Monday, February 14, 2011

Imbolc and a Happy Marriage

 I am a Unitarian Universalist.  My family has been attending a UU church for almost two years; we love it, are highly involved, and our kids love it.  It has added a boat-load of love and community to our family life that I don't know what I would do without.  My journey to this particular church in this particular religion has been a long and meandering one, as is the case with most people's spiritual journey. Briefly, I was raised without a formal religion, with Catholic tendencies on one side, and New Age-y tendencies from my mother, during my teen years I dabbled in Wicca (isn't that one of the required courses to get your "I Was A Teenage Girl In America" degree?).  I distanced myself from that when I started throwing out all the evidence that I was a fool-hardy teen. It was a pretty indiscriminate purging and a lot of babies went out with the bathwater.  I shopped around for a religion I could pass on to my children and after many visits to many churches and temples I decided on Catholicism.  I was baptized into the religion of my father's family when I was 19 years old.  That stuck for a while, but when I did finally have kids, I found I was reluctant to pass on many of the ideas about this religion to my children.  I realized that I would more than likely find myself saying that I don't believe this or that more than I would want to.  The easiest to put my finger on begin my stance on gays and gay marriage (I'm for 'em) and my belief in the right to choose (I'm for it).  But there were deeper spiritual beliefs that are harder to tackle in a few sentences, like my stance on hell and Divine punishment (I don't buy it), and  there being only one true form of God (I don't buy that either).  So I stopped going, worried about the kid's, and fretted about my own need for a spiritual home.  Finally, after a score of 100% Unitarian Universalist on the Belief-o-Matic (a higher score than even our minister!), we decided to check out the church with the full parking lot, who's bell we can hear ring in our kitchen, it's so close.  It was love at first sermon and now we're all hooked.  What is especially nice is that my husband and I, who have slightly different spiritual views, can both find comfort and insight in the same place, and should our children hold dear something that we don't, they too are free to express their beliefs in this church. 

So there you have the background.  Now, I really love ritual.  I love the idea of doing something over and over again, especially something that has been done over and over again since the dawn of the ages.  It makes me all misty and swoony.  To tell the truth, that was one of the things  I loved the most about the Catholic Church, prompting my husband to ask me:  "You know that everything you love about the Catholic Church is Pagan, right?"  "Of course I do! Haven't you seen my degree in Teenage Girl?"  I love ritual, but I wasn't raised with it, so it's sort of tricky for me keep up with, but I'm working on it.  We say a blessing at meal time, and go to church every Sunday, where there are plenty of rituals throughout the year. I would love to start a daily mom-and-kid's prayer time but that's getting into Future Me's territory.  Instead of going crazy, my friend and I have decided to bring into our families' circle all of the Pagan Holidays.  These celebrations of the earth and of faith and renewal are super spectacular, with lots of symbolism, ancestral knowledge, and baking.  I think they are a really tangible way for the kids to relate to the Divine.  They see the earth changing, we talk about faith, there's a little bit of wonderment thrown in there..Viola! You have a sacred ritual.
We decided to start with Imbolc, the first celebration of spring.  At this point in the winter the pregnant ewe's would start to lactate signaling the up-coming birth of baby lambs, spring, and warmth.  Because winter can be long, cold and serious, and because there were no grocery stores way back in the day, it would have been a scary time, filled with hunger and sickness, and even death.  Believing that spring will come, when it isn't readily apparent (East-coaster can appreciate that this winter) is a real act of faith.  Now, of course, we know that spring is coming, it doesn't rely on gifts or offerings to a deity to make it come.  As far as I know there is no actual Goddess-bride waiting for a Sun-God husband to come to her, but it's nice to take advantage of this time to clebrate something ancient and to infuse or modern-day hopes and faith in the things to come with the spring.

