Winter. Not particularly harsh this year. In fact mid-February warmed to the mid 60’s boasting warm get out and walk evenings in the 50’s. Still winter has its grip. On this March morning it is 19 degrees. Windy frosty air freezes breath in my lungs. Scans of the landscape confront me with leafless trees, brown grass, fallen leaves, barren gardens and dreary skies. Winter hides the colors of life. Comatose landscapes have a deadening effect on emotions and outlook. I try not to acknowledge the sleeping forests and lifeless turf. An unconscious aching wish flashes of Spring to awaken my dreariness.
I, like many, am prone to depressed moods. Winter exacerbates moodiness. Irritability is more likely to erupt. Hibernation into self-protection and isolation become more frequent. Relationships suffer. Spiraling isolation and depression turns down the thermostat of soulish energy and saps my vitality.
On a particularly dreary soul day, a safe, close friend invited me to share my internal winter. I shared my sense of inner deadness and lack of enthusiasm for life and frustration with relationships. The hues of my existence were gray and drab.
Secretly, my canvas of winter landscape was yearning for at least a small colorful life-filled contrast. With wisdom, the inviting friend did not attempt to fix me or mask my misery with platitudes. He did not attempt to pump me up with truisms. He compassionately listened with interest and understanding. There was warmth and empathy complemented by a complete lack of judgment or condescension.
After listening to my sad dry story, he merely invited me to do something completely novel and fresh … “notice.”
“Have you noticed that fat little happy baby at the next table?”
“Without looking, can you tell me what color the sky is today?”
“Did you see the face of the woman just entering the restaurant? — she’s holding back tears.”
Of course I had not noticed. I was in retreat behind the dead brambles of sadness and loneliness. A ghostly solace of self-pity had cut off my heart from life-filled things. Naval gazing caused me to notice only a sense of hopelessness. My strategy was to block out the entire landscape. Practicing not to notice, I tried not to see the storm of challenging responsibilities and potential failures.
My safe friend issued his challenge. “Is your life really as lifeless as it seems? True, you have blocked out the great many wintery scenes of your world. But you have also blinded yourself to what is lovely, to what beauty might be seen and what life you might share with others.”
His wisdom was simple. If you block out bad feelings, you block out the good as well. He invited me to simply “notice life.” Then, he left me alone with my thoughts while he went for a dessert.
Deciding to run the “noticing experiment” I headed for the self-service soft drink station. On the way I noticed a woman wearing an unusual and quite striking woolen shawl. It was of lavender with subtle white stripes down its length. She wore it beautifully and smiled as she laughed through her meal with a friend.
Drink in hand, I noticed two couples seated behind me. One couple was enjoying their meal together like lovers at play. The other couple was enduring each other while forcing their lunch. I had no trouble distinguishing the contrast between open and closed, smiles and frowns, happy and sad.
That was a launch, not a lunch.
Over time I have begun to notice. That launch-time forward I have intentionally noticed as much around me as possible. I have watched people imagining the story told in their faces. I have noticed the kindnesses given me with new and increasing gratitude. I have stopped to “see” the memory of the good things that had happened to me in each passing day.
Having dabbled in bird watching I took it up in earnest. I have noticed 84 species. Chickadees, Titmice, American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, Northern Cardinals, Withe-Throated Sparrows, White-Crowned Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers and Blue Jays, Red-Shouldered and Coopers and Red-Tailed Hawks, Dark-eyed Junco, House Finches, Carolina Wrens and the clownish Red-bellied Woodpeckers all around me all the time. They appear while driving or when I sit enchanted by the water fowl at nearby lakes. The ducks and birds waddle, swim, and air-dance to irresistible relaxing pleasure and delight.
A week ago, many of these birds came to the feeder solo. One bird at a time comes, eats and effortlessly wings to bare branches. Rare indeed in winter for those birds associate with each other. As February wanes, Chickadees are in threes. Rival Cardinals attack to protect their breeding territory. Two male Downy Woodpeckers spy each other as both spy the female on a limb and swoop to impress her with daring aerobatics. The voices of these feathered friends are singing life as they entice a potential mate. The males pump up with foolish abandonment to display their talents to be noticed and accepted.
On a bike ride I saw two dark figures on a tree limb. With binoculars and finally a camera the image of 2 bald eagles sitting together on a branch. It is mating season. Here in the dead of winter there is literally love and life in the air.
The trees are swelling their buds. Patches of grass are greening in the sunlight. The sun rises each morning painting pink and red and orange on the eastern sky. A deer saunters across the back lawn foraging the last of the oak’s fruit. Soon she will be trailing a fawn or twins. They often play and frolic in the thicket at the foot of the hill. Squirrels carry twigs and leaves in the branch skyways to their homes high in the Sumac, Oaks, and Sycamores preparing for their new arrivals. The furry acrobats chase and play and leap mindlessly from branch to branch unconcerned that they are working without a net.
I have been noticing.
I notice life. In the dead of winter, life. Teeming life all around.
As I have noticed woodland life, a strange and wonderful thing has emerged. I have noticed life within. I am more open, more able to connect with loved ones, less self-critical, less self-aware, more willing to take the risks of vulnerability.
By noticing signs of life in the woods, I have begun to feel more alive. There is new freedom. I have experienced freedom to have fun and enjoy family and friends. My darkness has consistently yielded to light. Where there has been a weight of depression there is more freedom of movement of mind and heart. Self-centeredness is giving way to gratitude. Boredom is yielding to excitement and purpose. Challenges seem less threatening. I am more inviting. I get more work done.
Life and its beauty and power are intoxicating and invigorating. It is all around. Blinded by troubles, business and drivenness, life becomes drab. Rushing to focus on problems we “must” solve, the resulting winter soul can’t help but be depressed.
It depends on what catches the eye.
I am learning to slow down and take a deeper look. Goodness and life is visible in the worst of circumstances. Gratitude and joy emerge from the brush piles and bare branches. Paying attention brings life experience to mind and soul.
Life and happiness is all around.
Have you noticed?