As far as Sabbat celebrations go, Imbolc was always one of my favorites (I love liminal markers in the shift between seasons, especially between winter and spring), but the Imbolc of exactly one year ago, 2020, will forever be cherished in my heart as the most spiritually poignant one I’ve ever experienced. I had a moment of profound epiphany that any contemporary Polytheist, of any tradition, would recognize the same way I had: a moment of instantaneous transformation wrought from an encounter with an earthly avatar of a very Living Deity, a vibrant Holy Power Who will always command my reverence and devotion even though the Gods of the Celts have, largely, remained elusive to me despite my many attempts at reaching out to know Them. I know in my heart that in the second floor hospital room of Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Illinois, an avatar of Brigid knocked on the door and asked to be let in to comfort my suffering mom. And she came on Imbolc Day: February 2, 2020.
It’s strange how the sight of a Triskelion symbol can bring me to tears. It’s a profound visual metaphor of the many-layered power of Triplicity, a concept the ancient Celts and their modern descendants hold so dear. A perfect cipher, we can project so many three-staged or three-phased or three-faced things into a Triskelion: thesis, antithesis, synthesis; life, death, rebirth; parent, parent, offspring; morning, noon, night; waxing, full, waning; past, present, future; Land, Sea, Sky.
Just staring at the three swirling “limbs” can put me into a light state of trance: I see the spokes of a wheel turning; I see the dynamic motion of a wave rising and falling. The latter, water-based associations bring to mind my love of Imbolc and the emphasis on spiritual cleansing with Water and Fire, the Elemental Realms under the aegis of the greatly beloved Celtic Goddess and Irish Saint, Brigid.
Like other sovereign Goddesses of the Land, She holds Her Cauldron of Plenty aloft, offering it to those who seek Her. Currents of the past, present, and future swirl dramatically and meet their counterpart in the “outer world” of “consensus reality” in the massive snow drifts that blanket my home as I type these words. Imbolc is both a wet and a fiery Sabbat at the same time, and deep draughts of healing can be consumed from the Cauldron as fires of inspiration crackle in the head, igniting new visions, blazing pathways forward out of winter’s darkness.
Life is mostly froth and bubble.
Two things stand like stone:
Kindness in another’s trouble;
Courage in your own.
At the end of January 2020, I was in a very dark place—so dark, I had devised a suicide plan to be executed by February 1. Step one was to disperse/re-home my animals among my friends, under the excuse that I couldn’t financially care for them anymore. Step two was to delete my social media accounts. Step three was the liquidation of financial assets and their removal to a secure location. Step four was the writing of my note and the instructions to be given to two friends who had keys to my condo to come and retrieve my body, as soon as I’d issued my alarming final text. It was as methodical a plan as only a Sun Sign Virgo could devise it, nothing left unaccounted for. By the late morning of January 31, 2020, I was making good headway and had completed step two and was just starting to drive over to my bank to begin step 3 when I received the horrible surprise of a cell phone call from my sobbing father, who was struggling with his own battle with cancer. My eighty-one-year-old mother had fallen in the house and was unresponsive, unconscious. He’d feared she had a heart attack. He’d called an ambulance and it had arrived within minutes, and it was whisking her away to Advocate Condell in Libertyville. Could I go the hospital in his stead? He had no composure to drive himself there, a good half hour away from the house.
I spoke calmly and got off the phone with him and then furiously pounded the steering wheel of my car, cursing a blue streak while pulling a U-turn in the middle of a busy street. I started to careen for the expressway to take me far north of the city. This was derailing my plan! My elaborately constructed plan that I had to finish before close of day!
No sooner had I gotten onto the on-ramp than did my cell phone explode with a flurry of calls: people were actually upset that I had deleted my Facebook account without giving them warning, and they wanted to know why I’d done so; others had somehow put two and two together and figured out what I was really up to, especially when word had gone out about the sudden giving away of my pets. One friend went so far as to actually call the police and my building’s own management person to do a wellness check on me. (The friend, the police, and the building manager reportedly did show up and knock at my door. But thankfully, I was miles away.) I didn’t have the energy or the desire to continue yelling at the top of my lungs on speakerphone, so I powered my phone off (I was seriously tempted to throw it out the window as I shot 90 mph on the northbound Tri-State Tollway).
