Thursday, May 20, 2010

We are Pinocchio over and over again

Patti Smith. Photography Robert Mapplethorpe

Patti Smith was back in her (and our) old neighborhood in Brooklyn the other day, giving a commencement address to the graduating class at Pratt. It's not "I have a dream" or "Ask not" or even "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" – but because I'm pretty much a fan of everything Patti Smith does or says, and on some level find her very existence inspiring, here it is in full:

Well, I've been thinking of you all for the past few weeks. I've been thinking about what I'd like to talk about: Moby Dick, the slaves of Michelangelo, Hans Hoffman, My Bloody Valentine...but now that I'm here, my greatest urge is speak to you of dental care. My generation had a rough go, dentally. Our dentists were the army dentists who came back from World War II, and believed that the dental office was a battleground. You have a better chance at dental health, and I say this because you want at night to be pacing the floor because your muse is burning inside of you, because you want to do your work, because you want to finish that canvas, because you want to make that design, because you want to help your fellow man. You don't want to be pacing because you need a damn root canal.

So, floss, you know, use salt, baking soda, get them professionally cleaned, you know, for a bit, take care of your damn teeth.

I never got a degree myself because I lacked some of the things you have. I got it eventually. I got one now! But it is proof that you had the courage, the discipline. You stayed conscious, at least part of the time, you sacrificed, and you got through boot camp. Maybe it wasn't so pretty, maybe you got through by the skin of your teeth, but you have accomplished the first rung of your mission in life.

In 1967, I left school, came to New York City, I went to Brooklyn, because I had friends at Pratt, and I stayed there. I met Robert Mapplethorpe and we lived on Hall St. I learned from him, I learned from my friends and their teachers, we walked on Myrtle Avenue, on Clinton, on St. James, the same places you walked. We bought our art supplies at Jake's, just like you do. We ate in that corner diner, on St. James; we had grilled cheeses, and egg creams, and dreamed just like you did. And when we went out in the world, we went to New York City, to the Chelsea Hotel...sort of like Pinocchio.

I think of us like Pinocchio. Pinocchio went out into the world, he went on his road fill with good intentions, with vision, he went ready to do all the things he dreamed...but Pinocchio was pulled this way and that, he was distracted, he faltered, he made mistakes, but he kept on. Pinocchio, in the end, became himself, because the little flame inside him, no matter what crap he went through, would not be extinguished.

We are all Pinocchio, and you know what I found, after several decades of life? We are Pinocchio over and over again. We achieve our goal; we become a level of ourselves, and then we want to go further, so we make new mistakes, and we have new hardships, but we prevail. We are human, we are alive, we have blood. Pratt was part of my initiation. Within its environments I got courage and I gained confidence to do what I had to do in my life. I think about being a fellow Pinocchio...uh-oh I know what I was going to tell you, I actually forgot what I was supposed to say. And I looked on my piece of paper but its so disorganized I couldn't tell. But I have remembered.

What should we aspire to as we go on our road? When I was in my early 20s I was lucky to have William Burroughs as a friend and mentor. And once I said to him, I asked William this question: "William, what should I aspire to?" And he thought and he said, "My dear, a gold American Express card would be good." But, after that, he said very thoughtfully, "Build your name. Build your name." And I said, "William, my name is Smith." He said, "Well, you'll have to build a little harder." But what William meant when he told me to build my name, build a good name, because a name is not to get famous, he wasn't talking about celebrity, he was talking about let your name radiate yourself, magnify who you are: your good deeds, your code of honor. Build your name, and as you go through life, it will serve you. We might ask ourselves: "What tools do we have? What can we count on?" You can count on yourself. Believe me. Your self is your best ally. You know who you are, even when sometimes it becomes a little blurry, and you make mistakes, or seem to be veering off, just go deeper. You know who you are, you know the right thing to do, and if you make a mistake, its alright, just – as the song goes – pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start all over again.

Well, uh, guess I've almost talked enough, let me see if there's anythi—ah, I do have something else! When you proceed on your course, don't forget you are never alone. You have friends and family. But you also have your ancestors. Your ancestors sing in your blood. Call to them, their strength through the ages will come in to you. And then there're your spiritual ancestors. Call on them! They have set themselves up through human history to be at your disposal. Jesus, he said, "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." Alan Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, they are with you. Choose the one you wish to walk with, and he or she will walk with you. Don't forget that: you are not alone.

So. I guess the last thing to say is that I left home. I asked my father what advice he could give me. My father was very intelligent, very well read. All the great books, all the great philosophers. But when I asked him for his advice he told me one thing: be happy. That's all he said. It's so simple. I'm telling you, these simple things: taking care of your teeth, being happy...they will be your greatest allies. Because when you're happy, when you're happy you ignite that little flame that tells you and reminds you who you are, and it will ignite, it will animate your enthusiasm for things. It will enforce your work. Be happy, take care of your teeth, always let your conscience be your good, and uh, well, I uh, wish you God and good luck.


Valéry Lorenzo said...

Listening to "Peace and Noise", waiting underground, and reading your posts in the same time is really a pleasure.

Anonymous said...

Damn, Patti Smith is sooo fucking cool. This is funny to me because I have a 29 year old colleague who should know better but needs two root canals due to a complete disregard for his personal dental hygiene.