Art

Talking to the Sun at Summer Solstice

When I was 9, my mom bought me a book of poetry called "Talking to the Sun." I regularly got lost in it, in no small part because its pages were densely packed with amazing art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This favorite book became a constant companion even as I moved multiple times a year during college, to now, over 20 years later. If I ever have a child of my own, "Talking to the Sun" will certainly be among the many treasured and beautiful volumes given me by my very cool, art-loving mother passed down to the next generation.

The poem below is the last poem in the book, and is the poem from which the anthology gets its title. I read it today under the noonday Solstice sun. (The painting, "The Repast of the Lion" by Henri Rousseau, is what accompanied the poem in the book, but as it was a collection for children, they cropped out the actual lion and his gory repast.) One good thing about growing up is that you can revisit poems and songs and paintings from your childhood and understand them better. Happy Solstice.

P.S. Sometimes I like substituting the word "herbalist" for "poet" in the following verses, and adjusting the rest accordingly.

Rousseaulion

A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island

by Frank O'Hara

The Sun woke me this morning loud   
and clear, saying “Hey! I've been   
trying to wake you up for fifteen   
minutes. Don’t be so rude, you are   
only the second poet I’ve ever chosen   
to speak to personally
                                  so why
aren’t you more attentive? If I could   
burn you through the window I would   
to wake you up. I can't hang around   
here all day.”
                      “Sorry, Sun, I stayed   
up late last night talking to Hal.”

“When I woke up Mayakovsky he was   
a lot more prompt” the Sun said   
petulantly. “Most people are up
already waiting to see if I’m going   
to put in an appearance.”
                                       I tried
to apologize “I missed you yesterday.”   
“That’s better” he said. “I didn’t   
know you’d come out.” “You may be   
wondering why I’ve come so close?”   
“Yes” I said beginning to feel hot   
wondering if maybe he wasn’t burning me   
anyway.
            “Frankly I wanted to tell you   
I like your poetry. I see a lot
on my rounds and you’re okay. You may   
not be the greatest thing on earth, but   
you’re different. Now, I’ve heard some   
say you’re crazy, they being excessively   
calm themselves to my mind, and other   
crazy poets think that you’re a boring   
reactionary. Not me.
                               Just keep on
like I do and pay no attention. You’ll   
find that people always will complain   
about the atmosphere, either too hot   
or too cold too bright or too dark, days   
too short or too long.
                                  If you don’t appear
at all one day they think you’re lazy   
or dead. Just keep right on, I like it.

And don’t worry about your lineage
poetic or natural. The Sun shines on
the jungle, you know, on the tundra
the sea, the ghetto. Wherever you were
I knew it and saw you moving. I was waiting   
for you to get to work.

                                    And now that you
are making your own days, so to speak,
even if no one reads you but me
you won’t be depressed. Not
everyone can look up, even at me. It
hurts their eyes.”
                            “Oh Sun, I’m so grateful to you!”

“Thanks and remember I’m watching. It’s   
easier for me to speak to you out
here. I don’t have to slide down
between buildings to get your ear.
I know you love Manhattan, but
you ought to look up more often.
                                                 And
always embrace things, people earth   
sky stars, as I do, freely and with
the appropriate sense of space. That
is your inclination, known in the heavens   
and you should follow it to hell, if   
necessary, which I doubt.
                                       Maybe we’ll
speak again in Africa, of which I too
am specially fond. Go back to sleep now   
Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem   
in that brain of yours as my farewell.”

“Sun, don’t go!” I was awake
at last. “No, go I must, they’re calling   
me.”
       “Who are they?”
                               Rising he said “Some
day you’ll know. They’re calling to you   
too.” Darkly he rose, and then I slept.


Finding an herbal ally, daemon and/or genius

The_Inspiration_of_Saint_Matthew_by_Caravaggio A couple of weeks ago, this video of Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert was making its rounds on Twitter. In it, Gilbert discusses the idea of how the creativity of artists was perceived in the world of classical antiquity.

In short, artists didn't take all the credit for creating some incredible piece of work; transcendent artistic expressions were believed to be the fruit of a collaboration between the human artist and his or her assigned supernatural helper spirit, a daemon (as it was called by the ancient Greeks), or genius (as it was called by the Romans).

Gilbert says of the ancient Greeks and Romans,

People did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then. People believed that creativity was a divine attendant spirit who came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.

By the time the Renaissance rolled around -- regarded as the rebirth of the art and spirit of classical antiquity, ironically -- the human being was placed at the center of the universe and artists themselves became known as 'geniuses', signaling a shift toward the belief that creativity was indeed a singularly human phenomenon.

I shared this video with my friend @theogeer of Autumn Twilight. I mentioned that I had felt rushed in clinic the previous evening and complained that I wasn't quite sure I had adequately helped my new client. I joked that I sure could have used the aid of an 'herbal genius.'

Theo said:

I wonder about that idea of an herbal genius. Lots of practitioners, particularly of native or isolated traditions have a plant ally of some sort. Carlos Casteneda famously detailed the development of his alliance with peyote, and the Curanderos and Brujos of Mexico and Central America have a well known alliance with mint, which they use for everything. Maybe what you need is to find a plant ally to guide you in your work?

