My partner and I thought we were straight until we fell in love. When that gigantic neon sign of heterosexuality is flashing Boys! Boys! Boys! it’s hard to see all those girlie moments that have been quietly happening since childhood. Likewise, when you’re in a monogamous relationship with a partner of the same sex, that Gay! Gay! Gay! sign is drowning out the fact that one or both of you might just like a little sausage in your tacos. Back in the day Lesbians didn’t trust us, and I’ve had straight friends of many years tell me in words of one syllable that I’m gay (as if I were confused or something?). For years DAN SAVAGE insisted that we don’t exist.
I tried to be gay, but it just wasn’t me. Likewise, I lucked into the most wonderful partner in the whole wide world and there is NO WAY I am screwing that up! So I’m definitely not straight. Since I’m about as off the market as you can get, and demi to boot, do I still even get to keep my Bi card? Yes! But I seem to be adding an Ace to the deck too.
I’ve never felt like a girl, and while I like being mistaken for male, I’m not a boy either. You can call me sir if you must use a gendered honorific, though. The first Star Trek movie, awful though it was, was a revelation. Everybody was Mister, and Sir! Normal became accessible to all! It doesn’t have to be your cup of tea, but stepping everybody up seems to me to be less fraught than trying to get everyone to use a completely new term. Ms took years to become mainstream, and I am still having to opt into it. I might wait the rest of my life for Mx to get traction.
What’s a Druid to do? I am a person, to at last get to a term that does not define me by what is present or absent. I stand in the center of the circle of gender, as nonbinary. I apologize if it seems like I need to be the center of attention. Here I was, thinking I was part of the fringes. It’s enough to drive a Druid to their Sacred Grove–but I always walk when given the choice. I shoulda stayed there and built a treehouse for two. In the forest, nobody can hear you label yourself.
Gone to London is taking a break, mainly because I need to read Exiles of Erin, which just arrived, before I can take Roisin any farther towards her eventual meeting with Jeremy, where she joins the Escort Service and Dickens Fair.
The hand I placed on the stones was full of Mrs. Rosenthal’s money. I’d forgotten I even had it. I truly think I would have done it, not because I wanted to die, but because I didn’t see any way to live or anything to live for. No more letters from my Mam. No way to receive any from my Da now that my place was gone. All those years spent washing and working, sending my wages to support a family that was lost to me now. After what I’d done, I couldn’t even go back to see if a letter arrived. The events of the day hit me like the cold water below, and the shame of what I’d done drove me to my knees. I would have thrown myself into the water then, had I been able to stand, but all I could do was curl up in a ball and cry, that handful of money clutched to my heart.
Mrs. Rosenthal had been kind, as employers went, though we were never close. Hiring me had been a mark of how far they’d come up in the world, able to afford a real servant, not just a girl who came to help on the Sabbath. Being Irish and Catholic, I was hardly going to be part of the family, but it was a good place. I was lucky to have it. Jewish families in London could hardly attract English servant girls, and the English would not hire us. We were dirty, unskilled and lazy, they said.
In Dublin, my prospects were poor. So many girls in my position went to England or America where we could earn so much more than we could in Dublin, and send money back to our families. Why shouldn’t I do the same? If I went to America I’d never see home again, but if I went to London, perhaps our family’s prospects would be better in a few years. I was fifteen and knew there was nothing for me in Dublin. I was ready to see what London had to offer.
I’d done so much more than washing at first. Mr. Rosenthal was still doing contract work for the tailor who’d taught him the trade, and when he found I could already sew well enough to keep the family’s clothes respectably mended as well as washed, he saw an opportunity. I was glad to learn as much of the tailor’s trade as I could, but in the end he used my labor to acquire premises of his own and my services as a seamstress were no longer required.
By then, Mrs. Rosenthal had had her second child and I was needed more and more as maid of all work. I began to feel as if I was carving a path through an endless mountain of laundry until I could at last go home to Ireland and perhaps start a family of my own. It was exactly the sort of life I’d come to London to avoid, but at least it wouldn’t be forever. One thing I’ll say for the Rosenthals–as they prospered, they paid me what I was worth. They considered it their duty, according to their faith. Most employers wouldn’t do that. I passed every penny I could on to my family in Dublin, hoping to go back where I belonged all the sooner. I lived on hope, and letters from home.
The Rosenthals moved, not far, but into a home, instead of rooms above the workshop. They hired a cook, who hated me on sight simply because I was Catholic, and Irish. Sarah, the daughter of Mr. Rosenthal’s brother, moved in shortly after to help with the two boys, and then the third son was born. As the family stepped closer and closer to respectability, they became more English and more distant. To their credit, the family never came to hate me, but the proper relationship between servant and master for their future station was established and maintained. As Mr. Rosenthal said, he had established himself through hard work and high standards, and there was no reason I could not do the same.
I was still curled up against the wall next to the river, but no longer willing to let London break me. If the Rosenthals wanted to be English, then good luck to them. I opened my hand and just stared for a moment. There were ten shillings there. A month’s wages from a woman whose house I had tried to burn down. Mrs. Rosenthal was not yet as English as I thought. Perhaps there was a way to get back on my feet and find my way to Boston, to join Da and Michael.
A tall man, whiskered and with a top hat that had seen better days had stopped on the path and was looking my way. He took a step towards me. I scooped up my bundle and ran back down the path, heart pounding, my hand tightly wound around the first money that was just mine since I’d arrived in this dirty, crowded place. I was alone, but I was free to do as I pleased for as long as it lasted.
I ran all the way back to Eastcheap before I stopped, my lungs heaving, my legs burning. There was no sign of Top Hat, and I sank down on my bundle. My stomach cramped as the smell of fried fish and potatoes reached me. The street seller coming down the street had a tray around his neck full of food, and I realized just how long it had been since I’d had a proper meal. Tuppence bought me a large portion and I held out a kerchief from my bundle for him to put it in. I gnawed at the food as I walked, unable to wait till I could find a crate to sit on by the side of the road and get at it properly. The hot food was a greasy blessing on my new freedom and though I still ached for my lost family, I was a different girl from the one who had nearly thrown herself in the river. Sitting there, wiping my oily hands on my dirty kerchief I felt myself returning to life. My next problem was finding a place to sleep. Tomorrow I’d have to find a way to make a living.
