Y’all just better be just turnin’ back if you want this boy to win
‘Cos practice is the only cure for the predicament he’s in
“Now devil it would be a sin for you to get my bow
You go on back to hell and to the woodshed I will go”
Johnny are you practicing or will your hands grow cold?
The devil walks the land and plays a fiddle made of gold
–The Charlie Daniels Band, “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia”
Thursdays were lesson days. More often than not, my stomach spent most of the day clenched with dread, knowing that I hadn’t practiced enough. I meant to practice, I truly did. I loved playing and I loved the music. But time after school seemed to fill up with so many other things, like comic books. Or cartoons. Or, ugh, homework.
I would heave a sigh, then heave my instrument case over my shoulder as I began the walk of shame up to a modest suburban NJ ranch. Shoes came off at the door and my toes curled into dense cream carpet. Clenching my toes while playing was one of a multitude of small bad habits that Mrs. E would gently correct each lesson.
Too often, I would be lucky enough to make it through the lessons on raw talent. Sight reading came fairly easily and I had perfect relative pitch. But this was not one of those squeak-though-Kreutzer days–in fact, I hadn’t had one of those days in several months. After a rather frustrating 20 minutes, it was painfully obvious this was the first time I had looked at the material since she assigned it the previous week.
Mrs. E never asked, “Did you practice?” Somehow, this always made me feel more guilty.
She set down her violin. She folded her hands and took a breath. My toes grabbed the carpet and I could feel my eyes filling. Here it comes, I thought, she’s going to drop me as a student. Just like the last teacher.
“You know, my husband played the violin before The War. But he was a dentist and he knew how to suture, so they made him a medic. He didn’t play for the entire time he was overseas.
“Like so many young GIs, Les was at loose ends when he returned from Europe. One day walking through Newark, he heard music. String music. As he got closer, he realized it was a quartet playing Bach.
“He climbed the steps and knocked on the door of the apartment. The music stopped, and a man with a fiddle in his hands opened the door. Les told them how much he enjoyed the music, how he used to play before The War. The man swept him inside and before he knew it the violin was back in his hands. He hasn’t stop playing since.”
She smiled with great certainty. “You will never lose this. The violin is a part of you, now. You may set it aside for a time but if you want it, it will always be there for you.
“Practice isn’t about learning how to play the violin for you anymore. You know how to play the violin. Practice is about making something beautiful.”
Woodshedding. Among musicians, it means “practice.” The musician’s Devil isn’t some supernatural demon. The Devil is your own talent. Itzhak Perlman famously said that a gifted student is lucky if she can survive her own talent. If you want to beat the Devil, you gotta head out to the woodshed and get crackin’. You beat him every time you play something beautiful.
Mrs. E died this past August at the age of 88. According to her obituary, she was teaching right up until the end.
The news of Khaled al-Asaad’s murder shocked me to the core. This man was a scholar, absolutely devoted to the study of his beloved Palmyra. His torture and beheading at the hands of Daish (ISIL) for refusing to reveal the locations of valuable antiquities is the the most revolting and reprehensible of war crimes.
I did not know Mr. Asaad personally, but his unbridled enthusiasm and curiosity are shared by all archaeologists. I cannot even imagine what his family is going through, the horror of losing a loved one in such a way. I can only pray that in time, they will be proud of the sacrifice he made. This 82-year-old man protected his life’s work to his last breath. May we all stand so certain in our convictions in the face of barbarism.
This last blogging hiatus was a bit longer than I anticipated, but with good reason: I drove my father out to the family cemetery in Ohio so that he could visit his brother’s grave. My uncle died last year, but the ashes were shipped out to Ohio in 2014 and as such my father had not been able to pay his respects. In spite of two minor car accidents in one day (neither of which were our fault, and one of which was a hit-and-run), it was a deeply satisfying trip. I was able to take many picture of the family plots, which will help flesh out the genealogical profiles for each of these people. I also now have graveyard dirt from the triple crossroad in the center of the cemetery. Likely there will be an paternal ancestor bottle coming soon.
