10 Things That Keep My Spirits Up As Winter Darkness Descends By Allison Felus

Snow sucksIs it profoundly uncool to talk about how often I look at my blog’s stats? I guess I just like to know where people are coming from and what they are interested in, I can’t help it! It’s probably less uncool than googling yourself, though? Right? Which I don’t do…but that’s only because I have a very common name and there’d be no point in digging through all of the search results, heh. Otherwise, I’d probably be looking myself up on the internet all of the time.

It was one morning that I was poring over the statistics for Unquiet Things I saw that one of the referring sites was an actual website–a proper blog– and this always excites me. (Mostly my referral stats are just pinterest or tumblr, or what seems like shady fake traffic sites.) When I peeked in at some of the content, I was so pleased to find out there was a real human behind it, with real thoughts and feelings that I could oftentimes very much relate to! And that is how I first became aware of Allison Felus, and whose thoughtful, balanced, and informative writing I often find myself returning to because I find it so wonderfully warm and restorative– and I am so happy she is sharing her spirited voice and thoughts today at Unquiet Things, in our last Ten Things of 2019!

Allison Felus is a writer, musician, and psychic living in Chicago. Find her online at Queen of Peaches or check out her latest zine, The Last Band of My Youth . Read further for her ten things to keep your spirits up as the winter darkness descends.

Alison Felus

I grew up in Indiana and have lived in Chicago for close to two decades now. So it feels a bit disingenuous to complain about the winter. It gets cold here! It’s dark and it snows a lot! That’s what it does! I feel like such a whiny baby for even making an issue about it. I mean, I guess I could move somewhere else? But my family ties are in the Midwest and my day job doesn’t afford me the ability to work remotely, so really, I just have to make the best of it.

paintbox

Smelly Things

So much of my resistance to winter centers around the physical hardships it entails. Unshoveled sidewalks make getting around the city on foot so much more difficult and time-consuming. The harsh temperatures wreak havoc on my hair and skin (both the harsh outdoor cold and the harsh indoor radiator heat). The hours of darkness trigger my SAD. So anything that provides a little bit of sensory pleasure in the midst of all that is, to me, worth its weight in gold. Knowing that gorgeous bath products await me in the shower is sometimes the only thing that gives me enough motivation in the morning to stumble out of bed and into the bathroom.

I find it increasingly difficult to deal with LUSH’s sales tactics anymore (the emotional labor it requires, as Victoria of EauMG has so aptly put it), so though I will occasionally cave in for the sake of a bottle of Rose Jam shower gel, my main bath-time love these days is Paintbox Soapworks

I started buying my partner their shaving soaps a few years ago when he was finding it more difficult to source the brand he always used to use, and that was gateway drug enough for me. My love for all their products has blossomed into a genuine obsession since then. (I’m wearing their Mandinka perfume oil as I type this, in fact.) The seasonal blends are always impeccable; this fall’s What the Moon Brings and Cathedral of Pumpkins were big loves, and I’m still hoarding the last dregs of a bottle of the Kamasi Washington-inspired Secrets of the Sun lotion from this summer’s release. Between seasonal offerings, though, I gravitate toward anything scented with the previously mentioned Mandinka as well as Blackbird, Whiskers, and Nekisse.

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Coffee

I love coffee. I just do. I’m not really a snob about beans or specific methods of preparation (this tender essay “The Case for Bad Coffee has long stuck with me). I’m just grateful that I live in a world where it’s abundant and readily available. However, I seem to have inherited my grandmother’s sensitivity to caffeine. (I remember being horrified as a teenager when I heard her say that the caffeine from even the tiniest piece of chocolate would be enough to keep her up all night.) I’ve never been a multiple-pots-per-day drinker, but when I started to notice that even a cup or two in the morning would be enough to disrupt my ability to fall, and stay, deeply asleep, I mourned having to give up that bit of morning pleasure.

I tried every possible substitute–tea/matcha, hot chocolate/ceremonial cacao, Dandy Blend, even a DIY carob-based concoction that I dutifully mixed up myself from a combination of powdered roots purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs. Until I realized, uh, decaf coffee exists.

