Wintering: the Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times

By Katherine May; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman

Into every life there come periods of darkness and isolation, according to Katherine May.

This is wintering.

“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 an outsider,” she writes in her lyrical memoir.

Illness, a bereavement, a birth, a failure or a humiliation can provoke the darknesses. Wintering can slowly creep up on you — or suddenly slam you with a job loss or a relationship ending.

“However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful. Yet it’s also inevitable.”

May knows wintering well. Not realizing that she had autism until she was an adult, she spent “a childhood permanently out in the cold.” At 17, she had an immobilizing depression. She came to recognize her winterings as survivable and eventually passing. But she still had to find ways to live through them until spring.

The wintering that inspired this book began on a late summer day in early September a week before her fortieth birthday. She was celebrating with friends and children on Folkestone beach when her husband complains about not feeling well.

Two days later, he’s in the hospital with an inflamed appendix that bursts. The hospital is slow to do surgery. He develops an infection, a stubborn fever and low blood oxygen levels that refuse to return to normal.

A week earlier, she had given notice at her job as a university lecturer. She resigned hoping to find less stressful work. For about a year, she ignored symptoms that might have been bowel cancer. She develops a pain in her abdomen. A doctor’s visit reveals she doesn’t have cancer, but her stress is eating away at her.

Now, in the busy first weeks of a term, she’s taking a leave of absence.

Off work with a foggy brain and an eroding identity, she finds herself falling through a gap “in the mesh of the everyday world . . . into somewhere else.” She’s out of step with everyone else, seeing ghosts, and living in deep winter.

WINTERING is an eloquent pairing of essays and memoir going month by month from September through March as her psychic winter sets in and then gradually eases.

She observes that people tend to avoid wintering. They stay silent and try to ignore it. This represents a lost opportunity to connect with others and gain the wisdom of paying attention. We may not seek winter, but we can choose how we live through it, she notes.

For herself, she looked for small experiences like watching the sun rise with a cup of tea in hand or large ones like attending a Druids’ winter solstice observance at Stonehenge. She reread favorite childhood books, and attended a Swedish Santa Lucia celebration with song and candles in a London church. She cooked and drew, remembered seeing the aurora borealis on a trip to northern Finland, and dove into freezing waters as part of the Whitstable New Year swim.

The important part of wintering is allowing oneself time for reflection, recuperation, introspection and slowing down, she tells us.

Her beautifully written book is an invitation to deeply experience an inevitable part of life.

Wintering “is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need,” she writes. “It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can.”

The Author: Katherine May

Katherine May is a best-selling author and podcaster living in Whitstable, UK.

She wrote of her midlife autism diagnosis in THE ELECTRICITY OF EVERY LIVING THING. She’s also the author of the novel THE WHITSTABLE HIGH TIDE SWIMMING CLUB, and the anthology THE BEST, MOST AWFUL JOB, a collection of essays about motherhood that she edited.

Her work has also appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Observer and Aeon.






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