I had hoped to journey to the Orkneys last year to see the Ring of Brodgar, the Bronze Age standing stones not far from Stromness, but it was not to be. I wanted to get a better sense of this ritual site and experience at first-hand how it feels and imagine how it might have felt 5,000 years ago. This is curiositas; the lust for knowing that was so frowned upon as a motive for medieval pilgrimage – knowledge is power after all. Amongst the approved reasons for pilgrimage were hope and gratitude and they are far more ancient than Christianity or indeed any of the monotheistic faiths. For primitive European pastoralists, there were only two seasons – winter and not-winter -and the transition points were marked by two important festivals. Imbolc (February 1st) fell at the end of winter and gave thanks for survival during the dark days just passed. Samhain (November 1st) marked the end of the grazing season and expressed a hope to survive the dark days ahead.
As we approach Imbolc I’m fully embracing the spirit of gratitude, not least for selfish reasons: I know it to be good for my physical and mental well-being. That’s not just a hunch. There are lots of scientific studies out there that demonstrate the impact of gratitude on healing. It seems that being glad to be alive can help us stay alive and as I’m on day 6 of COVID every little helps.
It’s my birthday today and I have much to be grateful for. My kids in Sweden called first thing this morning and soon afterwards my kids in London appeared on Facetime. Thanks to lockdown we now see each other virtually every day- and that right there is something to feel grateful for. After breakfast, flowers arrived from my lovely brothers and after setting them in water I sat down to practice the piano. My husband’s gift of (virtual) piano lessons arrived on Monday and immediately started to work a kind of magic. Day by day I have a real sense of making progress at a time when almost every other aspect of life has stalled. I tentatively pick my way through the opening chords for Peter Maxwell Davies’ lament Farewell to Stromness and it’s almost as good as being there, summoning up the big northern skies of long summer days… something to look forward to. Hope and gratitude – these are the Dioscuri who guide us along the path through life. Without hope we achieve nothing, without gratitude there is no value to what we achieve.