The Best Problem To Have

What is your dream? What would you do if suddenly, it was placed in your hands? I really want to know, because that’s what just happened to me. I really want you to think about these questions, because I’ve done so so often in the past, and perhaps the simple act of doing that opens space for it to happen–and I would love to see your dreams come true too.

What would the world look like if everyone was living their dreams? It would certainly be a different place–but how so? What would disappear? What would appear? Maybe if we share our stories with each other, we’ll build something larger than we can envision right now, as those questions hang in the air between us.

I am going to Ireland. Not two years from now, but this summer. I had a $4000 check dropped in my bowl last week. The first thing I had to ask myself was, ‘is this cheating?’ I didn’t earn it, after all. I soon realized, as I thought about it, that if I hadn’t earned it when it happened, I was sure going to. With the major obstacles removed, a dream becomes a responsibility, something that has to be lived up to. All those things I’d thought were so far in the future are happening now. Instead of two years to plan and accomplish, I have mere months.
What a *wonderful* problem to have!
Once I’d opened that envelope I couldn’t think clearly enough to give a good performance any more. I wasn’t getting tipped, and I didn’t deserve to be, frankly. So I packed up my gear and went around the corner to my credit union and used that check to open a new savings account. Might as well start with what passed for a responsible act, I thought. Then I went back to the BART station and played till I ran out of water.
Everything is happening faster. I took another look at my album songlists and realized that with all that BART station practice, I’m much closer to recording at least one of them than I thought. I don’t want to leave on this trip till that’s done. I also have to earn that last $871.00. An album will do that a lot quicker than the BART station will–and will allow me to submit my music to places that won’t take a single track seriously.
Then there are the mechanics. Where, when, how, what to pack, who to visit, etc. The coffee table is strewn with travel guides and maps. The library is quite accommodating when it comes to such things. If you live near Dublin, or the Isle of Skye, or have heard of Swinton Castle, I would love to hear from you. If you’ve been to an OBOD Summer camp, what was it like? These questions are just the beginning, believe me.

The Quality of Attention

Last week, a performer in his introduction made the following observation. Very loosely quoted: A good listener makes space for the one listened to. And some people take shameless advantage of that.

His words caught my ear. They were so perfectly true, you could tell by the audience reaction that he’d hit on something in all of us. They mingled with ones I’d heard before, so many times, of singers angered by the lack of audience attention. As if they were owed something. It always made me smile at Faire, and I admit it, laugh a bit. As the singer in the street, I have always felt that I earn the attention I receive. It is a gift given on both sides.

I play for the joy of it. When I lost my joy, I stopped singing. I’m more grateful than I can say that it found its way back to me. When I’m in the zone, I’m inside the song. I get to be all those people, and get to live their story. I get to hear myself doing what I am beginning to really believe I was born to do. What could be finer?

Attention is the most precious thing we can grant anyone. It is literally the moments of one’s life, which are finite and the only things that truly belong to each one of us. Attention and the present moment is the only place in which we can accomplish anything, whether it be learning a skill, making a point, cooking a meal–or listening to a performer. It can’t be forced, though of course it can be faked, and often is. Our minds are our own, and we carve out space for ourselves however we have to. Our eyes may be on the stage, but our minds may be a million miles away, planning our next vacation, reliving our latest triumph or disappointment, or just zoning out.

There’s an electricity to the sharing of a moment. It can’t be forced. Standing in that street, it is sometimes tempting to demand attention, but even when we appear to get our way, the energy of the exchange is altered irrevocably. I remember when we used to laugh backstage at Faire when we were sternly instructed to be quiet in this or that area so as not to upstage This show or That person. We complied, of course, but we knew when it was a reasonable request and when it was the sacrifice of that electric exchange for ego. The really popular shows somehow never made requests like these. Their haybales were always packed. The performer and the listener are joined. The giver and the gift become one when that moment happens. If you’ve read this far, you are giving that gift to me, and I hope I am returning fair value.

