A Year In Albion

Grey sky, the green hills reflected in the still waters of the lake
Llyn Tegid Stood Still

One day, it came into my mind and heart to go to the land of my ancestors…

I made that first trip when I turned 50. Chance–or was it synchronicity–put my arrival the day of the Anderida Autumn Camp.  I got off the plane and onto a train to Lewes, then cabbed it to Camp. I knew no one, had barely started the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) course, but I knew this was where I needed to be. The Camp was experiential, and the story we were to be working with was the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. It was a story I thought I knew well. I left that camp a changed person. So many new friends, the welcome of the folk of Anderida should be legendary around the world. I arrived an American stranger, dragging a bike trailer of camping gear, and within the hour I had a place to camp, a cup of tea (I think) and was sitting in a circle of new friends. It was a wonderful introduction to a weekend of music, magic, and deep spiritual work. When I left, I no longer knew my own last name. It had been gently taken from me by the Gods, as had my previous identity. I was still myself, but no longer the woman warrior I had been, I had been reborn a Bard.

At Anderida, I was invited to the Anglesey Druid Order’s Cauldron Camp. Kristoffer Hughes, the Chief of the Order, had come down to give some mindblowing talks on the Fourth Branch. A native speaker of Welsh, he very kindly opened my eyes to the deeper meaning of that tale, and I quite happily followed him north at the end of a month of nonstop discovery. Their camp, coincidentally, was held on the last weekend of my trip.

Based on Kristoffer’s book, From The Cauldron Born, the work of that camp was to brew the Awen. I’m slow sometimes. I booked that camp partly because I had learned so much in one weekend and wanted more, and partly because I wanted to experience as much of Druidry in the land it had sprung from as I could. For all I knew, this would be my only trip there. I didn’t realize that I’d not only booked myself into a camp where we would be working with the myth of Taliesin and Cerridwen, but we’d be doing it on the very shores of the lake where the myth had taken place. I got chills when I first realized where I was. Then I discovered that the work would go on for the next year. I had choices, I could of course have just gone to the camp and gone home. I didn’t have to physically stir the potion and go out in the woods to find the ingredients each month. Nor did I have to find a way to come back the following year to finish the work.

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I learned so much! Many of the ingredients don’t grow in California. Some are here as exotics, but I had to find equivalents for quite a few and doing that work brought me closer to this biome I grew up in. Just coming back after a month away showed me my home in a new way. I’ve gone on to the OBOD course and now, on the verge of completing it, I feel called to learn the language of Druidry in the biome in which it was created. Whether Druidry was only a product of the cultures of Albion or not is immaterial to this particular task. The Druid Revival happened in Albion, and the Druid Orders who teach today are largely based in Albion and Ireland. Their teachings, their pantheons are all part of this particular biome. While it is perfectly acceptable and absolutely possible to practice Druidry in any part of the world, I am called to go back to the source, to spend an entire turning of the seasons in the biome Druidry’s newest incarnation was born in.

The website, and this blog are the start. I don’t yet know how it will happen–a year off is a difficult thing to swing for a lower echelon American worker in these uncertain times, but I can have a job and a dream, or I can just have a job. And I’ll be going back to that camp on the shores of Llyn Tegid in September. This makes trip number three. For a person who didn’t know how to swing even one trip, that’s a good start, I think.

Rich on a Poor Wage

Green grass and spring flowers on a trail leading over a mountain
Field of Poppies on Mt. Tamalpais

I went camping on a whim last weekend. Well, a whim and a call from the Universe. I’ve been feeling rather low lately for reasons that are probably familiar to most of us. The forest was calling and I chose to listen.

Dryad made of tree roots sitting on a hillside
Can you see the dryad guy sitting on the hillside?

I packed up my stuff and got on a bus. What we had in the house was what I had with me. I have good, light camping gear but no stove. I stuck a lighter in my pocket. There was some bread and salami in the fridge, and my partner very kindly made me some sandwiches. I threw in a bunch of energy bars and a few herb teabags into my tiny camp kettle because without refrigeration there would be no milk, so no tea or coffee. It would be a weekend with just what I needed, no more.

