Stories about songs

I’m not much of a songwriter. Inspiration seldom comes to me in that shape, and I tend to be too wordy – it’s a very specific skill writing lyrics, and I haven’t got it. Nor am I a natural tune writer. However, I’ve sung and played music since childhood, and this means I spend most of my time with other people’s work. Picking material is a major process for anyone in my situation. So, what to pick, and how? These questions don’t have to be tackled in order.

I tend to look at traditional folk music, rock and pop for my source material. A song therefore has to work stripped down. It needs enough melody to work with me signing it, and must not depend on complex multi-instrument arrangement. Many pop songs, deprived of their backing, sound like nothing at all, so for me the first measure of a song is whether I can sing it unaccompanied.

Question two is, does it make sense if I sing it? Is it personal to the singer – again often an issue with pop – or is there something universal here that makes sense. Is there a story, or a message, a mood or a concept that I can express? Do I like, value, engage with those things such that it makes sense for me to sing them?

I then have to ask if I have the vocal range, technical skill and playing ability to do the song justice. I might well not know until I try. I did, once, sing the entirety of Meatloaf’s ‘Bat out of hell’ unaccompanied in a folk club. Mostly for giggles. It’s surprising what can be got away with. I know the entire song because it is such an excellent vocal workout, I use it for exercise.

There will be other factors – how the song makes personal sense to me. Who wrote it. Who I first heard singing it, and where that was. Every song acquires a story about who I’ve sung it with and why. There’s also an arranging process of figuring out how to make it mine. There is a difference between ‘doing covers’ and singing someone else’s song. Here are three I’ve recently put on my youtube channel.

Hazard, by Richard Marx was around in my teens. The original sounded like a pop song, but it strips back to something that’s pure folk – a strong narrative with much of the plot implied but not present, a strong melody, powerful emotions. That ticks all the boxes for me. It was written for a guy to sing. I like the way that my singing it with a couple of minor word changes turns it into a different story. I’m not usually at all visible in my bisexuality, music is one of the places that gets expressed.

Elation, a Levellers album track. This was a struggle to learn because the original isn’t in a key I can sing in. It’s goddessy, and there are so many people it needs singing to, who are heart-sore and need hope. Every time I sing it now, there is also a pang of missing the chaps I used to sing it with, and hearing where they are not. This arrangement always sounds a bit thin to me, because I know what it’s missing. Some losses we just have to carry.

Sit Down was at number 2 in the charts when I was 14 and Chesney Hawkes was at number 1. And although I adored young Mr Hawkes, this was always the better song. I’ve only been able to sing it since acquiring the bouzouki – it just doesn’t work for me unaccompanied. everything this song says has always been true of me, it is how I feel, it is the song I would have written if I could. I have yet to sing it in person with all the people I most want to sing it to, but I know who they are and they will almost all be at Druid Camp.

If you sing something frequently, it becomes part of your life, and part of who you are. It’s worth choosing carefully.


How to empathise with imaginary people

Tom and I are co-creators on a graphic novel series. Volume three has just launched in webcomic form over at www.hopelessmaine.com . For various reasons I’d not looked at it much in the year since Tom finished the art. It came as a bit of a surprise to realise how many real people and settings had crept into this one. The first chapter features the church from Purton, Gloucestershire, fellow comics creator Maxwell Vex, and Canadian Steampunk icon Lee Ann Farruga, more real people will be along later.

It is generally held wisdom with comics that the more realistic the people are, the harder it is to empathise with them. Smiley emoticon faces have the power to be anyone, and this can be a great aid to getting people into the story. Cartoons function in a totally different way to realistic representations, in terms of how they affect the mind of the viewer. From a creative perspective, this raises some really interesting questions about whether we want people getting inside or standing outside the characters.

Alongside that is the issue that the less detailed and individual the faces are, the harder it is to have something visually gorgeous going on. Elegance can be had, but not sumptuousness. You can’t have nuances of emotion in smiley emoticon faces either. The words have to do more of the work.

Hopeless is not a story full of ‘everyman’ characters where the idea is that the reader can slot their own life into the gaps. Although that said, a surprising number of people have cheerfully imagined themselves into islander roles, which is part of why more of the people we know are getting into the books. We know this from www.hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com and from reader responses. Despite the specific and individual nature of characters, people can get into this. I have theories of course. I always have theories…

Everyman faces work for simple storytelling. They work for uncomplex emotions. If you want a mix of emotions, you need more face with which to express it. You need eyes that can reshape and lips that can move, and a body shape that can express feelings. It isn’t possibly to convey all of the things human bodies and faces can convey without an image able to hold more of those details in the first place.

