Monthly Archives: November 2005

Making Progress

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Here we are, on the cusp of the biggest collective tryptophan high of the year. All over the country, people are rummaging through their closets looking for their baggiest clothes that can also pass for dressy, in preparation for tomorrow’s feast. College students who have made the trek back home for the weekend are already cursing their decision, wishing they didn’t have to spend the next three days with their boring and/or ignorant relatives.The more fortunate among us are warm and dry, well-fed with a comfy place to sleep, surrounded by friends or family. Those less fortunate are still homeless, penniless and jobless from the ravages of the hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. Or they have just been handed their pink slips from General Motors, who just announced they’re laying off 30,000 more workers and closing 9 plants in the US. They are waiting for their loved ones to return from Afghanistan and Iraq, and some wait in vain for a homecoming that will never take place.

At this moment I am alone in my beautiful house that is lit with a very long strand of colored lights recently hung floor to ceiling across the living room. There is a fire in the woodstove, my dog Vince rests contentedly on his pillow, and filling up a previously empty corner of the room is my new piano! It is a baby grand circa 1931 that I found on Craigslist last week for a ridiculously low price, after spending close to 50 hours researching and playing used pianos. The movers brought it in just this afternoon, and by dinnertime I had to stop playing because the muscles and tendons in my arms were complaining.

Growing up, we all learned to play on a sturdy old Baldwin grand piano that still sits in my parents’ living room. I started taking piano lessons when I was five years old, but months before that I began playing by imitating the pieces that my older sister was learning in her lessons. That was not the first time, and it was by no means the last, that I annoyed her mightily by encroaching on her territory. But she got me back years later when she picked up the cello as her second instrument. That was the one I would have picked too, but since she had claimed it first, the dictates of our intense sibling competition meant I then had to choose something else when it was my turn to branch out.

I loved playing the piano, even though I went through periods of hating to practice, hating my mother for forcing me, and disdaining my provincial old lady piano teachers. Music was my lifeline, my most reliable outlet for emotional expression and solace as a teenager. I loved Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel — anything that was like a painting I could color in my own way. My classical training provided me with a solid musical foundation, but I wanted to be able to do other things with music, too. After I left for college at 17, I took up the guitar and swore I would never take lessons on it as long as I lived. I wanted to learn how to play it myself, to let how I played be a direct expression of what I knew rather than what I had been taught.

The guitar has been a treasured companion to me over the years, my musical mainstay even as one by one I’ve added other instruments to the list of things I can pick up and make music on. When my kids were small, one of my mother’s piano students in Oakland had a Great Aunt Verna who passed away and left a piano for her heirs to deal with. My mother’s student offered it to her free of charge for someone who could use a piano; so it was the our house acquired a lovely Chickering upright. That has been a very good piano, and continues to grace the parlor/ritual room/music room back in Sebastopol.

Moving out here to the coast, one of the first things I brought was my guitar and music stand. I was determined to get back into songwriting, which to me is like an indicator species of my spiritual and emotional health. If things are not in balance in my life, the first thing to disappear is songwriting. It is so important to me, and yet the conditions under which I can write a song are complex and fragile, and not easy to recover once they’ve been interrupted. Solitude being the single most important ingredient in the mix, my guitar was an obvious companion to bring along.

I don’t even think I would have chosen to bring a piano here for myself; it was the necessity of having an instrument for Jojo to practice when she is staying with me, combined with the realization that a grand would really go much better in the space than an upright, which catapulted me into the past several weeks of piano-spotting. The more I looked, though, the more I yearned for a grand piano like the one I grew up with. The big, resonant sound that fills a room to overflowing, the power and the subtlety of a fine instrument, all called to me with the force of a need unmet for so long that it’s been effectively forgotten. And so here I sit in radiant happiness, knowing that as soon as I’m done blogging here I’ll go back over and play till my hands are sore and it’s time for bed.

