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Seven Ways to Make It Through Winter

From esoteric candles to existential journeys, make it a season of sanity.

Dorothy Woodend 6 Oct

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of the Tyee. Reach her here.

Winter is coming. It’s probably a good time to start preparing for months of cold weather, isolation and the low-lying sadness that come with less light and fewer places to safely gather with other humans. A long tough season is predicted, so how to get through the darkness without losing what’s left of your mind?

Some advice is basic and practical. Get a flu shot. Get yourself a good winter coat. Buy a radiant heater, or simply cozy up to a menopausal woman. They throw heat like a roaring fire.

It’s also worth considering a few more out-of-the-box options. And I’m not just talking about dedicating a whole section of your kitchen to boxed wine. Although that’s not a bad idea: you could build a fort and then drink your way out.

If the idea of baking another loaf of sourdough or learning to crochet makes you want to commit brutal acts of murder, how about something more esoteric? I’m talking about doing things you’ve never even considered until now.

Humans are ingenious creatures, and nothing makes this more evident than when they are building crazy shit, be it a boat, a swimming pool, a miniature house or a sauna.

1. Get steamy

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Many have suggested looking to countries like Norway, Finland or Denmark for coping strategies for the cold dark months. A Scandinavian sense of humour is helpful, but there is definitely something to the hygge concept: woolly sweaters, warm drinks, lots of candy and the sauna.

Having visited Finland in deepest, bleakest February, I can attest to the wondrous powers of the traditional sauna. The sauna I went to was perched on a spit of land poking out into the North Sea. After sitting in the steam until one is red as a lobster, you scamper out into the star-spangled night and jump into a hole cut in the sea ice.

I’m not sure if it’s the exchange between extreme heat and extreme cold, but it is clarifying in a deep soul way. As a Finnish friend explained, dinner parties in Helsinki are only a necessary precursor to get to the real point of the evening — sitting naked in a hot steamy room. Since enclosing yourself with other naked people isn’t the greatest idea at the moment, consider building a personal sauna.

Take inspiration from a film like Steam of Life, which featured saunas both luxurious or ramshackle. Anything can be jerry-rigged into an impromptu place to take a steam — trailers, sheds, even an old phone booth.

2. Invest in velvet

Vanity might be secondary to survival now, but you can have both. All the louche and lush fabrics that you’ve been uneasy about? Now is the time to embrace those suckers. Drape yourself in velvet and velour and indulge in layers of silk and cashmere in good mille-feuille fashion. If ever there was a moment to indulge in soft, fluffy material that is gentle on both mind and butt, it’s now.

Whether you invest in a giant fur hat like a good Trotskyist or wear so many scarves that you look like a woolly mummy, all fashion rules are out the window. Just keep adding things — mittens, toques, balaclavas and face masks up the wazoo. Ignore the dictum about elegance being restraint.

Put on anything and everything that will allow you to spend time out of doors in relative comfort. We might all end up looking as plush and overstuffed as Christmas turkeys, but that’s OK. Waddle out to the all-weather socializing knowing that you’re impenetrable to all things cold, COVID and fashion criticism.

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3. Strange smells

Let’s talk candles. Yes, they smell good and throw a flattering light on things, but they’re also useful when the power goes out. Sit in the toasty gloaming light, drink in the vanilla and spare the power company your ire.

The ability of scent to boost one’s mood should not be underestimated. The usual blah blah about the uplifting effects of rosemary or lavender are well-documented, even if the hype around aromatherapy has been slightly overinflated.

If you’re so inclined, consider looking into the weird and wonderful world of niche fragrances. Try Nasomatto’s Black Afgano: resinous, chewy stuff that smells vaguely like a crime being committed; or Slumberhouse’s Norne, a fragrance that perfectly captures the smell of deepest darkest woods and campfire smoke. The scent is so powerful, it’s akin to having a Norse god stomping about your house, dripping pine needles and hoar frost everywhere.

Once you venture down the road of the arcane and the incendiary, it’s impossible to go back to blander, less idiosyncratic offerings. Fall is the perfect time to smell deeply of the world — from the burnt caramel of Katsura leaves to the brined coolness of marine air. There is a world of crazy smelly stuff out there, and if there was a way to combine these fragrances into a candle, a season of hunkering down could be a thing of joy.

4. Fire!

B.C.’s Dr. Bonnie Henry recently released some suggestions for safely celebrating Halloween. And since the more commercialized aspects of the holiday are on hold this year, perhaps it’s a good time to take the Marie Kondo approach to the next level and spark joy, quite literally, by setting things on fire.

Fire, as any child of five or caveperson will tell you, is a thing of pure, arsonous joy, and fall is bonfire season. Re-embrace older traditions and let out your inner pagan and get Samhain with it.

A roaring bonfire is far and away one of the most enjoyable and sociable things to do when the air turns crystalline. As the skin between the physical and spiritual world grows thin and permeable, it’s a good time to fall back into time-honoured traditions like carving pumpkins, jumping in piles of leaves or gathering around a ritual fire to summon nature spirits and trickster fairies.

5. Existential journeys

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Expanding your neural plasticity might be an excellent project to embark upon on over the long dark months ahead. Take a Michael Pollan-inspired journey — get yourself a Sonoran Desert toad and get to lickin’!

Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence, is a solid guide to all kinds of internal journeys, impeccably researched, thoroughly engaging and beautifully composed even as the author is losing his proverbial mind. There’s little like an immersion in eternal cosmic nothingness to give yourself an appreciation for the ordinary boring stuff of everyday life.

As Pollan notes in his book, many studies involving terminal patients using LSD to help mitigate their fear of death have profound implications for the rest of fraidy cats who are freaked out by the concept of mortality at the moment. Tune in, turn on, and feed your head.

6. Escape from screens

When the endless pump of the 24-hour news cycle makes your brain feel like it’s warped vinyl and dread seizes your lungs, a media holiday is not only necessary, but a blessed relief. Get up and step away from the computer, phone and television, and do anything that doesn’t require staring fixedly at screen.

A prescribed period of escape can do wonders for your sanity and patience with the overall asininity of the world. The endless effort of trying to understand what enables people to do the nutty things they do and somehow justify it is not only enervating and dispiriting, it can mess with the foundational concepts of reality itself.

Take a break and sit under a tree in your velvet outfit for a while. The news will still be there when you get back.

7. Get stoical

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Even the best distractions are only that — momentary diversions from the inevitability of fate that is hurtling towards you. Might as well embrace the idea that the universe is random, chaotic and impossible to control.

Discover your inner Stoic. This school of philosophy has some surprisingly useful solutions to getting along in a grim and often unpredictable world. The earliest Stoics who found themselves in a period of great instability espoused a logical and reasoned approach to life’s vicissitudes. Resilience and preparation are key, as is acceptance that sometimes things are simply fucked up.

Author Massimo Pigliucci offers a contemporary take on the stoical approach to life in his new book A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living. Like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Zeno and good old Seneca who came before him, Pigliucci writes about the pleasures to be found in periods of confinement, winnowing down a fractured and fragmented attention to the things that actually matter. You can even dress in a toga and pretend you’re a Roman emperor if that’s your jam.

One of the best things about winter is that even in the darkest, coldest moments, there’s a nascent quality of change, the promise of spring waiting for its time to come again. In this particular year, the idea of renewal and rebirth takes on added significance and weight. Maybe there’s a new world on its way, pushing through the cold earth, ready to meet us when the time is right.  [Tyee]

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