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

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

Fringe Benefits

It’s the simple truth that plants don’t observe months and our passage of time and seasons; they sense the fluctuations in the environment and respond accordingly. Despite everything gardener do, they know in their hearts they are not in control of their horticultural realm. Nature is the ultimate commander-in-chief and the gardener adapts, adjusts and acquiesces.

This past weekend, while a large portion of the country got blasted by tornadoes, storms, ice and snow, here in my neck of the woods, we enjoyed spring-like temperatures of 65-68 degrees and glorious sunshine. By now, we typically have severe cold and snow accumulations on the ground so a normal January thaw is only a rise in temperature just enough to give some relief where a spike to just 50 degrees feels positively balmy.

Thus far this winter has been relatively harmless. So the 60+ temperatures is kinda alarming. Yet, what can we do about it? Enjoy it! So I did. Sitting outdoors and letting the sun hit my skin felt delicious. The landscape was stark but the atmosphere was joyous. The parks and trails were busy with hikers and bikers. Nary a glum face was to be seen. Admittedly, every now and then I felt a twinge of apprehension as though waiting for the other show to drop. Though in general, I made the most of this unexpected reprieve. Taking time to examine the leaves and grasses made iridescent in the sunshine. How they glowed in tints of ocher and russet! Basking in the warm caress of sunlight did this body and soul a lot of good.

Similarly, the ice-storm we experienced early last December was unseasonal. Too cold too early. We worried about damage to trees and other plants. Yet, in the light of day, the ice coated limbs sparkled in brilliant celebration. It was beautiful. I was filled with wonder and marveled at the icicles hanging from branches and eaves, the sculptural shapes of shrubs encased in ice, the general radiance and refraction of the sunlight on ice. Instagram abounded with Insta-worthy images of beauty bound in ice. Clearly, we were all struck by this alluring danger. For a brief period we were able to stop worrying and be present to the artistry of nature.

Last summer, we went through a hot, dry period. Desperately needed rain was not happening. The lawn started browning and the leaves of many plants began drooping. In fact, my apple trees shed much of their leaves in panic. I was torn between copiously watering in the immediacy of the situation and restraining that instinct by looking at the bigger picture of climate-change and the global shortage of water. In that pathetic scene of a raggedy looking plants, the native plants stepped up and bloomed and filled my heart. Their stoic hardiness was admirable. I had a perfect opportunity to not just take note of the flowers but to actually stop and observe their bold beauty and designs. It left me with a resolve to not only add even more natives to the gardens but to give them their due in gratitude.

While we wrestle with the climate-change happening at present and do our duty in slowing/halting its progress, it helps to find the moments that uplift and understand that nature is asking us to be attentive and appreciative no matter what. Even in adversity there is grace to be gleaned. Then perhaps, we will be in a position to rise with that phoenix as it emerges from the ashes of the global climate crisis.

From the ice-storm last December:

I didn’t take any photographs over last weekend’s Spring in January. Instead I did two quick watercolor sketches. Imagine, I got to paint outdoors in January!

From last summer’s heat wave(s):

The browning’ lawn’

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar