Those Surprising Vikings

At the Anderson family reunion I attended years ago, when the heavy-set, ruddy blonde prairie farmers I’m from passed me a 24 of beer and told me I have Viking blood coursing through my veins, I don’t think they realised how confusing that could be. Now, having fought my way through several books and a couple of BBC documentaries on the subject, I’m less sure than ever.

 

What’s a descendent of those who were the scourge of Europe through the not-so-dark Dark Ages to do? We’re having a full-blown identity crisis. The wonderful, recently released History channel series “Vikings” takes some of the usual turns (rough and ready adventurers with lots of facial hair – at least, the men. Blood and gore. Plenty of sex). And yet, despite some caricatures, the greater truth the series portrays is this: it turns out that being a Viking meant above all being, believe it or not, complex.

 

If only we’d thought about it, we’d have suspected the former “pillage and plunder” paradigm too simple to be true. How could a small band of tattooed berserkers really be responsible not only for the sack of monasteries and cities all over northern Europe (and as far as Byzantium), but also for positive changes: the design of beautiful and advanced sea- and river-craft, the exploration of waters as far as North America, a fashion craze in costume jewelry – then, not now – the minting of coinage, and a process of urbanization that led to the establishment of quite a number of NEW cities? And why should small farmers who only wanted gold and slaves have become quite so good at setting out grid-lines and building churches? It may be a surprise to the neo-pagan “revivalists” to find out – should they ever care to – that the various hyphenated Scandinavians of the British Isles and Normandy were in part responsible for the 11th century re-flowering of Christianity.

 

My Norse relatives will hear more about this as I travel through Ireland and Norway on pilgrimage this summer. But the first to be surprised is me: I thought I had my ancestors pegged. It turns out they were more than just a hardy lot. They were often violent warriors of fortune, yes. But just as often, many of them were travelers and settlers, artists and urban planners, the pious and the pilgrims of their days. Learning as they traveled. That latter part doesn’t just sound like a heritage. That sounds like a plan.

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Lost in the Movement

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Java Jive Kathryn 2013 (click to listen)

How do you describe the colour blue to someone who’s colourblind? You can’t, of course; or at least not very easily. But once you’ve actually seen the colour blue with your own eyes, well then….
Then (and only then) the “cobalt blue” of the sea, the “blue-green” of her eyes, the “navy blue” of the flag snapping in the breeze, the pale-washed blue of arctic ice, all make sense.

That’s the way harmony singing is for me. When I was young I was harmony-blind. I listened to Neil Young and Queen and April Wine and America on the radio growing up. I enjoyed the music, and even had a fairly easy sense of rhythm. But the notes? To me they were just one big wall of sound. Then on a bus when I was fifteen, a very patient musician taught me a simple, one-line harmony to “You are My Sunshine”, and despite my adolescent laziness forced me to repeat and repeat that harmony until I could sing it on my own against the melody.

And all of a sudden I started to see. I mean hear. It was like opening up that wall and realising for the first time in your life that there are studs and beams and gyproc and insulation and wiring and a whole world you’ve never suspected, behind the smooth paint.

Probably because I came fairly late to hearing and singing harmony, I’ve never been more than an amateur at it. But even so, what a gift it’s been. And what a simple and yet profound pleasure it is to DO it, to sing in harmony with someone else. For me, singing harmony is something like dancing. Really, it IS dancing: a kind of vocal dancing where sometimes you come in close for a swing or two, then you move further away, then you mimic each other until someone laughs, or maybe – in a choir or group – you together build such a complex, shifting pattern of sound that it’s a thing of aching beauty, all the more so for its ephemeral temporary existence.

So here’s my thanks to those who taught me to sing in harmony, and to hear it in others. To that first mentor, thank-you with all my voice. To Gerry Langner and the choirs he led, thank-you. To Mark Christensen and his lovely deep bass, Alan Solheim’s baritone, to the singers of the ’76 tour, to Wanda for the duets and the Clarence Ave girls for their quartets, to the Unconventionals and to Marginal Notes for years of madrigals and magic, and to all the rest since…. to my daughter for seeming to perfect the art of harmony, and to Kathryn for singing with me recently and reminding me of all this, thank-you.

