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Shaking off the Winter Blues

[First posted in January 2011]

It’s right about this time of year that some of us begin to wonder why we ever thought it was a good idea to live in Vermont in the first place: Three more months of wintry weather to come.
Couldn’t God have just skipped January and February (and maybe November) and given us only the shocking green of spring, the lazy warmth of summer, and the gold of autumn?

Sure, we’ll take a few weeks of late winter thrown in there for good measure, complete with longer days and fresh maple syrup.

But as for January? A lot of us would just as soon hit the fast-forward button.

Do not despair. There are plenty of fun and rewarding things to do in January.

Just ask your friends. I did — and here’s what they suggested.

Eric Warren, science teacher at the North Branch School, says January is his favorite month and offers these ideas:
• Make a snow sculpture/building/igloo.
• If the snow (and ice) go away but the ground is still frozen, it makes for great biking. If you dress right, being out on a mountain bike on frozen ground is really fun.
• Make a fire. We recently made the observation in my house that it is really hard to get motivated to go outside and make a bonfire on a cold evening when the TV and computer seem so compelling. But staring into the hard-won fire that we are all huddled around is better than anything on YouTube! I think that deep down in our DNA, there is something that makes fire so intriguing to play with, to look at and to sit by.
• Cook over a fire. A woodstove, a fireplace and a barbecue all work great. It’s a challenge, but food never tasted better that the half-blackened thing you succeed in making.
• Snow shovel paths. When my kids were little, I think I got as much out of the mazes of paths we would make as they did.
• Follow critter tracks. I love trying to figure out what creatures have come by in the snow and seeing where they’ve been or where they are going.
• Ice skating on a pond by torchlight.
• Snowball fights.

Fran Putnam suggests volunteer activities: “Check out the Volunteer Connection at the United Way. Or volunteer at the Community Lunch or Community Supper programs. Area schools like to have mentors who can read with children.”

She adds: “I also recommend getting onto the Middlebury College website and looking for interesting, often free lectures and concerts. There is always a lot more to do in this community than we have time to do!”

Author and climate change activist Bill McKibben reminds us how good it can be to be outside and skiing under our own power: “Get out to Breadloaf or Blueberry Hill. Cross-country skiing is by every measure the best exercise there is, easy on the joints and good for the heart. And by its very nature it takes you deep out into the woods, where you’re reminded what a gorgeous season this is.

“If you want some company, check out the Frost Mountain Nordic club (frostmountainnordic.org), which has groups at every level from beginner to racer. Winter is the season when friction disappears–make the most of it!” (For more from McKibben on cross-country skiing, see his recently reissued book, “Long Distance.”)

Win Colwell puts in a plug for a return to the storytelling traditions of old: “Make it a mission that in January you will learn a new story to tell aloud. Start by reading lots of short pieces to find one that you love. It can be modern or of an old tradition, but one that really talks to you. Then read it several times, and practice speaking it well aloud — so you are ready for the winter night, or the summer campfire, or the long car trip, when it’s wonderful to share a good story, well told.”

If you’re looking for quieter times than you might experience in a countryside that sometimes has roaring machines going by, one friend suggests that January is “a good time to stick pins in your voodoo snowmobile, right around the transmission.”

Leslie Ellen Ray, a longtime friend of mine who lives in France and blogs about cooking at http://lafourchette.blogspot.com, reports “I make a lot of soups in January. In part to warm up in the frosty temps here, but also to clear out the foie gras and wine feasting that goes on in these parts, in the month preceding January.”

Susan Hong, an editor and writer who lives in Charlotte, has this to say: “In January I sleep deeply, stretch luxuriously, and wake up again to the lengthening light. The dark has been beaten back once more. I’ve finally made the commitment to layers of clothing and flannel sheets, and put up no more fight against the cold. Flip-flops are at the back of the closet and the Bean boots are dusted off.

“My husband tells me that being cold is merely a state of mind, and I start to believe him. The sun even comes out on occasion, and the snow is bright and squeaky. My giant dogs are magnificent as they play in the drifts, crashing their chests together like elk, rolling to make their own brand of snow angels.

“I even have time to take a little stock — to think about how I’d best spend those brand- spanking-new hours of 2011 that stretch out before me. New projects seem possible. I’m done spending money for awhile, and there’s room for new habits, new thoughts, better ways of being. January is a welcome sigh: For me, it’s all about the light.”

Middlebury College Prof. Pieter Broucke suggests we brighten this month by changing our routines: “Don’t eat meat for two days in a row. Park in the farthest spot in the parking lot instead of in the nearest. Make it a point to use the ACTR bus, even if only once in a while. See all the exhibitions at the college museum and the Sheldon Museum. Go to a concert at the college’s Mahaney Center and take a youngster. Read a poem every week.”

Nancy Nagel, a Boston-area therapist who used to work at the Counseling Service of Addison County, has other ideas about how to make January newly involving:

• Maintain a bird and animal log for the month of Jan.
• Have a homemade pizza-making party.
• Start learning a new language; research where your next trip will be to use the language.
• Write a letter to a friend with whom you’ve lost touch.
• Spend a snowy day making homemade bread (no bread machines; the kneading is the best part!).
• Pick a political issue you don’t know enough about and learn more.

Hugh Miner, my favorite high school teacher, views January as “forever a month when just maybe I will get organized. I see a new year stretching out before me and it becomes a time to consider how I might fine tune the family schedule, or at least mine. First, of course, I need to finish sending my Christmas cards and hopefully get that done before I work on income tax … I guess the bottom line is that, along with the Christmas tree, our season lasts well into January.”

Lauren Waite reminds us there are treasures to be found in the long dark. She urges us to one night “wake up at 2 a.m. (I’m too old to say ‘stay up’ until 2 a.m.) and look at the night sky — amazing in January.”

Christine Fraioli sees this month as a time for clearing out the past and ushering in the future. Among her favorite things to do in January is to “totally clean every inch of my house and throw away all accumulated detritus. It helps clear and organize my brain so I can plan weekend trips to break up the winter months ahead, before the calendar fills up with work-related activities. This year I would like to drive to Boston and Philadelphia in March and April to see the flower shows in both those cities.”

Laura Asermily reminds everyone that the local Acorn Energy Co-op (www.acornenergycoop.com) can always use new members, to support its mission of helping transition the county from our near total dependence on fossil fuels to a greater reliance on affordable, renewable energy.

And last, this bit of advice from Dana Yeaton, a theater professor at Middlebury College:

“I say eat by candlelight. Even alone, with a bowl of ramen, a candle can raise the spirits. Plus it hides the wrinkles.”

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