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This year, I’ll trick my brain into loving winter

In wintertime, a lot of people find themselves on a spectrum ranging from diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder to bouts of wintertime blues and blahs, and I’m no exception. Early winter is pretty and novel, but by late January, after months of very little exposure to sunlight, it’s hard for some people to stay productively motivated some days, hard to even get out of bed and function normally, hard to be social, hard for a lot of people to do a lot of things. Depending on the severity of winter weather, the hours one keeps, location, internal brain chemistry, and a score of other factors, winter can really be an emotional struggle for some.

Chicago snowfall, 2007. (Photo: A. Guth)

Chicago snowfall, 2007. (Photo: A. Guth)

Like many, winter and I have not always danced well together. Some winters, I feel overtaken and exhausted by February, frayed and downhearted some days, easily overwhelmed and worn out; it’s what I do. Winter has long been a place of dread for me, one that’s even clouded full appreciation for beautiful autumnal weather some years, simply knowing winter lurks around the corner, and with it, a scattering of days with dark and heavy clouds to wait-out until April. But, this year, I’m trying an experiment.

This year, my goal is to embrace, enjoy and completely make friends with winter. Which is not to say I can out-Pollyanna my own brain’s wiring (and by no means am I suggesting clinical depression can or should be solely managed, if that’s your situation), but I know there are plenty of things I can do to put myself in the best possible place this season, and I’m going to do them. If I emerge having enjoyed winter, I win.If I emerge only having taken the edge off, I still win. (The subtext here is that the end last last year’s winter was a particularly tough one, for me but much worse for plenty of others, though not many of us really talked about that, or at least not until we were all safely on the shore of Springtime.)

For one, I’m aiming to be very mindful of the words and language I use about winter this year. Example: last night brought the first snowfall of the season to Chicago, and with it, a wave of social media posts starting with some variation of “Ugh, fuck snow.” One status even read, “I fucking hate snow. It’s really beautiful right now, though,” which felt like the epitome of what might be mass-hatred, but also might be, to some degree, snark and negativity as the default language of the online world. So, rather than getting swept up in the hivemind snow basing, rather than thinking ahead to the slippery sidewalks I might navigate at some point in the next week, or gray slush I might wade through in a few months, I want to focus on the present and the facts, which have little choice but to lead me to a more positive conclusion.

Snow-tagged car parked in Chicago, 2006.

Snow-tagged car parked in Chicago, 2006. (Photo: A. Guth)

And, at present, the snow is beautiful. It’s coming down fast and strong, in large snowflakes swirling into increasingly larger piles as the ground temperature grows colder and colder. The sky is somewhere between blue, gray and light purple, and little snowdrifts are gathering on the tiny ledges between bricks on old Chicago buildings, and icing the bare trees to look almost enchanted. Good start.

There’s also a degree of radical, deliberate self-care (see thisthis, this, and certainly this) I plan to apply heavily and regularly over the next several months, more than usual, too. Not just on days when I feel spent and too blah to do any of it, but regularly-scheduled, pre-planned, good-for-the-soul things I’ve come up with to keep emotional batteries charged to function their best.

I’m also looking to winter-navigating experts for wisdom that I can apply to myself. Par exampluh, a recent piece in Fast Company looked lightly at Norwegian attitudes around winter, particularly those of people in far northern points bordering the Arctic Ocean, and included a summary of the research findings from Fullbright scholar Kari Leibowitz, who spent a year looking at the relatively low rates of seasonal depression in those areas. The gist: strong social ties, cultural emphasis placed on winter-only activities, seeking sun exposure even in small doses, and this fascinating concept of koselig, which sort of means “cozy” but extends deeper into daily actions, simplicity, and comfort, and can be used to describe an interaction, a meal, a room, a person, etc. all led to a fairly sunny outlook in the population, overall.  (The idea of koselig is also irresistable to me. I first heard the word, and soon after, found myself down a research rabbit hole of trying to learn how to emulate it.)

More to be said here throughout the winter, particularly next week when the hyper-consumer culture that glorifies busy-ness, socialized expectations and stress completely chokes my neighborhood under the guise of “holiday shopping” and I’ll want to scream every time I walk outside. I’m mulling on navigating all that from a happy place. For now, it’s snowing so hard in Chicago that I can barely see the buildings across my street, I’m thankful to be on the warm side of a windowpane through which to see it, and that’s good enough for today.