Reviews

Time-Tested

RICHARD VAN CAMP

A couple of days after I began to read my copy of M Train, a memoir by Patti Smith (Knopf Canada), the library notified me that I was next in line to borrow Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road (Random House). I took it as a sign that I should read them both at the same time. Smith, age seventy, prolific in writing, photography, music and visual art, takes a seemingly random wander through her days and nights, reading, writing, making notes in her journal, sipping coffee after black coffee at “her” table in a café in Greenwich Village. And travelling: to Mexico to speak at Frida Kahlo’s home and resting place, to Berlin to speak at the convention of the Continental Drift Club, to London to visit the grave of Sylvia Plath, to Japan (where strong black coffee is hard to find), to visit the graves of the filmmakers Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Osamu Dazai, and the writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa. At home and away she watches television, mostly Doctor Who (but only the David Tennant Doctor Who) and fictional detectives: Jane Tennison, Kurt Wallander, Lennie Briscoe, “Fitz” Fitzgerald, Linden and Holder. She falls in love with a down-at-heel bungalow on Rockaway Beach in New York: “Close to the sea, though I cannot swim. Close to the train, as I cannot drive.” She buys it, just before Hurricane Sandy blows down the boardwalk and some neighbours’ homes and the café that was to be her hangout. M Train is the record of an artist at work every minute, making connections and pondering the process and meaning of art and of life itself, all shot through with dreams, memories, mirages, pilgrimages and an overwhelming sense of loss, especially for her beloved husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, who died suddenly at age forty-five. And she remembers her children’s small hands, her last visit with Paul Bowles when he was too sick to write and felt “empty,” her beloved moth-eaten black coat. Yet she persists with curiosity and clarity, not as a fighter but as a lover of art and life. The book ends with a dream (I think) in which she has no one and nothing left and walks out into a desert alone, “but I paid no mind. I was my own lucky hand of solitaire.”

Gloria Steinem, age eighty-two, began her career as a writer activist organizer shit-disturber with a two-year stay in India, just after university. There she travelled in a third-class women-only railway car, learning to eat, dress, talk and sing with Indian women. To this day Steinem doesn’t drive; her chapter devoted to not-driving is rich with piquant anecdotes of exchanges with fellow transit passengers, flight attendants and taxi drivers (the famous quip “Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament!” came from a woman taxi driver in New York). In India, Steinem ended up in a rural area torn by violent caste riots. The traumatized residents gathered each night to talk and to listen, a process that informed the next sixty years of Steinem’s work. In the late 196s, amid talk about civil rights and The Feminine Mystique and the war in Vietnam and gay and lesbian issues and Native American rights, Steinem and the African-American activists Margaret Sloan and Florynce Kennedy began speaking on feminism to university students and community groups. Steinem then worked as one of the organizers of the pivotal National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977, a massive policy and strategy meeting attended by two thousand state and territory delegates—caucuses of African-American, Asian and Pacific American, Hispanic and Native American women (amid cries of feminism being a “whitemiddleclass” movement)—and eighteen thousand observers. Steinem has also campaigned for politicians from Bella Abzug to Hillary Clinton, and continues to speak to university students and other groups, each event reinforcing her belief in the power of people talking together in a room. “The miraculous but impersonal Internet,” she writes in My Life on the Road, “is not enough.” In early March 216, as I wrap this endnote, Patti Smith has an art show opening in New York and can fill any concert hall in the world. Gloria Steinem has provoked a boycott by anti-choice Lands’ End shoppers, who were enraged to find a short interview with her in the spring catalogue. Lands’ End caved, inciting a boycott among its feminist customers. And the beat goes on…

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RICHARD VAN CAMP

Mary Schendlinger is a writer, editor, retired teacher of publishing and, as Eve Corbel, a maker of comics. She was Senior Editor of Geist for twenty-five years. She lives in Vancouver.


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