The overly, unhelpfully logical part of my brain protested a bit–“if the whole purpose of drinking coffee is to get the energetic and cognitive boost from the caffeine, then what is the bloody point of drinking decaf?!” But eventually, I realized that it was never actually about the caffeine; it was about the ritual of it. Boiling the water, grinding the beans and scooping the grounds, waiting patiently for it to brew, then pouring it, hot and fragrant, into a treasured mug. So now I allow myself to enjoy the ritual for the sake of itself. These days I just make the generic Whole Foods decaf in a French press and finish it with a plop of coconut cream. It’s just so brilliantly comforting on a cold morning.

light box

Light box

Does a light box actually do anything? Is it just (“just”) the placebo effect? To me, it’s a bit like the old saw about it being better to believe in God on the off chance that God exists than to not believe in God and risk the consequences of unbelief, eg, there’s no real downside to using a light box if it does nothing while there’s a whole lot of upside if it actually does. And in fact, I do know that any time I start having a really whiny emotional meltdown about something seemingly insignificant, my partner is usually right when he (gently) asks me if I forgot to use my light box that morning.

I have a Verilux HappyLight, and I just turn the thing on in the bathroom, perched on a shelf, before I get into the shower so that my eyeballs are absorbing its rays while I towel off, get lotioned up, and whatnot. I’m also just constantly amused that it looks like an iPad whose sole function is to glow bright white.

Soundtrack

Commute Soundtrack

Astrologically, the new year isn’t really until mid-March. Personally, my own new year, my birthday, is in mid-February. Academically, my partner, who teaches college, begins his new year in mid-August. But music, for me, is the one place where January actually does feel like the new year.

I’ve been compiling and writing extensive liner notes for my own personal Best of the Year mixes since 2004. (Here’s the 2019 edition!) So I spend much of early December listening back to the music that was meaningful to me throughout the previous eleven months. By the time I’ve posted my latest installment to all my socials, though, it’s a relief to my ears to abandon those songs for a while (no matter how much I love them) and start totally fresh. Since I mostly stick to new/contemporary releases for my year-end mixes, this also becomes a time for me to dip into music that’s much older or otherwise oddball and non-mixable.

Late December/early January is also the time when my commute to work can feel most miserable. It’s deeply cold, I’m bundled to my eyes, everyone is packed like sardines into the train, the Chicago skies are often leaden and grey. But, this liminal time on the train is simultaneously so, so precious to me. It’s a place where I’m temporarily free and truly alone, despite the crowds. I’ve left home and all its chores and distractions, and I’m not yet at my office where e-mails and conversations and meetings demand my constant attention. The train is one of the few places in my life that’s, oddly, just for me. So it becomes an opportunity for me to really sink into music, one of the most important, most sacred things in my life.

I can never accurately predict what kind of music is going to hit me in January, what kind of energy is going to be needed to sustain me through those bleak mornings. In recent years I’ve had major love affairs with stuff by Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, Chris Stapleton, Helen Merrill, Sammy Davis Jr., Black Sabbath, Chris Whitley, Jason Falkner, and Tim Hecker. All I know is that my heart will know it when I find it, when the promise of getting to live in a particular sonic world for 40 minutes will be enough to motivate me out the door and on my way

Snow

Therapy

Haha, OK, so let’s be for real now. Therapy is obviously a must, all year round, of course, but never more so for me than in the winter.

I’ve been in therapy off and on (but mostly on) since I was 25. I’ve been lucky enough to have good health insurance that’s made that level of commitment to my mental and emotional well-being affordable and accessible, and I never take that for granted.

Earlier this year, after well over a decade of more traditional talk therapy, I switched to working with a Jungian practitioner. I took the leap not long after I turned 40, as a way of acknowledging my growing sense that the way I take care of myself in the second half of my life is going to require a radically renewed commitment to inner accountability. So, sometime in late summer, as the shadows began to get longer and deeper earlier in the evening, I prepped my new therapist for the fact that the winter can be a difficult time for me and that I would likely need some extra help and support to get me through it. Her response was nothing short of revolutionary: “what if instead of trying to fight or resist it, you accepted the suffering you experience during the winter?”

