I want to move. I want out of the overcrowded city of my birth, to give the City Spirit the gift of my absence. I want our neighbors to be our friends, to accept us as we are and to value the home we build together. I want to live in a community that works to make everyone welcome. Where we can love whoever we like and don’t have to hide who we are. Where we are celebrated for who we are. I want the whole damn world to be able to live well and in harmony with the land, sea, and sky.
I want to invite everybody over for dinner. Bring me black pepper and chai and olive oil from Athens. We will feed you on the fat of the land and send you home with acorn meal and rich red wine many years laid down in cool dark cellars.
I want a funky house with character, my back door opening onto redwood and hazel. I want a wood stove, if climate and forest allow it, and plenty of magical places with trails to get us there. I want rituals in the woods and acid trips and good weed. I want to climb trees. I want friends, the ones I knew in college and at Faire. People to ramble with and grow old with. Neighbors. The kids down the road who will be the next generation will remember our adventures when we’re gone. The ones we raised to protect the land and only take what it can freely give. I want to see the hourglass pulled over until it spills Pandora’s gifts on the good green Earth. Dagaz, instead of Extinction. Revels instead of Rebellion. The First Peoples as friends, neighbors, and Elders, re-indigenizing the people whose ancestors were once foolish enough to call themselves white.
I want the wheel of the year, Faires and bardic circles and a junior league that dances in the dirt and screws in the forest. I want to help cook gargantuan meals to feed the whole community when Lughnasadh comes and the travelers arrive on their yearly round. I want to sing around the fire after the first rain falls. I want to smell the earth open up after the long hot summer when Lugh’s high gold is beaten into the gray dust. I want the cool of evening.
I want to build a labyrinth and a library and shrines in the woods. I want to play with my imaginary friends and write the stories we live. I want the other side of the adulthood we were roped into. I want a long happy, healthy, prosperous time where I can finish the gifts I want to leave to the world when I die.
I want us to wear whatever we want and be treated the same no matter how odd our choices. Where we are not judged by our clothes, our hair. I don’t want to hide my Thor’s Hammer or my Awen or the patches on my jacket. If I walk down to the local store in a robe and a cloak I don’t want anyone to bat an eye.
I want to live in a place where cars are rare. Where all that we need is available and accessible to all who live there. I want occasional wireless and plentiful conversation, sharing the bus with whoever climbs aboard. I want roads I can ride a bicycle on and to do my shopping safely. I want solar panels and the sense to go to bed when it’s dark. Tomorrow will come soon enough. I want bonfires and clear, sweet water.
I want to live on the coast, near the forest, where Druids celebrate the ninth wave that rolls in from the Pacific. I want to dance with Dervishes and ride horses bareback through the wet sand as the wave rolls out to the ocean. I want fog and cool and quiet.
I want the Triad of Wealth. My body healthy and strong, my time my own. I spend my remaining days doing as I please, and my money for the few things it is needful for. An Awen of plenty crowned with three bright sundrops. I want to live as part of the land, leaving it better than I found it and when I leave this life, my last sight of it inhabited with people who feel the same way, who will care for it after I am gone.
I want fewer people and more quiet.
When the ferry comes, there will be no coins of gold over my eyes, no shroud of silk. Three rays of light, returning to the sun, the rest of me melting into the rich brown loam.
Where is the division of science and religion? Does there need to be one? Maybe Lugh is already here, shining on us every day because that is what he does. On the eve of Lugh’s day here’s a merging of myth and science:
There was a bit in the latest Cosmos where Neil Degrasse Tyson compared our planet to a cauldron. I think of cities the same way. Some like to speak disparagingly of “city people” and our myriad faults, but I see it differently. Cities are perfectly natural expressions of humanity. They are our beehives, our anthills. They are where we come to become more than the sum of our parts.