Now, when you live with one foot in the magickal world as Theo and I do, synchronicities are not only frequent but also consciousness-shifting. Those few lines of his above focused my mind on the events of the previous night at the clinic:

I was concluding a follow-up appointment when my teacher and herb clinic director, Althea Northage-Orr, popped her head in the room and politely asked me to hurry up; an unscheduled client decided to come at the last minute and she wanted me to take the case. I wrapped up my intake and ran to the pharmacy to tweak my follow-up client's herbal formula.

His formula originally contained white peony root, also known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as bai shao. I took the bottle of tincture down from the shelf. It had about a finger-width left at the bottom. I looked at the golden liquid and said to it (silently): "Nope. A woman is going to come in today who will need you." I put the bottle back on the shelf and subbed another Yin-building tonic into this man's formula.

Sure enough, my next case was a lovely woman dealing with exhaustion and family hardships at just the time she was beginning menopause, among other complaints. The white peony, which I had always considered a very feminine, softening, building herb, was among the medicinals indicated for her symptoms. I was happy to drain the last of the bai shao into her formula and mentioned it specifically when I tried to explain to her what my treatment principle was and why I had chosen some of the herbs that she would be taking.

Paeonia lactiflora by Ulf Eliasson That night I dreamed that I was drinking tea out of a wide bowl with a strainer pressed to the bottom of it to keep the tea leaves from floating to the surface. When I had finished the tea, I removed the strainer to discard the marc (used-up plant matter) and was delighted to find that the bottom of the bowl was covered with large white flowers, fresh and plump as if they had just been cut from the plant.

I hadn't thought of my little moment in the pharmacy with the white peony tincture or the dream at all, until Theo's question kicked my memory into gear.

White peony is now a definite herbal 'genius' of mine.

Althea (whose special plant ally is mugwort, not marshmallow, by the way), incorporates workings with plant devas into our education to help attune us to the spiritual energies of plants. In this way I've had wonderful experiences sitting in her garden with live plants which made them special 'friends' -- namely, skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), elder (Sambucus nigra) and St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum). But I'd never had quite the same experience of communication between myself and a plant like I had with white peony.

Another teacher of mine, Michael Tierra, has mentioned several times on his blog that herbalists often happen to be artists as well. Being both myself, and knowing many herbal healers including Michael who fit the artist bill as well, I wholeheartedly agree. A paragraph in one of Michael's recent posts really resonated with me:

No matter how deeply one studies and enters into the complexity of healing, plant biochemistry and so on..., nevertheless there is always place for the irrational and the subjective. The poet's perspective of life, the musician's sense of harmony, the artist's eye of proportion and relationships - these are all shared by healers, especially the herbal healer who works with plants, which are the pure creative expression of nature and the healing process.

I challenge anyone to express it more brilliantly than that!

Herbalits are artists and therefore should create a special place in their practice for the help of their own little attendant plant spirit. Perhaps like animal totems these may change and cycle back and forth over time, but the idea of a divinely assigned plant ally, while by no means new, can really help an herbalist to co-create with the ultimate Divine source of healing.

Since my experience with white peony, I've been keeping my intuition a little more open and trying to allow it to confirm or be confirmed by my usual bookish nature when it comes to choosing herbs for a formula. I pay attention to herbs I come across during the day, in the form of pictures or live plants or dreams, and more often than not these herbs step forward when I review a client's case. Sometimes their presence is specifically indicated for a certain condition; other times they help me decide when I am on the fence about two herbs that do very similar things.

I have to say, after only a short time with this approach, the results and the experiences I have had with clients have been very gratifying. I have felt a greater confidence in my formula selections -- a shared confidence greater than the reassurance I have gotten from books and research only. I keep the awareness of gentle, beautiful bai shao close by; she takes the edge off performance pressure and ego, allowing me (so far!) to be a more present and compassionate practitioner. I am as grateful for this blessing and gift as I am for my human teachers.

If you have a special herbal daemon or genius, I'd love to hear about it and how you came to know it was your ally in the comments section!


The Dark of December: Time to Count Your "Nevermores"

Ravenwindow 

Most of us know Edgar Allen Poe's most famous poem -- the one that catapulted him to stardom, in fact, in 1845: "The Raven."

Is this poem the story of a grieving lover slowly descending into madness, hallucinating an interaction with a raven who may or may not be there?

Even if it is, Poe's "The Raven" illustrates a great way to waste the segment on the Wheel of the Year which is the darkest yet of the Dark half: December. Let's take a look:

THE RAVEN.

ONCE upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
" 'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door --
Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; -- vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow -- sorrow for the lost Lenore --
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore --
Nameless here forevermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me -- filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door--
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door --
This it is and nothing more."


So here's our narrator, sitting in his cozy little house, fire crackling by, reflecting upon the past. Certainly we see late October and November as a time for reflection upon the past year. In October we reflect more on the past year's gains -- it is the final month of harvest, after all. And, keeping in mind that to reap the October harvest means that something must die, November is traditionally considered as the month of remembrance for the dead.

But "The Raven" is set in December -- "bleak December" -- and the time for reflecting and remembering is over.