When I’m busking, attention is my teacher. At Faire I could attract a whole circle of people who told me exactly how far a comfortable listening distance was, what songs had the most impact, and which ones attracted the largest crowd. No, those last two pieces of information are not necessarily related. I have had very small audiences at times, and while it might have seemed that no one was listening, once or twice there has been one person who came up after with tears in their eyes and dropped a twenty in my bowl. A few weeks ago, a guy with a handful of Street Sheets searched every pocket he had till he found a dollar for me. And then there are the people who just watch me with that look of attention in their eyes, and smile, and walk off after I’m done. That’s as much a tip as money is.

Then there are those whose eyes I never see. Because you never know who is listening and what they are hearing.

The Isle of Skye

Yes, I know it’s not in Ireland. But it’s on the list of places to see. Scathach, like Macha, is one of those people from myth that doesn’t get much ink. If it weren’t for her, Cuchullain would never have become the warrior he did. In fact, there are only two sources that I’ve ever found that mention her at all, and the story of Cuchullain’s training is the one with the most info. I think she deserves a song. I would love to write it. I’ve been trying to for years, but there just isn’t enough material. The story of Cuchullain’s training tells us about him, and the day to day running of Scathach’s school, but next to nothing about her. She might have sprung up from the island she teaches on for all we are told.

There are possibly related stories. The Norse Skadi shares a lot of the same spirit. And the Scythians are another possible Indo-European connection. But I don’t want to be a Roman, calling every similar deity “The Gaulish Jupiter,” or “The German Hermes” or some such.

What does Scathach have to say? What song might she and I make together, if I go and ask her? I plan to start here: Dun Scaith.  It’s a pretty forbidding place. I gave Google Earth quite a workout last night. And a friend of mine tells me that she was told that the Isle of Skye is a place you visit in the summer, the wind is so strong trees don’t stand up to it.

Maybe that’s the point of this particular adventure. It doesn’t feel welcoming to me, it feels like I’ll be coming back empty-handed. But wasn’t that what Cuchullain faced? Scathach is not an easy teacher. The ruins of a castle that might have been built on the site of her fortress is a pretty nebulous place to cross half the world to see. A shadowy connection to begin looking for The Shadowed One. But when I look at Dun Scaith, I see that bridge that Cuchullain leaped. I see a story so changed by time that the original warrior woman whom it belonged to is all but gone from it.

Does she even care if we know it? Or is she happy to have it lost in the shadows? I don’t know. But I know there’s only one way to find out.

Busking total: $6.40. $4891.00 to go!


Yew and Cypress

Being largely ignored in a public place has certain advantages. 99% of the passers by either don’t register my presence, or are actively avoiding the fact that I’m there. Considering the inherent lack of privacy in a large city, and the mindset riding transit can put you in, I can understand and even sympathize. I look like any other panhandler to people above a certain income level.

BART stations are great teachers. There’s a great advantage to having the freedom to screw up. My music is written on the wind, as all music is. No one remembers what I did five minutes ago except me, and the few whose attention I have attracted. So I can do songs I’m in the process of learning and blow the lyrics–as I do, more often than I’d like. As a friend of mine has said, “It’s not the mistake, it’s the recovery.” I’m getting older. I’m not holding onto lyrics like I used to. That could be distressing, but I choose not to see it that way. Maybe that’s the beginning of wisdom? I’m hoping that like any other muscle, memory will be strengthened with use.

I had a voice lesson yesterday. And when I got to BART I actually sounded worse than I had before. But it was snake-on-skates worse. I was thinking way too much about what I was doing and fighting my body instead of just singing. I think I have yet to integrate what I was taught. I skipped open mic because there my performance will be heard, and remembered by that small community, and that’s therefore not a great place to screw up. But I have some time this morning to work with the insights and exercises before I go out again.

The Berkeley BART station was taken when I got there, so I went up to the UC campus. I stopped by the yew tree at the edge of the traffic circle on my way to coffee. There was a plastic bag under it, my signal to fill it with the trash that is so plentiful here. It was a chance to visit with the tree as well, and see it in this season, its berries red and inviting and deadly. On impulse I asked for one, and took it with me. I wrapped it in paper towel from the bathroom up at the library and washed my hands well. It’s on my altar now, the paper towel wet, my cauldron burning with Brighid’s fire close by. We’ll see if it wants to live. A yard as small as ours, and a tree so slow growing as the yew might coexist quite nicely–or it may have another place to go. Who can know? We shall see.

