What It Means to Hear

A multicolored Kármán vortex street (a type of complex wake pattern)

There are many functions of prayer — to praise, to implore, to thank, to express wonder, just to name a few — but for theists, prayer always communicates. More often than not, the communication only goes one way: we say or ask something of the Gods and spirits, we hope they hear and accept the prayer, and we go on without an answer. The Kindreds are certainly capable of answering, but hearing them, and moreover interpreting them, is a difficult skill.

Today I headed downtown for solo auditions with the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus. Singing auditions usually aren’t too stressful for me — they’re just a fact of life for a singer — but I was feeling particularly phlegmy, so I cruised down the freeway doing vocal warmups and wrangling my best Josh Groban. As I neared the rehearsal space, I also said a quick prayer to Lugh. Lugh is a polymath of a god; one of his traditional epithets is Samildánach, “skilled in many arts.” Among his many skills, he was famed among the ancient Irish for his poetic artistry and for the Gae Assail, a spear which never missed its mark. Thus I often pray before artistic endeavors that I might bring him honor by performing with artistry and with a strong, true aim. As I continued warming up, I turned to park and saw a car go flying by just behind me, horn blaring. I had thought the way was clear, but I assume I must have cut him off. I was shaken, but no harm was done, so I went down to auditions.

The singthrough went well, but my heart was still pounding as I came back out into the sunlight, and I took a moment to center myself. I positioned myself mentally between the the Earth and the Sky, feeling my connection to the worlds above and below, and then called out to Lugh, thanking him for his aid in song and for his protection on the road. And then He said, “You have done well.”

I should clarify: I didn’t hear a voice. I didn’t hear those words in this language or any other. The sensation is hard to describe: it’s a feeling, but not a vague one. It’s the most articulate feeling you can imagine, but it’s still very much a feeling, subject to human understanding and interpretation. And I should further clarify that, whether in words or in articulate feelings, if someone says a god — any god: Lugh, Buddha, G-d, Jesus, whatever — is talking to them, I immediately assume that they’re not fully sane. My skeptical threshold is high.

So I pushed back on my own thoughts, assuming that I was hearing what I wanted to hear: the pampering assurance that I was a good little boy. I opened my mind again, content to dwell in the silence of meditation, and again heard “you have done well.” Irritated, I started to tell myself to be less self-serving, but was interrupted forcefully: “you have done well.”

I can’t say what He means. Who can say what a god means? The immediate possibilities aren’t much help: I certainly wasn’t driving well, and though I prayed that I might honor him by my song, I’m fairly sure that Lugh doesn’t really care much one way or the other whether I sing “The First Noel.” Past that, it could be anything: time is not the same for us as for Them.

Clouds swirl in the wake of the Juan Fernandez Islands off the Chilean Coast. Landsat 7 satellite image.
Vortex-street-1” by Bob Cahalan, NASA GSFC

But when searching for an image to use in this post, I had a flash of insight. The lovely image at the top of the post (credit: Wikimedia/Onera), which I stumbled on mostly by chance, is a Kármán vortex street, a series of vortices on alternating sides of the wake of some blunt object. These vortex streets often form around manmade objects in ways both benign (the thrumming of telephone lines) and disastrous (damage and even collapse of structures in high winds). But they also turn up in nature. They show up regularly in satellite pictures, swirling clouds behind mountains and islands. The vortex streets are always there when the wind runs up against the mountain, but we can only see them from a great distance, and only when the clouds dip into the slipstream.

I think of my interaction with Lugh in the same way. He strides through this world and the Otherworld, and time and the wind alike whip past him. His voice, when it reaches me, is distorted by his very passage, and it comes at me with unexpected timing and from unexpected angles. And yet its force is not diminished; he is Lugh Lamhfada, Lugh of the Long Hand, and his spear strikes always its target. In time, I may understand; till then, I’ll ponder the eddy.

Sculpture of a Kármán vortex street (a type of complex wake pattern) by Olov Tällström. Photo by Anders Sandberg (Flickr)
Sculpture of a Kármán vortex street by Olov Tällström, in Stockholm. Photo by Anders Sandberg (Flickr)

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