Most of us really don’t have the choice to sit winter out. The fact is that not every bird gets to fly south. And I confess I wouldn’t want to: I love my morning walks in the winter, breathing the cool, crisp air, and I can’t imagine living in places without much seasonal variation. When the passing of the year doesn’t impress itself upon my senses, I am, in some profound sense, lost.
As the days shorten, other mammals grow fuller coats and change color. Let’s not kid ourselves: winter has an effect on us as well. In the northern climes, including Paris and New York, a point comes when it seems the cold and long hours indoors will never end, when the snows of two months ago are often still piled in the streets, and nothing is left in the cupboard but a few shriveled root vegetables. Okay, j’exagère, but you know the feeling. There is scant comfort in knowing that it’s worse elsewhere: Buffalo gets almost 100 inches of snow a year. Or consider Sweden, an enchanting land in the summer, when the sun rises at 3 a.m., but where in winter there are but four brief hours of gray so-called daylight. No, the real consolation is in knowing what awaits us when it’s over: the regeneration of everything in spring. I’m not just looking on the bright side here. I would not trade that thrill, and that awareness of progress—of the fullness of time—for the eternal sunshine of a spotless mind in L.A.
Christmas is celebrated in December less because we believe the Nativity actually occurred then and more as a perpetuation of ancient rites designed to bring some light into the darkness. But once the unwanted gifts have been returned and the last cork of New Year’s has been popped, we enter a bit of a tunnel. With relatively little light and even less fresh unfattening food to enjoy—and having perhaps allowed an extra pound or two to creep aboard during the holidays—we are more vulnerable than ever to getting fat. What can we do to keep it all together? In fact, there is plenty. We need not—and after all, we cannot—spend those months when the slant of light oppresses simply huddled under the duvet with a book, much as a French woman delights in doing that sometimes. In winter many of us rise in darkness and return home from work in darkness, practically never having seen the light of day. There’s a reason nature has designed some animals to sleep through the whole affair. We, however, aren’t so lucky—or perhaps we are luckier. Winter’s purpose is to clear the decks so nature can start over. Long ago, a person’s age would be expressed by how many winters she had on her back. Now technology spares us the worst effects of the elements; the rest is up to us. The trick is to make it as full and energetic a period as it can be.
First, let us acknowledge that humans, like bears and birds, are photoperiodic: we are affected by the duration of daylight. Most of us experience to some degree what has come to be called Seasonal Affective Disorder. In other words, the dearth of light brings us down. And many of us take refuge from the blahs in food. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire? One simple solution is to make a point of going outside at midday. If you work in an office, your exposure to light in winter can easily be limited to the fluorescent variety, which is neither flattering nor healthy. Take a little break at noon and soak up what sunshine you can. (A French woman—at least this French woman—will still wear sunglasses to avoid squinting in the glare and crow’s feet.) This exposure can help keep our sleep cycles in order—the disruption of these is one of winter’s biggest health risks. It also gives you some chance of producing the vitamin D your body requires, although in winter it must be supplemented by tablet and by D-rich foods such as milk, egg yolks and tuna.
Even on the gloomiest days, a lunchtime promenade will do you good, for the other compensation for the lack of light is to move. Apart from its metabolic and cardiovascular benefits, physical exertion is known to have a stimulative effect on the neurotransmitters that keep our spirits up. Snow sports have become hugely popular in the last few years. Many people I know track the months of winter by the ski season. But just mention the word ski and I imagine not the amazing rush but the prospect of chapped skin in bone-chilling cold, killer trees and broken bones (mine). Fine for the ski set, not for me, though I do encourage sportier types at least in the less hair-raising cross-country version. Or ice-skating! (In Paris, rollerblading en masse seems to continue sans interruption on weekends through the winter.) Any exercise we undertake for pleasure is a good one. I am told the gym serves as a refuge for some in the winter. But even sans skis and Cybex, I find lots of easy ways of getting my heart rate up and working my muscles, overcoming the ever-present temptation to sleep in. So what do I do? Walking and yoga are my prime winter movements. After the metabolic slowdown of winter sleep, it’s important not just to get the body going but to awaken the mind to the body. Feel the connection—it’s my French Zen thing. Some simple stretching before breakfast can do wonders.