Roisin Sullivan is an immigrant, working for a family in London because that’s the only job she can get. She came to London because her family needed the money, the family she’s working for came a century or so ago for basically the same reasons, and now is focused on getting ahead.
Is this the America of today? No, it’s nineteenth century London. We’re still playing the same games though, and putting up with the same savage inequalities. Only the cast of characters have changed. There are always reasons why people who are different can’t have the same opportunities as the rest of us.
In this installment, Roisin (called Lucy, because her Irish name is too foreign, even for the Jewish family she works for) gets some bad news.
We will bury your mother and your sister today. Famine fever took them, as it has so many others. Please, on no account try to come home! The countryside is emptying as Dublin fills to bursting. The money you sent arrived yesterday, and I thank God for it for it has helped to give Michael and I the means to leave this deathly place. There is nothing but starvation in Ireland now. We will be sailing for America by the time you read this. I hope you will take care now and wait for word, as we will bring you out as soon as we find work. I will send your ticket as soon as we can get it. Carry our love with you until then, and may you stay safe and well in London, my darling girl.
Your loving father
The hand holding the letter slowly drifted down to my lap. I sat on the edge of the bed, dry-eyed, wordless.
“Lucy?” Sarah seemed to appear from nowhere in the doorway of my tiny garret room, the candle in its rough pewter holder casting a pool of light into the now dark room. “Mrs. Rosenthal is asking for you.”
“Mrs. Rosenthal can go hang.”
The circle of light wobbled as Sarah set the candle on our dresser. “What?” she said. “She’s not best pleased. The laundry is still in the yard and you’ve not laid the fire.” She came closer to look me in the eye. “Lucy?”
I felt my hands clenching into fists, and as the letter began to crumple I remembered, and dropped it as if it were a burning coal. The last thing I might have from my family. I dropped to my knees and smoothed it out against the clean wooden floorboards. I laid it carefully on the dresser.
“Lucy, what’s happened?”
I took a deep breath, and the rage receded, just enough for me to remember that Sarah was my employer’s niece, not my friend, even if she was kinder than the rest of them. She had nothing to do with the stealing of my life. “My mother–” The tears came, I couldn’t stop them if I’d wanted to. I was surprised to feel arms around me, and if they weren’t the ones I wanted, they were kind, and I could pretend that there was still someone in the world who cared for me.
It was a long time before I was quiet. Sarah rose from the bed where she’d sat me down and got a cloth. She wet it with water poured into the basin from the pitcher I’d filled and brought up with the letter. The last ordinary act of a day that had my family in it. When she tried to wash my face, I took the cloth and bathed my hot eyes. She understood, it seemed, and left me alone.
Morning came, and I didn’t care. Sarah appeared at the door and called to me.
“Lucy, you must get up. My Aunt is looking for you.”
I said nothing. The bed was warm, and I wanted to go back to sleep. I pulled the covers closer. I didn’t see her take my letter from the dresser as she left.
A hand on my shoulder and a gentle shake. “Lucy?”
It was Mrs. Rosenthal.
I turned to face her, and sat up. My letter was in her hand, and my feet were on the floor. I snatched it from her.
“Lucy!” The look of concern fell from her face, and her fists hit her hips. “How dare you!”
“Where did you get that!” I shouted back.
She took a deep breath. “I know you’ve had a shock, my girl, and I’m sorry for your loss, but I’ll thank you for remembering your place! This is my house, and I have a perfect right to know what goes on under my roof. I’ll thank you to get dressed and get to work.”
Mechanically, I pulled open a drawer. Her footsteps receded down the stairs and I closed it, lay back down, tears streaming down my face.
Sarah came up long after dark, a bowl of cold stew obviously filched from the kitchen in her hand. I knew it hadn’t come from Cook. For a moment the ice where my heart should be began to thaw. She was kind, but she wasn’t my friend. My letter lay between us, even though I had it tucked under my pillow.
The smell of food woke my body to its needs, and as I ate the floating, bodiless feeling I hadn’t noticed receded. I listened with half an ear to Sarah as she told me what I must do, to obey her aunt and do my work. I nodded at the right moments, said “yes,” and “I’m sorry,” and anything else she wanted to hear until at last she left me alone again.
I lay down, crying silently until I drifted into darkness.
The next morning my limbs were like lead, my spirit grey as the rough blanket covering me. I closed my eyes again and turned my face to the wall.
I woke to Mrs. Rosenthal pulling the blanket back from my face. I pulled it out of her hand and turned back to the wall.
“Lucy?” she said, more quietly than I’d expected. “You must get up now. This cannot continue.”
If I stayed silent, surely she’d see reason and let me be. Instead, she stripped the blanket from me, grabbed me by the wrist, and pulled me from the bed. She stood in the doorway while I shivered my way into my clothes. As she turned I grabbed the letter and stuffed it into my pocket. I followed her downstairs, the picture of the obedient servant I’d been for the last fifteen years.
I laid the fire in the sitting room with all the coal in the scuttle. I put Mr. Rosenthal’s’s newspaper on as well and lit it. I left it blazing on the hearth and went out into the yard. I didn’t collect the linens, I didn’t fill the coppers. I didn’t light the fires. I just stood there.
The house didn’t burn. Mrs. Rosenthal found the flames licking at the mantel and ran to the scullery for a bucket of water. She sent Sarah to sit with me, and though I know she spoke to me, I have no recollection of what she said. Mrs. Rosenthal soon returned with my small case. She took me by the hand and walked me through the scullery to the back door. The cook looked daggers at me from her place at the stove as we passed through the kitchen.
