from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Imbolc: the inward flame retreat

The snowdrops arrived early, a week or two before my residential weekend. 


In the farmhouse next door to the barns where the course is taking place, over the wooden fence and beside the leat, the ground is a wash of white.  

In my publicity, I'd written: 'At this phase of the turning year – one of the Celtic fire festivals and perhaps the most feminine of them – the Great Goddess, as Brighid of the Land, patroness of fire, creativity and new life, is renewing herself, from Crone to Maiden, and the earth is cracking open with the first flowers of spring – the snowdrops, the green and white flames of them. Imbolc, or Candlemas, is the beginnings of the movement away from the "stillpoint of the turning world".'

We are here to explore the stirrings of renewal in our lives after the incubations of the dark time, and to cook a little creative ferment in Ceridwen's Cauldron of birth, life, death and rebirth, and of inspiration. (Ceridwen is Brighid by another name.) We look at our losses, at what had to be let go of last year, of what we would like to invite in this, at what 'following our bliss' might mean (Joseph Campbell's words), and what we'd need to change in order to walk that path. We look, too, at our strengths for the journey ahead. 

This is the story of soul, and we tell it over and over in different ways.

Inside, two dogs spend their whole weekend, bar brief walks, crashed out in comfort (She Who Wears Her Grey Matter On The Outside, for all that she looks like a homogenous hairy blob, does have a head and face; a neatly-brushed one, now, courtesy of B, too):

– while humans, as usual, grapple with the Big Qs, like how we might live, what our life-story tells us, and what's for supper (an abundance of delicious dishes, brought by participants, it turns out).

'Those who walked the Old Ways knew that our lives and our wellbeing are intimately tied up with that of the land. Everything is relationship, and our life is dependent on our connectedness with the land and the harmony and creativity of that relationship,' I'd written. 

Participants on my retreats know that a shared silent walk, bringing one's whole attention to the senses, our feet on the land, the meeting points between inner and outer worlds, to how we feel about this silence when walking with others, is an integral and surprisingly important and significant part of the experience.  

So on Sunday we walk, paying full attention, noticing the small signs of new growth, sniffing the wind, tasting the tang of young sorrel leaves, finding new ways to describe sheep's wool caught on wire, or the texture of silvergreen lichen, feeling how the mud gave to our boots, enjoying being out after such intense indoor work.

Then we get on with the inward stuff again. 

Imbolc sits exactly midway between the midwinter solstice and the spring equinox. A fire festival, it is also a cross-quarter date in the Celtic year. As it's associated with Brighid (who later becomes the Virgin Mary in Christian iconography), it's also very much associated, traditionally, with the land, with creativity and poetry, with healing, candles and new light, the turning back towards the sun of the year's cycle, with fire and smithcraft, with lambs and new milk coming into the cows. 

I speak a little of the Celtic Wheel of the Year: the quarter dates of winter solstice in the north*, where the fire of spirit and intuition glimmers like a distant belt of stars, not yet brought into being; with the spring equinox, dawn, and its element of air, new ideas, the thinking faculty, and birth, in the east; the summer solstice with its earthy warmth and sunniness, the waystation in the south for the physical body, things coming to full ripening; and mysterious west, the twilight station of water, the autumn equinox, the feeling nature and the harvesting and dissolution of what we know and are, before the move back to north for the cycle to begin again. (*There's not consistent agreement with the directions and human characteristics in their placing on the Wheel of the Year. Some Medicine Wheels, especially the First Nation ones in America, place earth and body in the north. This doesn't feel right to me, but it might to you.)

I describe how Imbolc, between solstice and equinox, is the beginning of all the new awakenings, ready for the sowing at the spring equinox. This is preparing-the-ground time: ploughing, fertilising. 

Brighid, as guardian of the wells, is also guardian of springs and all water sources. Caitlin Matthews tells us (or is it Julian Cope?) that another name for Brighid (besides Bride, Breed, Brede, Bridget etc) is Bring; to 'make as Bring' is also to 'make spring', in both senses of the word. 

So it's also a cleaning-out-the-wells times; metaphorically, but also, for many years, it was part of my practice to clear out the rubbish from the old and forgotten actual holy wells – something I still do, at times. 

We could also see this as throwing out the old rubbish that's accumulated in the forms of emotional residues or negative thoughts in our psyches; a cleanse. 

In the deepest reaches flames flicker into life
The earth is turning sunward and day displaces night

Because people asked, here are the other cross-quarter fire-festival dates: Beltane, or May Day, between the spring equinox and the summer solstice: full fertility, fecundity, mating, jumping through the flames with your beloved; Lughnasadh (also known as Lammas), named after the Fire God Lugh, is August 1st, the early harvest and market time between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox; and then Samhain, All-souls/Allhallows, midway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice: a mysterious going-into-the-dark time where the ancestors are honoured and the veils between worlds are thin. This is the Celtic New Year.


At home, our great hellebore is hanging out delicate bells in shades of creamy green and dusky pink. In the lanes, the wild hellebore is back in unworldly green flower.