I live in what was once a very fashionable part of town. It is a neighborhood time forgot. We live in a beautiful, if a bit run down, Craftsman cottage, built on the grounds of a mansion that has also seen better days. Two back yards away is one of its outbuildings, a separate property now that went from being a church to a dwelling. It has a swath through the block, as does the mansion, which now lies on a narrow strip of land that fronts on one avenue and backs onto another. The main path to the front door is lined with huge Tasmanian blackwoods, a forest in the center of the block. The owners are busily putting in palm trees wherever there isn’t a blackwood or an oak. I oscillate between worry and gratitude, because their tastes seem to be tropical, but at least the old trees are not being cut down yet.
My city is young enough to remember the forest that once was there. There are still oaks here, and redwoods, remnants of a vast old growth forest that once covered this area. Two buses away, an insurmountable obstacle in Pandemic times, I have my choice of the Redwood Bowl and the site of the once massive Navigation Trees, or Leona Heights, where the last old growth redwood of that forest grows. Two blocks down from our house a wide avenue runs in the bed of what was once a stream. The lake down the hill was once marshland, the lake created from it in the mid-nineteenth century as a bird sanctuary. We humans, as we often do, have put trees in everywhere, replacing the forest that once was there with one more to our liking. They look like our neighborhood, many sizes, shapes and colors, most never meant to grow here, but getting along together as best they can. Aspens, birches, magnolias, and the palms. There are olives dotted through the neighborhood, doing well in our Mediterranean climate, twisting in fantastic shapes and dropping olives on the street every fall.
The trees must remain here, placed and chosen by us, but the people come and go. Most of my neighbors are only here for a few years, landing by chance, in the hope of a better life or a good real estate investment. We are the same. We came there because it was the only area we could afford, to stabilize our housing bill. We stay because we can’t afford to move—yet. But the land is beautiful, and it isn’t so bad a place. We are part of the land, transient, true, living on Ohlone land, but we have never known the lands of our ancestors. Really, where would that be? How many different places did your ancestors come from? Mine were scattered all over Northern Europe. Do I return to Germany? Scotland? Other places my family had forgotten before I was born? All we can do is to live in peace with the people we find ourselves among, and try to leave these places better than we found them.
My partner and I are city kids, and frankly proud of it. We can get along with anyone, of any ancestry. We don’t fear hearing other languages spoken around us or different customs. We learn from the people around us. Once the pandemic is over and businesses open once more, it’s nice to be able to eat the foods of other nations, cooked in the restaurants immigrants run. It’s handy to be able to get ingredients and goods from places far from us in our own area. it’s interesting to live where we do—not always pleasant, but no place is all wine and roses. More than anything, it’s really nice to be ourselves. No, we are not always accepted, but we aren’t living in places where we are a minority of two. We once did try to move to a place like that, where we could have afforded a large house and the forest was nearby—but our same gender relationship and California plates caused the locals to spit us out as if were were some kind of infection, there to “Californicate” them. All we wanted was a place to live and a new community to become part of. But we are still here, in the area we were both born and raised in.
Cities, I believe, are where we gather to share new ideas, to find some solutions to the problems that ail us all. We humans have made a mess of things. The yardstick of money and social position that we have used since before Europeans first came to this continent has put an end to an entire geologic epoch. We made this mess, and we can fix it—if we choose to. We have all the tools we need. In the city, it’s possible to try out new solutions. The inputs that support our lives there come from outside, of course, but they don’t need to. We have chickens in our backyard, there are goats in our neighborhood, and community gardens. No, of course we can’t feed ourselves or our animals—yet, but we are trying out the ideas that could teach us to do so. We are growing gardens that aren’t monocultures. Some of us are walking, biking, fixing things instead of throwing them away—and making connections with people who are different from us. I truly mean it when I say refugees can live in my neighborhood. They already do. I have no right to tell anyone where they can live, and I hope to live long enough to see a world where my partner and I are welcome to live anywhere. I hope to see us exchange the yardstick of money and the Great Chain of Being for the compass needle of the health of all beings and all peoples.