Needless to say, I looked distraught and disheveled and the ER nurses thought I was admitting myself for some trauma when I showed up at their desk and announced I was looking for my mother who had recently been brought in via ambulance. When I saw her stretched out on the hospital bed, a myriad of electrodes wired to her body and a cavalcade of beeping medical devices with a rush of nurses and technicians swirling around her, I felt numb. On similar occasions involving my mother experiencing “mild” strokes or injuries from falls or even her bone marrow transfusions when she was battling leukemia a decade ago, the sight of her in a hospital setting would fill me with terror and serve as the catalyst to frenzied prayers. I’d stretch out my hands and immediately petition Aset/Isis and Sekhmet to relieve my mother of her pain, infuse every cell in her body with Their healing magic.
But on January 31, 2020, I was wholly cut off from any life force energy. I knew I wasn’t capable of prayer. Something had been unplugged, some time ago, from deep within the recesses of my being, and all soulfulness, all spiritual energies and retained, muscle-memory-like reflexes of practices and Powers and prayers, oozed out of me, leaving quite the hollow shell of a person and a priestess behind. I couldn’t discern what was really “real,” even the scene that played itself out in front of me. Perhaps I still was in my suicidal adrenaline rush state, and that drowned out my ability to accurately perceive anything else. Perhaps I was overwhelmed with the trauma of watching my mother’s life ebbing in front of me and my mind-body were shutting down in response to it because it was all too much for me to handle.
I wasn’t sure.
I couldn’t tell.
I shuffled over to a chair, unwilling to take off my puffy winter coat because I didn’t want anyone to see the evidence of my latest adventures in self-harm. The cuts across my right forearm were raw and slightly infected. But I made sure they in no way defaced my epic Hekate Khthonia tattoo that runs the length of my elbow to my wrist.
I answered questions asked of me. I did my best to move out of everyone’s way. I slumped in my visitor’s chair and fished around in my coat pocket for a CLIF bar that was past its prime. I found it but the congealed goo of stale raisins and macadamia nuts and oats made for a grimace-producing snacking event. I sighed with relief when the last of the lab techs sped away with vials of Mama’s blood. Now I could just sit with her, at last, and have my thoughts punctuated only by the rhythmic beeping of the I.V. infusion machines, not human chatter.
Enter the Avatar of the Goddess Brigid
Fast forward to February 2, 2020. It was the second full day of my mother officially having been admitted to the hospital. She would be slated to undergo the dreaded (for her) MRI (because she’s severely claustrophobic but this hospital doesn’t have an open MRI). She was in a state of heightened anxiety. I was Running on Empty, not having slept, eaten a meal, or bathed in days. I thought of Coleridge’s classic poem The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, and I was sure I could have auditioned for the part of Life-In-Death, the otherworldly and gaunt lady who gambles for the sailors’ lives (she wins). I was sure my eyes were still glossy with madness, the madness of Life-In-Death.
I had the presence of mind to go to my home and bring back a chunky book to help me pass the time: Jan Fries’ excellent, inspired, illustrated, and academically researched Cauldron of the Gods: A Manual of Celtic Magick (Mandrake Books, 2003). I wasn’t sure why I had selected that specific book. It was in my horde of books I’d meant to get around to reading but haven’t started yet, but there are plenty of books awaiting me in that particular pile, so, again, my unconscious picking of that book to take to the hospital with me as reading material may have been a bit of foreshadowing of the Presence to come.
