Imbolg: the constancy of change, and the ‘end-of-history’ illusion

Imbolg, sometimes written as Imbolc, is probably derived from the Irish word bolg, for ‘belly’, so meaning ‘in the belly’; it has also been speculated that it might come from the word oimelc, meaning ‘ewe’s milk’.  (And please note: contrary to what many helpful sites on the web try to tell you, you don’t pronounce the ‘b’: the word is pronounced ‘i-molg’.) Imbolg is one of the festivals known as ‘cross-quarter days’; it comes midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Although it’s sometimes called St Brigid’s Day, or Lá Fhéile Bríde, this festival is ancient, and predates the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. It’s likely to have been associated with the old goddess Brigid, who was later appropriated into the new religion.

Following the reframing of the old festivals by neo-pagans and others during the last century, it’s often forgotten today that the old Gaelic cross-quarter-day festivals traditionally reflected the relationship between people and the land. In particular, they reflected what was going on in the fields, and both possible meanings of the word ‘Imbolg’ reflect the presence of newborn lambs in our fields at this time of year. In some parts of Ireland the festival was also associated with ploughing the fields for new crops, or even – if you were far enough south, and the weather holding fine – for sowing seeds. The festival, then, has always been linked to the return of light and life following the darker, inward-looking days of winter. Snowdrops and other early flowers are beginning to pop up in our gardens; on warmer days bees will begin to emerge from their hives to spring-clean and forage for food. Although there are still dark days ahead, and challenging weather, Imbolg offers us the first flickerings of a new spring.

For me, as I look for the ways in which the cycles and seasons of my own life reflect the cycles and seasons of the land, the festival of Imbolg has a very specific connotation: it is about birthing new possibilities. The chances are, these possibilities have been incubating during the long, dark days of winter – those gloriously fecund days when, if we allow ourselves to slow sufficiently, and quieten, we might be able to conceive for ourselves some new dreams. And Imbolg is the time when we give birth to those new dreams.

The birthing of new dreams inevitably brings change in its wake. Change: something we so often fear, but to fear change is to fear life, because life is a constant process of creation, transformation, evolution. I’ve been thinking about change a lot recently, because we have decided, in this past month, to move again. Those of you who have been following this blog recently won’t be surprised to know that we’re moving to Connemara. Yes, the pull of this place for me is too strong, and David has found some reasons of his own to head on south: a new Gaeltacht, with new possibilities for growing in the language. The house we will be moving to has opened up new possibilities for me to expand my work – but more of that another time.

But such decisions don’t come without doubt. And they don’t come without an occasional raised eyebrow from people who wonder whether all of this seemingly continuous moving on isn’t just an inability to properly settle, or a case of terminal wanderlust. And the soul-searching which ensued has made me want to say this: life is change, and change is life. This doesn’t mean that I would ever advocate change for change’s sake. But it does mean that when Change comes knocking urgently at my door, I’m always willing to open that door, and listen a while. And when the story that Change offers me is a good one, maybe I’ll go along with it. Maybe I’ll just let myself fall right on into that new story.

I remembered, too, reading about some recent research about change, by psychologists at Harvard. Their study showed that, as we go through life, at each stage we consistently doubt our ability to achieve change; they called this phenomenon the ‘end-of-history illusion’. [1] When we look back into the past, this study suggested, we remember how different we once were, and how much we have changed in the intervening years. But when we imagine our futures, we rarely imagine that we’ll carry on changing in such fundamental ways.

The subjects of this Harvard research were 19,000 people aged between 18 and 68, and most people, in every age group studied, agreed that they’d changed substantially in the past decade, but simply couldn’t believe that they would change much in the decade to come. The researchers drew the following conclusion: ‘People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.’ The Harvard team noted that this has practical consequences for important decisions we make (or perhaps fail to make) about the future. We see the present as a time of stasis, out of which we’ll continue to be exactly who we are now for the rest of our lives. Or, as Daniel Gilbert, one of the study’s authors, said to the New York Times: ‘At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.’ [2]

Change, of course, can be frightening, and maybe the end-of-history illusion is simply a way of protecting ourselves from the anxiety that anticipated change can generate. And because of that anxiety, so many of us embrace change only when we have to: when we are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, or with anxiety or depression; when we are divorced, or lose a loved one in some other way. But we can also embrace change when we see something we want, badly. When we see a light shining in the distance which encourages us on. When we climb to the top of one mountain range and see another in the distance, and wonder what is beyond.

There is one thing I know about change: life is change, and change is life. And life is also an adventure, and the purpose of adventures is to transform. The person I was when I came to Donegal three years ago is not the person I am now. And I do not believe in the ‘end of history’: I have no illusions that I will be the person I am now in three years time (though I am hoping that, whatever other changes she embraces, that person will finally have found her ‘place of resurrection’, and will want to stay put!) Meanwhile, the person I am now has conceived some new dreams, and is ready to give birth. It’s Imbolg: the time for giving birth. See those trees to the right of the image, across the lough, in the photograph above? There’s a house hidden in those trees. Watch this space. There are changes afoot.

(If you’re interested in the stories of the cycles and seasons, and the ways in which they’re reflected in our lives, you might be interested in ‘Sisters of Rock and Root’, an online course for the study of precisely those issues: https://mythmaking.org/sisters-of-rock-and-root/)

[1] http://science.sciencemag.org/content/339/6115/96
[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/04/science/study-in-science-shows-end-of-history-illusion.html?_r=0

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