Last time I checked, the New York Times did not consider meh meh, a matter of indifference, so-so, not worth the ink on the page. Quite the contrary. Each week in the Sunday magazine, the editors dedicate a solid inch to a not hot, not not Meh List, culled from suggestions on their Twitter hash tag #mehlist.
Some recent ones: fleece, Grover the Muppet, brown mascara, turkey thighs, wool hoodies, framed maps, Caribbean cruises, limited-time offers, chopsticks, double dating, and the world did not end.
One rather shocking (to me) item on a Meh List in early December was the NHL lock-out. It has been an untested theory of mine that, for the men in my life, sports are never meh, giving them a definite advantage when it comes to the possibility of sinking into a generalized meh, because, as my husband has pointed out, no sooner does one sport decide its champions than another sport ramps up: from football to basketball to baseball, and for some, hockey, punctuated with tennis and golf tournaments, and beach volleyball.
So right out of the holidays comes the high point of the pro football season, with visions of chili and spinach dip dancing in their heads. No time for apathy.
Football is not even close to meh for me. It actually evokes a healthy emotion of loathing. Last night, the San Francisco 49ers played the Green Bay Packers for a division win. I don’t know who won, but it brought back a vivid memory of when football went from not hot, not not to detestable.
I was a junior in college when I was hit by a car (standing on the sidewalk in Berkeley, California, waiting to catch a bus) and laid up in the student health center with a smashed pelvis and other broken bones. Laid up as in couldn’t leave the bed for many weeks. My father and two of my brothers came to visit on a Sunday afternoon. Rather, they came to visit and also to make sure they didn’t miss the fourth quarter of another 49ers vs. Packers game played more than 40 years ago.
There I was, immobilized, trapped to be most accurate, as the crowd roared, the announcers’ voices rose and fell with each play, and my family, in the moment, totally in the mix (albeit spectators), groaned and cheered, oblivious to my pain, physical and mental.
No, sports don’t seem to be meh. In fact, they might well be a surefire antidote to indifference, providing regular bursts of vicarious adventure. And when I did a very random poll this past week of what to look forward to in January besides the Super Bowl, I still got back “the Super Bowl” from a preponderance of males.
(Yes, I am aware that at least 40 percent of the fans are women.)
There are those of us whose sport of choice is movie-going and for whom January holds the prospect of the Golden Globe awards and the Oscar nominations.
My own most current specific meh list includes all of the half-hour prime-time network comedies, Korean tacos, bacon ice cream, and infinity pools, no matter what country and what cookie-cutter resort they are attached to. And, taking the huge risk of being shunned by a large percentage of the American female public, I was meh about the premiere episode of the third season of Downton Abbey last week.
When asked, you told me, some of you, what was meh — one of you admitting that cooking has become that way, when once you went out of your way to cook from scratch, now it has become just a repetitive chore.
Others of you talked about meh more universally, as being not happy, not sad, going through the motions while your e-motions are in the fog. Uninspired, unimpressed, unpersuaded. “So uninterested that I don’t care to provide or engage in further discourse with respect to the topic at hand,” one person described it. Meh is when you don’t have the energy to say bleh, and Monday mornings are definitely meh-worthy, another admitted.
Meh can feel like mild blues: not good, not bad, just less than ideal, another congregant responded. When nothing is going on and the sun isn’t shining, she can slide into ennui.
Like the last few weeks, like mid-winter.
A few days ago I drove past a hardware store with a sign out front inquiring: “Are You Ready for Winter?” I imagined that the aisle displays were prominently featuring portable heaters and bags of salt in case of ice, and stacks of firewood. From what I could see, there were no bedding plants available, and, of course, the Christmas greenery was gone.
I wanted to retort: which winter are you talking about? The one with temperatures dipping into the low thirties and nasty rain, like Friday, or the day we had yesterday: mild and grey in the morning, the sun breaking through in the afternoon, with the children running around the streets after being cooped up for weeks, and the crocuses poking up already, pushing their way past the seasonal pansies? And will the daffodils be too far behind?
In other words, winter in Georgia. Long before the fear of, and reality of, global climate change, this mash up of weather patterns.