I felt the layers of insulation come off as I rode bus after bus. It’s a three hour trip up there by transit, and it is a beautiful trip, starting with a ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. Two changes got me to the Marin Stage and the winding road up the mountain. The pack was a lot heavier than I was used to, and it isn’t built to carry that kind of load. I had enough food, but only just, and there was no variety to it. I had nothing to cook, and nothing but herb tea. My sleeping bag, pad and bivy sack were easily warm enough, even for a cold night on the mountain and unless it got really cold, my extra layers would be enough if I stayed out of the wind. I would have to do as the environment dictated, which was exactly what I wanted. And to be honest, I could always bail and walk down the mountain if it got to be too much.

I’m almost to the end of a course of Druid study, the bardic grade of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and I wanted to do some of the work in the grove I’ve been visiting since my teens. It is as close to a spiritual home as I have.  I feel very lucky to have such a powerful and magical place not only accessible by public transit, but with a first come, first served campground available nearby. In the morning I walked up the trail, steep but beautiful. I stopped at the spring to fill my water bottle with cool, clear water and paid with a recently written song before walking on to the grove.

Circle of stones on mossy ground in a grove of Douglas firs.
Grove on Mt. Tamalpais

Few people go here, and I’m just as glad that’s the case. I obviously share it with other Pagans and likely wild children as I had once been. I was first brought here by hippies turned rennies who introduced me to paganism, among other things. I reflected a moment on that. So many of them are now no longer with us. As far as I know, no one in our circle comes here any more. My partner and I were married here, as were other couples in our group. We fought with sword and staff in the clearing beyond the grove, watched sunsets and smoked dope, and dreamed of a better world. Now I come here alone, or with my partner. Others hold rituals here, I see the remains of flowers and other offerings. Once there was a set of fairy houses made from twigs and brightly colored embroidery floss. Things that melted away into the earth after a brief, beautiful season. I sat there for a long time, in open-eyed meditation in the place I go to so often in my daily practice.

Sun over Bolinas from the top of Mt. Tamalpais
Sun over Bolinas from the top of Mt. Tamalpais

From there I walked the short distance to the Bridge of Starship Earth, as I call it. You can see all the way to Point Reyes from there. Stinson Beach and Bolinas shine in the sun and on a clear day you can see the drowned mountaintops of the Farallone Islands. Once, when the ice covered so much of the earth, that was the shoreline. I could hear the roar of the waves from my perch. I watched the hawks and turkey vultures dance on the air currents and felt the clean wind flow over me. From there I walked to other favorite places until sunset, when I went back to that sacred summit.

Sunset from the western side of Mt. Tamalpais
Sunset from the western side of Mt. Tamalpais

I walked back in the dark, down the network of trails to the spring. From there I took the road, knowing the gates were locked and thinking it no harm to take my time. I was caught, and scolded gently by the ranger. Since I, too, work in a public park, I knew the dance and played the opposite part properly. I am to be in the campsite by dusk, “for your own safety.” After seeing my campsite receipt she left me to walk the last mile on my own.

Campfire Fairies to heat my water
Campfire Fairies to heat my water

Someone had left a small pile of firewood and kindling behind that morning, and I had bundled it away into my site. Dividing it in half, I made a small fire that night and a cup of orange spicy tea to drink as I watched the flames. I banked the coals before going to bed and had another cup in the morning. It isn’t really camping without a fire.

I packed up my gear and decided to take the bus from Stinson Beach. The trail was one I hadn’t taken before, and I took my time. I had it mostly to myself–well, myself, the many dryads that peeked in turn of root and branch, the streams and seeping springs that laughed and sang along the way, and the flowers that we are so lucky to have in this year of relatively abundant rainfall.

Poppies and spring grass
True Wealth

I saw an oak embracing a fir, and admit I took some liberties with the colors…

The Oak Loved the Fir and Embraced it...
The Oak Loved the Fir and Embraced It…

And with a spiderweb that was clear to my eye, but not to the camera:

Spiderweb
Spiderweb

I eventually got down to the town and found myself a cup of coffee. It was a very long wait for the next bus, so I bought myself a beer and a burger from the snack stand and reflected on how wealthy I truly am in every way that matters. I have the broad Pacific at my feet and one of the most beautiful mountains in the world to roam on. I am healthy enough, past my fiftieth year, to walk with everything I truly need on my back for a few miles of fairly steep trail. I may not have much money, but it is amazing how a cup of coffee and a burger and a beer can completely change one’s outlook after a long, lovely walk and a night spent under the trees. I took off my shoes and walked with my feet in the water before catching the first bus of many.

