Imbolc

Mindspring Frosty Euphorbia

It’s over here in Newhaven. 

The zero winter, when everything is hard-frozen like stone and the rain, when it comes, is cold and steely. It’s already been and gone. 

The pagans say that Imbolc (Feb 1-2) is the beginning of spring

Today, the first day after Imbolc, the rain comes down like spring-water. Clear, sensuous, full of life. But enlivening as it is to stand out in that, I almost miss the dead time that went before. It came and went without me really inhabiting it. The ‘bleak midwinter’ with ‘earth hard as iron and water like a stone’  as Rossetti has it. 

Each year I try harder to honour it. Each year it eludes me a little. As it must. 

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire, 
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon. 
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier, 
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul's sap quivers.

Our winter retreat in January put me in contact with the midwinter spring that Eliot talks about in Little Gidding. The fire of the sun on frozen water, fiercer than brazier or blazing branch. But illusionary. Cold fire.  The transitory blossom of snow on twigs. But that retreat was almost too late. The frosts and the rock-time had already passed here in Sussex.

The pagans say that Imbolc (Feb 1-2) is the beginning of spring. Sacred to Brigid, the Mother. Sacred to the womb-stirring seeds in the hard earth. But Newhaven was ahead of the pagan calendar this year.  

The whole garden will be studded with their delicate purple assays into the air

Since I moved to the countryside, I realise that absolute dead heart of winter is barely a few weeks long. Perhaps in the darkest days of the solstice between late November and later December. 

By the beginning of January, all the hellebores are out in the garden with their pale green, fashionable hues. The snowdrops have nosed up by mid January and by Imbolc itself, the cleverly-planted winter crocuses that have started to star the lawn. Later in the month, the whole garden will be studded with their delicate purple assays into the air. Along with incipient daffodils and primroses. 

Spring is poised like an aerialiste up in the dark of the Big Top, ready to swing down and astonish us all. 

You have a chance to listen into the stillness inside the stillness 

But spare a thought for the Plutonic dark of the winter. It is the time of holy light in the darkness. When everything is dead and returned-to-earth, things stand out stark and clear in the winter light. 

They are frozen, held in stasis between living and dying. Between melting and freezing. Like Wallace Steven’s Snow Man, you have a chance to listen into the stillness inside the stillness: 

For the listener, who listens in the snow,  
And, nothing himself, beholds  
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

I sometimes dream of St. Molaise who lived on a cave on Holy Island. Or of Milarepa who practised in a cave in the Himalayas. I imagine how spookily sacred it might be to wake up in the cold dark and feel the space of the sky and the rain and the wind stretching out to the ends of the interstellar space and to be OK. To breath, to stumble into the air to piss, to light a fire, to feel warmth, to meditate. To be. Have the direct and naked experience of God/Dharmakaya in the cold winter air. 

Being outside, day after day is the way to sneak into the sacredness of winter

Jesus always liked to go up. Up the top of mountains. Up onto the roof to pray. To be under the open sky of Palestine. The desert night sky must have been resplendent with stars. Likewise Milarepa’s sky. Likewise, Rumi’s as he exited the wine shop woozy with love. 

Moonlight floods the whole sky from horizon to horizon;
How much it can fill your room depends on its windows. 

I remember walking back from an evening session in Crestone Colorado and finding a giant rock to sit on. I willed myself to wring sacredness out of the stars about the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. (See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!) But I was trying too hard.  They just remained stars and I stayed a man on a rock. 

But I imagine that sitting and waking, morning after morning, in a ‘room’ that has no ceiling will let in a lot of Rumi’s moonlight. Being outside, day after day is the way to sneak into the sacredness of winter.  To properly let the dead time (which is full of life) soak into the pores and fill up the muscles and flood the bones. 

Milarepa sings

Renowned Mount Tisé, snowy white, 
Its covering of snow upon the peak, 
Is the bright, pure teaching of the Buddha. 
 

The renowned turquoise Lake Manasarovar, 
With its water moving through water
Is the place where phenomena are carried to exhaustion.
 

I, the renowned Milarepa, 
This old man who sleeps nakedly, 
Have emerged from the husk of perceiver and perceived.

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I’d love to know your thoughts about winter. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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6 Comments

  • Jane Davis says:

    Beautiful, every word. A great reminder in the wake of the U.S. Nor’easter…

  • Your writing is always beautifully poetic,Alistair, and touches the heart. I hope, when you have time to spare !!!!! you will write that ,much awaited ,book of poetry.🙏

  • Brita Falk says:

    Preparing for lots of snow and frost on the other side of the north sea, in Holland. Throughout the whole week. However, the snowdrops are in full bloom, for me that’s a real connection with Imbolc. A bit confusing, snow, but 1-2 february definitely is the start of spring.
    For one week we will be ice-skating and making a snowman….with the lovely snowdrops all covered in snow.

  • Hexagon Sun says:

    I’ve experienced winters in many places, but nothing compares to the snowy winters of my childhood with the enormous sky and stars so close you spontaneously dream up science fiction stories.

    Here in the South Downs, the winter is dark, silent and snowless. I no longer see the fantastical creatures like Tove Jansson’s Lady of the Cold with her icy blue eyes and the eerie lonesome Groke gliding out there on the glistening snow. Instead, the magic happens once the winter is over, and the promise of a whole new year is felt.

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