When I arrived, she washed my feet in flowered water and dried them with her long red hair.
This is how my studies in Ireland begin.
(Admit it: you thought I was working on a sappy romance novel! Hmmm…..)
The trip to the farmette, where my teacher Gina lived, involved an overnight flight, a transfer at Gatwick, a couple hours of airport time, and then a bus ride which took four times longer than the same trip by car. As the driver had jovial reunions with aunts and cousins at seemingly every station stop. I arrived at Gina’s exhausted and a bit disoriented, like my soul hadn’t quite caught up with the adventures of my body.
Gina sat me down in the dining room with a cup of tea and disappeared into the kitchen. She returned with a basin of water swirling with petals. Rose and calendula, lemon balm and borage… the colors formed kaleidoscope designs as she set the basin at my feet. The scent of rose geranium essential oil wafted on the steam. My eyes welled up as Gina gently removed my low leather boots, slipped off my socks, and cradled my feet as she guided them into the basin. Relaxed and drifting, the experience felt dreamlike and surreal as she rubbed my feet with oil then tenderly dried them with the ends of her waist length hair.
Gina had dedicated herself to a life of service in a way that few of us understand today.
Her patron was Brighid, pronounced Breed in Gaelic, the Irish goddess and saint (who has since been uncanonized which is neither here nor there to those devoted to her oldest, pre-Christian form). Brighid is the goddess of poetry and medicine. Elementally she is fire: the keeper of the hearth and the wielder of the blacksmith’s anvil.
My time in Ireland was sprinkled with Brighid’s devotions: on my first full day, I was sent to gather nineteen dandelion leaves and make them into a tea. Nineteen is the number of priestesses who tended Brighid’s sacred fire. On the twentieth day, her priestesses rested and Brighid tended the flame herself.
To honor this fire, Gina kept a candle burning in a lantern by the front door, the first thing you saw when you entered the house. As each candle burned down, the fire was transferred, candle to candle, the way hearth fires were kept in the old days, one fire feeding the next.
One night the flame got low as I waited for Gina to return from visiting in Kildare, an hour from home. Would she return in time to swap the candle? It was unspoken that tending the fire was Gina’s prayer and hers alone.
What would it be like to revolve your life around this type of devotion? To dedicate yourself to keeping the fire, whatever that means to you?
It’s this duty to the flame, the hint of fire on the morning horizon, that still inspires the Irish to celebrate Imbolc or Candlemas. Winter in Ireland is long and dreary. This early February holy day whispers of the earliest signs of spring. It’s a gentle reminder to notice the tightly curled fists of the witch-hazel buds preparing to unfurl; the snowdrops and crocuses poking up their heads wondering if it’s safe to reach skyward.
Here in the States, we wait to see if the groundhog sees his shadow when he leaves his winter burrow. This funny tradition is precedented by the Celtic tradition of seeing if serpents or badgers could be roused from their nests on Brighid’s Day. The lore says that the Cailleach, the mythic crone, would gather her firewood for the remainder of the winter on the Imbolc. If winter was going to be long, the sky would clear so she could gather wood in the sunlight (which, in modern America, would allow the ground hog to see his shadow). If winter was going to be short, the sky would be overcast (and therefore no shadow for our intrepid groundhog).
I often re-read my Irish journals near Imbolc. It’s the time that Brighid returns to me, and I to her.
It’s the time to remind yourself to crack open like a seed and craft a life of poetry and fire.