- Put on music by Loreena McKennitt:
- There is no step two
When I was around thirteen years old, I went downtown on the bus to a record store and bought a couple of albums of medieval music. You can maybe guess how long ago that was by the existence of a record store and a 13-year-old girl being allowed to go shopping on her own in the city. I listened to that unfamiliar music from the age that gave us monks and abbesses, knights and troubadours, and spent the rest of my teen years and into my early twenties ignoring everything I heard on the radio and exploring medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music, and the large and glorious repertoire written over five centuries of music for English cathedral choirs.
Notwithstanding preferring countertenors to Duran Duran, I did pick up a lot of the popular tunes of the day. But for the last thirty years, give or take, all the mainstream, popular, rock, or even alternative music I’ve listened to has been stuff that specific people turned me on to.
In my twenties, I sang in a small choir directed by my fiance/husband. My two closest friends in the group turned me on to Tori Amos, Loreena McKennitt, and Dead Can Dance. My husband introduced me to European jazz artists like Jan Garbarek and all the other folks on the ECM label. Back in 2014, a friend who works at a college radio station recommended I listen to this Irish dude playing live on their station, a fellow named Hozier. I went to see him in concert twice last year, and the last concert I heard before that was Dead Can Dance’s tour in 1996.
So when people on Twitter that I respect started talking about how good Taylor Swift’s new album was, I said, “… Okay. I’ll bite.” I went to Amazon Music, clicked a couple of times, and started listening.
And I loved it.
No disrespect to Ms Swift, but I just don’t listen to pop. My Amazon listening history is 90% Hozier and 10% Jade Bird, Dead Can Dance, and bassoon quintets. (I like the bassoon very much.) But Folklore is a collection of songs. Words and music twined together to be listened to, to be sung. Swift’s voice reminds me of Suzanne Vega on this album, a bit higher, a bit sweeter, but thoughtful, introspective, a little wry in a way that’s very like Vega, although their songs are quite different. These are songs about being human, being a woman, loving, hurting, thinking, observing.
I understand that Folklore was created while the coronavirus quarantine was at its strictest, and it sounds, to borrow a phrase from Hozier, homemade and handmade, in the best possible way. I say from now on, we just leave Taylor Swift alone and let her write songs and make albums. She’s good at it.
In honor of the fourth anniversary of Prince’s untimely passing, have a couple of videos of Hozier and other Irish musicians covering Prince’s music in tribute
I set out to blog this month about my spiritual journey, about memories of church and religion and how I wound up a pagan and polytheist. On the one hand, I have unexpectedly found myself drawing wisdom from the wells of the Church again, without giving up my devotion to gods other than Jesus. On the other hand, I have run up against how much of my journey I’m not ready to blog about yet, intertwined as it is with my marriage, which ended in divorce after twenty years and then ended a second time with my ex-husband’s death from cancer.
If we were not at the mercy of this pandemic, my workplace would have been closed for the Christian holy day, and I might have gone to church for the first time in several years. If I had gone, I might feel just as empty and speechless as I do right now. What do you talk about, what do you write about, when you have seen your god die and have buried him, in a tomb that didn’t even belong to him? The liturgies of Good Friday are a slow wringer that leaves you dry and flat, but I feel like that so much of the time right now.
I will leave you tonight with a gem of English church music proper to this time of year, the Lamentations of Jeremiah as set by Thomas Tallis.
Old man, I never listened to you
until you were already gone from us
and your voice drifted out of the radio
as if down from heaven, old and broken
and full of power, still. As a child
I hid when you came on tv, man in black
with your big guitar, but later in life I heard you sing
when I needed a voice that was older than mine,
wiser, sadder, more grateful, more humble.
All your addictions, recoveries, marriages,
crimes, conversions, your darkness and brightness,
you crushed in your hands and made into a song,
distilled through your heart into bittersweet droplets
that I taste one by one as I grow older myself.
Here I am now with my joints giving out,
wiser and stronger than I ever imagined.
