Adventure Awaits

I’m about to set off for the Highland Games in Pleasanton. The Wild Celts of my seed group go every year, and it’s as close as I’ve been able to get lately to going back to Faire. The Games are great, but hanging out in the parking lot, playing music, watching the boys beat on each other with swords, and crafting, now that’s a way to spend a weekend!

I was asked to bring athollbrose, which means I got to play some interesting games with my gear. Being without a car makes most out of town trips adventures. Being unable to carry a pack any more is just another interesting wrinkle. I have a luggage rack and a pack, and in it, along with a tent, sleeping bag, ground pad, and my brat and leine, I have two quarts of whisky, a half gallon of oat water, and 3 lbs of honey. All well padded with my gear, but gods help me if anything goes wrong on the way!

Athollbrose is a forerunner of the Irish cream liqueurs we drink today. The recipe is simple:
1 qt. cheap whisky
1 qt. oat water
1 qt heavy cream
Honey to taste.

Oat water is made by soaking a couple of pounds of rolled oats in water enough to cover by a few inches overnight. Do not use steel cut oats! Pour off the top water and save it. Squeeze the oats in cheesecloth or in a fine strainer and you will get a thick gummy fluid. Add enough of the top water back to make a quart.

Back in the days when I spent as much time as possible hanging out in times past, we used to make this stuff to take with. It was cheap, kept well, and tastes marvelous. We called it Scottish instant breakfast. Good times, good memories. Those folks are scattered to the four winds now, but there are new faces, and new memories to be made yet.

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.”

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?

Songs That Must Be Sung, Part 1 of 3

This trip has been growing for years. There are things to be done and songs to be sung that have to happen in Ireland, England and Scotland. I don’t expect to get to all of them this time, but there are a few biggies that absolutely have to happen. There are three of my songs in particular that have to be sung this time. The first one is The Pangs of Macha.

Back in college, I took a Celtic literature course. It was the most important course I ever took. My instructor let me write a song for my final project, based on one of the pieces we read. I chose one of the pre-tales from Kinsella’s translation of the Tain. He included a selection of stories that an Irish person of the time would have known, and which made the tale more intelligible to people of our time. It explained the reason why Cuchulain was facing Medb’s army alone.

I chose it for a variety of reasons. First, before that class, I hadn’t known who Macha was, beyond a vague awareness that she was a goddess. I’d known of the Cu since childhood. I felt her story needed to be told. I also knew what it felt like to be wronged by the men of Ulster, a story best forgotten now. I also was struck by the fact that of all the provinces of Ireland, Ulster was the one that was still not free, torn by violence. It was as if Macha’s curse was still operating, her lessons not yet learned. So I told that story, fully, leaving nothing out, adding nothing, from the only version I had that I felt was trustworthy.

I knew when I wrote it that someday I would sing it at Emain Macha. So I need to go to Navan Fort in Armagh (Ard Macha?) and do so.

Brave — An animated ballad for our time — SPOILER ALERT!









I love this movie for so many reasons. It isn’t High Art, but it can be unpacked just as a ballad or a myth can be. There are layers of meaning there for the Celtic scholar, but like any good story, it isn’t necessary to be aware of them to enjoy the story. Most of all, it takes the old, old trope of the princess who steps out of her role, has adventures, and is shoved neatly back in her box at the end and stands it on its head. It also makes use of the old feminist idea of inverting the power structure–putting the boy in the girl’s place–and seeing what the situation looks like from there.

I think I’ll start with the boys. There’s a concept called ternary analogy that basically covers the place of most of the men in the story. Whenever you see three of anyone, that’s a signal to pay attention. They can be from the Otherworld, as the hounds of Arawn are, or they can be one person of particular importance seen from three sides, as the Sons of Uisliu are in the story of Deirdriu. There are two such triads in Brave, Merida’s brothers, and the three suitors. The brothers are Merida’s helpers, and the suitors are her means of freeing herself. They are the ones who truly give her the reason to change her fate. I’ll go out on a limb here and offer Mor’du, the large black bear, Fergus, her father, and a yet unknown man who will continue the story when Merida is older, as a third triad.

Yes, the male characters are not very compelling, or fully formed. They are background. The three brothers, in particular, are barely named. They are like the king’s daughter in the ballad Willy ‘o Winsbury, or Lord Donal’s wife in Matty Groves. Neither of those women even get names, because they are only there to fill a place in the boy’s story. In Brave, the boys serve the same purpose in Merida’s story Yes, they could have been fleshed out, but if they had been the point would not have been made, and the parallel with Celtic myth would not have been drawn.

When this sort of story is told, someone is always going to have a problem with parts of it. Like a fine, but assertive wine, a story must be true to itself if it is to be truly told, and not everyone is going to like it. Even Disneyfied as it was, uncomfortable issues were raised. Me, I had a real problem with the witch. She was as much of a cariacature as the boys were. But when I put aside my discomfort, and saw her as the means of Merida’s initiation, she rose to the occasion. She gave Merida exactly what she asked for, and taught her to choose her words carefully. She looked like your standard ugly hag with a cauldron, but she taught Merida wisdom. The witch gave her the keys to unlock the cage Merida’s own words created and in the end, Merida freed both herself and her mother. She changed a kingdom’s fate as well as her own. Merida also passed the test that Mor’du failed. She freed him as well. There are a few ballads where the woman frees the man. Tam Lin is one of those. Sadly, Mor’du has to die, while Tam Lin gets to live, but them’s the breaks.