I got my coffee and went up to Bancroft Library to say hello to Athena. Her bronze head is set over the south doorway, a nod to tradition, and one of the many small shrines that are everywhere if you look. I was looking for a place to lay out my tarot cards. Behind the stairs, along the side of the building where no one goes, I found a pair of cypress trees and another yew. You can always tell the places no one goes. There’s no trash. Only a few new plastic bags, which I left as they were. It was obviously a squat and whoever had been there had left nothing else. I left no traces anyone could likely read and let the camper have the illusion of privacy, as I did.

The BART station had another musician in it when I got back to it, harmonica, guitar and rough blues, and I left him to it, to make my way home.

My cauldron is burned clean and my tale is told. Time to get to work!

Busking Total: $5.90. $4904.75 to go!

Sweet Spot

My favorite spot has temporary mood lighting. It’s been hired by Virgin Air and plastered with advertising that is primarily black and dark purple. The ceiling has been painted black and half the light shades have been changed from white to purple. I have a sexy black-clad woman with a bow and arrow to stand next to. It kind of rocks, actually.

I love this spot anyway because it’s long and narrow and has great acoustics as well as a fair amount of foot traffic. I can fill it without trying, and people have plenty of time to listen before they get to me, as well as plenty of places to stop just out of my direct sight and listen. For some reason, a lot of people seem to do that.

I thought it was going to be another bad day. My throat was full of crap and I sounded terrible. No one was taking the slightest notice of me. But I figured, hey, I really need the practice if I sound like this, and if no one was noticing anyway, I could screw up all I liked, right? So I worked the easy songs first, the ones that almost always sound good. Follow Me Up to Carlow, As I Roved Out, that sort of thing. After 45 minutes or so, I started getting tipped.

By the time I ran out of water, I didn’t really want to stop any more. And I passed another hurdle. I’m finally getting back into this enough to play for more than an hour and not have a sore throat and a headache. I’m beginning to feel what and where I’m tightening up and figuring out how to correct it.

Putting in the work is the secret to doing what you love, right? Stay with it till it stops being frustrating and starts being fun. I remember what this felt like before. I’m beginning to disappear into the song again, to let it speak through me. When I fill, so does the hat.

Busking total: $20.80. $4,920.95 to go!

Something is Definitely in the Air

I don’t know if it’s my situation, or all that hopefluff I’ve been loading like psychic carbs all week, or if we’re truly on the brink of change, but I can feel it. As if the whole world is pregnant with ourselves.

The chips are down. I’m counting out transit fares till next payday on my clipper card. I might have to borrow against my busking money in order to hit the BART stations this week. I have a friend living in my living room. My partner’s possible new job fell through this week. But we’re all working hard, doing whatever we can to turn this around. The friend has work, and is working to get more. My partner has a job, and is working all the harder on her freelance work. I’m working my job, and working on my gear–I made a new skirt, and have a look at the beginnings of my new bodhran case:


I’m also busking, as always, and learning repertoire. There are three open mikes that I know of this month, September 18th and 24th at the Freight and Salvage, and September 29th at MoJoe’s Cafe on Sacramento and Blake in Berkeley. And there are other things on the horizon.

I love this road! I am happy to be walking it, no matter how hard parts of it are. I truly would not be anywhere else but farther along it, given a choice. At last I am doing what I was meant to, following my dreams wherever they lead. And I am in good company. It’s hard for everyone right now, after all.

What’s your road? What are your dreams and what’s driving you toward them? I’d love to know because we all grow stronger, knowing we’re not alone.

Busking total: $10.40. $4941.75 to go!

Worlds Apart

That was just the recharge I needed. Well, maybe not the three nights of steady drinking, but nothing that morning coffee didn’t set right. Getting to spend the day barefoot, in my leine, listening to bands and hanging with my clan, now that was a taste of the world I want to live in.

