This essay is from a book by my late mother, A. Carman Clark, called From The Orange Mailbox, notes from a few country acres.
Midwinter funk begins at 3 p.m. on Sunday. Some doctors, social workers and psychologists have already taken trips south to soak up sunshine and fresh fruit supplements so they’ll have the energy to cope with the anxiety attacks this season brings to their offices.
Cabin fever, which often begins as early as Jan. 10, is usually treated with the advice to either get out of the cabin or invite some fellow human beings in.
But with the advent of the midwinter funk period, many northern residents have reached the point of snarling at their most congenial friends and mewling about fears of running out of wood, money and enough energy to get out of bed in the morning. Although medical textbooks neither list this seasonal malady nor suggest specific treatments, most people who have spent more than two winters north of latitude 42 begin to avoid slack jawed, bent shouldered neighbors who only want to moan about the misery of winter.
During these weeks when–as the old almanacs stated–“Days lengthen; cold strengthens,” other citizen dash forth to scale ice-covered cliffs, race snowmobiles across frozen ponds or just waddle about layered in down-filled garments exclaiming, “Isn’t this invigorating?”
Beween the anxious and the active are the “snugged-in” types–those who have been anticipating these winter weeks. They don’t enjoy driving on icy roads but accept such inconveniences as a natural part of winter. And in accepting he fact that winter does exist and the weather sometimes is nasty, these folks settle down to celebrate the season.
Looking forward to winter weeks seems to start with an attitude toward the whole cycle of seasons. Spring planting and summer harvesting provide foods for February meals. The messy peeling and cleaning was done before the freezing and canning. If, during those preparatory activities, pleasant thoughts of being snugged-in with plenty to eat were allowed to expand and grow, the confinement by weather can be a welcome reward–planned leisure with time to relax and think.
There’s an up-country story about a friendly couple who moved up from the city and after a winter storm decided to call on a neighbor whom they heard lived alone. The neighbor was not grateful. No, he didn’t need anything. And he did not care to be interrupted. “I been just waiting for a slow-down storm so’s I could get acquainted with myself again. February’s my reckoning time.”
Could it be that some of the discontent and unrest associated with midwinter funk periods comes from avoiding a time of reckoning and getting acquainted with one’s self?
Celebrating winter as a time to settle in and relax, a time to indulge in some of the “someday I’m going to . . .” activities, tends to make the weeks fly by. A special pile of books reserved to dip into, another good try at sketching the starkness of white birches against a clump of pines, updating family albums and genealogical records or learning to play a recorder can be personal rewards.
Midwinter is a time for cooking sprees–for trying out something new. With the stoves pouring out heat, the sourdough starter can be reactivated while reading tales of the Old West and the Yukon gold rush when the prospectors were called “sourdoughs” because they carried their wild yeast cultures inside their shirts to keep it bubbling. Keading a bath of sourdough pumpernickel dark with a bit of bitter chocolate and rye and whole wheat flours can bring back memories of other breads tasted in far away places.
Peppercorns–once so highly prized they changed the course of history–are reputed to aid digestion and dispositions. Yeast bread with onions and a full teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper will fill a winter house with aromas. Peppercorns crushed roughly (hammer whacked within a plastic bag) and patted into steak for a lively steak au poivre deserves a place with February taste treats.
Individual reactions to cold and to confinement when weather discourages driving can be irritability, unrest or pleasure and probably the mind-set was programmed while setting in the storm windows last fall. Seek out some cheerful, snugged-in types. The way they deal with the “Februaries” just might be contagious.