But for now, some pics from the trip:
Where is the line between prayer and poetry? It’s blurred more often than not. This is why I love Pinsky, Heaney, the Romantics. That very ambiguity is delicious. I love how my pagan gods hide beneath the rhythms of secularism.
Today, I’d like to share one of my favorite poems by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. It’s a wheel poem, a harvest poem, and a musing on cycles, family, and ancestors. Read it aloud, and taste the words, feast on sounds as they tumble and circle each other. Enjoy.
Stone wheel that sharpens the blade that mows the grain,
Wheel of the sunflower turning, wheel that turns
The spiral press that squeezes the oil expressed
From shale or olives. Particles that turn to mud
On the potter’s wheel that spins to form the vessel
That holds the oil that drips to cool the blade.
My mother’s dreadful fall. Her mother’s dread
Of all things: death, life, birth. My brother’s birth
Just before the fall, his birth again in Jesus.
Wobble and blur of my soul, born only once,
That cleaves to circles. The moon, the eye, the year,
Circle of causes or chaos or turns of chance.
The line of a tune as it cycles back to the root,
Arc of the changes. The line from there to here
Of Ellen speaking, thread of my circle of friends,
The art of lines, chord of the circle of work.
Radius. Lives of children growing away,
The plant radiant in air, its root in dark.
Thank you again for joining us for a brand new episode of “This Old Altar,” with your host, Bob Vila! Er wait, that’s not quite right…let’s try this again:
When I moved into my neighbor’s house last year, it was probably one of the best decisions I could have made during the divorce process. I loved living with B. and she gave me a safe place to begin healing. However, I was only renting a room, and that did not leave me much space for altars. I used an old nightstand as my spiritual focus area, and switched out statues depending on whom I was moved to honor in the moment.
Now that I’m in a place of my own, I have the luxury of being able to set up several smaller altar spaces. Each one serves a different function, and has different layers of public and private meaning. As I was writing this, it occurred to me that each alter combines a primary element with a secondary in order to give it a unified aesthetic.
The altar I use most frequently is the one next to my stove, what I call my hearth altar (auto-correct said “heart sculpture” and that’s an apt description, too). It’s predominantly rooted in the Earth element of the North, but with a strong overtone of Fire. The statues represent Gwydion and Aranrhod, though that is not what the artists originally intended. (Yes, these two are sharing space; no this has not caused issues.) Gwydion is my wild magician, and often appears to me as having features of the boar, wolf and/or deer that he was changed into as punishment for Goewin’s rape. Aranrhod (“a fun ride”: WTF auto-correct?) is not only a celestial goddess, but the goddess of the waters. And since I’ve always had trouble giving Don a face (which according to Kristoffer Hughes is actually appropriate as this goddess was in fact faceless), I rededicated her statue in Aranrhod’s name. The little fellow playing the flute is a wight from my father’s garden. The sprig of lavender represents peace and beauty, and the turkey feather represents family; the spiral plate is carved Welsh slate that I brought back from the 2002 National Eisteddfod. This is where I perform morning prayers and my work with the Sun Mirror; it is also the altar that my son likes to help light to thank the Ancestors when we begin cooking a meal.
Right next to the back door in the South is my working altar, the one I use for daily divination or more involved magical workings. It serves to anchor my work in the cunning arts and with the Strategic Sorcery system, which is why Hekate presides over it. In addition there are representations for spirit allies that I work with on a regular basis. Both the sword and spear are ritual as well as martial tools, and at the moment I have wands of Poplar and Willow drying and waiting to be carved. This altar is the polar opposite of the hearth altar, being a manifestation of the Fire of will, grounded in the Earth.
