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.

Scathach’s Hall

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Only ruins stand today before our modern eyes
Green the grass within the wall
No more the music in her hall
Long ago the warrior’s fall
Or does our vision and our vaunted knowledge tell us lies?

Where’s the warrior to be found who ran her fabled school
Only those with ears to hear
Within her hall the music clear
Her name that struck the world with fear
Has left behind this castle for the wind and wave to rule

We children of the modern age are sure we know it all
For those who see the shape of things
Within her hall the fili sings
And warriors laugh and harpstring rings
And time is no true barrier to stand in Scathach’s hall

Busking in Ireland

Busking on Grafton Street

 
This is partly inspired by a recent post by Nimue Brown, which had some excellent points to make about the quality of the audience and its effect on a performance, but mainly it’s about the fact that I’ve just come off Grafton Street in Dublin, having barely made the price of a pint. I’m in Farrington’s now, a place that serves Irish craft beers and good food. And has free wireless. It may be the last chance I ever get to be here, so I’m taking it. 
 
I’ve played Grafton Street the last two days, as well as a pretty amazing session in a pub on Monday night. Both days on the street I’ve done a whole lot better monetarily, but really, no time spent on the street is ever wasted. 
 
It never depends on your audience. I always, always look in the mirror first. The reason I did crap today was that I broke one of my cardinal rules. I played for tips. I did not play for the love of it, and I deserved to make shite. Yet I did catch ears. It’s funny, people on the street often don’t want to be caught listening, at least at first. It’s kind of like hooking a salmon. Let them stand off to the side if they like, and keep feeding them beauty. They’ll often come around. Sometimes all you get is a tip, sometimes you get conversation. Sometimes even a chance to pass on a bit of knowledge. 
 
Audiences and performers are two halves of a whole. The ancient Irish knew that. There was a blessing on the teller of the tale, who told it fully and completely, and on those who listened completely, to the end. This was, and is, how the knowledge moves forward in time. 
 
I played at Emain Macha earlier this week. I stood up there completely alone and played “The Pangs of Macha” to the land it was tied to, the sky, and the sea surrounding the island of Ireland. It was good, but it wasn’t enough. When a gaggle of kids and parents came up to the hill, I asked them if they wanted to hear the story of the hill. It seemed no one heard me, and I was willing to let it go. They didn’t come there to hear me. I offered an opportunity, no more, no less.  But one man in that group heard me. He wanted to hear the tale and he spoke right up, made the kids sit down and listen. 
 
After I was done, the kids got up and kept rolling down the hill. But some of the adults thanked me. They got it. I also found out that rolling down the hill was a tradition, later when I no longer had the chance. All I knew at the time was when I saw fathers and their children rolling down Emain Macha, laughing their joy, that the curse was over at last. I didn’t need to catch every ear, after all, only the ones who needed to hear the story. If busking hadn’t made me fearless, I, an American, would never have dared to approach a group of Irish people and offer to tell them their history. The very idea! 
 
The session was another gift from the street. The man on the street, as it were, showed his worth again. I asked for directions near the bus station and he saw the bodhran on my back and pointed me not only to Grafton Street, but to O’Donoghue’s, and the Monday night session. On the way down, I told myself that if they didn’t like what I was doing, I knew the way back to the hostel. I’d already been given the brush-off in Inverness, I was prepared to get the same here, but I was going to try, at least. 
 
Tommy was in the back with a guitar and he was welcoming from the start. His mates, who arrived later, were the same. I was a little rusty and uncertain at first, but they made me welcome and I was soon in the swing of things. The other American there, who had a fiddle and was invited to play, wouldn’t, till almost the end. These guys really wanted the Americans to jump in. The pub was full of us and they did the best they could to even get people to sing choruses, which they wouldn’t. We have lost our voices, sticking plugs in our ears and being intimidated by skill instead of inspired by it. 
 
That night was magic for me. Yes, the happiness of the audience was part of it, as well as the easy acceptance of the regulars, but it was busking that made it possible. Tommy told me, when I was first called on to sing, that I wouldn’t get silence, just to jump in. I hadn’t expected it. I didn’t even want it. I wanted to catch ears, and catch them I did. I don’t even remember what I sang first, but the second tune was General Guinness, and it got me a free pint of same. I didn’t pay for drinks the rest of the night. And we got the other American to take out her fiddle in the end. You could tell she was thrilled and so was I. I hope she got hooked. We all can and should make our own music. 
 
And I am going to finish this pint and see if Temple Bar is kinder than Grafton Street was. I will not be playing for tips this time

No Drum–No Problem!

If I’m ever in a strange city with no friends and no money, I’m going to start with a stretch of pavement and a hat.

I decided to busk last Saturday night. I was on my bike, and I hadn’t brought anything with me because I expected to go straight home. I even had to borrow a dollar bill from a coworker because I had exactly forty-six cents in cash on me and it is helpful when busking to let people know what’s expected of them. Am I a random nut who feels like music, or am I trying to make money? I think a blend of the two is the real answer to the question, but presentation is all. So I stuck my bike helmet on the floor, parked my bike behind me, and went to work.

It was a great practice session, and that was fine. I didn’t go home with nothing, but I didn’t make all that much. There aren’t many people in Montgomery Station on a Saturday evening, and I wanted to see what would happen as well as try out some songs I’m learning. I’ve decided that I’m getting in a bit of a rut, here. I’ve found some good places and decided what the “good” stations and times to be there are, as well as what songs draw the best tips. That’s useful information, but the combination of limiting playing spaces and limiting repertoire is a bit, well, limiting. Strictly from a monetary perspective, if I’m bored, I don’t get tipped–and I don’t deserve to be!

The lack of a drum is now becoming almost an advantage. There are very few songs in my current repertoire that can’t be done without it, and having the freedom to move makes me realize just how little I could move when I had that instrument tying up my hands. I had to split my attention between playing and singing. Now that I’ve accepted the slight diminishment of the soundspace I can occupy with just an unamplified voice, I’m no longer wearing myself out in half an hour. I played for about that long on Saturday without even a bottle of water. In fact, it was the lack of water that determined the length of my set. I also get to interact with the people passing by more. I wasn’t exactly hiding behind the drum, but I didn’t realize how much it could get between me and the rest of the world. Even when I go back to using it it isn’t going to be the largest part of my set.
I wonder a bit just how much instruments in general have this effect. I know I’m lucky beyond measure to have a voice that can do what mine does. I am in awe of the skill and talent of many of the people who come to open mics and draw beauty out of their instruments in a way I really can’t. We all have to do what we’re called to, and I am a singer, first and foremost. I have a friend who keeps telling me that I have to get an instrument. I keep telling her that I already have one. With the magic of Garage Band I can even sing against myself. No, what I need, if I need anything, is other singers and musicians. That will happen in its own time.

I’m feeling more ready every day to be off on my adventure. September really is the best time for this to happen, and I’m approaching the point where I’m truly ready to go. I’ve never really been in another country, a day or so in Canada when I was in my teens hardly counts. I want to be confused by the different money, and not know where I am, and so discover things I never would otherwise. This is one of the things I loved about sailing in tall ships. We’d get into port and there we would be; no transportation, and no idea where we were. We’d do some things in groups–we always managed to find the bars, for example, but I had some of my best times simply exploring, and getting the things I needed in an unfamiliar place. I’m more than ready to do that again.

For now, I have a lot of work left to do. Aside from properly planning and making the requisite reservations, I need as much repertoire as I can cram in my head. I need the old album online, and hopefully the new album as well. I need to decide  what gear I still need, and which drum to take.

I’d be happy to take my smaller drum, but it hasn’t got much of a voice. It was a cheapio I picked up from a friend who wasn’t happy with it. I thought I could lower the tone with oil, it was as dry as a bone, but that didn’t work. I also couldn’t get my hand behind the crossbars, so I moved them out. That helped, but the tone is still much too high. It may be the depth of the frame, or it may be just the drumhead. In any case, the next step is reheading it. That is a job I’ve only done once, on the drum I’m currently playing. It did make a cheap drum sound much better, but I’d hate to waste a goatskin on a drum that wasn’t worth it.

Add another project to the list…

In The Footsteps of Goddesses

There are three goddesses who are the main inspiration of my trip. First of all, I’m going in search of Scathach, the woman warrior who gave her name to the Isle of Skye. From London I’ll be going to Inverness, and from there to Skye. Destination: Dun Scaith

There’s very little to be known about Scathach, her surviving claim to fame is as the teacher of Cuchullain. She apparently stood in a way in the place of Chiron to the warriors of Greek myth. Does that make a woman warrior as mythical a being as a centaur? Well, to some, I suppose it does, but most of us know better by now… I have been trying to write a song about her for years, and this castle, ruined and of dubious connection to her as it is, seems like a good place to cast about for clues.

