Tag Archives: skill

Honoring the Ancestors of the Bardic Arts: Tools, Techniques, and Legacies

Shoemaking Hammer with Spirit

Browsing an antique store a year ago, I found a wonderful shoemaking hammer.  It was an interesting shape, and when I held the tool, I could literally feel the connection this tool had had with its previous owner. Whoever had owned this tool had used it well–the handle was worn, a piece of old, soft velcro partially worn off where someone had placed it for a firmer grip. I could sense the resonance of craft and skill in this hammer. I held the unique hammer in my hand, and turned it a few times, knowing that this tool would find a wonderful home in my art studio.  But more than that, this tool had a bardic ancestral connection to one of the primary bardic arts  I have been pursuing for some time: leatherwork.

In Druidry and broader neopaganism, we often focus on the ancestors in three different directions.  The first is ancestors of our blood, which is the most common idea of “ancestor” in modern culture, and represents a connection with the DNA and lineage that we have coursing through our blood and bone. We often also recognize ancestors of the lands where we live (which is critically important for those of us who live on lands that were stolen through colonialization).  And we also recognize ancestors of our tradition or spiritual path, for example, in Druidry, the ancient druids and those of the druid revival period are honored as ancestors.  I’d like to suggest that for those of us engaged in the creation of bardic arts, we might consider a fourth kind of ancestor: ancestors of our craft.  By bardic arts, I mean any creative arts that you practice, which can include literary, musical, movement, art and craft, or others that are less easier to categorize. These are things you create with your hands, your mind, your body, and your heart that allow you to experience the flow of awen (creativity) and create.  In my earlier post on this topic, I offered a philosophy of ancestors of the bardic arts in two ways: the first was in considering taking up bardic arts that are tied to your own blood ancestors: what they created, how they created it, and so forth. Thus, you can draw upon ancestral in the choice of a new art form or carry on a family ancestral legacy. The second way I shared was through connecting to previous through previous bardic creations and using those as inspiration. For a clothing maker, this might be being inspired by previous century’s fashions, for a musician, sets of notes created in another time period, or by poets, through the words written in days of old.  These flows of inspiration can support the creation of new works today. In today’s post, I want to expand this idea of bardic ancestry and also consider the role of tools and teachings as a third area that we might consider to be part of a “bardic ancestry.”

Tools and Connections

Some of the leather and tools gifted to me

To get back to my shoemaker’s hammer, part of the reason that I was so excited to find this hammer is that this isn’t the first set of old and well-loved tools that I’ve encountered.  In fact, the first set of tools set me on the path of leatherwork six years ago. The journey into leatherwork was an unexpected one, one that almost fell in my lap.  It started with Yankee Shoe Repair, which was an icon in my hometown for over 100 years.  I remember going into this bright, wonderful store when I was a child with my grandmother and looking at all of the patent leather shoes that they made there.  In late 2013, the proprietor, Carmel Coco, had passed away and nobody in his family decided to continue his legacy.  According to the article linked above,  Carmel had given up other opportunities, including going to the conservatory for music, so that he could dedicate his life to leathercraft and continue his family’s business.  In early 2014, Yankee Shoe Repair went up for auction.  My parents, who are artists themselves, went to the auction and ended up purchasing leatherwork tools and much of the remaining leather for me as a birthday gift.

I was delighted with the gift and began to learn in earnest. Leatherwork drew me in deeply because it required a tremendous amount of technical skill to master (which is a welcome challenge) but also, in part, because I did feel like I was in my small way continuing a local ancestral legacy.  The tools that I held in my hands and worked with, such as punches, a beautiful bakelite hammer, and a lovingly crafted handmade awl, weren’t just any tools, they were special tools that came from a special place and that needed to be honored.

Leather case I made for my sickle

After spending time with these tools, learning how they work (mostly through books and youtube videos), I have developed my own relationship with them.  These tools of my craft have a spirit of their own.  They have presence.  I can feel the weight of the years of use in them, guiding my hand.