Stinson Beach and a Seagull Caught In Flight
Stinson Beach and a Seagull Caught In Flight

Cormorants in the Cauldron

The cauldron formed by Municipal Pier in San Francisco
Aquatic Park, San Francisco

I work in a poisoned Cauldron, filled with plastic and wicked currents that take you far from where you thought you were going if you’re not careful. It was made from government money and the visions of the artists of the 1930s, who walked off the job when they found out their work was going to be used for private gain rather than be open to the general public.

Morfran Afgaddu might have felt the same when he found out that a young boy named Gwion had been conscripted to do the work that was to create the Awen his mother Cerridwen was brewing for him. Did she ask him if he wanted such power? Did he have a choice, did he participate in any way in the task of creating that brew? If he did, the Tale does not record this. Was he ready to receive what had been brewed for him when the Cauldron gave up its power? Did Gwion push Morfran aside to steal the Awen, or was it an accident? It was meant for the one who stirred the Cauldron, regardless. You can put a lot of learning into a year of stirring, after all.

Would you like to go on a boat ride with me, the oars stirring the Cauldron as we see where the current takes us? I am a sailor, after all, I have spent long hours with time and tide in this lagoon. Morfran lives here in the cormorants who dive deeply when they feel your eyes upon them, in the yearly round of tern and grebe and the starlings who are briefly here. Would you like to float in the Coracle and see what wisdom comes to us?

I’m here, of my own free will, trapped upon a spear planted in the mud of the lagoon. Held here by the love I bear for the Ladies in this Sanctuary. I am a link in the chain, keeping the ships alive by the work that I do and my eyes that see what ails them and does what is needful. I’m here because my parents took it in their minds and hearts to come here. My tenancy is less than a generation deep, but I am here where I belong, where I was meant to be. Was I Called, and did not know it? Were they?

This land, Cascadia, was meant to be made of Salmon, the fish of knowledge, who swims in the Well of Segais, who snaps the nut from the hazel, discarding the husk and keeping the kernel. Cascadia is kin to Albion and Ireland, connected by Salmon, by the Land, so similar, yet so different. I have stood on the shore in both lands, looking westward out to Sea. The Celts went ever Westward, and so my ancestors, Northern Europeans of many countries, came westward until we fetched up here, on the Shores of the Western Sea, where Land, Sky, and Sea meet, where it is said that poetry is born.  The Salmon run is a shadow of itself now, the fishermen lying idle, their boats growing old as they lie in harbor, waiting for a season that is cancelled, the quota too small to put diesel in their tanks. Stan Rogers sang it, he heard an old song down on Fishermans Wharf. The last schooner lies done in the harbor sun, with her picture on a dime. Gewgaws and gimcracks replace the fish, the crab, the sailors. You can get a shot glass with a picture of Alcatraz, but the crab come from Washington State, if you’re lucky.

Afgaddu is still here, though. The cormorants dive in the harbor. Gorse is the wood of the cormorant, Onn, sole of the foot, the Wheel. The journey is there to be taken. The speckled wood of the ogham fid is in the waves that brush the shore and Afgaddu became a warrior, his ugliness no barrier to the warriors who followed him. His Awen was inside himself no matter what his mother thought. He knew himself and dove deep till the drama was done, and then became himself, a fearsome force. The black bird floating upon the wave, taking his prey. I have stirred Cerridwen’s Cauldron for a year. I have stirred the Cauldron of my work for more than nine. I work in a poisoned Cauldron, but I know I am part of the healing.

Bloom Where You’re Planted

Oak tree in a yard in Oakland
Oakland Oak

I’ve always been a city kid, so it’s hardly surprising that I’m an urban Druid. I dream of forests primeval, I’m even on occasion lucky enough to visit them. I am a lifelong Californian, living in the cheap seats of Oakland across from my hometown of San Francisco, so I’m blessed with bits of the old growth forests that once covered this state mere hours away by car. I’m car free though, so getting there takes ingenuity–and friends.

This forces me to get up close and personal with my own urban forest. The trees around us aren’t a cheap substitute for the natural world–they’re the world we have built. Don’t say that you’re not responsible for the way your city or neighborhood is because we are the ones who made it that way. We have the power to change it every day. Responsibility is not just a blame game. It is literally our way of responding to the world around us. Do you hate the trash around you? I know I am not fond of it. So I pick some of it up. Not all of it, I’d be doing nothing else. I’m selective. I concentrate on plastic and scary glass and I just grab a piece or two, the ones that call to me. The broken bottom of a glass with the points sticking up. I see that embedded in my knee and I grab it before someone gets badly hurt. The rubber band that I see in a seagull’s stomach.

