winter wellness for the mind

thorn
thorn
i'm lichen self care
i’m lichen self care
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Ah, winter– on its way out here, sort of, over the next 6 weeks. And I do love spring. But I don’t want to see winter as something to get rid of. It is a valid expression of the earth-cold, rest, snow, ice and darkness have as much of a place here as sunny days and daffodils. But whether one can accept winter as a part of life or spend all day whining about it on facebook the reality is that many humans need extra support in winter. In order to keep ourselves healthy in body, mind and “other” the self-care program is extra important.
So. What are some ways that this herbalist would work towards wellness in the depths of late winter?
1. Take vitamins! Especially vitamin D, daily. Magnesium is fun too.
2. Nourish oneself deeply. I eat a lot of warm foods in cold weather. It’s 50 degrees in my house, you couldn’t pay me enough to eat a cucumber right now. I am a huge fan of braises and roasts, all slow cooking, bone broths and slippery noodle soups, spicy stews and big breakfasts.
3. Sleep. I value sleep very very highly. It is important-rest, dreaming, recharging.
4. Exercise. I am a person who spent 30 plus years thinking of myself as “unathletic”. I was chosen last for ALL team sports. I can’t catch a ball and don’t really want to. The thought of playing sports makes me literally burst into tears. I also don’t look like an athlete. Kind of the opposite- I am very short with a rounded hourglass body shape. I look like a librarian and spent years all up in my head acting like a librarian. But secretly I AM an athlete-we all are. I spend at least an hour hiking nearly every day. It is only a very recent human development to decide that some of us are physically active and others are not. We were made to move and it feels really really good-endorphins of course, which contribute to mental health. But hiking is a time to think and process too. Walking, swimming, yoga, nearly all sports and workouts contribute to mental health in many ways by giving us the time and space to just be, to meditate or think or just ROCK OUT!! Plus, my ass looks great.
5. Outside. Though indoor exercise has a lot of benefits, going outside is vital for my mental health. I will go out in almost any weather, except for hail or very damaging storms. I am not a fair-weather-friend to nature, I love nature in every form. I enjoy visiting with a tree throughout the seasons, watching for new spring growth or bud swelling. Looking at the same mountain every day in every different type of weather is also very healing. Fresh air, varied terrain, bird songs and clouds all contribute to my mental health plan. And, if you’re into that crap, the intangible quality of grounding is something I can only get by going outside. It’s just being part of something, making connections, being out in a wild and uncontrolled space, feeling the earth under my feet, it feeds me in a way no manmade structure ever can.
6. Talk. Winter is a holding-it-in kind of time, and it is wonderful to think and mull. Writing is a nice way to express that stuff. But occasionally getting a good bull session in can do wonders for us. When we ask for support and provide that support to others it is like setting down a heavy pack after a hike. AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH. It is amazing the things that come up when we feel safe and let go. Sometimes I didn’t know the cause of my malaise until I am deep in a discussion or writing session and a little chunk of shame from 20 years ago shows up. Oops. Learn to let go and move on.
7. Herbs. I should mention that adding herbs on top of seasonal depression or just a winter funk is somewhat pointless if you don’t commit to greater self care. Herbs are magic, but they don’t take the place of common sense. That being said, I do use herbs in the winter-I love lemon basil on dark days with or without rosa rugosa elixir. I drink linden tea in the evening, I always love scullcap, I keep my milky oats tincture handy and I also like lavender tincture. I put warming herbs in coffee like cinnamon or nutmeg. I cook with rosemary on chicken or in shortbread. I eat bunches and bunches of parsley. I eat buckets of garlic to keep myself healthy. It is also a nice time for me to experiment with tinctures I’d made the previous summer, to press out tinctures and make new tea blends, simmer syrups and soak in an herbal bath.(see “I’m not an athlete” for why I need to do that!”) It is an experimental time, with few garden duties and time to plan out next year’s seed purchase.
8. Lovin’. I find sexual wellness to be a great contributor to overall wellness. I am not going to go into great detail here about the role of orgasm in mental health but let me just say ALL of our body parts need attention.
9. Sensory input. I play music that cheers me up, seek smells that make me happy, make my bed with soft sheets that comfort me. In the summer it is easy to feel moss under bare feet, smell flowers and get sun in our bodies. But sensory input is important all year and it is helpful to remember to feed all of our senses. Revel in a hot bath, roaring fire, birdwatching, dog patting, soup slurping.
10. Education. I see winter as the time for unlimited interlibrary loans. I read about anything that interests me, right now I am reading about barefoot running, wilderness navigation, butchery, competitive rose gardening and the history of Barbie. I am taking a class on herbal first aid and listening to pema chodron audio talks. I read the newspaper, devour seed catalogs and magazines, and enjoy proofreading. Self education is something I value highly and learning new things keeps me feeling balanced and happy.