Merida gives her mother quite a bit as well. She knows the wild places, and how to live in them. By inadvertently turning her mother into a bear, and then having to teach her how to survive in the forest, Merida shows her mother the value of all she has learned in the days she has been able to escape her princess role. By the time the two of them get to the stone circle where the final battle takes place, they are a true team. Merida also learns the value of what her mother knows, and gains an understanding of the power her mother has in the running of the kingdom. When Elinor, as a bear, mimes the words she needs Merida to say from across the Great Hall where she cannot be seen, Merida shows how well she has learned the lessons her mother has taught.

Merida is a true daughter of both her parents. She has her father’s strength, skill, and vitality. She has her mother’s ability to be the true power behind the throne, and to keep the clans together. She is complete unto herself, and needs no one to help her rule. But she has a heart large enough to let others in. When she rides off with her mother at the end of the movie, we know she’s going to be all right, and so will the kingdom she will inherit. She has freed her people as well as herself, and she’s taken the princess trope and taken it places I never expected to see it go.

There’s a lot more to say about this movie. There are animal and character associations that go deeper into Celtic mythology than I am going to go into here. I can’t think that these were unintentional on the part of the creative people who put this film together. I have only seen this movie once. I fully expect to see even more when I see it again.

The Last Marching Song

We fight so many wars. We frame so many things in the language of war.

I grew this song. It grew out of the quote I posted in my last entry. It grew out of all the things I have learned about humans over the years. It grew out of my archaeology degree. Because we haven’t always fought. Throughout prehistory, the human respose to conflict was to migrate away from it. Like most other animals, we only fight when cornered. Until we had stuff that we couldn’t easily carry with us, this was simple. When we started settling down and building places to keep our stuff in, we started thinking of those places as home. Instead of having the whole world, we had our own place. So war is one of those diseases of civilization.

Chucking civilization would be idiotic. But we can move past the equally idiotic idea of fighting with each other over stuff and territory to keep it in. We can see the whole world as our home once again.

Here’s a soldier’s view of war.

His book, Will War Ever End helped me to pull together things I already knew, and added a few more. The path to peace and the path to war are one and the same. Paul Chappell’s assertion that we fight to protect our people and our home makes so much sense to me. The rules of war, though often broken, usually declare homes and families to be off limits. While the deaths of combatants are always tragic, the true horror of war is when innocents are killed.

War, and inequality, and prejudice of all kinds cut us off from our birthright, which is the whole world. When the world is truly our home, we won’t destroy parts of it, and those who live in it.

Hopefully this song will help

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.


I’m reading a book called The Resilient Gardener. It’s about gardening, but far more than that, it’s about living on a changing planet. I want badly to own it as I’ll refer to it for years, but we are stony broke-oh at the moment, so I got it out of the library. When it gets cheap I’ll pick up a copy. And so it fits into the subject it covers, and ties into my life.

I have all I need. It’s all a cycle, really. We don’t have money right now, but we are rich in so many ways. Stuff is only one part of this, but really, we have the stuff we need. I can’t buy this book, but I’ve bought so many other books over the last few years that I have scads of stuff to read. And I have access to so many good libraries. San Francisco Main Library is only the easiest to access of these. I can get into the stacks at UC Berkeley, which gives me wealth indeed! I can’t check books out, but I spent a lovely evening recently waiting for Whitewolffe to get out of KPFA radio in their Celtic Studies collection. Really, the hardest part of leaving my job at UCB was losing my checkout privileges.

The book reminded me of cycles, and how many ways we are connected to nature. She was talking about haying, and how making hay while the sun shines calls on the interdependence of a community. In my life, scavenging is a part of that same concept. Haying and scavenging come from the same root, so to speak. Whether it’s something lying on the street, or a post on Freecycle, you have to jump when the offer is made by the Universe. Lately, the garden work parties in berkeley and the urban garden that will shortly be taking my chickens are also tying me into community. Making things do, waiting for the Universe to fill what I consider an order placed at the Cosmic Burger King are things I have always done. Lately, it feels as if the world is catching up to me. Instead of a weirdo who saves string, I am suddenly fashionable. Frugal. Sustainable.

I am a terrible gardener. That’s one of the reasons I picked this book up. Whitewolffe, luckily, is much better. She hears living things and knows how to respond to their needs. Plants and animals under her care flourish. Me, I’m a tinkerer and a planner. I can set the project up, and even keep things alive, but my role is to keep the place running. She makes it thrive.

Last weekend we potted plants. I went to the store and came back with a tomato and a basil plant. Which pretty much exhausts my knowledge of companion planting… We were supposed to have someone from Freecycle come over and take an oregano cutting off our hands. She didn’t show, but Whitewolffe potted it anyway. I’d put it in a glass on the windowsill a couple months back and it rooted. Lots of things we do that to do that there. This is the second oregano plant we’ll give away, we also have mint from a bunch I put up there and forgot to make tea from. I also wanted to see if I could start some seeds, and some mung beans. I started sprouting them recently, figuring that that kind of micro crop is perfect for our micro homestead. They’re also delicious, and hey, if we have sprouts, can we grow beans this summer? They’re doing well, and considering that I potted them, this is pretty cool.

Hope we can get the chickens out of the yard before all these plants need to go outside. Again, cycles must be heeded, and managed. Between the two of us, we’ll do all right.

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