January often sees me turning reflective, seeking out essayists like Kathleen Jamie and Alistair McIntosh, to give me the words and images to navigate the dark winter days. Old folk songs sing of the ‘ghosts’ that visit us at this time of year, and for me that’s a very apt description – the ghosts of paths not taken, the pang of loss, the bittersweetness of time passing and my children growing (no matter how well spent or wonderful), and the finger-tip touch of my hopes for the coming year. The old songs advise us to entertain these ‘ghosts’ – today we might call that allowing ourselves time to ‘process’.

These are words from John O’Donohue’s book, Blessings, which my sister bought me, and this January has given me words for the dark days. The idea of these blessings is rooted in old Gaelic prayer traditions, captured in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica – blessings spoken over the routines of the day, from Grace at mealtimes through to milking the cow or taking a journey. These prayers were also often called ‘charms’, revealing the awkwardness of language in trying to capture the nuance of the human spirit. Words like ‘charm’ bring out Fundamentalists in a rash, and attracted the fire and brimstone of Presbyterianism back in the day, but these prayers are a practice we now understand to be deeply contemplative. 

More recently, echoes of this spiritual practice are also to be found in the beautiful book Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris, which was re-imagined by traditional musicians in Spell Songs, reconnecting the written text with its oral, spoken roots. Here is a link to one of the songs, The Lost Words – Blessing.

As a busy, working mum, I recognise in these blessings or charms, an imaginative response to exactly what John O’Donohue describes – the rushing and fast travelling of modern life. These prayers were, and are, the tools of ordinary folks to anchor themselves, rocks dropped on ropes to the stormy depths, so as to keep noticing the “small miracles” amidst the waves and currents of the daily grind, and to keep themselves “slow and free” in a rapidly industrialising world.

And so I have begun to collect my own blessings, short strings of words, inspired by my daily routine – getting up in the morning, putting on my clothes. When I speak a blessing over the quick evening tea I’m serving up, asking for the food to nourish my children, I slow down, and the task becomes a “small miracle”. The words make me take notice. In our consumerist society, which both despises, and erases, the work and the worker, my little blessings ground and dignify my work to provide for my family and my community. Now there’s a thought for dark days.

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