Note that in our poem it is December outside, separate from our narrator's action, and something from out there is trying to get in. Whatever it is makes our narrator (read: us) nervous and scared, and understandably so.

But look closely: the narrator is out of step with the season and time of day:

It is midnight; he is awake, reading, fighting off sleep.

Now is not the time for rational thinking or for rationalizing whatever might be "out there" away; it is the Dark of the Year, and we are quickly slipping into the time for dreaming, and as we all know, dreams are anything but rational.

December is the time of forgetting, and he is still remembering. Perhaps forgetting is too strong a word; anyone who has been initiated into the ways of death by the loss of a loved one is forever changed and will certainly never forget, but one does have to stop dwelling at some point.

That point is represented on the Celtic Wheel of the Year by the darkest time: December.

I'll write more about that in a moment. Let's move on through "The Raven":


Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you" --  here I opened wide the door; --
Darkness there, and nothing more.


A lie: first of all, sleeping would be appropriate at this hour, not napping, and secondly, he wasn't napping, he was awake, reading! Another incongruence.


Lenorewater 

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore!"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"
Merely this, and nothing more.


Using his empirical sense of sight, he searches the dark abyss fruitlessly for the visitor who has come a-rapping. He whispers of course, hope against hope (or horror), what is on his mind: the name of his lost beloved. The darkness returns the name. Is it she who has disturbed his evening? Is she out there? But the echo is all he gets, and so, unsatisfied:


Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon I heard again a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore

Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;

'Tis the wind and nothing more!"


Our narrator turns away from the cold night beyond his door, probably never even stepping over the threshold, and returns to his room. He chooses not to search the blackness, preferring the comfort of his quarters and morbid thoughts.

Whatever did not come in through the door is now at the window. Though he still rationalizes it away to preserve his peace of mind, he is still compelled to see what the December night has brought him.


Athena 

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door

Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door

Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore

Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."


The December night has brought him a raven, which unapologetically barges right in. In myth and legend, the raven is the bird of death -- from bill-tip to talon, black as the cold midnight from which it came, an eater of carrion, its artless broad beak not made for singing (that is the glad expression of spring and summer birds), but only capable of uttering rough sounds.

Or in this case, as we shall find out, one merciless, negative word: "Nevermore."

But who are the other 'characters' in these two verses?

Where does the harbinger of the month of cold, darkness and death, the black scavenger bird, alight?

Atop the head of Pallas Athena: daughter sprung full grown from her father Zeus' head, virgin goddess of wisdom, valor and war, companion to heroes, bringer of light, discipline and philosophy to humankind.

Pallas' totem animal is the owl; how dare any other bird, especially one so inelegant as the raven, perch right atop her horsehair helmet?

Athena represents order, rational thinking, discipline. This represents comfort for our narrator, most likely an academic of some sort. But he's already got one foot in another world -- the world of death, into which he has been initiated by the loss of his Lenore. He refuses to look at Death for what it is, and so does not understand its mystery, only its machinery. He is torn between wanting to forget Lenore completely and wishing to be reunited with her. In any case he remains static in his dwelling upon the memory of something that can never be restored to the original state with which he associates it.

When the raven perches atop the white bust of Pallas Athena, it signifies two things: 1) This is not the time for rational thinking. It's a wild, dark, December night out there and you would only be so lucky as to be able to rely on rules and your five senses to get you through. And 2) Death and decay are inevitable. Not even the most ardent worshippers of Athena's Olympian ideals of light, discipline and heroism can escape it.

But it is our narrator himself -- or some 'knowing' part of him -- who utters the name of the Death god himself: Pluto. Pluto is Hades, lord of the Underworld, where, if we were to look at this from a Greek mythological point of view, Lenore now resides. And a sight-seeing tour to the Underworld is exactly what the Dark of the Year provides, if one is aware enough to buy a ticket.

Like so many of us who study myth and archetypes, our narrator has the tools and inner knowing to apply the mysteries' usefulness to his mundane life, if only he can remember that they exist beyond his precious books!


Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning -- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door --
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered -- not a feather then he fluttered --

Till I scarcely more than muttered "Other friends have flown before

On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said "Nevermore."


Bleak December's salesbird of death seems to tell our narrator: "Look -- if you think you will ever be rid of the reality of Death, you've got another thing coming, buster."


Chair 

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore

Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never
nevermore."

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore

What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!


Hmm. "Some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster/ Followed fast and follwed faster till his songs one burden bore --/ Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy bore..."

Gee Mr. Narrator, project much?

Alternately dismissive and bemused, our narrator continues to be torn: first, he rationalizes away the raven's talent for speaking its single word, but then pulls up a chair and tries to divine some deeper meaning from it; second, he seems to begin moving forward in unraveling the mystery of his bird guest, but then immediately returns to his tormenting yet familiar thoughts of dead Lenore.


Angels 

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by angels whose faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee -- by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite -- respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."


The narrator either hallucinates or truly senses the presence of angels and incense. He thinks that in kindess God has sent them to help him forget Lenore. The raven once again unceremoniously disrupts the stillness with its familiar cry.