My good friend Barbara, an ardent practicing Buddhist, says the thing to do with beauty is not to hide it, minimize it, or be ashamed of having it, but to give it away. Appreciate it, and share the experience as widely as possible, with a prayer that beauty enter the lives of all people. So I thought to share this snapshot of the happiness this day has brought me, and the deep gratitude I feel for all that I have, all the beauty which surrounds me here. May the forces of beauty, balance, and delight overflow your homes, your feasts, and your lives in the days to come. May we not forget those in greatest need in our prayers of thanksgiving tomorrow, and when the feasting is over and we have all gone home, may gratitude and happiness for all that we have be our first thought on waking, and our last thought at the close of day.

The Faerie Shaman Rides Again

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Though I never knew him personally, Gwydion Pendderwen loomed large in the Bay Area Pagan community when I first became a part of it in the early 1980s. My first affinity group participated in the protests at Lawrence Livermore Labs in May, 1982 in conjunction with activists from Reclaiming. I remember a buzz that day when a certain man came onto the scene: Gwydion had come down from the mountains to protest nuclear weapons research with the rest of us. It was something special that a prominent Pagan not normally associated with the overtly political Reclaiming would step across the aisle, as it were, and lend his considerable voice to the actions we were espousing. There was a feeling of hope in the air, too, that this might be the start of a larger Pagan presence in the anti-nuclear movement. A few short months later, Gwydion was killed in a car accident, and the Pagan community lost a charismatic, talented man. Gwydion’s influence continued on, however, in the two albums of music he had made, Songs for the Old Religion (1975) and The Faerie Shaman (1981), and in the Faery Tradition which he helped shape.

After his death, Gwydion’s music was distributed by Nemeton, the publishing branch of Church of All Worlds, and was promoted in Green Egg magazine, for years the pre-eminent Pagan rag in the US. Once I started Serpentine Music in 1992, I would regularly scour the Green Egg classifieds looking for notices of new Pagan cassettes on the market to review or consider carrying through Serpentine. Ah, the quaint days of pre-internet Paganism! In those days, I carried Gwydion’s two albums on cassette because the original vinyl records had long sold out and apparently never been re-printed. I think Gwydion’s master recordings had also been lost, because the Songs for the Old Religion tape started with the sound of a needle being dropped onto an LP, followed by a scratchy, very low-fidelity audio transfer.

Sometime in the mid-90s Nemeton released both of Gwydion’s albums in a double CD set. I remember talking to Orion Stormcrow who was handling their production and distribution, hoping he would be able to get some better sound quality on a digital re-master. I guess they didn’t have the funds to do it, because when the CD came out you could still hear the needle dropping into the grooves, along with all the pops and scratches of the old LP they used as a master.

In 1995 my then-coven was having a day out on the town in SF. We were in Uma’s Tools of Magic shop in the Haight when I spied a copy of The Faerie Shaman LP high on a dusty shelf and bought it immediately. Uma couldn’t figure out whether to sell it for practically nothing because it had been sitting there for so long, or to charge me a premium because I obviously valued it so highly. That was the first time I remember thinking that it might still be possible one day to do a quality re-master of Gwydion’s music if I could find a well-preserved copy of his first album and got the equipment together to do the transfer.

But over the ensuing years Church of All Worlds kept their CD in stock, and my LP stayed stashed away on a shelf still unopened. Then, along with shakeups within CAW, Gwydion’s music became increasingly difficult to keep in stock until in 2004 not only were the CDs impossible to get, but my phone calls and emails were going unanswered as well. Finally last fall I went through an all-out effort to find out who if anyone was still in charge of keeping his music available, and had no success. I contacted my friend Anna Korn, who was one of the executors Gwydion named in his will and has always tried to keep his legacy alive. The year before I had gathered the hardware and software necessary for a fairly high-quality digital transfer from vinyl, in order to produce The Best of Pagan Song collection. With Anna’s encouragement (and the loan of her well-preserved copy of Songs for the Old Religion), I then started looking into what it would take to legally re-master and re-release The Music of Gwydion.

