Patrick McCollum and his handcrafted “World Peace Violin”
Greetings, and welcome to my second installment of “Inspiring Things That Happened at Pantheacon.” This one concerning a very magical violin.
Winter and I were settling in to our hotel room when a fellow I’ve met, but don’t know well, came by to say hello to our room mate. His name is Patrick McCollum, and some of you may know him better than I, for he has worked tirelessly on behalf of Pagan rights, indigenous cultures, and world peace.
We talked for a bit, and before departing he asked if he could leave his things in our room for the day, as he wasn’t staying at the hotel. We said yes, and asked what it was we’d be safekeeping, for the purpose of figuring out the best place to keep them. Along with a small bag of personal items, he was leaving us a violin.
But not just any violin. It was what he called “The World Peace Violin”. As I asked him about it, a magnificent story unfolded. A story of how he made made this violin by hand, without any prior knowledge of how to make a musical instrument. And how every piece was chosen to have a symbolic intention, even though it may mean waiting years for just one element. And with the voices of many naysayers in his head, telling him it wasn’t possible. And how this came to echo the peace process in his mind, and how, to demonstrate that yes, peace was possible, he mustn’t give up on the violin, no matter how difficult it became to create it. How he rebuilt it over and over, until it sounded beautiful.
I asked him if he would tell me the story in detail at some point during the weekend. He did. I recorded it. Here it is:
Patrick (paraphrased here and there for easier reading):
I decided I wanted to make a magical violin to represent world peace. In the course of doing so, there were a series of requirements I put on myself. This violin wouldn’t necessarily be made from conventional materials – the right woods, etc. – but everything I received to do it would be made of materials that had to do with resolving conflict or war, or come from some sacred place.
I didn’t really know where to start, I was just sort of waiting around, and I was involved in negotiating and helping to mediate between two warring tribes in Africa who’d been fighting and killing each other for almost a thousand years. I told them about the violin idea and they gave me a block of wood from a sacred tree that only grows in their part of the world, a little known and isolated region of Ghana.
I used this wood for the body, and I just drew the shape of a violin on it and started carving it. I was kinda happy with what I had but that’s as far as it went. I had some pieces left over so I started carving the neck and a few other parts.
Later I was doing some work with some Native Americans, helping them fight to have access to their sacred sites and not have them bulldozed and turned into rest areas. They told me of a tree that had a voice. I had to wait for the tree to die before I could take wood from it, or something to happen with it. I decided to let it offer me a piece if it chose to do so. I brought it gifts and sang to it, so that it would know what music is. I prayed under this tree for 6 years before it surrendered a piece large enough for my purposes.
I knew the wood needed to be dried out. This wood was to be the top piece of the violin. (The face, with the sound holes). It took years. In the course of waiting for the wood to dry, the bottom piece that I had carved for the body broke. The whole project was over, from my perspective, because I had this broken thing that I didn’t know how I would repair, and I couldn’t get another piece of wood as I was no longer working with these people in Africa.
Then I decided, well, I’ve started, I will find a way to fix it. And all of a sudden, it started sounding like a familiar story. Trying to make something a particular way, don’t know what I’m doing, but it sorta looks pretty good – and then it gets broken, and seems hopeless for a time, but then you start finding ways to fix it – which is a lot like the peace process. This is what we’ve been doing all along.
So I continued, and there were several contributions along the way, but the next big contribution, for me, was, I went to Brigid’s Well in Kildaire, Ireland. In my spiritual tradition we see Brigid’s well as a Chalice that links worlds, and the trees that grow there also grow in many worlds, so these trees represent a manifestation of the Divine in our world. There is a beautiful willow tree growing out of this well. I cut a piece from this tree and it wasn’t big enough to do anything significant but I carved some knotwork for an inlay to represent unity.
It took years gathering these basic pieces but finally I saw that I had all the pieces I needed. Once I realized I was in the home stretch I was eager to put it all together, so I was in a rush. I cut some corners. It wasn’t varnished or sanded or finished in any way, but I just wanted to see what it would be like as a finished thing. So I put it all together, put strings on it, and it sounded like shit.
Which is what everybody told me would happen. Violin makers had been telling me, “It’s the wrong wood, it’s the wrong shape, it’s not the right length”, etc. They gave me all these reasons why it wouldn’t work. “You’re not a violin maker so you cannot possibly make a violin that would sound halfway decent anyway, so you should just quit”. And I started thinking “That just sounds a lot more like the peace process” because that is what’s constantly happening. Everybody who’s working on it knows that everybody else is sitting back thinking “This is ridiculous, these guys are going to kill each other, they’re going to blow up the world and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
So I decided to ignore them and keep pushing forward.
Then I decided, I didn’t care if it sounded like crap, I would finish it and make it something beautiful to hang on the wall. So I took a lot of time to finalize it, I put inlays in the top, and each little thing I put on it was something sacred I had collected. I went to Merlin’s cave at Tintagel in Cornwall where the Aurthurian legends originated and got small bits of wood for the inlays there. I got it to where it looked pretty nice, and I wanted to put a finish on it. It still sounded like crap, so it wasn’t at a good place, but it looked pretty nice. For the first time during this process, I decided to do a little bit of research. And what I found out was, nobody has a clue what to use for a finish. Folks would say “Use all the best varnish, however the real masters made their own secret varnishes with magic and shells and animal parts, bones and insects”, and nobody has any record of what these formulas actually were. There wasn’t even a consistent base that they used to create out of. So I started thinking, in my tradition we have passed down a recipe for what we call “Sacred Oil”, made of several different herbs such as belladonna, wolf’s bane etc. so I set this as a base and added other things to it. I added horsetail, as I had learned that Native Americans would polish flutes that they had made with it. It has a natural silica that can be used as a fine sandpaper.