Old man in black with snow-white hair,
with weathered face, no longer nimble fingers,
mention me to Jesus, you two were always close.
(For Johnny Cash on his birthday)
In the beginning are these animals who walk on two legs and manipulate things with their paws and look up, above their heads–not at predators diving but at the trees, the sun, the moon, and the stars. Then one day something changes and they know they are not just animals. They are spirits. Spirits in bodies. And there are many other spirits around them.
They are humans.
The humans get to know the other spirits. Some are neighbors, the spirits of tree, rock, spring, plant. Some are the plants they eat and the animals they hunt and the animals who can hunt them. Some are neighbors but strange, near and yet distant, what their children in the far future will call fairies, angels, daemons. Some seem to be former humans. These spirits inspire friendship and collaboration; they have things to give and things that they want. Some other spirits seem to be threats and inspire fear; they can feed on human life without touching the body directly. And some spirits are so much more than all the others that they inspire awe, adoration, worship. Later generations will call them gods.
To connect with the spirits, humans give of their all, their best. They gather together wearing fine clothing and jewelry. They play instruments and sing like birds. They dance, imitating the animals. They put on masks and costumes to resemble the spirits. They act out things that have been and things they desire. They share their own food and drink. The spirits come to sing and dance with them, teach them, make love with them. From the greatest spirits, the shining ones, come the greatest gifts.
Over thousands of years, small bands become tribes, tribes become villages, villages turn into cities. Civilization means specialization, and the things that were once part of celebrating the spirits gradually separate into discrete disciplines. Music, theatre, and dance separate from religion. The knowledge of landscape and times, the movements of the heavenly bodies, the behaviors of other beings becomes science. Religion turns on the remaining branch of knowledge, magic, and pushes it out of the temple. Magic, the rejected teenager, grows up with a bit of a chip on its shoulder.
But all human knowledge, all human art, began in what we would now call religion, in the dance around the fire to establish and celebrate connection with the spirits. In the exchange between the visible and invisible worlds that we now call magic or shamanism or animism or some other word that means “that wasn’t real, we don’t do that any more”. Our creativity flows from knowing ourselves as a kind of spirit among other spirits and an exchange of gifts with the otherworld, an offering and a blessing, a blessing and an offering. The arts and sciences, including magic, grew up and left religion at home, but she is still there, tending the hearth, waiting for her children to come back and dance around the fire with the other spirits.
I write fiction, poetry, and essays. I write what I like.
I don’t write “realistic fiction” or “literary fiction”. Much of my fiction has been fanfiction, transformations of existing works. My original fiction, too, is transformative, a mix of fantasy, science fiction, myth, fairy tale, romance, and erotica. I do write sexually explicit fiction and not exclusively about male/female couples.
I write poetry about gods, goddesses, myths, magic, religous holy days, and my relationships with those things far more often than I write poetry about my family history or my landscape. My favorite poets include John Donne, George Herbert, Dante, T.S. Eliot, Marge Piercy, and Gary Snyder.
I prefer to review or discuss things I enjoyed rather than things I hated. I’d rather review a book I liked and hope other readers will enjoy than deconstruct a bad book word for word. I’d rather analyze the lyrics of my favorite singer-songwriter, Hozier, or share a video of a musical performance I liked than tell you why this So-and-so is Problematic and you shouldn’t like them.
I am basically a socialist politically and the current state of American politics fills me with incoherent rage–so I don’t write about it. I leave that to people who are better informed than I, who can be cogent and coherent about the failing state of our democracy. On the other hand, I am a political, sexual, religious, and gender minority, so I don’t believe in Art that isn’t political. Star Trek was and is political. Science fiction is political. Romance is political. Everything is political.
I also like birds, very, very much. My cockatiel has been my faithful companion for almost twenty years, and I hope he’ll be around for another decade or so. So you might see bird pictures and read bird stories here, too, along with writing about books, music, film, television, religion, spirituality, magic, gender, sexuality, and all the other things that make life interesting.
