Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Enduring the season

The Barn on a cold day in December

For weeks now, the world has been unrelentingly gray.
November set a record for rainiest ever, (as if normal English rainful wasn't sufficient enough to depress me).  I feel like the cold fog has seeped into my bones and smothered everything light and lively.

So many of you write about how much you love winter -- including the pleasures of slowing down and hibernating a bit.  But I find that there are excessive seasonal demands -- except, perhaps, in the garden -- and I just don't have the energy to do it all.  I am surrounded by lists (to do, to make, to buy), but I'm feeling awfully listless.  Maybe I'm just suffering from S.A.D?

I like a lazy afternoon just as much as the next person, but I want it to feel soothing and restful -- and not just some horrible malaise.  I've been reading a lot . . . but more for escapism than for entertainment or enlightenment.  I've seen films, I've gone to parties, I've baked dozens of cookies and mailed a stack of cards, but there is something missing.  My brain feels dull.  I'm always tired, and I feel, a bit, that I'm just going through the motions this year.  Is it just me? 

So many children have been struck down by viruses and flu-type illnesses that they had to cancel the Christmas concert at my youngest daughter's school.  For the first time ever.  It's so sad for my parents, really. They are visiting from Texas, and they never get to go to the children's concerts and programs.  I was counting on the candlelight and the carols and the unchanging ceremony of it all.

Yesterday, we took advantage of the last child-free day and went to London.  I had this notion that visiting the Charles Dickens Museum might help the Christmas spirit along.  Also, the Dickens Museum is only a couple of blocks from Persephone -- one of my favorite bookstores.  Surely, the combination of the two would kindle my gone-latent enthusiasms?

48 Doughty Street
Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby here.

Somewhat miraculously, we were blessed by a few streaks of weak winter sunshine.  (Only an hour away, in West Berkshire, it was sleeting.)  Perhaps I would like winter if it were blue and white and crisp at the edges -- instead of gray, damp and muddy.  I suppose it is effective, though, for recreating the Victorian London atmosphere.

If you ever visit the museum in winter, make sure to dress warmly.  It was almost entirely unheated, which seemed a bit too authentic.  Anyway, I'm sure that the Dickens family made good use of the fireplaces which adorned every room.  In this century, they seem to be merely decorative.

The desk of Charles Dickens

I've been telling myself that I've been too busy to write, but reading about Dickens' work habits made me acknowledge that the problem has more to do with a lack of motivation.  Dickens was amazingly disciplined and prolific.  He wrote novels, short stories and journalism . . . not to mention keeping a daily journal and being an enthusiastic correspondent.  He managed to churn out A Christms Carol in just a couple of weeks, motivated, in this case, by the financial urgencies of his wife's fifth pregnancy.

He rarely edited his work -- or even plotted it out, to any great extent.  In the museum, you can see the original manuscripts with jotted ideas and "key points" listed.  And yet, all of those characters lived and breathed on the page.  Even without Jim Carrey's help, is there anyone who doesn't understand what it means to be a Scrooge?

One of Dickens' many writing projects was a magazine called Household Words, which ran from 1850 to 1859.  In one of the 1850 editions, Dickens wrote a piece describing a decorated Christmas tree -- as popularized by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert two years before.  This tree, in the drawing room of the house, is decorated according to that description. 

Only your imagination, though, can provide the noise of raucous singing and laughter, the smell of mulled wine and pine, and the warmth of a crackling fire.

A 19th century illustration of the Christmas feast

There were so many illustrations of plum pudding . . . it made me feel bad that we won't be having one this Christmas.  For a truly authentic touch, boil yours up in dirty linen. 

Those Victorians who didn't possess ovens big enough for turkeys could collect a cooked Christmas dinner from the local bakery.  I assume, from the illustration, that they brought in their own plates?  It's not a bad idea; especially since I'm not at all sure that my oven is big enough to hold the turkey that I ordered.

We were practically light-headed when we reached Persephone Bookstore, and discovered -- to our great delight -- that we had lucked into an Open House.  (I did wonder at the crowds in this usually calm and quiet shop.)  There was mulled wine, and a plate of clementines, and the most delicious mince pies.  I asked where they got the pies, and one of the helpers steered us toward the best ones and shared that they were from Konditor & Cook.  I fancy myself as a mince pie connoisseur, or at least an enthusiast, and these were very, very good.  (Apparently they have been named Best Mince Pie in London by The Independent.)

