I know I signed up for long, hard winters when I moved to the Finger Lake region of New York. The winters here can seem to drag on for an eternity, the biting cold driving everyone inside to their sunlamps to offset SAD. I get moody when I can’t spend as much time outdoors taking photos as I like. Photography has always served to connect me to something greater and to get me outside of my head. But once winter hits, my mood often mirrors the landscape: barren like the trees frozen in ice blankets and dustings of snow. Everything seems dead on the surface, but under all those freezing layers, the trees are drawing their sap closer to their center, still very much alive.
It’s a great metaphor, isn’t it? Winter is known as the season of slowing down and going within, and we can learn a lot from the trees and the way they draw their energy into their core. In Eastern traditions, winter is part of a falling energy cycle that begs us to reflect on where we have been, where we are, and where we are headed; in some Native American traditions, winter is associated with the north on the medicine wheel, the place of wisdom held by the elders. Certainly, the process of going within can yield great wisdom, and winter implores us to do so. But the honesty that is required for this type of self-reflection can also be a scary process for a variety of reasons: what if we don’t like what we find? What if those findings require us to make some difficult changes? We have to find mindful and safe ways to take the journey within. For creative types, finding a new medium to dabble in may provide the map to accessing those cob-webbed infested corners of our psyches.
Let me tell you about my first winter in the Finger Lakes. It nearly killed me, but that was before I learned how to use the winter season to my creative benefit. After anxiety, depression, and cabin fever had reached the level of life-threatening illness, I headed to the art store to purchase some pencils and paint. I had no idea what I was doing or what I would create, I just knew I had to. I felt something inside of me pushing to reach beyond the limits of my abilities. Up until that point in my life, photography and writing had been my go-to mediums for satisfying my creative outlet. I was a doodler, at best. I wish I could say I had fun with the paints and pencils and created lovely artwork, but the truth is, the message of each and every drawing and painting gave me great pause and was a bit unsettling. The artwork was really dark. In fact, my artwork disturbed me so much that I went and found a therapist.
Week after week, as my therapist and I talked about the drawings and paintings, I realized my creative process had led me to explore a place that couldn’t be captured in the ways I was used to expressing myself. Words failed to describe what I was experiencing and I couldn’t find a way to aptly capture all that I was processing through photography. However, painting and drawing required me to suspend my conscious awareness in order to reach deep within myself and taught me how to tolerate the painful events in my life that needed healing.
Now, that’s not to say that if you decide to pursue a foreign artistic medium that you are going to uncover a lifetime’s worth of traumatic memories. That’s just what happened for me because I spent a whole lifetime shoving those events out of my mind. Even though what I was creating scared the crap out of me, I was also accessing a certain type of strength, patience, and compassion I didn’t know existed within me. It was satisfying and exciting to find a new form of expression, and I came to understand parts of myself that I probably would have never integrated had I not decided to give painting and drawing a try. Besides that, learning a new creative skill boosted my confidence and helped pass the hours in productive ways.
I spent those first few winters battling the long nights and biting cold with pencil-smudged fingers or passing time in front of an easel. I had no idea where my process was going to lead me, but I kept going. I used to be afraid of what was behind my anxiety and depression. Seeing all those fears creatively manifested into artwork gave me some distance and authority over the suffering I had experienced. It allowed me to work those things out so those experiences didn’t control my life anymore. I have a greater appreciation of who I am and a clearer understanding of where I’m going because of it.
These days, I look forward to the winter season. All the extra time spent indoors lends itself to introspection and provides the fuel to keep the creative fires burning. The Native Americans knew that winter holds great wisdom – we only need to find the creative means to access it.