I felt calmer. The sun was out that day, and I appreciated it shining into my mother’s hospital room. My friend Joseph called to see how I was doing. He was worried about me. He was the only friend to whom I confided everything regarding the past 72 hours. He was triggered by the news of my wanting to find new homes for my pets. He started crying, not just for me, but for my cats and my Corgi and Brimo the Snake, all of whom he knew and loved. I had to be coaxed back from the ledge of my madness. Joseph didn’t have a car at his disposal but his roommate did; he dropped everything to rush Joseph out to this suburban hospital. I was touched by their dedication and affirmed I would like the company. It would still be a month and a half before COVID would become our reality, so there was no restriction on visitors at the time.
Joseph, wise in the ways of plant spirit medicine, cooked for me a home cooked meal he knew I would love: his brown rice with shiitake and oyster mushrooms, steamed in his bamboo steamer the way only how he can steam it. I was grateful for the warm meal, and tried not to gobble it up too quickly.
After we ate, Joseph pulled out his laptop so he could work remotely. I told him about the fascinating book I was reading. I was more eager than ever to someday make a trip out to Copenhagen, Denmark, so I could see the famous Celtic artifact of the Gundestrup Cauldron in Denmark’s National Museum. All those images of Deities with bulging eyes and dramatic ritual gestures [warriors being drowned? A goddess in a chariot flanked by birds? captivated me: the best, of course, is Cernunnos, seated like a yogi, grasping His torc in one hand and a ram-headed serpent in the other. (Mental note: is there a connection between this Celtic ram serpent and the Agathos Daimon as mentioned by the ancient Greeks? Look it up, Ana!)]
Mama had been given heavy doses of morphine for pain management and she was drifting in and out of wakefulness. Her tray of hospital food had been pushed off to the side.
KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!
Joseph and I were startled.
“Hellllloooooo?” a young woman’s voice, a lilting voice, inquired.
“Hello!” Joseph and I cheerfully replied.
She peeked her head through the partially closed door. A stunningly beautiful red-haired woman. Young, perhaps in her early twenties. Her skin was like porcelain.
“Is she asleep?” she asked, referring to Mama. “I wanted to come in and introduce myself: My name is Bridget. I’m a hospital volunteer. Music therapy,” she clarified.
“Oh, hello there!” my mother was awake. She put on her reading glasses so she could see the new visitor.
“Hi, there!” Bridget greeted my mother. “I’m glad that you’ve eaten and you’re up now. I came by before, but you were asleep. I wanted to ask you if you would like me to play some music for you…” and here her voice trailed off so she could grab her cumbersome musical instrument from the hallway into the room.
A massive wooden Irish harp.
Joseph and I wordlessly caught each other’s eyes with amazement. We tilted our heads back in affirmation; we both knew what we would have said out loud.
Oh yes. We know who You are, Bridget. We get it. And on today’s date, too. Please come in!
Bride is come!
Bride is welcome!
(Traditional Scottish Greeting to the Goddess/Saint Brigid on Imbolc/Candlemas Morning, February 2)
I got up from the reading chair where I had been sitting and wheeled it over to Bridget so she could sit close to my mother’s bedside. Bridget lifted her beautifully carved harp onto her lap and began to tune its strings. She wanted to know if my mother wouldn’t mind some traditional music first, but then afterwards she would be open to requests.
Joseph and I looked at each other and smiled. His laptop was put away and I closed my book. We were about to be treated to a live Celtic folk music concert in the hospital! My mother smiled and did her best to softly clap to the melodies; she squeaked out a few words to “Danny Boy” and interjected with, “My God! You are as beautiful as an angel!” she cried, referring to Bridget. “Who sent you? Who sent you to me? Oh, my God! This is so wonderful! YOU are so wonderful—thank you, thank you, thank you!” And maybe it was the morphine, but she said she could feel herself flying aloft on the music notes throughout the room. She wasn’t in her weakened, pain-ravaged body anymore.
For forty-five minutes, Bridget played her lovely harp for my mother. She sang in such a crystalline voice. I was amazed that someone so petite and so seemingly young could have such Life Force energy coursing through her.