I think it’s also a consideration that empathy is not transference. You can feel with a person without feeling that you *are* them. I know that many people come to all manner of things just looking for affirming reflections of themselves, but not everyone does. Some people are happy to look outwards, to consider unfamiliar emotions and ideas, to put themselves in shoes that are not their own. If your capacity for empathy depends on being able to see yourself in whoever you’re looking at, then simpler cartooning is your friend. If what inspires you to empathy is seeing someone else’s humanity, then perhaps more involved art isn’t going to alienate you from the story.


Accepting Nature’s Limits

The idea that we should be able to triumph over nature, transcend its limits and move beyond it informs how people think about technology and spirituality alike. For me, it’s also become a very personal issue. So I’m going to talk about the personal, and let the implications for everything else just hang in the ether.

I was born with my feet pressed back against my shins and walking did not come easily as a consequence. For as long as I can remember, I have had to fight my body to get it to do things others find easy. In my teens I started encountering bouts of really debilitating fatigue. Unable to persuade my doctor to take me seriously, I defaulted to the thing I knew how to do, and I started fighting. I learned how to push through, how to keep moving when it felt like my bones had been lined with lead, how to use will power to overcome exhaustion. I honed my will, it was the one weapon I had against this endless fight with my body.

In my twenties, the pain and stiffness started. At first I ignored it, and as it grew steadily worse, I fought it.  I got used to cycles of burnout, illness and depression. Last year, in a final, heroic effort, I pushed myself so hard that I ended up crying all the time and unable to do anything much. I have found the limits of will, and by midwinter, I knew I had to make some radical changes.

I stopped pushing. I started to look for signs of impending exhaustion and escalating pain before I hit points of dysfunction. I started rationing out my time and energy, looking hard at my priorities and saying no to things that aren’t viable. I mostly say no to late nights, aside from this week when I chose to say yes, twice, and am suffering the consequences. But that’s ok because I’ve budgeted this weekend to be gentler, with more rest and downtime so that I can get over it. If I make good choices, I have more room to say ‘yes’ than I did before. If I mostly work within my limits, there is more room, and more scope for pushing out now and then when something matters. If I’m always up to the edge, there’s nowhere to go if something really good or important comes along.

If I co-operate with my body and don’t spend all my time pushing through pain and exhaustion, I am less vulnerable to depression and anxiety. Not immune, but more resilient, and the habit of saying ‘no’ allows me to make more room around the things I find hard, so that they take less of a toll. There’s a lot I want to do this year, but I’m only going to manage it if I pace myself. I have to balance the things my body needs. I have to start looking at what my body needs in terms of rest and exercise, sleep, and the right food. I have also come to recognise a profound need for affection and inspiration. Hugs and novels are good.

Things are discernibly easier now that I’ve stopped fighting and am trying to work with what I’ve got. It obliges me to ask why I fought so long and so hard in the first place. I have had to question all the beliefs I carry about what I should be able to do, and the beliefs I have around entitlement, or the absence thereof. For most of my life, one of my mantras has been ‘it’s only pain, it doesn’t matter’ which allows me to do to myself things I would never consider it ok to do to anyone else, for the sake of keeping going, being useful, getting things done.

I think I was waiting for someone to come along and say “it’s ok, you’ve done enough, you’re allowed to ease up now.” It took me until the winter of my thirty seventh year to work out that the only person who could or would do that effectively, was going to be me.


Difficult People

It’s early days, we’re testing the waters and don’t know each other well but there are all kinds of possibilities around working together. “I’m difficult’” he admits across a cafe table. In the seconds that follow I do not fall about laughing, whoop with delight, or burst into tears, although it could have gone in any of those directions had I not clamped down rapidly. It’s funny, and wonderful, and a bit heartbreaking, to hear something like that and to respond, as much from habit as anything else, by hiding all the difficult bits. Because, you see, I am difficult, and I like the company of difficult people.

I don’t like mean people, or sadists, or divas especially, and all of those things could be classed as ‘difficult’ – although ‘pains’ would be closer for my money. The attention seeking, self important folk I can do without, alongside the destructive and the toxic. Genuinely difficult people are difficult for reasons, and those reasons often have everything to do with caring. The person who doesn’t care about much can be shrugged off, no matter how annoying they try to be. They have no stamina, because nothing much is motivating them. Their challenges are surface irritations that have no power to change your life or break your heart. People who care are a whole other order of difficult.

A person with passions, standards, obsessions, visions… they don’t turn into something tidy and biddable. With that kind of difficult person, you either take them as they are, or you walk away. Try to make them dull and straightforward and (in my experience) either they run away, suffer a lot, or break. These are not good outcomes.