My whole spirit released a level of tension that I didn’t realize it had been holding onto. Wow. Accept my own suffering? Rather than running away from it or otherwise attempting to bypass it? A challenging notion, to be sure, but one that holds the promise of a kind of radical reclamation of my all-too-human dark side that I’d previously been missing out on due to my unconscious internal insistence that life must feel “good” in order to be valid.

It remains to be seen how I’ll feel about this approach as the calendar ticks through the darkest and coldest months ahead. But actively preparing to get my Persephone on has already helped me feel a little better about facing down the darkness both within and without.

buddha hall altar offerings

Meditation

This is where I extol the virtues of meditation and talk about how, after years and years of practice, meditation gets super easy and is definitely something I do consistently every day, right? LOL, wrong, so wrong.

Look, yes, I’ve had some sort of meditation practice since I was fairly young. I briefly attended karate classes at a local rec center when I was in middle school and somehow, even in the extremely square environs of Northwest Indiana in the early ’90s, the teachers were able to convey to us some basic notions about the power of our thoughts and the possibility of focusing our own internal energy. OMG, hearing all that, I was hooked. I’ve actively sought out so many different methods and techniques and approaches to meditation since then. Truly, meditation is one of my greatest passions in my life. But if you think for a damn moment that there aren’t straight-up WEEKS when I’m like, “nah,” well, then, my Gemini-rising-ass distractibility would like a word with you.

That being said, aside from an equally important journaling practice, meditation is basically the only place where I can access that elusive state of being where I’m able to both accept myself as I am while also tinkering under the hood, so to speak, to tweak the internal mechanics that drive me. Which is an important place to go to if I’m meant to make friends with the messages that my winter-specific misery is trying to send me.

second sleep

Second Sleep

Have you all heard about the concept of second sleep? I love it so much. The idea is that in times before electrical lighting, most people went to bed not long after the sun went down. So in the winter, that means they were going to bed fairly early in the evening, and after sleeping for those first several hours, they’d wake up for a while in the middle of the night before going back to bed again until sunrise. In those precious midnight hours, they would read, pray, or have sex (basically all my favorite things).

I definitely don’t go to sleep when the sun goes down, but even just acknowledging these archaic rhythms is enough to inspire me not to resist my impulse to go to bed early. I was such a confirmed night owl throughout my youth that I long felt like going to bed early was some kind of indication that I’d lost my edge or otherwise gone soft. But, I also LOVE to sleep and need to get plenty of it to have a baseline level of coherence and emotional stability, so the more I thought about it, I figured what could be more badass (and frankly even anti-capitalist) than going to bed super early and then reclaiming a few stolen moments in the middle of the night untouched by the demands of the outside world?

In the years when I was drinking fully caffeinated coffee, I would dread waking up in the middle of the night, because that usually meant my thoughts and my heart were racing and that I wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep easily and would be a groggy mess by the time I had to officially get up for work. But now that I’ve weaned myself off that caffeine cycle and have learned to trust my body’s signals a bit better, I almost look forward to an hour or so of overnight wakefulness. It gives me a weird freedom, an “I’m alone at the bottom of the sea where no one can find me” vibe.

gym

The gym

BIG eye roll here. I’m your typical unathletic book nerd who has always dreaded all manner of sweat and exercise and frankly anything that required extra physical exertion. But the (boring) fact remains that everything in my life functions a little better when I’m getting some sort of regular movement in. During the warmer (or at least non-snowy) months of the year, I walk outside a lot. I’m lucky that Chicago is a pretty great city for getting around on foot, so I take advantage of that by, say, getting off the train a few stops early in order to walk a few extra blocks when I have the time to do so. But even with decent winter boots, getting around on snowy, unevenly shoveled sidewalks can be treacherous, so I definitely make more of an effort to get myself to the gym this time of year to compensate.

