Finding The Light

Like thousands of others, I am markedly affected by the short days and lack of light. What I do and when I do them is linked to how much light there is. For sure, my mood and temperament are directly proportional to the amount of light I’m exposed to. I realize it’s hard for those not affected by this seasonal disorder to fully understand. But, the problem is very real. And not fun at all.

I consider myself fortunate because while I’m affected, there are countless others who are debilitated by the short days and long nights. Hence what I say below is my personal strategy and by no means meant to imply a simple solution to what is a complex condition.

Mornings take on greater importance – I try to get as much done as I can by front-loading my day. It includes taking a daily walk for 20 to 30 minutes so I specifically get my required dose of sunlight and of course, it gets juices flowing. I enjoy looking at whats doing in the landscape, greeting neighbors and preparing my mind for the things I hope to accomplish that day.

As we head into winter, the work in the garden more or less comes to an end. It naturally becomes imperative for me to get outside more frequently each day. And yes, I also do light therapy by way of a light box – it is particularly useful when the weather is inclement.

While getting enough light is most critical for those prone to SAD, there are other things that also help in coping and improving ones mood. Social interactions play a critical role. I’ve found it immensely cheering to have ‘play dates’ with friends. To meet for walks ( more sunlight!), coffee/lunch/dinner, a visit to a museum can be so energizing. Even online chats and phone calls are good. It’s all about being connected and feeling relevant. I call it friend-therapy.

There’s something else I do because I must. I start bulbs indoors and outdoors in pots so there’s always something growing and blooming throughout the dark, cold months. Why not simply buy a weekly bunch of flowers instead? Actually, I do that as well but, there’s a consistent, undefinable thrill about watching the daily, progressive growth of the bulbs and awaiting the flowers. It keeps me in a state of hope and optimism which is key to managing my winter mood.

First, by mid-October, I start cooling bulbs. Prime real estate in the refrigerator is given over to bags of hyacinths, muscari and crocus. Once that is done, I begin setting up paperwhites in containers all around the house. Simply observing the green shoots emerge and grow is mood lifting. The delight of anticipation cannot be overstated. The first sight of those buds in thin, translucent coats is reason to celebrate. I love watching the buds plump up and eventually break through those casings. And voila! Flowers so beautiful and fragrant to brighten any day. From very white to creamy tones, paperwhites are dear to me. They’re just so very easy to grow.

Note:There are some like my husband who do not like the characteristic scent of paperwhites. I try to get those that have a more acceptable perfume and I also keep them in locations he doesn’t frequent. The good man puts up with my many such transgressions.

While paperwhites get me into the spirit of the season, amaryllis definitively mark the festivities of the holidays. So, by early or mid-November, I get a few of those started as well. In another couple of weeks, a few more will join their ranks and that’ll take me nicely through January. By that time, the cooling bulbs will be brought out of the refrigerator and coaxed ( so much nicer than ‘forced’) into awaking.

In March, I begin checking on the bulbs that I’d potted up at around the same time bulbs were being planted in the garden. These pots are kept outside in a sheltered area. As if on cue, around the time of the Vernal Equinox, the pointy tips of the bulbs can be seen breaking through the soil. A splash of water and a move to a sunnier but still sheltered locale will get them growing fast. I like having these pots where I can see them from the house. These bulbs are generally a few weeks ahead of their in-ground relatives and do a mighty fine job heralding the season of rebirth.

And that’s how I keep myself happy and hopeful at a time when the season makes me struggle. A combination of light, social and plant therapy. A sacred triumvirate.

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Darkness To Light

This holiday season is not going the way the world had hoped. The best laid plans have been upended. We are once again struggling with what feels like deja vu. Haven’t we been through this already?

Determined to fight any feeling of melancholy, I’m once again taking my cues from nature.

It’s the winter solstice today. The shortest day of the year. But, from tomorrow, the days begin to grow. Albeit by just one minute a day, it’s a positive development. Psychologically, this single fact shifts my attitude – I feel so much better. I take it as a sign of hope and positivity. Frankly, what other option is there? I simply must believe that things will improve.

As I walk around the garden, I start noticing other signs of hope. Furry buds on the magnolia tell me to expect a lovely show in a few months. On the climbing hydrangea, the buds like long grains of rice sit tight and firm as though letting the world know that they’re here on a mission. I reach beneath last years leaves and gently dig around at the base of the hellebores – sure enough, I see the early signs of growth. All of this is so full of promise. What at first appears to be a garden in hibernation is really one where life is very much happening. It never stopped.

I’m being guided to see the hope. Light will return and spring will burst forth again.

I step back into the house renewed and ready to embrace the quiet joys of winter.

Note: The two poems below were written in previous Decembers and I’m happy to revisit them from time to time. They remind me to lean into the light.

