With 2010 about to give way to 2011, Miami native and Brooklyn-based writer Arielle Angel shares her thoughts on Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, in which New Year’s Day plays an almost mystical role in the life of the artist. In November, we covered Smith’s Miami Book Fair reading — easily one of the best local events of the year — so we figured this essay was apropos. Enjoy, and happy New Year’s — whatever it means.
I recently read Just Kids, Patti Smith’s award-winning memoir about her relationship with fellow-artist Robert Mapplethorpe. In the book, Mapplethorpe and Smith begin to go their separate ways once they both achieve stardom, and so a look into their relationship is also a look into the most formative years in their development as artists, from 1969 to 1974, when they were in their early 20s.
What strikes you when you read about their early artistic process is that they were not simply making artwork, but making themselves into artists, and that the two endeavors were parallel but not necessarily identical undertakings. The people they wanted to be were always hovering just above the people they were, directing them, propelling them forward, chiding them when they didn’t do it right, and the minutiae of their lives — the way they dressed, where they hung out — were never superficial, but genuine expressions of their interests and values.
Sometimes the level of self-consciousness seems slightly absurd, perhaps even juvenile. Patti is constantly coordinating her own life events — moving out of an apartment, for example — with the birthdays of her heroes, Rimbaud or Brian Jones. Robert spends hours in front of the mirror picking out the right number and combination of necklaces before he and Patti can go to Max’s, the Warhol superstars’ hangout. And yet, when we consider the outcome, the incredible achievements of these two, it is difficult to laugh off their mindfulness, the holistic and committed way they set about becoming artists.
In this world, where everything is self-expression, where every object and action has the capacity for transcendence and the power of symbol and myth, it is no surprise that the advent of a new year, too, has a special significance. Each year, Patti invokes her mother, who believed that what you do on New Year’s Day somehow foretells what you will be doing the rest of the year. Patti spends one New Year’s on the floor of St. Marks Church listening to a poetry reading that goes on from early afternoon well into the night. “I felt the spirit of my own St. Gregory,” she writes, “and resolved that 1973 would be my year of poetry.”
When it becomes 1974, she is performing with Lenny Kaye at Max’s Kansas City. “The people were raucous, divided, the electricity in the air tangible. It was the first hour of the New Year and as I looked out into the crowd, I remembered again what my mother always said. I turned to Lenny. ‘So as today, the rest of the year.’” True to Patti and Robert’s world, where form and content are one and the same, the arrival of a new year becomes not just a time to make resolutions, but an occasion to embody them — the way you spend your time as a declaration of who you are.
I am hesitant to load even more significance upon this time of year than people already tend to do. I am already resentful of the collective expectations, and suspicious of any interpretation that would increase its pressures rather than lessen them. But it is true that we tend to remember where we were and what we were doing on New Year’s, and so it’s all too easy to read into the connection between the events of the day and the events of the year.
On New Year’s Eve two years ago, I wandered the apocalyptically chaotic streets of Nepal. My friends and I couldn’t find a place that looked inviting, so we spent the waning moments of 2008 on a momentarily empty street, listening to others countdown through their open windows. It was a lost year, filled with travel, but also with aimlessness and confusion of purpose.
Last New Year’s Eve, I was in Miami, in a friend’s backyard, by a fire with a new boyfriend. Everyone went in to watch the ball drop, but my boyfriend and I made a decision not to start the year in front of a TV. We stayed by the fire. I went to bed fairly early, but woke up before dawn with a story buzzing and burning inside me like a firefly in a jar. I wrote it before the sun was up. Barely two-pages long, it would be my first published work. The year moved me to New York, where I am getting my MFA, working to install writing at the center of my life. My boyfriend was accepted to the same school, and moved with me.
Of course, it’s easier to create these narratives in retrospect, and if I could only remember them with the same clarity, it’s likely that any day of the year would contain clues with equal narrative value. But I suppose that is sort of the point. New Year’s Day is a day like any other, but one we are likely to set apart. It has power because it challenges us to take notice of the narrative we are creating, and to bring that narrative closer to the one we envision for ourselves. Resolutions are often failures, but the beauty of Patti Smith’s approach is the belief that change happens one day at a time as we strive to catch up with the person hovering just out of reach.
At this point, my plans for tonight are still hazy. A friend calls every half hour, exasperated and annoyed. I’m not stressing the evening, as long as I am with a few of the people I love. Tomorrow, I’d like to do yoga, spend some time outdoors, and work on a story that’s been giving me trouble.