Reading 1:

Midwinter, and spring's sprung
Simon Barnes
January 26, 2008 The Times

…This was the first week of spring. It was also yet another of the eternal weeks of winter. Anyone who knows wildlife sees time as something chunky, funky, variable, untrustworthy. Spring has unquestionably begun: winter is without doubt still with us. This is not mere fancy… this is a matter of hard observation. 
This week, for the first time this year, I heard new voices in the air as I did the morning chores. Robins sing all year, and sparrows seldom shut up, but now more music came in to make this a multilayered thing. First, the short, thrilling drum solo of a great spotted woodpecker: a machine-gun celebration of the year's turning…
So then, high and wild and marvellously sweet, a mistle thrush threw his voice into the mix: a song that always seems to me to be the bravest of them all, more musical than the others and so wonderfully early, taking the challenge to winter and positively insisting that the seasons change at his behest. 
But winter continues undaunted. Out on the matt-silver waters of the Alde estuary, I counted 500 avocets, forming a vast black-and-white high-tide raft. …they had no idea at all that spring had sprung: for them it was still midwinter, a time for hanging about in flocks and waiting for the moment to move on to their breeding grounds, to seek the love of their year and raise fluffy little scraps of life. 
The low winter sun behind my shoulder lit the narrow bridleway as if with a searchlight, and it revealed thousand upon thousand more little scraps of life: these ones would be invisible if there weren't so many, almost comically fragile. 
In summer you'd call them a swarm of midges and think no more about them, because there is so much more to catch your eye. But at this time of the year they demand attention. They are winter gnats, braving the cold weather and the short days to emerge as daring sexual beings, to dance for a week or two in these mating swarms, find true love and breed, all before the insect-eating birds have hungry mouths to feed and an insect can get a bit of peace and quiet. 
So in this almost indiscernible gap between the seasons, the winter gnats steal their lightning-swift breeding season: dance, sex, death. A new generation will hatch out safe in the leaf litter. 
Overhead, a flock of 30 lapwings flew on, convinced it was still winter, and then, at the last, from the highest summit possible, a precious spring fragment of mistle thrush song. 


Reading 2:

Duino Elegies - From The Tenth Elegy
By Rainer Maria Rilke (pronounced ‘Rye-nuhr Maria Rill-kuh’)

Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight,
let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels.

Let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of my heart
fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful, or a broken string.

Let my joyfully streaming face make me more radiant; 
let my hidden weeping arise and blossom. 
How dear you will be to me then, you nights of anguish. 

Why didn't I kneel more deeply to accept you,
inconsolable sisters, 
and, surrendering, lose myself in your loosened hair. 

How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration to see if they have an end. 
Though they are really our winter-enduring foliage, 
our dark evergreen, one season in our inner year-, 
not only a season in time-, but are place and settlement, 
foundation and soil and home.



Have you every tried to wake up a sleep-deprived teenaged boy at 6.30 in the morning? I recommend it to only the heartiest among you.  Your first efforts will be gentle – soft thoughtful words, pats, and caresses. These will be done with kindness and love and they will be met with no response whatsoever…  Keep at it, speak a bit louder, turn touches into nudges, and you might begin to elicit a groan or a sudden snort – but the sleep remains deep.

Continue to pat, and prod, and push.  Speak increasingly loudly with warnings about school and missed buses.  Add the alluring image of a cooked breakfast.  If you are lucky, you might begin to hear some words from the somnolent object of your efforts.  They might not be lucid… reflecting some odd mixture of reality and a dream that has not quite ended. “no, I can’t! I’ve got to win the last election eggs.”  

Keep up your efforts, but prepare yourself.  The transition from sleep to wakefulness does not come without distress.  The next stage is usually anger. “Why are you bothering me?”  “Leave me alone!” “You’re not waking me up the right way!”

There may be sincere attempts to bargain for more slumber… “OK, I’m awake, I’m just resting my eyes for… a… few…  [snore]”

Eventually, with a combination of cajoling, threatening, hollering, pushing and pulling, and with the miraculous effects of a hot shower and a strong dose of caffeine, our beloved sleeper is fully awake and ready to take on his day.
Naturally, I’ve never experienced anything like this…  I’m just imagining what it would be like if I had…

February has begun, and with it comes the time of the ancient observances of the beginning of spring – the awakening of the Earth after the long cold slumber of winter. In the Celtic and the modern neo-pagan or Wiccan traditions, this is the time of the most important of the year’s eight major celebrations.