WordPress has kindly informed me that on this day in 2007, I signed up with their blogging service. At the time I was married, involved with a druid order, writing mostly fanfic. I started writing about my wrestling with the druid studies I was pursuing and went on to document years of trying to find the right religious and magical tradition, path, place, spot, label, whatever, with forays into what I was reading, watching, listening to. There was a November when I blogged every single day, the blogger’s version of NaNoWriMo. There were months where I didn’t write at all. I started more than one blog on the site; some are still extant, some have been deleted, pretty much everything is buried somewhere in my Google Drive.
I am a writer. Writers write. It’s a useful mantra, because it’s true. I’ve used the site 750words.com for daily writing for almost as long as I’ve been blogging; in fact, this post was drafted there. Before I became accustomed to composing everything on a keyboard, even poetry, there were pens and notebooks (and there are still pens and notebooks in my apartment, waiting, hoping to be used). I started writing as a child and have never stopped. It is, along with my engagement in religion and my erotic energy, the great throughline of my life.
These days I am single, having been divorced and then lost my ex-husband to cancer. I sit lightly to labels, traditions, organizations, having found that “lightworker” is a useful bag in which to carry my Hermetic magical training, my devotional polytheism, my interest in multiple forms of religion and magic. I accept being called pagan, polytheist, and Episcopalian with equal aplomb. I call myself queer and bisexual and am learning that my gender may not be exactly what I thought it was. I watch some television–I’m already hooked on Star Trek: Picard–listen to a lot of Hozier, read fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. One thing that hasn’t changed is the presence of my companion bird and avian life partner, Rembrandt the cockatiel, who’s been with me going on twenty years.
And I write. Every single day, I write. Here’s to sharing more of my writing here.
First of all, this is a jack boot.
Second, this is a jump.
Third, this is a jack boot on your face.
(Content warning for violence/brutality)
I was privileged to see Hozier live in Washington, D.C., and to hear “Jack Boot Jump” two days before it was released. Introducing the song, he talked about Woody Guthrie, protest songs, and deciding to “fuck subtlety” and write the song that wanted to be written.
As lyrics go, “Jack Boot Jump” is about as sophisticated as a jump-rope rhyme. That doesn’t matter; “We Shall Overcome” is not a masterpiece of poetic complexity, either, but it carried people through a lot of trials during the Civil Rights Movement. I think “Jack Boot Jump” is here to carry us through our civil rights movements, our climate change protests, our resistance to oppressive governments, and I think it’ll do the job well.
The lyrics name Standing Rock here in the United States, Moscow, and Hong Kong as places of resistance, places where the jack boot jump is also taking place. It’s the stomping of capitalist and governmental forces on resistance to oppression, the increase of police and military brutality against “people standing up”. Hozier also quoted the famous and not at all outdated line from Orwell’s 1984, about the future imagined as a boot stepping on a human face. The Beijing government, the Putin regime in Russia, the Trump administration are all alike pushing back against demands for freedom, justice, equality, a response to the catastrophic climate changes taking place.
The most important verse is the last:
All around the world
You’d think that things were looking rough
But the jackboot only jumps down
On people standing up
So you know good things are happening
When the jackboot needs to jump
Here’s the good news Hozier is trying to give us: Repressive governments only crack down when there’s resistance. Cops beating up protestors means the protestors are right. It’s the same principle that there were no laws against same-sex marriage until same-sex couples began demanding marriage for themselves; it was so unimaginable to most people that there was no need to forbid it, until it became imaginable and therefore possible.
What makes this song so good is the music. Hozier looked at his influences, at the history of protest music, and made an unusual choice: He grabbed the blues. Not spirituals, not white folk, but blues, and dirty blues at that. Seen live, “Jack Boot Jump” is electrifying, a virtuoso dialogue between Hozier’s guitar (and he really does underplay his guitar skills) and Rory Doyle’s consummate drumming. It’s a song that’s not for marching in the streets so much as running, dancing, and possibly fucking, because standing up and dancing is a perfectly legit way to fight back against the jack boot jump.