I was working on something tonight and felt this deep and fascinating ache.
You know the sort, possibly, the odd profound feeling you often try to ignore usually, but this time it feels a little too interesting and it takes a lot of effort to not look.
So instead you look at it, and feel both sad and yet smile.
Over the last ten years of writing, I’ve written about pretty much everything important in my life, mundane, sacred, political, whatever. Lots of deeply personal things others might not feel so comfortable writing about, such as a previously abusive marriage and some emotional stories about sex.
But there’s always been something so emotionally difficult for me to look at that I’ve not ever even considered writing about it. Not because it’s taboo or involves some horrible act. Nothing like that. In fact, it would probably look like nothing at all to most people.
That’s probably why I haven’t written about it. It seems silly, really, though not to me.
Anyway, let me tell you about it anyway.
What I was working on tonight was a project I started three years ago, called The Pagan, Heathen, Esoteric, & Animist Music List. Briefly explained, it’s a music review series where I write about pagan and pagan-adjacent musicians.
As I said, I started it three years ago. I wrote five such collections, reviewing 23 different artists that I love. I had a list of over 100 of them that I intended to review, and that list has since grown.
But I stopped it, because there was someone constantly screaming at me any time I tried to sit at my computer to write it.
I guess maybe you know this, maybe not. I was in a really abusive marriage in France. I haven’t told that story in any essays on here, but it was quite tragic and sad and really very scary. I look at photos of myself from that time and don’t recognise myself. I looked empty and much, much older than I do now. That’s also how it felt.
I actually started two projects at that time. The other one is still going, my gym work. Working out had been a long dream of mine, and I had turned 40 and still hadn’t done it, so I decided I finally would. There’s more to how that happened, stuff you might not believe if you aren’t pagan, so I’ll tell that story somewhere else.
On the other hand, the music review series wasn’t some long delayed dream, or not directly. There was another dream behind it, and that series was a way of gently coaxing myself into a place where I could maybe look at it again.
Let me show you something. You’ll have to watch it to understand what this is all about.
That song is Ai Vis Lo Lop, an old Occitan song. It means “I saw the wolf,” and it’s at least 800 years old. The lyrics are simple, and all metaphor: a wolf, a hare, and a fox are dancing around a tree just as it is about to give fruit. They’re the soldier, the priest, and the landlord, all waiting to take their cut from a peasant’s labor.
This isn’t about the song, though, but rather about that dude in the far right of the screen playing the song along with three friends on a pear wood recorder that he still has 8 years later.
So is this guy, a year before that performance:
So, now on twelve years ago, I started playing. I had two recorders, that soprano and an alto one. I also had a hummelchen, a medieval German bagpipe whose name is the same word for a bumblebee (because they both drone).
Fuck, I played all the time. Waiting at bus stops. On every work break. Often at work for the clients at the homeless shelter where I was a social worker. For hours in a stone watertower in a nearby park (which is where that second video was recorded). For hours in an underground transit station in front of strangers. At street fairs. Outside gay bars when I was drunk (the soprano one was small enough that it was always in my pocket).
And…I had a band.
I know the story of failed bands is kind of an American trope, but it wasn’t like those. They were just three friends, one of whom played a hurdy-gurdy and was looking for someone to start a pagan metal band with. The woman playing bodhran was just learning and was the girlfriend of a medieval fiddler that I also played with. The dude playing guitar had two other bands that were actually somewhat famous.
We were not trying to be famous, just trying to play. The idea was mostly mine, and the variations on the songs were all mine, and I had no idea what I was doing but it all worked well.
But what I was also doing was trying to follow another song I heard, an Other song as it were. I was trying to become who I was, and trying to make sense of all the strange dreams I was having, bizarre and breathtaking waking visions that made no sense to me except when I played music.
We added someone else to the band. This is a sad story, but it started everything else about me. At the time I was in a difficult relationship with a man whose life had been almost identical to mine. I had to raise my two younger sisters because my mother had a schizophrenic break, he had to raise his two younger brothers because his mother was addicted to meth. We’d both lived in trailers, both thought we could be more than what was given to us but could never figure out how to get there.
It never really went well, but went really poorly towards the end. We were stuck in each other, neither of us able to unravel our own problems because they were tangled in how similar the other’s was. We loved each other fiercely but of course that is never enough.
And then a new member came into the band. I remember our first practice. It was in my bedroom, the four of us sitting on chairs or on my bed as the fifth, the new guy, sang.
I don’t know how to describe what happened except to just repeat the words of our drummer. When we’d stopped finally, she stared at me with the same wild eyes and flushed face that we all had and said, “I feel like we all just had sex.”
This dude? His voice was terrifyingly beautiful. He’d been an opera singer, but was also a metal head, and he could do things with medieval lyrics you would not believe unless you were there.
Also he was beautiful.
My boyfriend came home just a few minutes after we had finished and entered the room. After looking at us for a moment, he said, repeating almost the exact same words as our drummer: “you guys look like you just had sex.”
I guess we kind of did. I know the singer was pretty sure we did, because the next week he called me, told me that he had just broken off his engagement with his fiancé, a man he'd been with for seven years.
“Oh no, I’m so sorry,” I’d said. “What happened?”
“I fell in love with you,” he replied.
We’d only met two weeks before, and nothing I’d said could possibly have given him the impression I’d even considered this to be something I’d want him to do. Nothing, of course, except for that practice session.
“Was it when we were playing?” I asked him, feeling the ground fall out from beneath me.
“Yes. When we all had sex with music.”
I did the only thing I thought possible, which was to tell my boyfriend when he came home from work.