But of course, she wasn’t just a musician—not to me, not to Joseph. This young musical therapist who brought much-needed healing, not just to my mother, but to me, was an avatar of the Goddess Brigid. No one will ever convince me otherwise.
The Once and Future Imbolc
I offer profound thanks to the Goddess Brigid for saving my mother’s life and my life a year ago today.
I’ve been doing my solitary Imbolc celebration and devotions to Brigid in stages, starting with my ritual on the night of the 31st. The apex of ritual activity is rededicating myself on my Polytheistic Priestess path: I retake vows to several Gods and Spirits that I serve; I’m actually rebaptized in those solemn and binding oaths. I’m reconsecrated, re-anointed for my Work. I also reconsecrate key ritual tools, pieces of devotional jewelry, and items I know I’m going to be using for Sacred Work in the year ahead. I have things to craft, new robes and cords of office to sew, new sets of divination to make.
Even though there’s a profoundly sad part of my ritual wherein I hail the spirits of family and friends who tragically have January 31 as a death anniversary date—two beloved first cousins and my friend and Welsh-American Brythonic Polytheist Priestess devoted to the Goddess Rhiannon, Ms. Kathryn Fernquist Hinds—I felt so ecstatically alive and attuned to the Gods I invoked in my ritual, I was thrumming with energy for hours afterwards. I danced to my favorite songs from Pagan musicians. I felt that Triskelion cognitive “slipperiness” of the past, present, and future commingling in a manner that is Ineffable and Delightfully Strange.
Last night, for the second phase of my Imbolc observances, I made my own attempt at cooking bannock cakes as a food offering and I shared them with Brigid on my altar and with my parents. I told them about Brigid lore, such as Her birth at a threshold and how She fostered the Christ Child. I told them how She invented the art of keening. I showed them the video I shared on this blog yesterday of how to weave a Brigid’s Cross from reeds, and produced, as evidence, the one I’d made from local cat-tail reeds several years ago.
When Dad got too sleepy to keep up with the show-and-tell session and my impromptu lecturing on Celtic beliefs, I placed Mama in her wheelchair and took her back to her bedroom, where I taught her a call-and-response chant to the Goddess Brigid that I had been taught by Circle Sanctuary’s own Selena Fox when I visited Circle Sanctuary for the very first time at Imbolc, 2007. Southern Wisconsin was blanketed by feet of snow at the time and the day was so cold, -35° Fahrenheit, that my digital camera broke the exact moment I opened the shutter to try and take a photo of Brigid’s Well on the 200+ acre property! (I made a solitary pilgrimage despite the frostbite-inducing temps. I actually like subzero weather and was glad that my husband at the time refused to accompany me; the Work I meant to do at the Well was between Brigid and me only.)
Brigid of the Flowing Waters,
Brigid of the Flowing Waters,
Touch us! Heal us! Sustain us! Renew us!
Brigid of the Flowing Waters,
Brigid of the Flowing Waters!
It was fun teaching this simple chant to my mother and watching her transform, the decades of her life peeled back to reveal the smiling child underneath her Selfhood.
Past. Present. Future. All at once.
Then I felt like the Mother and my mother was somehow now my Daughter, the Demeter-Persephone dynamic that has always been between us radically reversed.
See the Wheel turning ’round, changing as it goes.
I give thanks for every moment of every day that my parents, my mother in particular, still live. I give thanks for the honor of being my parents’ Death Midwife, that I can come full circle and lovingly bestow upon them the care, the dignity, the respect for their Selves that they have always shown me and my Self.
My experiential familiarity with other Celtic Deities might be marked by paucity (Rhiannon being a bit of an exception), but that will never be the case with the Goddess Brigid. I will forever hail Her as the Beacon of Healing and Compassion that She Was, Is, and Ever Shall Be. I am positive She spoke these words into my friend Christopher Bednash’s mind so he could create this timely acrylic painting:
In Brigid’s Holy Name, May It Be So!