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Most of us don’t like winter. I’ve always found that to be quite unfortunate. In fact, I’ve always loved winter as a wonderfully romantic season. The peaceful calm after a falling snow… The touch of our favorite sweater… the time to dwell in beautiful memories… the coziness of a candle-lit living room… the comfort of a warm blanket, a hot cup of tea and a good book. What’s not to love?
I get it… There’s the cold. The absence of light. The bad weather. The de-icing of frosted car windows in the morning on the way to work. Yeah, yeah… I’ve heard it all.
But rest assured… wherever you fall on the spectrum — from Frosty, the Snowman to *frantically googles flights to somewhere warm as soon as temperatures dip below 45 F* — this little essay is not designed to change your mind (although, if you read all the way to the end, it just might).
No, this is not a debate of the pros and cons of winter. This essay is an argument that winter is a season that’s actually more than the sum of our opinions. This essay is an argument that winter is in fact… essential. Not just for nature, but for us, just as much.
That’s an entirely different perspective, and one I believe is worth exploring. Don’t you? (read on below)
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Katherine May: “Wintering — The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times”
Our psychological and physical need for winter is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently while creating new work during this notoriously slower season for nature photography.
In large part, I owe this newfound perspective to Katherine May, a British author who penned the wonderful book “Wintering — The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.” It’s one of those books that manages to open your eyes with at times painful honesty and at the same time makes you feel that everything is going to be okay. In short, it’s the perfect book for the season.
May argues that winter, as in… the rougher times in our lives… is indeed inevitable, and, more importantly — that that’s okay. Life’s not all sunshine and rainbows, all the time. “We like to believe that it’s possible for life to be one eternal summer, and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves,” she writes. “We dream of an equatorial habitat, forever close to the sun, an endless, unvarying high season. But life’s not like that.”
May is not shy to put the finger in our inner wounds and diagnose a rampant problem: “The times we fall out of synch with everyday life remain taboo. We’re not raised to recognize wintering or to acknowledge its inevitability.”
With the advent of social media and over-curated highlight reels that almost never show life’s ugly, honest moments, this has become even more of a problem. Now, we constantly compare our daily lives to the highlights of someone else’s. Rarely do we end up feeling better for it. Usually, the opposite is true, and the shame for not having a great day increases. There’s a whole new breed of anxiety out there… fear of missing out. (read on below)
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Winter is not just something to get through. It’s a time of intention.
Up here in the Pacific Northwest, there’s always talk of “The Big Dark” during winter, when days are painfully short, inducing bouts of varying degrees of seasonal depression in many of its denizens.
I’ve always hated the term “The Big Dark,” since it seems to stipulate that the following three to five months are somehow not filled with wonderful moments worth remembering but rather are just a nondescript block of time to get through. Three to five months… that’s at the very least 25% of the year! Do you really want to approach that much valuable life time from the standpoint of: let me just make it through to the other side? If you ask me, we already have that mindset too many times as is… trying to make it through another workday, another meeting, another day of chores…
Rather than discarding an entire season as basically not worth living in, winter actually offers us an opportunity to face head-on the seasonally-induced feelings of sadness, those ebbs and flows in energy that seem particularly pronounced during winter. Life’s not as simple as adopting a bumper sticker mentality of: Just be happy. Winter teaches us that that’s okay. It grants us the chance to listen to our innate needs. But we can only listen to those needs if we do so intentionally, if we accept winter as a time to do so, rather than closing our eyes and wishing the season away (when has that ever worked?).
Katherine May puts it this way: “If happiness is a skill, then sadness is, too. As adults, we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.”
You see, you are right… Wintertime is not always easy. In fact, it’s often hard. And yet, wintering is… essential. (read on below)
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Winter is a season of opportunity.
But don’t get me (or Katherine May) wrong. Winter is not just one long therapy session of raw emotions, a string of hard times, either. No. It’s so much more than that. It’s an opportunity for the season to be what you need it to be, first and foremost. And come to think of it, those times are increasingly rare these days.
“Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season in which the world takes on a sparse beauty and even the pavements sparkle,” writes May. In snow, time loses its linearity — a rare instance when life slows down. “Winter is a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing those deeply unfashionable things - slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting - is a radical act now, but it is essential.” May calls it “a moment to shed a skin.”
The business of winter, she says, is transformation: “Life goes on abundantly in winter — changes made here will usher us into future glories.” In many ways, it is the most poetic season, as it marks a return to ourselves. Winter is no time to put on a display. It “decorates ordinary life,” the starkness revealing colors we may otherwise miss.
Hence, I guess, my problem with the The Big Dark terminology. Maybe it is my introvert personality, but I find much beauty in looking inward, in the quiet times rather than the flashy rambunctiousness of life’s highest notes. More time to do xyz does not always, not necessarily, equal quality time. It’s true: Winter is where ordinary life happens. The challenge, no… the opportunity, is to find beauty in the ordinary, the seemingly mundane. It’s those little moments that make a whole day memorable anyway, no matter the season. (read on below)
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What nature teaches about dealing with winter
Nature is full of those little moments — even in the dormant months of winter. Sure, it’s a little harder to find them. But it makes them more rewarding, too.
