On first sight (or much later, depending on the particular script we’re following), the world can be a forbidding place. We all go through emotional and psychological winters at times. Nothing seems to provide warmth or comfort, so we hunker down and endure. And we can get so good at this kind of half-life that we mistake merely surviving for full-hearted thriving. Well-meaning friends or family who try to console us with various messages of hope or endurance (“This too shall pass”) can’t budge us from our heaviness.
The hidden changes implicit in the imminent shift of energy and consciousness which Druids symbolize and celebrate in Imbolc also find expression in the starkly beautiful lines of “First Sight” by British poet Philip Larkin.
Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.
As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.
For that is how at least some changes arrive — immeasurable, ungraspable, unlike anything that went before, so that we can’t even anticipate or recognize them ahead of time. Nothing of the past prepares us. The new comes on us “utterly unlike” the present. Only long memory serves to recognize them sometimes, and hail and welcome them — memory often consciously denied to us in one human lifetime, but accessible through dream and intuition and the “far memory” that we may call “past lives” or the “collective unconscious” or the “knower behind the thoughts” or “gut instinct.” This is memory as trees know it, the rings of years that grow into the wood, the cell memory we humans also carry with us, the salts of ancient oceans that pulse in the same proportions in our blood.
This is the promise of light renewed, that miracle we often cynically dismiss but deeply long for, the story we are always telling ourselves: maybe this time, maybe next week, one more year. This marriage, that job, this new chance, here, now, finally, at last.
It’s important to note that this event is not “supernatural” or “religious” in the commonly understood sense of “coming from outside our world” or depending on a deity. We don’t need to look that far, though we’re welcome to if we wish. It is earth’s immeasurable surprise, after all, issuing from this world, this land, dirt under our feet, air that surrounds us, sun on our skin. Put another way, the whole world is telling us “Pay attention!”
Another Irish name for Imbolc is Oimelc — “ewe’s milk.” In the agrarian societies all our ancestors came from, the pregnant ewes have been preparing for the lambs to come, their udders swelling with milk. There are signs of change and renewal all around us, but in our rush towards “anywhere but here,” we’ve often lost sight of and contact with the markers that would center and align us with the natural order of balance and harmony we crave.
In North America, the equivalent “secular” holiday is Groundhog’s Day, which one way or another says winter will in fact eventually end. Punxsutawney Phil emerges from the earth and his plump hibernation sleepiness to prophesy renewal, either seeing his shadow on a sunny day, or huddling under February clouds as secular augurs read the omens and declare them to the assembled faithful. (We don’t so much abandon ritual and religion as slip it past the censor of the modern and supposedly irreligious mind, clothing it in other guises less objectionable. If you doubt it, take a look at the grand mythologizing that surrounds Phil on sites like this one.)
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