The strangest thing happened to me the other day. Well, maybe not the strangest thing. The strangest thing would be if a pie plate floated into the room and started singing show tunes in the voice of Abe Lincoln.
A strange thing happened to me the other day. I was sitting reading a book when I forgot how old I was. In fact, for a split second, I felt I was 25 again. It was an odd feeling, not quite an out-of-body experience, more like an out-of-library experience.
I was sitting in the Haskell Opera House between scenes during our rehearsal for QNEK’s Arsenic and Old Lace, which opens Friday, April 24, and that’s one shameless plug right there. I was sitting in one of the 110-year-old wooden seats, reading my book, when this sense of agelessness washed over me.
It wasn’t a déja-vu. It wasn’t a flashback either, because I had never read this book before, although this translation of the book itself is 20 years old – Dance, Dance, Dance by Haruki Murakami. But that can’t be it. When I read Dickens, I don’t feel negative-150 years old.
It’s hard to explain but, in reading this book (and some weird, parallel-universe-type things happen in this book, so I don’t write off being influenced by the bizzaro world seeping off the page), I felt like I could be reading at any time in my life. What I was doing at that moment was no different from what I was doing years ago in a two-bit Toronto apartment or what I’ll be doing years from now when I’m lauded for my contributions to the advancement of spaghetti sauce technology. (You gotta have a dream.)
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised by the feeling. There are few things as unchanging over the course of one’s life as reading. Experience may colour what you gain from reading but the exercise itself remains essentially constant. Once you get the knack of it in childhood, reading becomes automatic. The eyes move back and forth, the fingers flick the pages, the lips blow the cookie crumbs out of the spine. Reading is reading.
Muscles may wither and bones may shrink, but inside, the brain processes reading as it always has, hopefully with no degradation until well into the latter years. Reading is automatic as wind, helping fancy take flight.
But why did it happen just then, at that moment? Perhaps it had something to do with the location, a theatre. The Haskell itself is over a century old, stubbornly sitting on the Canada-U.S. border, oblivious to the bureaucratic fussiness of our paranoid times. I was sitting in the U.S. The actors were on stage in Canada. It’s always been this way. Cherubs along the balcony grimaced patiently. Every step and movement was accompanied by a well-worn, comforting creak. It wouldn’t take too many alterations to this scene to imagine ourselves in the early 1900s. Only with less tuberculosis.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m back to acting after half a lifetime away. Last fall I played the bad guy, a bit of a sinister stretch. This time it’s a comedy, and I play Dr. Einstein – twitchy, spineless, morally ambidextrous. Typecasting, really. He’s also a character about my own age. This is a change from acting in my youth. As young actors playing old men, we would apply wrinkles with eyeliner and grey our hair with talcum powder, releasing great puffs of smoke whenever we moved too quickly.
Now the wrinkles are real, the grey authentic. But when I’m on stage, I don’t feel my age. In fact, during rehearsals, I forget my age. I forget most everything (but hopefully not my lines). Acting offers a brief respite from the daily worries and stresses, the appointments and schedules, the bills, the aches and pains. Time stops moving for a little while. It’s quite astounding.
So maybe the combination of being in a stress-free bubble in a timeless venue while reading as I have done all my life – and maybe due to the tactile connection with words on paper, another argument against electronic books – perhaps the continuum of art and literature created for a split second some sort of wormhole where the past and present collided, with me, ageless, at its centre.
Or maybe I was just having a stroke.