The funny thing is, by doing this I have entered into a conversation with my world. Gaia encourages me. She tells me jokes and gives me gifts. The scattered shreds of red plastic near Ocean Beach that I reluctantly decided to pick up before they ended up in the water turned out to be rose petals scattered at my feet. There are oghams in the flight of birds across the sky and awens made of scattered balloons from the street vendor who makes balloon animals. The grass at the side of the FoodsCo in the Mission yesterday had bits of tumbled bottle glass and several round stones arranged in a random, but beautiful pattern. It couldn’t have been wholly natural. How do round tumbled stones and beach glass find their way to the edge of a dirty parking lot in the middle of the city? The stinging nettles around the chain link fence were as beautiful as any botanical photo.

I sat down at my keyboard to show you the beauties of the urban forest and ended up in the weeds. How typical. I was rubbing my knuckles as I walked towards transit, but it was only a glancing blow. Later that same day I walked through my neighborhood to say hello to my greenblood neighbors. The aspens next to the stairs on East 20th St are still asleep, their buds green and swelling, but their branches are still bare. They were the first trees who had a conversation with me and there are very few left. They are slowly being taken out by a more involved neighborhood group that is cleaning up the area. The garbage is gone and the hillside is being replanted. That is what we humans do, though. We have planted most of the trees in our respective areas. The aspens are not native, nor is the huge palm and the eucalypts who share that hillside. The Monterey pines might have grown there by themselves, but I doubt it.

I cross Fifth Avenue with care. Few people walk in this neighborhood, and Fifth is a very fast street once you get past the small shopping district on East 18th. There are hawthorns in the next block, and I touch their bare branches. They, too, are still asleep, a few red berries clinging still but the leaves are hard greenish buds. The hawthorn Queen at the top of the block is the same. She will burst out in white flowers in a few short months but now she is skeletal, her long thorns bare and sharp.

There’s a redwood with a doubled trunk in a yard a few blocks further on. It is well loved as is the yard that surrounds it. The fence has been replaced with two-by-fours that mark the perimeter, but are obviously movable as the tree grows in girth. I stop and touch its soft green needles and whisper “Happy Spring” before continuing up the hill to the gnarled olive at the top. This tree is a magnet for furniture. People sit under it and talk in the summer, and the street is littered with its fruit each Fall. I think of Poseidon’s salt spring as I admire Athena’s far more sensible gift, a tree that can serve a community in so many ways.

I pass under a couple of large pin oaks as I continue towards home. There are still acorns on the ground under them, as well as fallen leaves. They are so large it wouldn’t surprise me if they, like the large redwoods, were here to witness the building of the neighborhood. The oaks would feed us if we had the sense to let them. They certainly feed the plentiful squirrels in the area. I see them often, running on the wires and telephone poles as well as the trees.

I used to beg Gaia for a new posting, but this is where I’m planted, for now. I am here to see the green, to notice the trees and the animals and the life all around us. I’m here to plant my own seeds of awareness, and to nourish the ones in you who are reading this. So many of us live in cities, and that isn’t likely to change in the near future. It may be part of our evolution as social animals. We made these cities for good reasons. They are cauldrons of change, mixing different cultures, ideas, peoples. This is reflected in the trees. Palms grow next to redwoods, next to aspens and magnolias. None of us, individually, freely chose to be here. We are planted by circumstances only partly within our control. We have to live with people we wouldn’t have chosen as neighbors for many reasons, but the dance of sharing space can bring out the best in us as well as the worst.

Since so many of us live in cities, this is where the world is most likely to be changed. I may dream of living in the forest, but I know that I have a responsibility to the future. I was shaped in the city and carry its gifts within me. I grew up hearing many languages spoken around me, wrapping my tongue around names that sang of other lands, playing with kids of many different races. That doesn’t make me immune to prejudice–I don’t think that’s possible for any of us–but it did give me a base of comfort with people who aren’t like me. It made me crave difference in people, foods, clothing, points of view.