I think, given time, my newer tools that I purchased to supplement the ones that my parents bought will take on their own energy and spirit.  But that will come only after years of use and relationship building.

I suspect that many of us may have an opportunity to connect with old tools of a bardic art, or even have those tools come to us in unexpected ways.  My suggestion is this: If you are going to start a new bardic art, see if you can find some older, well-loved, and well-made tools.  Perhaps this is an older instrument, set of songbooks, old wooden palate, and so forth.  connecting with the tools of previous masters of the craft offers you what I can only describe as an energetic connection into your craft.  You still have to put in the work, practice, and cultivate your technical skills.  But using those tools gives you something that is simply not present, and I can only describe it as a bardic ancestral connection.

Teachings and Techniques

The other way in which I see this ancestral bardic connection flowing is through a different kind of legacy–a legacy of teaching and learning.  Techniques and teachings are refined, passed on, and shared with students.  This might be from a physical teacher to student (and certainly, this was the only way it was done in days of old), or, it might be through preserved books, teachings, and recorded lectures.  I see this as another ancestor of bardic craft connection: if someone has decided to pass what they know on, you are carrying that legacy of instruction with you each time you use those techniques and skills taught.

Leather burned piece above altar

It is not easy to find local leatherworkers willing to teach you or local leatherwork classes. I have only had the opportunity of taking one in-person class in leatherwork (at the North American Bushcraft School) and one more via purchased video (the DVD from Jason Hovatter on Scandanavian Turnshoes).  Those were both fairly recent in the last few years–and before and since then, I’ve been mostly on my own.  The thing about leatherwork is that it does require huge amounts of technical skill, and no amount of “messing around” with the tools will teach you certain things you need to know.  You need to use the established techniques to be successful.  For me, filling in the in-person gaps was the books and teaching legacy of Al Stohlman. Al Stohlman and his wife Ann revolutionized leatherwork, producing over 30 incredible books that are literally illustrated in leather.  These books teach you everything you need to know about techniques, construction, how to use and care for your tools, and more.  The impact of these books on my technical skill and how much they have taught me (and how much I still have to learn from them) is incredible. Thus, the other clear bardic ancestors I honor in leathercraft is Al and Ann Stohlman.

I suspect that many of us who are interested in taking up a particularly technical art form may eventually find those kinds of sources–teachers, either direct or indirect–which help us radically shape our craft and build technique.  Those kinds of inspirational figures are worthy of honor and respect.

Honoring the Ancestors of the Bardic Arts

Leather bag with a wolf theme

Now I’ve offered four ways–two in the last post, and two in this post–to think about bardic ancestors and honoring those ancestors.  But what might this look like in practice?  I’ll share a few ideas, although I suspect that different bardic art forms may require their own kinds of adaptations).

  1. Honoring the tools of the craft.  Because I am working with tools that carry a legacy, I take a moment at the start of a new project or when I pick up my tools for a creative session to honor them.  I have a moment of silence where I simply feel the tools, hold them, and express gratitude for them.  It’s not any kind of big ritual, but simply acknowledgment and gratitude.  Even if you aren’t working with legacy tools, I think it’s a good practice to take a moment to honor the tools–the raw materials they were created from and their support of your work.
  2. Honoring your hands and body as a tool of creation. If you are a dancer or singer or use your body in some way to create, you might also think about the ancestral legacy flowing through your veins–that voice came from some genetic combination, the hands that were shaped from the genetic material of previous ancestors, etc.
  3. Ancestor Shrine in your place of creation.  As with other ancestors, you might create a small altar or shrine to honor your ancestors of the craft.  This could be set up in a place where you create.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or elaborate, but a simple acknowledgment of the lineages and crafting traditions that you follow.
  4. Ancestor work at Samhain. For any of the ancestor work that you do at Samhain or other parts of the year, consider including the ancestors of your bardic crafts.  For example, I usually do an ancestor altar, dumb supper, and ancestor ritual of some kind as a way to honor my ancestors (sometimes this is with a grove, and sometimes solo).  Consider adding these ancestors in and revering them in the same way you would other ancestors in your spiritual practice.
  5. Improve your skill and dedicate yourself to your craft. I think that another way that you can honor the ancestors of the bardic arts is by dedicating yourself to developing technical skill and eventual mastery.  If you are using their tools, techniques, and approaches, applying these well is a form of honor.
  6. Naming and honoring. You might name a piece after an ancestor or create something that honors the ancestors of your bardic arts in a specific way.

