Friday, December 15, 2017

December's Column--Fighting the Darkness Without and Within

Stoke the fires within to fight winter gloom

By Dorcas Smucker
Register-Guard columnist
DEC 10, 2017

When I get annoyed at green fields, I know it’s time to fight back against the darkness.

I love Oregon, really. As a long-ago transplant from the Midwest, I am still in awe at the wildness of the Pacific Coast and the impossible magnitude of the Cascades. I like the secure sense of living in a valley framed by mountain ranges, and I love that there are always new waterfalls to discover.

But I have never learned to like Oregon winters — neither the gloomy skies nor the listless rain that hangs around but seldom works up the energy for a good impressive storm nor the damp cold that somehow chills my bones like Minnesota never did. Things that ought not to be wet are constantly soaked and dripping — trees, grass, cars, roofs, even chickens venturing out of the coop. And the way moss and mold creep over anything that stands still for a season — that is almost scary.

Every fall, it seems for a short time that things are progressing properly, as nature intended. Harvested grass fields are bare, acorns fall, temperatures drop, leaves drift downward, and rose hips emerge bright and red from brown wild-rose bushes beside the road.

Then the autumn clouds move in like a gray army, bringing a chilling and smothering of spirits. The days grow shorter, compounded by the end of daylight-saving time that cuts back the evening light by an hour.

Just when I think the bare fields ought to be frozen and covered with snow, they suddenly turn a bright, garish green.

You’d think I would find it refreshing, that splash of color. Instead, I find it annoying, taunting me with the fact that nature is all mixed up here, and this soggy winter will go on and on, verging on the edge of both fall and spring, without ever getting snowy and frozen for more than a few days, if at all.

When I waste emotional energy on green fields, of all things — that’s the sign that the encroaching darkness and mold have reached my soul.

Whether it’s seasonal affective disorder or just an unreasonable grumpiness, I have learned, after 20-odd years, it’s best to resist.

Giving in is easy, sinking into a self-absorbed and pitiful cocoon until spring. Unchecked, it can become clinical depression. Fighting back is tough but ultimately worthwhile.

Simple daily disciplines always come first, such as taking vitamin D, limiting sugar in my diet and going outside during the day.

I also choose gratitude, a simple discipline of the heart. Thanksgiving comes at an opportune time, bringing feasting and deliberate counting of blessings just as the last soggy leaves fall and the days grow constantly shorter. The holiday compels me to see, again, all that I’ve been given. It may be 35 degrees with sleet outside, my least favorite weather of all, but inside I can set the thermostat to 75, if I please, and the furnace does my bidding. We celebrate with a huge turkey from WinCo, an array of side dishes and a dozen friends and family, and I don’t have the time or desire to feel sorry for myself.

My third strategy is planning ahead for easy and fun activities, such as having my neighbor and friend, Anita, over for tea and conversation. Five family members came in the door, rattled around the kitchen, and left again as we talked at the table one afternoon. “I like how you just decide to do this, and then you do it, even if people come and go all the time,” Anita said. “You don’t wait until things are perfect.”

Waiting for perfection, I’ve found, lets the winter gloom spread like moss on an abandoned shed. Scheduling coffee with the sisters-in-law, a Handel’s Messiah concert, or half a day of secondhand shopping is a powerful antidote, even if the timing is inconvenient or the weather turns out to be terrible.

Even something as small as a London Fog from Dutch Bros, sipped in a car with rain streaming over the windows, brings warmth, indulgence, and a gentle boost of hope.

Lastly, the most powerful pushback of all is generosity.

It’s not surprising that the winter solstice coincides with Christmas, when we celebrate the light and hope of Jesus, the gift to a dark world. Giving becomes a personal form of light as well, dispelling the inner shadows. Choosing gifts for friends and family makes me think of others and what they need and enjoy.

Almost every winter, I host a giveaway online. I invite my blog readers to nominate people who have had a difficult year, so I can mail them a free book. The emails land in my inbox and I sit there in tears, reading of cancer, sick babies, car crashes, spouses abandoning their families, and a dozen other incomprehensible tragedies.

A book of mine will never make everything better, but I like to think it will feel like a little shaft of comfort, showing that someone cares. It dispels the selfishness in my spirits as well, proving the truth of Jesus’ paradoxical statement: “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over …”

Some years, my husband and I participate in the annual “cookie project” of Gospel Echoes Northwest, a ministry based in Tangent. We go to a state prison and distribute cookies and handmade Christmas cards to inmates. There is nothing else like it for transforming your perspective and making your daily world — in any sort of weather — feel like a paradise of freedom and opportunity.

I may never come to love an Oregon winter. But choosing discipline, gratitude, deliberate fun, and most of all, generosity, will effectively fight off the invading inner gloom.

Around our walnut tree, during the longest nights of the year, quiet but determined daffodils already are pushing up from the cold wet soil. The prophet Isaiah still calls, “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” And when the evening sun breaks out from behind the clouds and slants across a flagrantly green ryegrass field, it is truly a beautiful thing to see.


  1. Thank you! I live in Minnesota now and am struggling with dark, short days. Your perspective and counsel are just what I needed. I grew up in San Diego where seasons of light and dark weren't so extreme and the weather was sunny and mild most of the year. I do understand what you mean about Oregon's grey, soggy winters. Our first winter in Mount Vernon, WA surprised me with about three months of no sun! I thought I'd go crazy, but I didn't, and we moved again and experienced life in Virginia, then Utah, Iowa and now Minnesota (or as our oldest son calls it "Little Soft Drink"). Each place has beauties and challenges. As I focus on the beauties, the challenges recede and I feel more gratitude.

  2. We are learning to adjust to bitter Arizona winters. Right now it's 20°. If we were still in Santa Barbara it would be about 45°. Dorcas do you get snow?

  3. It's not that Oregon winters are bad,'s the Willamette Valley. It has the undesirable habit of becoming socked in with fog when it's not raining. We lived in Eugene/Springfield for thirteen years, and the winters were indeed depressing. We live north of Portland, now, in the Columbia Valley, and the east wind that tears up the gorge several times over the course of the winter has the effect of blowing away the clouds and the fog. So we actually see the sun occasionally up here. Still cold, damp and moldy most of the time, but not quite as depressing as the Willamette Valley.

  4. A very apropos column. I mostly struggle with bland rain personally In Africa the storms were wild with lightening, thunder and torrents of rain. But, I do love the people whom I've meet in Oregon and your words of giving Thanksgiving speak loudest to me. Thank you. Also, I love that you put it on FB. Thank you.