The Power of Memory

nostalgiaIn the past 3 or so years, I have returned to making art with a growing passion that has come to overwhelm all my other interests. I’m grateful for this gift, which is turning my winter years into a time of renewal. But something that keeps coming up is how powerful the past is, in particular, memory.

Today I felt that again when I lit a stick of this incense. Years ago (decades ago), when I was a teen, I often burned incense, and back then, pretty much all incense that I came across was from India and stuffed with synthetics. I remember how much I liked Nag Champa (“buy from reputed dealers only”). My clothing actually smelled like it, which I considered positive. But when I started art school in Chicago, I discovered Japanese incense at a little Japanese gift shop nearby, where I also bought a tiny book of Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji. This particular scent, Morning Star sandalwood incense, became my favorite (and I still love Japanese woodblock prints, witness my Hiroshige address book).

The other day I was tooling around online and happened to see it for sale. Even the color of the box brought me back to other times. I hesitated to buy it, because it’s not an expensive incense at all, and here I am with so much incense I make. I felt almost embarassed to buy it, as if I was craving some cheap candy from childhood. But I had a feeling that its scent would unlock a lot of doors of memory. So I bought it.

I got it today and right away fired up a stick. And the scent, yes, is a key. But I realized it’s not just simple nostalgia, a looking longingly towards the past, because the past was mostly not a very happy time in my life. My present is far better. It’s a nostalgia not for a time but for a feeling–the hope and energy I had as a young artist. That comes back to me more and more now, as I take each step forward in my art and as I remind myself of the passion I had then, when I wanted nothing more than to be an artist. I had forgotten that passion for so many years, buried it, because I thought it just could never come to fruition.

Until a few years ago, when I realized, hey, I’m getting old–if I’m ever going to be an artist, I better start trying. And I have.

The power of memory has influenced where I’ve chosen to live. One of the reasons why I wanted to rent a loft when I moved here to Rhode Island was because as a young artist, I very much coveted a garret that was visible from a side street near my first apartment. It was a bit ratty but had a large bank of slanted north windows and a tiny balcony aside that. How I wanted to live in that place and to have the life I imagined would go with it!

The loft I have rented has ten very large windows, although none on the north side, but my godz, the light in here is incredible. It inspires me every single day to do more artwork, to live up to my own idea of what I would have done had I lived in that garret–paint, paint, paint, and interact with other artists. I’ve become friends with other artists living in my complex, and it’s wonderful for me. Not since art school back in 1972 have I had the opportunity to just chat with other artists about making art. I am very grateful I have come to this point in my life.

I know I’ll be burning some of this incense every day, reveling in its pleasant scent and enjoying the further unlocking of the power of memory.

My book is available for pre-order!

The Witching Herbs by Harold Roth“The Witching Herbs: 13 Essential Plants and Herbs for Your Magical Garden,” the book I spent years working on is available for pre-order on Amazon. It will be printed by Weiser in late February, and at that time I’ll be selling signed copies off Alchemy Works (and I hope here as well).  I am so happy that this work is finally going to be out in the world. The chapters cover poppy, clary sage, yarrow, hyssop, thornapple, mandrake, belladonna, henbane, wild tobacco, rue, vervain, mugwort, and wormwood. I did the illustrations of the plants inside the book as well as writing the text.

Vervain & Flying


Vervain in my garden last year

Last July I made a tincture of fresh vervain (Verbena officinalis) I grew in my garden. I intended to combine it with essential oils to make a kind of incense helper, but I never got around to it. Meanwhile, the tincture sat on my work table.

A couple months ago I was working with some good smelling tinctures (like vanilla) and decided to see if the vervain had any particular smell. I didn’t remember it having much of a scent. I dipped a finger in the tincture and rubbed it on my hands. It dried quickly because the tincture was made with 95% alcohol. I could smell a very faint funkiness, but that was it. I didn’t think about it any further, and shortly after, I went to bed.

vervain_flowerAnd did I ever dream. Normally, my dreams don’t involve a lot of characters. Usually only a few other people or animals are there. Once in a while I will dream of being in a large city, but I don’t usually interact with many people in those dreams.

That night was different. I dreamed all night, a very intricate dream with very many people in it, most of whom I interacted with. One of them was my Spirit Teacher in crone form. My dreams of this individual are not frequent, so I treasure them. In the past, though, it has always been just me and the Spirit. If other individuals are there, they typically do not see us. But in this one, we all knew each other. It felt like the dream went from the time I fell asleep until I woke up and lasted at least several days in dream time.

I was almost sorry to wake up in the morning, because the dream was so satisfying. I wondered what had brought on such a dream. I couldn’t think of anything I had done differently the night before, anything odd I’d eaten or taken. It wasn’t until that afternoon that I remembered the vervain.

I know from my reading that the Druids supposedly smeared their bodies with the “juice” of vervain. I suspected that it had psychoactive properties–and perhaps these might be best explored through the skin rather than a drink. It’s become clear to me since that vervain does have sabbatic properties and can work easily through the skin. It doesn’t need to be smeared all over the body, either; I just rubbed it into the back of my hands to get it to evaporate so I could smell it, but that was enough to cause the intensification of dream–and to seemingly ease the connection in dream between myself and my spirits.

verbena_plantSince then, I’ve noticed two other things about the vervain tincture. One is that when I tried it again two nights later, all it did was create an effect similar to how mugwort works for me–a lot of busy dreams with a lot of characters but not a lot of content or significance. Also like mugwort, use of the herb seemingly needs to be spaced a bit apart, like a week, for it to be truly effective.

The other thing is that since I did the vervain tincture, my dreams have changed a great deal. They often involve many characters and large venues. It’s been a while, and this effect continues.

I strongly suggest that people with a garden try growing vervain and making their own tincture from fresh. I sell the seeds, which are not difficult to germinate. The plant is easy to grow and is very handsome with its shiny, sort of oak-type leaves. I also sell the dried herb, but the latter does not seem to have the same effect. Plant material goes through a lot of chemical, much less spiritual, changes when it is processed to be sold as a dried herb. Chopping produces chemical changes and allows a lot of goodies to escape, and drying causes further morphing and destruction. I discuss how to deal with some of these issues in The Witching Herbs, my book, which is allegedly coming out from Weiser in early 2017. Meanwhile, I highly suggest working with this herb. The tincture I made was a “folk” tincture, which means the fresh herb foliage and flowers are put into a jar, gently pressed down, and covered with menstruum (in this case, Everclear: 95% grain alcohol, available from the liquor store if it’s permitted in your state) up to a finger’s-width above the top of the herb. Then shake it periodically until the goodies are extracted and the herb material gets a bit crisp. With Everclear, because it’s such high alcohol content, it is extremely drying and will extract all the water-borne components from the herb very rapidly, like a couple hours. This is the advantage of Everclear over vodka, rum, brandy, or whatever. The tincture will change color as the chlorophyll is destroyed. Btw, do not drink Everclear; it can ulcerate the esophagus. It has to be diluted quite a good deal to be drinkable. You could try making the tincture and then adding a few drops to a small glass of wine before bed.