A needle in your heart. The song is about the northernmost constellation, and so the metaphor is clearly meant to be one of a compass. A needle in your heart, to guide you. It seems reassuring, the idea of a built in GPS for your soul, but it was the literal meaning that struck me first - something sharp piercing a soft organ. As I listened to the song I watched Petaluma, the quarter moon of her face that I could see behind the frame of her harp, and at the strings of the harp itself, like white and red needles running from her chest to her mouth. I looked at the back of Frankie's head and thought about what I should have said to her last week.
Frankie (not her actual name) is a friend of my friend Cos. We met for the first time last week, at a different show at Precinct in Union Square. She is traveling from California, Cos told me. He would introduce us. We were at Help! Our Bands are on Fire! (a benefit show for the residents of Columbia house displaced by the recent house fire. A great cause, by the way and you should consider helping out if you can. End of sidebar.) After a set finished, Frankie came up to where we were perched on a high bench along the back wall of the bar. "Frankie, this is my friend Alissa," said Cos. "Hi," said Frankie. We smiled at each other. She leaned in closer. Frankie is young, maybe early 20s, with a forthright expression, femme-punk-ish with hair shaved into a 'hawke with what look like hands reaching out of it, either shaved in or painted on. She looks cool and courageous; like she knows exactly who she is. "So, Alissa," she asked. "What's your passion?"
In a single question, which would turn out be the first and only thing she ever asked me, this person had pierced through to one of my deepest insecurities. Have you ever had a stranger do that? It's a bit jarring.
I gawped a little. "I uh, don't have one. Sorry." In the beat that followed you could just hear the creak of a door closing between two people who know that they are never going to bother knowing one another. Cos tried to wedge a foot in by saying something nice about how I write really well, just not often, but it was as though all three of us knew that I had four kinds of lip balm in my bag but no pen or paper. I put my game face back on and told Frankie that I liked to read and listen to music. I think she left soon after to find someone to dance with, and she did, for I saw her soon afterwards grooving with a gentleman with similarly awesome grooming.
So, I don't have a passion. I used to think one would find me, a natural turn of events that would happen effortlessly as I grew. Now that I'm in my 30s, I'm reminded of my wistful expectation at 15 that the boob fairy would be along any day now to finish what she started. I do have plenty of interests. If Frankie had instead asked "what do you like," I could have given a very long answer, including but not limited to reading books, reading about books, talking about books, reading feminist blogs, listening to live music, dancing to live music, eating, being outdoors, meandering walks, trying new-to-me produce and obscure spices, doing foley, looking at art, singing, working with nice groups of people on projects, spending hours on the phone with friends, dating, makeouts, making mixes, watching people on the T and inventing life stories for them, trying perfume oils and scents of all kinds, taking photos, road trips, watching movies and plays, hanging out with my roommates, and so on and on. But none of these bits of life, dearly loved as they may be, count as a passion. My job is a paycheck. I write when, and only when, caffeinated. My life is not organized aound any one interest or cause that I do because to do otherwise would be unthinkable; with the exception of spending time with friends, which falls under the basic human need for social interaction, and the possible exception of reading, which is more of an addiction, there's no "one-thing-I-do" that I would without question go out of my way to do if it could only be enjoyed at great effort or expense. A passion is not an interest. It is not a talent. It is a needle in your heart. It guides you. It is a sharp thing in a soft place.
Frankie was there tonight at the show at the Lizard Lounge, but we didn't really interact. I thought about her question, looking at the little hands wrapping around her head, and thought of answers I could have given her. What's your passion? Banana bread. Superior service in custom auto detailing. Experiencing the individual contours, like fingerprints or tree rings, of a thousand instants. Feeling this question sink like a stone to the pit of my belly. No rebuke meant of Frankie - her implicit assumption may have been wrong, but I am sure that question is usually an effective way for her to draw out the interestingness in new people and forge connections. I think people with passions must be like people with dogs. Dog people understand one another. You could have a rottweiler or a labradoodle or a mutt, or a passion for fencing or for achieving social justice for people with disabilities or Jungian psychology or homebrewed cider. In any case, you're going to have something that other people can identify with you; something that gives your life and personality a certain definition. A hook to grab. It occurred to me that don't know what Frankie's passion is, I never asked her.
Goli was, as always, pure delight. Vessela and Valerie are both such fantastic musicians, together and separately. Their songs are wry and warm and snarky and vulnerable. Vessela wielded her marimba mallets with dance-like flourishes, and played a deliciously sinuous clarinet solo. Val wore her invincible grin as she played the cello like a fiend and was in rare audience-banter form. Both of them play so competently, joyfully, and zealously, and stay in touch so palpably as they play; at times they even seem to pivot and breathe together at the same moment. During an hour like that I don't think I need a needle; I don't lack for a hook. I am just a soft naked heart, and I'm happy.