My friend and I ordered about a million pagan books from the library and searched over for kids' activities and stories about Imbolc.  We picked and chose the rituals that resonated best with us and ones we thought the girls would like.  We started the day out with a ritual cleansing (cleaning the house).  We baked a gluten-free honey cake, a traditional Imbolc treat.
 While that was baking we took a big stack of strips of red, orange, and yellow, construction paper and wrote, colored and decorated them with our hopes and intentions for the spring.  These have everything from sentences like, "A healthy family," to "getting better at gardening," to a drawing of a baby giraffe (don't ask, somehow I was just being asked to draw baby animals on them for the girl's to color.)
By the time we were done talking about what the holiday means and what we want and hope for the future, the cake was done.  At this point the kids were a bit stir-crazy from being inside most of the day and it being...well..the middle of the winter.  I foolishly tried to get them to calm down so we could make the orange icing for the cake (not traditional, I'd guess).  When they didn't calm down and got more incredibly out of control, I, in my infinite wisdom and sacred-ness threw my arms wide and yelled, "OK, I'M GOING TO START HITTING PEOPLE!" To which my friend responded with her more infinite wisdom and sacred-ness, "Why don't I take you girls in the other room and we can read a story.  When we're done I think everyone will be ready to make the icing."  She didn't give me a dirty look or anything, that's just how wise and sacred-ness she is. 

We made the icing and had some cake, which was great.  After that they played, we made dinner and when the husbands got home we ate.  Now, that story thing definitely made the icing making possible, but it didn't really get the kids into a better head space.  They were still kids in the middle of a stormy New England winter, cooped up and feverish of the Cabin variety.  They were sort of driving everyone crazy.  No matter, carry on with your sacred, bad-self says we!
When Dinner was over, I turned to my husband and asked, "We're going to do the ritual now, will you take pictures?"  He said yes (eventually).  We told the girls that in some parts of the world on this day girls would dress up like the Goddess Brigid in her wedding clothes and go around from house to house, she would be invited in and there would be treats.  We put on some little veils I had made for them and sent them outside.  Once outside, they knocked on the door, we invited them in and read a poem.  Then we offered them a small piece of honey cake, lit the candles and set the cake on our little make-shift alter.  Then we wished, silently, on some seeds, placed them as offering to the Goddess with the cake, and took some photos.
 The plan at this point was to stand in the candle-light in silent contemplation of the things to come.  Remember, the space was sacred, filled to bursting with sacred-ness.  My husband, however, took is directive to take pictures very seriously and hadn't quite gotten the photo he was looking for.
 His pleading with the girls to look contemplatively at the candles in their cute little veils got more and more demanding.  "Keep the veil on, JUST keep it on for one more minute. Turn around, HUNTER turn around. Stand still. Stand still so I can take the damn picture. JUST stand still.." This went on for a little bit with me interjecting helpful things like, "Honey, it's not important.  They're done.  don't worry about the picture. You're missing the point."  Which together sounded something like this:

"Just keep the veil they're just kids stand still I'm trying it's not worth Hunter honey turn around you're missing the point here Just. Keep. The. Veil. On. can you listen to me for a minute? Hunter!! Oh just give me that Damn camera!"
This last one was me, of course, said as I wrestled the camera strap from around my husband's neck.  After which he stormed up stairs and I stormed into the kitchen crying and yelling something like, "You ruined Imbolc, this is just like the time we flew that kite!!"  My friend met me in the kitchen giving me compassionate looks over the slices of honey cake while I sobbed.  My husband had almost immediately come back down stairs, he was clearly retaining more of his sense than I was.
"Do you want me to take over the cake so you can go give hugs?" says my friend in gentle offering.
"No," I sobbed, "I want to do this."
It was immediately clear that I was incapable of serving up the cake so I opted the making it up job.  I went to my husband who was sitting on the couch being not-as-mad-looking-as-he-felt and said in my most calm and conciliatory voice, "You know you ruined Imbolc, right?"
Despite this somewhat inflammatory attempt at reconciliation, my beloved husband heard me, and we talked it out.  I think I said something along the lines of (through tears), "We should be having honey cake right now, but it's all ruined...ruined...whaaahahaaahaa..."
"We still can, honey, it's over. I'm sorry."