I notice as Druids, so many of us devalue the cities we live in. We view them as necessary evils. we dream of escaping to the country, and we frankly spend more time in our cars, and at our destinations, than we do in this environment that we have made. I hear rural Druids lamenting the fact that all the big events happen in cities, and it’s difficult and expensive for them to attend. I hear them talk of their isolation, as I hear of Urban Druids talk of our disconnectedness with nature. I watch us all pile into cars, either to head for the city, to be with others of like mind, or to escape to the country, where we are more in touch with nature. This is difficult, expensive, and damaging to the environment we all profess to love.

So what is the answer? We’re going to have to discover that together. But I think that we can start by loving where we are, and by getting out of our cars whenever possible. Walk your neighborhood. Meet your green neighbors. Meet your animal and human ones as well. If you don’t like where you live, look for your true home by all means, but maybe it’s closer than you think. Land, Sea, and Sky are available to all of us, any time. All you have to do is concentrate on what’s beneath your feet, what fills your lungs, and the tides that flow inside you. Gather online, or, like the Druids of old, create gatherings large and small and support those around you. Above all, realize that like it or not, your life is being lived where you are, and bloom where you’re planted.

Find Us A Place

Druidcenter

Do Druids need a community center? This question comes up fairly often. I’ve definitely thought of it myself. There’s an empty church nestled next to the largest trees in the neighborhood that has drawn my eye since the services stopped many years ago. What a perfect place! An old Craftsman style building, a five bedroom house and a large open space for the church. A wild front yard with an apple tree next to the gate and a large swath of land behind running the length of the block. Ah, dreams…

The idea is all that I need, really, and maybe that is the whole point of the Universe showing it to me. In a neighborhood of Christian churches, a Druid’s nest, among the trees, would add something interesting to this place and just maybe people would be moved to learn about our green neighbors and love them as I do. There is a ginkgo just down the street, for example, the buds on its myriad branches green and swelling in the sunlight. In a couple of months it will be lush and green, and in Fall, its leaves will turn yellow and drop in a circle of gold on the street and the sidewalk. I’ll stand within them for a moment and thank it for the gift of soil it is trying to give.

Down the street is a huge old pin oak that stays green and shady year round. It drops a wealth of acorns each year, more than the neighborhood squirrels can eat and I am always sorry that my hands are too screwed up to process them into meal and flour any more. I wish for a community then, a lot of us sitting, talking, singing as we do the work to honor the gift the trees so freely give.

A few blocks away there are olive trees, lining 10th Avenue. Their fruit falls on asphalt, their gnarled, psychedelically shaped trunks showing how long they have been growing here and watching the neighborhood grow and change. Victorian mansions giving way to Craftsmen, who fell to be replaced by crackerbox apartments. Some of each remain, and the white faces gave way to brown, who gave way to yellow, and now we are beginning to whiten again. Again, some of each remain, and I hope that this time we will become as different and interesting as the trees of this place, the indigenous oaks and redwoods interspersed with birches, aspens and–palms? The queen of hawthorns crowns a hill a couple of blocks from the olives. A row of them marches down East 19th towards the Monterey pines of Lake Merritt.

My community surrounds me. We don’t need a community center when we could, if we so chose, gather around these trees, and meet on the lawns of Lake Merritt. Still, it would be so nice to have that building, open a neighborhood coffeehouse, a library, and have a large space for rituals, classes, and bardic circles. I envision the Wild Druid Collective living there, caring for the building and the land, creating a garden and a labyrinth in the back, pulling up the concrete of the parking lot and returning that hilltop to the earth. Let the rain soak in and the sunlight bathe the soil that would be once again able to live and breathe in the open air, like the rest of us. Let us serve it, as it serves us, as do the trees all over this neighborhood, the trees that I hope my neighbors visit, as I do. Because, really, we have our community all around us.

We don’t need to follow the Abrahamic model of making a box for God’s people to visit Him in every week, then go about their business. The Druids of old, however, took learning wherever they could find it. When the raiders came, they learned to write and left us riches, knowledge that should have been carried on the breath put into cold storage, as well as growing vinelike around the Christian tree that had been planted, changing it, creating a different beauty until the Church of Rome had to hold the Synod of Whitby to bring its errant child to heel. The calendar was forcibly yanked back into line, and the priests no longer allowed to tonsure themselves like Druids, ear to ear instead of the crown of the head. To stand our ground in this land, perhaps a page from their book would help, a place to gather, a box that we could fill with beauty and what is needful, while letting the Land around us also be the sacred place that it has always been.

