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Therapy on dark winter days

An early memory that I treasure and often revisit is of when I was about eight years old and I was staying with my grandparents at their cabin in Meyers Chuck on a dark fall or winter day. It was overcast, windy, and raw outside. The water was a dark, angry grey, slapping at the boats moored at the dock across the harbor and rocking them, making the bells on the tops of the trolling poles ring out. Inside the house the wood stove was crackling and a pot of fragrant coffee perked on top of it. My grandparents were quietly reading books and exchanging comments while I was curled up on the couch coloring.

The waxy smell of the crayons, the rough texture of the paper in the coloring book about fairy tales, the picture of a young man attempting to strike a flint stone and my grandmother’s explanation of what a flint stone was and why it had been so important — she knew that as a bush kid I’d appreciate the need for fire in heating, cooking, and lighting — all come back to me in a flood of warmth accompanied by a deep sense of security.

It’s not a lone memory. My mom always loved coloring and she brought us kids up to color alongside her, particularly during those cold, dark days when we couldn’t play outside. I have many memories of all of us grouped around the table or on the floor with the stove emitting heat and an audiotape playing The Lost World or Wind in the Willows as we shared stubby, broken crayons, squabbling over whose turn it was to use the peach or sky blue.

We were in perpetual awe at my mom’s intricate coloring and asked her how we could color like she did. Her reply was always the same, “It’s just practice. The more you do the better you get at it.”

We all tried, but I don’t think any of us ever really believed we’d be as good as she was. And, to be honest, we never did attain to her level. Her ability to put light and shadow into a bland, flat drawing, to bring people and images vibrantly to life, is, in my opinion, without parallel. Many was the time I’d give up coloring for the greater pleasure of watching a scene come to life under her skillful fingers.

All of the children who have stayed with us get hooked on the joys of coloring. Twelve-year-old A. Darden, who visits us regularly and spends summers with us (along with her brother), asked if we’d get her a coloring book based on the Archie comics, her favorite reading material. We were able to do so and when she visits us in these cold days she takes pleasure in spending quality time with Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and Reggie in summery Riverdale.

“What’s your favorite part of coloring?” I asked her.

“The colors,” she said firmly.

My mom said she’d have to agree. “It’s all about the colors. I can remember the very first picture I colored,” she added. “I was about three, I think. It was of a chicken and an egg. I remember trying really hard to get the colors just right and I must have colored it really well — I think I was shading even then — because the adults all raved about it.”

With that kind of validation, not common from adults to children when she was growing up, she became addicted to coloring, and not just for the pleasure of it.

Long before the current adult coloring book fad, before therapists found out the soothing qualities of coloring and recommended it to their patients, my mom always turned to her coloring books whenever she was going through a stressful time (being often entirely alone in the wilderness with five kids, for example), and especially when she’s coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Dr. Nicki Martinez, Psy.D., LCPC, writing for The Huffington Post, says that “There are many times when I suggest adult coloring books to patients and they look at me like perhaps we should be switching seats. However, time and again, they come back to me and tell me how beneficial they find them to be. Many psychologists and therapists ‘prescribe’ these to patients for various reasons, and many occupational therapists prescribe them as well!”

As additional good news — my mom is always worrying that she’s on the verge of complete cognitive disintegration — Dr. Martinez also maintains that “coloring has intellectual benefits as well. It utilizes areas of the brain that enahance focus and concentration. It also helps with problem solving and organizational skills. This may sound strange, and like perhaps the usefulness is being stretched, but it is all true. Our frontal lobes are responsible for these higher level activities and functions of the brain, and coloring detailed pictures activates all those properties.”

Plus, she adds: “Coloring utilizes both hemispheres of the brain, right and left. When we are thinking about balance, color choices, applying colored pencil to paper, we are working on problem solving and fine motor skills.”

My sister, Megan A. Duncanson, a world-renowned artist, created her own coloring book titled “In the Garden.” (It’s available at Amazon and elsewhere.) In the front matter she wrote a dedication to my mom, saying, “She raised my four siblings and me to appreciate the arts and we would spend endless hours coloring in stacks upon stacks of coloring books as children. It was one of the most memorable and enjoyable parts of my childhood growing up in the remote bush of Alaska.”

I feel the same way, and, in fact, I’m getting the urge to pick up a coloring book and start coloring to ward off the cold and short days of winter.


• Tara Neilson writes from a floathouse between Wrangell and Ketchikan and blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com.


Megan A. Duncanson works on sketches for a new Alaska-themed coloring book in her Miami studio. Photo by Tara Neilson

Megan A. Duncanson works on sketches for a new Alaska-themed coloring book in her Miami studio. Photo by Tara Neilson

Romi Neilson’s coloring of a page out of the Archie coloring book. Photo by Tara Neilson

Romi Neilson’s coloring of a page out of the Archie coloring book. Photo by Tara Neilson

A. Darden curls up under an afghan as the temperature outside drops to the low twenties. She’s transported to sunny Riverdale as she colors. Photo by Tara Neilson

A. Darden curls up under an afghan as the temperature outside drops to the low twenties. She’s transported to sunny Riverdale as she colors. Photo by Tara Neilson

This is the coloring corner of Romi Neilson (Tara Neilson’s mother). She uses a mixture of gel pens and pencils to get the shading she likes. Photo by Tara Neilson

This is the coloring corner of Romi Neilson (Tara Neilson’s mother). She uses a mixture of gel pens and pencils to get the shading she likes. Photo by Tara Neilson

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