Dark And Light

The light of day

sparkles honest

Cobwebs shimmer

rewards promised

Hope soars

confidence shines

Courage accompanies

mountains to climb

Sunrises occasion

plans anew

Clarity surfaces

Beliefs ring true

Nightfall arrives

slow and sure

Shadows lurk

luring fear

Darkness imposes

time to remember

Review, regret

call to surrender

Sunsets precede

hidden dreads

Anxiety reigns

awake in bed

Reality lies

in plain sight

there’s nothing in the dark

that’s not there in the light.

******

Trimming The Tree

Love hangs memories

on awaiting arms

twinkling happy thoughts

as new stories get written.

While the past is shared

the present unfolds itself

into the future.

This tree belongs to my daughter. We got it for her when she was very young. Each ornament is a story, a memory, an expression of love.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Natural Instincts

When you take away the commercial hype, the holidays are really all about nature and our relationship with it.

First, there’s the emphasis on light. Life on Earth is sustained by sunlight. Compensating for the short days of winter, we turn to our own illuminations. We light candles – to honor and remember, to disperse the dark, to give hope, to celebrate. Lights are strung outdoors wrapping bare limbs of trees, on gates and around pillars, porches and bushes. Lawns come alive with all sorts of illuminated scenes. Indoors, mantles, windows, banisters, doorways and the Christmas tree twinkle like stars. Fireplaces glow and dance – truth be told, we light ours as much for it’s bright ambiance as its warmth.

For me personally, the Winter Solstice is a turning point. The sheer knowledge that with each passing day we gain a minute of sunlight, buoys my spirits considerably. It is life affirming.

In our quest to decorate our homes for the festive season, we resort to nature. The tree, wreaths, garlands, roping, amaryllis, paperwhites, poinsettia and other flowers, strings of nuts in their shells, dried slices of oranges and whole spices such as cinnamon and star anise, pomanders of citrus studded with cloves bring fragrance and beauty to the celebrations. I have cinnamon ornaments made decades ago that still infuse the air with its aroma. One year, we were in Aruba for the holidays – we decorated our tree with sea shells gathered from the beach. So many of the other ornaments are modeled after nature – birds, animals, flowers, fruits and vegetables ( I’m amazed that holiday pickle ornaments are so popular!) abound. Stars, suns and moons made of paper (punched or plain), wood, metal, glass or even plastic allude to our romance with the celestial. Surrounding ourselves with elements of the natural world is important and essential to our physical, mental and spiritual health. Nature – we cannot, will not, must not get away from her.

So, give yourself permission to go all out. Decorate, illuminate, celebrate. It’s but natural.

Happy Holidays one and all. Be healthy, stay safe.

Trimming The Tree

Love hangs memories

on awaiting arms

twinkling happy thoughts

as new stories get written.

While the past is shed

the present unfolds itself

into the future.

                                                                              – Shobha Vanchiswar

Light Affirming

Winter’s stingy light

ekes out thin ribbons

of measured hours

Unlike generous summer

providing lugubrious lengths

of unfiltered radiance.

In the cold, rarefied light

the spirit wanes in echo

Till warm, broad rays

rekindle one’s love affair with life.

                                                                          – Shobha Vanchiswar

The next 6 images: the first  are from driving around neighborhoods and the other 4 are from Untermyer Gardens. Do try and visit!

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Leaning Into The Light

Despite the shorter days, I’ve been feeling upbeat. As someone who is quite affected by the reduced hours of sunlight, this is significant. I’ve found ways to keep me from going down the dark hole of gloom and apathy.

As soon as I wake up in the morning, I do 20 minutes of light therapy. Emulating sunlight, it informs my body that it is time to kick start my day. During this time, I meditate ( another proven health practice) for 10 minutes and use the remaining time to plan my day and get me in the right state of mind.

Following this ritual, I reach for coffee. And then I workout. Not because I’m gung-ho about exercise but because the endorphins after the exertion really keep me energized for the rest of the day. I’ve found this series of steps gets me through the early hours of the morning when it is still relatively dark. By the time I’m showered and at my easel or laptop, I’m feeling infinitely better. Overcast skies can now be managed. If the sun is shining, I’m truly ecstatic.

By lunch time I’ve typically got in a couple of good hours of work and I’m ready for a break. Outdoors. Unless it’s raining, I make it a point to get outside for a minimum of 30 minutes. A turn around the garden can last even longer – it just feels so good to be in it without having any chores! I notice so much more. Recently, I examined the climbing hydrangea and it was full of small, pale green buds. I’ve only ever checked this plant in early spring when I’m busy searching for signs of growth in every part of the garden. So I’m not sure if these buds are normal – similar to magnolias which sport their fuzzy buds all through winter. Or, should I be concerned. A little research is required. Either way, I’d have learned something.

A quick survey of whats doing in the greenhouse can be exciting. If a scented geranium is in bloom, I’ll cut the flowers for a tiny arrangement by my bedside. However, when a jasmine is adorned in buds, the whole pot comes indoors – when the flowers open, the perfume wafts all through the house transporting one to warmer, sun drenched climes.

