As the season of Imbolc comes, and Brigid walks the land, I always feel Her fiery inspiration. There is work to do.
It's starting. Can you feel it? The light has already changed so obviously here in Oregon. Something is waking up in me. I am not usually depressed around MIdwinter. I love the dark and the long nights, and don't mind being alone at this time like some people do. But I have been deeply depressed recently.
Yesterday morning was not the first day I noticed the change in the light, but it was the first morning that it broke through my gloom and touched me in some physical way. Got through my skin. As often happens around Imbolc, a new poem for Brigid came to me.
Yes, Imbolc is coming. We think of snowdrops, and increasing light, of Brigid and the Cailleach. Some consider it a time of ascendency for the Rowan tree. I have been wanting to share a little something about this poem, called "Song" by Seamus Heaney for awhile now.
I love this for many reasons. Each mention of tree and flower seems to bring the spirit of that plant to me. The red berried rowan which has associations with witchcraft and protection, the alder which so often has its feet in the water, the rushes, the immortelles - which is another name for Helichrysum, those little button-like flowers that dry so beautifully. Then there is birdsong and "mud flowers" and dialect. It's a lot in eight lines! And the music of what happens. What about that? Well, it's referencing this:
So now you know. It's a bit Zen, isn't it? I find myself so frustrated by what is happening in our world. But I can only do what is given to me to do. Sometimes I have to accept that I am caught up in events much greater than myself, events not of my making. In the story, Stephens goes on the say that Fionn loved what happened and "would not evade it by the swerve of a hair". We spend a lot of time thinking about how to evade what might happen, not stopping to think that our energy is better spent dealing with whatever is before us. That we are better off responding to life with all the strength and beauty we can muster. That was always Fionn's way.
As the season of Imbolc comes, and Brigid walks the land, I always feel Her fiery inspiration. There is work to do.
I have recently created a chapbook of some of my other poems about Brigid and the Cailleach, written over the years. This little book is a handy size to use in rituals and devotional work.
Poems for the Season of Imbolc
This Samhain-tide kind of passed me by. I wasn't in the mood for dumb suppers or rituals or much of anything. I am currently struggling with homesickness on a monumental scale, as I know so many of my ancestors must have done. I've written before about how I feel about my own shadowy lineage. Family trees and DNA are all very well, but for me, "my ancestors" are so much more. Genealogies may be linear, but I am not so sure that time is.
Figures I have looked up to as old men when I was in my thirties and forties are gone now. Poets and tradition bearers, musicians... People close to me have gone, too, several before their time. This is the state of getting older. It's part of the preparation, I suppose.
The past has always had a grip on me. I'm sure it makes me difficult to be with at times . . . but, there! Do you never feel it? How time and place spiral together, holding . . . something, in a particular curve of the land, a particular street at sunset. There's many an Irish jig and reel named after the "humours" of a place. "The Humours of Tulla", "The Humours of Limerick" etc. I love this old word, which describes something like the mood of a place. The word comes, originally, from a Latin root describing dampness or fluids. (There is a whole medical system based on the humours, or fluids, of the body.) This in turn makes me think of the old saying for knowing something intuitively: "I feel it in my waters."
Time sits, I sometimes think, like a moving column of vapour, about any given place. The things that happened there, what was thought or felt, all spirals like some kind of blind spring. The past is immanent, if only imperfectly reachable. I have lived in places where I could sense what the land felt in its waters. Sometimes, it's almost an ecstatic practice. Occasionally, it is excruciating. But I digress.
This poem is echoes of times, places and people who have passed. Some well remembered, others only sensed. They now merge and don't merge, spiraling in those columns of vapourous memory above their places. Even the well-remembered past can only live partially in our memories. So much of it belongs to place.
Lost in Time
My elders are becoming my ancestors now.
It doesn't happen all at once, or on the day they die.
They first must be purified like silver in the fire
A process which is not painful, but necessary.
Slowly they move from the tumbled houses,
Determinedly they step from the photograph pages
To build anew that which was lost,
That which was gained, but could not be held.
Dreamily they drift from their country upbringings
And their suburban upbringings among the roses.
