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Looking for the light in the depths of February

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Every year about this time, when we’ve reach the psychological pit of winter — when it seems we will always be cold, the ground will always be frozen, the trees will always look dead — I think about the wisdom of Dr. Jadwiga Roguska-Kyts.

I’ve told this story before but it’s worth telling again, because we reach these depths every year. Here in the pit of winter, the novelty of the new year is long gone and spring is still a rumor. Day after gray day, we’re either underdressed or overdressed because, inexplicably, 6 degrees can mean something wildly different on Thursday than it did on Tuesday.

We wear boots as heavy as bricks and coats that smell of old sweat because, inexplicably, it is possible to sweat even when you’re freezing. Snow shovels strain our backs, icy sidewalks menace our bones and the routine act of taking out the garbage becomes a herculean feat.

We can find things to love, of course. Every season has its charms. But the charms of this one are as fleeting as snowflakes. We cheer the sun, then the clouds come. We admire that fresh snow, but it’s soon a pile of dirt. We tell ourselves that staying indoors is cozy, and it is, until it makes us crazy.

In other words, it can be a difficult season for many people, even when we’re not slogging through a pandemic.

It was difficult for me the year I went to see Dr. Roguska, as she was known, about my malaise. Until her retirement a few years ago, she was my internist, a small, bright-eyed, white-haired woman, trained in Poland before she came to Chicago, the kind of old-fashioned physician who started every visit by sitting you down at her desk to chat. She seemed to believe that to treat you, she needed to get to know you.

That day, I explained to her that I’d been inexplicably blue. I was trying to avoid the word "depressed." Glum, I said. Down. Anxious. Cranky. OK, maybe depressed. Did I need a therapist? I wondered. Medication?

She listened, nodded, pondered. Then, in her crisp, cheery Polish accent, she offered her diagnosis.

"It’s February," she said. "It’s winter."

And that was all the medicine I needed. The disease had been named — February! — and the naming of it was the beginning of the cure. I went back into the cold, gray day with a lighter heart, and every year since, I’ve conjured those comforting words as medicine.

Are you anxious, lethargic, mad at half of everybody? It’s February.

February 2021 comes with added challenges. We’ve living through the havoc of a pandemic and the bitterness of a former president’s impeachment trial. In Chicago, we’re experiencing one of the coldest winters since 1875, and more snow than normal.

And that’s why, in the spirit of Dr. Roguska, I made a list the other day of February’s bright spots. Here’s mine. I encourage you to make your own.

One: The days are getting longer. Every day, we add more than two minutes of sunlight. We got 10 hours of daylight daily when the month started. We’ll have more than 11 when it ends.

Two: Though the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been chaotic and frustrating, people are steadily being vaccinated.

Three: Watching squirrels in the snow is surprisingly good entertainment.

It’s February. Dr. Roguska’s wisdom — understanding that our moods often cycle along with the seasons — won’t fix everything that ails everybody, especially not this winter. But it can help. The light is coming back, in its own time, and we’ll appreciate it all the more because it’s been gone.

Mary Schmich wrote this piece for the Chicago Tribune.

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