Yesterday I was talking with a good friend, catching up on each other’s lives after a couple months only ‘seeing’ each other on social media. He asked me how I was doing, and I paused a bit to think before responding “I think… I feel like I’m changing. Not in a bad way, and not like a total upheaval, but still: a definite shift.” He nodded. “That matches what I’ve been seeing from you online.” It’s good to have that kind of validation, because it’s a very odd experience to see these processes happening; usually they’re only clear in hindsight, so it’s more than a bit disconcerting to feel like you’re observing the building blocks of your life in motion, and to feel like there’s an extent to which they’re moving beyond your direct control.
Not that I wasn’t the motivating factor. I took up the guitar about a month ago, a good sixteen years after first trying to mangle my hands into claw shapes and failing utterly. It’s been going well. Turns out, big shock, as an incredibly stubborn adult with a defined goal — being able to lead ritual song with an appropriately transportable instrument — I’m a far better learner than I was as a teenager whose best friend played guitar, so hey why not. I still have a very long way to go, but I can hack my way through most folky tunes, and I’m confident that within a couple of high days I’ll be decent enough to take the pressure off our lead bard so she can devote time to priesting, etc.
The guitar playing isn’t the change, per se. Rather, it’s like a key; I’ve been feeling as if something has been unlocked. For example: for years, songwriting has been an utter mystery to me. I’m a confident poet, with a graduate degree in the subject, and I’m a singer with a good performer’s knowledge of music theory. But to write a song? Come up with a tune and put words on it? That’s always been this immense black box of inscrutability. And yet, two weeks after first restringing my dad’s old guitar and painfully, laboriously managing to strum a recognizable chord, we performed a song I wrote at the Autumn Equinox rite.
And it’s continued from there. Meditating under the moon with Manannán? Oops, gotta go inside and notate this song that’s forming in my head. Bandmate sends out a lyric he’s been working on? Yeah, that’s a bluegrass song and it goes like this. Read a poem that has beautiful seasonal imagery? Yep, time to go sketch out the harper-style chords to underpin the plainsong it’s already becoming.
In a way there’s nothing magical about this: I picked up an instrument that makes me think about music in a fundamentally different way than I’ve previously been accustomed to, and that makes certain nascent inclinations and abilities come to the surface. But more than the actual mechanics of songwriting, there’s been an undercurrent of identity and service associated. A couple hours before chatting with my friend, I’d been cooking and listening to the Part the Mist podcast (an excellent, fairly new offering from a pair of ADF druids in Portland, Ore.), and the second segment was an interview with Melissa Ashton, the current ADF Bard Laureate. Missy had a lot of interesting, inspiring things to say about her work, but for me the bit that hit most home was a discussion of bardry as both a devotional and a communal practice. Music is an important part of ritual, and leading the folk in song is a powerful form of service. Simultaneously, a solo work, performed before the fire of sacrifice, is also a powerful offering to the Kindreds. And when these are combined — when the work of the bard enables the folk to sing with one voice in praise of the Holy Ones — that is a sort of alchemy, wherein the whole is yet greater than its parts combined.
And this is the change that I feel flowing into me. In the Gaelic texts, we read about imbas, the inspiration that might be received by the filid (high poets; we modern practitioners often collapse the fili/bard distinction) that augmented their technical skill. I’m in no way claiming the clairvoyant imbas forosnai or other great magical works of the legendary bards, but I do feel a lift, a presence of inspiration within me, sometimes latent, sometimes insistent: imbas in its more general sense. It’s a little unsettling, but also buoying. While I am a very long way from achieving the skill and communal recognition of a capital-B Bard, I’m excited to follow this thread where it leads, in the assumption that it will lead to a greater depth of service to the Kindreds and the folk. Be it so.
Header image: Berrigan, Benn. “In These Stones… **Explored**.” Flickr/licensed CC BY-NC.
This is detail from the facade of the Wales Millenium Centre, which bears inscriptions from the Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis: “Creu gwir / fe gwydr / o ffwrnais awen” (‘Creating truth like glass from inspiration’s furnace’) & “In these stones / horizons / sing.”