Drift toward halls of learning and drinking establishments,
Smoke filled back rooms of pubs where poets rant.
They drift toward the beaches to collect the seaweed
And toward the moors to cut the peats.
They crack shells and hunt deer
And journey by horseback or coracle.
They sing in folk clubs and work in banks,
Emigrate to Canada or move down south.
They drink too much and rest too little
And then they are gone.
And there's me, always late to the party,
The last to hear today's news.
Nosing around in the past I miss the big event,
But unearth some old treasure.
When I look up, I find my elders have all left.
I shake my head in wonder. Was it always thus?
One day you look around, they've left you the house.
You walk the corridors, you try the beds.
Aeons and aeons pass, I am becoming the elder,
I am becoming the child.
I drift toward my elders, I follow the stream of their poesy,
A strong stream, through the hills of memory.
A couple of things I read recently came together in my mind and inspired me to write this story. I hope you enjoy its mysteries as much as I enjoyed writing it. It seems to fit the season.
There's a wild black mare living somewhere up on the common grazing. She stays at the fringes of the herds. Some say she's their queen. No one has really tried to catch her. I don't think they will. She's uncanny.
One old boy said he saw her and she ran right into a deep reedy pool. Went in head first, he said. And never came up. The next day, old Joe saw her come up suddenly out of the river by the pack horse bridge. Forty miles away.
They know her by a white streak in her tail. You only see it when the wind's just so, or she's swishing it at flies.
No. No one has tried to catch her and I really hope they never try. Humans are awfully clever. They can be bloody minded when they want something. It doesn't bear thinking about.
I followed her for awhile. Not to catch her or to try to gentle her, but because she kept whispering to me. In my morning dreams I'd hear her. Just as I was waking. But I couldn't make out words. How did I know it was her? I just knew. And I would pull on my breeks and grab a bit of bread in my hand to eat later and run up into the hills trying to catch sight of her.
There was no pattern to it. One time I saw her in Joe's herd. Just grazing in among his mares, she was.
She saw me. She held my gaze for what felt like hours but I knew that when I finally had to move she would run. And she did.
I thought she'd go off over the tops but she headed straight through the valley following the river. She was so swift my eye could hardly follow her. Then I heard a lot of splashing
I went back the next day, and the next. There wasn't a pony in sight.
The whispering in my head got louder. It started in the evening, too, when I was sitting trying to relax.
But there were no words to it. Just that sound - a horse's breath, the sound of a swishing tail. But there was a kind of meaning behind the sound. I just couldn't make it out and it was driving me insane. I wanted to hear it clearer, or closer. I was sure there was meaning there. That she had some message for me. Some wisdom or maybe some request.
Autumn came. I was lean as a brush handle from walking the valleys and the tops and I saw her regularly. But I couldn't get close
I swear she had a special smell about her. Like gorse and like roses. I'd stay downwind of her and the smell was almost overwhelming some days. She watched me. Oh, yes! She watched me. And I watched her.
Her mane was long. Long and tangled. It hung in ropes, dragging the ground when she grazed. Her nostrils were soft and flaring. Her back and rump were curved like the back of a beautiful woman.
I decided to stop going out up the valley. It was cold. I realised that I was unkempt. Maybe a little deranged. I cleaned my house and mended my clothes, I went to the shops, I raked the leaves, and went to the pub and played darts. The dreams stopped.
One morning I woke up to someone rattling hard at my door latch. I opened the door just in time to see her. To see her skid to a halt on the stone path like she was headed straight for my door. When she saw me opening the door she spooked. She wheeled ‘round on her back legs and pelted up the road whinnying. I stood dumbfounded, then thought If she was running toward the door, who rattled the latch?
I paced the floor for an hour, drank tea. I shoved bread in my pocket. The frost had burned off by mid-morning. It was almost hot. I wandered the footpaths, scenting the air
Finally I saw her. She was across the valley, two thirds of the way up. She had a different look about her. She was by herself, she looked calm. She was up among patches of black scree. But she was blacker yet in the sunlight
It didn't seem that she saw me as I made my way over tussocks and around boulders. I would have to come down and then up the other side to reach her. It never occurred to me to be furtive. Maybe something had changed. I didn't expect her to run now.