Mrs. Rosenthal walked me outside, out of earshot of any of the household. “I can’t have you here, Lucy,” she said quietly, “I’m sorry for it, but you all but had the house in flames. My home, my family aren’t safe with you under our roof.” She took my fingers and wrapped them around a handful of coins. “Go, my girl, and I pray you find some peace, but if I see you near my home again I’ll call the law.”
I walked. Our court met the street, then a larger one, and then I was on the high road leading to the river. See me again? She never would. I walked along the river until I found a place where the walkway passed over the water. I dropped the bundle I carried at my feet and looked down at the tumbling water below. I set my hand on the low wall and began to pull myself up on it.
I want to move. I want out of the overcrowded city of my birth, to give the City Spirit the gift of my absence. I want our neighbors to be our friends, to accept us as we are and to value the home we build together. I want to live in a community that works to make everyone welcome. Where we can love whoever we like and don’t have to hide who we are. Where we are celebrated for who we are. I want the whole damn world to be able to live well and in harmony with the land, sea, and sky.
I want to invite everybody over for dinner. Bring me black pepper and chai and olive oil from Athens. We will feed you on the fat of the land and send you home with acorn meal and rich red wine many years laid down in cool dark cellars.
I want a funky house with character, my back door opening onto redwood and hazel. I want a wood stove, if climate and forest allow it, and plenty of magical places with trails to get us there. I want rituals in the woods and acid trips and good weed. I want to climb trees. I want friends, the ones I knew in college and at Faire. People to ramble with and grow old with. Neighbors. The kids down the road who will be the next generation will remember our adventures when we’re gone. The ones we raised to protect the land and only take what it can freely give. I want to see the hourglass pulled over until it spills Pandora’s gifts on the good green Earth. Dagaz, instead of Extinction. Revels instead of Rebellion. The First Peoples as friends, neighbors, and Elders, re-indigenizing the people whose ancestors were once foolish enough to call themselves white.
I want the wheel of the year, Faires and bardic circles and a junior league that dances in the dirt and screws in the forest. I want to help cook gargantuan meals to feed the whole community when Lughnasadh comes and the travelers arrive on their yearly round. I want to sing around the fire after the first rain falls. I want to smell the earth open up after the long hot summer when Lugh’s high gold is beaten into the gray dust. I want the cool of evening.
I want to build a labyrinth and a library and shrines in the woods. I want to play with my imaginary friends and write the stories we live. I want the other side of the adulthood we were roped into. I want a long happy, healthy, prosperous time where I can finish the gifts I want to leave to the world when I die.
I want us to wear whatever we want and be treated the same no matter how odd our choices. Where we are not judged by our clothes, our hair. I don’t want to hide my Thor’s Hammer or my Awen or the patches on my jacket. If I walk down to the local store in a robe and a cloak I don’t want anyone to bat an eye.
I want to live in a place where cars are rare. Where all that we need is available and accessible to all who live there. I want occasional wireless and plentiful conversation, sharing the bus with whoever climbs aboard. I want roads I can ride a bicycle on and to do my shopping safely. I want solar panels and the sense to go to bed when it’s dark. Tomorrow will come soon enough. I want bonfires and clear, sweet water.
I want to live on the coast, near the forest, where Druids celebrate the ninth wave that rolls in from the Pacific. I want to dance with Dervishes and ride horses bareback through the wet sand as the wave rolls out to the ocean. I want fog and cool and quiet.
I want the Triad of Wealth. My body healthy and strong, my time my own. I spend my remaining days doing as I please, and my money for the few things it is needful for. An Awen of plenty crowned with three bright sundrops. I want to live as part of the land, leaving it better than I found it and when I leave this life, my last sight of it inhabited with people who feel the same way, who will care for it after I am gone.
I want fewer people and more quiet.
When the ferry comes, there will be no coins of gold over my eyes, no shroud of silk. Three rays of light, returning to the sun, the rest of me melting into the rich brown loam.
Dickens Fair is in the process of transformation. It is a matter of changing or dying. Times have changed and it is no longer possible or desirable to privilege one group over another, or to deny the needs and chances of people on the basis of appearance, gender, or identification. I hope we make it through.
In the meantime, I have gone back to my roots, remembering why I loved Renaissance and Dickens Fairs so much, and how my feelings have changed. My Bartstationbard.com site has those posts.
I have also gone back to what amounts to an electronic version of the Faire application that used to be the standard. After all the contact and workshop info, we were faced with a blank page to be filled with our character bio.
A couple Dickens back, I tried to go back to busking. My character has a tin ear, and I was tired of playing a tart, so I created another. She lasted a year, I found the new rules unbearable. We were to be confined to one defined spot, and our repertoires were to be cleared in advance. We were carded on a regular basis. My gig became robotic, my mind on whether or not I was boring the boothies I was stationed in front of to tears, and where Security was. It was hard to spark interaction with the customers or the cast tucked away in a corner as I was, and by the end of the run I was through.
Roisin, however, thrived. We talked constantly with each other, and when Fair was over she was happy to go back to busking the transit stations with me. She discovered the Dropkick Murphys and fell in love with punk. She loved the freedom of my time. When we decided to pack it in at the end of the run we planned her exit. Her life had been largely chosen for her. I may have set the parameters, but in my head she told me her story. I have always done my best to let characters, whether written or played at Faire, tell their own stories. Choosing for them either leaves me alone in my costume, or produces a story with the consistency of cardboard.
Roisin’s story was built on my gig, and the what-if of giving it to an Irish girl who had been put into service in London because her parents could not support either her or themselves. What if, after fifteen years, when the Famine came, that family was destroyed, some dying in Ireland, and the rest emigrating to America? What if she lost her place, and met Jeremy?
Believe it or not, after setting her up with that awful situation, she still speaks to me. She quickly made a deal with Jeremy, continued to busk on the same terms the girls had, and at the end of the run, he got her on a ship to Boston where she joined her family. That was all I knew. It was plenty to work with then, and now it is a great excuse to do the rest of the research and tell that story. After all, one of the reasons it came alive so easily is that we have not worked through these issues to this day. All we have done is to cast other marginalized people in the roles. Now that the Irish have become white, it is quite clear what was going on then, and now.