Sailing Into Land, Sky, and Sea

The Golden Gate Bridge, and the waters of San Francisco Bay framed by the ship's rig.
The Golden Gate Bridge seen from the deck of the Lady Washington

It takes five types of lines to work a square sail. That means that if you understand this basic pattern, you’re well on the way to understanding the rig, and how it works. Sure there are well over a hundred lines on any ship, but there are only three basic repeating patterns–the square sails, the fore and aft staysails/jibs, and the gaff rigged spanker. There can be a few others thrown in there, depending, but once you know the basics, the others become pleasant variations. So I’m making a tiny demonstration mast with a square sail on it and those ten lines, one set of five for each side, to show people how it works.

I neither expect nor want the visitors to go out with an understanding of all of this, I just want to present the boat as something accessible and user friendly–because it is.  It’s sad to see people consider the language of the sea as complicated and impenetrable. It is short and precise, true, but based on patterns which are basically the same in any ship in the world. Our mission statement in part directs us to preserve the maritime culture and history of the sea. If I can’t paint and scrape any more, I can certainly do that.

As a Pagan and a Druid, I see Land, Sky and Sea come together in a sailing ship. This is a liminal space, and that’s why it’s so hard on ships and people. That’s why it can bring out the best in us, and it allows for a deep connection with those three realms. This is why skill has always been the yardstick at sea. The sea will always find you out, and the ship will do what she can to preserve the life within her, but she will not serve a bad master, or put up with poor seamanship, or craftsmanship. The sailor must put the ship first, for she is our life. We have to be aware of what she needs–that annoying deck leak will get worse if not dealt with. If there’s water in the bilge, where did it come from? If there’s rust, or rot, grab some tools and fix it. Keeping her brave with paint, bright with varnish and black with tar is not just aesthetics and respect for the vessel, it is what keeps rot and rust from becoming dangerous.

So a ship is a tool for developing awareness, and skill. The life of ships is measured in what sailors do and see. The tasks are repeated endlessly, but they are varied and can be endlessly fascinating. It feels good to get better at them, to notice when a line is getting worn or the coatings are failing–and to renew them. It definitely feels good to pass the skills on to the next set of hands. Sailors are links in a chain, passing the tasks and the vessels from hand to willing hand. Ships, like the world, are held together by love.

The ships talk to me. If the bilge water is salty, the ship is telling me that she leaks, down below, where it’s dangerous. That cleat that is crooked, leaning towards the strain of the cable is bedded in wood that is rotting away. The brightwork, shining in the sun, is the handiwork of a volunteer, an old man who sailed in steam and, strong and healthy still, comes in as dependable as the sun to do that work. The ship sustains him and he sustains her. I enjoy the sight and walk on. There’s a strange dull circle on the deck, inside where the mizzen mast passes through it. That deck used to be outside. The ship tells me where the fife rail used to stand by the marks it left in her deck. I ask the oldest shipwright about it. He points out the varnished deck and tells me of the capstan that used to be on display next to the mast, where it of course could never have been used. It kept a section of the deck as it had been when the ship was in service, because of course, the deck of a working ship is oiled. I remember the smell of a freshly oiled deck, the slow meditative work of pushing the mixture into the wood with a shearling pad on a pole. Together we find the square patch where a section of deck had been replaced long ago, where a capstan had originally been bolted down. Marks on the steel show where sections of bulkhead were altered, replaced. The ship wears her history on her hide.

Poetry is born where Land, Sea and Sky meet. A ship is a bit of Land, a dry place for humans to set their feet as we cross the trackless Sea under the endless Sky. I am a different person offshore and I miss the taste I have managed to get of that life. When conditions are good, it is like a bubble of quiet. I remember the Lady fighting her way north, up the coast, under power because there was a schedule to keep. The steady hum of the engine was the background all other sounds were built on. I learned to wedge myself into places on deck and below, becoming one with the steady pitch and roll, rocked to calmness by it. I slept like a starfish, spread out in my bunk, rocked to sleep. We are quiet because someone is always sleeping when the ship is under way, someone is always on watch. I crept through the darkness in the foc’s’le, a red lens in my flashlight as I checked the bilge, my crewmates sleeping around me. I stood on the bow, the eyes of the ship, walking quietly aft to report what I had seen to the watch leader. I climbed down into the hot, noisy engine room, making sure the straps of my gear were well tucked, my long braid securely down inside my coat. The cool air on deck was a relief when I emerged. The land danced beneath my feet for days after each voyage until I lost my sea legs. The poetry of wind and water will be with me forever.

