Taliesin

This is the first chant I ever wrote. It was only supposed to be an exercise at an experiential camp. We wrote for several minutes, and then were told to distill what turned out for me to be several pages into three sentences.

Not surprisingly, few of us could do it. It’s hard to throw away the words that have welled up within you, and pick only a few to share. We forget that once written they are still there on the page. Looking back at them now, I see echoes of the future, the Druidic path that I now walk. The waters of Llyn Tegid stretch before me, and the gold and green of Netimus. The cauldron holds the experiences, and the words are shaped by the past and the streams of wisdom others left behind for me to drink from. That night, in ritual, the bare words cycled through my head, slowly clothing themselves in song. All I had to do was listen and remember.

What is within you? How has the past shaped you and where has the future bled into your own life? Each age needs a retelling of the Tales, we all must drink from the Well and give our gift to the world. We are all Taliesin. Now, more than ever, the world needs our inspiration.

 

Don’t Expect Your Art To Support You

This blog post resonates with me. But it also makes me wonder a bit. Since when does the world owe us artists and clergy a living? Haven’t we learned anything from observing our professional priests and celebrities?

Elizabeth Gilbert said this best in Big Magic, when she was talking about day jobs and the importance of having one: “I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life. I knew better than to ask this of my writing, because over the years, I have watched so many other people murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay the bills.”

I, too, long for the time to pursue my vocation, to live from my connection to the Awen and the Art that comes from it. But I know that in this world where the robber barons are stealing our time and our effort, it will only happen if I go after the most butts in the most seats—and my music and writing ain’t about that. I refuse to make it all about the fashion of the day, so I have to support it, not the other way around.

I, too, know what it is to serve a deity. I am Gaia’s, body and soul and every day I do as she has bid me, even though it is difficult. I, too, know the searing touch of Awen. I’ve knelt on the deck of a ship, a deadblow hammer in one hand, a brick chisel in the other, a piece of paper pinned to the deck beside me with a pen on top of it, scribbling out the verses as they come to me, humming like a person demented. I know that if I can’t snatch a minute or two between tasks, that music will be gone forever. I’m doing it now to tap out the words of this post. This is my life, right now, and hard as it is, I would not trade it for any other.

The problem with wishing for patronage, for some bygone era when Fili were paid to pursue their vocations, is that, like that Golden Age that the politicians are currently trying to sell us, when life was easy and understandable, and our countries were strong and perfect, it doesn’t exist. It never did. Yes, there have always been rock stars, people who are talented enough and lucky enough to find a way to write their own ticket, but most of us will be spending a good part of our lives working to make our art, and serve our gods, not making art as a means of making a living. It is a great and wonderful ideal, a utopia to strive towards, but we have yet to create it. I hope we do. I want to be Jake Sisko, citizen of the Federation, spending his life in service to his art. Maybe someday we will all be doing that one thing we were born to do, but if humanity gets to that point, it will be because those of us who think this future is possible and necessary put in the hard work to make it happen.

As I scribbled the disjointed beginnings of this post, before dawn, as I struggled into my uniform, I was once again faced with the truth of this age: if we want a world where we can stop whenever the Awen demands it and can follow that flow to the end of the piece of art, we need to bring it into being. We need to stop the Captains of Industry from robbing us of the only thing that is truly ours: our time as embodied beings with supple fingers and clever minds. Until we do that, we will be faced with two choices: scribbling in the corners of time left to us or shivering in the garret.

I was lucky enough to spend a year brewing the Awen, and to receive it at the end of that process. If I learned anything in that time, it’s that Inspiration must be paid for, one way or another. It is distilled from our experiences as much as it is from anything that happens within that Cauldron, and if we can’t fill it with the sum of our lives, the substance of Song will come from nowhere else.

So while I, too, long for leisure, for a Patreon to take care of my earthly needs, I know that in this time, in this age, it is not likely to happen for a good long time, until I’ve earned the experiences that will earth my work, and created enough of it to be able to write my own ticket. I will be guided by the twin poles of what is beautiful, and what is well received, and that is a good thing. For if we don’t create art that is understandable as well as beautiful, if we don’t channel the fruits of Inspiration into this world in a way that touches people as it touches us, that art is worthless. A bit of unverified personal gnosis that I received from Taliesin was to “Create a container, strong and beautiful, and fill it with Inspiration.” I know when I have done that when I see the light go on behind the eyes of a listener, or in a more crass example, when a person, tears streaming down their face, throws a twenty into my busking bowl.