Archive of our Own hosts original fiction as well as fanfic. It’s a great place for us to tell our character stories. When Fair has worked through the issues, we might just know each other better on and off the streets of London.
We spent a lot of time last weekend looking at our old photos of Faire, and topped it off with videos on YouTube. The videos in particular reminded me of the shape of the illusion we all created. While it is true that LHC made the playground, we made the Faire.
Over my desk there’s a collage of images. They cover much more than Faire. In the center is a woman made of branches, her heart of fire green in her breast and her face uplifted to the sky among her leaves. An enhanced computer image of Long Meg, with all her cup-and-ring decorations towers over her, scarred by the passage of time and floating in a black background. My backpack, outer clothing and bodhran case are grouped around a tree on the shore of Llyn Tegid, in Wales, but the image I look to now is of myself, bodhran in hand, in leine and wool bonnet in Witches Wood, at Black Point.
Back then things were far from perfect, but I walked into another time and place every morning. My bodhran and basket were on my back and the day was there for the living. I started my journey as a matter of fact, the same way I started my day at Dickens, with a cup of Chai at the Mullah’s and conversation with good friends. Kenny Millikan might regale us with the tale of the Dawn Haggis, a creature we could only glimpse in his words. He had a jar of soft sculpture backsides, which he swore were pixie butts. The Pixie would take up the story at this point, telling us how they fell off in the fall, and that each Pixie had a special dance that sent them flying.
We carried stories like this into the streets and told them to Travellers. Some embellished them further or spun off wild tales of their own. There were a pair of Celts who came to Faire every year and found me busking on the streets. They would persuade me to take a trip to an alestand with them, and we would roar through the Faire. I would drop off after a while to play another set, and let them continue their colorful ramble through the playground they visited once a year. You may remember them, or you may not, for they were an ornament to the time and place we all created together, and while they were the very picture of uproarious revellers, they never, to my knowledge, caused a problem. Would they be welcome today? I don’t know. They chose their level of participation, and had complete freedom on the day per year they chose. They would not have been out of place backstage, though of course they were never seen there. Some lines, it has been made quite clear to me, are not to be crossed.
As a busker, I walked until I was tired, kept my tankard full of water when I played–both singer and bodhran found song a thirsty business–and told tales in rhyme to the beat of the drum. I stopped when asked, as some of the vendors would want me to grace the area around their booths with my music, and also when the Faire beckoned. While I had specific places I favored for a set, I was not in any one of them for longer than an hour or so. I made it a point to never repeat a song within a set lest I cease to please and begin to grate on those whose trade kept them in one place.
To me, that endless round through the streets is now missing. Every nook and cranny is filled with a booth or a stage, and there is nowhere to stop without stepping on the perfectly timed shows. Performers run from one to another, rarely stopping to play in streets too small to build a world in! We are watched, and our flaws marked. While there do of course have to be certain standards, we are no longer trusted to want to uphold them, not because they render a world deeper and more colorful than the one we return to after the last chorus is sung, but because we have people working to reveal our flaws instead of praising our glories.
There are still good times to be had, and bright spots in days growing ever longer, but as a busker I have been chased from these streets. I am no longer Jeremy’s messenger, part of the web of the underworld of London. While I miss Roisin, or Lucy, as she was called in London, I take heart in the knowledge that Jeremy’s girls were only a temporary shelter for her. In the end she did manage to join her family in America where they fled from An Gorta Mor. Perhaps Lucy’s story will fork, as did Jeremy’s and Jenny’s. Perhaps not. The characters I played never were wholly confined to the Faire. They came from somewhere, and kept going after it was over. Knowing who they were and in the end where they went was a part of their living presence on the streets, and the memory they leave for me when they move on.
I unearthed a lot of photos last weekend. The long look back over forty-plus years of Faire was useful. It gave me perspective on the current situation. I had forgotten just how big Faire used to be. I’m not just talking about size, though there was a lot more space, and there were a lot more of us. No, the quality of the spell we cast collectively created an energetic container that we filled with a place that never was, and always will be. Back then we were a community, trusted to play our part in the act of creation. There were fewer rules and more magic.
I was told by a dear friend “If you’re not having fun, it’s on you.” It was meant well, more the Zen master with the rod than Bill Sykes with a bludgeon, and I did try seriously to follow the core of truth in that advice. Maybe it is me. I’m older, and perhaps not as easily amused. My old friends are fewer, and there are new faces among them, but that isn’t it either. I play on the streets, but with the determination of the lone salmon fighting its way to the source instead of the player grabbing an outstretched hand, leaping effortlessly in the dance, trusting the magic will be there to catch me. I even tried creating a new character and going back to busking to see what would happen. There are bright spots. Singing choruses in the afternoons with great and generous people in an environmental area that is open for the public to join us is tasting the past. It’s good to see the friends that are left. It is still possible to catch the edge of magic, and just for a moment lose oneself in Faire. Spirits still move between worlds. I can’t expect things to be the same as they were years ago and they shouldn’t be. Time marches on, change is part of life, but the river flows from the same source.
The magic has been squeezed into such a tiny space! The eyes are always on us. What are we wearing? What are we doing? Must be sure not to step out of line, to draw focus from a performance or break a rule. Above all, if you do, don’t get caught! Now we sit in neat rows in Mad Sal’s, singing along at the right times to prompt the crowd and create the proper soundscape. We take our gigs and conversations outside, the designated place for background color and noise. Living your character all day long is the exception, not the rule, and enough people drop character at the curtain to make it the boundary of the lovely illusion that is only half there as it is. We work Faire, instead of play. Disney has replaced Dickens. Our passes must be shown without exception to pass back and forth past the guards hired for the event. There is no more security and crew, people who knew us, were part of us.