Scathach, after all, must have had a lot more to her than simply teaching men to fight. What did she do to gain her experience? Her exploits had to be well known in her day. Is she another aspect of the Norse goddess Skadi, the hunter and skier, who also was known as the shade? Scathach’s name means “shadowed one,” and like Scathach, little is known about Skadi, though there’s more about Skadi than Scathach.

The second goddess is Brighid. I plan to visit her well and her sisterhood in Kildare. Erynn Rowan Laurie has kindly put a guide to getting there on her website. Brighid herself was long ago kind enough to give me a song, and I would like to give it to the well, and the Sisters, if they’ll have it.

The last goddess is Macha, whom I’ve written of before. The first song I wrote that I consider to be worth anything was my final project for a Celtic literature course. I was more than a little annoyed with a certain group of Ulstermen, who didn’t want me carrying a sword, and I was quite taken with another Irish tale related to the Tain, which explained why the men of Ulster were afflicted with birth pangs whenever their province was attacked. The short version is, Macha, the goddess of sovereignty in Ireland, a horse goddess who shares much with the Welsh Rhiannon and the Gaulish Epona, married an Ulsterman and got pregnant. Her husband got drunk at the races, basically, and started bragging that his wife could run faster than the king’s horses. She was forced to prove it. She won the race, had her kids on the finish line, and cursed the Ulstermen before dying or leaving, depending on the version of the story you read. The race was run at Emain Macha, so I’m going there as well.

There are plenty of other songs that I would like to sing in other places on this trip, but those three are the essential ones, and the core of the next album. Amusing, I guess, that the other two deities were more than happy to have me tell their stories, but The Shadowed One requires a wild goose chase way the hell up to Scotland to a place that may or may not be her home which might or might not result in a song. I don’t mind, I love adventures. If I end up cold and wet walking my way across Sleat in the middle of the night, at least I’ll have an interesting story to tell. It won’t be the first time I’ve done something of the sort, after all.

Going Home Empty Handed

Going Home Empty Handed

It happens every time. I put out my case and pick up my drum and people walk by me as if I wasn’t even there. I can’t help thinking “this is going to be the time I go home with nothing.” It’s a traitorous thought, always lurking, ready to come out like a bus stop cigarette.

Busking is a hard subject in the School of Life and this is one of the lessons. I’m actually getting good at this one. I remind myself that I’m not really playing for tips, I’m playing to get good at what I do. If I go home with nothing, so be it. I fall into the song, and I keep track of what’s going on around me. Does the spot feel good? Am I getting smiles? Tips? Glares?  Are there other spots to be had? Ah, that’s the rub, especially after work. There are a lot of us, after all.

Busking can teach non-attachment if you let it. Really, how can I possibly go home empty handed? The more I play, the better I get. The more I put myself out there the less important the judgments of others on my presence as a busker become. It is becoming easier and easier to acknowledge the smiles, tips, and positive feedback and let the crap roll off my back. Since I’m beginning to know my material cold, I can pay more attention to what’s going on around me and less on remembering lyrics and getting the drumbeats right.

Trip planning continues. The tickets from San Francisco to the UK are bought. I’ll come into London and go straight up to Scotland. London to Inverness by train is under a hundred pounds and the bus to Skye takes three hours. The hostel in Inverness is around the corner from the train station and they say they welcome musicians. I can get from any train station in the UK to Ireland for under forty pounds, so Ireland from Scotland will be cheap. I may have to change train/bus/ferry multiple times, but that’s why I’m packing light. Adventures make you late for dinner, right?

Busking Total From The Past

An inexplicable thing happened a few days ago. I popped open a TARDIS that as supposed to be filled with pennies and found quarters. it reminded me of how often we mistake gold for dross in life, as well as confused the crap out of me. Unexpected messages from the past can be like that.

We were robbed a couple of months ago. Both laptops, cameras, and every bit of cash in the house. Including all my busking money, present and past, and the price and then some of an iPod mini I will be buying for the trip–because the particular means of saving I used to accumulate that much money is something that never stops. I’m already halfway there, as a matter of fact.

Oddly enough, they didn’t get anything of real value. All they took was money. Our backup drives were both there untouched, so we didn’t even lose our data. I’m in the process of replacement. We were given an iMac and some nonfunctional laptops, and my partner is good at computer repair and upgrade, and so we have, if not the same functionality we did before, more than enough to get us through. Most of all, we know whom we can count on.