So I spend my days serving goddesses. Not just Gaia, though my service to her is shot through everything I do, from my walk to work in the morning, where I sing the world we need into being, from the OPT (Other Peoples Trash) I pick up every day in service to the spirits of Oakland and San Francisco, to the sailing ships BALCLUTHA and THAYER, whose careers I use as a vehicle for the stories of oppression, overfishing and deforestation that they can tell, as well as the lives of the men and women who served in vessels like them during the Age of Sail. I tell stories, now that I can no longer bump down seams or use a chipping hammer. My Ladies disabled me in their service—but the stories I tell have a beauty and a truth that they would not have had I not done these things. Saturn and Chiron have also had their way with me, as well as Brighid and Cerridwen. My broken body and dreams, the words and music that reside in my Soundcloud and my blog were purchased with those experiences, and when I lay this body down, I will leave them behind so that people remember what it was like to live in these wonderful, terrible, pivotal times.

I don’t want a living. I’m happy to have lived a life in service.

Llyn Tegid #writephoto

Inspired by Sue Vincent’s Thursday Photo Prompt

Green river
AnyRiver, Planet Earth

I’m standing on the shores of Llyn Tegid, where Cerridwen brewed the Awen. I, too, did that task, with a pack of Druids I’d never met. One of them was sent down to Sussex, where I was Called, though I didn’t know it. On his shopping list was a Gwion, to stir her cauldron, and I, bumbling my way across England, Scotland, and Ireland, heard the summons and altered my trek to Wales. It was a picaresque journey, I was teased and scared, and ultimately invited in by Scathach, ferried over to Ireland, my supposed destination, to sing of Macha on the mound at Emain. A few precious minutes in the chamber at Brugh na Boinne, and a lovely session in Dublin. I busked the price of a couple of pints at Temple Bar and laid my head in the quietest hostel I’d ever stayed at.

Cerridwen made me prove my resolve. I found out why the Sail Rail fare was so cheap. Six hours on the train station floor at Holyhead, and there was no hostel to be had at Bath. I would have been better off staying on Anglesey. Eventually I found myself on the shore of the Lake. I hadn’t even known where I was going! A chill ripped through me as I realized what I’d gotten myself into. A weekend of beginning the brew and tending the Cauldron, then a year of full moons spent stirring. I knew I’d be returning to finish the brew when the ogam wreath Cerridwen had been offered washed ashore where I was camping.

In my mind is a Grove. In the apparent world it grows at the top of Mount Tamalpais in California. Over the year the circle of stones within it became a Well, spring-fed, in my mind. The stream that ran from it tumbled down the hill and I chose one day to follow it, to see where it led. It grew, fed by other freshets and I found myself on the path to the Lake. I came to the bridge that I’d crossed during that weekend of brewing in Wales. I climbed over the stile and found myself beside Llyn Tegid once more. The green, the rocks in the streambed, all led me back to that place where I can journey any time I wish, in my mind’s eye.

Spirit of San Francisco

Goddess of Victory, Union Square
Goddess of Victory, Union Square courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

1857
Barefoot in skirt with tattered hem
Rising from the shallows where the Embarcadero would stand.
She turned, her hair flowing over her shoulders.
Pirouetted, changing as she span,
Her hair caught up, a trident in her hand as she poses
High above Union Square.
1967
She lies on her back on Hippie Hill
Staring at the ribbons of fog dancing on the edge of blue sky.
Acid rainbows, Cannabis kiss
Dancing with the Dead at the Fillmore. 
Tomorrow is here, Love is the answer. 
My younger self dances, kicks over mushrooms in the wet grass. 
2017
A skirt of stars, pinpricks of Light in darkest night.
Chrome boots with heels pushing her up to the sky.
Thin as the beams of steel holding up the high rises.
San Francisco has always had a taste for the finer things.
A talent for standing on the knife edge.
Techie dreams, her artists driven away, for now.
We may yet return 
When her Phoenix falls, 
Rises again. 

Y Mabinogi: An Ancient Tale Retold For Our Time

Sun on the cliffs seen from the top of the falls at Pistyll Rhaeadr
Pistyll Rhaeadr, Wales

The scholarly retellings of ancient tales can be hard going. The path to the past is often overgrown, the thread of the story difficult to follow as it passes over unfamiliar ground. Far from being work, Damh the Bard’s new album Y Mabinogi makes an ancient Tale new again. I know I’ll be listening to this many, many times, not just for knowledge, but for pleasure and inspiration–as I wait impatiently for the other branches of this tree!

