Well, folks, February is here. In fact, it's more than halfway over. (Hooray!)
I know I'm not the only one in the room who counts the days of this, the shortest month of the year, telling myself "You can get through this." Winter is beautiful, of course. The changing of seasons brings the cheer and warmth of the holidays, the glittering snowfall, the stark beauty of a whiter, paler nature. It is nowhere near as alive as spring, summer, or even autumn. But, its austerity is its beauty. Just ask Mary Oliver.
Poetry aside, winter is known to bring the blues. Whether or not you believe in SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder, winter time brings with it the highest rates of depression during the year. The lack of sunlight, change in diet and exercise habits, stresses of everyday life in the same demand as the rest of the year...you get the picture. Living in New England, I anticipate and revere all the seasons for their blessings even as I grow weary of their adversities that show their faces near the end of the season. As it falls near the end of winter, February never fails to put me in a particular headspace. I waffle between celebrating the coziness of the season and despairing the pervasive feelings of emptiness and apathy. I've known since I was a child that spring is my favorite season. There is something magical and incredible about the world coming to life again. It is intoxicating to say the least. So, knowing that this month is the last guard of winter helps me look into the future and remember everything will be okay, as this will end. Annie Dillard, in her phenomenal book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, closely observed the land and changing of seasons in the rural US. She remarked in a chapter on winter:
"I have been thinking about the change of seasons. I don't want to miss spring this year. I want to distinguish the last winter frost from the out-of-season one, the frost of spring. I want to be there on the spot the moment the grass turns green."
Musing about what progressed through the minds of the first people on earth:
"Assuming that you hadn't yet noticed any orderly progression of heavenly bodies, how long would you have to live on earth before you could feel with any assurance that any one particular long period of cold would, in fact, end?...It must have been fantastically important, at the real beginning of human culture, to conserve and relay this vital seasonal information, so that the people could anticipate dry or cold seasons, and not huddle on some November rock hoping pathetically that spring was just around the corner."
Now that we have long felt the knowledge of the seasons, how do we get through it? Living in relative comfort, divorced from the workings of the land, safe inside, how do we sit with ourselves and make it to spring, ready to embrace it with open arms?
In America, we have a love of "discovering" concepts of other cultures and folding them into our practices. The Danish concept of Hygge became a popular practice for the past two years. I've heard about it from friends, books, and articles like this one. Hygge translates roughly to coziness, and the habits and rituals that build a feeling of warmth and coziness during the cold, dark winter months.
Each culture has traditions and festivals that glow with beacons of fun, feasting, and dancing. Studying in Hungary years ago, I witnessed the bizarre and wonderful Busos festival which marks the near-end of winter. When I was in Iceland during the summer, I marveled at the "midnight sun". The sky was always light (making it very difficult to sleep in a tent during my time hiking the Laugavegur Trail). In talking to Icelanders, I asked them how the winter was for them, as the days were mostly spent in darkness during the winter months. A friend, Hauker, told me that winter in Iceland is well-loved. He told me that it is a time to stay indoors and stay with family. He recalled many happy memories of winter time indoor with his kin. Another Icelander, Jonsí, of the band Sigur Rós, discusses the importance of a creative hobby during this time. In an interview for OUT magazine, the writer who spoke with him wrote "Those endless nights present Icelanders with a simple imperative: Be resourceful and inventive, or wither. Most of them, it seems, choose the former." What do you do that lifts you up and helps you to keep your inner fire stoked and full of light, warmth, and joy in the relative darkness of winter?
I can only share what I have done and the small practices that keep my mood from plunging and spiraling down into a void. I enjoy more than just these, but these are the simplest, and in many cases, cheapest. Winter is a time in which we spend a lot of energy and thought internally. This ruminating can mean getting stuck in our own heads. "Cabin fever" is essentially being stuck in a negative thought pattern without the release of outdoor/social activity. To change the direction of my thoughts, I like to do physical tasks, which bring my mind off of itself and back into the present moment. Mindfulness, that diamond-in-the-rough idea of being where you are, is found in experiencing what you are experiencing in the moment, without thoughts traveling to the past or future.
In the words of a popular Western practitioner and writer on mindfulness, John Kabat-Zinn, "If we hope to go anywhere or develop ourselves in any way, we can only step from where we are standing. If we don't really know where we are standing... We may only go in circles...”