Sipping mulled wine, and picking out a few new books -- you get a price break if you buy three -- really did do wonders for my mood.  I felt downright Christmassy, even.

I still can't wait for the dark days to lengthen again, though.

Still-Life at Persephone Bookstore

In cold, dark places . . . I dream of spring.  (k.d. lang)


Catalyst said...

For a moment there at Persephone, I thought you had lucked into a visit by Judi Dench but apparently not.

steven said...

hello bee! i live with someone in much the ssame frame of mind as you. it's an annual event precipitated by snow, clouds that don't seem to leave, christmas pressure, and of course the cold. the unrelenting cold! i have coping skills for all of these and in fact the snow and christmas are good for me. i can offer little bwyond what limited support is accepted! i empathize with you though bee.
i loved the visit to the dicken's home. i love bookstores, any scale, anywhere, anytime. add food and drink and it's almost like a second home. mine tart, well i live and die on that hill so lucky you to get good stuff!!! have a peaceful day. steven

Anonymous said...

From Claudia's e-mail :
PS: I just looked at the BBC and this is their weather HEADLINE:

Cloudy , cold and damp.

she thinks someone has a sense of humor.....
Poor you feeling gloomy and grim. It is crisp and bright here and I'm as cheery as all get out!
So sorry about the Christmas concert. Seasonal music can be very good therapy indeed.
Especially pure boy soprano voices.

What did you choose at Persephone?
Much love

Elizabeth said...

Gosh, I sound hideously chipper
didn't mean to....

B said...

Oh, Bee, I've been feeling exactly the same, specially when it didn't stop raining for weeks in November! :( Every time at this time of year, I wonder why I'm here! I must confess Christmas is helping a little bit though!

Cyndy said...

Thank you, Bee, for the Dickens postcard. Despite the weather forecast, it brightened my day! I loved the Christmas tree ~ am even thinking it would be fun to make some dried grapefruit for the tree now (yet another item to add to the list...).

We have many gray days here, but every fourth day or so the sun comes to play for a few days. Unfortunately, the clear skies usually mean very cold temperatures, and that is what I despise about the winter. Someday I will become a snowbird and migrate south for the season. That, or hibernate!

Happy thoughts along with seasons greetings for you and yours. Enjoy your time with your family!

blackbird said...

You're almost to the shortest day and then the cycle will swing the other way and spring will come.

I find that having extra lights help- I leave my Christmas fairy lights up along the windows, twisted into faux berry branches until the beginning of February. And then, one day- I realize that it's time for them to come down and winter is over.

How great it must be to have your parents over for a Chistmas visit.

marja-leena said...

Oh my, it sounds like our November and my state of mind! At the turn of the month we had lovely frosty and mostly sunny days, but now... sigh.. back to dreary grey wet days! You certainly had a wonderful outing to put you in the Christmas spirit, thanks for sharing!

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Great ending quote! I am one of those loving this winter season. I will tire of it by the end of February, but really by then it's almost over anyway. I think you're right, though. I think the snow and blue skies make a difference. England can be so gloomy in the winter.

Hope you find your spring even amongst the gloom!

Beth said...

So many women I know have yet to feel the spirit of Christmas this year. Are we experiencing Global-Scrooging??
I’ve decided it’s all in the moments – such as your visit to the Charles Dickens Museum and Persephone – and with family, friends…
Capture and hold on to each one of those moments. I am. :)

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...


I know how you feel--It's has rained so much in Greenville and for the past two or three mornings the fog has been bad. The weather man has said, we will be getting rain more this winter than we ever had.

I love your writing and pictures on Charles Dickens. I also agree with Catalyst--I thought the woman in the back was Judi Dench. How to do a double take.

Tracy :)

willow said...

Sorry to say, I'm one of those gray winter lovers. Glad to see the books brightened the spirit. Books always do for me!

David Cranmer said...

Thanks for the view of the great writer's home.