It was hard, getting up the south side of the valley. I followed a sheep path, hoping to cut around the hill toward her. Suddenly the mist came down the way it does. It was a cold mist, but I had been sweating. I remember that. Then I was disoriented. The mist will do that to you. Just come down and blind you. I could make out some boulders and started carefully toward them to sit down and wait things out. It would probably lift again.
I heard her breathing and whispering to me. Then I slipped on the wet scree. I slid helplessly but harmlessly down. Thirty or forty feet, I suppose. I was cursing to myself under my breath. Shit! Shit! I didn't know where I was. I couldn't see where I was. My hip was a little bruised and one side of my body was wet where I lay now on wet grass, not daring to move.
The whispering came again. She could have been right beside me but I heard no hooves. She was comforting me, I thought. I felt comforted.
The mist did lift. I knew I needed to go home. I was cold and wet. I picked my way down and made it to the road by dusk.
I built up the fire, fell into a hot bath and a warm bed. I watched the mare birth her twins and get them on their feet. They suckled while I listened to the mare's breathing.
I woke up late and a bit sore. I sorted the fire and tidied up. I went to the pub and had a big lunch and two pints. It was cold and spitting rain when I came out. Already getting dark.
I tried to have a normal evening. Read a book about local wildflowers. I woke up in my chair by the fire, gave up and went to bed.
I dreamt that it snowed, and there was a lot of noise outside the house. In the morning I went out and there were horse tracks everywhere. All over the garden and in the road. There was thick snow stuck to the sides of the house, and there were horse tracks in the snow on the walls of the house. Probably on the roof, too, for all I knew.
I woke up and looked out the window. It had snowed. I rushed out into the garden searching everywhere for the tracks. I looked in the road and behind the garden walls. There were no tracks.
I went back into the house shivering. I noticed that I was pacing and wringing my hands. I wanted to weep. When I was young I had been deeply and desperately in love. This feeling was similar. And similar, too, to the feeling I had when I was jilted a few months later.
I paced the house, took another bath, went to bed early. The next day I felt better. Life became bearable. The feelings fell away and the dreams stopped.
I went out to the valley a few times. Stayed on the footpaths. Never saw any horses. I tried not to do too much thinking.
I dreamed I was by the Hippocrene Spring where a sleek gray colt recited nature poetry to me. I had never heard such beauty. Birds and flowers, water and trees seemed to flow from his mouth. He flew up toward the sun on Pegasus wings. And for a moment I sat on those powerful shoulders.
I understood why all this was happening. We are all made of stardust. Something to do with meteors and scree. And the wild black mare and I got mixed up together with that black mineral. We both got a dose of it from the same source. And that explained it in the dream. And for a few moments after I awoke it made sense, but then of course. It didn't
I saw Joe in my dreams. He was a boy of fifteen. He was breaking the black mare in to drive. She looked about three years old and she wasn't ready. Joe was hesitant and she stood frozen. He looked at her bridle. He went into the barn. She stood frozen. He took the bridle off. And she relaxed.
What was he doing? Working blinkers onto the bridle. He put it back on her. She stiffened. But he told her to walk on she panicked and rushed between the old stone gateposts breaking the light harness and skidding down the road.
It snowed again. My dreams were filled with snow and the image of the wild mare. Emerging over and over from the river by the packhorse bridge. And a startled Joe, old (as he is now) looking in wonder as she disappears across the hills.
I see the stone gateposts through his eyes. I see his finger reach down and touch the rusty bolt that protrudes from one post, where some tail hairs are caught. There is blood on the bolt and on his finger. An old man's finger.
My dreams are filled with snow. The wild mare is made of water. Snow is water. It's no wonder she can get everywhere. She is in the snow. She is in the water and the black scree. And so am I.
Then spring comes. It comes early. By the end of March grass is outstripping the wildflowers. The morning whispering is starting again. It wakes me, then I lie in bed savouring it. Sometimes I think I can smell the gorse. And the roses.
