fun” to fall into. I walked out with a new lease on life nestled among all the “fun” books in my backpack, not knowing at the time what I was getting myself into.
I’d read the first few pages of the book in the library, not quite sure who or what I would be reading about. By the time I’d moved from Smith’s present-day introduction into a decades-old recollection of a swan, I was thinking of nothing but her story. Patti Smith has a talent for evoking the most poignant images in a few sentences, her careful attention to detail making people, places, and events come alive to readers as if her memories were theirs, as well. This imbues the book with a certain kind of hominess, especially as Smith begins recounting her move from South Jersey to New York City at age nineteen.
Shortly after arriving in the city, Smith met fellow artist and kindred spirit Robert Mapplethorpe and the two began living and working together. Smith and Mapplethorpe’s early years together seem to have been a time of love and even comfort, in spite of the fact that they were essentially a pair of starving artists. The two of them seemed to have survived off of friendship and art more so than food. The pair took pleasure in what some might call “the little things”: dressing up in thematic outfits for a trip to Coney Island, decorating their apartment, listening to records, and making art side by side. They built their own little world, and its everyday magic is captured flawlessly by Smith’s poetic, somewhat reverent prose. She transports readers into this time to the point that you can almost hear their records and the scratch of pencil or charcoal on paper.
As bumps in the road propel Smith and Mapplethorpe toward the famous Chelsea Hotel, their story becomes that much more intriguing. They begin to befriend and even collaborate with some of art and music’s biggest figures. One of my favorite Chelsea Hotel anecdotes is the one Smith recounts about sitting with Janis Joplin and their mutual friends, none of them realizing they were in the presence of someone who would become an icon. Smith reflects on this and other moments from her past that were good while they happened but seem even more significant in hindsight. That has stuck with me over the past year and I think of it at the strangest times, constantly being reminded that you never know what “matters”: everything is important.
It is easy, when you first read Just Kids, to wish for a time machine and to be certain that you, too, could inspire and be inspired by brilliant artists or experience the energy of New York City in 1969. After a while, you come to realize that living the kind of life Patti Smith had isn’t completely a crazy pipe dream: it’s about priorities. If her writing is any indication, Smith is the kind of person who sees the potential for meaning and beauty in everything. You can’t travel back in time and hang out at the Chelsea Hotel, but you can pick up Just Kids and see what you can learn from Smith’s journey.
One of the biggest things Just Kids has helped me to realize is how important it is to commit to living in the moment. If Smith is right that we do not always understand the importance of some things as we see or experience them, then the best way to capture those things in our hearts and in our minds is to be present. In addition, every vivid description of the events of Smith’s life make me want to be so aware of my own surroundings in the hopes that I could bring them to life in the same way. In order to be able to look at or capture life with the appreciation and energy that Patti Smith does in Just Kids, you need to be invested in your surroundings; shuffling dully through life just isn’t going to cut it.
Everyone is so busy, and most of us are glued to our phones, making it easy to focus on some other time or place instead of noting the beauty –or any other quality- of the present moment. You have to be in tune with the real world in order to create art, and I believe, to live a more full life. Committing to living in the moment is an example of dedication with almost immediate reward, so why wouldn’t I give it a try?
Just Kids is not only a beautiful book, but one that has a lot to offer any reader. I’ve recommended it to the majority of the people I’ve spoken to in the year since I read it. Whether they are an artist or not, whether they are a fan of Patti Smith or not, I try to get them to read the book. In some cases, it’s because they’re looking for something amazing to read; in other instances, it’s because sometimes we need to be reminded to consider the great things going on around us.