Here’s a few examples: I have found colors to grow in intensity the colder and clearer the air gets. Or take the blue hour, the time just before and just after sunset, when the usually rough edges of winter seem to melt, transforming almost any scene into a dreamy snow globe. And then there’s the frost, which draws patterns upon the land that allow for infinite creative exploration. It’s all there, waiting to be seen.
Chasing moments of fleeting beauty in that mythical creature snow forges a connection between beauty and hardiness that tends to define lasting memories. “I am rarely childlike and playful except in snow,” writes May. “It swings me into reverse gear.”
I know what you might be thinking right now… “All that romantic talk about snow is nice — but where I live it doesn’t snow. Winter is just grey all the time.” Well… Have you ever gone for a walk through the woods or along the local lake on a foggy November morning, when the absence of clear vision opens up ample room for imagination? It’s all there. (read on below)
“Winter morning, without leaf or flower, the shape of a tree.” — L.A. Davidson
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Preparing our homes for times of winter
Winter undoubtedly has its moments of beauty. But remember the whole premise of this essay… the times when those moments of beauty are farther and fewer between, when the going gets tough, are the times when it is most important we listen to what our bodies and our minds are telling us, without feeling inadequate or a sense of failure for doing so.
These principles apply whether there’s snow outside the window or it’s just dreary gray.
“Winter is an open invitation to transition into a more sustainable life and to wrest back control over the chaos I have created,” writes Katherine May. “It’s a moment when I have to step into solitude and contemplation.”
In winter, spending more time indoors becomes inevitable — allowing us to find moments of collective leisure in close quarters with those we love the most. What an opportunity! “The summer only disperses us,” writes May. “In winter, we feed a shared language of comfort: candles, ice cream, coffee, sauna.” In the captivity of darker times, sharing becomes more common, it’s when we shine a light for others with ample time still available to focus on our own needs, too. (read on below)
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Ever heard of hygge? What does that mean?
There are many time-tested strategies to make our temporary transition to a more sheltered existence less taxing on our moods. Heck, the Danish sparked a whole global movement with it… ever heard of hygge? It’s cosiness as mindful practice. It’s using domesticated comforts to console us against the harsh world outside. Think candles… dimmed lights… airy curtains designed to keep light flowing inside… tending to house plants… cozy blankets… nature-inspired artwork…
But hygge is so much more than an interior design trend, although it is heavily influenced by the principles of Biophilic design — the idea that bringing elements of nature into our homes feeds a primal longing to live in close proximity to and symbiosis with nature yearround. Hygge is a morphing term that can influence decor, activities and feelings all at the same time. Sunday afternoon on the couch with your dog watching your favorite TV show is hygge. Baking cookies is hygge. As is eating them with friends and a steaming cup of freshly brewed coffee. One could argue that hygge is a refusal to let darkness and bad weather dictate the quality of life. I love it.
These strategies are not exclusive to the Danish either, of course. Their neighbors to the northeast, the Fins, have a similar approach. May tells the story of a Finnish friend in her book, offering that the Fins start preparing for winter in August: “You bake so that the freezer is full, because if anyone drops by, you have to serve them coffee and cake. That’s important: You’re always ready to give hospitality.”
Winter may disperse us, but it is still a shared human experience. We are in this together, the good times and the bad. There’s comfort in remembering that (read on below).
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Winter — a time to rest right
Okay… let’s be real: You’ve made it this far, and I still haven’t answered maybe the most pressing question of them all: Yes, going to bed early in winter is absolutely acceptable — preferred for some, even. Just ask Katherine May: “Winter sleeps are the best. I like my duvet thick and my bedroom cold so that I have a chill to snuggle against. The cool winter nights afford me deep sleep and long, magical dreams. When I wake in the night, the dark seems more profound and velvety than usual, almost infinite. Winter is a season that invites me to rest well and feel restored, when I am allowed to retreat and be quietly separate.”
All joking aside: In the violently busy times we live in, resting right has become an art form only few of us still master. The solace of winter offers a rare opportunity to reset and reconsider some of the habits we slide into during times of high intensity, when self-care takes a backseat to the rush of adrenaline and endorphins.
So yes, give your bedroom some love this winter and find ways to make it a calm space of restful retreat (may I suggest a tranquility-inducing piece of artwork like the ones you see on these pages?).
“Sleep is not a dead space, but a doorway to a different kind of consciousness - one that is reflective and restorative, full of tangential thought and unexpected insights,” writes May. “In winter, we are invited into a particular mode of sleep: not a regimented eight hours, but a slow, ambulatory process in which waking thoughts merge with dreams, and space is made in the blackest hours to repair the fragmented narratives of our days. Yet we are pushing away those innate skills we have for digesting the difficult parts of life.”
I’ll leave you with this conclusion from May, in high hopes that you’ve found some wisdom in what I’ve shared in this essay — and maybe even some new appreciation for the season that is winter:
“Over and over again, we find that winter offers us liminal spaces to inhabit. Yet we still refuse them. The work of the cold season is to learn to welcome them."
The Homeward Journal looks for ways to deepen our connection with nature even as we lead busy lives — and feeling calmer and more grounded because of it. The goal is to share ideas from thought leaders on everything from nature-based interior design to mindfulness and feeling more grounded during stressful times. Put simply: This is for you if you are busy but trying to make more space for nature in your life.
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