I like the kind of difficult people who care about things. The ones who will sit up all night because they can’t stop now and it has to be done and the muse is with them. The ones who go a bit mad when things aren’t working, who wrestle despair and agonise over meaning and how best to do things. The difficult people who ask the questions that lead to more questions, and that offer no easy solutions. The ones who won’t sit down and won’t shut up because dammit, this stuff is important and people need to know.

That kind of difficult, I am always delighted to encounter.


Courage, delusion and the Prince of Fools

Courage was considered a virtue by the heroic cultures many modern Pagans look back to for inspiration. However, once you start prodding it in earnest, courage turns out to be a rather complicated thing.

I’ve spent the last few days reading Mark Lawrence’s novel ‘Prince of Fools’. Book one of a dark fantasy trilogy, running in parallel time-wise with his Thorns trilogy. I really like Mark as an author. He can do plot and action, he balances light and dark superbly so you’re always in your toes, but sometimes giggling, his craftsmanship with words is superb, and there are layers. Start digging around in what holds the plot together, and there are weighty concepts about what it means to be human. These are qualities I very much appreciate in a book. He’s also a lovely person.

After some deliberation, I feel that the key themes in Prince of Fools, for me were cowardice/courage and self-delusion. The interplay between the two in the narrative is also fascinating. The first person narrator ‘hero’ self-identifies as a coward. Jalan prefers running away to fighting and getting out of things tends to appeal to him more than sorting them out or facing responsibility. Much of this is held together by a total refusal to think too much about anything – a form of protective self-deluding there, which keeps him from the consequences of what he does, and does not do. His companion, Snorri, seems brave, he’s certainly driven, but there is no small amount of refusing to think making that apparent bravery possible, too.

The theory that Mark puts forward, through Jalan, is that everyone is afraid. Everyone is in the business of running away, it’s just a case of what you fear most. The person who fears dishonour more than death will run towards a fight, not away from it, quite simply. They may be no less afraid, it’s just a different fear. I note for myself that I can be careless of my own pain and physical damage, but fear causing discomfort – even minor emotional discomfort – to others. Which has interesting influences on my choices.

Without fear in the mix, it’s very hard to call anything brave. It may just be stupid, unimaginative, misguided. To be brave, you have to know what there is to be afraid of. It’s an interesting question as to whether, having identified the biggest fear, you can then bravely run away from it towards something that also offers challenges. I am inclined to think that the naming and owning of the fear might well be the bravest part of the whole process. To know what frightens you most is to know yourself, and to be honest about your fear is to be more authentic.

However, Mark doesn’t leave it there, because the theme of not being honest with yourself about fear runs through the book. It takes a certain amount of dishonesty to keep going when the things to be afraid of are big enough to easily break you. It takes a certain kind of deliberate forgetting and denying to stay sane in the face of horror and trauma.  A person with PTSD needs to forget – because it is the remembering that takes you apart. What do we lay down of past and self in order to face the future? What lies do we have to tell ourselves in order to be able to act? When failure seems inevitable, the heroic path may depend entirely on your ability to believe otherwise. To die for a cause is to be able to believe it’s worth it right up until the last breath, despite all evidence to the contrary.

We tend to hold honesty as a virtue, but it is also worth considering what the little lies and bigger ones we tell ourselves allow us to do, for well or woe.

(More about the book here – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18693743-prince-of-fools)


A gathering of tribes

It’s interesting to think about where we fit and belong, the communities we call home and the relationships we have with them. I started pondering this a couple of days ago, and making notes, and the scale of it surprised me.

I have my blood family and the people I share history with – people who have lived in the same places, been through the same schools.

There’s the folk community – full of family ties and personal history. People I have played music with, people whose songs I sing, people I listen to. Also there’s the tribe that gathers for Genevieve Tudor’s folk program, and that’s an important weekly moment of belonging. I hope to put dancing back on that list.

I identify with the Pagan community, and with Druidry, and within that I belong a whole host of places – OBOD, The Druid Network, Druid Camp, Contemplative Druidry, Auroch grove, and through the bard side, it overlaps with the folk, and through my writing with the next lot…

Authors, book people, bloggers, readers, Moon Books, JHP fiction, other publishers. People I read and admire, storytellers, the local writing community and through those connections I branch out into…

Wider creative connections with artists, musicians, local creative folk, organisers of things, and I branch out into Steampunk, Comics, and geekery in general.