Safety is an issue, I understand that. Trust has long ago been broken. Space is at a premium in a venue we have long outgrown. There have always been broken stairs and differential treatment that mirror the society we live in, but the sharp separation between customer and Faire folk was never so stark, and we looked after each other far more than we do now. The constant carding at the door and in the venue by strangers jerks us back into the present we are supposed to be casting a temporary spell on and we can’t pull the willing visitor into the dance any more.
Faire was always a dance on the edge. We played with time, with language, with the energy. It was never safe, and things have always happened that shouldn’t. Yes, it is past time to change some of those things, but never before were we ever so powerless that our only real option was to strike. We let union be, a song instead of a movement. We were a community, that family that management–for they have become management–keeps talking about.
Faire was a dance on the edge, but it wasn’t just physical. For a few short weeks we were part of another time and place, and the people who paid to get in came to taste it, and sometimes become part of it. You could get in free of charge if you did the thing Faire asked of you that day. Perhaps it was wearing a specific costume or the reciting of a Shakespeare sonnet. You played Faire and were let through the magic door to play your part. There were more participants and more room. Every inch was not sharply delineated for stage and booth and alestand. The village or London Town had twists and turns and places where magic could happen. The streets did not run in straight lines. There wasn’t a microphone to be found on the site and silence was not required at the sharp barrier where street now becomes stage. Players did not demand absolute attention because they knew how to take and hold stage, and when to release it. Our allegiance was to the illusion, not the script. Mad Sal’s roared with laughter and song, and you could play skittles inside, drink and converse in what was for a brief moment a real dockside alehouse, not a stage set with a bar outside.
Faire was always trying to rein us in, but back then they never succeeded. Danse Macabre could get away with tiptoeing across Main Stage and the players adapted instead of objected. A whole procession could disappear into a magic privy because the crew built the privies and one of them had doors on both sides. It was years ago before rented plastic boxes became the norm, before people of color were hired to clean the bathrooms and pick up the trash, no longer part of the crew, part of us. Yes, times have changed, the books balance much better than they did back then, but where is the magic that flowed like water and carried us halfway to Faerie? The ragged heroes have long disappeared around the last bend. The day has died like a rose. The Faire has come to a close.
Times change and so do we, the spirit of Faire a sleeping Beauty lying somnolent in the bed of Procrustes. Black Point has become Patterson Abbey. We are more concerned with the distance between plate and cutlery than we are with the people who spin a continuous reality out of the whole cloth of history. It is more important to have a costume, pattern carefully selected from an ever-dwindling range of years that matches the palette of the show than to wear clothes that suit our characters and their stories. We will be measured and photographed, the garb we provide at our own expense cleared in every detail before it can even be made. A tart may not wear a tattered ball gown she purchased at the old clothes market no matter how careful the research the participant has done to build the backstory. Like goes with like, the regimented sections of the stage will be respected. We will have Fagin and Oliver Twist, but Sikes must not kill Nancy. It’s a family show, after all.
My first Faire was the first time I ever felt I belonged. I met most of the best friends I’ve ever had there, and every one of my love affairs began at Black Point or Dickens. I remember feeling the years sliding off me as I traveled back in time, to that place where the very air vibrated with possibility and promise. We were creating a world each weekend that grew closer each passing year. One day, I was sure, we would just walk through into that land that I felt but could not imagine and longed to see.
I grew up. We all did. Black Point is gone, the possibilities sealed shut. Dickens was a sort of Brigadoon for a while, appearing irregularly in places that sparkled for a season and then disappeared. Then there was that magic first year in 2000, when we came back to the Cow Palace. We had to make it happen, to blow the flame back to life, and for a few years it felt like our home, the place we all created out of dreams, belief, and love.
The problem is, it isn’t “we” any more. Every year the grip of ownership grows tighter, and the vision more limited. The bars for entry, far from making the show better, have squeezed the magic into acceptable channels until it is in danger of draining away. As a member of a cast instead of a community, with every shekel counted and every entry securely guarded by strangers who take no part in the show, I struggle to keep my light alive as I wear the acceptable clothes, keep to the acceptable paths.
The Tale must be told anew for each new generation. The song remains the same, but it is sung by many voices, and we all must be free to shape our part in the dance. Change is part of life, and it takes a living community–with voices that are heard and heeded–to keep the magic alive.
I fear that those who think they own the magic know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Color palettes, silhouettes, and one trademarked vision of the period mean that many of us no longer have a place, and what was once a family is now a very expensive hobby for a select few.
Fair has never been period. This is a feature, not a bug to be stamped out. We cannot have offal in the streets, laudanum in the shops, or tarts taking their customers into the shadows. I do remember, however, being offered a hundred dollar bill by a customer in Fort Mason. I knew how to keep the illusion intact while slipping out of the very real offer too.
Where has the adventure gone, the days when a street urchin could end up step dancing on stage though she had no part cast in it, where we all roared the choruses to all the songs as we drank, laughed, and ran through Mad Sal’s? Twosie wasn’t particular, and no one sat quietly in neat rows to listen to mic’ed performers. The sailors rocked and rolled through the streets. They did their turns on stage, but kissed the (willing) tarts afterwards and had their run ashore. How many of us came to Fair to become our other selves for blissful hours, to take up our other lives and stories for a few too-short weekends? The streets are now too crowded with commerce to find a place to be ourselves, and buskers are limited to the one assigned pitch to play a specific approved set. No more roving where we may, part of the living tapestry of the city, delighting vendor and visitor alike as we played to please and to lose ourselves in the fantasy of the streets.
