I was busy envisioning myself lounging on a beach somewhere when a fellow POPSUGAR editor recommended I check out Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times ($24) by Katherine May. Winter? Reader, it was mid-March and I was done with the brutal cold, absolutely finished with a draining year of COVID-era isolation. How about a book tracing a newly-vaccinated woman's summer spent recklessly germ-swapping her way through Bora Bora?
But Wintering is, as my colleague promised, the exact kind of clear and comforting read I didn't know I needed. Throughout the book's 250-odd pages, May lays out fascinating research on the ways Indigenous communities, Nordic families, and even dormice navigate winter. Woven throughout is another more personal layer in which May shares her own period of isolation and rejection, a complicated knot of medical issues, professional uncertainty, and parenting obstacles that tangle all at once. "My only tenable position is to retreat into a dignified silence," May writes of her struggle. "But that's not what I want at all. I want to give an account of myself, force everyone else to understand."
Wintering succeeds in delivering a powerful, realtime account of what it is to experience life's inevitable winters — both literal and metaphorical — and come out on the other side. I can think of no more valuable voice to have in your ear as we stumble our way out of a pandemic and emerge from a collective wintering. Soon, we'll have a choice: Do we sprint breathlessly towards summer without looking back? Or do we pause in the discomfort, reflect on our suffering, and move forward gently with a bit more compassion for ourselves and each other?
I was so enamoured with the quiet power of Wintering that I reached out to May to discuss it with her, as well as how we can all give ourselves the opportunity to emerge from this cold season with, as May would call it, a new kind of coat.
"It's really important that we go through it, and it's important that we learn to embrace it, because it comes to absolutely all of us and yet we tend to keep it a secret."
POPSUGAR: Can you explain what a "wintering" is for readers?
Katherine May: So "wintering" is the idea that there are times in our life when we fall through the cracks. That might come after a big life event, like a divorce or a bereavement, or loss of a job is a big one. It could come from mental or physical illness. It could come when there's a global pandemic, but those times, although they come for loads of different reasons, they actually are united by common experience. We're all having similar experiences for different reasons, and that is that feeling of not being able to take part in everyday life for a while, being cut off, isolated, rejected, feeling like you failed. That sense of watching the rest of the world carry on almost as if you're the other side of glass and not really being able to get back on top.
I always go out of my way to say that this is a really horrible and difficult time, and yet it is actually a really important part of our experience. It's really important that we go through it, and it's important that we learn to embrace it, because it comes to absolutely all of us and yet we tend to keep it a secret. It becomes very associated with shame and secrecy. It's really time we started talking about those moments, and I think we can manage them better. We can't rush them, we can't avoid them, but we can manage them better and cope with them better if we can learn to look them in the eye and actually go consciously through them.
PS: A lot of what I took away from the book was the amount of unnecessary guilt and shame we carry from these winterings.
KM: Often we carry this shame into the next phase of our life as well and think that we did it wrong. We blame ourselves or we become bitter at other people. And actually, [wintering is] such a normal part of the life cycle. You could never live your life well enough to avoid it altogether.
PS: And everybody is going to have their own winter at some point or another.
KM: Absolutely, yeah. And probably more than one, let's face it. You'll be doing very, very well if you get away with just one.
Wintering author Katherine May. Image Source: Sarah Norling
PS: So I imagine that you conceptualized and wrote this book way before coronavirus hit. This was published in 2020. So what was it like to realise that you were publishing such an apt book for the moment?
KM:It's strange. So [the book] came out in the UK about three weeks before we went into lockdown. So I had about three weeks of people talking about it as if it was a book about something else, and then ever since then, everyone thought it's a pandemic book. It's really weird. People keep throwing paragraphs at me that seem to refer almost directly to the pandemic and I look at them and think, "Wow, that's weird, isn't it?" I have no predictive powers whatsoever. I would love to claim that I had this amazing insight. The truth of it is that this is actually just a really common experience, and the pandemic means we've all been doing it at the same time, but it doesn't really change the encounter that we have with the world. The restrictions are different, the specifics are different, but actually I think it maybe proves my point that wintering is a state of being and it's recognisable even when everything's thrown up in the air like this, I guess.
PS: Right. There were so many points throughout your book where you mentioned being together with other people during your winter. And this has been such an isolating winter for so many people, even though we're all going through it together. We're together, but separate.