Now I can no longer pull my weight aboard ship. So I limit my time to museum ships, retired like my Ladies. Since I can’t seem to keep my hands off the lines when others are working, this is simple self preservation. I’ve lost enough mobility and physical strength, thank you. I am still a link in the living chain of sailors, but my task now is to pass on skill, to inspire the next sets of hands and show them how to forge their own connection and find their own truths.

Between Ages

I dream of training the next generation of Valkyries. 
I, who was not allowed to go to Japan,
A girl of sixteen alone in a crew of forty men.
The guy who canned me never met me.

I met others who were on that crew years later. 
When age was beginning to touch me
Those guys had had chances I didn’t,
Simply because of what swung between their legs.
They saw my tits first and my mind later
If they bothered to look for that long.

In Sea Scouts I’d dealt with this early,
Learning to fit myself in as part of a crew. 
Being one of us, the boat is what is important,
Not the shape of her crew. 

I was born too early
Or just at the right time. 
I straddle that line,
Between women being other,
And women being part of the crew. 
I knew both states, not allowed and one of the boys 
Simultaneously and separated by time.

I came at last to the ships in autumn,
Thinking the leaves would cling forever
Brown turned to gray, and my moment was over
Remembering what was, and what might have been, 
Had I not done as my mother said.
Sent the ship off with a basket of shore food 
And preserved the status quo.

What would they have done had they found me,
Four or ten days out,
Hidden in the hold of the Hinde? 

Cauldron’s Rim

Spiral blood red rose
The Blood Red Rose –Artist Thea Ruoho

Cauldron’s Rim

My cauldron is rimmed, not with pearls, but with Blood Red Roses.
Spirals graven there over the year we stirred the Awen together.
Scored by the stirring stick, colored by the brew,
One for each one of us together in the task.

Black the Cauldron’s rim.
Once it stretched from Wales to California.
Here on the Shore of the Western Sea,
Where Cerridwen called me, and I followed, not knowing,
Until I stood on the shores of Llyn Tegid,
A wreath of ogham floating at my feet.

Is it still there? I feel it, black but unmarked,
Like the flight path of the plane that carried me full circle.
I hold it in my hands, weightless, black and thick,
As I sit in the shallows of the lake.

A paradox, the rim was gone, the rim returns.
The cauldron is 5,000 miles across, then the width of my spread hands.
My tasks are not known to me, but I do as Cerridwen asks.
I ask the Maidens to warm it with their breath.
We each must make the journey our own.

Like the GPS in a tallship,
The trackline tells me where I have been, not what course to steer.
As it did at the huge tiller, I hope this will orient me,
Allow me to learn to steer by compass and the wind.
Full and by,
Bala is Calling.

Personal Myths

Dun Scaith, Skye
The Castle of Scathach on the Isle of Skye

We’ve always imagined what our future might look like, as individuals, and as a species. Whole genres of literature have been created out of our need to know what we might become. We need to explore our possibilities before we can create them. In the century before we ventured into space we took flight in our imagination, and the passion that was ignited in the hearts of people like Robert Goddard led them to do the work that led to the rockets that took us to  Moon

Looking at our own lives from different points of view can likewise be useful in understanding who we are, and where we want to go. You can make this journey in writing, or in song, You can likewise draw or paint it. It’s a valuable exercise, however you choose to do it, for it takes you deeper within, and can lead you places you had never imagined you would go. This is how mythic writing helped me travel to the lands of my ancestors.

Back in 2012, I was facing turning fifty. Born and raised in California, I’d never traveled off the continent of North America. The only other country I’d ever been to was Canada. In a country like the United States, this isn’t unusual. Most of us are hundreds of miles from the border of Canada or Mexico. In many of the larger Western states, it isn’t unusual to be a hundred miles or more from the border of the next state. I had always wanted to travel, but had never had the means to do much of it. I decided to make the means. I couldn’t justify taking from our living expenses, as I’d be going and my partner wouldn’t. So I turned to my music. I’d been a busker at the Renaissance Faire in my twenties and thirties. When the Black Point site had been lost, I’d given it up. I decided to try my luck in the transit stations. I discovered that I could make at least ten dollars an hour doing this, and Chris Guillebeau’s travel hacking course made me realize that airfare wasn’t the insurmountable obstacle I thought it was. I thought it might take me a year or two, but I was determined to go, so my days off became busking days. With some unexpected help from my father, I made that first trip, and the year after, a second one. I’m working on a third one now, and another project as well.

