Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Little Winter's Thaw

For years now, Imbolc has been my favorite holiday.  A lot of people may not be familiar with it, so here's a quick explanation:

If you're among certain kinds of Northern European pagans, the year is divided into eight pie pieces, by the holidays.  Four of those holidays are the solstices and equinoxes, and then there's an observance bisecting each of those.

At the Winter Solstice, one of the things people do sometimes is to hold vigil for the sun to return after its longest night.  We watch the sun set, and then we stay up all night to watch it return.  It's a way that we can express faith that we will stand through the darkest times, until the light comes again.  We greet the return of the sun with joy, though winter's only half over, because we are now on the road to spring.

Roughly six weeks later, we come to Imbolc.  In agrarian cultures, it marked the lactation of the ewes, the first faint sign that the lambs were coming, and spring following behind them.  Long before the weather turned, before the earth quickened or the trees put forth their leaves, into the bitter grey there came the promise of spring.  Here in Central Texas, Imbolc is more likely marked by the first green shoots and budding wildflowers, to herald our brief and gentle spring before the brutal summer takes hold.

The reason that Imbolc is my favorite is that it's a marker of validated faith.  In the northern latitudes you can't see, at the Winter Solstice, any real indication that spring will ever return.  All you have is your belief in how the world works, that it will continue to follow the laws of nature that it always has, and then at Imbolc that faith is met with proof.

When I lived in the Midwest, I always knew that the worst of the year, the most bitter, brutal, demoralizing cold came in February, in the weeks following Imbolc.  No matter how mild a January thaw might be, there remained the looming threat of weather so cold it would freeze the gas lines in your car, burst your pipes, creep in around your windows to torment your sleep.  The worst of winter was always its last gasp.

As a modern, educated pagan who knows exactly how the seasons progress and why, there's less concern that the sun will or won't come back, and the cycle of the year becomes metaphorical.  Imbolc comes to stand for the moment when the darkness breaks briefly, to give you a glimpse of the coming light before the year plunges you into another harsh test of faith.

My country is in darkness now.  The long election season and the first two weeks of the new administration have cast a lot of people into despair.  We rightly worry that fear and ignorance have handed the reins of power to a dangerous madman, and that we'll end in war -- external OR internal.  The most vulnerable members of our society are at ever-greater risk.

There have been small victories, though.  Marches and protests, rogue government agencies, little wins over policy or polemic.  There is just enough happening to mark an Imbolc moment, a signal to those who crave light that it will come someday and give us the ease and abundance of full summer.

There may yet be worse to come than we've endured already.  There may be more danger, there may be more rage and fear driving our actions and our neighbors'.  It's not yet time to plant our gardens, or plan our leisure time.  We have more tests of faith before us, but we can survive them.

We must apply winter logic, though, if we're going to get as many people as possible through the darkness ahead.

Know your resources and use them carefully.  Check on one another.  Support and take care of your neighbors.  Stand up for each other.  Plan for the worst.  Keep your faith and believe in the better times coming, but make sure your root cellar is stocked to get you to them.  Trade what you have for what you need.  Fight the madness that accompanies isolation and despair with companionship, with music, with laughter.  Find a hearth and circle it with love.  Connect where you can, and fight where you must, but remember, always, that your only goal is to carry yourself and as many of the lives around you as possible through to the better days.

Together, in community with one another, we can reach spring.

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