The glass is half full, and this odd TARDIS trick just confirms that. I made that money back on the streets of Northern Faire in Black Point Forest. How the Doctor got it to me, I may never know, but I don’t care. It put me over the top of $500 out of the busking bowl and that is good enough for now. I feel fine about counting it, even though it hit the bowl in the 1990s. If I’d known then what I know now I’d have long ago saved all that money for just this purpose.

It feels like it’s too late, but I know better than that. We can only start from where we are and “coulda shoulda woulda” is unproductive at best. I have no time to waste. This is why I’m carrying my drum to work with me at least one or two days a week now–no, strike that–every workday, starting next week. It’s not always possible to get a spot, 4:30 PM is a challenging time to say the least, but sometimes I get lucky. And every quarter counts!

So, busking total from the Past: $42.62. $478.38 to go!

Basket of Strange, or, Busking at BART

I understand why there are always buskers at Civic Center BART. Great tips, but a very gritty place. I think the best thing about it is that we’re all equals there. Literally every class of transit rider goes through there, from the sharp suits to the homeless. You have to be able to hold your own, because you’re on your own there, but people will talk to you, and they’ll even stand and listen. It is the only BART station where I’ve been able to hold any sort of audience.

Timing matters. Rush hour is rush hour wherever you stand. When the majority of the people are in commuterspace, everyone will catch the vibe and keep moving. Since I have a long corridor to catch their ears, they’ll tip anyway, and it’s a rare person who will stop. Midday, there are long pauses between the flow of people. Since there’s a public telephone and an electrical connection there, it’s a community resource as well and when the flow of people is low, people will use those things.

Yesterday it was like a community room. When I got there a guy was sitting there painting a design on his messenger bag. When I started playing, he gave me a dirty look and packed up. Then two kids came by to charge their phones and talk. They gave me a glimpse of community, as people they knew kept passing by. It didn’t hurt that they liked what they were hearing and told me so. It was valuable experience for me, learning how to make space to play while keeping up an intermittent conversation. Another guy set up panhandling down the corridor from me, and he also wanted to talk. In the end, I played him to sleep, which was a good feeling. He’d given me a catalog of who played down here and what he thought of them in the meantime, which was also an interesting window on the world. I also had another busker come up and tell me what was what. He was trying to intimidate me out of the space, and was a bit put out when it didn’t work. But this isn’t the first time that’s happened, and there is space enough for all.

Really, there is space enough for all of us, no matter who we are or how unusual we are. That’s a hard truth to hold on to in a world where life is getting harder and the pressure to conform has real teeth in it. You pay a price for nonconformity in any age, but lately it’s been getting steeper. There are more of us out on the streets, and the lines we are supposed to stay inside are brighter and clearer every day.

I think the price of staying inside them is higher, personally. The rewards of knowing who you are are much greater. The older I get, the more I see this. My closet may be full of strange clothes–but I like them. My house may not have a fashionable address, but when I step inside I’m home. My books surround me right now, the most interesting wallpaper I can imagine. And my head is full of music. All the time. The more I stand in those BART stations, the more the songs come back to me, like a flock of birds, coming home to roost, flying out into the world and perhaps resting in someone else’s head for a moment, or for longer. The older faces that tip me often have a secret smile on their faces when I sing something like “Bread and Roses,” or “Matty Groves,” and I know they remember too.

Where have you crossed the lines? What magic have you discovered outside them? How can you bring it back into the world?

Giant (Stan Rogers Cover)

Happy Samhain, here’s a track for the beginning of the Dark Half of the year:

Giant (Stan Rogers Cover)

I’ve never seen a stone circle, but it’s one of the things I hope to do next summer. I dream of singing this song at some circle, perhaps Callanish, or wherever else seems right. Seems only fair, after all the times I’ve sung it, and all the images that have come to me while so doing. The finding of the proper place will be as much fun as the singing, if not more so.

I’ve sung this song a lot over the last few days, in BART stations, and last night at the Freight and Salvage. I even sang it today for Giants fans. After all, what else did I have that was even remotely related to baseball? People were so high from the parade that most of them didn’t really care, as long as it had a beat–if they noticed me at all, that is.