I hope you find something you can relate to in these recipes for the winter blues and the illustrations I've made to accompany them <3
Do an activity in tandem with the winter.
It is easy to hate winter when you never leave your home. It is easy to begrudge it for the endless shoveling, walking in mushy puddles, and skittering across icy sidewalks and driveways. The early darkness does not make getting outside easier, especially for us folks who work during the daylight hours. When I drive to school it is pre-dawn and when I leave, the sun is either setting or within an hour of setting. So, on Sundays, my day off, I do my best to be outside, interacting with the winter. I'm a hiker, and I find winter to be so beautiful (not to mention easier to hike in without bugs and bears to worry about) when I'm walking around in it. The sunshine doesn't hurt either. Worrying about braving the cold? Listen to this word of advice from the Swedes:
"Given that the weather in Sweden is not the greatest, Swedes have adopted a rather optimistic tag line to describe the best way to deal with the Swedish climate 'Där finns ingen dålig väder, bara dålig kläder' which translates to 'there is no bad weather, only bad clothing."
Partake in warm food and drink.
I personally believe there is no better season for soup. There are weeks in December and January when I eat soup every day. I love making it, drinking it, and talking about it. During one evening, when eating soup at Whole Foods, I commented on the soup another person was eating across from me at the table. We ended up discussing soup and swapping recipes. She actually spent 15 minutes telling me her mother's chicken soup recipe, which I dutifully wrote down. It was a touching moment, and a delicious one.
I am also an avid tea drinker. I have far too many teas in my cabinet. Sometimes I like to make my own. Here is a recipe for the delicious Golden Milk Tea, and here is a recipe for the best hot cocoa you can get. If you're looking for something simple, make ginger tea. I do every morning. Grate about 1-2 tbsp of ginger root into a pan, and bring to a boil with water for 10-30 minutes. The longer you boil, the stronger the taste.
Better yet, make your own warm food and drink.
The act of making food, at least for me, is relaxing and rewarding. It slows me down and reminds me to appreciate the hard work that goes into what we eat everyday. It gives me a purpose when grocery shopping, carefully selecting nourishing foods that won't just provide sustenance but enjoyment on top of that.
On the health side, it's also the only way to ensure that what you are eating is full of what is good for you (i.e. whole foods and limited sugar/salt/preservatives) versus what is convenient for you. My favorite dishes for the winter are simple roasted root vegetables, chicken soup, and curry.
Practice a familiar creative hobby.
For me, this is a no-brainer. I'm an illustrator who enjoys drawing any chance I get. When I have little time for drawing, I like to practice collage-making. It's a great way to use old magazines and coffee table books you don't mind "destroying". Being creative allows me, and so many others, to lose track of time. You also end up creating something that can be useful, or just beautiful. There is great value in creative work, even if it is something only you share and delight in.
Trying a new creative hobby is exciting as well. Investing this time during a season where it's difficult to get outside makes sense. Writing this blog, for me, is my new creative hobby. Poetry, scrapbooking, music-making, video-editing, baking, etc. Pick your project and watch the hours melt away.
Connect with people you love that are far away.
Unless you are someone lucky enough to have all their loved ones within driving distance, you know the wistful experience of loved ones living away from you. Skyping and face-timing have changed my life. I would suggest regularly scheduling times for this, otherwise months can go by without contact. My best friend lives thousands of miles away and we dutifully skype most Sundays. Emails and facebook messages are less formal but can connect you instantly. I'm not a huge fan of texting or snapchatting, but that is a fun way to keep in touch. Another friend and I share hilarious photos with captions in an almost-comptetitive way. It makes me feel that she is not halfway around the world but a minute away.
If you're nostalgic or have been dubbed "an old soul", you've probably written a letter or desired to do so. Although I don't write as many letters as I would like, I do write to friends and family. Letter writing allows me to slow down and write with intention, knowing this piece of paper will be held and read by someone I love. If you want to write to someone but don't have anyone to/ feel silly about it (which you shouldn't! People love hand-delivered mail!), then you can always write to a pen pal via The Penpal Network, a project started by a friend of mine.
Interact with and learn your body. a.k.a. SWEAT!
MOVE YOUR BODY!