You opened my ears to a tapestry of such complexity and beauty I cannot imagine having never heard it before. And you encouraged my earth-heavy voice in its own faltering attempts to lift off. I’m a late-flyer, but I’m still in the air, and celebrating the weaving and dancing of these harmonies as they flit around each other for the sheer pleasure of being lost in the movement.

What’s in a Veil?

Jepthah's daughter Chicago Inst of Art
(a spoken word performed Feb 10, 2013 Waterloo ON)

When you were born,
you came out of the womb (well, let’s be honest)
you came out a prune,
All wrinkly, squinty-eyed and pointy-headed.

Your parents held you
in trembling, coltish new-parent arms and
they said:
How beautiful
when what they really meant was:
how terrifying.
Then they glanced sideways at each other, with that innocent , easy,
never-to-be-repeated conspiracy of those
who have just, together, somehow stumbled into creating life,
and they knew
they just KNEW, that they would have to:
bundle you up,
and put you in the car,
and actually take you home,
And that was frightening.
But there was something even more frightening to do first.
The hospital came with the forms to fill out.
The nurse stood, hands on hips, and said: you can’t leave until you’ve done this.
And your parents then turned to each other and said:
have we decided, finally?

How shall we veil him?

It was a big responsibility, when they veiled you, their new baby,
their pride, their joy.
After all, it was all about YOU.
You were the one who had to live with this decision your whole life.
Was it a veil the other kids would tease you for?
Was it a veil that stood out, or a veil that blended in?
And back then, who was to know?
Imagine back, as if you were looking at one of those old Polaroid shots.
You know the ones. Of camping in the tent trailer.
The photos where someone’s wearing those denim shorts that were too tight, and that tee-shirt, and with that hair-do, can you believe it?
And those veils….so psychedelic. So sixties.
Imagine that.
And imagine, then,
what they must have been thinking, when they gave you your veil.
They must have asked themselves:
Is it a veil that , if they chose just right, might get you ahead, might get you noticed?
Was it a veil to push you past all those others fighting for jobs, for recognition, for security?
For love?
You see? You see how important it was?
Veiling shouldn’t just be left to chance.
But almost always, it is.

Or was the veil they chose for you a veil that’s too historical, too old-fashioned?
A sepia-tinted fabric that looked better on your grandparents, maybe, in the old country?
Maybe it was a veil for different times, another world, a different tongue,
a foreign soil and syllable and sun.
A rough, peasant fabric that worked then, not now.
Was yours a veil like that?

Oh, it must have been hard for them.
Because on the other hand, if parents aren’t careful, the veil can be too trendy.
A good idea at the time. But now?
Passé, like tomorrow’s stale croissants.
The kind of veil one sees on the front cover
of some glossy magazine at the supermarket,
and without thinking, gasps: oh, that’s a good one!
But! Hah. But:
ten years from today? It’ll look like the kerchief worn by some forgotten movie star,
the Jessicas and Justins and Jonnys and Brittainys and Ashleys,
Fabric abandoned to the bin of “cute, but didn’t last.”
Too flimsy, too changeable, too vapid and faddish.
Nothing dire.
Just, not enough there to protect, or inspire.
Or to add uniqueness
to the warp and weave that is life.

You’d think choosing how to veil a child a decision too big for most parents,
Which is maybe why we don’t think. Don’t decide. Aren’t conscious about it.
And then we live with the consequences.

Some people don’t, of course.
Live with the consequences, I mean.
The young woman I saw the other day who held out her arms to me for a book?
She’d forgotten.
But I saw.
Old scars, thankfully,
there, on her forearms.
She made those scars, I imagine, cutting off that first veil,
the veil her parents chose for her,
the veil drawn tighter and tighter around her by school,
and family, and relatives, and parties and trying to be someone else, and….
And maybe most of all, by herself,
A veil she couldn’t, what’s the word?
Suffer.
Until, suffocating,
in her rush to lose that first veil, it was – it must have been –
like shedding skin.