Playing in BART stations is proving to be quite rewarding, as long as money isn’t the yardstick. My voice is improving, and I’m building a repertoire that’s more interesting than just the stuff I used to do at Faire. Giant, for instance, is a Stan Rogers song and something that could never have been written in any other era but our own. If you’ve never heard him before, you are in for a treat–and you really should hear Giant from his lips, he does it better than I ever will.

Tonight, after all, is a night for ancestors, and Stan Rogers is definitely one of mine, musically speaking. He and all the others whose recordings played for me tirelessly till I got it right–or at least got all the notes in the right place, made me the singer and drummer that I am. I hope someday to be good enough to do that service for musicians as yet unborn, should my own songs stand the test of time. I might stand at the forefront now, carrying their tunes on my breath, but others have to take up the songs or they die. Even caught as they can be now, on magnetic tape or bits of code, songs have to be sung, not just listened to. The great gift of recorded music can be a curse as well, causing us to shut our mouths if we don’t believe that we measure up to what we hear. So I sing Stan Rogers, and Bert Jansch, and even Todd Rundgren on occasion, and use their perfectly preserved bests as inspirations and teachers, a way to get better than I am now. A way to hitch my wagon to a star, as my ancestors bade me do.

Freedom Is Only The Beginning

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Freedom is a really dangerous concept. All true sources of power are. That’s why it’s so important to know where your own idea of freedom lies, and realize what pursuing it really means.

For me, this is an ongoing conversation. The answers are different every day, because the choices change. Asking the question keeps me awake, because it’s very easy to fall asleep, because plenty of people are always out there trying to sell us their idea of freedom, and get us to give them our time, energy–and money, in its pursuit.

So first, what is freedom to you? If you could do anything with your life, what would it be?

This isn’t an easy question, but it’s one of the most important ones you can ask. Without it, you are at the mercy of those who will define the boundaries of your life for you.

For example, I’ve been handed two very large chunks of freedom over the past year. First, I was handed back a large amount of my time in the form of an hours cut and a schedule change. Three whole days a week are now mine to pursue my dreams, and I can actually get up at a decent hour instead of having to be out of the house long before daylight. On top of that, I was handed most of the money to take the trip I’ve wanted to make for most of my life.

You’d think I had it made, no? Well, yes, but now I have to make it real. In order to do that, there are choices to make, questions to answer. For me, it’s where to go and when. What does my music want of me, and how do I turn that into a livelihood? Do I busk today, blog, or write music? What’s fit to record, and what’s the next step to the album? What shape does a life making music have?

Where in your life are you? Your choices are different at age twenty than they are at age fifty.

Having a mortgage, a family and a job is a very different situation than being twenty with a backpack and an instrument. Both have their advantages. Having a day job, and a growing livelihood at the same time, is a constant process of switching gears. A life as an employee is easy, just show up on time and do as you’re told. Creativity is possible, but it is exercised within narrow lines, in service to the organization one is part of. Being able to just take off and put your whole life into your dreams is scary, but can be the fast track. Knowing what you really want is the hard part.

If you found yourself free to do anything tomorrow, what would you do? Where would you start?

Truly, you are already free. We all are. We make choices every day, to go to work, to school, to do nothing at all. Why do you do what you do, and what parts of it are meaningful to you?

So freedom isn’t free. That has always been true, but the meaning of those words is fluid, and easily twisted. Fighting for freedom is certainly one of them, but if things have been allowed to deteriorate to the point of warfare, we have been asleep at the switch. I’m thinking more in terms of the person who has just won the lottery and quit their job. Many people daydream about that, and about what they’d do if it happened to them, but very, very few are ready for it when it happens to them.

What do you need to do in order to bring your life in line with your awareness?

What are your goals? What can you do right now? This year? Where do you want to be in ten years? Is it possible to pursue your freedom within an existing organization, or do you need to strike out on your own? Can you build this life beside your existing job and pursue it after retirement?

It took me from last summer to now to make a dent in any of these questions. I had to be flat on my back for a couple of weeks before I was forced to consider them seriously. I had begun the process, done some basic things like acquired a good mic and created a place to work, and then suddenly I was unable to do anything at all. I choose to view this as a blessing, the chain of events that put me on the road I’m on now. I hope you choose an easier way to put yourself on your own path, if you aren’t already walking it.

If you are walking this path, where are you? How did you get there? Where are you going from here?

If you aren’t, do the questions above have any meaning for you? What questions would you ask? What are your answers?