I retreated upstairs to stop all my blubbering and get back in the mood for the Pagan festival.   When I was ready to come downstairs, where do you think I found my husband?  That's right.  In front of our make-shift alter telling those girls to stay still.  He got his shot.  He got it while I said, jokingly, "I will forever tell the story of the price of this picture!" Haha.  (But seriously, I will).
We had cake, and put our favorite articles of clothing in a basket to be placed outside for the Goddess to bless as she makes her way 'round the earth turning the wheel toward spring.  The girls went to bed and the adults followed shortly. 

I will tell the story of that picture, however.  I will humbly tell the story of two people who, in a moment, lost sight of what they were trying to accomplish and what the other was needing.  This story happens in a marriage all the time.  My husband and I are learning that happiness doesn't come from lack of conflict, but from the way it's resolved.  This particular issue had to be brought up again, when we weren't attempting to have a reflective ritual.  We talked it out with love and understanding.  I had to sift through a little bit of feelings related to my own childhood, where there were many a holiday punctuated with shouting and acts of semi-violence.  The Imbolc stunt we pulled wasn't quite the same thing.  This was a (fairly humerus) argument between two individuals who love each other and want to not fight.  My children, during this brief episode, where seemingly unfazed.  They don't seem to feel frightened when my husband's Sicilian nature collide with my German side.  They don't seem to worry about our union when I forget myself and chuck a spatula across the room.  Don't get me wrong, these are pretty embarrassing losses of control over here.  I'm not saying this behavior is ideal, but I think it might be more "normal' than I had originally thought.  More normal and a lot less traumatizing than I would have thought.  We can't really avoid conflict.  We're both strong people with lots to do and we forget ourselves, and sometimes each other.  We do make sure that we don't hide our resolutions either.  Our kids hear us talk it out; we say "I'm sorry" loud and clear, and we mean it.  A happy marriage looks different than I thought it would.  In my made-up fantasy of a happy marriage I didn't think people would be yelling things like, "You ruined Imbolc."  I guess I didn't think people would be yelling at all.  I guess I didn't think there would be people in this marriage. 

Life is filled with all sorts of lessons like this.  Grown-ups make mistakes.  Parents don't have all the answers.  Your own kids sometimes seem like you they want to kill you.  And marriages are made of people, who make mistakes and sometimes yell, and then say sorry, I love you, I will try to handle that differently next time.  Despite it being a bit different than what I had imagined, I'll take it, with all its complications, yelling, forgetting and spatula-chucking.  Really, for two people who don't have a lot of foundational experience with happy marriages, we're learning as we go and doing alright.  


  1. Wonderful post Janelle. I have a couple quotes for you:

    Life's challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they're supposed to help you discover who you are.
    - Bernice Johnson Reagon

    People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.
    - Eleanor Roosevelt

    Love, Donna Taylor

  2. "And marriages are made of people, who make mistakes and sometimes yell, and then say sorry, I love you, I will try to handle that differently next time."

    Beautifully said.

  3. I love this line, too: "And marriages are made of people, who make mistakes and sometimes yell, and then say sorry, I love you, I will try to handle that differently next time"

    I think there shuold be a festival celebrating that!

  4. I love your ceremony - and your essay about it. Reminds me of my good relationship...I just lately learned how to be the one who says "I'm sorry, I don't want to fight" first. I think its an art form - that maybe I'll only get good at now that I'm 30.

    And, not for nothin....Its a fantastic picture. (Eek! there go the bonds of sisterhood! sorry!)

  5. I really like, "My husband and I are learning that happiness doesn't come from lack of conflict, but from the way it's resolved." I was recently wondering why it doesn't bother me that my friend/boyfriend/person and I fight pretty regularly, and I think this explains it--we are both happy with how our conflicts are resolved.

    Thanks for such an honest, insightful post!