I got lucky the first time I read the First Branch of the Mabinogi. The instructor in the Celtic Literature class I’d taken on a whim really understood these tales, and one of the ones she selected for the class was the First Branch. She taught us that these stories were passed on the breath, from poet to poet, meaning and understanding as vital to the telling as the words and events. She traced the path for us, from the filidh of Ireland and Wales to the bardic schools where the skills of memory, poetry, and philosophy were taught, where a tale written down was a tale killed. She taught us of the changes wrought by the first Christians who arrived in the same era that Viking invaders began killing the living libraries that held that knowledge, how the poets and priests learned from each other, and put the words they had in the cold storage of vellum and ink so they would have a chance to survive. She also showed us how to unpack that knowledge, to make it live again, and to tease out the meanings that lay hidden in the Tales. We all lived for those classes, to spend one evening a week with red-eared hounds, goddesses of sovereignty in the form of horses, or hags, and Tales chosen with care, to complement and illuminate each other. During her office hours, a line always stretched down the hall. When I listened to this album her wisdom and learning came to mind.

Damh the Bard understands these Tales in his very bones. His new album, Y Mabinogi brings the First Branch of the Mabinogi to life for our time. It is as close as we’re ever going to come to that spellbound tribe around the fire, listening to a gifted poet tell the tales that inspired a people, showed them who they were and how to live lives of connection with their past, present, and future. On his breath floats the wisdom and the beauty of the living tale, and somehow he straddles the past and the present to bring it to life again for our time. In our Now, it’s time for all of us to gather around fires, in concert halls, and yes, around iPods and speakers to share the stories of all peoples. We are living in an amazing moment in time, where we have a chance to experience the living threads of story that make up the wisdom of our whole world and learn from them all. We needn’t fear difference when we have the chance to celebrate it, and Damh’s inspired telling of this pan-Celtic Tale is something to savor, to be carried away by.

These tales were never meant to be hard work, at least in the listening. They were the movies, novels, and albums of their time. They were teaching tales, political commentary, serving as the warp of familiarity that a trained member of the Druidic class could and did use to weave the messages the people and the nobles needed to hear. The different recensions of each story that have come down to us, separated in time, snapshots of a particular era, show the remains of this process clearly. The differences in time and place are in the process of being woven together to give us a clearer picture of the Celtic world and how it changed, but the work is hardly finished. There are still many manuscripts that have not been studied, translated, remade. What might we learn as people are inspired to do the work of scholarship by beautiful retellings like Y Mabinogi?

These Tales can and should be made new again–we are lucky enough to live in a time when some of them have been. Morgan Llywelyn’s novels, for example, are excellent retellings of the Ulster cycle, the coming of the Milesians, etc. OBOD’s courses, among others, use them as teaching tools, as they were in the past before the cultures of the Celtic world were shattered, their living libraries of inspired and highly trained poets killed. What Damh has done, however, seems to me to be a recreation of the kind of performance the oral tradition might have produced–tales that could hold a people in thrall for an evening, or a series of evenings, each installment weaving them closer together in a shared experience. These stories are layered, revealing more to the listener each time they are told, and as a person or a tribe grew in wisdom, the stories grew and changed over time.

The Tale is always the same, but the emphasis and point of view has to change to fit the time it is part of. It has to be relevant to the listener in order to become part of us and whisper to us the insights we need to gain from it. This album has that power. Damh has not only produced an incredible piece of entertainment, he has drawn deeply from the source of inspiration to give us a new version of what each generation had, up until the time these tales were put in written form, and so frozen in time. The path to their power and the passion they inspire became harder and harder to reach as times and languages changed, and the cultural body of knowledge necessary to make sense of them became the province of a few specialist scholars. Luckily for us, the incredible flowering of the nineteenth century and the Celtic Twilight brought us people with the skill and the will to unpack these stories for their age, and inspired enough people to learn their nearly lost languages, to study the remnants of glosses and other materials the last generations of poets had left behind, to bring these stories through to our age and put them in the hands of a new generation of inspired poets. Damh has brought a medieval telling of this Tale into the 21st. century, and given humanity a new snapshot of our understanding of this ancient story. He has edified us, and honored the people who first committed these Tales to writing for a future they would never know.