And I'm a Fall kind of guy as opposed to Winter.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

You sound like the two ladies at the start of Enchanted April. Do you know that movie?? I think what you need is a month in an idyllic rented villa in sun-drenched Italy. Or maybe just get yourself a copy of the movie. It's lovely!

spudballoo said...

I thought it was judi dench too! I agree re Konditor & Cook pies, yumtastic. They made our wedding cake (not mince pies!).

I agree, this grey/damp GLOOM is not a Season it's a curse.

i was in London yesterday and spent a very wet/cold hour traipsing around taking photos. Not a particularly fun experience although I got some very interesting shots.

Happy Christmas to you lovely Bee

kristina said...

You're not alone. I've been feeling just the same. I even found myself looking at SAD treatment lights the other day...

I've never been to the Dickens Museum--sounds really interesting. And how lucky to run into the Persephone Open House. I once convinced G to go with me using those Konditor & Cook mince pies as the lure!

Another good Christmas outing is the Geffrye Museum, where they decorate each of their period rooms in the style appropriate to the period--from the 1600s to today. Not in as nice a neighborhood though...

Is the snow coming your way tomorrow, too?

K x

jane said...

somehow i thought dickens´desk would have been grander... i can relate to your mood- i think it´s mostly the lack of light that gets to me. wish i had persephone bookshop near me... hell, i´d just settle for a mince pie... warm hugs!

Star said...

When I look at your world, I see nothing but joy and happiness. You have a lovely home in a beautiful part of the country. You indulge your love of books and reading and you are part of the English country set of school plays, tea parties and gardening clubs. Yet you are still not happy and always moaning about out weather. I find it very annoying. Can't you cheer up just a little bit. You have your family and your parents are coming to stay for Christmas. What more could you possibly want?
Just my thoughts. I know of many people who would happily change places with you anytime.
Blessings and HAPPY CHRISTMAS,

rachel said...

I suspect that as you suggested, that it's all about sunshine - one crisp blue-sky day and we forget how dull and dreary winter days can be, when there is hardly any daylight.

When we have perpetual gloom (today in Newcastle!), I think in a Pollyanna-ish way of those people living even further North, who know they aren't going to see the sun for weeks and weeks yet, and it helps restore my sense of perspective.

Christmas soon, then in no time at all, we can start looking out for those lovely little signs of hope, snowdrops...

Polly said...

Yes, I'm definitely feeling SAD and I really hope Christmas will help... I used to work at Great Ormond Street Hospital which is just around the corner from Persephone but for some reason I've only been there once. I think I prefer Waterstones, which also has a Persephone Books section.

And I'm ashamed to admit it, but I've not been to Dickens' house either. I could never find it, it's really badly signposted!

Mone said...

I feel tired the last days too, BUT only a few more days, after the 21th the days will grow longer again, yeah.

fairyhedgehog said...

I'm always glad when someone else shows their dislike of winter and the cold, dark days.

It's not compulsory to like winter or even Christmas, no matter what Dickens wrote to keep his family fed!

Christina said...

I wish for the longer days, with you.
Each time I visit you, my list gets longer on the places I want to embark, with you.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Oh Bee, I hope you get over your winter blues. I am actually doing better this year, I am happy to say. But that might just be because I'm not in the boonies anymore ;-)

Love your Dicken's post. I have often wondered how he accomplished so much.

T Opdycke said...

Ohhh Bee...I've wondered where you've been. I'm sorry to hear of your winter blues, but like Beth, I think it may be global scrooging that's hit many women this year. While, I love winter, the holiday stress wears my soul thin.

Soon, the sun will begin climbing toward it's apex again.

Marcheline said...

Hey, Bee...

I think we all get depressed when the weather continues to be sodden and soggy. You are not alone!

Glad you happened on those cool Dickensian events - although I wonder he had the room to write on that small desk with those huge statues in the way (hee hee).

Sending you lots of Christmas cheer from brittle, cold, shiny, blue and white New York (the blue is our noses sticking over the edge of our scarves... the white is our skin from being indoors so much - ha!). The sun shining outside my windows is just a tease, trying to get me to step outside so Mr. Winter can freeze my patootie off.

ArtSparker said...