    A larger awen bag

A week ago, my new leather sewing machine arrived. The machine represents a huge step forward in me deepening my craft of leatherwork. It allows me to move in new some exciting new directions.  I named the machine “Coco” in honor of my ancestors.  I hope that this post has inspired you in some new directions.  I am happy to continue to share deep thoughts on the bardic arts–sometimes they seem a bit “left out” in our spiritual discussions in Druidry, but I think they are so critical to our paths.  Blessings to all.

PS: I will be taking several weeks off from blogging and will resume blogging on the Winter Solstice.  Starting in 2021, I’m also planning on starting to release a quarterly email newsletter.  This will feature some of my favorite writing, new artwork, and other news about my work (such as my upcoming Sacred Actions book being released by Shiffer Publishing in 2021!)   If you are interested in signing up, please visit:  https://www.druidsgardenart.com/mailing-list/

Art and Spirit: The Bardic Arts as Self Development and Spiritual Practice

“The way to see what looks good and understand the reasons it looks good, and to be at one with this goodness as the work proceeds, is to cultivate an inner quietness, a peace of mind so that goodness can shine through.”

–Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values.

 

In the last two months, through various angles, we have explored ways of taking up the path of the bard, one of the three paths of the druid tradition. Topics have included the cultivation and flow of awen, cultural challenges surrounding taking up the path of the bard, and tips for how to cultivate the bardic arts. In my last post, we also explored some of what industralization had us lose in terms of the bardic arts–both to those who create them and those who use them and how we might regain some of those things individually and in our communities. Today, we delve deeply into what I believe is the deeper wisdom in studying the bardic arts: using the bardic arts one means to of self enfoldment, self-betterment, and self discovery.

 

Shifting from Product to Process

Worlds within Worlds, or the Unfoldment of the Self

Worlds within Worlds, or the Unfoldment of the Self

A few posts back in this series, I talked about the commodification and commercialization of the bardic arts in our age of hyper consumerism. In this age, if you are good enough to sell your work, you should be doing so, and if you aren’t good enough to sell it, you shouldn’t be making it. This belief, of course, suggests that the point of the bardic arts is producing a product that has a commercial value: a story that people will pay to listen to, a song that people will download on Itunes, a painting or wooden bowl that people will buy, and so on.  And our culture makes it hard to be a bard if something else is your goal–the pressure to do this, as your work improves, is really intense at times. The problem with this mentality is that it focuses on the end product: that the bardic art has produced a particular thing that has some kind of value to other people such that people would pay to see it/hear it/own it. Of course, in a society that is oriented to consume products of all kinds (including non-physical ones), the privileging of this mentality makes a lot of sense.  But in emphasizing this product, we lose the value of the bardic arts as a process–a process of deepening, of unfolding, of development.

 

The point of pursuing the bardic arts, as part of a spiritual path, is the same reason we pursue the spiritual path itself: because we want to go on a journey. Not because we want to achieve enlightenment or achieve any other worldly accomplishment–rather, it is to develop, to grow, to unfold.  In this view, then, it doesn’t matter how talented or skilled you are in your bardic art(s) of choice because the point is to gain a deeper understanding of self, of craft, of spirit and of the connections between those things.  The real “work” of the piece from a spiritual perspective is unfolded in the act of creation. If the point is to express yourself and learn more about yourself as part of the journey, the end product is almost like a bonus. The bardic art journey is its own kind of journey, an incredible one, and one well worth pursuing.

