Wandering Wondering

On August 1st 2014, my mom and I found ourselves eating burgers in Lincoln, Nebraska en route to Denver. We were exhausted and hungry and disoriented from two long days on the road when we heard singing.

The singing began less as singing and more as a steady, warm-up croak to say, Show’s ‘bout to start. Time to buckle up. It came out of the microphone raspy and with this hilarious authority. It was jarring enough that we looked up.

A gangly, middle-aged woman was wailing on the other side of the restaurant. She was a little folksy, a little grungy, a little punk, a lot too loud, and a lot out of place at this red-blooded, rustbelt diner. She had this wild black hair and (slightly muted) Alice Cooper get-up. I looked at her then looked at everyone else’s tightening sphincters as she started really singing. She stomped her black boots, coughed a loud smoker’s cough, and laughed to no one in particular. She looked like Tim Burton’s idea of a 1970s open-mic act. My mom said she reminded her of Patti Smith.

The next day—somewhere in flat, barren, Eastern Colorado, after 1500 miles in my Volkswagen Passat—my mom and I impulsively decided to name my car, Patti. It was partly to honor the delightful misfit in Lincoln, Nebraska and mostly to honor the delightful misfit from southern New Jersey.

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Patti Smith has long fascinated me and only recently become one of my heroes—and not necessarily because of the infectiousness of her work. I like her poetry and her music. I love her prose writing. It’s lyrical and raw. I read M Train in one sitting in a Denver bookstore, and I just finished reading Just Kids for the second time. Just Kids, according to Joan Didion, is “so honest and pure as to count as a true rapture.” It’s the Sistine Chapel for memoirs about Meandering Artists In Their 20s.

If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s not to be so judgmental of other people. – Patti Smith

She’s a hero of mine because of her versatility, her weirdness, and her conviction. She bounces between genres and media with curiosity and persistence. She’s the epitome of the quiet, introverted soul with a paradoxically loud and blustery, creative spirit. She’s immensely observant and kind. She has Donald Glover’s interdisciplinary range, Bruce Springsteen’s longevity, and Mary Oliver’s sensitivity. She’s ageless. She’s fueled by coffee and a need to document her evolving story and her relationship to those around her. She’s reminded me that different projects feed each other, that I’m at my best creatively when I balance four or five projects at once. More than anything, to me, she represents the solitary creative spirit—one who wanders and wonders, wonders and wanders, and wonders while wandering.

The thing is that as you grow through life, the pursuit of art and the pursuit of new ideas, all these things keep your mind elastic. – Patti Smith

I think about Patti Smith a lot. When she filled in for Bob Dylan at the Nobel Prize ceremony. Whenever I turn off my WiFi and work. Whenever I sit in coffee shops and write and observe. Whenever I drive my car.

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I believe that if it were left to artists to choose their own labels, most would choose none.—Ben Shahn

Where does it all lead? What will become of us? There were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.—Patti Smith

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