Massive gnarled oak hanging over a trail at Point Reyes
Point Reyes, California

Five Thousand Years in Fifteen Minutes

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There wasn’t enough time. There was no real choice either. Fifteen minutes with twenty-plus people, or nothing at all. That is the only way you can see Newgrange. It was still amazing. All 5,000 years of history were right on top of me as I stood in that chamber. After it was over, I realized I’d missed the most famous spiral, so quickly had we been herded down the passage. It made me appreciate my experience at Calanais all the more.

I took a cab from Drogheda to Newgrange Lodge, I had just missed the last bus. I got a mercenary of a cab driver, but he was great other than the naked avarice. He was on two different cell phones and two radios the whole ride, and he gave me a business card and told me to call him when I wanted to go. I smiled and said thanks, I would, but had no intention of doing so. I knew there was a perfectly good bus to be had every afternoon.

Newgrange Lodge was beautiful. It was a converted stone house and looked nice enough to be a hotel, which I thought it was. I had booked a camping pitch, but when I found out it was really a hostel I decided to give myself a present. It was threatening rain, and for ten Euros more I could have a bed. I ended up with a private ten bedroom dorm with an en suite bathroom for 18 Euros. No laundry, ehh wi fi, and the equivalent of a polite Basil Fawlty for an innkeeper, but quite nice all the same.

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I went down the road to check out the visitor center at 7 AM, just to find out what to expect. Basil Fawlty was no help, he had never been there, believe it or not. The place was of course locked and silent, but the signboards told me everything I needed to know. A tiny little trail leading off the main path in gave me my first view of the tomb.

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I never did find out if the stage management at that place is deliberate, but I have to say I was impressed. Both Navan Fort and Newgrange have planted a little forest of birch, alder, holly and hazel around their visitor centers and run paths through them. It’s very beautiful and very effective. Ogham trees all, though that probably has little or nothing to do with it. At Newgrange the effect is, if you miss the tiny little trail and the outlook at the end, there’s no way to see the tomb from the visitor center. Unless you go see the 7 minute movie, that is. It explains the whole Solstice alignment and goes into a lot of frankly fabricated ideas of how Neolithic peoples thought that if they didn’t see the shortest day of the year they thought the cold and dark would go on forever. They marked it, surely. But what they thought about it we will never know. After the movie, you exit through a pretty nicely done mockup of the central passage that goes uphill to a viewing platform at the top of the visitor center. That is the only place you can see the tomb from. The effect is, when you do see the tomb it is like the entrance of the diva. It’s really effective and I can’t believe it wasn’t planned.

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It was raining when we got to Knowth. I was very glad once again of my tincloth. The guide did the whole tour from inside a small chamber built next to one side of the passage inside the mound. Knowth is even more interesting than Newgrange. I heartily regret not buying the book on it. Knowth was built last and is more sophisticated, but it is also more heavily damaged and you can’t go inside. The mound was converted to a ringfort after Christianity arrived and was ditched and had souterrains (passages for storing food and hiding in) built in it during that period, as well as houses built on top of it. We wandered around a little bit after the tour, but it was raining pretty hard.

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Newgrange was just as wet, but I was in the first group to get inside as I’d arrived so early.

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The tourguides are really good, they know their material very well. Correctly, once again, like at Calanais, they told us that the people who built the tombs were not Celts or Druids, they were Neolithic peoples. They didn’t tell us why these people built the place, just that they had. It is a mystery for now, and by acknowledging that, we leave room for the answer to come someday. All I know, or need to, is that the span of time is great indeed. We have as humans lived long enough to have forgotten some things totally. And those peoples were wise indeed. 5,000 years and a drystone corbeled roof is still in place and *doesn’t leak!* I can’t keep a twenty year old deck from leaking without constant maintenance! My roof is good for thirty years. These people built a passage that is still sound, covered over with tons of earth and is still stable and focusing a narrow beam of sunlight once a year after five millennia. There are no words.

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The rain stopped just before we left the tomb.

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Crows and ravens were everywhere. They were magnificent, but just birds again. I think Scathach was messing with my mind, seeing what shadows she could cast.

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The afternoon bus didn’t show up. I had to call Paddy, the Mercenary Cabbie. I was in Dublin by early evening.

More photos at my website

Only Steal From The Best

We’re all having to do more with less right now. The fat times are behind us, and we are all having to hone our craft. What does this have to do with stealing? It depends on your point of view, as so many things do.