The pandemic is a terrible, terrifying gift. We are the frog thrown into the boiling pot instead of slowly parboiled. So many of us are dying needlessly, so many more suffering, overworked, unpaid, sick, starving. Every inadequacy we have in our relationship with each other and the rest of the world is being laid bare. I wish it didn’t happen this way, but it has. It truly doesn’t matter whose fault it is, only what we will do with what we have, right here, right now.
The Cauldrons of the Cities are one of the places we will find our solutions. In many ways they are the ground zeroes of this disaster. Here where we are crowded together is the place where time is sped up. Keeping our distance is impossible for many and difficult for all. Lockdown happened as spring began, when we are all crazy to go outside after a long winter. We need to be out, but we need to keep the streets and buses empty for those who must go out.
Our search for individual solutions, a major thread running through our attempts to come to grips with climate change, are laid bare in this pandemic. We have groups of people—groups! demanding their freedom from lockdown, telling each of us to make our own decisions about whether or not we feel safe enough to go out. They want the freedom to go to work, get a haircut, go to the beach, as if that is an individual choice, something we can do without affecting anyone else. It is interesting that the fact that the stylist that will have to come to work or the retail clerk who will no longer be able to collect unemployment is seen as having a choice.
The truth is, our previous choices have been taken from us, and this is a great loss. It can’t be transferred to anyone else, and there is no one to blame who will make us whole. Only we, together can do this, by doing the work before us. I can hear the Earth saying “Stop. Be quiet and observe.” Not being able to go on with business as usual is quite a teacher. We have forgotten how to do so many things for ourselves. We don’t know where so many things integral to life come from. As the air begins to clear and the neighborhood begins to quiet down, what can we see and hear that we missed before? What can we actually live without, without too much pain? What better options have come to us in this time of great change and terrible loss? How can we become part of the solution instead of the problem? What will the next months bring?
This blog post resonates with me. But it also makes me wonder a bit. Since when does the world owe us artists and clergy a living? Haven’t we learned anything from observing our professional priests and celebrities?
Elizabeth Gilbert said this best in Big Magic, when she was talking about day jobs and the importance of having one: “I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life. I knew better than to ask this of my writing, because over the years, I have watched so many other people murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay the bills.”
I, too, long for the time to pursue my vocation, to live from my connection to the Awen and the Art that comes from it. But I know that in this world where the robber barons are stealing our time and our effort, it will only happen if I go after the most butts in the most seats—and my music and writing ain’t about that. I refuse to make it all about the fashion of the day, so I have to support it, not the other way around.
I, too, know what it is to serve a deity. I am Gaia’s, body and soul and every day I do as she has bid me, even though it is difficult. I, too, know the searing touch of Awen. I’ve knelt on the deck of a ship, a deadblow hammer in one hand, a brick chisel in the other, a piece of paper pinned to the deck beside me with a pen on top of it, scribbling out the verses as they come to me, humming like a person demented. I know that if I can’t snatch a minute or two between tasks, that music will be gone forever. I’m doing it now to tap out the words of this post. This is my life, right now, and hard as it is, I would not trade it for any other.
The problem with wishing for patronage, for some bygone era when Fili were paid to pursue their vocations, is that, like that Golden Age that the politicians are currently trying to sell us, when life was easy and understandable, and our countries were strong and perfect, it doesn’t exist. It never did. Yes, there have always been rock stars, people who are talented enough and lucky enough to find a way to write their own ticket, but most of us will be spending a good part of our lives working to make our art, and serve our gods, not making art as a means of making a living. It is a great and wonderful ideal, a utopia to strive towards, but we have yet to create it. I hope we do. I want to be Jake Sisko, citizen of the Federation, spending his life in service to his art. Maybe someday we will all be doing that one thing we were born to do, but if humanity gets to that point, it will be because those of us who think this future is possible and necessary put in the hard work to make it happen.
