“That time of year thou mayest in me behold…”—thus spoke The Bard. And as we fall toward winter, what time of year may we behold in ourselves, in each other?
The change in season, the cold, the increasing darkness and the onset of holiday stress make many people feel more complaint-prone (read: whiny). While I wouldn’t want to invalidate the legitimate drag that this time of year seems to have on so many, there’s an antidote for those who have a natural antipathy toward winter: a shift in perspective whereby the darkest hours can seem more friend than foe.
One such shift, from “Christmas season” to “holiday season,” has already been officially made for us. I applaud the move from Santa Claus as the holiday’s central focus to a heightened awareness of various religions as a way to emphasize the “holy” in “holiday.” For those of us who’ve always had to measure up to the bearded fat guy with his unlimited bag of goodies, the pressure can be intense, the competition daunting. Maybe we can appreciate a shift in focus from the excess of seasonal materialism to the earth’s natural state at this time.
The stark beauty of the land and trees during the cold season is worth noticing. Dropped leaves create winter vistas that are otherwise obscured. While on a recent morning walk, I stalled my steps to watch and listen to a few remaining leaves, sounding through branches onto browning grass, creating a circular heap of yellow beneath the tree. Mindfully observing the garden in winter, now quiet and dormant, we can reap rewarding insights. Even amid the low temperatures, getting next to rather than away from nature at this time of year can be restorative.
In winter’s austere beauty lies an age-old dictum: simplify. The concept can apply not only to our outlook and activities, but also to the many holiday gifts we’re supposed to be spending all of our “disposable” income on at this time of year. And while we’re working on simplifying, we might also allow ourselves to be guided by another helpful principal: that of necessity being the mother of invention (or, in my case, the mother of creative, cheap gifts). Why not let necessity spark the creative spirit that’s just waiting to be tapped during the dark season?
For my part, I plan to combine simple, necessary and cheap by waxing artistic and making affordable gifts. All those potential objets d’art carefully culled during Sunday-afternoon hunts at Goodwill and now waiting in my basement shall be creatively transformed. So if you’re on my list, prepare yourself for a winter masterpiece: a monkey-pod bowl scooped out in various shapes, a candle holder, a lazy Susan; to these I’ll apply all the brilliantly colored paint (which I’ve also been collecting), producing folk-artsy faux artworks. Who wouldn’t want one? As for those whose materialistic nature requires a more expensive gift, let’s just hope they’ve got a relative somewhere who has more disposable income. At any rate, there’s no time like the present to take simple yet creative action.
Another complaint often aimed at this time of year is, “It’s cold out there!” But honestly, while getting cool when it’s hot out certainly has its appeal, there’s nothing like getting warm when the mercury has fallen. I love the feeling of donning warm clothes, of pulling out the fleece gear to cover me from head to toe. And coming in from the cold makes me wildly appreciative of warmth and hearth and home.
At the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish, the simple fact is that we all have something to be thankful for at this time of year. When the outer darkness invites us to contemplate the mystery of life and the unknown, we might consider what enriches our lives and deserves appreciation: the recent election outcomes; the family and friends who won’t be around forever but who are now gathering for holiday celebrations; the oak trees in all their bare, naked beauty, revealing every square inch of bark and limb.
Cultivating a sense of gratitude makes me think of my sister who, after undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, marveled at what many of us tend to take for granted. While sitting at my table and applying mascara to newly regrown eyelashes, she had difficulty holding back tears as she said, “I’m so thankful for my eyelashes!”
As clichéd as it sounds, it really is worthwhile to cultivate a sense of gratitude for something, whether small or large. And for non-theists, gratitude doesn’t have to be directed toward something or someone; it can simply be a feeling inside the heart.
Call me strange, but I don’t mind the kind of inwardness the prolonged darkness brings. Somehow the dark and the cold seem especially conducive to exploring what we have and what it means. Why not take some time to be with the dark? Like everything else in this transitory world, it won’t last forever.
Meanwhile, I intend to behold in myself the excitement provoked by cooler temperatures, a season-appropriate simplicity and a focus on warmth, comfort and gratitude that naturally leads to a sense of happiness and well-being.
I don’t know about you, but I say, “Bring it on!”
[Asheville resident Virginia Bower teaches writing and ESL at Mars Hill College.]