We all have our own strategies for dealing with difficult times. I find I really enjoy feeling great and doing what I have to do to stay great. But of course wallowing in self-pity has its own value at times. I think, if I have one piece of advice to sum up my winter wellness strategy, it would be: Don’t just lay down and die becasue it’s kinda cold out. Take your time for introspection, take your sleeping-in and snuggling, and balance it with getting up off your ass and moving, challenging, creating and connecting.

portrait of the herbalist as a fly in the ointment

IMG_5805IMG_5711In the vast world of plant medicine, which is difficult to define and harder still to contain, indivuduals must find their own roles. To be an “expert” on all plants is like being an expert on every single planet in the entire solar system-absurd! Impossible! Yet one could seek to be very very good at first aid, nutrition, botany or teaching. I, however, am not. I am not particularly good at writing monographs or nutritional counseling. I suck at making formulas and keying out species. So what’s my niche? Questioning everything.

I did not become an herbalist to sell stuff, to make friends or to be nice. I got into herbalism becasue a giant green hammer was pounding in my brain, leading me outside and into the arms of the plants. I am a fly in the ointment and I have learned to stop fighting that role and embrace it. I am the drunken bridesmaid of herbalism, the elephant in the room, knocking stuff over and crying at inappropriate times.
I question becasue I believe herbalism is an explosion, a compost pile, hot inside, constantly growing and changing, expanding and making a mess. I believe herbalists are red wrigglers eating crap and giving back black gold,and I believe the transformational possibilites are endless.
We can choose to embrace this or not, and neither is right or wrong for everyone.
But should we give simple answers to simple questions? That is up for each to decide, but I believe mostly no-we may do a disservice to others by asnwering oversimplified “what’s good for x” type questions. This fly wants to teach you HOW to learn, not what to do. I do not want to make a sale or make friends, I want to push people a little, to make folks think–I myself have been offended by words that later, upon reflection, changed my life.
Often we are taught to never rock the boat, to give short answers, sound bites and polite euphemisms. School, work, institutions, “check this box!” Well, fuck that! Are we trying to spark people, to change the world? Or are we more concerned with offending someone? Are we more afraid to challenge others and ourselves?
Herbalism is not an ossuary. There is no one master list where we look up this for that. Herbalism is a bullet train full of green revelers, hurtling through space, a dynamic and evolving force. herbalism is resistance, resilience, evolution. We are artisans practicing a craft-practicing for life-never mastering. For an artist can master painting a still life, over and over, 3 pears and a vase of flowers until it’s perfect. But every single living thing is different and awesome and every herbal interaction is a dance between herbalist and plant medicine, between client and herbalist and between plant emdicine and client. We are painting a volcanic explosion not a still life.
This is beautiful and exciting as well as sometimes frustrating, but we must accept that there is no easy answer, there is no box to check off. I reject the marketing schemes and the lifelong indoctrination that we can fix things easily and simply with pills.
So our craft needs the cheerful, the positive, the nice and the linear. Our craft needs all of you wonderful people who choose not to alienate or offend others, all of the different styles and all of the choices. But herbalism also needs the obnoxious, the questioners who poke at life with a stick to see what happens. Herbalism also needs to get shaken up sometimes, to crack our minds open and see what comes out, even if it is messy and challenging, hilarious and painful. That is one of the ways we learn.