Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times
a book review
This month, I’ve been rereading one of my favorite books, and I wanted to share with you what I love about it.
Wintering by Katherine May is a wonderful hybrid memoir. It’s a personal narrative, cultural commentary, science and history exploration, with just a little bit of self-help guidance.
May’s memoir begins with a trifecta of misfortunes. She falls sick with a painful and undiagnosed illness that necessitates sick leave, her husband suffers a scary appendicitis attack, and her young son, who’s bullied relentlessly, stops attending school. May’s family hunkers down in an absolute retreat from the world’s demands and she tells the story of how they weather it, and in doing so provides her reader with companionship and wisdom for their own wintering.
Wintering is timely. Since March 2020, living through a ongoing global pandemic has brought us all to periods of wintering, time and again, whether it’s literally winter season or not. Early in the book May defines wintering:
“Everybody winters at one time or another…wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of outsider. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. Some winterings creep upon us more slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence…However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful...Yet it’s also inevitable” (10-1).
Maybe it’s May’s sensible British attitude seeping through her prose, but to me, she’s like a modern-day Mary Poppins, warmly encouraging and wise, but without the spoonful of sugar triteness. May knows exactly how to cope with wintering because she’s been there many times, and she’s vulnerably narrating from there. She’s rightly critical of a glut of Facebook posts “offering unsolicited advice on how to cope with a crisis: Hang on in there!” which she loathes. We’re “endlessly cheerleading ourselves into positivity while erasing the dirty underside of real life, which offer us next to nothing.” Because she calls out the cultural messages that tell us to just buck up, I trust her prescriptions for the existential malaise of winter, which are distilled down to simple things: sleep more, be kinder and gentler to yourself, accept that you’re in a period of wintering, and know that you’re not alone in this, we all winter. And when you come out of it, which indeed you will, you will have earned some wisdom that is then yours to share.
Though it seems like a book a about living through dark times would be a downer, it’s not. May curiously engages with the world as she surrenders to wintering. Her writing fascinates, especially when she writes of the natural world. There’s a wonderful section about dormice hibernation, a dispelling of the notion that a deciduous tree in winter is dormant, and a delightful chapter about experiencing the Northern Lights. There are musings on Halloween and on Druid rituals at Stonehenge during winter solstice. There’s even some literary talk of Sylvia Plath and C.S. Lewis. May susses out delightful wintery surprises at every turn.
In a section on wolves and why wolves have come to symbolize hunger, she writes,
“in the depths of winters, we are all wolfish. We want in the archaic sense of the word, as if we are lacking something and need to absorb it in order to be whole again. These wants are often astonishingly inaccurate: drugs and alcohol, which poison instead of reintegrate; relationships with people who do not make us feel safe or loved; objects we do not need, cannot afford, which hang around our necks like albatrosses of debt long after the yearning for them has passed. Underneath this chaos and clutter lies a longing for more elemental things—love, beauty, comfort, a short spell of oblivion once in a while. Everyday life is so often isolated, dreary, and lonely. A little craving is understandable, A little craving might actually be the rallying cry of survival” (158-9).
With hard-earned insight she lets us know the complexity of wintering, and how we can understand it in ourselves, which is the key to passing through it gratefully.
Another thing I like about this book is that it’s arranged in sections by month from September through March, which on my second read-through of the book, I found to be devotional like, as I’ve slowly been making my way through the book by each month of this calendar winter.
It’s comforting that May normalizes what is painful, what often time feels shameful in our culture. With great compassion and self-directed kindness, she leads the reader through her own time of wintering with inspiring details and reassurances that it’s okay to rest. It’s okay to retreat.
I hope that you if you find yourself wintering right now, that you too, may find the ways you need to rest and retreat so you may pass through it. Winter, after all, is only a season.
When have you been through a wintering? What was it like?
Why do you think it’s so hard sometimes to accept a period of wintering?
What are your strategies for rest and retreat when you’re wintering? How do you seek out small comforts of love and beauty?
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