Festivals of light (including lighted trees) in all the cultures at this time of year are, I think, counter-phobic. It gets exhausting doing that crazy dance to keep the dark at bay.

Sarah Laurence said...

I’m sorry to hear about the illness. We’ve had that in our household too. It’s my least favorite aspect of winter.

I’m glad you took your last free day to go to London. I’ve never been to the Dickens museum. Next trip to England, I’ll have to visit with my daughter who is reading A Christmas Carol at school and loving it. Your description makes me want to go and add a visit to the Persephone Bookstore.

I found the English winter harder than a Maine winter, and I’m writing this on a single digit F day with the wind blowing (it was minus 20 C this morning!) Somehow the white snow and bright sun makes me feel warmer then grey damp weather. I wish I could wrap sunshine into a parcel and send it your way.

In only 5 days, the days will get longer. Hang in there, Bee!

Meri said...

The still life is beautiful. And going into a bookstore is both uplifting and very dangerous for me. Persephone sounds marvelous.

Cláudia said...

Bee, I live the other side of the coin - it's almost summer here in the South Hemisphere. You have no idea how hot it has been lately! The sun burns our skin, eyes and brains!
It's such a relief when the wind bring dark clouds!

But you know, we are never happy... I have lived in Essex, England, for four years and I know exactly what you mean by "cold, gray and damp". Back then it was a shock to find out how desperate I could get with all that darkness around. I still don't know what is worse - the growing darkness or the blinding sun.

One of these days my son was telling me he prefers the heat. He said: "The cold is physically painful while the heat is only annoying". My daughter and I argued that for women to be annoyed equals to feel pain. And the debate was over when my husband quoted Freud: "What does a woman want after all?"

Have a nice Christmas! If only I could send you a small fraction of our summer light!

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

Though your spirit may be glum, Bee, your words tonight have lifted my spirit. I feel as if I have been blessed, lifted from a sadness I have felt this week. I feel hope among your words, though you may feel blue. Please know that someone on the other side of the world is a bit more comforted after sitting with you for a while.

JaneyV said...

November was particularly awful. Even I - and I love to walk in the rain - was worn down by its relentlessness by the end of that month.

Mood is influenced by many things but each of us has a "thing" - something that overwhelms our senses and makes certain times a huge struggle. I'm convinced that for you it's the quality of light. I don't get the impression that it's the short days but it's their greyness, the dimness of the light, that wears you down. If this is the case then lightbox therapy will make a difference to you. There are proven physiological links to low moods and the lack of good quality light. No amount of counting blessings and being positive lifts you because, although it feels like you're lacking cheer and enthusiasm this is just a biproduct of a physiological need not being met.

Slowing down, taking it easy and not putting yourself under pressure will help but honestly how many of us can do that in the holiday season? I think taking joy from these little moments of bliss - like the taste of a perfect mince pie - acts like a soothing balm for the soul. It certainly helps me to read about it!

If you can - do try the lightbox - a Swedish friend recommends them highly.

I do love seeing England through your eyes dear Bee.

Kay said...

love dickens... thanks for the visit.....stand fast..dec 21st the shortest day is just around the weekend!!! I too look forward to the lenghtning days...walking dogs by torchlight....enough said!!xx

Nimble said...

Thanks for writing even when everything feels hard to fit in. I find *everything* a bit hard at this sunless time of year. I don't know that I would make it in a Scandinavian winter.

I was intrigued to known that the unheated Dickens museum was 'Dickensian' in that respect at least.

And your sidebar photo tag "I can't stop making cookies" made me laugh! Cookie compulsives unite!

Cait O'Connor said...

Unusually for me I have felt like you this year Bee but I have had a virus infection, still not recovered and sooo tired all the time. But I always get low at Christmas but feel better when it is over. Perhaps the snowy weather will cheer you? I really enjoyed this post, the trip to Dickens house and Persephone etc, thank you for all the work you put into it.
So glad you did like the Ivington Diaries as much as I did, I had a library copy but may well weaken and treat myself to one too.

twebsterarmstrong said...

Your Dickens post was very interesting! Thanks for sharing w/ this rural Kansan.