The shape of this world, the feel of it, is more important than the details. It begins with a group I’m part of, that becomes more itself when I, or any other part of it arrives. A clan, a tribe, where hospitality is at the core and we all pitch in to do what is needful, getting it done and making it part of the fun. A group where we all are after giving and receiving our gifts, to each other, and to the world. The world is a better place for our being in it.

The Games run like that, as far as I can see. People pick up after themselves. The privies are cleaned regularly, and the campground is amazingly clean considering the fact that most of us are dependent on the facilities inside the Fairground for running water. People drink mightily, and pile their bottles by the trash cans, where they’re picked up at least once a day. People and groups are welcoming. Even if they’ve never seen you before, you’re treated as part of the clans. I always know more people when I leave than I did when I arrived. And no one cares a bit what I wear–something that rarely happens in the outside world.

The task now is to keep that energy and bring it back with me, in this neighborhood full of litter and tags, where people treat each other as strangers if they haven’t seen them before. We can do better, we will be forced to do so in the not too distant future if we don’t make the choice ourselves soon.

Yesterday was hard. I met with more indifference at Berkeley BART, which is generally my best station, than I ever have. The singing felt good, I was in better voice than I’ve been in a long time too. I can fill that space with voice and drum now, without blowing out my voice, and my repertoire has expanded back to the point where I can fill 45 minutes solid before I have to start throwing in repeats.

But there are people who smile, regardless, and people who hang around for whatever reason, and the green and growing earth is still to be seen everywhere if you look for it. I spent the weekend sleeping and walking on green grass, and there are trees to be seen from the BART train. There is grass growing through the pavement, and the UC Berkeley campus is half forest. The sunflowers have finally bloomed in my yard, and the tomatoes are ripening. The raspberry bush, all but dead two months ago, is actually going to put out flowers this year. Life, and hope, are everywhere.

What shape is your perfect world? Where do you see it peeking through in this one? Can you do anything to bring it into being?


Busking total: $4.85. $4952.15 to go!

Honest Work

Busking total: $7. $4964.45 to go.

Someone tried to convince me to put money in my own bowl recently. They were trying to be kind. As they said, who would know?

I would know. And if I don’t believe in myself, why should anyone else? I can’t say that the idea hasn’t occurred to me as well, after all, $5 here, $5 there, who would know? I can afford it, and it would often double my take. But it wouldn’t be honest. More than that, I think it would block something I don’t even know the shape of yet. I feel in a very real way that if I start to cheat, no matter how harmlessly, I will sabotage what the Universe has in store for me. I have to trust this task and walk this path to wherever it takes me.

Today was hard, though it started easy. I was on my first song, a whistle tune, and a guy came up and handed me a 5 dollar bill. Made me stop playing to take it as a matter of fact. I said thanks, he walked off without another word. Odd, but hey, fine by me. In the next two hours I made two dollars more. I remembered I knew two more songs than I came out with, blew one badly. The drunk sitting against the wall opposite me was making fun of me for that one. Everyone’s a critic ;) I’ll be pulling out the drum in a bit and getting it right. I’ll also be working on whistle tunes. Not because of the guy, because I think that if I play Sheebeg Sheemore one more time I’ll die, and it’s the only one I can get right at the moment.

I haven’t picked up a tinwhistle for more than a tune or two in years. It used to be something I always had in my bag. I used to climb trees regularly just to sit and play. Time to spend some time on the Berkeley campus getting my tunes back.

Tomorrow, busking and packing for the Pleasanton Highland Games. I’ll be spending a fair amount of time in the campground with my whistle and my drum, getting more of those songs and tunes back. If you’re there, look around. I’m with the wild Celts in the parking lot, I’ll be the barefoot one in the blue leine.

Video Doesn’t Lie

(edit) Busking total: $5.65 $4971.45 to go

My partner managed to capture my open mike performance off Concert Window last night, and she’ll be able to do so consistently. I’ll also have another view because one of the performers set up a good camera and was kind enough to turn it on for anyone who wanted it.

