We were in the middle of last year’s long covid winter when I heard Katherine May interviewed on NPR and I became intrigued enough to read her book, which I loved. By the time I wrote the review, it was spring and I was feeling optimistic, the need for recommending Wintering fading. However, here we are again, another winter, another covid surge, and I find myself returning to the book and to the review.
May emphasizes that when we are in winter, a physical one, or an emotional one, we sometimes need to retreat from the world, gather up our resources, conserve our energy, and take care of ourselves. Thus we will gradually be ready to re-enter the world. She points out that winter happens to all of us at some time in our lives, as inevitable as the cycle of the seasons. “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. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child…perhaps you are in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds.”
May describes herself as having wintered more than once in her life, the first when she was 17 years old and fell into a deep depression. She was diagnosed with autism at that time. However, this book was propelled by an autumn where May was overwhelmed at work and resigned her position as a university lecturer. Her husband became ill with perforated appendicitis and sepsis, May herself developed debilitating abdominal pain, and her son was being bullied in school and she needed to withdraw him. When she is forced to rest due to her illness, she feels that she has worked herself into being sick. And when she sits in her house at the time of rest, she sees how much she has neglected at home.
This book is part memoir, but it is not a “tell-all”. May gives us just enough but not much information about her job, son or husband and I wonder if she is protecting them, or whether it’s part of her autism. The focus of the book is about ways that May has learned to survive winter and tidbits of interesting research and interviews about how others survive winter: people, animals, plants. She describes winter routines of Scandinavians, dormice, trees and bees, as well as myths and fairy tales relating to winter. The result is a potpourri of interesting observations interweaved with May’s personal story of self-care. For example, May describes how good she feels after swimming in the ocean during the winter, accompanied by referencing studies which show that immersion in cold water increases dopamine as well as decreasing fatigue and tension. And did you know that beehives generate heat?
May has a unique way of looking at the world. For example, she recalls the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, where the grasshopper plays all summer and does not store food for the winter. The busy ants work and store food and they chastise the grasshopper for not preparing. May describes being aghast, as a child, at the lack of charity of the ants. And she sees the story as a way we sometimes look at those in our society who are not doing well, who are needy, as not preparing for the future.
As she says “this amorphous crowd, knocking on the door of the decent folk who work for a living, who always pay their way.” And she concludes “If only life were so stable, happy and predictable as to produce ants instead of grasshoppers, year in and year out. The truth is that we all have ant years and grasshopper years—years in which we are able to prepare and save and years where we need a little extra help. Our true flaw lies not in failing to store up enough resources to cope with the grasshopper years, but in believing that each grasshopper year is an anomaly, visited only on us, due to our unique human failings.”
With the devastation of 2021 so fresh in my mind, I think about all of those who have suffered, who perhaps have worked, even as ants, and tried to prepare. But who could prepare for this kind of wintering? And I would hope that the ants who have enough will help those who don’t.
As we all try to make the best of our situations or dig out/re-adjust to what is, May finds it most helpful to have “friends who wince along with our pain, who tolerate our gloom, and who allow us to be weak for a while when we’re finding our feet again.” “There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard. The things we put behind us will often come around again….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…”
I highly recommend this book. It was a really enjoyable and meaningful read. As I prepared to retire, last summer, I re-read it and it gave me a warning that I would be placing myself between two worlds, and shouldn’t be surprised if I needed to retreat and regroup as my life shifted. And now, as we cope with another Covid winter and a need to pull back once again, it feels like the perfect time to read (or re-read) Wintering.