As I scribbled the disjointed beginnings of this post, before dawn, as I struggled into my uniform, I was once again faced with the truth of this age: if we want a world where we can stop whenever the Awen demands it and can follow that flow to the end of the piece of art, we need to bring it into being. We need to stop the Captains of Industry from robbing us of the only thing that is truly ours: our time as embodied beings with supple fingers and clever minds. Until we do that, we will be faced with two choices: scribbling in the corners of time left to us or shivering in the garret.
I was lucky enough to spend a year brewing the Awen, and to receive it at the end of that process. If I learned anything in that time, it’s that Inspiration must be paid for, one way or another. It is distilled from our experiences as much as it is from anything that happens within that Cauldron, and if we can’t fill it with the sum of our lives, the substance of Song will come from nowhere else.
So while I, too, long for leisure, for a Patreon to take care of my earthly needs, I know that in this time, in this age, it is not likely to happen for a good long time, until I’ve earned the experiences that will earth my work, and created enough of it to be able to write my own ticket. I will be guided by the twin poles of what is beautiful, and what is well received, and that is a good thing. For if we don’t create art that is understandable as well as beautiful, if we don’t channel the fruits of Inspiration into this world in a way that touches people as it touches us, that art is worthless. A bit of unverified personal gnosis that I received from Taliesin was to “Create a container, strong and beautiful, and fill it with Inspiration.” I know when I have done that when I see the light go on behind the eyes of a listener, or in a more crass example, when a person, tears streaming down their face, throws a twenty into my busking bowl.
So I spend my days serving goddesses. Not just Gaia, though my service to her is shot through everything I do, from my walk to work in the morning, where I sing the world we need into being, from the OPT (Other Peoples Trash) I pick up every day in service to the spirits of Oakland and San Francisco, to the sailing ships BALCLUTHA and THAYER, whose careers I use as a vehicle for the stories of oppression, overfishing and deforestation that they can tell, as well as the lives of the men and women who served in vessels like them during the Age of Sail. I tell stories, now that I can no longer bump down seams or use a chipping hammer. My Ladies disabled me in their service—but the stories I tell have a beauty and a truth that they would not have had I not done these things. Saturn and Chiron have also had their way with me, as well as Brighid and Cerridwen. My broken body and dreams, the words and music that reside in my Soundcloud and my blog were purchased with those experiences, and when I lay this body down, I will leave them behind so that people remember what it was like to live in these wonderful, terrible, pivotal times.
I don’t want a living. I’m happy to have lived a life in service.
I’m standing on the shores of Llyn Tegid, where Cerridwen brewed the Awen. I, too, did that task, with a pack of Druids I’d never met. One of them was sent down to Sussex, where I was Called, though I didn’t know it. On his shopping list was a Gwion, to stir her cauldron, and I, bumbling my way across England, Scotland, and Ireland, heard the summons and altered my trek to Wales. It was a picaresque journey, I was teased and scared, and ultimately invited in by Scathach, ferried over to Ireland, my supposed destination, to sing of Macha on the mound at Emain. A few precious minutes in the chamber at Brugh na Boinne, and a lovely session in Dublin. I busked the price of a couple of pints at Temple Bar and laid my head in the quietest hostel I’d ever stayed at.
Cerridwen made me prove my resolve. I found out why the Sail Rail fare was so cheap. Six hours on the train station floor at Holyhead, and there was no hostel to be had at Bath. I would have been better off staying on Anglesey. Eventually I found myself on the shore of the Lake. I hadn’t even known where I was going! A chill ripped through me as I realized what I’d gotten myself into. A weekend of beginning the brew and tending the Cauldron, then a year of full moons spent stirring. I knew I’d be returning to finish the brew when the ogam wreath Cerridwen had been offered washed ashore where I was camping.
In my mind is a Grove. In the apparent world it grows at the top of Mount Tamalpais in California. Over the year the circle of stones within it became a Well, spring-fed, in my mind. The stream that ran from it tumbled down the hill and I chose one day to follow it, to see where it led. It grew, fed by other freshets and I found myself on the path to the Lake. I came to the bridge that I’d crossed during that weekend of brewing in Wales. I climbed over the stile and found myself beside Llyn Tegid once more. The green, the rocks in the streambed, all led me back to that place where I can journey any time I wish, in my mind’s eye.
