Learning to love the midwinter is a practice. When it's icy, grey and the days are short, these months can teach us valuable lessons in what it is to live well. Midwinter is a quiet time, one of low energy and reflection, which can stand it at odds to the fast pace of the outside world. And yet, if you embrace this time and adapt your daily rituals to the slower pace of this season, it's an opportunity to rest and set intentions for a wonderful year ahead.
As we go through midwinter and another lockdown, I thought I'd share some of the most useful ways I've found to live through a joyful and restorative midwinter. You can find them here:
For humans long ago, when twilight came it was a time to stop for the day, to tell stories by firelight and to sleep. Food was scarce in midwinter, and so this time was about conserving energy and resting. While electric lighting and screens keep us up far longer into the night now, there's value in listening to our bodies and our need for rest.
A book I read this time last year was Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, a sleep researcher who believes that sleep is the closest gift nature has given us to immortality. After that, I took steps to prioritise my sleep and give myself a 'sleep window' of more than eight hours every night. I don't always manage it, but I have found that sleeping more makes it easier to wake up on dark winter mornings, and that it makes me feel happier too. Similarly with naps, when you next feel tired, try taking a nap rather than making another coffee. Even if you don't fall asleep, the time you take has been shown to renew alertness and creativity later in the day.
It's something we don't get much of in midwinter, but making the most of the light we have is a good way to make us feel happier (particularly if we get that light in nature) and to improve our sleep. The best light you can get is morning light.
At the start of last year, I'd set an intention to live in closer touch with the seasons. It's very easy to work indoors, rest indoors, and I would also go to the gym and exercise indoors. Taking a walk or a run instead every day has shifted my perspective on winter. A visiting friend pointed out to me last September how the summer light was already shifting from yellow towards white in turn with the seasons. To my eyes, the light we see in January has a blue tone to it, most beautiful on misty and frost-laden mornings. Take the time to notice it.
When I think of winter, often a line from a song pops into my head, 'Winter is cold, in ways you'll never forget.' We often associate the cold with hardship and even pain, layering ourselves against it in coats and scarves and turning up the heating. All of this is natural, and yet listening to a podcast conversation with Wim Hof (commonly known as the 'ice man') on the Feel Better, Live More podcast a couple of months ago caused me to rethink my relationship with the cold.
I decided to take on Wim's suggestion to start with a 15 second cold shower after a hot shower and to slowly work it up. I manage one minute now and have experienced on the way how not resisting the cold is also an exercise in facing fears that might not be so real. The shock of a cold shower feels now like a kind of whiteness on the body, not comfortable, but one that causes me to breathe deeply and leaves me feeling better afterwards. Apparently cold showers are also great for your circulatory system.
You can find out a lot more about the value of embracing the cold, taking cold showers, stretching and breathing techniques from Wim Hof's app (the free trial is all you need to get started).
If you're feeling brave enough to take on some cold water winter swimming too, then good on you! I'm not quite there yet, but my friend Michelle was inspired by Wim Hof to try winter swimming in the Taff river which flows through Cardiff. She easily found a community of people online who shared their best tips - apparently a wetsuit is best for swimming in rivers (with neoprene socks), but in the sea you don't really need one. Researchers have found that people who regularly wild swim have a lower chance of getting dementia when they're older.
And if you're approaching midwinter gently and cold showers or swims are too much, simply taking the time to notice how the cold feels on your cheeks and your fingers, the feeling of being wrapped up on a chilly day, and the contrasting warmth of a spot of sunlight are ways to develop our relationship with the cold.
The New Year is commonly the time when we're taught to make resolutions for new behaviours we'd like to have in our lives, and they usually don't last. I find a better approach is to set intentions towards the kind of life you would like to be living by the end of the year. Setting intentions now, and creating some goals within them, fits better into the rhythm of midwinter where we're naturally at a point to reflect and make plans. It's later in spring where our energy will start to grow and we can act on them.
This year, my intention is to live with more 'abundance'. It's a progression for me after the sense of scarcity I felt in 2020 from the uncertainty, lack of freedom and precariousness we all experienced. The kind of abundance I'm thinking of comes from within, as the energy and creativity we can bring to the world. This year I'm going to think more about ways to nurture this through cultivating a sense of wonder, taking more time to rest and to indulge in joyful things and experiences (something that many of us forget to do when we're focused solely on the more pressing responsibilities in our lives like children, work or running a business).
What is your word of the year?
This time of year is traditionally known as the 'hungry gap' in the UK as it's a point where many of last year's harvests are over and it's not yet warm enough to sow new seeds. It is though a great time for root vegetables, kale, leeks and hearty broths and soups.
Following the festive period, which is usually a time of excess when it comes to food, I find it refreshing to go back to simplicity in January. Listening to one of my favourite podcasts, Dr Rangan Chatterjee talked about how sometimes we feel every meal we make has to be a delight or a showstopper, but actually food can be boring and nourishing and that's alright. This really resonated with me, and I'm cooking just what I feel like at the moment - simple soups and my favourite Thai curry noodle recipe.
Last year I grew my own vegetables for the first time, so our leek and potato soup is made with homegrown leeks from my raised bed. These started out last summer as thin as blades of grass and gradually thickened, but they're still quite small. I've been determined to make the most of them though and am adding the entire vegetable to my soups. The same goes for carrots - add the leaves if you have them. Any soup tastes delicious with lots of vegetable stock or red lentils for thickness, and I always blend mine anyway. Sometimes learning to reduce our environmental impact has led me to unlearn cooking habits from my parents, like topping and tailing vegetables, peeling or cutting off certain leaves. Eating the whole vegetable will make your food go further and reduce food waste.