 

The Bardic Arts and the Cultivation of the Self

“Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristic of quality.”– Robert Pirsig

 

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Robert Pirsig describes how the main character, Phaedrus, has an older motorcycle that he has learned to service himself and throughout the story, he “listens” to the engine and fine tunes it to his great satisfaction and joy–to him, this work on his motorcycle is an art in and of itself. Another character, John Sutherland, prefers to allow experts to fix his motorcycle, and often gets frustrated and is forced to hire professional mechanics. This interplay between Phaedrus and Sutherland offers a rich exploration of what constitutes craft, quality, and value. For Phaedrus, the point isn’t to fix the motorcycle, rather, fixing the motorcycle helps him better understand himself.  It is in the interplay between the honing of his own craft, addressing challenges, and the focus and dedication of that work that he grows to deeply understand himself and his own life.

 

The bardic arts have a way of doing this kind work on the self like few other things do.  This comes through embodiment, cultivating a richer identity and self-love, being in relationship, connecting to spirit, and striving for excellence.

 

For one, many bardic arts require intensive focus, where we simply are present with our own bodies in ways that we are rarely present at other times. The bardic arts demand our hand-eye coordination, our voices, our vision, our sense of touch and smell, and many of our other physical faculties. Westernized culture is largely a disembodied one–our minds are the focus, and much of the pastimess of modern humans have us going off into various fantasy worlds (through games, television, movies) rather than being present and centered in our bodies. This embodiment, then, helps us recognize what our physical bodies are capable of and helps us re-orient ourselves back into our bodies. This has the benefit of grounding us back into the here and now, slowing us down, and helping us be fully present, among many other things.

 

Second, the bardic arts help us cultivate a deeper sense of identity and of self. Engaging in a bardic art, and the practice of that art, often requires you to work solitary–spending time with the self. Even if you do some kind of performance or collaborative art that requires a group (like playing an instrument in a band or acting), practice by one’s self is still a regular part of that experience.  This time spent with yourself strengthens your own self love and bonds with yourself because you are taking inherent time to simply be with yourself and enjoy that time. We often don’t take much time for ourselves–but I believe we need to get to know ourselves and develop relationships with ourselves in the same way we might develop relationships with any other friend.  This time, then, helps us better understand ourselves.

 

Three, interacting with the instruments of the bardic art (your voice, the media, an instrument, even for dancers, the earth itself), creates an interplay between you and your tools/environment. It ultimately teaches us about relationship and how to be in relationship to some other thing.  My words, as I write them, shape me and hone my thinking in ways that without writing them, I wouldn’t experience.  My watercolors, likewise, help paint my soul with color and joy as I use them to paint the page in front of me.  This interplay, this interaction, becomes part of the self-unfoldment of the bardic arts.  When you carve wood–are you carving the wood or is the wood carving you? The answer is simply, “yes.”

 

Finally, creation of the bardic arts connects us with some of the most important aspects of humanity: when we think about what gets preserved in most museums, what remains of a culture, it is rarely their businesses, their stock market, their tallies of grain or ore.  It is their arts: plays, music, literature, statues, architecture, jewelry, stories, songs.  In fact, the study of the things that humans create is called the humanities, where literature, art, philosophy, music, theater, dance, and so on have their place. These are human things, things we create with our hands, our hearts, and our minds.  The oldest things that survive ancient pre-humans are cave paintings. Creating is something that humans do, and have done even before we were human.  The bardic arts, then, allow us to reconnect with our own humanity, our humanness.

