I Ain’t A-Marching Any More

I tweeted from the acupuncture table yesterday. Which I realize sounds dippy beyond belief, but there it is. To spin out this granola theme even farther, it started from meditation class. We had a substitute teacher who really rocked, and it was a rainy day, so only two of us showed up. We ended up experimenting with different practices and having a really cool discussion in between, and I left in a state of mind that led in the end to the germ of the next song I’ll be writing.

In particular, this quote from the text we’re using is the catalyst:

“Agitated, restless feelings are like muddy water, which becomes still and transparently clear when left to stand. As our emotional reaction naturally subsides, mind and body become peaceful and balanced.”
        —Hidden Mind of Freedom – Tarthang Tulku
       
I had a few hours till my acupuncture appointment, I guess it was my mystical spa day. So I stopped off at the kitchen before I left the institute and made myself a cup of ginger tea to take with and walked down through the UC Berkeley campus. It was raining still, and I took my time. I wanted to see trees, and the campus delivered. I found a little redwood grove next to one of the creeks and practiced a bit on the songs I’ve been learning lately. Since all I have is a voice and a drum, things have to be changed to fill in where the instruments would go. And trees make a great audience. I owe the grove a good cleaning, the Mother always aims me at the trash that needs to go, but I’ll come back next week with a plastic bag…

The acupuncture table is a great place to let stuff come to me. I kinda have to lie there and not move much for close on an hour, with swimmy music on. And that meditation session was still working on me, as well as the music. One of the songs I’m working on at the moment is Great Big Sea’s version of Over the Hills and Far Away. There are so many versions of that song and they updated that for the Afghan War. I’m of two minds about that. It’s good, and the soldiers deserve a good modern version, but I kept thinking about that muddy water. And the booted feet stirring the dust, clouds of it till we couldn’t see the way back to peace.

The dust raised by the booted feet of those who march to war must settle before we can see to set our feet once more on the path to peace.

And so it goes on. There must be an end. I need to rewrite that song. Our brave sons and daughters are needed. They have to have a future where they don’t have to kill each other, and they’re the ones who have to make it. I’m the idiot who has to stand on the hill and make the song that shows my vision of the way. So the chorus is rough still, but as it is now, goes:

O’er the hills and o’er the fern
Our sons and daughters will return
All soldiers coming home to stay
Over the hills and far away

Verses to come.

May it be so.

Owl Magic

Once upon a time, back when I still had a car, my partner and I were driving on I-5. I saw a bit of white and tan flap at me from the shoulder, as if thumbing a ride. My heart sank as I realized it was the broken body of a barn owl. It was too late to pull over, but we took the next exit, and soon we were parked on the shoulder, wrapping the body, all but unmarked, and putting it in the cooler with the ice for the meat order we were on our way to pick up.

I had no idea why we were doing this, I only knew that the owl deserved better than to rot on the shoulder of a busy highway. We took it home, wrapped it in a square of muslin and put it in the freezer to give us time to think. In the end, I decided to take it up to Mt. Tamalpais, a good place to rest if ever there was one. I had been in the process of learning a song called “Waterlily” off a Cottars album I’d recently gotten, and so I found myself driving up Mt. Tam a few days later, singing the song and looking for a good place.

There used to be a beautiful oak by the side of the road, home to a beehive, and across the road from a really cool climbing rock. We’d often parked there, and while the oak had died recently, the parking spot was still there. I knew when I got out that this was the spot. The trunk had split, dumping blackened comb and leaving a large hollow space. I climbed up on the fallen wood around the trunk and put the wrapped body inside. I sang the song and wandered the mountain for a while.

Last Christmas we took a trip up there, and stopped at the oak, among other places. There is less and less left each time, of course, and the trunk is now short enough to reach from the ground, curling in on itself as it returns to the earth. Whether the small body is still there is impossible to tell, but this time there was an owl in the bark:

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We went back up there yesterday. It was bitter cold, between the rainstorms. The wind was howling in off the Pacific and the sky was a million shades of gray. We could see the Farallones:

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We quickly hit all the usual spots, including the tree. I wanted to see if the owl was still there. It is for me, in many different ways, but your mileage may vary:

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The story is always true, even if it’s told differently.

My step dance teacher told us that set dances were always the same, unchanged. But she’d go on to say that “this is the way the step was done when I was a girl,” and she’d demonstrate, quick and clean. Though she was past fifty and round, her feet were still sure of themselves. “But up north it would look more like this.” And again, a step. “But it’s the same step.”

I didn’t get what she was driving at for many years, but I always remembered what she said. Around the same time, I sang occasionally with a woman who insisted that her version of the song was the only “right” one. I found it a little limiting, but I can hold more than one version of anything in my head, and when I sang with her, hers was the version we used.

I heard an interview on the radio years later where a traditional singer said that the tradition is a river. You can’t take a slice out of that river and say “this is the tradition.” My mother long ago taught me that “you can’t step in the same river twice.” It’s as valid for a song, or a myth, as it is for life.

Is Pandora the giver of all gifts, spilling her jar across the hillside, bestowing the knowledge of all good things on humankind, or is she the silly girl who can’t keep her hands off her husband’s box? Is Arionrhod the independent, self-assured woman—the “virgin” in the old sense, or is she a lying slut? Is Medb the bestower of sovereignity, or the original swinger?

As my grandmother might have said, “it depends on whose ox is being gored.” Every teller of tales, every artist or writer has a point of view. Many have an axe to grind. The bard who said that “it is the usual thing for a herd led by a mare to be strayed and destroyed” wasn’t just talking about Medb, now was he? what did that tale look like a century back? Five centuries? What did it look like when it was first told? We used to make statues and paint portraits of people as god(desses) or historical figures. Today we have Presidents dressed up as fighter pilots. I ask you, what’s the difference? And the fact that people react to these images tells us that there is truth in them, or at least power. The way the tale is told is at least as important as the tale itself