That's the sound of me not judging you but talking to myself; trying to coerce my extra-comfy body, sitting on the couch in fleecy paradise, to get up and move. Sometimes this means yoga (with the amazing and down-to-earth Adriene). Sometimes it means a HIIT practice. Sometimes running. Sometimes dancing to an amazing, funky, hip-hop radio show.
Whatever it is, trust me, you will feel better after sweating. Science says so , after all.
Connect with the cosmos. Spend at least ten minutes of a cold, clear night to marvel at the starry sky.
I may be the only one excited about this (doubt it). But what better time, especially with the wooded area that I live, to observe the stars. With a lack of atmospheric haze that you may find during summer nights, the stars twinkle with clarity and brightness. If you're a fan of the Orion constellation like me, this is the time of year to see it, as he sinks below the horizon during the warmer months.
I don't last long outside, but even five minutes can calm me down and get me outside my self-revolving universe. We live in one tiny speck of our cosmos, after all. And if that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, you can still enjoy the ground-breaking Cosmos series, both the original with Carl Sagan and the reboot from Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
Watch high quality media.
With the unending-nightmare of our reality in this nation, that the news would have us plug into non-stop, it's been easy for me to turn away from the news hour to movies and TV. I enjoy escapism with media through certain depictions of fantasy, sci-fi, etc. I haven't recently enjoyed hyper-realistic shows that dramatize, glorify, and condone violence, abuse, coercion, deceit, and suffering. I feel there is enough of this around. But, to each their own.
Despite not wanting to encounter much reality in the news and fictional shows, I enjoy documentaries because they help me understand the history and culture around events and people that shape our current experience. I've recently enjoyed these informative and empowering documentaries on Netflix: The Ascent of Woman and Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.
Show your loved ones that you love them by spending time with them.
I am blessed to be surrounded by friends and family whom I love to be around. I don't always spend as much time as I believe I should, due to busy schedules and excuses, but when I do, it's magic.
It can be as simple as calling someone to catch up, sharing a glass (or two) of wine, going out to eat, or making a plan for a little mini-vacation with them. With the closest of friends, I can easily spend time with them while they're cleaning their rooms or apartments, sitting in our sweatpants and watching The Great British Bakeoff, or eating takeout. Appreciation doesn't need to be fancy.
Read. Read some more.
Nothing brings to mind images of coziness more than the phrase "curl up with a good book".
I'm currently enjoying:
all about love: new visions by bell hooks
Literary Witches: A Celebration of Magical Women Writers by Taisia Kitaiskaia
Love Poems by Pablo Neruda (translated by Donald D. Walsh)
Dream Work poems by Mary Oliver
Harness music to move you, subdue you, distract you, free you.
Music is universally powerful.
it does it all.
Listen, sing, and dance to it. I do when I'm making dinner, and I start by feeling silly and self-conscious and end by being loose and whistling with a smile on my face.
Or, go to a concert if that's your jam! There are many musicians touring in wintertime. Services like bandsintown keep you in the loop of tours and concert dates.
Create, act in, and follow rituals.
Our daily routines can be both a source of comfort and a chain we need to habitually break to free us from their tyranny. Sometimes, I get so stuck in a routine I feel as conscious as a zombie. Other times, I break routine so harshly that my responsibilities pile up higher than I feel I can ever accomplish. Both extremes I recognize when I find myself slipping into depression. If I'm not careful, if I'm not cognisant of this, I can easily fall into depression that lasts for weeks, months.
I can't always pull myself out, and have gone into therapy during the winter to help myself or turned to other healthy and non-healthy ways of dealing with mental illness. It's important to recognize when "the blues" becomes something which threatens your well-being and can be dangerous to go through alone. I've found therapy to be helpful, and there are many options out there. Not everyone has access to this financially, which is a failure of our government, but I hope you can recognize when depression is dangerous for you and seek the help that is available to you. What I find immensely helpful regardless of the depth of my depression, is creating and following rituals. They are personal and meaningful. They are not the same to me as they are to you. But they bring my mind from a tightening spiral to something on the present I can focus on. It could be the steps we take in meditation, in prayer, or in any of the above recipes for helping the winter blues. Find your ritual, and follow it, believing that it will help you see the light at the end of the winter. It may even show you how to find joy within it.
What do you practice to help you through these dark months?