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Tips for Managing the Late-Winter Doldrums


Overall, our winter hasn't been harsh.  It's been cold, but not frigid.  We've gotten snow, but not excessive amounts.  We've experienced school delays for the kids, but not frequently enough to disrupt the semblance of a normal schedule.  It's been a typical, nondescript, run-of-the-mill winter in Pennsylvania.

In other words, it's been gray.  The sky is gray, the roads are gray, the cars (which could be any color, I'm assuming) are gray because they're coated with a layer of gritty salt-slush.  The whole visible world currently is damp and gray, except for those other parts that are damp and brown.

February is a month I slog through.  Nothing is actually wrong, except that I want to cocoon myself in a blanket, lay listlessly on the couch, eat ungodly amounts of carbs, and avoid human interactions.  This isn't alarming; it's just February.  February is a test of endurance.  Given this, I've made an unofficial pact with myself to endure the month well.

Here are a few steps I'm taking to manage:

Changing My Route.  Every morning I walk the same route between the parking deck on one side of campus and my first class on the other.  This month, I've challenged myself to walk a slightly different route each day.  (It's a large campus. This is feasible.)  I take obscure sidewalks, reroute my course around interesting buildings to view them from different angles, and walk through other buildings that I ordinarily wouldn't enter.  Rather than blindly trudging through my surroundings on autopilot, I look for what's interesting.

One morning I noticed thoughtfully staggered brickwork.


On another day I appreciated the contrast of materials, like a stone door casing, wooden doors, and a decorative metal window grill.


I pay attention to pleasing shapes, like arches, which for some reason always remind me of hobbit houses.


It's the simplest change, just a mere tweak in direction and a keener eye for detail, but the freshness even slightly new surroundings makes every morning better.

Remembering What I Actually Enjoy.  When I'm knee-deep in the semester, I don't always carve out time to do things that I love to do.  Sometimes this is necessary; assignments don't grade themselves, after all.  But sometimes it's because I lose touch with what I actually enjoy.

If a spare half hour appears, I can't figure out what to do with it.  Should I try to be productive?  Should I respond to emails, or clean a drawer, or make a meal plan, or fold laundry?  Or, should I simply enjoy the half hour?  Often, I fritter away the time with some halfhearted hybrid of productivity and pleasure -- sweeping the kitchen floor, then wandering aimlessly for a bit, and finally flipping through a magazine nonchalantly.  It's a form of down time, I suppose, but it doesn't rejuvenate.  

During the middle of this week, however, I took a more intentional approach when a spare hour materialized before I had to attend a meeting.  My teaching and office hours were finished, my grading was completed for the day, and to top it off, the weather was unusually warm.  (This appearance of a rare sunny day occasionally happens in February.  You handle it with a mixture of awe and caution, like how you'd approach a unicorn, because you understand it's a gift that won't last.)  I walked to the library, checked out a novel I had been wanting to read, and then sat on a bench outside.

It was glorious.  Even though it was a tease, the warmth provided the illusion of spring.  I heard birds.  I got lost in the pages.  I periodically stopped reading, watched people walk past, and let my thoughts wander about random things, like footwear.   
Why do cute shoes tend to be uncomfortable?  Or, more importantly, why aren't comfortable shoes often that cute?  Would it be unprofessional to wear Nike running shoes to class?  Students do it.  Why can't professors?  Do I even know how to wear shoes the right way?  I'm wearing cute boots with low socks because I think that's what people do, and they're rubbing my ankles weirdly.  Does that happen to everybody else, too?  Do I have overly sensitive ankles?


And then I'd return to my novel, read another chapter, and sigh happily.  Even though I still don't have answers to my shoe conundrum, I was doing something I loved: reading and observing.  I legitimately enjoyed this hour.

Looking Ahead with Anticipation.  While I don't advocate wishing time away, I'm a proponent of having something to look forward to.  Right now, I'm dreaming about the start of garage sale season and the treasures I'll find.  I'm envisioning working on projects in my garage, which is one of the most satisfying ways to spend an afternoon.  (It's like hosting my own HGTV show, except that only my neighbors can view it.  I'm still waiting to be discovered.)


When I look ahead with anticipation, I realize that I'm excited for a multitude of things.  I'm excited for the weather to break so I can go outside and spray paint a mirror that I picked up at Goodwill.  I'm anticipating the cilantro, basil, zucchini, and tomatoes that we'll grow this summer.  I'm not bemoaning the current days; I'm simply whetting my appetite for the good days ahead.

Giving in a Little, But Not All the Way.  Of course, one final way to manage the late-winter doldrums is to accept -- daresay, to own -- the inherent blah of the season.

For example, last night I admitted to myself that I was going to grab a blanket and hibernate on the couch with a box of Girl Scout cookies.  Then, I didn't feel badly because I knew that I'd eventually get up and become a mobile adult who functions productively in society again, even if wasn't going to be that particular evening.  (I'm not sure why, but lethargy seems less shameful when you give yourself permission to embrace it, rather than just slumping into it.  Like, I chose this listlessness.  It's intentional, people.)

