Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times

Book cover
Katherine May
Star Rating
Reviewer's Rating
Sep 1, 2021

When you start tuning in to winter, you realise that we live through a thousand winters in our lives--some big, some small.

Sometimes you find yourself reading a book so full of interesting, exciting ideas that the author has found a way to express so clearly and exquisitely that they are both familiar and revelatory, that the book continuously sparks moments of resonant discovery so that you find yourself stopping to have your own related ideas, pondering your own life in light of the new perspectives just gained from the reading, marking passages to revisit, taking notes to develop later, and by the end you are bursting so full of ideas, a mix of the author's and your own, that you just have to write or speak or sing or paint or in some way express them for the joy of it. This is one of those books. I was perhaps particularly receptive to it right now because it is--if there is such a thing--a perfect book for a pandemic, for this time when life is so far from normal for so many of us.

In this series of essays, May explores the idea of winter in both a literal and figurative sense as something to embrace. Winter is a weather season, but also times in our lives of hardship, of illness, job loss, depression, disaster, mourning. It is those times we are struggling and suffering, in ways big and small, that interrupt the normal course of things. May uses nature as inspiration to orient herself to a new attitude toward winter. It is not a bleak and barren thing to avoid at all costs and hide from others in shame, but an unavoidable and necessary part of life. While not entirely enjoyable, winter is still a time of rest and recuperation, subtle growth and productivity; while maybe not something to embrace with excitement, periods of winter should be accepted as normal and healthy. It is a time of transformation and opportunity.

The essays are a mix of memoir and philosophy. May's project was spurred by a quick succession of events that threw her life into disarray: her husband had a serious illness, she had a serious illness, her six-year-old needed to be pulled from school, and she left her job. She relates these events, along with previous periods of winter in her life such as losing her voice, and reflects on them. She also uses her new found time to make a series of explorations into winter in other ways: traveling to see the northern lights, joining the solstice celebration at Stonehenge, cold-water swimming, a trip to Iceland, bee hibernation, New Year rituals, wolves and their mythology, literature, and more. She interviews experts in various winter-related areas and makes new friends. Through all of this, May learns to see--to know--winter in a new way. She shares her wisdom and insight with readers with writing that is clear and intimate and enjoyable, and that leads them to reflections of their own.

It is a book for comfort and meditation.

Nature shows that survival is a practice. Sometimes it flourishes--lays on fat, garlands itself in leaves, makes abundant honey--and sometimes it pares back to the very basics of existence in order to keep living. It doesn't do this once, resentfully, assuming that one day it will get things right and everything will smooth out. It winters in cycles, again and again, forever and ever. It attends to this work each and every day. For plants and animals, winter is part of the job. The same is true for humans.

To get better at wintering, we need to address our very notion of time. We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical. I would not, of course, seek to deny that we gradually grow older, but while doing so, we pass through phases of good health and ill, of optimism and deep doubt, of freedom and constraint. There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard. To make that manageable, we just have to remember that our present will one day become a past, and our future will be our present. We know that because it's happened before. The things that trouble us now will one day be past history. Each time we endure the cycle, we ratchet up a notch. We learn from the last time around, and we do a few things better this time; we develop tricks of the mind to see us through. This is how progress is made. But one this is certain: we will simply have new things to worry about. We will have to clench our teeth and carry on surviving again.

In the meantime, we can deal only with what's in front of us at this moment in time. We take the next necessary action, and the next. At some point along the way, that next action will feel joyful again.

Reviewed by Chris K.
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