I first came across the term “passing strange” in the play Othello, and even though I didn’t bother to look it up, I was sure I knew exactly what it meant: that feeling that everything is off-kilter, vaguely ominous, kind of like déjà vu, only never vu’ed déjà.
I recently (yesterday, in fact) discovered I was wrong. This is not what “passing strange” means at all. “Passing” in this case originally meant “exceedingly” but over the last century was softened to “somewhat”. Ergo, “passing strange” means “somewhat unusual”.
That such a rich, delicious phrase described something so bland was as a huge disappointment. Passing strange was the label I’d assigned those eerie lapses during which I keenly felt mortality and disconnectedness collide. And now, to find out it was nothing more than a tepid qualifier, well, I was more than somewhat unusually devastated.
For the sake of accuracy, I must now describe this feeling with words like apprehensive and unnerving. Privately, I’ll tack it on to the denotatively inaccurate but connotatively resonant lexicon of phrases I use only in my head. I never said I wasn’t passing strange.
I believe in the ordinary day
that is here at this moment and is me
I do not see it going its own way
but I never saw how it came to me
it extends beyond whatever I may
think I know and all that is real to me
it is the present that it bears away
where has it gone when it has gone from me
there is no place I know outside today
except for the unknown all around me
the only presence that appears to stay
everything that I call mine it lent me
even the way that I believe the day
for as long as it is here and is me
W.S. Merwin’s “A Momentary Creed” follows our primary existential musing full-circle. Everything is fleeting, unknowable; anchored in our belief in the ordinary day.
Sometimes I get discouraged about the plight of artistic expression. This is not unreasonable. It’s nothing new; too often what gets viewed or listened to or read depends on things other than intrinsic merit. It seems creative success all but requires previous successes (think sequels) or easy marketability or being in the right place at the right time.
Sometimes the brilliant work of gifted people finds gains appropriate notoriety, but too often what richly deserves an audience never makes it out of the studio. Creativity roots in the quiet spark, but fanning it is generally selective or whimsical, and it rarely survives the journey through the star-making machinery and out the business end intact. When it does, it’s a miracle.
No matter what those smarmy advertisements tell you, dreams don’t drive business. Money drives business. Period.
But all you creative souls out there burning to write your story, sing your song, commit your vision to canvas, stout heart. Don’t forsake your calling. Your gift has nothing to do with compensation or any manner of external validation. Sacrifice is certain, but don’t sell out.
Yes, it’s exhausting. You have set up shop on a lonely raft, just close enough to a distant shore to see the bright lights and hear the cacophony of millions of voices. It’s very possible- probable, even- that no one is going to notice you out there, because it’s dark, and you are very small, and they are easily distractable, but that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to get their attention. Make noise, make waves, not because you are hoping they will save you, but because as an artist, you must.
The town I grew up in, you were either Irish or Italian or Irrelevant. I fit that third category, and grew up feeling Catholics belonged to an exclusive club I could never join. I felt this most keenly watching my Catholic friends at their First Holy Communions and later, their Confirmations. Then, there were cool things like Confession, where the priest would let you off the hook for pretty much anything if you just said some prayers you’d already memorized and could rattle off at lightning speed, and also weekly Communion, where you got to drink a thimbleful of wine and eat a wafer, both of which sounded delicious.
I was Protestant. Our denomination prided itself on drab simplicity. My Confirmation consisted of a research paper on Martin Luther, which I read aloud to a somber congregation before the minister handed me a cloth Bible with my name stamped on the cover.
For some reason, for me, Ash Wednesday inspired the most envy. Every year, it served as an annual reminder of my outsider status. I was one of the handful of kids walking around school without a black mark on my forehead. How I longed for it! Overall, I was relieved I didn’t have to give anything up for Lent, like my friends who gave up dessert, but there were some Ash Wednesdays when I’d have gladly given up anything for that sooty badge of belonging.
Eventually, I grew up and moved away to New York City, and the envy Ash Wednesday stirred in me had faded. One cold March day when I was in my early twenties, I was with my friend Katie. A group of parochial school girls with smudges on their foreheads passed us on the sidewalk. “Shit,” she said. “It’s Ash Wednesday. I totally forgot.” We happened to be near St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “Do you mind if I run in and get ashes? It won’t take long.”
“Sure,” I replied. In fact, I was excited to have this mysterious process demystified.
I followed her into the cavernous sanctuary. She got in line to receive her ashes.
“What do you do when you get up to the priest?” I asked.
