I am a winter person. I love the snow, the cold, the dark. I’ve been cross-country skiing and ice skating since I was a kid in Duluth.
But I am nervous about this coming winter. And I know others are, as well. Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen with the pandemic, but we have all heard that it is likely to get worse again during the colder months, before it gets better.
When I moved home to Minnesota after nine years living 200-plus miles above the Arctic Circle in Norway, I was asked one question over and over again: “How did you survive those dark winters?”
Tromsø, where I spent the majority of my time, is situated at 69 degrees north latitude. Toward the end of November, the sun sinks below the horizon, to resurface again two months later.
The return of the sun in January is not as one might imagine or hope — a blast of heat and light lingering overhead for hours. Instead, on the day the sun returns, it barely peeks above the horizon (if it isn’t cloudy), before descending again until the next day, when it makes another, slightly longer appearance.
The two months of complete darkness in the Arctic (referred to by those who live there as “the dark time”) is bookended by months of mostly darkness.
Arriving in the Arctic for the first time, I was given three pieces of advice by someone born and raised there:
1. Don’t snooze your alarm clock in the morning.
2. Get outside and breathe in as much fresh air as you can, every day.
3. Be social.
During that first winter this advice became a mantra for me. “Don’t snooze, get outside, see people. Don’t snooze, get outside, see people.” And it worked well. I didn’t feel depressed or anxious or drowsy all the time, and it allowed me to establish a good day-to-day rhythm when the sun was not there to indicate the start of a new day.
It helps that Norwegians and the native Sámi of northern Scandinavia and Russia have a deep affinity for outdoor activity throughout the year. In fact, there’s a famous Norwegian saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” (It’s a cute rhyme in Norwegian.) People put on their good winter clothing and get out there in the elements.
The Norwegians also have a word for the concept of unpaid, voluntary, orchestrated community work: dugnad. It’s from the old Norse word dugnaðr, meaning “help” or “support.” A dugnad could be, for example, an organized cleanup effort of the school grounds or a barn-raising.
If there was ever a winter to call upon the dugnad spirit within Minnesotans, this is the one.
We need to start actively thinking about how we — neighborhoods, schools, families, etc. — can look out for one another during the cold, dark months ahead. What are some low-threshold, easily accessible, inexpensive outdoor activities we can do in a safe and spatially distanced way? Who in our lives might appreciate some extra outreach via the phone or over a mug of hot chocolate on the front steps? How do we create short outdoor opportunities for socializing throughout the week? And how are we going to share these ideas and opportunities with one another?
This winter is not going to be easy for many people. But if we start planning with purpose right now, and think about ways we can come together in the spirit of the dugnad, we may just come out stronger on the other side.
Rachel C. Peterson lives in Minneapolis.