"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! -- prophet still, if bird or devil! --
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted --
On this home by Horror haunted -- tell me truly, I implore --
Is there -- is there balm in Gilead? -- tell me -- tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil -- prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us -- by that God we both adore --

Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore

Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."


By now knowing EXACTLY what the raven's answer will be to any question put before it, the narrator bizarrely gives the bird the power of a prophet and asks it if he will ever find relief from this sorrow, either in this world or the next. Of course the raven gives its usual reply.

And because this poor guy is already at the end of his rope, you know the result isn't going to be pretty:


Expel 

"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!
quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted
nevermore!


Driven to anger and hysterics by the raven, who has only done exactly what at first 'beguiled all (the narrator's) sad soul into smiling' before, the narrator screams at the bird to get out of his house. The implacable raven utters his one word and remains there still.

So how do I say our narrator is "wasting" his December?

Let's give the raven a few more words:

"Dude, if you are just going to sit here in your house, as though it were still the time of reflection and remembering (October and November), then no, moron, you will never find relief from your sorrow. You'll never forget Lenore because you won't let her really be dead. And much better than forgetting, you won't ever understand what she really meant to you until you stop dwelling on her absence."

Poe, I'm not.

In other words, you can't keep riding the wave of anything from the past if you're going to move forward. You have to let go -- let die -- your triumphs and failures, or at least the emotions of them, so that you can build anew. Yes, you'll use foundations previously laid, but if you sit around saying:

"Gosh, what a nifty foundation I've built for myself, it's so cute and perfect and adorable and grand that I wish I could preserve it just the way it is,"

Or:

"Damn, look at this lopsided, poor excuse for a foundation I tried to build for this project. It is so ugly and upsetting I can't even look at it long enough to clear it away,"

...You'll never get anywhere.

The raven, an unwelcome and frankly disturbing gift given by the bleak December night, reminds us that now is not the time for harvest (killing), nor is it for remembering, but for stillness and the 'beingness' of being dead. It's dark. It's cold. Nothing that isn't supposed to be alive now is.

What does this mean? This means that whatever you worked to manifest in the light of the year should have been harvested by now, and given thanks for by now. And what was discarded should be left to do the un-work of being dead: that is, putrefaction. It is from this decay and primal soup that we call forth new life that will grow under the light that slowly returns after the Winter Solstice. December is a month of irreconcilables, but that is the greatest mystery of all. It is the 'coagule' of the alchemists, taking the putrefied remains of organic substance and reassembling its elements into something completely new.

Graveyard 

The narrator of "The Raven" has his inner knowing. He knows he can learn about the mystery of death and where Lenore is if he just goes outside, leaves his incongruent chamber of morbid dwelling (no pun intended) and accepts the death, dark and stillness of December. He even seems to know that he's as stuck as the 'unhappy master' he imagines taught the raven to speak.

But in the end he tries to expel the raven from his familiar little morose hamster-wheel of out-of-season thoughts. And like a messenger sent from his higher self, the raven plants itself until -- if -- the narrator ever "gets" it. With its maddening one-word vocabulary, the raven is a reflection of the narrator's own stasis and a reminder that while true death brings about change and new life, stasis sets the stage for nothing but desolation.

If, this December, you find yourself in the place of the narrator, remember: if you don't feel like sharing your room with the raven, just open the door and walk out into the dark and the cold, accepting the season. Like the plants who have returned their energy to the earth, seemingly incapable of ever returning to life, lie down and sleep deeply. Get rest now, because after the longest night, it will be your job to dream dreams of the new year.

"O Night you black wet-nurse of the golden stars! From this darkness all things that are in this world have come as from its spring or womb."

-- Philalethes, Magia Adamica, 1650

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Woodcuts above by Gustave Doré, 1884.


Ramping up for el Dia de los Muertos

Waygoodbones

Once again, it's been a rather long break here on Herbis Orbis. I've been AWOL thanks to all my spare moments being devoted to preparations for Lugh's Day of the Dead show this Friday. Altar-building, sugar-skull hunting, beloved volunteer-wrangling and general art production (see this year's poster artwork above; Sharpie on drawing paper!) have all been on my Dia de los Muertos plate. On top of that we have our Mystery School Samhain celebration and ritual tonight, for which Ima asked me to bake saffron- and cinnamon-scented soul cakes and possibly reprise my role as a goddess who somehow gets trapped in the Underworld (last year I was Inanna; this year Persephone). My acting skills are flimsy at best but I go into it with gusto.

Also, I just returned from a brief trip to Columbia, Maryland, where the American Herbalists Guild held their annual symposium.  The content from such famed herbalists as David Winston, Christopher Hobbs, Bob Duggan, Simon Mills, James Duke and Candis Cantin was excellent, and I wished I could have attended all the concurrent sessions. Still, a real feeling of "tribe" eluded me, much unlike the comparatively dreamy -- in a good way -- East West seminar last spring. In an e-mail to my friend Ben, the best way I could find to describe the AHG conference experience was that "I felt like the out-of-town visitor in a Tim Burton comedy set in a Whole Foods."

A highlight of the trip was getting to spend a bewildering and yet totally satisfying less-than-ten-inconsecutive-minutes with my teacher Michael Tierra, who reminded me to go back to the Kybalion and meditate upon the hermetic Principle of Rhythm. In other words, "Stop being so damn sensitive all the time."