Not long after Easter I go into the valley one morning with a new idea. A light, damp mist clings to everything. I simply stand by the water. I stand and wait. Calling her in my mind, with my spirit.
She comes and stands right beside me. I stand frozen. I realise how afraid she is of humans. How much this is costing her. Ideas form like her words in my mind.
Tears stream down my face. For what can I do? How can I help her? I try to ask her this but I am standing alone with the sun coming out and the fading smell of roses.
On Friday night I see Joe in the pub. I casually mention seeing the wild mare a couple of times recently.
Joe looks at his hands. He looks out the window.
"I heard she might be yours, Joe. I wonder whether she'd be for sale at all..."
Joe stands frozen. Something in the way he looks makes me feel pity.
"No one knows who that black devil belongs to! Who told you that?"
He's got me cornered there. I tell him I must have misunderstood and offer to buy him a drink, but he makes some excuse and leaves.
I lose a few games of darts and start walking home. Halfway up my road I see her. In the dark, at first I think she's walking toward me. But she is walking away.
I feel completely lost. I don't know what to do. At home I build up the fire but I'm in a blind rage. I fling the poker across the room, break three mugs and throw books against the wall.
Out on the hill, in the night it's lashing rain. The mare is looking for her lost foal. The twin tries to keep up with the mare's frantic movements, but it's cold and tired. She doesn't respond to its little whinnies. She is obsessed with finding the lost one.
There is a flash of lightning. The sodden foal spooks and takes off, running through the dark. It slips on the wet scree. It's dark and the storm is noisy. I can't see anything. In the morning I wake up feeling drained.
Kelpie Weather by Skye-Fyre
I try to make sense of it all. I am tired of this. It's all just blind alleys. It's things I can do nothing about. The pieces of the story don't quite fit, no matter how I try to put them together.
I don't know what a wild mare and foal need. Probably other mares to watch the foal while the mother sleeps. I can't live out on the hills. People would be rounding me up, never mind the mare!
The only thing I can think would be to bring the mare down and put her in my back garden for a few months. But people would notice. A mare like that wouldn't like it there. I’m don’t even know whether it’s legal. Then I laugh at myself. I'd never catch her!
The dreams are all I know for a fortnight. The whispering in my head is strong and I feel like a ghost.
Twice I go up the valley. I stand by the river but she doesn't come. I start leaving the side gate open.
On May eve I decide to walk up the valley. I still have several hours of daylight left. I see Joe's herd right away. Their bellies are big. It's as if they know he'll bring them in soon. Almost as if they're waiting for it. She's not with them.
I wonder to myself whether she's real at all. I try to count the number of times I've seen her. But it's hard to separate which times were dreams. Maybe they were all dreams.
Twice I think I see her up near the tops. Both times it’s a patch of scree.
That night I dream of the storm again. A wet lifeless foal slides grotesquely down a patch of scree.
Impossibly far. Hundreds of feet. Nose first, it slides and slides. Like some kind of birth.
In the morning I wake up to rain and sleet lashing the windows. It's quite bright. It won't last. I sit drinking coffee. Feeling depressed. Again, I try to make sense of this.
If Joe misused a horse when he was a boy, that horse would be more than sixty years old. Horses don't live that long. It never occurs to me that what I dreamt might never have happened.
By lunchtime the sun has come out but I still feel miserable. I do the washing up but I'm still going 'round and 'round with the wild mare. What if she is some kind of ghost? Or kelpie? Is she the ghost of the mare? Or one of her twins? The more obvious answer is that I've gone mad.
I have a vague idea to take a walk up the valley, but I procrastinate. About four o'clock I hear Joe's herd clattering down the road. Joe, his wife and his brother and a young couple I don't know are driving them over to the farm.
As soon as they're away I slip out and head up the valley. I don't really expect to see her. She's probably miles away today with that going on.
I head straight down to the river. Across the packhorse bridge and up the south side I make for the scree and boulders where I fell that day. I sit down in the sun.
Tell me what to do I whisper
The side gate is open
You can slip in and shelter behind the garden wall
I sit for a long time trying to remember the scent of gorse and of roses.