The old Tales, read closely, are all about point of view. Is it Deirdre’s fault the men of Ulster fought a bloody battle, or is it theirs? Who raises the sword? Who causes it to be raised? Did Medb cause the Men of Connaught to be strayed and destroyed because she was female, or is that just the way many a cattle raid turns out? As my grandmother said, “It depends on whose ox is being gored.” The place of gender in Irish culture, and the culture itself was changing in that time, and the versions of the Tales we have reflect that.

I was listening to the radio last Sunday and a wonderful segment came on. It was about a book called “Steal Like An Artist,” by a man named Austin Kleon. The segment can be heard here. Through the miracle of ereading, I was once again able to download the book to my iPod from the public library before the show was even over. We live in such magical times! I have tools now that I could only dream of when I first started busking.

Kleon’s point was that we are all the product of our influences. We all create based on the work of others. Without the Tales written down over a thousand years ago by people whose faces I will never see, whose names I will never know, I wouldn’t have the stories of Deirdriu and Blodeuwedd to draw on. Without the recordings of Steeleye Span, Capercaillie, and many others to draw on, I wouldn’t have had voices, patiently playing the same tune over and over while I sang along until my voice could do the same things theirs could. If we surround ourselves with the best that our culture has to offer, we, too, will be able to offer our best in return.

Stealing is both a bright line and a slippery term. To take someone else’s work and claim it as my own, that is stealing. To admit that my work is built on the work of others, that is homage and the simple truth. Retelling the old Tales, for example, is a long and venerable tradition. They need to be fit to the spirit of the age they are told in if they are to have their true power. The versions we have, after all, are the Tale as told at that moment in time, not a timeless perfect version to be held up as the Definitive Work. It is the work of the storyteller and the scholar to read the older versions and understand the context in which they were told in order to grasp the essence of the Tale, to separate the nut from the husk. Morgan Llywelyn, to give but one example, does this beautifully. To read her novels is to be led to the heart of the Tale, and back to the source of it, if, like me, you don’t ever want the story to end. Give someone the passion for knowledge, as she does, and you light a fire in the head. Who knows where that will lead?

To bring it even closer to home, I am listening to an album right now, called The Dance Goes On, by a duo called Blanche Rowen and Michael Gulston. I fully intend to learn a number of songs from it simply because they’re already half in my head and won’t let me be until I learn the rest of them. I urge you to give them a listen and then run, do not walk, to buy your own copy. You see, I want to learn how to light such a fire in others as they have lit in me. I’m listening to it now, and have been since I got it. I know that my first album, limited as its circulation was, did that in at least a few people. I replaced a few tapes for people who played them to death and get occasional requests for a CD of it to this day. To me, that’s the highest compliment I could receive, and it brings the fire home to hopefully make the next recording even better.

Songs don’t live unless they’re sung. They live on the breath, and in the moment they are heard. I hope to leave this world knowing that my songs are on the lips of others, and so I too give life to the songs of others. But I credit, and I buy recordings, so the artists can continue to make music. To me, that’s the bright line. Besides, it’s so embarrassing to be caught.

We are so rich, in this beautiful and terrible age we live in. We have the wisdom of the ages at our fingertips, and such power that we can destroy ourselves. If we do not truly step into our power and the responsibility that goes with it, we may not have a next generation to gift our wisdom to. The chain of beauty may truly be broken. What a wonderful time to be alive! What a chance to make the art that may play a part in bringing us though this time into the next age! It truly does all depend on your point of view.

Art Is What You Make It

I got a lot done today, though I feel as if I did nothing but play. My new logo is finished, it’ll also be my next album cover. Here’s a t-shirt I made today to play with concepts:

ImageMy partner was instrumental in this. She took a rough sketch I made and turned it into art. I traced her finished product to make the shirt. Carbon paper is a beautiful thing. I did the letters in Word and printed the text on thick paper so I could cut a stencil. Carbon paper doesn’t work on thick leather, and this project was originally another sign. She’s now going to take the finished idea and turn it into my next album cover.

My partner is a graphic artist–I know just how lucky I am to have her around. I can trace and paint and sew, but I can’t draw to save my life. She also has mad computer skills, and she redid my first album cover from the cassette j card (which she also made) to a CD wallet. Now all I have to do, besides get the things printed, is find someone who can take my old digital audio tape master and turn it into a CD.

Tomorrow, back to the transit stations.