When I wasn't sitting in lecture or being bewildered and sensitive, I was in my hotel room with my buddy Christina, eating cold pizza and giggling over bathroom humor... which was really the perfect foil for spending eight hours surrounded by more batik-printed, patchouli-scented, vegan-thin, surprisingly touchy people than you will ever meet in a lifetime in Chicago.

More on Samhain tomorrow!


Brian May, dreams, and the iron-clad laws of hero worship.

Bri32306_3
Brian May plays to a darkened stadium in March 2006

Of all the strange, and some might say, outlandish things I discuss on this blog, it seems ironic that I should ask that you give me leave to dream a little today. Suffer me to be sentimental, to be starry-eyed, to hang up my adult skin, just for one essay.

I’ve always been fascinated by the dynamic between celebrity and adoring fan, between performer and audience. (Apparently, to examine this closer, I married a performer.) In particular, I find extremely interesting the fine and distinct thread that connects a single member of an audience to a performer, who expands his or her aura to touch many at once. It’s an incredible phenomenon: It’s impossible for any performer to be aware of each individual person who has come to experience his or her talent, be it at a show or behind the privacy of their own earbuds. Yet, every single member of an audience is hyper-aware of the artist in the spotlight. Without one there would not be the other. Furthermore, it is not so much the talent as it is the emotional connection behind the talent that sustains the relationship. I’ve come to view this as a symbiotic balance; any artist who says he or she does not create for an audience is probably lying. I believe that all expression is based on the assumption that someone or something is going to bear witness – even if what results is the repression of a certain kind of expression. Music is meant to be heard, art is meant to be seen, food is meant to be tasted and eaten. As Forster said, “Only connect.” That’s what art is meant to do. Teaching, too. You may say, I suppose, that you choose yourself to be your own witness. But really, it all comes from a need to share – with others.

Where was I? Oh yes. Dreaming.

Let me tell you a story.

How a Big Scary Robot Changed My Life

When I was little, I would often sit on the floor in the living room, flipping through my Dad’s massive record collection. I’d spend hours this way, while he’d listen to music for what seemed like an eternity. (Only three artists stick out in my memory: Pink Floyd, the Incredible String Band, and Leonard Cohen; to a small child, this is the uncut soundtrack to Eternity.) I’d pull out the records – much to his chagrin, as they were meticulously alphabetized by artist – and just look at the art.

I could never pass up the opportunity to pull this one from the shelf...:

Notw

...Which most people will remember was one of those records that flipped open to reveal much larger artwork:

Notwinside

... And I’d look at it for a long time, a bit scared of it but also perhaps morbidly attracted.

Then, one day when I was six, I decided I was brave enough to hear what such an album would sound like, so I asked Dad to play the record. (He was a real stereophile then, and I knew that I was never to touch anything, especially the record player, much less take records out of their sleeves. In truth, the real obstacle was that I was too short to reach the turntable.)

Now, you can’t have existed very long on this planet without having heard “We Will Rock You.” I think it is an unwritten natural law. I certainly recognized it as the needle played it through Dad’s woofers and tweeters. I felt ‘cool,’ now knowing the words to what I heard at school basketball games and televised sporting events.

At that tender age, I didn’t care much for the song that followed it, and certainly not at all for the one after that. But then, in stark contrast to the first three tracks came one like a soft, cool hand to a fevered forehead – a ballad by someone named Brian May entitled “All Dead, All Dead.” Until that moment, it was the song I most dreaded hearing, because I was sure it would have something to do with the bloody album cover.

But it was soft, and lovely, and kind of made me want to cry. I loved it. I listened to it over and over – when Dad would let me.

That was my Dad’s only Queen record, and in fact it was given him by a friend. I wouldn’t hear it again – regularly, anyway – until years later:

I was 14 and in high school. The battle of identity raged within: was I a goth or a neo-hippie? I cared too much about the planet, peace and the Beatles to be your garden-variety apathetic goth, but I liked the Cure, Siouxie, and wearing black clothes and lipstick too much to be a proper hippie. When you’re a teenager, your taste in music is what defines you, and in the early ‘90s there was a lot to choose from (and strangely, it all devolved into ‘grunge').

One day I was in my boyfriend’s car – I don’t remember where we were going or if I was a goth or a hippie that day – when from out of dead air on Q101 came the words “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” The (now) unmistakable opening to Bohemian Rhapsody. And what a rhapsody it was! My world suddenly shrank to this infinitesimal point, where only myself and the music existed. It was unlike anything I had ever heard, it was so good, MY GOD that guitar solo, those voices, and not only did I want to hear more of whoever the hell this was, I wanted to live inside the song.

Borhap_2 Most of us have been blessed with experiences like that. However, not so many of us are blessed with a sustained version of such an experience, which, little did I suspect, was exactly where my ears were leading me.

Imagine my surprise as I discovered that this was Queen, the same Queen I’d been so superficially fascinated with as a child. Out came the Big Silver Scary Robot again, to remain in rotation permanently for the next few years. Out came all the spare cash from my little job as a detail clerk in an auto shop going right into the till at music stores, all for 20 years’ worth of Queen records, purchased in chronological order.