“Nothing. Kneel. He just makes the sign of the cross on your forehead.”
I had a mind-blowing thought. If I didn’t have to know the secret handshake or password or show some kind of proof that I was Catholic, what was stopping me? “Can I get ashes, too?”
Katie shrugged. “I guess.”
This was my childhood dream come true! I stood behind Katie as we made our way to the front of the church. Following her example, I knelt, and the priest put his fingers to my forehead. The elation I felt at being marked was indescribable. On some level, I knew I was an imposter, but I was too happy to care.
I soon found out New York City is not Hamden, Connecticut. I was not part of the smudged majority. Instead, the ashes caused people to stare. A few told me that I had something on my forehead, and I might want to check a mirror.
I think it says something about my personality that, rather than hedonistic Mardi Gras, I chose to celebrate secularly ascetic Ash Wednesday. Something in me craves the mark of self-denial and penance, not the colored beads and hangover. I still remember how fulfilled I felt that day.
That night, I remember looking in the mirror and smiling at the dark patch on my forehead. If only Nora O’Keefe and Maria Petrucci could see me now! Then, I washed my face and had dessert. It was the best of both worlds.
Like most of us, I am besotted with/dependent upon tech devices. Certainly my life, both professional and personal, relies on them. When I was young, color televisions and push-button telephones attached to land lines defined the cutting edge. Admittedly, I am just starting my ascent of the tech learning curve, but I am genuinely in awe of what smartphones and tablets and their ilk can do.
My admiration is genuine, but there’s something troubling about tech’s hold over us, and no, I’m not going on an old lady rant about texting at the dinner table (that particular diatribe was reserved for my son Jake this past Sunday night). What bothers me is way too often, our relationship with our devices makes us incapable of fully inhabiting life experiences.
During the Oscars I saw an ad. I wasn’t paying attention as to what exact kind of device it pertained to or which company produced it (probably because I was texting or playing Words With Friends) but the gist of it was how you could be on the edge of the Grand Canyon at sunrise or in a hospital delivery room during the birth of your baby looking through a screen, hand-held in front of your face, sharing it with family and friends as it is happening.
The problem with this scenario is you are focused on a screen, instead of the actual Grand Canyon or your actual baby, while your brain is racing your fingers to the next step in the process of taking the momentous event public. In the unfolding, real-time, real-life moment, your engagement centers on alphanumeric touch screens and megapixels rather than the miracle transpiring under your nose.
I am not telling you to chuck your tablet or smartphone. I’m just suggesting you occasionally put them aside and allow real life experience to seep into your soul. Breathe it in, inhabit it. Burn it into your brain. Live-streaming everything that happens to you is like placing a raft in whitewater; everything gets swept along, including the window on immediate experience, and, a bit downriver, the door to poignant memory.
Life, fully realized, requires our undivided attention. Be there. Then, share.
To not live in a place you love
To keep a job you hate
To ignore the forest
To fully grasp
To solve the puzzle
To grow accustomed
To hold grudges
To stay on the sidelines
To effectively insulate
To manage risk
To misplace wonder
To ever, ever settle.
Choosing the right outfit to wear while traveling has always struck me as a challenge, and now that I am no longer as young and cute, it’s virtually impossible. When you’re in your twenties and even thirties, you can make pajama pants and a sweatshirt work in your favor, but try that at my age and you look like you accidentally got locked out of rehab. This is a quandary, because you want to be as comfortable as possible while cramped in a plane seat or waiting at the terminal because your flight has been delayed, but you don’t want airport personnel handing you the address of the nearest shelter and advising you to move along.
I was feeling pretty good about my travel outfit last week: black yoga pants, a gray long-sleeved T-shirt and a really nice lightweight Eileen Fisher lavender sweater. On my feet I wore beige men’s Clarks because they are not only rugged but easy to pull off for security scanning. Walking to the gate, I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window.
Alarmed, I sought the opinion of my daughter Sarah. “Honey, do I look like an old lesbian who has totally given up?” Now, I think lesbians are awesome, both young and old, and some are among my dearest friends, so believe me when I tell you this question was posed without a trace of disrespect. I really wanted to know because sartorially, this was not the look I was hoping to achieve.
Sarah looked at me. “You look more artsy and spiritual, like your husband divorced you but you’re not bitter, you’ve moved on to a period of adventurous self-discovery which may include being a lesbian.”
I was grateful for Sarah’s honesty. Psyched, too, because this was pretty much exactly what I was going for.