To the West I have an altar space dedicated to the Makers: Bridget, Cerridwen, and Wayland. This is an altar to creative inspiration, and where I give thanks for the gods’ aid in music, poetry, and assorted crafting endevors. Hufflespawn particularly likes the Wayland statue, and even made him a little helper at school which he insisted on placing right next to the Master Smith. Cerridwen is accompanied by tokens from pig and chicken, which refer back to her animal shapes in her pursuit of Gwion Bach. Bridget has bone weaving tools dedicated to her, and a harp tuner. In front of Wayland sits a chunk of iron slag that I found on the beach in Salem Massachusetts, a gift that seemed most appropriate. Air is the ruling element here, with a secondary infusion of Water (and Fire, too, if I’m honest, even though it messes up my nice, neat classifications).
The next two altars are a bit more “work-in-progress.” First is a home for various local spirits and wights. Thus far Turkey, Crow, Datura, Boar and Snail are represented. I will also likely include guardians from my OBOD work here as well. On top of the shelf is a ceramic Dragon my soul’s sister made for me, which eerily matches a spirit guide of mine. Water rules here, not least because one of my allies from this land is a river wight, but also because this is an area which very much requires dreams and intuitions to access fully. Air is the breath which stirs the surface of the Water.
Finally we have this very much WIP altar, which seems to be shaping into a repository for images of Divine Queens. It may end up being more of a display for statuary that I like than an actual working altar, but I think there’s a place for both in one’s home. This sort of feminine strength and inspiration is something I’ve needed greatly over the past two years, and I’ll be interested to see whether this altar remains dedicated to that casue, or whether I will eventually repurpose it for something else.
So, after only having had a single altar space for year, I may have gone a little crazy with all these! Still, it feels good to be able to move from altar to altar, and to have specific foci for various parts of my life. More likely than not things will get pared down after a little while, but for now, this suits my needs quite well.
As some of you may know, one of my day jobs is helping older folks manage their bills and balance their checkbooks. It’s extremely satisfying work, one of those rare instances where you can actually see your actions affecting someone’s life for the better.
But my clients are elderly. They’re entering the twilight of life. It means sometimes I lose them.
My favorite client, Mrs. Z., is currently in hospice care. She’s an opinionated, 97-year-old spitfire from West Virginia with a pretty rich fantasy life. She’s at home, which is good, and her bed is now in the living room which is bright and lets her have visitors. If you can catch her eye, she gets an impish look and begins telling you about how she’s going to be going to Leningrad next week. She still likes her brownies and her Vermont Country Store catalogs, though the New Yorker is a bit beyond her now. The point is, she’s alive.
I once heard a hospice nurse say that people are never really “dying,” they’re either alive or they’re dead. Don’t treat a live person as deceased until it actually happens. And yet the palliative care Mrs. Z is receiving falls so far short of that. Yes, she’s bed-ridden. Yes, she has a catheter. That doesn’t make her less of a person, less alive. She’s having pretty bad dizziness or vertigo, and claws at the air looking for something to steady her. All it takes is someone to hold her hands and she calms down. That’s it. Simple, human touch. One of her aides was dismissive of Mrs. Z’s agitation, saying, “Oh, she’s just confused.” While that may be true, it doesn’t make it any less terrifying for her. To her, it is real. She’s dying, she’s scared, and if someone just sits and holds her hand, it’s all ok.
Mrs. Z isn’t my first dying client. That would be K., whom I watched fade for over four months after she had fallen out of her bed in the nursing home and broke several bones. She had memory problems, but always smiled when she had visitors. Pretty new to the job, I didn’t really know how to interact with her, what to do. I’d run in, take care of her bills and filing, and run out again, counting myself lucky if she weren’t in her room. I found myself avoiding her, ashamed at my cowardice, but not certain how to push through it. I’d say, “Next week. Next week I’ll have some time. Next week I can be braver.”
And then she died.
I regret that I ran. I regret that I couldn’t have made that extra effort just to sit with her for a little bit as she watched the resident cockatiels from her wheelchair. And that’s the thing. It takes so little to do right by someone when they’re dying, so precious little. I didn’t need to wait for a divine thunderbolt or new research study to tell me what to do–I just needed to hold her hand.
I don’t know if I’ll get it right with Mrs. Z this time. But I do know that this time I’m not running, and I’ll be there when she needs me. I think that will be enough.