“Then you need to kick him out of the band,” he said.
“Wait, why?” This made no sense to me, but later of course I understood his reasoning.
“Because if a dude will break off a marriage because of you, he’ll do anything to have you. If you want to stay with me, you have to get rid of him.”
I hedged. I didn’t think the ultimatum was fair and told him.
“You have 24 hours to tell him he’s out, or I’m out.”
I didn’t kick him out, but thought maybe my boyfriend would see reason. I told him this the next day, tried to explain how ridiculous it all seemed.
“Good-bye,” he said. And that was the end and the beginning of everything else.
I’d love to tell you that it was the start of an amazing relationship and the inception of an incredible music project, but you know that’s not what happened. What did happen was that I of course found myself at this guy’s house the night my boyfriend left me and we had the most soul-shattering sex I’ve ever had. And then again, five more times that night, and about as many times each day for the next three weeks.
I disappeared during that time. My band mates approved of it all, especially because my boyfriend hadn’t really liked my obsession with music. I looked happy. I was, I thought, but also I felt enchanted.
All those stories of people dancing themselves to death in a fairy ring or being led to their own destruction by a minstrel made a lot more sense to me at the end of those three weeks. This guy was incredible, exactly what I wanted, exactly what I needed actually, but he also ended up in the hospital after a suicide attempt a few hours after I told him I wanted to have a day to myself to think about everything.
He survived. So did I, but I had to end it there. It was too much. It was all that I wanted, but I wasn’t sure that the me that wanted that was the me I actually wanted to be in the end.
The first video I posted for you? That was my band’s last performance. It was on my birthday, and it was without our singer, who waited outside to see me when it was all done. It was too hard to be part of the band if we were not together, he had said.
I was playing for him in that performance. It all felt so shitty. I was utterly in love with him, but I wasn’t in love with the me who was in love with him. And I was no longer in love with the band because it was all too hard after all that.
For the last 8 years, I’ve played maybe four times. Once was in an old Breton chapel by the ocean not far from some ancient standing stones. I was alone in there until a man and his daughter entered. I stopped playing because I didn’t want to disturb them, and then he said, “non, c’est mieux avec la musique.”1
Four times, maybe. Maybe five. That’s all, though.
My abusive ex-husband was also a musician. A really brilliant one, actually, though his music was nothing like the sort I normally like. I loved watching him perform, even despite all the screaming, the manipulation, and the physical attacks. But sometimes I’d think about my own music and get profoundly sad. I missed the intensity that came with it, the feeling of being on a completely different plane of existence. And I missed the passion I had felt for it, and most of all I missed feeling any passion at all.
When things got really, really bad with him, that’s when I joined a gym. Nevermind that he accused me of being a narcissist for it, or that I was “obviously” just going there to try to meet other men. But just going grocery shopping by myself meant I was probably trying to fuck around according to him, so I ignored all his criticisms and abuse and went anyway.
At the same time, I started the Pagan Music List. I had my recorders, of course, but I couldn’t play them. Just looking at them made me sad, but I wanted back at least the part of me that cared about music, that dreamed about it, that knew its strange power.
And I also wanted the part of me back that could step out of a fairy ring before I could never leave.
It all became too hard, though. Twice when I was working on that series he exploded at me, taking up the rest of my day with his accusations and manufactured crises. He wasn’t timing them to interrupt those specifically, of course. He was always doing that, but it felt to me like proof I shouldn’t even bother.
One of the many rituals I do regularly is timed with the 8 segments of the wheel of the year (the two equinoxes, the two solstices, plus the first of February, of May, of August, and of November). I pull three tarot cards and put them in a place where I will see them. The point of this ritual isn’t to predict the future or anything of that sort, but rather to contemplate three influences on my life for the roughly 7 weeks of each period.
One of those that keeps showing up is the King of Cups, which is associated with art, music, and mature masculine emotions. He’s basically the wise old bard, or the director of a music school: someone who knows story and song as intimately as he knows joy and sorrow.
I started the pagan music list series again early this year. It finally felt “okay” to do it, by which I mean I finally felt enough safe distance from all the emotions that I could actually talk about music with delight again. And tonight I was working on another one, and reformatting the previous lists so they could be easier to find and read, and I felt that strange ache.
Then I remembered the King of Cups I pulled a few weeks ago, and smiled.
There’s an interview I got to do with the singer Rúnahild. Her music is brilliant, very much so, but there’s another reason why I was utterly thrilled to talk to her. I had found one of her songs randomly during that time, and every time I listened to it I felt the same strange ache I felt tonight. She practices seiðr, which is a kind of animist witchcraft, and it’s pretty clear from her music she knows the power which the stories of fairy rings are pale attempts to describe.
Her music is what woke in me that desire to be myself again, the part of me that my own music had wakened but which had later hidden itself again. I listened to her music as I stuffed everything I could carry into a rucksack and carried it all to a bus station, and listened to it as I rode that bus away from that man and France into becoming myself again.
That’s really why I write that series, by the way. Because there’s something in some music that is more than just sound or melody. Some music is from somewhere else entirely, and leads you somewhere else.
And tomorrow, I’m going to start playing my recorders again, and look into buying another bagpipe. Not to be famous or even start a band, but to make that kind of magic again.
And by the way, if you’re interested, here’s the Pagan Music List. There are 32 artists I’ve already reviewed over 9 public posts in that series. There are three more that will be made public in the next two months (they’re posted first at Another World for supporters of Gods&Radicals Press and then released on the public journal). Maybe you’ll find some magic there, too.
“No, it’s better with music.”