In the Celtic calendar, divided into four quarters, we have come to the end of the winter quarter and the beginning of spring. If we are fully in touch with the earth’s cycles and changes, we recognise the reawakening of life. We see the early flowers emerge, and bird and insect life begin to increase. Maybe we’ve even been observant enough to witness the bold exploits of the winter gnats.  

Imbolc is one of the many names that different people and eras have given to this of the year directly between the winter solstice and vernal equinox.
Imbolc has an ancient history that has, over time, been shaped by the merging and diverging of many, many far flung traditions.  Even the meaning of the name Imbolc itself is shrouded in uncertainty. It may be related to the Celtic word for milk, as this time is associated with the beginning of the lambing season and the new availability of milk from ewes that were preparing to give birth.  There may echoes of words for purification, another meaningful connection as house cleaning and house blessing are practices commonly associated with Imbolc. And Imbolc might also signify “in the belly” – reflecting the birth of new life soon to come from goddesses identified with the earth and its generative powers.

Imbolc is a time of newness, of possibility, of readiness, and it is a time of awakening to the new life that is soon to be upon us.
As do the seasons of the Earth, so too the seasons of our life bring great upheavals.  We experience growth-filled days of springtime and joyous carefree days of summer.  Maybe we even expect that they will last…  And suddenly, like a killing frost, a crushing sorrow or defeat may bring us to our knees.  It may have been the first realisation that the world was not as safe or loving as we had hoped.  It may have come with a frigid loneliness or the punishing winds of abandonment. 

The vital joy we dreamed would go on forever – an endless summer – came to a halt.  We felt too weak, too exposed, and too vulnerable to be fully part of life’s great dance. Our fields ceased to produce. The plump green leaves withered, turned brown and were seared by the indifferent cold of frost. 
Life was not over, but it had taken refuge deep within the sheltering, sleeping, soil of the winter Earth.  Our energies and our spirit had gone underground.  

We may experience many winters of the soul. As the ancients knew as they honoured each of the seasons in turn, winter’s cold barrenness is as much of a necessary and holy power as is spring’s joyous fertility and creativity. The time we spend underground is a needed time of recovery and renewal – of regaining our energy and our strength.  As Rilke writes, 

    "…they are really our winter-enduring foliage, 
    our dark evergreen, one season in our inner year-, 
    not only a season in time-, but are place and settlement, 
    foundation and soil and home.

Eventually, though, the time comes when the sleeping, hidden life of winter must return to the surface, with all its promise and peril.   
It is at the boundaries between the seasons of our lives that the greatest of challenges and opportunities arise.  The in-between times of the earth’s seasons are, as Simon Barnes says, “chunky, funky, variable, [and] untrustworthy.”  It is no less true for our own in-between times.  These are the liminal or threshold times – times when we are neither in nor out – neither in winter nor in spring or perhaps in a bit of both. These are our most precarious and precious moments – the moments when we must choose between sleep and consciousness, death and life, winter and spring, fear and trust, indifference and the full, sacred engagement with life that is love.  

We need to stop and to mark times like Imbolc – times when we find ourselves at the boundaries.  We have each seen many winters and springs and summers and autumns, yet so often, we stand between the seasons – uncertain of the change – grasping for the spring while not quite ready to emerge from the protective ground in which we have sheltered. In our lives, we are so often poised at the threshold, unprepared, uncertain, and uneasy about taking the next step to pass through. 

These are times when we especially need one another and when we need this faith. It is here, with one another, that we may share our dreams and our hopes.  It is here too, that we may share our fears and trepidation for the future.  And It is here that we are reminded – by one another and by the gathered wisdom of many times and places – of our own strength and of our deep connection to all things.  

The abundant life of spring is within our grasp and the strength to pass through from winter to spring is within each of us. Yet, even when we stand at the threshold, we so often need to be reminded of the light within that can guide us on. And it is here in community that we may find caring people who will pat, coax, talk, and prod and love us into waking into the light of a new day – a new spring day of growth and joy.

May it be so.