 That summer, I had a fantastic dream. In it, I was a guest at a crowded, lavish ball held in a great hall. I decided to leave the lights and the dancing for some quiet. I walked through wide, high-ceilinged, stone-floored hallways, following the sweet scent of blossoms in the cool night air. I arrived at a pair of doors that opened to a giant balcony overlooking a large pond and ancient trees, thrown into silvery relief by the stars and crescent moon overhead. I walked forward to a wrought iron railing at the edge of the balcony. I delighted in my secret find and looked contentedly at the vista before me. Then, I heard the latch turn behind me. I turned around just in time to see none other than the afore-mentioned Brian May, whom I now knew as Queen's guitarist, emerging into the moonlight. Through the open door, faint strains of the music sailed out into the night. Both of us were dressed to the nines (I can’t remember if this was set in the present day or not). He asked me to dance. I said yes. We danced. Then, I woke up.

I floated through the day, fresh on the memory of this sweet (albeit rather formulaic – oh, there goes my 30-year-old critic!) dream. That afternoon, I accompanied my dad on a shopping errand which included a visit to the music store. I picked up a copy of “Jazz.” There is a song on that record, written by Brian, called “Dreamer’s Ball.” I don’t need to recount the reaction of an adolescent girl to hearing that song for the first time the day after she dreamed it.

But there weren't only Queen albums. There were also Queen videos.

(Let me pause to state the obvious: since the dawn of MTV, image and image-making have claimed ever-increasing importance in the trajectory of musicians’ careers; that is, how you look is almost as important as how you sound – which certainly allows a lot of mediocrity to get through, at the expense of the solid talent out there that’s less, shall we say, modish. Now, thanks to reality TV and the Internet, almost anyone can be a “celebrity.” (Big, BIG quotes around that one.) Here’s what I’m getting at: Simulacra is simulacra, but back before photos of celebrities were flashed in front of you every five seconds in every conceivable setting, images actually had power. There’s no such thing as an icon anymore. Now it’s all fodder for post-modern detritus.)

Back to those Queen videos then.

Queen had their own style. A look, a crafted image. It changed a lot and I certainly favored some periods over others in their 20-year career, but while it was always over the top, it never eclipsed the quite unbelievable talent of the members of the band. And it was this guy in particular who took my breath away, time and time again:

Thegame_6
Yup, that's Brian. All right, let’s have an image that makes him a bit more accessible, shall we?

Brismiling_3
 

So, fueled by these videos and images made extra powerful by Queen's attention to grandiose and flamboyant visuals, at 14, I fell in “love.” Not with some hunky dude on a sitcom or a pop star, but with the man you see above. And the more I found out about him, the more I fell in love, because he just kept getting better! I’ll get to that in a moment.

Close Encounters and Close Calls

Looking back, it was such a strange time to become obsessed with Queen. Freddie had just died, the Concert for Life had not yet happened, and “Wayne’s World” (the film), which was about to bring Queen into focus for so many people of my generation, was not yet released. Stranger still, past and present began to slide together when, just before my 16th birthday in 1993, Brian would release his first solo record, “Back to the Light.” I was still slowly savoring my way through the Queen catalogue. My favorite albums were the first two. There were no guarantees that I’d like the new stuff. (I have to say I enjoy his solo work more now because I understand it better now.)

When I found out that Brian would be coming to town for a concert in late 1993, it was a big deal. A VERY big deal. I’d never been to a concert before. That year, I was invited to see bands I loved – James, Depeche Mode, Radiohead. Turned ‘em all down because I wanted to lose my concert ‘virginity’ with Brian May. Yes, I said it (or typed it, rather, which is probably worse because now it’s here for all posterity).

It was an amazing night. (It was weird, too – seeing him with a totally different band, including two young female back-up singers.) I was right in front. He was still completely untouchable, and he certainly never looked at me, but I had a feeling this was as good as it was going to get, because I’d never be this close again.

Starstruck, when I got home I started to write him a letter. I wanted to tell him what an impact he’d made on me, how thankful I was. I worked on it, illustrating it (as only a teenager would), making it perfect, selecting the right paper, etc., for a week or so. Then I handed it to my Mom to put in the mail. She asked me if she could make a copy of the envelope. Here’s some of it:

Lostletter

And after two weeks I began the anxious ritual of compulsively checking my mailbox several times a day.

Nothing ever came.

Looking back, I’m sure he never saw my letter, to which I say, “Thank GOD!” I never made a copy of the actual text, but if 20/20 hindsight serves, it was full of your typical melodramatic teenage prose. As a writer now, I’d rather die than have anyone see some of the cringe-worthy material I put to paper back then; and here I was, sending a nice fat slice of it off to the one person in the world whose opinion I valued over all else. I shudder to think what he might have thought, had his eyes seen the thing. And I never thought I’d say this, but if someone out there screened it and tossed it into the recycling pile before he could get at it – Thanks.