There is nothing like producing an album to make you absolutely sick of whatever music it is you’re producing, no matter what you thought of it before. For weeks or even months you must listen to it repeatedly over as many different sound systems as you can, not as a music lover listening for enjoyment but as a technician looking for any and every flaw, which it is then your responsibility to correct, or at least acknowledge and decide to live with. I have probably listened to Gwydion’s music more in the last six months than I ever have in the past 13 years of selling it. I definitely hit the wall with listening fatigue towards the end as I always do, but I also came away with a renewed respect for Gwydion’s accomplishments as a songwriter and recording artist.

His tunes are catchy, with great hooks and nice chord progressions. Gwydion was a master wordsmith and gifted storyteller, and his finely crafted lyrics are always well-matched to the music. His music is a product of its culture and times: late 70s and early 80s Paganism, heavy on the Celtic themes and folk music instrumentation. But any sense of his music being dated is eminently forgivable simply because it is well-made and heartfelt. It stands on its own as some of the finest Pagan music made to date, and now that I am free to listen to it for enjoyment, I am thrilled to be able to offer it to the public again, in a new edition that is the best I could make it.

More than two decades after his death, Gwydion’s life and musical legacy still loom large in Pagan culture. For those who are already familiar with his work, I am sure the re-release of The Music of Gwydion will be immediate cause for celebration. I also look forward to seeing Gwydion’s influence on a new generation of listeners, some of whom I hope will become Paganism’s next batch of bards and songwriters. We are in need of new artists who are inspiring, and who aren’t afraid to work hard at their craft for the beauty and satisfaction such creations bring. The Music of Gwydion is at the printer’s right now, and will be shipping through Serpentine Music in a couple weeks’ time, with all royalties going to benefit Gwydion’s forested home in Mendocino County, in accord with his final wishes. 23 years after his untimely death, the Faerie Shaman will ride again!

“Roots Down, Branches Up, Cell Phones Off!”

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I participated in a wonderful initiation ceremony this past weekend. The initiate was pretty much an ideal candidate: grounded, intuitive, smart, grounded, talented, serious, expressive, funny, and grounded. Even though there were only two initiators involved, which means we were doing a lot of work, both of us felt good afterwards — not drained, not hyper, but energized and satisfied. Having participated in quite a few initiations in my time, I know how very rare it is to end up feeling that way afterwards.

It is now nine years after my own Feri initiation, and I finally feel comfortable running that energy full-tilt. It has taken that long for many of us to sift through all we were given and find our own way to use and transmit Feri energy to others. This time I edited and partially rewrote some of the better-known liturgy associated with the rite, so that for once the kinesthetic sense of what I was doing jibed with the words I was speaking.

Lumping an intense ritual in the midst of great upheaval in my life was not easy. I am a relentless multi-tasker usually, with a music label, a writing career, a family and a day job to juggle, but this past week the number of details added to my already full plate was just insane. Getting to and from the initiation alone involved a total of seven hours of driving, and it was only 90 minutes away. So it occurred to me that I may have to add something to my late friend Raven Moonshadow’s brilliant grounding liturgy.

Many of us in Reclaiming use Raven’s grounding (“Roots down, branches up!”) because it’s, well, succinct. After a certain number of years, you simply don’t need to lead a long involved visualization of entering the center of the earth and beaming out to the heavens to ground yourself. You just do it, and get present. So Raven’s signature grounding has been used liberally and with great relief over many years of ritual.

This time, though, I spoke it as, “Roots down, branches up, cell phones off!” The ubiquitous cell phone is a good stand-in metaphor for all our devices and to-do lists that keep pulling our attention away on the horizontal plane. It’s not so much that my frenetic pace had stopped me from being rooted in the earth or open to the sky, but it was scattering my energy to the four winds, not allowing me to think of only one thing at a time. In any ritual but especially in an initiation, you have to give your full attention to what is occurring in the circle in that moment. You can’t have divided attention and wonder if you forgot to call someone back. So that was my little brainstorm for the weekend, it was very helpful for us in that beautiful initiation ceremony, and maybe it can help others out there, too.