Sometimes at night I think I hear her walk under my window.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Lessons from selkies and horse whisperers
At this time of year my thoughts always turn to Padstow. This poem was in my head when I woke up this morning. If you're not familiar with the Padstow May Day Obby Oss, you can see it in action here. It's a wonderful, long-surviving custom which has always fascinated me. The town is decorated with sycamore boughs, and the maypole is decked with cowslips, and other flowers. People used to believe that a stolen tulip was a lucky thing to carry on the day.
In the woods
The Horned One
is beginning His dance.
Sycamores leaf out
and tulips are ripe
In the verge
between the road and the wall
and oxlips are tousled.
Drumbeats are heard
from an indefinite direction,
and soon-to-be dancers
have a spring to their step.
Tigh nam Bodach, Gleann Cailliche - Marc Calhoun
These must be among the first verses I ever read from the Carmina Gadelica. They are two of many verses which have to do with Bride's Day, or Imbolc. If I'm honest, living here in Colorado is getting me down. Rather than looking forward to spring as I would wish to, I find myself merely dreading another summer that will be too hot and dry, and so I've been struggling to muster enthusiasm for the coming holiday of Imbolc. But a couple of hours ago, something quite small and wonderful happened. I found this:
He or she was neatly folded between two flakes of hay, in a bale I opened to feed the horses. It felt like a sign. If anybody ever needed a sign, it was me, so I'll take it as so. I already had the beginnings of a poem in my head, but it had been refusing to form. My little serpent muse did the trick, however. So here is my poem.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like The Cailleach Becomes Bride and Visions in meditation - part 1
Poems for the Season on Imbolc
This poem describes a dream I had maybe seven or eight years ago. It was so full of wonder that I've remembered it quite vividly, although I don't begin to understand its meaning. Recently, a friend who did a Shamanic journey on my behalf urged me to begin working with the goddess Rhiannon. In doing so, I've become convinced that this dream was a gift from Her.
The Equinox comes to me today at around 2pm. This morning the alarm woke me before sunrise -- and I actually got up! Maybe I was energised by a trip to a group of sacred springs yesterday. (More in a future blog post on that!) The moon is just a few days past full, and was silver, high in the sky. I went to my grove of trees. I took with me some sage, incense, homemade bread, water I collected from a spring yesterday, a candle, and a copy of this poem - which I wrote a few days ago. As I crossed the pasture, the horses came to say hello.
I felt happy. Summer is not my favourite season and I'm looking forward to the cooler weather ahead. In my mind, the moon, still visible as I walked, although it was now light, represented the coming longer nights, while the sun, not yet quite up, represented the summer we are leaving behind. The pastures, and the wider landscape are a mixture of green and gold. We have been in drought for several years, but it broke in July and has rained quite a bit. July and August are the most common months for rain here, which means that autumn often sees a growth of green grasses and forbs among the already mature and dried-off stands of grass. Maybe that was in my mind as I wrote the poem below. I was really longing for the broad leaf forests of Britain when I wrote it.
My little grove of cottonwood trees are very dear to me. They are huge and gnarled, and there is a lateral irrigation ditch running beside them. My boundary fence, the grove and the ditch are all oriented east-west, with the trees between the ditch and the fence. They actually straddle the property line between my neighbour's land and mine. It makes the space feel all the more liminal...
I have more equinox-related posts to share with you, so stay tuned! I'm off to enjoy the day...
How can we hold the knowledge we gain?
I will not dream another's sweet musings
A salmon weir
I recently had a dream about a salmon weir. At least I think that's what it was. In the dream, it looked like a weir, but in the dream I also believed that it was there to help the salmon swim upstream. That would be a salmon ladder. A weir is a trap. When I awoke, I believed that the dream was a message about holding on to wisdom, and specifically that it was telling me to write down the details of my dreams and the journeys I take in meditation.