Oh, but men don’t wear veils, says the fellow sitting at the corner table,
in sunglasses, when there’s no sun,
Inside.
“Men don’t wear veils because we don’t have to,” he says – from behind his shades.
But I can barely hear him.
His voice is muffled, his veil so thick.
It’s the masculine veil, made of old superhero costumes, and football jerseys,
and beer ads carefully cut out, and hockey tape, and boasting, and NOT saying anything. It’s a patchwork made of hot cocoa and the camouflage pajamas he wore in grade two,
a veil of toughness. Even though he might secretly like to try vulnerable, he can’t.
Any tell-tale feminine colours acarefully covered over, or scribbled out.

“I don’t wear a veil either” pipes in the young woman at the other table,
“that’s those other people. You know, the religious ones.”
But I can barely see her, either,
through the shimmer of the lip gloss she had to have, like all her friends,
in grade six, the curtain of some celebrity’s perfume,
Her veil is colourful, made up of names and brands, tops by GAP,
cigarettes she smoked to fit in,
creams, conditioners, colours, her veil threaded through, incredibly, with her own skin.
Spelling the word sexy. Even though she mostly just looks afraid.
No.
No veil there.

That first veil? The one that comes home with us from the hospital?
It seems so natural we hardly know it’s there. Some folks never realise.
But it is.
Indulge me. Take a second, now,
and feel it. Maybe you’ve forgotten even that you’re wearing it.
But I’m here today to remind you.
It’s okay: reach up, and put your hands on your cheek.
Can you feel it?
Take a moment. It’s safe. Try it. Remember.
Place some of the gauzy material between your thumb and forefinger.
And give it a gentle rub.
What threads do you feel there? Are they smooth? Rough? A mixture?
All those half-hidden threads showing which aunt had a drinking problem,
which overly-religious uncle scared us half-to-death with stories of hell,
which father wasn’t there, or maybe was too-much there. The mother who bandaged you up when you fell.
Or didn’t.
The babysitters and books and recesses and graduations.
All those platitudes are there too, sewn in:
when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Always wear a smile.
Make a success of yourself. We’re proud of you.
All those threads, and more:
The bed-times with your siblings,
the preachers, the teachers, your first love, the first death, the first job, the time you didn’t think you’d make it through,
but you did.
Your last kiss.
What you were taught and what you just learned, period.
All those people who contributed one thread, even just one,
Or another.
I hope you can feel that cloth, and what’s in it.

That’s the thing about veils.
Although the basic fabric’s usually what we’ve been given,
they rarely stay the same.
We improvise,
or better: we are the cloth upon which improvisation happens.
Our experiences change us, catching textures like burrs on a cross-country walk,
We find ourselves shimmering just a moment with the colours
of someone we just met,
and maybe, knowing them long enough,
we take on some of that hue
permanently.

Did you know that even Emperor Augustus veiled himself
when offering sacrifice to the gods?
Moses covered up his glory.
Veils imply a limit, a protection,
a recognition that what’s within is not the same as what’s without.
A boundary, of sorts.
A story.

And even to my friend who once confided to me
“clothes are an improvement on the body”
I would answer this:
until truly, we are transformed from one degree of glory to another, I know:
Our veils will rise from sleep with us,
And go down to our dreams covering our heads.
But, at least, let us make them as nearly US, the outside reflecting the in, as we possibly can.
So that, when what is hidden is revealed,
and the dainty lace and cowboy flannel and urban black and country brown all removed,
unveiled and naked,
we stand before each other, and our God.
It will not so much be a surprise as a place to hear what is unbelievably, happily, graciously, true:
You are still a prune.
“And before you were named,
before you were veiled,
I knew you thus, all along.”