We moved south, not for the weather. Which was fortunate because I have discovered in the 20 years I have lived in North Georgia, that these parts are meteorologically unpredictable. Like the California I lived in as a child and younger adult, I soon heard that if you didn’t like the weather here one day, then just wait until the next.
And I am not just talking that famous March blizzard two decades ago, or the severe thunderstorms that strike, even in January sometimes. I am talking thick blankets of fog, the ones I thought I had escaped, so far from the ocean. I am talking overcast and wind and chill.
Yesterday it indeed broke 70 degrees, and today it will be nearly the same. I checked the Farmer’s Almanac, though, to verify what I thought I heard or read someplace. This mild weather, which might, in fact, trick flowering trees to start budding, even blossoming, this mild weather will soon turn. As soon as this coming week. And we will still be only in the middle of a winter that will be, in sum, two degrees warmer than usual, with a little less rain, two inches below normal, but a little more snow. Overall there will be more cloudy days than not, even if they are those tauntingly slightly overcast ones, the never-quite-sunny ones.
Winter light, the dimmer days, the paler days, the bare sky, the bare trees. Grey on grey. Or black and white landscape, tree trunks and bare branches, gnarled and ghostly. Winter, for those of us who do not fare well in the dim and the loss of light, can come to view this season mainly as a time of sorrow and barrenness. Or more often just meh.
It is the winter described by former islander, writer Jamaica Kincaid, who observes that “people will go on and on about the beauty of the garden in winter… but this is not true at all… not for me.” She lives now in Vermont where she says that, for her, the garden does not exist in January. “It is lying underneath an expanse of snow, there is a deep thick mist slowly seeping out the woods, and when I see it, I am not enraptured by it.”
In her spiritual biography of winter, between the end of summer, she writes, and those shortest days of the year, she battles a constant feeling of disbelief. “All things come to a halt rapidly: they die, die, die; the garden is all brown stalks and the ground is tightening. People will go on and on about the beauty of the garden in winter. They will point out the scarlet berries in clusters hanging on stark brown brittle branches.”
Not so for her, in her garden, where she sees little beauty in the depths.
She writes that white is not a color, it is the absence of color. The colors she longs for, and hopes for, with the coming of spring. Until she stops hoping as the season drags on and the apathy sets in.
Even in this culture, where most of us can live in almost eternal light and warmth: plugging in our lamps, ramping up the wattage in our bulbs, turning up the thermostat, lighting our wood and gas fires, it is still there — that sense of darkness that might not end.
And for those of us, those 10 to 25 million of us in this country that have what is sometimes called the winter blues, the common name for Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, no amount of scientific information or even cognitive awareness can simply make this sense of gloom and doom and hopelessness go away. The winter blues, SAD, can be a serious disorder, causing those who suffer with it varying degrees of meh, even depression, through the winter months.
Year after year.
More women than men have SAD, but anyone can be affected, and millions of children and young people are affected in some way by this condition. We have it because, during the winters, as the days get shorter and our exposure to strong light gets less, our internal “body clock” can get out of rhythm, producing the wrong hormones at the wrong time of the day.
Some scientists believe that the winter’s lower levels of strong light — sunlight — may cause the body to produce an increased level of melatonin, a mood controlling hormone. This increased level of melatonin can impact some of us differently. We can become irritable, anxious, have insomnia, eat more carbs and sweets, gain weight. We feel like it’s hard to move, to respond, to connect, to care. It’s all so meh.
What we now call meh, and make light of, may well also be called acedia, which means the absence of care, the subject of a book written a few years back by poet Kathleen Norris, based on her own inner history and her fascination with monastic life.
The Greeks called it the Black Gall. Existentialists, the place we wait for Godot.
Acedia, described in medical dictionaries as a mental syndrome, the chief features of which are listlessness, apathy, and melancholia, has been around in our literature since the 14th century. It was epidemic occupational hazard among early Christian monks, confined as they were to the same quarters, the same chores, the same psalms and chants day in and day out. To a tedium beyond imagination.
In their efforts to enter into a deeper relationship with God, to strip away all novelty and distractions, she tells us, they were often afflicted with what one of them called a vicious and tenacious temptation to despair.
