Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Beating back the darkness

One of the things I hate most about the midwinter blues is how frozen I feel.  After I put despair in its place with a few well-placed reality checks, which don't really change  how I feel but can help me understand why, it is easy, wrapped in that deep purple funk, to think that my life has gone badly off track and that the way I am living is all wrong.  Whereas the reality, for me, is that my life is enveloped by privilege.  The left-hand parentheses of my life is this: I am a secure middle-class woman living in Canada.  And the right hand parentheses is the fact that I am surrounded by a loving, thoughtful, helpful, intuitive partner; an amazing daughter with whom I had the opportunity to work over the last couple of years on one of the most creative projects of my life; and friends who are each remarkable and who support me in his or her own way.  And cats.  Let's not forget the cats.  Inside those parentheses are all the things I get to make and do and experience, from a quilt to a novel to a sunset.

The odd posting on Facebook tells me that as the solstice approaches on Friday, people continue to struggle with the dark mood this time of year often brings.  I've checked my weather ap as far as it will go, and it tells me that we get an extra minute of sunshine on Christmas day!  It's going to be a while before our brains tell us the darkness is over.  So I've been thinking about the ways I cope. They don't erase the mood, but they do improve the quality of my life.  And they are totally inadequate for the person experiencing a deep depression caused by the brain's storms, the anxiety of  modern life, or the griefs and losses that are handed to humans far too often.  So if you don't find these strategies helpful, don't beat yourself up for not coaxing yourself back to cheerfulness, but get the substantive help you need and deserve.

I had a wonder (life-saving) psychiatrist who helpfully distinguished between brain and mind.  Brain is the hunk of meat and synapses between your ears.  It's brain that's having a hard time right now, reacting, as primitives did--think of all those midwinter rites--to the shortening of the days.  Use mind to give brain some relief or better yet, distraction.  Distraction is always good this time of year. 

1.  Assign yourself something to accomplish every day and just do it.  This allows you to assert what is undoubtedly true:  you are functioning just fine.  It's just that those voices in your head keep reminding you of your incompetence, and they are lying.

2.  In the matter of reading, leave the twenty-first century dolor alone until the new year.  Go for fanciful or hopeful, even the other-worldly.  Since I don't sleep well this time of year, I binge read.  I've re-read most of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia.  I'm currently reading Muriel Barbery's The Life of Elves, which is entirely unlike her best-selling The Elegance of the Hedgehog (also a good choice), but charming in its own way.  I'll admit I made an exception for Esi Edugyan's Washington Black, but when I opened the cover and read the first paragraph I was  hooked.  The voice of Washington Black is mournful and intelligent, telling you that along the way there will be violence, racism, hatred, and wounds, but that he still comes out all right.  And I do love a voice that's honest as well as hopeful.  So you  might choose your reading by voice.  I gulped down Sy Montgomery's How to be a good creature, which is a memoir told through her relationships with animals like border collies, pigs, tarantulas, and a singular octopus, Octavia.  (Is an octopus ever singular?  They apparently have a kind of brain in each of their tentacles.)  (The memoir's first chapter, about her relationship with her childhood Scottie, is not typical.  Keep reading.)  The over-arching argument of Montgomery's memoir is that inter-species relationships enrich our lives with surprising wisdom and perspective.  Which leads to my next point....

3.  Enlist the cat or the dog or the budgie.  Spend ten minutes just watching your cat play or go throw balls for the dog.  (Or you can throw mice for the cat; Lyra fetches.)  Meditate on your goldfish.  Snuggle with your bulldog.  Make dinner with your budgie on your shoulder.  Our animals suggest that there's another, completely different, way of viewing the world.  And they also remind us of joy.

4. Give your senses a treat.  Spent some time in a flower shop.  Cook something fragrant, like curry.  Knitters can go pet their stashes; quilters can study theirs and plan a new block to sew when the Christmas tree skirt is finished.  Listen to exquisite music or some energizing jazz. Go to the art gallery or to work online that moves you.  You are more than the sadness of your brain:  prove it by engaging with the world.

5.  Make something with your hands.  Working on the Christmas tree skirt, which will not be finished before Christmas, but will grace our tree in its glorious incompleteness, I am reminded that my hands have an intelligence all their own that seems to have nothing to do with what I think.  Play your piano or your mandolin.  Decorate some cookies.

5.  Beauty.  Beauty.  Beauty.  Need I say more?  Beauty is always soothing, hopeful, engaging.  Get out your camera and go out to take a beautiful photograph for your FB cover picture.  (How old fashioned I am:  use your cell phone.)  Study the dog or the cat or the bird or the orchid.  Go to Chapters and look at the photography books, the garden books, thinking about the ways you can make beauty. Let's go back to Kant, back to basics.  Beauty tells you that you are living in a world that is in some way made for you.  It won't feel quite like your world until the light returns, but it is.  Go seek it out.

The photograph is from Venice:  I loved the light.

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