I remember period as the paintbox to our living canvases. I remember a few precious years of literally living Faire. Between seasons we gathered as groups, and as friends. I delighted in libraries and fabric stores, making clothes, not costumes, bringing what I found in books to life. We read widely and shared what we learned because the details of life in those two times and places, the Elizabethan and Victorian, were what we spun our alter egos from and made them come to life. I beat the pennanular brooch I wore out on an anvil myself, made the sheath for my dagger. I slept in the wool cloak I made in the hay toss and my street urchin self sewed garters by hand as she sat in the streets. We told the stories we created and lived on those streets. We knew the cost of a tart or a meal or how much a sailor made at Dickens, and played six dice in the street at Ren. I knew the gaelic pike drill commands and how to carry the weapon not because it was required, but because it was fun. I can still talk for hours in a variety of accents and tell you the story of my personae because part of the magic of Faire was that we not only got to keep our imaginary friends, we got to become them for a few precious weeks a year in the best playground ever.
I remember Sharkey, a dreamboat of a man in high leather boots, breeches and the rest. He was one of the boys I secretly lusted after, but of course he was out of my league. What matter the fact that he was Black? There were title roles back then too, of course, Sir Francis Drake, the Queen, and the like. Was there a color line back then? Undoubtedly, but times have changed. Undoubtedly, but there were so many of us back then, and so much less emphasis on historical figures that got the lion’s share of the action. The sheer diversity of stage shows and the originality of the pieces performed meant that there were many more opportunities, far less hierarchy, and a dizzying array of entertainment to watch and participate in.
It’s different now. Times have changed. Costs have risen. Black Point, tragically, is no more, and the Cow Palace seems smaller every year. There are far fewer places to play in the streets and fewer shows. So much is scripted where once there was the magic of losing oneself in another time and another persona. We wear carefully vetted costumes instead of clothing, and must conform–at our own expense–to a dress code that owes at least as much to “palette” and the look of the show as it does to period. We dance to the tune of the accountant instead of the song our hearts and creativity wrote each day on the street.
While the strings of the corset of management tighten, the world has changed. A smaller cast and a greater emphasis on the look of what has become a production instead of a community means that the glaring lack of diversity is, like the Emperor, naked. At the same time, the mold Hamilton broke has shown us what the future looks like. Bridgerton, The Irregulars and many others have exposed the lie that portrait casting is the only believable way to portray the past. Racism, sexism and genderphobia were always savage, unnecessary bigotries, but now they are at long last becoming quaint relics of the past.
The Tale must be told for each generation. The song remains the same, but the details can–and do–change. We no longer allow desperate women to pay for their unwanted babies to be slowly starved to death in a haze of laudanum while telling themselves that they have been “adopted.” We no longer are allowed to openly keep or sell people as slaves because of their color. We are far too slowly abolishing other loathsome practices as we climb painfully out of a past that had gutters as well as glories. Faire was ever a place of dreams and fantasies based on history. Once upon a time it was also, if not a democracy, at least a community.
I remember when Faire really was a family, when I woke up excited to be going and sad to be leaving. I remember food tickets, true participant tickets, and when security was a part of us, friends we hung out with after hours. I remember when the trash and cleaning crews were not poorly paid contract workers who are frankly, the true lower class at Fair, and mostly people of color.
The strength and magic of Faire was that it was wrought by many hands and guided, not driven, by people who realized that dreams must be held gently, and that there was a spirit that is fed and strengthened by diversity, creativity, and respect. If you do not allow all of us, the true founders of your feast, to at the very least have a chance to try out–and have a fair chance at playing–the roles that feed our dreams, then why should we allow you to continue to profit off us, and to pay for the privilege? Why should we give you our time, energy, creativity and money when you give so little in return? As an actor and a busker, I have not felt respected by Faire for a very long time. I hope that this time you will really consider what all of us have to say, and make some long-needed changes. If you do not, you might find yourselves becoming quaint relics of the past.
I’m not going to make a decision now. I’m going to be the grain of sand to your oyster. I will not work in an organization that treats people as you do, and I don’t feel the need to inform you of my plans when you do so much behind the scenes and at a moment’s notice. If things don’t change, I’ll sit this one out, and in any case, my shoulder will be to the wheel of change and working for the return of the entity I long ago gave my heart to. You will graciously allow those of us who leave to return if we so choose? Good to know. I’ll let you know when the time comes. I hope that together we produce a pearl.
Looking back is exactly what we need to do right now. How did we let it get this bad? What great change were we waiting for to fix it all? The sheer awfulness of this year and the time and energy we’ve all put in to cope with it allows things to just creep up on us until we remember how it used to be—what it really used to be like, not the candy coated piece of nostalgia various demagogues and swindlers try to persuade us to swallow.
An event like 9/11 is far enough back in time to make a meaningful comparison of now and then. Here in the US, we all remember where we were. This day reverberates, the echoes growing stronger or fainter depending on your distance from the US and the First World. Most of us looking to vote in less than two months look back on that day with photographic precision. I can tell you when and where I got up, what I did that day, and what changed. We were still operating on assumptions and conditions about our world that were not reflected in reality. We were missing deadlines and tipping points by design, too busy chasing success, or at least survival. The age was an Iron Maiden around us, just as it is now, but most of us didn’t notice. The sore places were familiar, the callouses thick.
Nothing is remotely comfortable today. I just ordered an air filter that won’t get here until after the smoke has likely cleared. I should have done it last year, when the fires returned. I woke up with a headache and sore throat for the second day in a row today. Like everything else in this time, it didn’t come on until the day after Apocalypse Day, when the sky turned orange and cars had to turn their headlights on at noon. Two days after the color has faded and the light is back, but the smoke is even worse. You can’t feel it, and the most frightening part of the visible signal is gone. The flames are not even out here in California and Oregon is now ablaze.
People were working down in that. Mail carriers were making deliveries, the trains in and out of San Francisco were only a little emptier. My question is, why were so many people riding them in the first place? You would think that after the fire seasons we’ve had in recent years someone would have had the sense to evaluate staffing levels and relative risk the moment they woke up to a sky out of Mad Max and notified everyone not truly essential to stay home.
I was an essential worker a day later. My only real job is to watch the front gate. A security guard is needed, if no one else is outside on site, and we are set up to do that job as safely as possible. We have a fairly tight office to sit in with windows that allow us to see what we need to. The COVID modifications were largely made months back, and they double nicely for the smoke that has been the newest addition to a California summer for the last half decade.