Vitamin May

My first year of college, not satisfied with the grueling schedule and demands of journalism boot camp, I decided to take a basic astronomy course. Why? Well, because, Brian May is an astrophysicist, don’t you know. I hold no less wonder for the stars and planets after having taken that course, but boy did it spoil an up-til-then stellar GPA. Pun intended.

So this brings me back to why finding out more and more about Brian May made him better and better. In other words, livinglegend/rockstar/guitargod &c. &c. aside, here is why he inspires me:

1) Let’s start with the brainy stuff.

Britenerife

Brian May was pursuing a Ph.D. in astrophysics and stopped short of finishing that degree when Queen hit it big and went full time. He designed and built a telescope to collect data for his dissertation on zodiacal (interplanetary) dust, which, to my knowledge, is still collecting data on the Canary Islands. (Picture above of Brian and his telescope, circa 1968 (?) used without permission but hopefully with forgiveness from Brian's Soapbox on www.brianmay.com.)

There’s more. If ever there were anyone who might have earned the right to rest on his laurels, it could be Brian. But after 30 years exploring stardom of a totally different firmament with Queen, he decided to return to his notes and complete his thesis, which he did just this year. He has received multiple honorary degrees but will receive the one he truly set out to earn next May, assuming his thesis is approved. Here he is from just last week, capped and gowned in the robing room and ready to receive an honorary doctorate from Exeter University:

 Brirobing

(Photo by Phillip Webb, also used without permission but hopefully forgiveness from Bri's Soapbox.)

Brian also co-authored a book on the history of the universe with astronomy colleagues Sir Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott. “Bang! – The Complete History of the Universe” was published late last year.

Good Lord. Sometimes, I can’t even finish a crossword puzzle.

2) I talk a lot about magic and intention on this website. For all intents and purposes, Brian built, from scratch, a magical tool of his own, the famous “Red Special” guitar.

Redspecial

That’s right, Queen’s signature sound comes from a home-made guitar. Luthiers and techies will appreciate the detailed information here, but most people who read this blog will be content to know that the Red Special was created with mahogany from a 19th century fireplace (plus oak for the body – mahogany and oak being fiery trees, elementally speaking); the body and neck were shaped by hand; the position inlays are made from mother-of-pearl buttons; the tremolo is made from an old bicycle saddle bag carrier and a knitting needle; and he plays this guitar with sixpence coins instead of a regular pick. Most magical of all, I think, is that Brian built this guitar with his Dad, Harold. They began work on it in 1963.

Brivox

 

I haven’t been able to get much into the discussion of the importance of creating one’s own magical tools yet because that is not something I’ve had to do much of this year, but if the “Red Special” doesn’t inspire one to make one’s own tools, I don’t know what will. The immense amount of energy, creativity, intention and love that must have gone into the making of that instrument is staggering to me – not to mention where it has taken its owner. Magically speaking, it is on par with a wizard’s staff or fire-forged sword (or in this case, ‘axe’). It is an illustration that “the little self inside the creation” fosters a bond that renders the tool and the bearer together quite powerful. (And I promise that that is about as Dungeons and Dragons as I will ever get on this blog.)

3) And then, there’s the music.

Most people who’ve seen Brian as a part of Queen know him as the reserved, quiet guitarist cultivating a healthy aura of mystique. Women find him attractive, in part, because he seems shy and like he might need a bit of mothering (I should say that this perceived quality applied to him 30 years ago, not now). Men find him attractive because his guitar playing can rock the paint off cars.

Behind all that is a brilliant composer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter with remarkable range. He’s the guy behind the testosterone-saturated “We Will Rock You,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and “Tie Your Mother Down.” If you know Queen’s catalogue you’ll also know the blistering “Stone Cold Crazy” or “Dead on Time,” the apocalyptic (but hopeful!) “Prophet’s Song” and driving “Headlong.” In his solo career we have examples like “Resurrection,” “China Belle,” and “The Guvnor.” Allow me to remind you that he has been called one of the fathers of heavy metal.

But he also penned some of the most lyrical, elegant, delicate and, well, sensitive songs ever. Brian has a constellation of compositions linking almost every album (Queen and solo) that warp time and space, or exist on a liminal dreamlike plane, and/or are bound in a certain kind of melancholy longing, often for something or someone untouchable or lost along the way. I have to admit that these pieces are the ones that form a running soundtrack perfectly matched to what I call my vast interior life. It’s a place, perhaps unfortunately, where I live too much, but at least I can say that it’s never boring. These compositions are the ones guaranteed to send me there, leaving my body here with a faraway look on its face.

They’re also the ones that bleed into reality in strange ways, like my experience with “Dreamer’s Ball.” In 2000, “Another World” pulled me out of a particularly dark place. In May of 2006, having the Beltaine opportunity to touch the world of the White Queen breathed life into that song, though from a totally different perspective.

Brian_mysteriousBest of all of these came again in dream form last year, extraordinary also because it happened on a single island of sound sleep in an ocean of insomnia. In this dream, I was watching Brian in an intimate, uncrowded concert. (This was Brian as he is now, not circa 1975 as the picture at left may suggest.) After he finished playing, he stepped down from the stage to mingle with the fans. Enough of them thinned out for me to be able to talk to him, and he greeted me as though he recognized me. I asked him, “Brian, how did you become sure that this was your vocation?” I motioned to the stage and the idle instruments. He put on a thoughtful face for a moment and then signaled to me to come closer. He looked into my eyes and said, “Pay attention now, because I am going to sing you the song of your becoming.” And he leaned forward, put his lips to my ear, and began to sing. He was still singing when I woke up.