My Paganism also directs me to green activism, so that’s The Green Party, which is part of my local tribe, as is my engaging a bit with the Transition Network and other local, green, sustainable alternative outfits. People I know because they are local.

Eventually, I also managed to recognise that there are people who are in my life simply because they like what I do. I have a number of important connections based entirely on that.

Inevitably it’s the people who fit in more than one of those circles that I interact with most, because time is also a factor in all of this, and the more I share, the more time I tend to spend with someone. There are people I see once a year, or less, and there are people I pine for if I have to go more than a week, and I can manage an afternoon without Tom, but that’s my limit.

Of those people who I interact with in numerous ways, there are a few with whom I share creativity – either working together, or working alongside, swapping ideas and inspiration. This is a small tribe, and these relationships I pay a lot of attention to. They are the most defining ones in my life. It’s not any kind of coincidence that I married my artist… I am most emotionally invested in people with whom I can share creativity.

Beyond that, and overlapping with wider circles in all kinds of ways, is the tiny tribe I walk with. My most essential tribe.


Moon Books Family

Authoring can be a very lonely business. For me, it’s the part of the experience I have most trouble with. I prefer to work with people around – if I can get the right people who are companionable without being too demanding. Being married to an artist works well for me in this regard. I’m also very dependent on wider creative networks and contact with other creative people. It helps me keep my frustrations and victories in perspective, and means there are people around who know perfectly well how it goes. How hard it is to make any kind of living from your work being the major issue there. People who don’t do it tend to assume that writing, art etc are easy ways to make a lot of cash. Often they are hard ways to barely break even.

To be any kind of viable, a person has to get out there and actively sell their work. This is a nightmare for me. For one, by the time a book comes out, I’m working on something else, I’ve half forgotten or come to dislike the older one. I feel uncomfortable drawing attention to what I’ve done – I was raised to understand that being attention seeking was a major social failing, so leaping about going ‘I made this book and it’s great and you should all buy it’ does not come easily, if at all.

In a creative family, this is much less of an issue. I can happily tell you about artists I love, books I enjoyed, films I was blown away by, and so forth. That’s not just easy, that’s a joy. Over at Moon Books, it’s brought some really interesting things into my life. Moon Books publishes a lot of Pagan titles (mine included). Having got to know many of the authors, I can say many of them are just not the people to go blowing their own trumpets. A couple are more cheerfully out there, but as is often the case with authors, there are a lot of shy introverts for whom it is a world of pain to have to try and draw attention to their own work. So let me take a moment and point you that way. There’s lots of good stuff.

Over recent years, we’ve formed a collective habit of reading each other’s work. This is great in so many ways. It means less isolation. Engaging with other people’s ideas and world views stops a person from disappearing up their own bottom in a puff of self importance (always a risk for authors). The sharing of knowledge is good. Seeing what others are working on, and how they handle issues, is good. Spiritual experience is a tough thing to write about – so personal and ephemeral in nature – swapping notes about how to express it helps us build a viable common language.

Thanks to Moon Books, I’ve read a great deal that isn’t Druidry in the last few years. I’ve read perspectives that make no emotional sense to me. I’ve read about paths I wouldn’t follow and I’ve seen teaching approaches I wouldn’t use. I’ve also seen a lot that has influenced me and given me things to explore and play with. I am a fuller, richer, more open minded person as a consequence. I have learned that I do not need to agree with a person’s worldview to respect it and to be enriched by encountering it. I’ve become very relaxed about reading things that are not my path at all, and have found that a book can do a lot for me without being at all about what I do or who I am. It’s so easy to go into other people’s books seeking mirrors of ourselves, and I’ve certainly done that in the past. This way is more interesting.

Reading is a much more rewarding experience when you don’t need to like or agree in order to find value. There are, I have learned, no books that were written just to help me on my path. No books that are perfectly and wholly what I need. No book will tell me how to make my journey. That helps me appreciate that no book I write will be fully those things for anyone else, either.


Seeking Goddess

I went into the forest, searching

For elegant sylphs, beautiful goddesses

Of familiar, pristine grace.

 

I found dense briars, tangling,

Thorny thickets, mud slick trails

To badger sets and nowhere,

Trampling predecessors vanished.

Walking beneath ancient boughs

Amongst bulging bowls, mighty trunks.

Deer trods and flood paths,

Forgotten streams, deep banks

No gilded Goddess called to me

No angel led the way,

No answers came.

 

I waded the wood mud

‘Till it crusted my skin,

Tore that skin bloody in brambles,

Tangled leaves into hair knots,

Grew a thick pelt against winter.

Walked my feet into leather

Leather into hoof and horn.

Ribbonned clothes into feathers

Found claws for fingertips.

