Off The Radar

We have entered the chilly season here in the Midwest, a time when the days are dark and often our moods are too. Cooped up inside for longer than we’d like, that feeling of ennui — that familiar listlessness and mild dissatisfaction that seems to lack a direct cause — can creep up on us.

But winter is also a great time for nesting, for introversion, for creativity, and solitude. These things can refocus and replenish us.

And ennui isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can be our mind and body’s way of cutting through the noise of our busy lives and getting our attention. Restlessness and moodiness can be an early signal that we’re overscheduled and stressed, that we’re not giving enough time, energy and attention to the people, places, and activities that bring us purpose and joy.

Moody trees on a winter walk

As I’m researching creativity and mindfulness, so many thinkers and scientists around the world seem to remind us that for mild cases of restlessness and seasonal dissatisfaction, it can be helpful to accept these moods as part of the rhythm of the season and lean into the solitude we crave. Our society is partial to noise and activity, and measures success by our productivity and efficiency. But sometimes doing the exact opposite of what’s expected — doing nothing, turning off our phones and just observing the world around us in silence — is what we need.

We can do that at home. But we can also reap the considerable benefits of fresh air (even in chilly weather) by exploring the landscape around us.

Ennui is a French word. So is flâneur, a person who strolls, lounges and wanders wherever their heart desires. This kind of walking and lounging isn’t results-driven. It’s all in the attitude. The experience is the point. A flâneur lives in the moment, with no thought to accomplishing anything at all.

And you can do it even in cold weather. If our friends in Scandinavia are our pushing their babies in prams in winter weather, I can take myself out for an aimless, sensation drenched stroll. You can let your mind wander a bit on a bicycle as well. (Just make sure it’s properly outfitted for the snow.) Or on horseback. Or on snowshoes or cross country skis. Whatever puts you in the right frame of mind counts.

I shared this post a few years ago, after I read it in a hotel room before a conference. The passage below made me gasp back then, because it so neatly summed up the way I prefer to travel — at street level, senses open.

It made me gasp again today. I realized how often I wander exactly like this to reset myself when this particular mood strikes. The ability to remain relevant in changing circumstances is a mark of good literature, I decided it was worth reworking and sharing again. I hope this passage will help you during the chilly, dark season as much as it helps me.

If it doesn’t, please reach out to a mental health professional. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health and if you’re feeling something that rest and time don’t heal, you may need help managing things. That’s totally okay. There are a lot of us who have taken similar steps, so please know you’re not alone.

Two of my favorite things — coffee and black and white stripes

“You are drinking your coffee alone at a sidewalk cafe.

You are watching the people around you, families, children playing, a young woman engrossed in a book, a lost tourist trying to find his way, a man in a hurry, running to catch his bus, the leaves of the cherry tree above your head.

Wandering the backstreets is a quiet pleasure

You have no real reason to be there: you’re not meeting anyone, and no one is waiting for you elsewhere. You will stay as long as you like, and leave only when you’re ready. On a whim you can decide what to do and how to do it: there is something a bit dangerous and yet delicious about freedom.

Have you ever been anonymous in your own city?

You are anonymous in your own city; no one knows your age, who you are, or what you do for a living. In this moment, you can regain control of your life. Feel the beating of your heart, take a deep breath and listen to yourself. Do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Savor these stolen moments. They help you regroup, and belong to no one else. You alone are responsible for what happens to you.

Which way will you choose?

Nowadays more than ever your life is organized like clockwork, everything’s planned, you go from A to B, yet at this instant your phone is turned off, no one knows what you’re doing; you’re cheating on yourself, expanding the scope of your possibilities.

Cross the bridge — or don’t. The choice is up to you.

You could just disappear. Jump in a cab and take a plane to Caracas or Ulan Bator, or simply spend all day at the movies. Or you could strike up a conversation with the woman sitting next to you in the cafe, even though you’d normally be too shy, and you could ask her about her book, say ‘Oh, no, I’ve never read Turgenev,” and then talk about how the neighborhood has changed. Resume your wander, stop in a park; answer when a stranger chats you up. Why not? You’ll never see him again. He won’t know your name, where you come from, your brothers’ or your sisters’ names, how much you hate your ears, why you once cheated on an important math exam, or why you prefer making love in the morning. Just share this moment, suspended in time, before slowly heading home.

A moody moment over the Missouri

You turn your phone back on, read your messages, and send word to reassure the people in your life who were worried when you become momentarily silent.

Ennui is your secret garden.

And solitude can be a luxury.”

– An excerpt from “How To Be Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style, and Bad Habits” By Anne Berest, Audrey Diwan, Caroline de Maigret, and Sophie Mas

There is beauty in unexpected places, even in decay.

What about you?
Do you fight ennui or lean into it?
Where do you like to wander?
Do you explore on foot or some other way? Why?
What are your favorite self-care tips for the winter season?

The photos above were all taken in downtown Fargo, except for the bridge between Bismarck and Mandan, North Dakota, the textured blue wall in Grand Forks, North Dakota and the peeling ceiling from inside a historic building at Fort Totten on the Spirit Lake Reservation. This page also contains an affiliate link to the book I reference, so if you decide to purchase it by clicking the link, I may receive a small commission.

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Alicia Underlee Nelson

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