You may know that in Celtic myth the salmon is a symbol of knowledge, or sometimes said to be a symbol of wisdom. Obviously, there is a distinction between knowledge and wisdom that you can make for yourself. For some time, I have been considering the problem of what we (and specifically what I) do with the knowledge I gain in spiritual pursuits such as readings, meditation, encounters with nature, etc. Often, with a little effort from us, the universe is generous with information. With a little effort we take the time to meditate or walk in nature with deep awareness, or we delve into divination or learn to remember our dreams, etc. We take a class, we go on a retreat. We gain knowledge, and it is very precious. When we receive "good advice" from a friend or mentor, this is also precious knowledge.
There is also a lot of useful knowledge available to us. If you are reading this, then you are probably bombarded with inspirational quotes and great articles (with links to yet more potentially mind-opening information). You are probably the kind of person who goes out of their way to find this stuff, to study this stuff, and possibly to absolutely wallow in this stuff. What I've been noticing, though, is how I sometimes fail to hold on to it. Of course, I have to trust that all those inspirational quotes on my facebook wall, and many other things that I read or hear, are more like part of the river. Each one cannot be a salmon with my name and address on it. I trust that if they help make my river a good place to be, they're doing their job. Hopefully, some of their nutrients are leaching out of the river and into me. However, there is a good chance that what is delivered to me in a dream, a personal reading, or something similar does have my name on it. It is worth holding on to, and worth acting upon. The first step, I see, is actually trapping that salmon. Writing things down might be a good first step - although I can think of other ways I might make the information memorable. One trouble I find with writing things in a journal is that I may connect writing it down with actually letting go of it, rather than holding on. (File and forget.) So perhaps I need to make a provision to go back and read what I wrote as part of some daily or weekly practice. Or maybe something like a picture or a post-it note in a strategic place, would be more helpful.
Actually, I like the idea of doing or making something to seal the memory of an important revelation. I think that this is one of the most useful things I can do to commemorate receiving an important piece of knowledge. Having trapped the salmon, and received the knowledge, the magic lies in moving that information upstream where it can grow into wisdom. I need to build a weir, and I need to place it where I interact with it. Some pieces of knowledge are easier to act on than others, but even one action that keeps the knowledge in view is a step in the right direction because it will affect my thinking on a regular basis. I think my house is about to have a few more interesting things on the walls!!
How we too easily get spooked when divining from nature.
The blog seems to be taking a musical turn at the moment. Something a friend said yesterday put me in mind of one of my favourite Scottish ballads -- The Twa Corbies. You can hear a version of it below, and read both a transcription and a "translation" from the Scots.
When I was looking on YouTube for a version of this song (and there are many good ones!) I found it interesting that many of the accompanying videos made much of the song being dark or spooky, etc. Some of the artwork seemed to portray the crows as slightly evil. Equally, some versions of the ballad seem to suggest that the knight's hawk, hound and lady have been highly disloyal to abandon him. Those comparing this ballad to its English counterpart "The Three Ravens" often say the Scots version is "cynical", since in The Three Ravens the knights companions protect and bury his body. Hmmmm. I see it a little differently.
For whatever reason, this knight is dead. His hawk, hound and lady have moved on - what else can they do? Their lives have continued, as they must. Meanwhile, the crows are finding a use for his body. The circle is, in a way, complete. I have always suspected that The Twa Corbies is the older version of the song, and the slightly moralising "Three Ravens" is an attempt to correct the "savagery" of the original.
Growing up, as I did, in landlocked Colorado, the sea was not so much a mystery to me, as an object of no meaning whatsoever. I never even saw it until I was in my twenties and moved to California. However, when I was about twelve years old a musician called Donovan Leitch came across my radar and his music moved me intensely, and still does so today. In 1968 I bought his double album A Gift From a Flower to a Garden. One LP was acoustic and one electric. The acoustic one spoke deeply to me, and most of the songs on it were about the sea - or more precisely the seaside. Starfish, crabs, gulls and assorted wandering humans inhabited the lyrics in a way that made this environment real and interesting to me for the first time.
I awoke this morning with a song from that LP in my head. What struck me was how like Manannán, as he appears in his trickster guise, the tinker character is. Manannán who can be recognised by the water sloshing from his shoes as he walks on dry land. I knew he was familiar from somewhere. Maybe I first met him in this song!