February, this simultaneously shortest and longest month, won't last forever.  Let's endure.

Are you experiencing any late-winter doldrums, too?  What do you do to manage?  I'd love to hear from you!

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You Know You Live in a Small Town When... (A Story of a Missing Purse)

While running errands with my middle daughter, I asked her if she wanted to get ice cream. (Of course, this is an unnecessary question to pose aloud. What nine-year-old will say no to ice cream?)  We drove to our local dairy, an establishment that's known for its half gallons of milk in glass bottles, historic dairy wagon, and five different prints of wallpaper spanning different walls.  We ordered our favorites: whitehouse cherry vanilla for her, and mint chocolate chip for me.

We chatted as we ate, tossed our napkins and place mats after we finished, drove home, and pulled into our garage where I habitually reached toward the passenger seat to grab my purse, only to realize that the seat was empty.  No purse.

I quickly replayed the most recent events: paying the cashier at the dairy in cash (no credit cards are accepted), returning my wallet to my purse, hanging the purse on the back of my chair, draping my jacket over my purse, eating our ice cream, throwing away our trash, grabbing my jacket, and exiting -- without my purse, which must still be hanging on the back of the chair.

Doh.

I tried to make the 10-minute drive back to the dairy faster than 10 minutes.  For once, there was was cash in my purse; I had gone to the bank that day!  I thought about everything I didn't want to lose: my credit card, my driver's license, a few gift cards from Christmas, my sunglasses, my cell phone.


I raced into the dairy -- my obvious haste in stark contrast with the slow-as-molasses tempo of the workers who scooped and served and the customers who chatted as they waited in line or sat in the dining area.

And there sat my purse, twenty-some minutes after I had abandoned it -- right in the middle of everyone, right at my table, right on the back of my chair.  Untouched, unharmed, very much unbothered, like it was patiently waiting for my return under the watchful eye of a dozen or so ice-cream eaters.

Yes, It's good to live in a small town where lost dogs become conversation pieces and lost purses are found by their owners.

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Overwhelming, Never-Ending, Reckless Love

Yesterday morning, after listening to lengthy, soul-draining bickering between my children, I lost my temper in an extravagant fashion.  This is always a good way to start a Sunday morning as you're getting ready for church.  Hey kids, let's all yell at each other, then go to church and love God!

But it happens. We humans are wildly fallible.

Then two things redeemed my day.  One, as we left the house, sullen and prickly, I passed the refrigerator and saw a note that my youngest daughter (and yesterday morning's chief perpetrator) recently had written for me.


She loves me.  In fact, according to this note, she doesn't just kind of love me; she loves loves loves me a lot.  All of my daughters love me, even the tween, who has been known to freak out with an exasperated "Mooooooom!" when I do anything she deems embarrassing, like daring to sing along to one singular line of a good song in the grocery store when we're in an otherwise empty aisle, or on her more pubescently-tinged days, attempting to greet her in public.

And I love all of them in my wildly imperfect way, even with the soul-draining bickering.  I have to believe this love sticks to them.  After all, the foundation of love and support that's made up the bulk of our lives together under this roof -- this mostly stable and civil background we've established over the years -- isn't undone by one bad moment, or morning, or week.

I mean, I'm mostly a sane mom, except for the moments when I'm clearly not, and I imagine that those moments will eventually lead to great stories when girls are adults.  Hoooo boy!  Remember that one time when we were fighting and trashed the kitchen, and then Mom slammed the microwave door so hard that it broke on its hinges?

Or the moments will lead to therapy, but I'm feeling optimistic. I think that by the time my kids are parents themselves, they'll get it.   For example, I certainly understood when my father admitted that, during his pre-sobriety days, he used to go to the basement, set his plate on the washing machine, crack open a few beers, and eat dinner in solitude just to get away from my brother and me when we were behaving like feral creatures.  (Dad, I get it.  I really do.  Dave and I are sorry for driving you and mom to the brink from roughly 1983 to 1988.)

The second redeeming moment, after seeing the refrigerator note and making things right during the car ride to church, happened as we sang one song during worship.  It's called "Reckless Love," and it's so gorgeous that tears stung my eyes before we got through the chorus.

Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.
It chases me down, fights till I'm found, leaves the ninety-nine.
I couldn't earn it, and I don't deserve it, 
but still You give Yourself away.
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God!

Yes, twenty minutes prior I had been yelling at my children, and now I was immersed in the reminder that God's love toward me is extravagant.  I certainly hadn't earned it, but there it was: freely given, lavishly extended, unconditional.

Sometimes love is overwhelming and reckless.  A daughter who draws a picture where we're depicted as two hearts, one large and one small, and announces that she loves loves loves me a lot.  A God who never grows weary with my screw-ups, and welcomes me back, time after time after time.

Thank God for reckless love.

_______________________________________

I'd be remiss if I ended the post without sharing the song (Reckless Love by Cory Asbury) for those of you who might not have heard it.  I encourage you to listen and let it soak in.  It's wonderful.



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