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Commentary & Opinion

January is the cruelest month

Jelly candy from Verdigris in Hudson, NY
Ralph Gardner, Jr.
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Jelly candy from Verdigris in Hudson, NY

With apologies to T.S. Eliot in “The Wasteland” January, not April, is the cruelest month. The holidays and their celebrations, the food and lights, are over and spring is still far in the future. Hope seems to require a leap of faith, especially in the midst of a raging pandemic.

Yet January also has its pleasures if you don’t ask too much of it. It might well quality as the coziest month. The winter begins in earnest, usually accompanied by snow. The temperature drops, sometimes so low that nature seems to be suggesting that you find satisfaction indoors. Indeed, that ambition of any sort is a fool’s game. One need feel no guilt accomplishing as little as absolutely possible.

On Wednesday after finishing working I set out for Hudson, NY to do some shopping just to have something to do. That’s the difference between living in a city, especially a city like New York, and the country. In a major metropolis all that’s required to get a bit of stimulus and perhaps even a little excitement is stepping out your front door. Upstate, buried in the woods, you have to manufacture your own fun.

The sidewalks of Hudson can be as busy as Manhattan’s on certain days of the week and seasons of the year. Wednesday wasn’t one of them. There was barely a pedestrian to be found. But Talbot and Arding, an excellent food purveyor that outgrew its location on Warren Street and recently moved to a larger more ambitious space on Allen Street, was serving several customers when I arrived.

I was disappointed to see they’d run out of their excellent muffaletta sandwich -- multiple layers of meat, cheese and dressing between wedges of a sesame loaf. But I did manage to score a couple of containers of their superb Bolognese sauce for an upcoming dinner.

My next stop was Verdigris, a teashop up the street from Talbott & Arding with an undersung candy counter. I picked out a selection of fruit jellies and since no day, in any season, would be complete without chocolate, a half pound of chocolate-covered candied orange peel. One of the secrets of surviving Covid, besides getting vaccinated and boostered, is treating yourself right.

To be perfectly honest, while I gratefully don’t suffer seasonal affect disorder I do a little guilt buying candy, especially fruit candy, for myself. It’s easier to make an argument for chocolate. Jelly candies shaped like the fruits whose taste they’re meant to mimic feels like an undisguised indulgence. But my mortification passed quickly as the salesperson cheerfully assembled them in a handsome box. As I drove up Warren Street and out of town I was grateful for the few stores that appeared open. They weren’t just businesses, they were points of light, sparks of humanity, glowing hearths in a dreary grey winter landscape.

Sometimes I ask myself why I have no interest in relocating to somewhere like Florida for the cold weather months, as many do. There’s nothing I like more than escaping somewhere warm for a week or so. But fleeing winter completely feels like an abdication of responsibility.

I can certainly appreciate the allure of hot sun and swimming among tropical fish in transparent turquoise water. One of my favorite moments comes in stepping off the plane and being hit by a tropical breeze. Until that moment you didn’t realize how tense your body was. But with the first satisfying blast of sun and heat you feel as if, not just your limbs, but your very pores and capillaries are suddenly able to relax, to let down their guard.

But a wholesale flight from the cold, only to return up north when the coast is clear, when the northern hemisphere has reestablished a friendlier relationship with the sun, seems to be living an artificial existence. Maybe I’m just envious. But it’s the seasons that lend structure and substance to life, at least the part of life that involves communion with the natural world. You can’t fully appreciate the rebirth of springtime without the withering of autumn, or the exuberance and easy living of summer without the struggles of winter.

There are birds outside my window – chickadees, nuthatches, titmouses – calling me to replenish the feeders. They, like me, don’t migrate south come winter. I have to believe that’s part of our affinity. A sunflower seed, especially one embedded in a cake of suet, and a pear-shaped jelly candy, taste sweeter in January and February than at any other time of the year.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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