Patti Smith told me to make something of myself.
Well, not exactly. She said that she was determined to make something of herself. That she had a hunger to be an artist, that the desire to express herself outshined other wants.
I haven’t been making anything, let alone something of myself. So I swallowed Patti’s message as though it were my own.
I recall wanting in a similar way. I recall lusting after the idea of art, filling notebook after notebook with thoughts and stories, yet wondering if I would ever make anything.
I wrote with an untapped need to say something to my future self, or simply to the future. I wrote the way I played guitar, not for music’s sake, but for the promise that someday someone would hear me sing. I was always looking for some way to be watched.
From the time I was small I would shoot up my hand, or audition, or volunteer to be in the most visible roles, the most aesthetic. In Catholic grammar school–wearing a skirt that was always intentionally too short—I performed in school plays, as a cheerleader, as an alter server. I was president of my class. Later on, in high school, I would be on the dance team. And finally, as a senior, I would get over my fear of being uncool and participate in school plays. (Though after snagging one of the leads in fall semester’s Arsenic and Old Lace, and partying much too hard at the Saturday night cast party, and vomiting back stage before our Sunday matinee, I would gain only a very small role in the spring musical, Bye Bye Birdie.) I also joined “Group Interpretation,” where we staged chamber theatre-esque interpretations of literature for competitions (which we always lost). Of course I didn’t know the term “chamber theatre” at the time. I likewise did not know that “Group Interp” was another name for “Oral Interpretation of Literature,” which would later be renamed “Performance Studies.” I didn’t know that I would spend seven years in my twenties and thirties pursuing a master’s, and then a doctorate in this field. I didn’t know that I would dedicate myself to this life completely, that it would be the art and expression and knowledge I’d longed for. I didn’t know that it would then turn dark in a way–stressful and overwhelming–and that I would finish my big degree, only to let it ferment on a shelf until I figured out what to do with it.
I still haven’t figured that out.
I write this as an 18-month-old ragamuffin beauty crawls over me in her pajamas, and without need for help or permission, draws open my rope, pulls down my tank top, and starts drinking out of my body. So I have been making something these months: I have been making milk.
I don’t want to diminish my role as a mother, or the role of parents in general, as if I’m not working, as if I’m not toiling toward something important and great, as if its not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I need to frame that work differently from “making something of myself,” from making art, from making at all.
Making the baby—growing it from cells and food inside my body—now that was surely making something. But as soon as she exited me, splitting off for her own grand adventure, something changed. Now it is crucial for me to resist shaping her, resist making her, and let her form herself. I must keep her safe. I must teach her manners. I must guide her with stories, and truths, and occasional half-truths, but she is already there: her own person emerging from the ether of mystery. A miracle, as I suppose we all are.
I have many domestic duties to get on with this morning. I have pressing deadlines to ghost write the droll things that pay the bills. I have to make Lydia breakfast.
What is this thing I have stated writing? And will anybody read it? And will anybody buy it? And what is it going to say?
It doesn’t matter.
At least for a small moment this morning—for the first moment in too long–I started to say something, brushing off a small red brick of meaning and stirring up the mortar to resume the long task of making.
(I got new glasses in the mail yesterday: inexpensive, and funky, and loud. Like Patti Smith wearing her long grey raincoat in the summer, these glasses signal something about me. Even if that message is only for myself.)
I will make something of myself, yet, Patti. I promise.