After years of punitive exercising meant to neutralize or ideally reverse caloric consumption, I finally realized that the best reason to get to the gym for 30 minutes or whatever is actually for my MENTAL health. It’s undeniable how much less prone I am to having random meltdowns or temper tantrums or can’t-get-out-of-bed doldrums when I’ve raised my heart rate beyond its resting state a few times a week. Plus, much like my daily commute on public transportation, the gym is one of the few remaining places where I get to have uninterrupted time to myself where I’m responsible to/for no one else. If I’m not listening to whatever my weirdo winter soundtrack is, I’m probably putting a dent in my podcast backlog, usually listening to the latest episodes of big faves Rune Soupor Against Everyone with Conner Habib.

bday magic

Birthday magic

I share my birthday date with Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, and Yoko Ono. Pretty auspicious, right? I remain obsessed with my birthday in a way that I think most people probably get over by the time they’re, oh, 12 or 13. But I genuinely still look forward to it every year. I get excited about it and I make sure everyone around me knows when it’s near. Part of it, I’m sure, is that I’ve internalized a lifetime of messaging that says I shouldn’t make too big a deal of myself, so my birthday provides this one socially sanctioned time when I’m allowed to celebrate not my talents or accomplishments or most lovable qualities but the MERE FACT of my existence. How wonderfully refreshing, right? “I was born and I’m still alive—give me cake and presents about it!”

But it’s also, as I mentioned above, my own personal new year, and as such a time of intense reflection for me. Oh sure, I’ll idly set new year’s resolutions and half-hearted, drunken intentions on December 31. But when those quickly reveal themselves to be utter shit, I have the opportunity in the intervening 50-ish days to think more deeply about what kind of energy I truly want to cultivate in the next year of my life.

This also is the time when I’m willing to splurge on every possible kind of bodywork and spiritual and esoteric guidance. In Chicago, I’m devoted to Vita Lerman for shiatsu, Nancy Cole for reflexology, and Jana Robison Cheffings for massage. For tarot readings, I look to Angie Yingst or Angeliska at Sister Temperance Tarot online; for psychic wisdom, Lisa Rosman of Ruby Intuition or Erin the Psychic Witch. Booking one, or several, sessions with these magical healers around my birthday is a perfect thing for me to look forward to in that post-Christmas/New Year’s letdown and before the tantalizing promise of Spring.

books

Books

How incredibly obvious, right? It’s almost not even worth mentioning, especially to the crowd that gathers here at Unquiet Things. But, books! Books take on an especially magical–borderline talismanic–quality during the winter, don’t they? A to-be-read stack that feels depressingly overwhelming in warmer, busier months can suddenly become SO cozy and inviting in the cold darkness.

When friends are all hunkered down in their own houses and there are fewer reasons to venture outside to be sociable, what could be more inviting than the promise of losing oneself for a few hours in the pages of a fabulous book? The condo I live in is on the third floor of a lovely tree-lined street, and before we even moved in, I was already fantasizing about putting a couch in the sunroom so that I could recline under the windows and gaze out into a winter wonderland while curled up under a blanket with a book. Which is indeed a favorite activity, especially on long, lazy weekend afternoons.

window

I read way less fiction these days than I generally care to admit, but if I’m going to dive into a novel or a series, it usually happens during this winter window. (I think back fondly on the year I gulped down the entirety of the Dangerous Angels series one snowy January.) Maybe this will finally be the year I read Perfume: The Story of a Murderer or Emily Wilson’s lauded translation of The Odyssey? Looks like I’m gonna have plenty of time, soon enough, to figure that out.

Find Allison Felus: website // blog // instagram

1 Comment on 10 Things That Keep My Spirits Up As Winter Darkness Descends By Allison Felus

  1. Cristin
    December 24, 2019 at 8:11 pm (4 weeks ago)

    I lived on the far Northwest side of Chicago for 3 years…and this post takes me back. Every once in a while I wish we could trade in Colorado for Chicago again, permafrost and all! I felt the same way about the El. I hated my job with a passion, but that train ride was something different.

    Reply

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