As Norris writes, apathy and torpor don’t even begin to cover it. Try restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, chronic dissatisfaction. Acedia can manifest as milder discontent more in its extreme, what she calls a hatred of place: of a monastic cell, of a job, a marriage, a strong impetus to check out and walk away. Whether literally or by setting ourselves apart in our minds and by our actions.
The line between depression and acedia is notoriously fluid, she tells us: depression being an illness treatable by counseling and medication, acedia she views as a vice, a character flaw, that is best countered by lifestyle disciplines and spiritual practices. Disciplines and practices that might well save us from an apathy which, as one writer noted, is a sort of living oblivion. It doesn’t even compare with a dark night of the soul, because that means we can still feel the cold and see the dark.
There are things we can do to make the winter blues, the meh, the acedia, less debilitating. We can watch how much caffeine we take in, watch the carbs, watch the sugar, eat more protein. We can watch for patches of sun, and make sure we take advantage of it. We can walk, even if we don’t feel like it, or work out.
We can let ourselves cocoon, take a time out, but not so long that we let the foul mood of acedia, the numbness of meh, afflict our souls, as the monks would say. And if we do retreat, we need to watch for barren self-absorption, as Kathleen Norris describes it. Because if we withdraw too completely, we die inside, and forget our need for other people.
Our need for what she calls moral conversion: a commitment to seek the self-accusing truth about ourselves, not just self-acceptance, but self-renewal.
We can take up a new hobby or practice: walk a labyrinth, learn to meditate, learn new music, start a scrapbook or journal, work with clay or wood. We can do, instead of letting ourselves be passively buffeted.
All of us, those who find winter physically and emotionally particularly challenging, and those who can take winter or leave it or who even find it the best time of year, can look at winter itself as a great spiritual journey. Not ignoring its dimmer, darker aspects, because full spiritual growth is not about just looking for and living in the light. It is about sharp and soft, blossom and decay, and the complete cycle of life and death. For each one of us.
The outer and inner landscape of winter includes, also, lessons in the sense of being personally scoured — cleaned of excess and pretense. It can be about helping those for whom winter and life is especially harsh. Winter can highlight our fragility and vulnerability, our need for community and hospitality. For tea and comfort. For reaching out.
Winter makes us aware of those for whom cold and damp make them especially vulnerable to illness and helplessness. Winter can show us those corners where children are too cold to get out from under the covers, to dress in unheated rooms, and go to school. Where the homeless wrap themselves in green garbage bags and huddle beneath underpasses or in city parks after dusk. Where holiday food baskets empty and gardens lay barren.
Winter can teach us to look for small glories and reasons to praise. The same minute red berries that our Jamaican writer scoffs at in her need for voluptuous tropical beauty, she also admits can be breathtakingly beautiful in their singularity: the flash of a cardinal or the single candle light.
I had been asking for a standing bird feeder for years now. One of those on a pole with a baffle. It was on my Christmas and birthday lists, along with cucumber and vanilla bubble bath and silver hoop earrings. Only this past holiday it finally arrived and is now standing tall in our front yard, filled with black sunflower seeds, in full view from our living room window.
Even on dreary morning, I can sit in my rocker, coffee cup in hand, and watch dozens of birds visiting and eating the food I have provided, the scattered husks devoured by waiting squirrels. I can watch them — notice their red beaks and striped wings — how they fly off to spindly branches or perch patiently waiting their turn on rusting sculptures, and feel a sense of duty to them, to keep the Earth healthy, for their sake, and the sake of my children and grandchildren.
With this practice and through these experiences, I can re-engage.
Holocaust survivor and novelist Eli Wiesel has written that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. It’s not giving a damn.
My wise worship partner Rebecca reminds us that there is a fine line between meh and a healthy sense of perspective. Buddhism teaches us, she says, that non-attachment or releasing our false sense of control and letting things be as they are, is the path to peace. This is healthy… there are precious few outcomes in life that we can force.
The Buddha did not give us permission, however, to ignore the second half of the serenity prayer: God grant me the power to change the things I can.
It is anything but indifferent and disinterested.
It is love.