Reflections on Wintering. A Winter Season Must Read.
The title of the book, Wintering: the power of rest and retreat in difficult times, really called to me. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Winter, to the point of fully rejecting it, but the words rest and retreat sounded inviting. I have always pushed winter away because it reflected the parts of myself back to me that I didn't want to see. It’s only natural to avoid what feels uncomfortable.
Winter is not just a season where we experience cold external temperatures but a period of apparent stagnation and darkness. We experience these periods in our personal life as our own internal winters. These personal winters happen at their own free will and aren't necessarily dictated by the currents of nature. Sometimes these personal winters can happen right in the height of summer. Just like the famous quote by Albert Camous “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. We could say there's an invincible winter that resides in all of us, as well.
There's no saying really, when these sticky and slow patches will occur, but what's important is how we allow ourselves to navigate them. In her book, Katherine describes life throughout the dark half of the year. Rather than numbering the chapters she divides the book up by months, starting in September and ending in march.
It is the story of her personal winter and how she made it through. She share her experiences dealing with her husbands and her own illnesses, her young sons' struggle in school, and the decision to pull him out of the system. Woven throughout the story she ties in the wheel of the year festivals and insight from the natural world. She writes her strategy for surviving winter as:
"Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting — is a radical act now, but it is essential." -Katherine May
Winter is not just about the weather and the holidays that occur in its rule, but rather an energy it carries. Time is cyclical, not linear, and getting in sync with the cyclical flow of life helps significantly to embrace all the elements of you and your life. The good, the bad, the sad and the happy.
When I think of my own personal winters, it's hard to establish where one begins and ends. I struggle with depression, so my first thought is that it seems my whole life has been one long winter. But when I take a good long second look, I can in fact separate the periods of darkness and distinguish pockets of light..
One particular winter that stands out for me, happened 5 years ago and lasted over the course of a year. For May, it was the year she turned 40. For me it was the year I turned 30, and I would describe it as either a dark night of the soul, or an early mid-life crisis. The darkness settled over me as I realized I wasn't where I wanted to be in life, more specifically, it was looking like motherhood wouldn't be in the cards for me. I was mourning the loss of the life I had envisioned. This led me on a soul search of “ what will my life look like without being someone's mother?” As a woman, I hadn't ever considered this route.
This same year, my grandmother, who was such an important figure in my life, passed away. Even though she was in her 80’s and lived a long life, witnessing her physically leave her body, was earth shattering.
So I did what any normal grieving person would do. I flew to Thailand to attend Yoga teacher training. Ha! I just put all my eggs into that basket and held on for dear life. I just knew I had to do this thing that would be the solution to my seemingly pitiful existence. Everything was hinging on my ability to fix my life in 200 hours.
It was exactly what I needed, absolutely changed my life and I wouldn't trade it for anything. But the experience almost killed me. I’m not being dramatic. When I came home, life came crashing down on me.
More about that in these posts: Yoga Teacher Training Reflections and 5 Things I Learned from my Mental Breakdown
Aside from these huge winters that make the deepest of impressions, I also have a lot of smaller winters over the course of a month, week, or even a day. The could be categorized as more of a melancholy mood, or a low vibrational funk. During these times I’m learning to show myself grace. It’s really hard to not push and pressure ourselves to keep going, cheer up, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It feels counter intuitive to let yourself sit with the discomfort and even sink into what you're feeling, rather than trying to fix it or figure it out.
May briefly mentions her struggle with depression and undiagnosed autism as a teen. In her other book The Electricity of Every Living Thing, she writes about coming to terms with her diagnosis while on a 630-mile journey on the South West Coast Path. When I had my own assortment of diagnoses slapped on me as a teenager, I took on the belief that there was something wrong with me, and that feeling sadness, anger or despair was a big problem that needed to be fixed.
Every time I felt something I believed I wasn't supposed to be feeling, I met it with resistance and felt super critical of myself for simply being who I am. A feeling, sensitive, empathic person in a fast past over stimulating world. While there are times and situations where interventions need to be had, and structures need to be in place to help people…the world could really benefit from a revised perspective on what it looks like to have a healthy range of emotions.
The messaging that being healthy and successful in life looks like smiling and being happy all the time is not helping anyone. If being happy all the time is our standard for peak mental health, we are setting everyone up for failure, because it's impossible. And if we are always failing at reaching that, then we will always be unhappy. The idea that we should be “on'' all the time like a happy bouncing ball of light with rainbows shooting out of our asses is just ridiculous. It’s unrealistic and it’s fake. No one's lives are like that. It does us all a disservice to pretend. This quote however, says it much better:
“There are days when I can say with great certainty that I am not strong enough to manage. And what if I can't hang on in there? What then? These people might as well be leaning into my face, shouting, Cope! Cope! Cope! While spraying perfume into the air to make it all seem nice. The subtext of these messages is clear: Misery is not an option. We must carry on looking jolly for the sake of the crowd. While we may no longer see depression as a failure, we expect you to spin it into something meaningful pretty quick. And if you can't pull that off, then you'd better disappear from view for a while. You’re dragging down the vibe.” -Katherine May
By talking about these personal winters, our hard patches, our dark moods, our vulnerable spots, we share our humanity and give permission to others to do the same. In fact, May’s belief is that it is our personal duty, after surviving our winters, to share our survival story with others. This is how we foster true connection.
“Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it's over, it's our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us. It’s an exchange of gifts in which nobody loses out…Watching winter and really listening to its messages, we learn that affect is often disproportionate to cause; that tiny mistakes can lead to huge disasters; that life is often bloody unfair, but it carries on happening with or without our consent. We learn to look more kindly on other people’s crises, because they are so often portents of our own future.” -Katherine May
For me, rest and retreat this season has looked like, bundling up in warm, knit socks and hats, keeping a fire burning and candles lit in the house, breathing in copious amounts of cold fresh air on hikes through the woods, nourishing myself with warm hearty soups and stews, sleeping in and curling up with a good book or three… or five.
Katherine May he has another book coming out this month called
Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age,
which I am looking forward to diving into.
She also has a podcast called: The Wintering Sessions.