Here, in the house, with rain storming the windows, we can hear the conifers across the lane sighing like the sea, and the wild wind is clacking the bare ash, chestnut, hazel branches together. Rooks and daws jack-knife and swither away in the gusts, cawing. Over that are the tickings of the fire, the nibble of pens on paper, the small shifts and stirrings of a group working together in quiet, the occasional canine grunt or sigh.

These shared journeys never fail to move me: not least because it's cost everyone something of fear to be here, to undergo the investigation of their inner life, and to share it with strangers.

'Everything you want is on the other side of fear,' I read out. 

People smile knowingly at this quote of Jack Canfield's. We've been through quite a process by now: late Saturday afternoon, and the Thresholds day-component of the weekend is coming to a close with our small fire ceremony, marking endings and beginnings. 

The five who have joined us for this day will soon be making their way out into the wet and windy dusk, while the eight of us staying on will prepare a meal together in good heart, and then share another session.

C says to me: 'You're like spiritual Alka Seltzer. Alka Seltzer for the soul. Drop a pinch in and we all fizz.' I guess that's a compliment. We laugh. 

Over supper, five or six people say 'Will you do this again next year? I'll come.' So – yes, I guess, is the answer. Provisional dates: Friday January 30th – Sunday February 1st, same place.

And meantime, I'm posting details of new courses bit by bit over on my two websites. 

10% discount for the August Writing the Bright Moment retreat in France between now and the end of March, remember; there are a few places left:


  1. Yes please, having read your post I'd love to try and come next year despite the distance! As for Alka Seltzer – more like Prosecco for me, finest of course, and the great thing about you is that you don't make me too dizzy or fall asleep as the literal stuff does.
    Just for now though, I've plenty to do upstairs in the White Room, as you know. At least the routine's sticking anyway and your words above coax me into sticking to it. (Badly pout but you understand; somnolent time of day, this.)
    Thanks and love,

  2. Miriam - thank you, that made me smile. Obviously still got a way to go before the Rémy-Martin appellation (help! IS that a champagne??), but prosecco is one step up (course in Italy, anyone?). Love to you -

  3. Miriam, there is no distance too big or long for Roselle's courses! I covered 900 miles and despite a weird and flood caused travel back enjoyed hovering over flocky white clouds grazing in mid air back home!
    Best wishes Beatrice

  4. B you just made me cry... :-) xx

  5. Sounds like a lovely retreat, enjoyed reading the post. However, I cannot agree that Ceridwen is another name for Brighid! Ceridwen is much darker and harder - anyone who has had a true encounter with her will report being smacked in some way. Jx

  6. Jinny, thanks for that comment; useful for me to see I wasn't clear. What I meant was 'another manifestation of the Great Goddess' - for all of them, of course, are faces of the One. I agree she can indeed be darker and perhaps I should have made that distinction, but Brighid is also not all sweetness and light, and I don't see them as polarised; simply different aspects according to the cycle... This time of year has its frosty bite as well as its promise, doesn't it?x

  7. Beatrice! Good to hear from you and I do agree, wholeheartedly. I think I may well have come this year if we hadn't just returned from a trip to Edinburgh. Good for you for making what must have been a very bumpy flight! To Switzerland? You are The Swiss Beatrice, aren't you. Hope to see you in Iona.
    Roselle – Rémy-Martin is a very special champagne – according to google! Comes from cognac of same name; a pretty suitable Roselleish appellation, I think! Keep on fizzing but not into the stratosphere, please.

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  9. Miriam, thank you. Yes, B had a rather momentous journey back to Switzerland!

    Have never knowingly tasted R-M champagne. Glad I picked well from my rather meagre memory-store of champagne appellations! – Think I might need to start experiencing that one now. Hmmm, cognac grapes... Picked those as a student. Rx

  10. Even if you were not there you can feel the fizz of this shared journey, the awakening, new ideas, rubbish being hurled in to bins, fires crackling with old oak flames, orange sparks flying, pens ploughing lines across the blank page of earth. New to the fire patroness Brighid I love the renewal of life, turning from Crone to Maiden and this Spring more than ever I watch and perhaps engage with the land burst suddenly showering its gifts - mimosa flowers, almond blossom and the gorgeous greens of wild winter hellebore. I wrote a long piece (far too long) before I ventured on a journey to explore Mont Canigou, motivated by your writings to 'following my bliss' but it disappeared at the press of the publish button. The journeys keep the creativity flowing but I do feel there is something more, deeper, a stirring, a new way of looking .... as the days lengthen. So much to learn, Thanks Roselle and everyone. x Jen

  11. Jenny, lovely to hear your thoughts - thank you! - and how lovely that you're seeing almond and mimosa. There will be some here, but I haven't seen any yet. Delighted too that you're writing - though OH NO! - that you lost a long passage :-(. Trust the bliss hasn't evaporated, however. Look forward to sharing the Iona journey with you; meantime, my greetings to that sacred mountain... Rx


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