 

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

Arete and the Strive for Excellence

As the opening quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance suggested, learning how to work on something with care, precision, and a sense of wanting to do “good work” helps you cultivate that care in other aspects of your life.  If you develop a sense of wanting to produce quality work, that gives you an inherent sense of care.  That same care can be cultivated into other aspects of life–and part of that cultivation is learning how to do it well in one area.  The Ancient Greeks had a concept of “arete” (Greek: ἀρετή) which has a few translations: excellence of all kinds and in all things, living up to one’s potential in life, or having a high quality. It was synonymous with the idea of “moral virtue” suggesting that excellence was tied to morality and potential. The Greeks believed that people and the things people created could both have arete. 

 

I don’t see arete as an external quality, something to be judged against the “experts” or “professionals” who make a living doing a certain thing.  Arete is also inherently different than perfectionism. Arete is about personal potential and fulfillment–my personal best may not be someone else’s, based on my own skill, tools available, mindset towards the work, where I’m creating it, and any innate talent I may bring to the situation. The Greeks understood this, and maybe, in the druid tradition, we understand it too.  More, arete is in line with doing the best work you can, engaging in your bardic art to the best of your ability, and in doing so, becoming a more virtuous and fulfilled self.

 

I think cultivating Arete through the bardic arts this is particularly important as we are being subjected to a wide range of cultural values that suggest that cheaper, quicker, and easier is always better.   In many cases, it is not, and learning how to do the best work we can, so that we can strive for excellence is a worthy goal.  It is through this striving for excellence in one thing that excellence comes in many other areas of life as well.

 

Embracing the Flow and the Unconscious

I had a dear friend and mentor visit me some years ago. A few months prior to his visit, I had moved my art studio to a different room in the house; the old studio space became a spare bedroom. My friend, who was very much dedicated to his own druid practices each day, was staying in that room.  After spending a day or two there, he asked me if that room was where I had done my daily spiritual work, because the room had a focused energy. I said no, that was where I painted. And that one interchange has had me thinking, and reflecting, since–noting the similarities between my painting and my other kinds of spiritual work, particularly, meditation of all kinds (movement, stillness, discursive, etc).

 

In speaking to many who pursue the bardic arts with regularity and dedication, there seems to be this moment when the intensity of modern living sheds from us and we enter into a place of focus, quietude, and flow. Many very much see it as a meditation, a chance to go deeper and connect. After immersing oneself for some time within that bardic art, one comes out of the experience more relaxed, calm, and grounded. This is not any different, for me at least, than spending time in ritual or quiet meditation: the effect is the same.  A calmness, a sense of fulfillment, and of serenity come over me after time working on my bardic arts, whether that is fine arts, crafts, or writing. I will say though, it takes a level of skill and practice to get to the point where the flow comes–it is after some period of practice.

 

Above, I talked about the unfoldment that happens in the self. I think a lot of that work is semi-conscious or even unconscious. Our rational minds lose their vice grip and things can flow to the surface as the bardic arts flow. I often find that when I paint, carve, or engage in other work with my hands, by the end of that session, I’ll have come to an understanding of an issue that I didn’t have clarity on when I started. This experience is a powerful reminder that there are many levels to consciousness, and tapping into the bardic arts, when you are at that point of flow, allows you to tap into deeper ones than before.

 

Conclusion

“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.” – Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The bardic arts can also give us a sense of joy that is hard to find in other ways.  We can engage in the bardic arts because they make our souls sing–and finding how to use them to cultivate happiness is an important part of this spiritual work.  For many, part of this comes in sharing your work with others (one of the reasons that the Eisteddfod, or Bardic Circle) is so critically important.  But for others, it simply means tackling a difficult piece and feeling a sense of accomplishment, or learning an important skill through repeated practice.

 

Making things is personally empowering and gets us into a creative, skilled mode where we function best as humans.  There is nothing like a happy group of people learning how to carve spoons, make their own tools, raise a barn, build a rocket stove, or grow their own food.  There is a radiant joy that emerges when we learn how to make our own things.

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