You can’t have that word.
You don’t own this Lady.
A gift, from across the sea,
From an ally we should remember.
A shared history.
A reminder of who we are.
Out of many, we are one.
Drops of water make an ocean.
Thorns of gorse, individually, are easily pushed aside.
A bush full of them is impenetrable.
We are a nation of immigrants.
None of our ancestors had papers, when we came.
There were no quotas, no walls.
As we grew more prosperous, we forgot who we are.
The people, resourceful and strong enough to get here
Should be welcomed.
That is the only test of citizenship that should matter.
Our ancestors built a nation.
The ones who come now,
What will they build?
We need not fear what will come.
We need to look to this Lady and remember who we are.
The words written in that book she holds
Apply to everyone, or they mean nothing.
You took the swastika.
You cannot have Thor’s Hammer.
You cannot have the Runes of my ancestors.
Othala is a place we all belong
All creeds, all colors, all genders.
The Awen flows through me onto this page.
Cerridwen’s Cauldron tests our hearts and our minds,
Not our bodies, our lineages.
I place this Lady in the window,
A cheap souvenir, anyone can have one.
But her Light shines upon us all.
I know you’re angry.
So am I.
How could we not be?
Children ripped from their parents,
Concentration camps in Texas.
“I can’t breathe”
“I remember their laughter”
A child-man throwing ugly decrees from his high chair.
But from a high shelf in Europe come watercolor images a century on.
French families fleeing destruction.
Children starving in Yemen.
Corpses of trees standing witness as men follow orders into death.
As we follow our leaders.
They know who we need to hate.
In front of City Hall we are led in chants.
We know the story.
Our indignation gives us the right to hate.
We have worked so hard, but They stole our votes, our climate, our lives.
We will make them pay!
We will come here every night if necessary!
Bearing placards, twisted pictures of an uncrowned King.
A piñata we can beat to death
Until we get our hands on him.
Where is the line? When do We become Them?
Wind back time, another protest.
The First Peoples told us,
“Rise in peace, in prayer when you do this work”
I remember as I raise an electric candle.
I see a woman of amber gently closing the lion’s mouth
Pushing peacefully, inexorably,
In the direction where the muscles of hate have no choice but to obey.
Yes. I will witness.
Every night if necessary.
I will shine a light, but I will not hate.
I see the skeletal trees.
The skeletal children.
I see Armstrong’s footprints.
Earth rising above the lunar landscape.
The green children of Glen Affric.
Forests hiding trenches, life returning.
The bell is tolling, a century later.
Can we hear the words of Harry Patch?
Can we hear The Green Fields of France?
The ghosts gather round, asking “Have you ended war yet?”
Only a fool fights when the world is burning.
Peace begins with me.
The truth against the world.
Peace begins with all of us.
Deep peace of the Grove.
Silence in the back of my head.
Like the Druid’s tonsure, forbidden at Whitby.
When the Wild Celtic Church was tamed,
Rome had its way at last.
Or did it?
The Yews still stand in churchyards.
Ancient, filled with silence.
The deep peace of the grave is not so different
Once grief has fled.
The slate shedding
The names graven upon them.
I touch the young Yews,
Planted in a row on Hyde Street.
Have they seen a century yet?
I touch that Peace
Is it the same?
The scholarly retellings of ancient tales can be hard going. The path to the past is often overgrown, the thread of the story difficult to follow as it passes over unfamiliar ground. Far from being work, Damh the Bard’s new album Y Mabinogi makes an ancient Tale new again. I know I’ll be listening to this many, many times, not just for knowledge, but for pleasure and inspiration–as I wait impatiently for the other branches of this tree!