My house is not nearly that well prepared. Today I’m cradling a cup of breathe easy tea and contemplating the cost of new windows. I know that to do the job of sealing this house is beyond us, and that so many other problems of its aging structure make other repairs far more important.
This is the banality of evil. This is how we are kept so busy keeping our own acts together that we don’t realize that the other tactic—separation from each other—is being so skillfully employed. We all have our own problems, and we shouldn’t expect anyone to come and rescue us, right? We treasure our independence above all else in this country. No one should pay our way, right?
This current set of crises couldn’t have been better designed to show the flaws in that worldview. Nothing but literal invasion from space would have been more capable of bringing us together. I’d almost welcome something so bizarre, as it would feed into our cultural conditioning of “us” against “them”, at least for the duration of the emergency.
Many, many people have observed that we aren’t in the same boat. COVID and wildfire smoke offer yet more concrete proof. The Trader Joe’s I went to after work yesterday was open. So was the door. The clerks were not wearing N95s, but they were there when I needed them. The transit operators who were there to drive me home made it possible for me to avoid walking any further than necessary. While they had better masks, it was only a matter of degree. Those people and many more are showing the daily heroism of the essential worker. Our appreciation has waned, and they are generally not getting hazard pay for what they are doing.
So the hierarchy is preserved even in our degrees of suffering. We’re arguing about the relative ease and comfort of our individual rungs on the ladder. What we should be arguing about is the necessity to climb one at all in order to have “made it.” In order to eat and have a roof over our heads. Respect, happiness, peace of mind—you name it.
These things should be our birthright. Not necessarily the “fully automated luxury gay space communism” we laugh about on Facebook, but we should all have our basic needs met and a chance at some joy in our lives. We humans are a successful enough species to accomplish that for ourselves. Go back 5,000 years—go back a century, before all the wild places had been discovered, and at least some indigenous people who could still live on their own land and practice their own culture managed it—without destroying the ecosystem they lived in. They can do that again, and we can as well. All we have to do is get out of their way, return what lands we can, and consider our own situations and our relationships with all that lives.
We should all have the right to refuse work. We have the ability, but having to choose between hazardous duty and not eating isn’t really a choice, now is it? It’s very apparent who is ordering us into the danger zones. How many times is that person standing beside us?
Before you say “fake news,” read the article and watch the video. I can walk you to encampments in my own neighborhood, places I pass on my way to the train or the ferry. Some of the individual living arrangements are pretty elaborate, showing the skill and ingenuity of the builder, but why are they there at all? There is empty housing all over the city, but it all belongs to someone and we aren’t collectively willing to pony up what it would take to get our neighbors inside and off the street.
Your area’s problem isn’t likely to be the same as mine. There are different, distressing problems popping up in all sorts of places. They all share one thing, though. They’re systemic and they’re about power and its Jekyll and Hyde twin, money. It isn’t possible for my neighborhood to band together and get the people in tents into the empty house down the street from me, any more than the residents of the Star motel could keep the lights on by passing the hat every time the electric company came around. Someone owns these places, goods, and services, and they expect to be paid. People paid the going rate for labor have no realistic way of forcing the issue for pay that allows them to live good lives.
There have been attempts to unionize fast food restaurants. Can you name even one that has succeeded, and has been effectively unionized for a year or more? Being part of a union’s formation at the moment, I can tell you that even with an enforceable right to unionize that protects one’s job, it is a hard road, much harder than the person who runs the workplace has to walk.
I question the whole structure we’re laboring under. That’s the scariest thing of all to the people at the top. They are busily proving that they will do absolutely anything to keep us doing our jobs, whether they’re essential or not. We have just seen a huge swath of people defunded with the lapse of the unemployment insurance relief that should have been a no-brainer for Congress. Why is there no bailout for the citizens as well as the corporations? Why was it so necessary to call the people who had just had the social safety net cut from beneath their feet too lazy to work? There were no jobs available for them. There is no excuse for anyone to have nowhere else but the streets to live on, or for workers to be forced out into the smoke with no realistic way to say no.
November 3rd is our next decision point. Our choices are designed—in part by us—to restore the status quo if at all possible. However, the choice is still clear to me. The incumbent has had the last four years, and more importantly the last nine months to deal with the pandemic. The information and the advisor, in the form of Fauci, was right there. He needn’t have done a perfect job, but surely we could have done at least as well as Italy? I sit in a room full of filtered air once a week because someone with a little power and some common sense did what was possible. Not perfect, but all that was possible, given the circumstances.
Trump has pushed that defense past the point of reason, let alone plausibility. He was in charge, and we know, if we have any memory and sense at all, that the administration he is responsible for creating and managing dismantled every preparation previous administrations had put in place that they could. By now, you have likely made up your mind about what you’ll do in November. If you are prepared to trust Trump (and have read this far), I can only hope there are fewer than you than there are of us. Because that’s the only way we will ever get back to a world where we know there is no “them” there’s only “us”.
So where were you on September 11, 2001? What did your world look like back then? How does it look now, and how did it get to where we are right now? What world do you want to wake up to next year at this time?
It seems to me that this is all of a piece. Our democracy is burning, a virus is burning through the populace and the forests in California are once again a direct manifestation of the way climate change is burning our world. Siberia and Australia, the Amazon and the Arctic Circle all are going up in turn.
No one place is more important than any other, so many places are at war, on fire, so many people are fleeing death. If you feel an affinity to a different place and a different aspect of the worldwide problem, by all means, alter this ritual to fit your circumstances, or write a new one and share it. We are all part of the same living world and we all need to work as we are called. Do the magical work as you are moved to, and then get to work on the physical plane. Donate, march, write, vote. Take someone in, hold your representatives feet to the fire until they feel it as we do. Now is the time to think of how you can become a blessed ancestor and do whatever it takes to make that vision real.
