The Month of the Philosopher

January.  Here in North Dakota many people I know treat the first month of the year just as they treat Mondays; they can’t wait to just move on.  They say January in one of two ways: either the word rolls off their tongue like a gladiator saying his last words after being stabbed in the heart; or a snarl forms with wrinkled nose as the word breaks the stillness followed by thoughts of back-straining plastic shovels and mechanized equipment breaking-down because they really were not designed for these elements.  Realizing it’s the middle of winter is hard on people, myself included.  Everyday actions take longer, cutting into our precious schedules—our litany of daily accomplishments.  You betcha that resolution of exercising is mandatory for mental survival.

I understand why the frigid months of January and February are the only four-syllable months of the calendar year.  When the Romans decided to add these months to the calendar, with numb faces and frozen breathes these words slurred like sap from their mouths.  Makes sense to me.

If you’re going to exhaust your everything, squeeze the final drop into your attitude.  With foresight and experience, you understand long winters pull people down.  Cheery does not come naturally in January, so get ahead of the game, with wide-eyes make a smile; move the body and the mind will follow!  Don’t be the guy that hates Fridays because it means it’s only three days until Monday.  Embrace that white blanket on the landscape for what it is: an opportunity for winter activities only dreamed about in southern climates.  Ancient tribes crossed the Bering land bridge to eventually settle here because this land was bountiful with game.  They could have traveled further south, as many did, but many chose to stay on this frigid landscape dressed in animal skins, not because more southern areas were overpopulated, but because this region provided them with all the necessities for survival.  I’m certain that when the sun rose and set with the sky ablaze, they often took the time to enjoy these moments.  Even then, attitude shaped the moment.

Attitude can change like the weather.  Where do your thoughts fall on the attitude continuum?  Shoot for better.  Strive for excellence.  Make yesterdays optimism become the new pessimism by raising the attitude bar.  Don’t be a thermometer, be thermostat that is in charge of your attitude.  You will influence those around you in an amazing way.

It’s all relative, attitude is not absolute.  Snowy owls descend on North Dakota from the Arctic every winter.  They’re seen flitting like enormous white butterflies across the tranquil prairie, never really flying higher than a stack of hay bales or a utility pole.  They’re snowbirds in essence, vacationing in our southern, milder climate.  Our winter weather is like a Bahamas cruise relative to what they are typically subject to in the Arctic.

I love Charles Darwin’s story of when he sailed on the Beagle to Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America.  They sat around a campfire huddled close, yet chilled and trying to gain just a bit more heat from the flame.  The natives were dressed half-naked compared to the European researchers and were sitting across the fire at a considerable greater distance away and still they were dripping with sweat; their bodies revealing the excessive heat they were subject to.  It’s all relative to what your accustomed to.

I love the cold.  I get to work in the great outdoors everyday and have found that the colder the weather, the more I have the outdoors to myself.  There’s that selfish side of me, wanting views unobstructed by my fellow man.  Over the years I’ve had countless people—family, friends, and coworkers—ask me how come I don’t get cold.  You hear it enough and a pattern forms.  Like I’m some strange hermaphrodite that can withstand all elements thrown my way.  I like to believe that.  Insensitivity to the cold is my superpower.  If I believe it too much, I could get into serious trouble real fast.  On a continuum, I’m at the far end.  But there is a limit and don’t go off the edge…

I’ve come to realize my favorite month is January, appropriately named from the Roman God Janus who is depicted with two faces, one looking to the past, the other to the future.  It is this symbolic start of the New Year, where I can sit content, surrounded by Christmas decorations that still remain, with a smile daydreaming about past struggles and accomplishments, or future endeavors, that reminds me life is worth living.  Life revolves around memorable experiences with one another.  Also, my birthday may have something to do with this favorite month.  We typically spend my birthday surrounded by family and friends involved in some outdoor adventure.  Ice fishing, mule-drawn sleigh rides, and cross-country skiing have made birthdays very memorable for me.

Work is slower in January; I can actually maintain and accomplish with clarity, not just putting out fires and feeling stretched as thin as a balloon.  The rhythm of reloading, building, cleaning, organizing, and preparing can go smoothly.  Excessive demands are not whispered just within earshot.  Commitments need to have self-limitations.  Moderation is key; the wisest know how and when to say no.  I sense I still have a long ways to go here.

January is the philosopher’s month.  Harsh winter storms coupled with longer days of darkness tend to keep me indoors more, even if it’s only a few minutes more.  Those minutes make all the difference in taking time to reflect on appreciation and gratitude.  But the days are already growing since Winter Solstice.  I feel a hint of anxiety for the days to come; the Mach 4 lifestyle of summer is around the corner.  Extra commitments and societal expectations will work to degrade quality of life.

I’ve often wondered, do people slow down and reflect more this time of year in southern climates too?  I feel if it was moderate weather all of the time, I would never drop below Mach 4.  Even just a couple “January thaw” days urge me to do it all.  Sloooowww down, even if it is only a fraction of the year; this repairs and prepares the soul from what you came through and what’s yet to come.  Olympic athletes incorporate a rest and recovery period into their training regime, not only daily, but seasonally as well.  It’s necessary to avoid burnout.

We stay closer to home in January.  The result is a more quality life with our kids.  Getting to every place the fish are biting or every event beckoning our attendance is frugal.  Keeping up with the masses is fatal.  Children thrive off of simple routines and eventually begin to cringe at overloaded schedules.  This is contrary to Mark Twain’s lines, “Travel is fatal to…narrow-mindedness…Broad wholesome views…cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”  Balance is necessary.  We must savor a life of experiences but take plenty of time to reflect on those experiences.  Mind-numbing travel from experience to experience is pointless.  Sometimes I’d like to lift Mr. Twain off the ground by the shirt collar and say, “If you are always running, you’ll never really understand the beauty that lies beneath.  You’re living the life of the water-strider.  You’ve seen them; the insect that skates across the surface tension of water on lakes and rivers.  Sure they can move fast and look cool doing it, but they never really get to dive-in and absorb a location.  Stick around for awhile, break the surface tension, and immerse yourself.  Then go deeper yet.  Here is where you want to hang-out for awhile and savor the fruits of life.”  I remember reading about a guy that was briefly passing through a national park and asked a park ranger, “If I can only be here for 15 minutes, what should I do?”  The park ranger replied, “See that rock over there, I’d go sit on it and cry.”  Don’t be that solemn, wistful existence.  Quality not quantity.  That goes for daily travels too, it’s just that January asks us to slow down and we don’t argue or put up a fight as well.

As the tail-end of January approaches prematurely, I can’t help but already wonder, not what this crazy year has in store for me, but what will my next January bring?  I’m reminded of the sound of a page flipping in a good book at 4 am umbrellaed with the soft glow from a lampshade while the rest of the family sleeps.  Snow swirls and settles in the corners of the window panes.  A pair of coyotes announce their ownership of the surrounding hills; a territory established for rearing a new batch of pups.  My old dog, Butter, sprawled on the floor at my feet, no longer can hear her ancient relatives.  To her, January has always been the month she gets to vacate her kennel and sleep indoors with the family.  Unfortunately, I sense this will be her last January.  Make it a good one girl.

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