As February slid toward March, the harsh grip of winter tightened. It snowed, and snowed some more. Fierce winds thrashed the oak and fir trees around my new home, a cohousing village community built not long ago on the edge of an old and vibrant small town. To the south of the circular cluster of duplex and triplex homes that make up the community there is a field where cows graze when the snow melts. On the east we have a tiny forest preserve lovingly salvaged from the construction perimeter. This is where I sometimes take a slow walk. I am barely beginning to know this place.
Not far from here is the mountain whose familiar trails, contours, and inhabitants I have cherished. Rolling Ridge is where I lived, closely with friends, for many years; and where now, I visit.
Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.
I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish….
Denise Levertov, from “Talking to Grief”
Grief, it appears, is the guardian dog of thresholds, the faithful companion of change, the sentry of the territory between places, homes, roles, and seasons.
Our early ancestors must have known this territory, the tender landscape between what has been and what will be, because they took care to honor these thresholds with ceremony. In the northern hemisphere, the midpoint between the winter Solstice and the spring Equinox was known as “Imbolc”, meaning “in the belly,” a time to notice the life stirring in animal bellies, promising milk and sustenance for the waning winter months and new birth in the spring. It was a time to prepare to let go of the gifts and trials of winter—the dreaming, restful moments by the hearth listening to stories and lullabies, as well as the fierce winds and frozen sod—and open to the possibility of newborn lambs and the labor of turning soil and planting seeds.
In my new place there is a group of us who gather some mornings to sit together in silence. Since the pandemic, we’ve been doing this outdoors, wrapped up snugly in blankets against the cold. The silence is not quiet: there is the delicate music of the water bubbler in the pond next to the common house patio, the distant hammers of construction on the neighboring road, the wind in the maples and oaks that embrace the village, an occasional passing train. Recently it is birdsong that has graced the silence: cardinals and wrens, robins and bluebirds singing the season into being. Afterwards, as we walk the short distance to our homes in the cohousing village, crocuses and snowdrops line some garden paths and dot the still-brown beds: bright, tiny harbingers of the abundance to come. Daffodils, not quite open, nod like yellow tears on slender green stalks.
Martin Shaw has pointed out that in order to live in this world of thresholds and impermanence, we have to be able to hold wonder and grief “at absolutely the same time…”
The snow has melted day by day, running off in gray rivulets into muddy puddles. As I drive into Rolling Ridge, the rutted road and sodden grasses are all that’s left of winter’s icy grip on the mountain. The air is warming. Joy told me she heard wood frogs in the creek valley behind her house.
Once around this time of year I walked alone into that creek valley, where there is a small pool in the bend of Deer Spring Creek. I was headed past this, on my way to the Meditation Shelter, when I heard an eerie racket, like banshees in an argument, or ravens in battle. A few yards away from the pool, I stopped in my tracks. The usually still water was roiling and frothing, embroiled in a mini-tempest, a witch’s bubbling cauldron. I took a step or two closer and then, as if an invisible hand had abruptly dropped a veil over the scene, all was still. The pool returned to its looking glass state and was profoundly quiet. I waited. Nothing moved except the occasional water skimmer. Then I glimpsed a small brown back just under the water surface; then another. I slowly backed off and went on my way.
Wood frogs are shy creatures and don’t suffer intruders amid their sacred rituals. In early spring, they awake from under leaves, stones, logs where they have lain frozen all winter, and travel to ephemeral pools and ponds. There the males call in chorus to their mates and passion ensues. Most wood frogs breed only once in their lifetimes; after their one wild and precious dance, the female lays her eggs nestled near water plants and slightly submerged logs. Then she and her lover are gone, back to the budding forest from whence they came. The eggs remain, hidden in the tree-shadowed water and surrounded by algae, the larvae growing within.
Imbolc honors the miracle of gestation, that inner, earthy, dark grace that makes new things possible: buds, larvae, a transformed life. Imbolc is the preparer, the necessary usher of Easter and the season of emergence.
Who knows what enchantment, what surprises, what romances lie in wait just beyond the threshold? Walking down paths known and loved in a different time, what might I see now with new eyes, hear with ears tuned to a deeper scale, absorb through the new crack in my heart?