KM: I say that a lot, actually. I say it's a mass wintering, but it's not a communal wintering. Actually, we're all feeling different things. It's all being caused for different reasons. So you might be wintering because you're lonely or you might be wintering because you've been thrown into a small house with loads of people and you haven't got any personal space. You might be wintering cause you're ill. There's loads and loads of different reasons that it causes a wintering. So actually, it's been harder than ever to get together and find those comforts and actually talk about our common ground. And in some ways, it's caused conflict because I think everyone thinks that there's a supreme version of the wintering that happens in a pandemic and there actually isn't. It's just all suffering. We have to be sympathetic to each other's suffering, I guess.
PS: And to that point, I think [many of us are] anticipating that the literal spring and summer, at least in the US, is going to be a little bit of a more normal spring and summer. But I do feel like for a lot of people, it is going to be a season of wintering. A lot of people are going to come out of this with completely changed lives and families.
KM: Actually, when people say, "Well, the summer's coming, it's all getting better," a little bit of my stomach clenches, because I think a lot of people aren't realising that the worst is yet to come for loads of us. That the emotional impact of this is going to hit once the normal aspects of life return. And there's a whole load of grief that hasn't come yet. There's a whole load of change that hasn't come yet. There's a whole load of going back into normal life and realising how much you've changed and how much you don't want your old life anymore. There's definitely a lot more to come, unfortunately. I don't want to be the harbinger of terrible news. The sun will make it feel a bit better, but it's not going to solve everything, I don't think.
"I think that's an interesting insight, that although [women] suffer from our winterings, we also inhabit that space really well. We're set up to do it. And we do draw our powers from it a little bit, I think, in a witchy way."
PS: What do you hope readers, particularly readers who picked up the book during COVID, take away from it as they move towards a post-pandemic life?
KM: I think, first of all, the biggest message has to be taking care of yourself, actually addressing your needs. That term self care has been co-opted in the last few years away from where it began, which is in the disability movement. And it's been taken into this luxury space that I find really frustrating. So it becomes about buying a scented candle or having a lovely bubble bath or going to a spa. Believe me, I love all those things, but actual self care, you could be doing all of that and you still couldn't be looking after yourself necessarily. Self care is much more basic than that. It's about honestly looking at your needs and how exhausted you are or where you are emotionally or what you're unable to do because you're so overwhelmed and genuinely addressing those with love and kindness and without judgement. Your needs may be different to other people even, and that's okay. I would love people to take that away from the book, self-compassion.
I think the other big thing is letting go of control; stop thinking that we can somehow wrestle control over the way our lives go to the extent that we can prevent bad things happening, and therefore not punishing ourselves when they happen. Because actually, once you relax your tight grip on what you think you're doing to your life, life becomes an awful lot easier. It's just a big simplification, and you realise that a lot of the pain you're in is because you're trying to take control over something that's uncontrollable, rather than accepting it for what it is and working with what you've actually got. It doesn't mean that you can't affect any change in your life. It doesn't mean that you can't control your response, but we have this big myth that we're in control, and it's painful to let go of it. I really hope that maybe some of us can begin to do that and just to simplify everything a little bit more.
PS: For you, personally, how do you recognise when a "spring" is coming around again?
KM: Everything feels a little bit easier again, and I feel more motivated to do stuff. I can feel my engines revving. And I think that's how it feels when you come out of a metaphorical winter as well. You feel ready, you feel motivated again, you feel drawn to social contact. You don't feel so frustrated all the time or so thwarted, I guess. But it's not linear. You have to go easy at the end of wintering.
You often have setbacks and you have to be ready for that, and to know that you have to pace yourself for a little while. And so to get used to it and to get used to a new world order, because actually there's always some big change that's happened when you come out of a wintering, and it takes us a while to feel our way through. So I think, yes, we know when we're ready, but that means going with how you feel on a day-to-day basis and not pushing yourself and not punishing yourself if you can't go from zero to 80 miles an hour in a few seconds.
PS: Is there anything else about Wintering, particular to women or motherhood, that you would want to touch on?
KM: [I would] add the Sylvia Platt quote, which is, "Winter is for women." That's from the poem Wintering. She actually says winter is for women, which I think is really interesting. This is the time when we are supposed to be at the height of our powers, actually. In the Celtic tradition, winter is seen as the feminine period of the year and some other kind of masculine time. They often call winter gestational, like it's this time of brewing and nurture and massing your energies. I think that's an interesting insight, that although we suffer from our winterings, we also inhabit that space really well. We're set up to do it. And we do draw our powers from it a little bit, I think, in a witchy way.
PS: Anything witchy is good for me. And I love the idea that the feminine season is the one that's more difficult to survive.
KM: Yeah. That's what [women] do though, isn't it? We're actually very good at hunkering down. It's not that we don't suffer in it, but we come out the other end very well.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For more on wintering, check out Katherine May's podcast The Wintering Sessions and read her book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times ($24).