In New York, I leave the house by taking the stairs down fourteen floors. That wakes my body up for sure. And when I don’t get as much movement in my normal day as I’d like, I make a point of taking the stairs back up . . . often all the way to the fifteenth floor. In winter, the stairs really can be the most efficient and convenient way of elevating not just yourself but your heart rate and mood. And you can avoid hypothermia: New York, for example, can be wickedly cold on winter mornings. On the subfreezing days when I see those morning joggers trailing vapor from their mouths and noses, I have to smile. They don’t need to do that to be healthy. I hope they are doing it for pleasure. I imagine these people must be skiers, too. Though sometimes it is just too cold and windy to leave the house, I do love to walk in the snow . . . especially in New York City. New York with its clear blue winter skies and buzzing streets can become transcendentally quiet when a thick white blanket is first laid down. The traffic disappears (save the large sanitation trucks transformed into plows). Edward and I look forward to heading out after a blizzard for a long walk. Like walking on the edge of the surf on the beach, trudging through fresh snow is wonderful exercise and, as every kid knows, great fun. As we walk down the center of big avenues and little side streets, passing fellow travelers, the streetscape feels as it must have centuries ago. Everything is still and clean, and the community becomes a picturesque village of children on sleds (an odd thing to find in Manhattan, but you do) and neighbors shoveling the sidewalks . . . eventually some begin to dig out their cars, only to have them partially reburied by the plows. Everyone seems in high spirits, even—perhaps especially—those shovelers. The stores slowly reopen, and people share in the wintry gift of a small reprieve from the demands of schedule.
Rain Outside, Beauty Inside
Winter rain is something else, though. It can be awful, and I certainly don’t walk in it for pleasure or exercise, though the humid air is wonderful for the skin; on dry winter days, both skin and hair need moisturizing. An excellent homemade beauty mask of Mamie’s is always at the ready. She was big on these natural treatments, and in the winter, once a week she’d cut a slice of lemon or grapefruit and rub it on her face first thing in the morning. It was her trick to clarify the top layer of the skin. For my teenage pre-period skin problems, she’d put some parsley juice on a piece of cotton and apply it to troublesome spots. For the oily and dull skin of my cousin, she’d mix some grapes with almonds and apply the paste to her face (use your coffee grinder or a blender to do the mixing), leaving it on for a few minutes and rinsing with cold water. Egg mixtures were some of the most effective weapons in her arsenal. No matter the skin type, she’d recommend this one over and over: before a party, mix an egg yolk with a few drops of olive oil and leave the mixture on the face for 15 minutes. Another one was a mixture of an egg yolk, a few lettuce leaves, and 1⁄2 cup of yogurt; it tightens the pores and hydrates the skin. Concocting something soothing for your face can make an afternoon at home feel like a day at the spa. (Speaking of spas, massages are cheaper and easier to come by these days, and they can be a great way of pampering yourself.) But in any case, make yourself a pitcher of lemon water, get out your yoga mat, and after some poses treat yourself to a mask. I have been doing yoga year-round for decades, but in winter I double up at home and love to take classes to expand my practice. In yoga, as in life, one is always learning.
The house gives me another outlet of exertion, this one productive as well as healthful. Even French women with French maids like to faire le ménage. Other Europeans, too. Recently the Wall Street Journal reported that the least effective way to market cleaning products to Italian women is to tout their time-saving convenience. It would seem the Italians know what French women do: convenience has its downside.
We are too quick to write off and evade as drudgery activities that keep the blood flowing while giving us a small but satisfying sense of accomplishment. We all need such a sense in this world we’ve created, where the goals we set ourselves can be so complex.
Finally, I have a little anti-stress winter exercise that makes me feel good physically and mentally, whether I’m at home or at work. Have you ever picked low-hanging fruit from a tree? Apples, cherries, peaches, pears, whatever? Imagine yourself standing under that tree and reaching up as high as you can with one arm to pluck a ripe fruit. Are you on your toes? Got it? Great. Now place it in a basket at your feet. Relax and breathe deeply. Now reach up with your other arm and stretch for another fruit, then bend and place it in the basket. Alternate arms until you have filled the basket with twenty or more pieces of fruit. Got more time, need more exercise or escape? Move to a different fruit tree and repeat. Apart from triggering the release of neurotransmitters that create a sense of bien-être (well-being), exercises like this loosen tight muscles and bring oxygen-rich blood to the brain, helping to reduce high levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with stress (and, not surprisingly, with the storage of body fat). For me, just thinking about being outdoors under a fruit tree is a soothing mental vacation in time and space. It’s a lot cheaper than Palm Beach, and I can just taste those fruits.
A good way to ease our cravings for color and warmth during these winter months is with flowers. Put un peu de couleur into the gray season with some blossoms of life indoors.
Photo by Tridekker.