Winter with the violin.
One of the things that I had read about the masters making the secret varnish was, researchers think they added substances such as sand or larger particles that would get stuck in the wood of the violin, which would make it kind of glassy and give the sound a ringing quality. So I decided, horsetail may accomplish a similar thing.
So I sanded the whole thing with horsetail, put the varnish on and hung it up to dry. It took a long time, months and months, for this stuff to dry, because first of all it wasn’t real varnish, I just made this stuff, I didn’t know if it would ever dry. It did eventually dry, and when I played it, it did sound a little better, but still not great. So I just hung it on the wall, and thought that was very cool.
And then I got the idea that the violin couldn’t know how to make music if it couldn’t hear music. So I taped the violin to my speakers and played it violin music all day. I figured maybe this would help it understand what the right vibration is, and the funny thing is, it started sounding better. (This is a real thing. Wood instruments are known for their tone becoming richer and more resonant the longer they are played. Here’s a bit about it).
It still wasn’t a decent violin, but it was improving. Then, on Solstice, the Goddess spoke to me and said “You need to take the violin apart, and change it”. Now I had spent all this time getting it to the point were it’s really nice. I have no idea how to take it apart, it’s all glued together and everything, varnished, I had no idea what to do. I had put years of time into this so far.
So I thought “Okay well, I have faith in the Goddess, it might just be my imagination, but I have to do this”. I was compelled. So I got a big butcher knife and just started hammering, ripped the top piece off and such. My friends were having a heart attack. It looked pretty nice, they said, and it wasn’t going to sound good anyway and I was just going to ruin it after putting in all these years.
It needed to be thinned out. So I sanded it down, from the inside so that I wouldn’t ruin my finish. I took it to a violin maker who told me that they scrape them down with special tools a thousandth of an inch at a time, but I just used an electric sander. Folks who came to my house were horrified when they saw. But I glued the sucker back together and it sounded pretty good. So, I was happy!
Then I tried to teach myself to play, and I was pretty happy with the sound. But I got the same message – “No, it isn’t right.” This happened 4 times! I took it apart and rebuilt it. It would get smaller each time, and thinner. I’d break a piece and I’d have to glue it back together, it was getting dinged up and I was getting upset. It felt like I was going downhill, but each time it sounded a little better.
I came to realize something really important. The thing that is most missing from the peace process is our faith – in a higher power or anything – that it is even possible. No one right now really believes peace is possible for the most part. People talk about it but in their minds they figure “How in the world are you going to get 7 billion people who have all these different ideas to get along together when they fight in their own house?” But I decided, it’s through that connection, that is the only way it’s ever going to happen. I decided that what I needed to do was surrender myself to the Goddess, and that I would surrender to her Will, whether the thing fell apart and got smashed, that I would accept that as a possibility and trust.
Then I had a dream that I made it more round. So I did. About this time I walked the Sinai desert in Petra. There is a stone that is the oldest carving of the god and goddess in the world, and I was permitted to take a small shard from it to add to the varnish. I also added sand from the baptism site of Jesus, sacred plants, grains from a sacred stone given to me by Himalayan shamans…
(About this time people started arriving at my hotel room for an event, and I was unable to get details about the final phase).
Patrick wrapped up the interview by telling me that the entire process took at least 10-12 years. He doesn’t remember exactly and that isn’t what matters to him. What matters most to him was undertaking this journey as an expression of the peace process, and how, because of this association it was imperative that he never give up. At the time that I saw and played the violin, it looked and sounded gorgeous, and had been valued at $25,000 by a violin appraiser.
This story moved me deeply, and has stayed with me ever since. This is how we do it, folks. This is how we make meaning in life, and how utterly crucial it is for us to do so! This is how magic is made – by creating symbols that touch us deeply, and give powerful ideas root in the collective unconscious, ideas that may hitherto have seemed impossible. When impossible ideas begin to seem possible, a way to make that idea manifest begins to emerge.
We live in a society that expects everything to be handed to it on a silver platter, easily, cheaply, and right now. And in most cases, every whim we can think of is available to us easily, cheaply, and right now. And yet – has this made our lives better? I don’t see that it has. It is so easy to take everything for granted, easy come easy go, but when everything comes so easily it has no meaning. No life force, no story is attached to it, and we quickly lose interest, and look for the next thing to fill our void. Yet we never find the thing to fill our void, because what we are yearning for isn’t a thing. It is the story behind the thing. It is the meaning that we bring, the effort that we put in that gives life its purpose. Life matters when we live it as though it matters. We look for the meaning of life to no avail, for it is our task to bring it.
When we look at the things in our lives, what stories do they tell? Do they tell a tale of cheap meaningless nothing brought into the world on the tears of slave labor? All so we can have an empty thrill for 5 minutes? If we can somehow convince ourselves that this is okay, it is just how the world is, is it any wonder we find ourselves increasingly capable of shooting schoolyards full of children? I believe that the sickness in our society has its roots in this throwaway culture. We have allowed ourselves to accept this hollow shade of a life being sold to us. We have forgotten our duty to create the world.
But we can remember it, as Patrick has. We can make sure that our choices are intentional, that we are creating good stories. We can make of our lives an epic saga, worthy of being sung in the halls of heroes for years to come. This is how magic is made, how we etch our soul’s desire upon the fabric of all life. Let us take up the charge, and become heroes in the eyes of the next generations. Let us piece together our most fervent dreams for the world, and make music.