I got, and am continuing to get, a lot more than experiences in the lands of my ancestors, though. My own journey is becoming clearer, and I’m writing more songs than I ever have in my life. One of the tools I used to create the trips is a mythic version of my travels. Placing my story in mythic time is something I’ve been doing for years. Here’s a portion of that ongoing tale:

It came into the Hero’s mind to travel to the land of her ancestors. She had little gold and fewer prospects, but she had sung in the streets in her youth and she still remembered the old songs. She picked up her drum and her basket and set herself to earn the money in the Caverns of Travel. The journey would be short, but the distance vast, and the price to fly across the Eastern Sea on metal wings was dear indeed. What would she do when she got there? Where would she stay? She knew no one, had never been so far from her home, but no matter. She began the task, and with a purse of gold her sire tossed into her basket, she was on her way much sooner than she had hoped to be. A shaft of sunlight came through the glass and fell across her as the metal bird touched the Land of Albion. She gave silent thanks, for she knew her feet had found the path at last.

In Albion she met the Druids of Anderida, friendly folk full of wisdom and hospitality. Together they sang around the great leaping fire and shared all that they had. There, before Arianrhod, the Hero shed her name and her former life and became a Bard.

The Hero become Bard had traveled to Albion to find her ancestors, but she had found the Land instead, and new connections to it, and to the folk who lived there. Her few songs became many, and many more, and she sang them into forms that would last well beyond her, if people found them worthy to do so. She sang of the wonderful, terrible, pivotal age she lived in, and created choruses memorable and easy to join in on because music creates connection, and spreads joy, and many voices were needed to change the doom that was rushing towards the folk of all lands. Her words likewise spoke of connection between the people, the Land, Sky, and Sea, the trees and the birds and all beings, for humanity had forgotten that all of us are one greater being, as a single human is likewise a collection of smaller beings joined together in the song of life, cooperating in the dance and nourishing each other. 

What would your life look like, told in mythic terms? How could you find the means of expressing the pattern of your life in this way? This is a tool that may or may not fit your hand and your inclinations, but it is there to be picked up if you feel so inclined. We are all the heroes of our own story. This is as it should be. If we just remember that every other person in the world has a life as rich and precious to them as our own, we can use this tool to grow wise, rather than insufferable.

You don’t have to have a plan to get to the future, but it helps to know where you want to go. I thought I was going to Scotland to get the song of Scathach. We had a great adventure together, but it was really Cerridwen I went there to see, and to Cerridwen I will return.

Broken Chain

I saw the last of the steam schooners die. It wasn’t dignified. She was tucked away out of sight while the repair tab mounted until her collapse was only a matter of time. After the people who should have been her guardians took the bits and pieces of her deemed to be worth saving,  she was murdered, cut and pulled apart by people who only saw her as something to be disposed of, a pile of toxic waste, a hazard to be abated.

Ships are built and held together by love. Sailors understand that their survival is directly dependent on the state their vessel is in, and know that the sea will find the flaws in their work, the lapses in their devotion to her. Lloyd’s of London can say what they will, a ship will always be “She.” My employer may sign my check, but when I was a deckhand, I worked for the ships, not the organization. Being separated from them, set to recordkeeping and other tasks far removed from the vessels has turned what was a vocation into a mere job.

This song is the essence of what I’ve learned from ships and the work I did aboard them. I will always be a sailor, though I can’t say whether or not I will ever be able to live and work aboard ship again. The bond between ship and sailor, and the way life changes me when I’m at sea is something that will always be with me. I hope that this awareness is something that will grow to encompass the whole world because it isn’t a bond that is limited to ships and sailors.

I’ll bet you already have a taste of it. Your family, perhaps your home and the work that you do may well have this quality to it. We all can have that kind of bond with the land we live in if we choose to look for it. This kind of love can hold a nation together, and a species, if we can avoid falling into its toxic mimic of patriotism and xenophobia. A ship at sea is a whole world. Can we learn to love and care for our whole world? I think we can. And I think we will.