Have I said enough times how cool these folks are? This is a great venue to come down to and learn your craft. For less than $5 you get a chance to perform on a professional stage, with real sound equipment, and even be broadcast. You also get to hang out with musicians who are supportive, welcoming, and give honest feedback. And sometimes, like last night, you even get a chance to have a look at your own performance from the audience’s perspective.

Mine was a mix of beautiful and cringe-making. I expected no less. But I thought I had done a better job when I walked off the stage than the vid showed. This is a tool I didn’t expect to get, and am incredibly grateful to have. If I can’t see it, I can’t fix it.

The song I did last night was Todd Rundgren’s For Lack of Honest Work. Because it says some things that need to be heard right now. Too many people have played by the rules in a game that is heavily rigged. And a lot of people are screwed. Which leads me to the latest doings at Underwater Acres. I’m likely not going out today because we’re going to have a friend moving in for a couple of weeks, and setting up a workstation for the near future while she looks for a place to live. So I spent this morning covering over the floor heater, which we don’t use because it is ancient, expensive to run, and only heats one room. It was an empty corner anyway, it’ll do for now. A micro office in a micro homestead. In times like these we have to stick together. If I hadn’t managed to snag the job working with volunteers back in February, it could well have been us on the street.

Next I need to rearrange this front bedroom and free up a desk, then run an ethernet connection, play with furniture, etc. There is no space in this place, but you start playing tetris with what’s here and hey presto, the walls move out. Magic of the finest kind.  By making room and making connections, all our positions become more secure. We are our own social safety net, and so the web grows stronger.

Hitch Your Wagon to a Star

Part of my problem is image. I can catch people by the ear, but not the eye. Sound will slow many, stop a few, but I just look like any other busker. So I invested a little time in sprucing up my setup:


This is quick and dirty, just a stencil and some markers. More art can be added to it as time permits. I decided against the moose horn because it’s too unwieldy to carry on transit or on a bike. The pack and the drum are doable, if a bit of a pain. Having a deep basket to throw tips into should keep the occasional kid from trying for the money, as one did my first week out. Also, people have no idea what I’m about. How can they, if I don’t tell them, quickly and clearly? And what do you think? Does this work? If not, why not?

I’ll be at the Freight open mic tonight. For $3 you can see the whole show via Concert Window, and for $8.99 a month, you can see unlimited concerts at various folk venues. I watched De Temps Antan, also at the Freight and Salvage, this way last week, and the sound and image quality was pretty good. I’m planning on watching the Freight Roots Revue this way on the 30th, and they’re going to have Holdstock and Macleod, and Mary Black in the near future.

I’ve been thinking on the nature of dreams and what I’m tackling a lot over the past week. It has been as if there was a wall of impossibility holding me back. Standing out at the Swap, singing into a concrete wall, seemingly heard by no one, I wonder just what I think I’m playing at. But then the people I swap with thank me for the music, or someone sits down at the benches and listens for a while, or I just get the bounce of sound off that concrete wall during a lull in traffic and I know that very few things happen immediately. I need to do the work and the rest will come in its own time.

My mother put herself through college back in the fifties and I remember what she used to tell me. It was hard for her, much harder than it has been for me. She came out of German Village in Columbus, Ohio, and she was the first in her family to go to college. She worked and went to school, paying her student loans off as she went because in those days they weren’t deferred. She told me she used to fall asleep on the bus, after working all night and going to school all day, and then she laughed. She said she decided that she had a choice. She could work and go to school, or she could just work. If she can do it, so can I. Because I will be working anyway, and every time there’s a chunk of money I could spend on a plane ticket, it either has to go into the house, or to pay something off, or the savings account is so desperately low that I just can’t look myself in the mirror if I spend it on what is essentially a treat for myself.

But the money in the basket is mine. It will be spent for no other purpose. I will earn my way across the sea if it’s the last thing I do. I’ll do it five dollars at a time, and I know that if I just keep on going, keep on learning more songs and getting better at what I do, the way will open.

So what’s your dream? What would you do if you could do whatever you wanted? Are you on your way, or still dreaming? What would it take to make it happen for you?

As my grandmother told my mother, “Hitch your wagon to a star, little girl. If you fall you’ll still end up higher than you were when you started.”