When I arrived, she washed my feet in flowered water and dried them with her long red hair.
Nope, this is not the beginning of a sappy romance novel.
This is the beginning of my studies in Ireland.
My teacher, Gina McGarry, lived a life of service to her patron Brighid (the Irish saint and goddess).
Brighid, an Irish goddess who became a saint when Ireland was Christianized, is the keeper of poetry and medicine. She is associated with the element fire, with the hearth and the anvil.
Gina kept a candle burning in a lantern by the door. As each candle burned down, the fire was transferred, candle to candle, the way hearth fires were kept burning in the old days, one fire feeding the next.
I remember watching the flame get low one night when Gina was out visiting in Kildare, an hour from home. Would she return in time? It was unspoken that tending the fire was Gina’s prayer and hers alone. Did I have a duty to my teacher or a duty to the flame?
It is a duty to the flame, the hint of fire on the morning horizon, that still inspires the Irish to celebrate Imbolc or Candlemas. While not as cold as in Pennsylvania, winter in Ireland is long and dreary. This is a celebration of the earliest signs of spring.
I walked in my garden this week and saw the tightly curled fists of the witch-hazel buds, preparing to unfurl in the weeks to come. Snowdrops and crocuses are poking up their heads, wondering if it’s safe to reach skyward.
Here in the States, we wait to see if the groundhog pokes his head up and sees his shadow. This funny tradition is precedented by the Celtic tradition of seeing if serpents or badgers roused from their nests on Brighid’s Day.
The lore says that the Cailleach, the Celtic crone figure, would gather her firewood for the remainder of the winter on the Imbolc. If winter was to be long, and she had much wood to gather, the sky would be clear (which, in modern America, would allow the ground hog to see his shadow). If winter was to be short, the sky would be overcast (no shadow).
On my first full day at Gina’s, I was sent to gather nineteen dandelion leaves and make them into a tea. Nineteen is the number of disciples who tended Brighid’s sacred fire. On the twentieth day, they rested and she tended the flame herself, fire in the hands of a goddess.
I often re-read my Irish journals near Imbolc. It is the time that Brighid returns to me, and I to her. And every year I wonder if I can wiggle a big enough crack in my rational American life, to live in poetry and fire.