At present, the greenhouse is cheerful in citrus – Calamondin oranges, Meyer lemons and regular lemons hang like orbs of bright sunshine. I’m always amazed that I’m growing my own lemons! And when I use them in the kitchen, its just so exciting. And precious.

Note: the Calamondin oranges are small, too sour and seedy to eat. So they are good for decorations or squeezed into cocktails in need of something tart.

Most days, I also take a walk in the neighborhood. I observe birds and trees. Often, a friend or two will join me. Its a lovely way to have a quick catch up. Regularly connecting to others is so comforting.

When I get back into the house, I’m revived and ready for several more hours of work. Nature therapy works wonders.

By sunset, I begin to feel the growing darkness impact my mood. It’s a good time to turn on all the lights in the room I’m in. For the next few weeks, my Christmas ‘bush’ ( as my daughter is allergic to conifers indoors, the largest bay standard I own is the stand-in) adds to the brightness in the home. Since strings of LED lights are used, I leave them on all the time. The twinkling sight is such a spot of cheer. Lit candles and a hot cup of tea round out this late afternoon ritual. The practice serves to reassure me that it’s all okay. I’ll be okay.

Paperwhites in bloom and amaryllis in bud are some of the things infusing hope and positivity all around the house. I’d saved some of the spent alliums from late spring and spray painted them gold over this past weekend– they now sit in a radiant arrangement in the living room. Alliums up-cycled! Alliums have served me very well this year. First, they made the garden look so beautiful in late spring. Then, if you recall, I painted a whole bunch of them red, white and blue to celebrate the Fourth. Here we are in December, still enjoying them. I think I’ll hold on to these gilded beauties well into the new year.

Doing the many things that keep one in good spirits takes me smoothly into the evening and I’m better prepared to enjoy it.

Contrary to how the shorter days feel, this is the season of Light. Starting with Diwali – the Indian festival of lights, Hanukkah – the Jewish festival of lights, the Winter Solstice which signals the gradual lengthening of days and finally Christmas – celebrating love and peace. I honor them all. I’m down for anything that commemorates life, love and light.

Note: For holiday gifts and sprucing up your home, do check out the Printed Garden Collection!

Bay tree in festive attire

Alliums in bloom in the spring

On patriotic duty

In the Holiday spirit

Amaryllis coming along

Paperwhites

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

January Jubilation

We’re already half-way into January – where did the time go?! It’s as though the new year was welcomed only yesterday. Yet, the record low temperatures we’re experiencing has made the days seem slow. Apart from a brief spike in temperature towards the end the last week, it really has been unbearably cold. On the up side, this has made me turn to the indoors. I’m reorganizing and rearranging. During the course of the years, so much in the house goes by the way side when engaged in the purpose of living. Now is the perfect time to look around and take stock of all those neglected tasks. A lick of paint, a spot of cleaning, some repair, a few replacements and a whole lot of editing. I’m cleaning up and paring down. In getting rid of anything that is no longer useful and re-purposing other items to serve me the way I now live, I’m giving my home up to my speed. Nothing dramatic or elaborate but significant to me nonetheless. Taking on this ‘project’ is infusing me with an enormous dose of enthusiasm. The sense of aligning the home space to one’s current lifestyle is pure bliss.

That doesn’t mean I’m not looking outside. I gaze at the garden in winter from the windows and whenever I’m feeling brave enough, the occasional turn in the garden itself. It is garden-dreaming season after all. The bones of the garden show up clearly in winter. And for the most part, I’m liking what I see. There is sufficient visual interest. The espalier of fruit trees takes on the role of a dominant sculpture. “Wind Song”, the sculpture seems to come alive as it reflects and fractures the light that hits it. And on windy days, it appears to mimic the swaying boughs and branches.

Viewed from the kitchen window one storey above, the potager looks as though it belongs in a cloister – orderly and graceful, waiting to serve again. Along the driveway, the vertical garden hangs as a large piece of abstract art. The whispering sounds of the now dry fronds of ferns add another experiential element in the viewing of it.

In the checkerboard garden, the smooth, white coating of snow on the squares of stone contrast beautifully with the bumpy, dark and light flecked squares of creeping phlox.

Cleared of snow, the walkway looks like a zipper running between the sheet of snow inviting passage to the shelter of the house.

Finally, lets not miss the shadows cast on the snow by the low winter sun. Oh the shapes and forms interweaving between trees and trellis! They move – growing and receding with the day. A slow, certain dance to the silent music of light.

Ah January, you offer up such quiet joy.

Note: I’ve been very inspired by the winter landscape so enjoy the photos and a couple of recent paintings!

Watercolor ‘Winter Shadows”

Watercolor – ‘Winter Pas De Deux’

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar