Imbolc: life against all odds

Brigid Altar, Three Cranes Grove, Imbolc 2015

Yesterday, Three Cranes Grove gathered to celebrate the feast of Imbolc, the time of the first signs of spring. We sang the praises of Brigid, goddess of the fires of healing, hearth, and creativity; we lit nineteen candles surrounding the Well, each representing a line from a praise-poem that accompanied the lighting; we reblessed a healing blanket that passes around the Grove. My friend Meg was there, with her son C, who also happens to be my godson. C is just shy of a year old, excited and curious about everything he sees. I was filled with joy to be able to introduce him to my way of honoring the Divine, and he went with me to give offerings to the Kindred and to sing a hymn of praise to Brigid. (Pro-tip: barley in a small plastic container turns out to be an excellent rattle, and I’m certain the Kindred didn’t mind exchanging some of their physical offering for the happiness of a child.) He is so full of innocent life, and I look forward to watching the springtime of his life as he grows and learns. This is Imbolc.

Today, I was shocked to learn that a family friend had died. George Hugman was a leader in my Boy Scout troop, which is how I first knew him. He was also a doctor, a family practitioner. He was kind and earnest. He once talked me down off a figurative ledge, the summer of my first year of college, when I had convinced myself I had testicular cancer. It turned out to be a benign, and fairly common, bacterial infection, but you’d never know its mundanity from the way he heard my concerns and calmly told me he understood my fears, however unfounded. Dr. Hugman was still young, healthy and vital, and his death is a shock. But this, too, is Imbolc: we are still in the dark half of the year, still in the depths of winter. February and March are cruel months, and the glimpse of springtime, while clear, is still distant. Even as we welcome new life, we have also to contend with death.

And this evening, a friend shared a link to a narrative write-up of a Reddit thread where a user asked gay men who lived through the heyday of the AIDS crisis, “what was it like?” The stories are heart-rending. Some excerpts:

I kept a memory book/photo album of everyone I knew that died of AIDS. It’s quite large to say the least. Who were these guys? These were the people I had planned to grow old with. They were the family I had created and wanted to spend the rest of my life with as long as humanly possible but by the time I was in my late 40s, every one of them was gone except for two dear friends of mine.

If you were living in the Castro in San Francisco, everyone in the neighborhood was gay… So it wasn’t just your friends that were dying, it was your whole neighborhood. One day your mailman would be replaced, the next day that flower shop was gone… You wouldn’t be invited to the funeral, so it was just like people were disappearing.

Sitting at the bedside of a terminally ill friend, and just holding their hand when everyone else was just terrified, was a gift I was one of those willing to give.

[Many lesbians] walked directly into the fire and through it, and they did not have to. And that they did it even as some of the gay men they took care of treated them with bitchiness, scorn, and contempt.

I asked [a lesbian friend], Why do you do it? Why did you abandon a career to take care of these assholes who still won’t pay you any respect? ‘She cut me a surprisingly severe look, held it and said, “Honey, because no one else is going to do it.” I remember feeling ashamed after that, because my fury and indignation weren’t going to clean blood and puke off the floor; it wasn’t going to do the shit that needed to get done.

Why am I writing about the AIDS crisis? Am I just stringing together things that I happened to read and experience in sequence? I think not, because this is also Imbolc: caring for the sick, providing solace to the dying. You don’t get to have a goddess of healing and not talk about sickness; it doesn’t make sense, and it’s dishonest to try to whitewash it like that.

And furthermore, this isn’t the first time Brigid, the gay community, and I have come together. Two years ago, the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus was rehearsing a piece by Stephen Schwartz, “Testimony.” Briefly, it presents dark words of queer people, especially youth, who are hurting/struggling, and then turns it around to say “it gets more than better / it gets amazing / and astounding.” You can see San Francisco GMC, the song’s originators, performing it here; I suggest grabbing a tissue:

While we were rehearsing, I had what I can only call a vision — which I know sounds presumptuous or fatuous, but it’s the only word I’ve found that fits. For the first half of the song, all was normal rehearsal. But things took a turn in the second, more hopeful and comforting, half. In my mind’s eye, my view expanded out to encompass the globe, which was enrobed in light. A lady held the world gently between her hands, and the light grew into a pure flame surrounding the world. Toward the end of the piece, which concludes with “and when I die / and when it’s my time to go / I want to come back as me,” a group of people, mostly men but also women, came to stand beside Brigid and lend their support. In the same way that I recognized Brigid, I recognized the men and women with her as community ancestors: those queer people who have gone before to pave the way for those of us lucky to benefit from their fight.

Because that, finally, is Imbolc. Knowing the harshness of winter, and growing in defiance of it. Not shrinking from the work to be done, knowing that it will bear fruit. Mourning our dead, but holding their memory like a flame in our hearts. Watching a child stare in wonder at falling snow and realizing that even as we take on more of the world’s weight, we lessen our burden in sharing joy.

May George Hugman find peace in the arms of his Savior, may Brigid continue to bless us with the burden of care, and may we all take joy in the changing season. Blessed Imbolc.


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