I pulled my collection of waters from the Earth out of the fridge in creating this ritual—if you have a sacred place to gather water from, by all means do so, but you don’t need to. All water is sacred. Your tap is a manifestation of magic, the blessing of cool, clear, safe water running freely within our houses is something that has only been available to a privileged part of the population for the last century or so. Begin by seeing it for what it is. In the United States, we can all find out where our tap water comes from. Do so, and with that knowledge, begin your connection to it. Then think beyond this small planet, alone in our solar system in having liquid water in abundance on our surface. When we go to other planets, when we look across the galaxy and beyond, what is the first thing we look for? The presence of water. Water is life.
One day, one week, one month—or until November Third. Beyond this time, if your situation requires it. This ritual was created to support the forests of California until the rain comes and the United States election is held. The forests and the systems of government throughout the world need support and cleansing as well, so the more people we have throughout the world connecting our planetary energies and landscapes together the better. If you’re on an island, the plankton themselves are a kind of forest, the corals a mineral connection to the mantle of the planet. Wherever you live, think about how you make that connection, and how your home needs to be supported right now. What kind of a network is part of your home right now that you can use to send energy to your home and beyond? Is it to be found in Land, Sea, or Sky? Animal, vegetable, mineral?
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Wherever you are, prepare for meditation or create sacred space however you do so. When you are ready, visualize your connection to the Earth. Do you have an inner sacred place? Perhaps you might choose a tree in that place, or you might have one you know at home, one you pass on the way to somewhere. Create one especially for this ritual if you like. The only necessity is that it be a tree or a network you can imagine becoming that creates a connection to the Earth.
You will need a container of water, preferably one that closes. A clean glass jar works well. It does help, however, if you know where the water you are using came from. Tap water will do. All water is sacred, it is a great rarity in the universe. Our planet harbors life because it has such an abundance of liquid, free-flowing water. If you did not collect it from a local source, an ocean, spring, or lake, your water company can usually give you this information. You will not be drinking this water, you will be returning it to the earth when you conclude the ritual, so your choice need not be limited to what humans may drink.
If you feel so inclined, create an altar with the things you find meaningful on it. Have the water you will be using for this ritual before you in a closable container that will be kept in the refrigerator for the duration of the whole spell, should you choose to perform this ritual until the November election.
Create sacred space however you do this in your tradition. Call a deity if you feel moved to, or just become aware of the planet itself.
Sit comfortably and look within, eyes closed or open as you choose. Feel your body. What space does it occupy? Where does it rest? What holds you?
Can you imagine a tree, a lake, an ocean? What would it be like to become it? Can you feel your roots going down into the ground, or your toes dissolving to join a river’s flow, part of you still, as you are a part of it? Feel your bark covering you, limbs sprouting leaves, your roots seeking moisture in the earth.
How are you connected to the Earth? Do your roots dig deep into the Earth? Do they form a halo close to the surface, where they may create new trees, sharing the same root system? Is the connection liquid, electric? Reach for it and send your own energy in return.
The trees are burning, neighborhoods are being coated with ash. People flee the heat, the smothering smoke in the air. They are taken in by others who live outside the danger, people and governments who have enough to share and the need to do so. Hospitality is sacred, a duty to the community.
Can you see yourself as a tree, your limbs and leaves rising, your roots in the earth, twining with the rest of the network of life, deep underground? Down there there is water, even in the heat of a California August. As a tree, you can pull this water into your roots and share it through the network, supporting the forests on fire and the people displaced.
Here in California, It’s only a few months till the rains come. Till the election is held. We can keep going that long. We can let our thick bark turn the heat, glow in our deep places inside with anger, with purpose, with love and support for all that lives and shares and cares.
We can do what must be done. Through the network of the phone lines, raising our voices and defending our Post Office. We can shelter, feed and clothe those who have fled death throughout the world and have lost their jobs or are on the street during this long emergency. We can use the network of the Internet to connect teachers to students, workers to their jobs. We can stay inside, starve the virus of easy routes to use its own network, carried on the breath, in the air we all must share.
We can do what must be done. We have enough to last till the rains come, till the election is held. We can make sure that every person has an income until the rains come and the crisis is over. Reach down and share through the roots, as far as you can imagine the gift of life going, knowing it will continue on throughout the world. Send it into the water before you cradled in your hands, or held in the mind, or however you are accustomed to doing such work. See it flowing, feel its electric hum as it flows from you and into you, as we are all part of the network. All of us together can hold out till the fog, the rain, the reckoning arrives.
It’s only a few months. Water is deep down, as the will of each of us comes from a deep source and is strong enough to sustain us until we can feel the water from above, or make the thieves and abusers leave our Houses of Government. We are strong enough to act together and create the possibilities for our descendants that will cause them to remember us as Blessed Ancestors. See them washed out of the places that belong to We The People. See those places cleansed and inhabited by people who understand why they were put there and the trust that has been put in them.
Send all of this, throughout the journey you make in the course of this meditation, into the water before you. Charge it with your intention, your emotions, your hopes and your intention. Embody it with the world you want to see.
When you feel the exchange is complete, for now, slowly bring yourself back along the paths you have traveled and into your body as tree, coral, mycelium or whatever form you have assumed. Take your time, come back completely. Feel your human self, fingers and toes and the metronome of your breath. When you are ready, open your eyes. Ground yourself, eat something, have a glass of water.
Put the jar in a place at a temperature that will keep it from growing anything you don’t want it to. A refrigerator works well—but do as you are moved to. Perhaps you need to draw fresh water for each session of this magic, and return it each time to its source.
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When you choose to finish this work, choose a place where you can return the water to the Earth. If you got it from a specific place, you have the option of taking it full circle. A city park, a river, the ocean work well, as does simply spilling it on the living earth. Offer the water back to the world and send the work off with it.
Please share this ritual, it was written as an offering. All I ask is that you don’t claim it as your own. Keep the gift moving. When I come up with a chant, I’ll post it here, so feel free to link back to this post.