I've been thinking about Imbolc, which is the ancient Celtic festival celebrating the fertility of the sheep flock and the very earliest signs of returning spring.
In Irish, Imbolc (pronounced im'olk) from the Old Irish, meaning "in the belly" (imbolg), referring to the pregnancy of ewes, and is also a Celtic term for spring. Another name is Oimelc, meaning "ewe's milk".How cool is it, for a shepherd, that there is a specific holiday in honor of sheep? It's celebrated on February 2nd---nearly 3 weeks ago now---but I've been so stressed and swamped this year, I sort of let the day slide by without much notice.
It wasn't until today that I remembered I had neglected to do my annual Imbolc ritual: The year's first Groping of the Ewes.
Each November, I put the rams and ewes into the breeding pens and hope they do their jobs properly. Then I wait, full of hope and faith, for the lambs to come. Imbolc---the festival of "ewe's milk"---is when the ewes' udders begin to fill up in preparation for lambing. It is the time of year when I can first get confirmation that my faith has been justified.
When the ewes are busy eating, and too distracted by food to pay me much mind, I walk along behind the row of them and feel between their legs to see if their udders are starting to develop: a sure sign that lambs are on the way in another couple of months!
It's such a simple thing, but after I've been so down and out all winter long, you have no idea how uplifting it is to get that small sign of hope and renewal for the farm: ewe after ewe, each with a small udder starting to form, each getting ready to give back to the farm, in the form of lambs, my year's payment for all the work, love, and money I've invested in the flock for the other 11 months of the year.
We're a partnership, the sheep and I. Going down the row of pregnant ewes, I am filled with gratitude for all they give back to the farm.
Imbolc can also be seen as a metaphor for the other aspects of my life right now. Just as Imbolc is a holiday celebrating the return of spring during a time that is still deep in winter, our farm is still deep in hard times, but with a glimmer of hope beginning to shine through.
On the one hand, we are still broke and worried about money, but on the other hand, I got 4 new inquiries about horses for sale today, and now have 4 "almost definite" sales plus a few other "possible" ones. If we can just get these horse sales completed, everything will be fine. We'll still be in debt, but without the horrendous hay bills, we'll be able to manage it.
What will that be like? We've been struggling so long, I can barely remember what it was like to be able to pay every bill as soon as it came in and still occasionally have something left over to put into savings or to spend on something fun.
After two days of not feeling well, my health seems to be looking up, too. Maybe it was the vitamins I took before bed the last two nights, but I feel almost better today. I'm going to take another batch of vitamins tonight and, after another good night's sleep, I hope to be back to normal by tomorrow.