Imbolc and Revising My Sacred Calendar

Sacred PathOn this unusual solitary Sunday I found myself in in a noontime twilight when I yearned to fill fruitful hours with reading and writing and meditation but instead wandered between rooms, giving a few minutes to a novel before remembering I had left a cup of tea steeping in the kitchen a half hour before. Though I often resist the wisdom that tells me to pull on some boots and get outside, I looked out to the melting snow and realized that I had to leave my cocoon.

I was tempting nature to glitter through its bleak February palette with unmistakable manifestations of the divine even as I consciously settled for the mundane beauty that is a false spring: forty degree sunlight air hanging over mud and snow that will invariably freeze in a few short hours. Really, this is how I gaze upon life much of the time – resigning myself to reality but coloring it all with a sense of hope I am sometimes unwilling to admit. As you will see from the picture above, this ended up being a much more sacred journey than I might have expected; it seems that there in fact must have been some magic delighting in the sunshine.

Gradually I was able to release the expectation of revelation and even stopped chanting the vaguely frenetic mantra that was intended to shape this tramp through the woods into a productive walking meditation. I pulled back the layers of ego until I was simply a woman on a path on a warm winter day. Soon, I started noticing sounds beyond those of the crunching ice and the squelching muck beneath my galoshes. I pitied myself and the wonder of the earth for a while; our perfect communion was marred by distant shots from the gun club and the low hiss of the thruway – destructive neighbors that I so rarely acknowledged. For a time I let these impostors excuse my neglect of the natural world: being outside barely worth it when any signs of wildlife that hadn’t been hunted or pushed into oblivion by human incursion were drowned out by all that human noise. But eventually even those pretexts melted away as I watched blue jays chase one another from birch to birch and realized that the little movements at the corner of my vision were due to an underbrush alive with busy squirrels. All of my intentions of really being present in nature were forgotten in the act of actually being there.

Everything I “should” have been thinking about melted away under the flame unmediated experience. My thoughts turned to flowing wax that was free to drip through my consciousness to form new shapes, loosed from their old forms and patterns. Finally my sense were opening wider so that I remembered to take a deep breath of the sweet fresh air. It tasted just a little like spring, and I remembered that in Ireland the weather had seemed to turn at the first of February in celebration of Imbolc.Brigid

That is when I stopped to stare dumbly into the middle distance. It was February third and I had not even thought of the festival of Imbolc, Brigid’s Day. For so many years the feast of goddess/saint whose image I had worn around my neck had been deeply important to me, marked by rituals both public and private. I remember so clearly the first Brigid’s Day of the millennium when I hung my cloak out in the damp Galway night so she could pass by and bless it.

What does it mean that I had been thinking of how to make Lent more meaningful but had not remembered what I had always considered what I thought to be the most important day of the Celtic year? I have been so disconnected from the relationship of time and nature that I don’t even know if Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow (just Googled it, he did). As I began walking again I marveled at strange new focus my awareness has taken – Catholic traditions treasured over pagan rites? Who was I? I mourned a bit for all it seems I have forgotten.

But then I realized how artificial our calendars are, how arbitrary our scheduled holy days. Certainly the winter solstice is a moment in time, but unless you are standing in the inner chamber at Newgrange how can you know for sure? When celebrating Brigid’s qualities such as fire and home and healing and poetry, does the divine care if we are off by a day or two? After all, time has proven to be a plastic thing when we remember that the Church imposed December 25 upon the newborn Jesus.

After that walk through a wintertime awakening, I am feeling graced with a deep peace to realize that I remembered Brigid not Bandiabecause I turned the page on the calendar, but because I heard the whisper of the earth.

Identity Crisis for an Aspiring Pirate Queen

In February of 2002 I sat in a lecture hall at Trinity College Dublin while fellow aspiring academics gave papers on bits of Irishness. Instead of hanging on their every word I outlined an essay I have thought of often but never had the courage or purpose to actually compose. Despite my blind terror in the hours before I was to present my own first paper, or perhaps because of it, I was struck by the peculiarity of this collective obsession with a culture and a nation and I began to be troubled by my part in such an endeavor. Certainly there had to be an awareness of the fact that this place upon which we were so fixated was at least in part only a creation of groups like ours, packs of scholars who pirated myths and raided hilltop mounds to weave a self-perpetuating narrative that would help publish books and secure tenure. Even as I was about to dedicate myself to the game of academia, I was aware that my own desperate passion for the trappings of a foreign nation came at least in part from a different source. The person I wanted to become needed to declare her own country; she needed an entirely new land upon which to forge her identity.

This moment of crisis resurfaces because it is October 31 and until a few years ago I would have shuddered before having to call it “Halloween.” It was Samhain, dammit: the Celtic new year, the final harvest, the moment when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. I had fully embraced all that was “Celtic spirituality” because I needed a history that receded back into a mist-shrouded past, goddesses and warrior queens who could guide and inspire me, and magic that would enliven the quaint horror of everyday reality. With a passion that must be an essential aspect of the “conversion” path, I rejected everything that had been touched by the “invader” Saint Patrick and those who came after him. That I missed a lot in ignoring much of Christian Ireland goes without saying.

That conference five years ago was not a time to call my meandering spiritual path into question, however; I was too busy wondering at the hollowness of my own experience that demanded I borrow someone else’s country in order to uncover my own identity. One reason I have never written this story is that I still do not know what to make of feeling like a cultureless American left to feed on places that had remained “pure.” It was as if I had been born into an historical void with which I left no connection on a land that was stolen from the people who knew the real myths of the sandbars and mountaintops. I realize the ways in which these are cruel generalizations and that in saying such things I discount my own love of where I grew up, but faced with a manageable sized country with a past as old as Burren limestone, I just felt orphaned. Not connected to my own world and destined forever to be a tourist in the world that I so wished would take me in. It will take more serious consideration than I can give to a blog post to determine if this is a unique aspect of my own psyche or something that I share with my generation; would I feel so unmoored if I was from Rio or Bangalore or Kinsale? Was this a typical longing for the exotic or a testament to a real sense of lack in dominant American culture? Your thoughts?

On Samhain as on All Saints’ Day we remember those who have died, but we can also stop to honor the ideas and beliefs that have waned and faded from once influential places in our lives. I celebrate the aspiring PhD who wanted to dream in Irish and spend her life discussing Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s poetry. I honor the girl on her first steps on a spiritual path who had to reject everything and embrace the dreams of others before she could build her own tradition.