Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Question Is Not: Did You Screw Up? The Question Is: Did You Keep Going Anyway?

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In a moment of weakness a couple of months ago, I agreed to cantor for this ritual. Now that the time is here, quite frankly, I don't really want to do it.

But I agreed to it, so I do it anyway. That's what personal honor is all about.

At first, things go fine. I'm a good cantor not because I have a particularly nice voice—it's pleasant enough, but no great shakes—but because I've got a good memory for tunes. Of the ten possible tunes to which we could sing these particular words, I can access the one that we want, on the spot. This gift of instant recall is so deeply ingrained that it took me a long time to realize that it's not something that everyone can do. That's why I'm here: gifts are for the sharing.

About two-thirds of the way through the ritual, I start in with a tune that I've just learned. Two days ago, I didn't know it, though I'd heard it before; but I'm a quick study, and it's been running through my head pretty much continuously ever since. Life for the musical is lived to an internal soundtrack. I woke up this morning with the tune running through my head.

The song starts with a chorus. The tune is catchy, and everyone sings along enthusiastically.

Then comes the verse, and a crevasse opens up at my feet.

The tune is gone.

Every performer knows that sooner or later you're going to screw up bigtime in public. If you survive it, without drying, this invariably marks a turning point in your performance career. It's the performer's initiation, really, and not everyone manages to get through with confidence intact.

But if you do, it changes what comes after. Once you've already made a fool of yourself in public and survived anyway, you lose a lot of your fear of ever having it happen again.

I open my mouth and sing. What comes out of it isn't the tune; it's not even a good improvisation.

But I keep going anyway, if unbeautifully, and in no time we're back at the chorus and back on track. Hey, this is ritual: chances are, people aren't paying particularly close attention to the details. Besides, I've been here before, and managed to come out still alive on the other side.

This is one of the lessons of the priesthood (one which, sadly, many never learn): that your job as priest is to direct the focus, not to be the focus. Sometimes that means that you have to pull the kind of attitude that a cat pulls when it runs headfirst into the sliding glass door: you sit back, preen, and radiate: I meant to do that.

In cantoring, as in life at large, the question is not: Did you screw up? The larger question is this: Did you keep going anyway?

The song ends, and the ritual draws to a close, as they all do.

No, really: I meant to do that.




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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