I got lucky the first time I read the First Branch of the Mabinogi. The instructor in the Celtic Literature class I’d taken on a whim really understood these tales, and one of the ones she selected for the class was the First Branch. She taught us that these stories were passed on the breath, from poet to poet, meaning and understanding as vital to the telling as the words and events. She traced the path for us, from the filidh of Ireland and Wales to the bardic schools where the skills of memory, poetry, and philosophy were taught, where a tale written down was a tale killed. She taught us of the changes wrought by the first Christians who arrived in the same era that Viking invaders began killing the living libraries that held that knowledge, how the poets and priests learned from each other, and put the words they had in the cold storage of vellum and ink so they would have a chance to survive. She also showed us how to unpack that knowledge, to make it live again, and to tease out the meanings that lay hidden in the Tales. We all lived for those classes, to spend one evening a week with red-eared hounds, goddesses of sovereignty in the form of horses, or hags, and Tales chosen with care, to complement and illuminate each other. During her office hours, a line always stretched down the hall. When I listened to this album her wisdom and learning came to mind.
Damh the Bard understands these Tales in his very bones. His new album, Y Mabinogi brings the First Branch of the Mabinogi to life for our time. It is as close as we’re ever going to come to that spellbound tribe around the fire, listening to a gifted poet tell the tales that inspired a people, showed them who they were and how to live lives of connection with their past, present, and future. On his breath floats the wisdom and the beauty of the living tale, and somehow he straddles the past and the present to bring it to life again for our time. In our Now, it’s time for all of us to gather around fires, in concert halls, and yes, around iPods and speakers to share the stories of all peoples. We are living in an amazing moment in time, where we have a chance to experience the living threads of story that make up the wisdom of our whole world and learn from them all. We needn’t fear difference when we have the chance to celebrate it, and Damh’s inspired telling of this pan-Celtic Tale is something to savor, to be carried away by.
These tales were never meant to be hard work, at least in the listening. They were the movies, novels, and albums of their time. They were teaching tales, political commentary, serving as the warp of familiarity that a trained member of the Druidic class could and did use to weave the messages the people and the nobles needed to hear. The different recensions of each story that have come down to us, separated in time, snapshots of a particular era, show the remains of this process clearly. The differences in time and place are in the process of being woven together to give us a clearer picture of the Celtic world and how it changed, but the work is hardly finished. There are still many manuscripts that have not been studied, translated, remade. What might we learn as people are inspired to do the work of scholarship by beautiful retellings like Y Mabinogi?
These Tales can and should be made new again–we are lucky enough to live in a time when some of them have been. Morgan Llywelyn’s novels, for example, are excellent retellings of the Ulster cycle, the coming of the Milesians, etc. OBOD’s courses, among others, use them as teaching tools, as they were in the past before the cultures of the Celtic world were shattered, their living libraries of inspired and highly trained poets killed. What Damh has done, however, seems to me to be a recreation of the kind of performance the oral tradition might have produced–tales that could hold a people in thrall for an evening, or a series of evenings, each installment weaving them closer together in a shared experience. These stories are layered, revealing more to the listener each time they are told, and as a person or a tribe grew in wisdom, the stories grew and changed over time.
The Tale is always the same, but the emphasis and point of view has to change to fit the time it is part of. It has to be relevant to the listener in order to become part of us and whisper to us the insights we need to gain from it. This album has that power. Damh has not only produced an incredible piece of entertainment, he has drawn deeply from the source of inspiration to give us a new version of what each generation had, up until the time these tales were put in written form, and so frozen in time. The path to their power and the passion they inspire became harder and harder to reach as times and languages changed, and the cultural body of knowledge necessary to make sense of them became the province of a few specialist scholars. Luckily for us, the incredible flowering of the nineteenth century and the Celtic Twilight brought us people with the skill and the will to unpack these stories for their age, and inspired enough people to learn their nearly lost languages, to study the remnants of glosses and other materials the last generations of poets had left behind, to bring these stories through to our age and put them in the hands of a new generation of inspired poets. Damh has brought a medieval telling of this Tale into the 21st. century, and given humanity a new snapshot of our understanding of this ancient story. He has edified us, and honored the people who first committed these Tales to writing for a future they would never know.