As for the grey and cold, I contend that it beats 100º and hot wind, any day. Having said that, I must confess that I felt a relaxation on my body & soul in yesterday's 34º sunshine, after more than 10 days in subfreezing temps, snow and wind!

There's gotta be a happy medium somewhere in this world...

Frances said...

Hello from New York, where the forecast for tomorrow promises up to 8 inches of snow by evening. Bliss? Perhaps.

I very much enjoy reading your posts, as a Southerner who lives in NYC, and has always loved visiting the UK and dreamed of what it might be to live there. I know that my friend Elizabeth is a huge fan of yours!

Dickens' House was a place I visited on my first London trip in early 1970's. He is an interesting character, and perhaps I was wrong to read his books while still in my teens. Well, my dad had them on the bookshelf, and I did love to read.

About the chill, you remind me of hours I have spent in the textile research areas of the V&A, back when I thought I might become a textile designer. That chill does creep in when you are sitting, sketching, and so enjoying the access to past designers's originals.

Mince pie! Yum! Still hoping to find time to make some in my kitchen. Just have to get cracking with the baking of the rolled out and cut into star shapes sugar cookies. Time is a challenge around here.

Best Christmas wishes to you!

slommler said...

Rain and clouds and overall grayness can do that to a person. Hope you get more sunshine and bluer skies.


What, no Christmas pudding? Unbelievable! I will be doing my usual search to buy one here, albeit enough for one or two ex-patriots who really miss this totally unhealthy, but very necessary traditional desert on Christmas Day (with lots of brandy sauce).

Dick said...

I'm with you concerning the long, slow grey days. Definitely SAD! So have you got the snow? Here it's about 4" and threatening to have another go tonight.

Lucy said...

So Persephone emerged from the realm of Hades to cheer you up a bit?

Poor Bee, the soggy gloom is enough to dampen even the most phlegmatic and accustomed spirits. Hope things look a little brighter now, and your parents have enjoyed their visit notwithstanding.

Anne said...

I seem to love winter now, but for my first few years in Chicago, that was most definitely not the case. When everything is grey--ground, buildings, trees, sky--it's hard not to feel grey and gloomy yourself.

Is there something that you could bake just for yourself, as a treat to help wake up some of that buried enjoyment? I haven't been able to make it yet, but a friend tells me that this gingerbread recipe is delightful. I'm glad you were able to dust off a bit of cheer at Persephone. A bit of mulled wine and some new books sound like they would do the trick for me, too!

Take care, friend. xx

Nancy said...

Loved the tour of Dicken's Museum! And the bookstore... how lovely to feel as though I just visited London. We are are in the rain and fog as well. Just coming from the coast of Oregon, where we spend our anniversary to Portland and one sees plenty of rain. My oldest daughter has trouble with too much darkness, as well. It does sound like SADD. I'm thinking of finding her one of those lamps. Hope you have a very Merry Christmas, and no, you are not the only one having a hard time feeling it this year.

Anonymous said...

i visited 48 doughty street ten years ago on a cold cold day in december. this has brought back lovely memories of that day.

Anna said...

Bee I confess, I didn't read your post, because I still have so much to do for Xmas, but I will be back. However, Bee I dropped by to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Lots, lots of happiness. Also I wanted to send warm thanks for being a good blogger friend, and thanks for entertaining us with your lovely posts. Anna :)

Bee said...

The weather has turned, and so has my mood. Thankfully! Thanks so much to those who have written (here, or by email) with suggestions for beating the winter blues. I'm definitely going to be getting one of those light lamps, for one sure thing. (Do you think they go on sale in January?)

I'm certainly glad that I stressed myself by getting everything done early, because we are snowed in now!

Fran Hill said...

I just can't believe Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 2 weeks. Oh, wow. And the picture of his desk. Oh, wow, wow. Like your blog.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post - Charles Dickens is one of my all time favorite authors (someone just has to say Great Expectations and I tear up a little). I guess I imagined him living somewhere different though. Maybe a little more shabby.

Lisa said...

I'm glad that you've had some cheering! I am envious of your trip to both Dickens' museum (mentioned in Nick Hornby's Juliet Naked) and Persephone. Oh to create a character as indelible as Ebenezer Scrooge!

Merry Belated Christmas.