I made love with the trees

And grew sharp tusks to root

Alongside the boar. I slept with lynx

Rolled in deer musk, licked blood

From fresh snow, sucked berries

And learned the raven’s song.

 

I grew ivy from my temples

Birds in my hair, roosting

Pouches of flesh to hold apples.

Found my own milk flow

And those who would feed.

Gave birth to wild bee swarms,

Wrote letters to the moon, in smoke.

 

Became bristle, blood, belligerence.

Became mud hunger desire.

Became wood and wasteland,

Bleak moor and mountain

Left trails to lead you astray

Waiting for you to follow.

 

Come you for a taste of leafmould

And tusk sharp wild woman kisses.


Death by autobiography

Most of us are in a constant process of turning life into stories. In trying to make sense of experiences, we attach meanings, and sometimes impose narrative shapes on our lives. This can be really helpful, bringing coherence, a sense of direction and an understanding of who we are and what we’re all about. Sometimes those stories can be hard to carry.

I have a story about my body. It’s an old story, and I know how I got it, although that hasn’t made it go away. I’ve tested it on the man I’m married to, who finds it silly and clearly doesn’t fit with it, and still it doesn’t go away. Once allowed to take root, autobiographical stories can be pernicious things and bloody difficult to weed out.

The story goes like this: My body is hideous and repellent. It is therefore reasonable to assume that people will respond with anything from dismay to full on horror in any situation where they have to deal with my body. I am painfully self conscious about swimming, and I wear guys trunks and a top these days because of the horror of my midriff to upper thigh region. I struggle with photographs. Some days, just being looked at makes me uneasy. I expect to be judged, and found wanting. I’m passably symmetrical with no extra appendages, and there is no simple physical aspect I can point at to explain why I expect my body to be an affront. There are stories feeding on stories here.

One of the consequences of this is that I find it very difficult to seek affection. Imposing my body on someone else feels like an invasion. I tend to be very passive. It doesn’t help that in recent years I’ve developed alongside this a lot of anxiety issues around feeling safe being touched.

Making physical contact with another person is a profoundly affirming action. It’s a very tangible expression of acceptance, and of finding the other person good enough. I lug my weighty autobiographical story into every situation of exchange, wearing it on my back like a shell. If someone compliments me, I wonder if they are actually teasing me and I’m being slow to get the joke. I was teased a lot about my appearance as a child. I grew up with members of my own family calling me ‘funny looking’ so that story comes along for the ride, too. The boyfriend who was embarrassed by my tattoos, the ex who told me I had no idea how to move like a woman… stories upon stories.

Not only do we carry stories about with us, but we help other people create theirs. Small, throwaway comments, made carelessly or from casual spite can turn into another person’s reality. When I look into a mirror (which I don’t do any more often than I have to) all I see are the stories, and none of those have ever been pretty.


Sacred submission

Deity orientated religions often talk about submission to the divine, or the will of the divine as being the goal of spiritual practice. Religious activities are designed to attune the believer, and enable them to submit to the will of their deity. Paganism isn’t always so submission orientated, many prefer to stand before their gods, but we have these threads too.

Sacred submission isn’t an event. It’s not something you do once and then are all sorted. Submission to deity, to a belief system, to a way of living, is a day to day, moment to moment sort of process involving every choice and action in a person’s life. It is the ongoing nature of it that makes it so powerful; the constant, conscious submission of personal desires to a higher goal. I don’t follow that path, but I can entirely respect it.

Submission is a gift. It is a gift we may offer to deity, or to a partner, or to a cause. The problems start when the flow is in the other direction. Submission should be an act of gifting from one who submits, not forced on them by someone with more power. If you are making someone act in accordance with your religious rules, or making them perform acts that you want, in no way are they submitting. They may be coerced into going along, but this is a whole other thing, and it tends to be very toxic, and very abusive not only of its victims, but of the ideas that have been subverted.

For a spiritual path to be meaningful, it has to be chosen. Anything we do in fear, under duress and threat of violence, is not being given freely. If there is no gifting, there is no spiritual power. There is no spiritual depth and value in what is done, you just go through the motions to stay alive. From the outside, it isn’t always easy to tell who is giving freely, and who is forced to conform – the veiling of women provides a wealth of examples of both. Veiling by choice is a powerful act of dedication. Veiling out of necessity is an affront.

You can’t force gifts out of someone. They cease to be gifts and become the fruits of conquest. An act of submission, is an act of gifting, and needs valuing as such. It should flow from love and be an expression of love. To demand submission is to be a tyrant, and there is no love if the submission is not gifted.


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