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There is a woman bearing down in the doorway. She is wedged between the thick stone walls like a piece of furniture that does not fit the room. The midwife is on her knees, whispering prayers in the gloaming. When the baby is born it is neither fully dark nor fully light; the mother has a foot on the door sill and one on the large slab of granite outside. The midwife intercepts the infant and gives it three sharp slaps. The shriek is enough to carry the mother to bed and bring the father inside. The child is named Brigid: shining one, fiery arrow.
Imbolc is an ancient earth festival in the Celtic calendar. The word means ‘In the Belly of the Mother’ and speaks to the birth pangs of the earth as spring begins its slow ascendancy. It is celebrated on 2nd of February, a threshold time when snowdrops appear in defiance of winter’s realm. The female archetype for this celebration is Brigid, known by pre-Christian Celts as a Goddess and later canonized as a saint. The stories of Brigid are a beautiful example of the Celtic imagination and its ability to suspend logic in pursuit of a good story. One legend places her in an inn in Bethlehem, pulling pints when Mary and Joseph came to call. Ancient mythology tells of the snowdrops that flower as she walks the land to awaken new life.
‘(Brigid) is a model for us of standing in the doorway between the wisdom of our spiritual tradition and the wisdom of traditions that have gone before or alongside us. At the doorway between faiths we can stand and bow, awakening to what the soul deeply knows, that wisdom is to be found and reverenced way beyond the boundaries of any one tradition. We need these many wisdom traditions. They are not given to compete with each other, but to complete each other.’ Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul, John Phillip Newell
Celtic wisdom understands time as cyclical. At this point in the year, when winter holds us firmly in its grip, it feels counterintuitive to buy in to new year’s resolutions. The need to hibernate is strong; my energy is low. Perhaps the reason so many of us struggle with January blues is because we are trying to force a level of engagement that we are not yet capable of.
In the apex of the roof where it meets the stone wall, there is a hole. Three bats are folded into the space, wrapped in their wings, squeezed like wrung out teabags. They are in a state of torpor, conserving fat reserves, biding their time until the spring.
At Imbolc, the invitation is to occupy the threshold. We are conscious that ‘change is in fermentation beneath the surface of our lives’ (John O’Donohue) but our job is to observe and be patient. Although the light is returning, we remain in the dark half of the year. It is a time of dreaming, nurture and quiet. At this threshold, we have one foot in the dark dreamtime and another on the lightened path where we will travel when the time is right.
I share my wash shed with a robin redbreast. She has discovered a stash of fat balls and is repairing last year’s nest on the top row of my shelves: a twig here, a beak-full of moss there. She is not scared of me. I separate my colours and whites while she weaves horsehair into her cradle; I empty the dryer and she fixes me with a cold, black eye.
The week before Imbolc, I co-facilitated a women’s circle around the firepit in our woodland. The Cailleach’s wild, wintery winds blew up a storm, but we hunkered beneath the tarpaulin and spoke of Brigid and the promise of spring. Wisdom has it that on Imbolc the Cailleach gathers wood for her fire. If the day is bright and sunny, she will gather a lot of fuel and winter will outstay its welcome. If the day is overcast and dull, she has overslept and will have no wood for her fire to extend winter’s reach.
These are the stories we tell around the fire, stirring up magic and mythology, sharing the poetry that is sustaining us through the cold winter days, referencing wisdom way beyond the boundaries that were established for us. We begin to guess at the things that are in fermentation beneath the surface of our lives but few of us can name them just yet. Instead, we choose what Richard Rohr calls ‘voluntary displacement’.
This is a choice to leave what we know without a sure sense of where we are going. We occupy an in-between space when we take a step towards something without being sure of where we will land. It feels like leaving one room but, when you enter another, failing to remember what you travelled there for. This is a liminal space we create by refusing to sleepwalk through our lives.
Three frogs spend the winter hidden in the mud among a thick patch of irises beside our pond. This is their brumation. Their metabolism slows, their skin stays damp, and they enter a sluggish period of inactivity. When the ground temperature begins to rise and the iris shoots tall and lithe, the frogs will awaken.
Why then do we begin our year, in the depths of winter, with such intensity? Where do we find this model in nature? What bursts into life with great abandon in January? Let us brumate a little while longer, feeling in our body whether the temperature is right to support new things.
On the eve of Imbolc, I took the children to orchard country. We walked the avenues between Bramley bows, marvelling at their contortions. They huddle like hags all winter with last year’s fruit rotting into their soil. My youngest pronounced them all dead. “Just you wait,” my daughter told him. She knows the miracle of resurrection. We walked into a deciduous woodland and as the children clambered up oak trees, I heard an unfamiliar rhythm.
‘…they make the dry limbs eloquent of the coming change…he is rapping at the door of spring.’ Birds, Bees and Sharp Eyes – John Burrows
Something chequered took flight above me, the size of a starling with an unmistakable red streak. I yelled for the children to join me, and we stalked a Great Spotted Woodpecker through two fields until we had all seen it. To bear witness to this harbinger of spring when playing hooky with my kids is a gift.
To honour Imbolc, we are preparing a meal for friends that honours the seasons that we are betwixt and between. It features woodcock, snipe and rabbit cooked in milk; the last of my leeks and the first tender stems of purple sprouting broccoli. We will light a fire and lay a place at our table for Brigid, keeper of the hearth fire, patroness of poetry and midwife to those who want to birth something new.
I will leave you with a new poem written by Doireann Ní Ghríofa in honour of Brigid. It was composed as part of a collaboration with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Museum of Literature Ireland. Poems were commissioned from Ní Ghríofa and two other female Irish poets, Paula Meehan and Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe. They were made into three short spoken word films that seek to weave the strands of femininity, divinity and creativity as they are exemplified through the ancient and post-Christian symbolism of Brigid. You can watch them here.
At Bridget’s Well
By Doireann Ní Ghríofa
When rain fell on a path of stone,
one by one, we appeared alone.
Each of us wore a different face,
but we were all the same –
drawn by ache to lift green latches,
drawn by want to walk the dark
passage. Past paper stares, we knelt
and wept, we who fed the well in rivulets,
whose plunged wrists trembled
with vessels of blue violets.
We each spoke a spell of stone
and in her gloom heard prayers turn poems.
Ask her, Bríd, what will be
come of us?
Listen. Liquid, the syllables;
the echo, luminous.