Tiny Pleasures, Beautiful Routines

When was the last time a book changed your life, or at least your perception of it? Last month I found myself deep into two books that took me to places I hadn’t visited in a long time. I struggled to put my finger on what it was that I had been missing and that was revealed to me in these books. The best I can do is this: I was reminded of what it was like to live in a not-connected world.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when my turn came up on the library waitlist for Patti Smith’s M Train. To be frank, I didn’t think it would be my cup of tea, but it had made so many “best” lists that I thought I might as well give it a try.

Back when I was a student at Concordia, there was a women’s studies prof who looked and sounded much like an eccentric babbling old lady. We would all sit in class wondering “what has this got to do with anything?” while she was off on some tangent. And then… magic. Her train of thought would somehow come full-circle and we would be struck by some fabulous insight. This is what it was like on the M Train! The author/singer/poet/artist writes seemingly about whatever comes to mind; the reader simply has to put her trust in Smith whose thought process and life is unlike anything I’d encountered. It defies description.

Smith, Patti. M Train. Alfred A. Knopf, Toronto, 2015.

Smith, Patti. M Train. Alfred A. Knopf, Toronto, 2015.

What struck me is that, in her solitude and unapologetic loneliness in widowhood, Smith has the freedom to dive into ideas, books, entire worlds, in a way that most of us haven’t experienced since we were exploratory teenagers. But Patti Smith is no ingenue! Rather, she is an impressively well-read senior citizen who has lived the richest life artistically. She is most generous to take us along on this touching, mysterious, and inspiring voyage.

Here is something else that was a revelation — the legendary Patti Smith is as much attached to routine as I am. When she walks into her neighbourhood cafe one morning and “her” table is taken, she prefers to wait it out rather than sit somewhere else. And when that cafe closes down for good… oh, did I feel her pain. Also, she has a strange fondness for TV detectives! It’s this mixture of the mundane and the brilliant that touched me so. There’s a lot of pain here; the love of her life has been gone for 20 years. She chooses to live with it and in it, rather than letting herself be distracted by the million possible entertainment options. She finds both comfort and sorrow in books, mementos, police shows, and endless cups of coffee; they aren’t escapes.

The other book I read at the same time was photographer Sally Mann‘s memoir, Hold Still. As I dove into this massive tome, I only vaguely remembered Mann as someone I had learned about in university. Best known for her uncanny “family pictures” taken on her isolated West Virginia property, she became notorious for the few of those pictures that were of her naked children.

The New York Times Magazine cover story that brought further infamy to Sally Mann.

The New York Times Magazine cover story that brought further infamy to Sally Mann.

You know when you read a memoir and, at some point you start thinking, hmmm, I really don’t like this person? This happened here. And yet I kept on reading almost until the end because there was something about the sprawling narrative covering decades of a Southern family, as well as the artist’s grappling with the creative process, that transported me. It reminded me of the kind of book I’d have read in my early 20s when I had nothing but time and spent a lot [too much] of it inside my own head.

Reading about Mann’s life in rural West Virginia – swimming naked in the river, developing film the old fashioned way, digging into the family’s tangled past – highlighted for me that being connected to the world 24/7 has left me less in touch my own imagination. But then maybe I’m just “in a mood” because of my encroaching birthday. Who knows?

After finishing M Train, and deciding I’d had enough of Hold Still (I skipped the part about the body farm!), I thought I would take a bit of a social media break. The plan was that I would still check my email twice a day and use text to communicate with friends, but would not engage with Twitter, Pinterest, or Facebook… Wrong! I soon realized that it was a foolish idea. On the first day, I had an event to attend and the only place I could go to check the time and details was on Facebook. Also, as I use Facebook to keep track of what’s happening in my town, disconnecting totally is impractical.

Milo, Mary. Family Circle Guide to Beauty: Hundreds of Ways to Enhance Your Hair, Your Face, Your Figure, Revised Ed. The New York Times Media Company, New York, 1972.

Milo, Mary. Family Circle Guide to Beauty: Hundreds of Ways to Enhance Your Hair, Your Face, Your Figure, Revised Ed. The New York Times Media Company, New York, 1972.

My social media diet #fail helped me accept that we can’t go back. And yet Facebook is in trouble now because many have started to use it in just the same way I have — it’s becoming a mere tool, more of a social calendar/news wire, less personal. I think it’s for the best. Let us step back; we don’t need to share our life’s minutia with hundreds of “friends” all the time.

I realize that in 2016, I will never have the expanse of time and mental space I had in 1996. But I have gotten back to doing something Patti Smith does repeatedly in M Train and which I used to do frequently as well: browse my own bookshelves. Thankfully, through my many moves and decluttering élans, I continue to keep the books that are most meaningful to me. Just yesterday, I picked one up in my collection of vintage beauty guides for women, The Family Circle Guide to Beauty. It had been ages since I’d flipped through any of those old treasures! Such a little pleasure, such beauty.



  1. I just don’t make enough time for reading, and I should. I have, seriously, about 30 books waiting on my bedside table and while I have no problem adding to the pile (!!), I never seem to actually just sit down and read. It’s become an indulgence that I just don’t allow myself. M Train in particular sounds wonderful – I’ll put it on my list but in the meantime, resolved to read more!


  1. […] year, I also read Patti Smith’s immensely inspiring M Train, which I wrote about here. As well, I tend to like any book that follows a young single woman trying to make it in 1950s New […]

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