I stared at the ceiling of my tent (I happened to be camping in the forest that day), feeling simultaneously blessed and overwhelmed. Also, totally exasperated because the song completely evaporated, as dreams often do in the sunlight. While the words and the melody were gone, the feeling of it remained, however, and it reminded me of another of his songs in real life. When I got back to the city I listened to it closely for the first time in years, and discovered a whole new meaning.

To be clear, I’m not saying I believe this man ‘visited’ me in my dreams or anything like that; but I believe he is certainly the instrument my subconscious uses to remind me to continually evolve into the best me I can be, invoking balance and harmony all the while. There is a something and a someone that I will one day be, as yet untouchable, and perhaps that is why I connect with Brian’s songs of longing. I guess that through the example of Brian May-the-man comes Brian May-the-archetype, who represents to me a kind of ideal – a harmony of empiricism and intuition, science and art, reality and surreality, the ancient and the unfolding.

Well.

If this essay hasn’t jumped the threshold of hero worship yet, it never will.

If at first you don't succeed...

Brian and Roger Taylor, plus Paul Rodgers as a new front man for Queen, came here for a concert in the spring of 2006. I got second row seats, stage way, WAY right. (Note to self: If they ever come back to America, get tickets stage left next time because where his fretboard is, his face follows.) I was a tiny individual in a throng of really big (yes, I’m talkin’ sizewise) audience members. At the end of the concert I jumped on my chair so that I could actually see Brian as he came forward on the catwalk to say good night. (The picture at the beginning of this post shows how far away that was.) I flailed my arms around and shouted, surely undiscernable from the cries of the stadium full of people. One of the staff at the venue asked me to step down from my seat because it might break.

Bri032306i_2

I came home after this wonderful concert and pounced on my computer to e-mail Brian. Less melodrama this time. Short and sweet. (Contrary to the idea you might get, dear reader, from this unabashedly self-indulgent essay, I am indeed capable of terse verse). Remember how I said that any expression assumes or anticipates a witness? That holds true for e-mails to rock stars too, but the difference was that this time I knew the odds were against that assumption.

And here we are.

Hey, at least I saved the cost of international shipping!

Another World?

Occasionally, in my weaker moments, I still sing the lament of the teenager who wrote the rock star 15 years ago:

How can it be that, on a ribbon of time stretching millions of years in either direction, and in a universe chock full of galaxies containing countless suns and planets, two beings of the same species may be allowed to be born within the same lifetime, on the same rock, within a few thousand miles of each other … but then not be allowed to know one another?

Maybe it’s just that ever-increasing awareness of limitations that comes with adulthood but I look at it now and more and more I begin to think that there’s an order that just should not be rearranged, or a veil that cannot be parted. I leave it up to the guys at Pixar to prove me wrong, but all the old myths seem to mostly preserve a kind of set of natural laws that even the gods could not pervert. Not without great effort and consequences, anyway.

And in truth, that veil is necessary to holding the whole thing together, you know?

Britelescope

So, back to that crazy phenomenon between performer and audience I referred to at the beginning of this article, and which I illustrated shamelessly here with my own story. There is the hero we create in our own mental and emotional landscapes, and there is the hero sitting at home clipping his or her toenails. There is a very real place where the two overlap, I think, but it exists in the Twilight Zone. It is no less real, however.

Today is Brian’s 60th birthday. He spent part of it receiving an honorary fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University. Another day, another accolade! He continues to be a shining example of how to follow one’s dreams and make them come true. I don’t know Brian May-the-man at all, but what I know of his work and life brings out something special in me – he inspires me to aim higher and to work harder, to be the best, motivated not by competition or fear but by following those things about which I am passionate – my tropism, my true vocation (which I am still figuring out... late bloomer). He inspires me to have the courage to dream big as long as I have prepared a good anchor ahead of time. He also gives me a spectacular soundtrack by which to work and play.

Ah, my inner teenager wants to say something:

He’s also still one of the most handsome men in this solar system.

Happy birthday and God bless you, Brian. Thanks for being a continual teacher and inspiration, and for all that magnificent music, veil notwithstanding.

...

Finally, God bless you readers who stuck with this essay all the way to the end. And now, a real life paper calls – if only I knew half as much about the life of 17th-century herbalist/physician/astrologer Nicholas Culpeper as I do about Brian May!

Aside from the ones from Brian's personal website, the concert photos I took, the photo of the centerfold of "News of the World" from an eBay auction, and the last one of Brian in red with the telescope, which bears a copyright to David Burden, all images here are from the fan gallery at QueenZone.


Far Out

Bisondelic


Here's a psychedelic buffalo I painted last weekend. It's for a poster for one of Lugh's upcoming concerts in Colorado. This is the only place you'll see it without all the Photoshopped-in event details!

It's also my reason for not updating last weekend. Stay tuned; the Three Cauldrons of the Druids coming up.