One brilliant midwinter trick I learnt last year was to start growing pea shoot microgreens. These can grown in an old produce container and will provide you with two harvests of delicious sweet shoots in just two weeks - perfect if you miss salads this time of year. If you'd like to try this in style, we have a lovely plastic-free pea shoots growing kit which contains everything you need, including soil.
A simpler way to keep growing microgreens though is to buy dried peas from your local supermarket (sometimes you'll find them in the international section). Soak these in water for a day and lay them over 5cm of soil. Sprinkle on some extra soil. Keep these watered and you'll have your first harvest. Make sure to cut the first harvest above the bottom two leaves and that way you'll get a second harvest as the plants grow back. You can then compost what's left and repeat the cycle again. Just don't use your supermarket dried peas for growing pea plants in the summer - your pea harvest won't taste as good!
There's little to do in the garden in midwinter, but that doesn't mean leaving it alone. I read a wonderful book called The Garden Awakening by Mary Reynolds recently, where she talks about biodynamic gardening and how each piece of land chooses its guardian - you. A way to feel the relationship with the land you have, however small, is to step out onto the ground in bare feet. Lean against a tree if you have one, close your eyes and stay a while, perhaps setting your intention or making a wish for your land in the year to come.
The earth we step on plays a valuable part in sequestering carbon dioxide to protect us against climate change. Conversely, unhealthy soil releases a lot of carbon dioxide from past centuries back into the atmosphere. Mary Reynolds writes about how the topsoil of your garden is like skin - bare soil is a wound and the 'weeds' that grow are the scab. We can look after the health of our soil by mulching it. This means layering on dead leaves, clippings, compost and cardboard over the soil all through the year. If you have bare soil and don't have a plant to cover it, either let the weeds grow or add a green manure of nitrogen-fixing plants.
This is something I'm going to try in our garden this year as, in the two years before, I read books about wildlife and vegetable gardening that didn't really address what to do with the bare ground around my new plants - ground my plants never really expanded into or where much will grow. I've made it one of my goals this year to find ways to restore the health of the soil.
Healthy soil also means lots of invertebrates, which will attract birds into your garden. Taking the time to watch birds is a good way to find an everyday sense of wonder, and it's easier in midwinter because you can see them. By far and away the most popular bird feeder we've had is a suet cube which was a mass of feathers yesterday when a flock of long-tailed tits came to visit. Learning to identify birds is easy using the RSPB's bird identifier. Having words for the wildlife we see around us helps us to remember the different species we see, to appreciate each and to inspire a love of nature in our children too.
I love this word. 'Tsundoku' is the Japanese word for having an ever-increasing pile of books that you're intending to read. Books are perfect for midwinter because they fit both the remits of resting, reflection and inspiration.
Here are some books I recommend for midwinter:
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey; Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee; Living a Charmed Life by Victoria Moran; The Emperor's Babe by Bernardine Evaristo; If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie; The Outrun by Amy Liptrot; Veg in One Bed by Huw Richards; The Garden Awakening by Mary Reynolds; Dare to Be Great by Polly Higgins
And some ones on my reading list:
I read on the Instagram account of the copywriter Bianca Bass a profound idea that 2019 was the year we discovered purpose, 2020 was the year of the pandemic, and that 2021 will be the year where joy matters to us. Joy isn't a state of happiness. It's rather momentary glimmers of happiness that are in reaction to the outside world. If you'd like to delve into this deeper, I really recommend reading Joyful in my reading list above.
As I've explored what it is to live sustainably, and what it is to live joyfully, I'm coming to terms with how the two intertwine. There are joyful experiences to be had and joyful possessions in your home. This year, I'm experimenting with adding joyful experiences ahead of time into my diary - planning for a holiday, a trip outside, baking a cake or a simple day off with the same precision I'd apply to my work (joy can be found in work, but work is practical - we need room for joy without obvious purpose too). I'm also starting to make a few joyful purchases of flowers, books and decorations from small businesses to help with a sense of abundance in my life.
As I was very consumerist in the past and now tend towards minimalism, sometimes I find it hard to buy new things. It helps me to ask myself - Is it a joyful purchase? If it is, it's fine. To maximise the joy you get from a lovely new possession, simply choose one at a time. If it's bought online, wait for it, enjoy unwrapping it. Savour that item and enjoy it to the full. Choose an item for the joy of having it, and not for the joy of shopping for it.
If you'd like some inspiration for a few joyful items or gifts for January or February, here are my favourites from our shop:
Pillow potion for a night-time ritual; Tinted berry lip balm for rosy lips; A hand-poured candle to light the evenings; A box of our favourite vegan chocolate; A fresh notebook in your favourite colour; Chocolate and red clay face mask; Send a wildflower card to someone you love; Strawberry bites for the taste of summer; A new nail varnish colour; A sweet orange washing up bar to scent the everyday; Step out in new bamboo socks; A bamboo toothbrush with the affirmation you want to hold.
I hope you enjoyed this post on ways to live seasonally through midwinter! Everything I've shared with you here is through personal experience or great advice I've read or heard in my favourite books and podcasts. All these suggestions are intended as a prompt for you to create a slow, wintery way of living that works for you, and to try something new if anything calls out to you. Likewise, I would love to hear how you approach the midwinter, and if there's anything you've learnt that I could try too. The best way to get in touch and chat with me is over on our Instagram page.
Wishing you a joyful, quiet and restful midwinter!
(From the top - delicious vegan pancakes for Shrove Tuesday. Here's how to make them: https://www.instagram.com/p/B8_z1uyH80f/)