Know When to Doldrum

Let’s face it: February is exhausting. Every year I seem to hear people joking that this is the shortest month because if it was any longer we’d go crazy. In fact, people seem to have felt that way about February for almost as long as the month has existed.

Snow Mountain Right now the town where I live and work is smothered in piles of snow that keep growing and won’t melt away. Woveling snow off my driveway is my new part-time job. Our cars are coated with ice and snow, their climate controls left constantly turned to high heat and defrost; black, crusty chunks of road spray freeze into wedges in the wheelwells that we kick off into parking lots and driveways, only to see them reappear like a snow fungus with each drive we take.

All day and night, an endless mass of freezing air and wind sits upon us like an invisible, empty sea. We don’t walk as much as scurry from building to building, inhaling deeply to brace ourselves before we exit, then plunging into it with our armor of hats and scarves and gloves and puffy coats. Each arrival back in the warmth of a destination is announced with a short dance of stomping boots and exhaled huffs of relief.

By mid-February, a day above 35F degrees is a joy. You feel confined by the elements, your movements limited, and efforts doubled. You may have a primal urge to stay indoors and burrow deep into a soft nest, envious of all the small mammals you sense curled into a state of torpor or hibernation somewhere in the dark. Everything seems to slow down, stagnate, as if Mother Nature has hit the pause button at the worst time, leaving us in a snowy limbo until she decides to let the seasons advance once more and set us free.

Welcome to The Doldrums.

Nowadays “the doldrums” can refer to any state of listlessness or depression, but it began as a nautical term, referring to areas at sea near the equator where winds would diminish to almost nothing, alternating with sudden squalls, leaving any ship sailing through them adrift for days or weeks at a time. If you’re on board that ship, there is nothing you can do but wait it out.

That feeling of helplessness about the situation is the worst part. But it may also be a gift that only being in the doldrums can bring.

Rather than struggle with fighting off the doldrums or giving in to them completely, you can do a little bit of both. In fact, a ship stuck at sea actually provides a great model for how to cope with the doldrums without going completely crazy.

"We passed a ship becalmed in the doldrums."
“We passed a ship becalmed in the doldrums.”

Think about life aboard, say, an 1820s trade schooner. The ship is both your office and your home; your shipmates are your co-workers and your family. When all is moving along toward your goals, you work hard together, and then to have downtime together. If you’re suddenly stuck in place, you are no longer progressing, everything stalls. You are confined to a small place with other people and maybe some animals. You begin to worry about survival, playing guessing games with time, and it’s stressful until you realize that you have no choice but to accept the situation, wait it out, and make the best of it.

So you focus on maintaining your ship–mend those sails you’re not using, repair the rigging, clean and rebuild and take stock. And when you’re done those chores for the ship, you do something else for the soul–sing songs, play cards, carve scrimshaw into whalebone, write another chapter of your novel, paint, or just play.

As the sometime philosopher Kenny Rogers might say, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, and know when to doldrum.”

You hold back the doldrums by focusing on maintenance, the work that you know has to be done but doesn’t require a lot of thought. Work that will get you organized and ready for the bigger projects that will pick up once you get more wind in your sails.

Some tactics for this might include:

– take on less, but focus more
– work in small bursts
– choose maintenance tasks over creative
– go to the gym for indoor exercise
– socialize with coworkers (lunch, post work drinks)
– get started on your taxes early over the weekend
– make plans/prep for spring cleaning projects at home

Then you embrace the doldrums at the end of the day by focusing on the needs of your nest:

– get more sleep
– go out to a movie (or three)
– turn snow days into family game days like my pal Sven did
– use those vacation days before you lose them to travel somewhere new, maybe somewhere warm

Hold off the stress and anxiety by focusing on the little things you can get done so you’ll have a feeling of accomplishment, and then let the doldrums embrace you and enjoy the calmness they bring. It won’t be long before the world is alive and busy again, and a small part of you will miss that gift of calmness the doldrums gave us all.

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