The winter season can be a difficult time each year – the shorter days and extended darkness, the cold weather driving us indoors, and the packed season of holidays that can create stress and pressure. On top of these regular winter challenges, this year we’ve been ushered into these frigid months along the backdrop of a pandemic. Visiting with loved ones is more difficult if not impossible, favorite places are no longer accessible in ways they were before, and many holiday comforts have to be either postponed or cancelled. Fatigue and disconnection feel more commonplace than ever before as we begin the coldest and darkest months of the year.
While collectively hunkering down for what is likely to be a physically as well as a psychologically challenging winter, Katherine May’s new book “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times” provides a strong feeling of connection and comfort through its deeply relatable reflectiveness. Part memoir, part cultural study, part scientific observation, part travelogue, May explores the season through numerous angles and disciplines while also sharing her own definition of wintering, describing it as “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.” While this definition sounds difficult and undesirable, May brings great appreciation to these difficult but, at times, unavoidable periods, just as she does to the season itself.
“Wintering” opens with the discovery that May’s husband is very ill. While he recovers early on, stress and physical pain leads May to a wintering period of her own. Her personal reflections on this difficult period are poetic as well as perceptive – she notes the difficulty of this out-of-sorts feeling paired with our tendency to deny its existence to others: “We treat each wintering as an embarrassing anomaly that should be hidden or ignored… Yet we do this at a great cost. Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.”
Throughout this deeply personal narrative, May delves into the winter season from a variety of lenses. She shares the details of hibernation for the humble dormouse, as well as the cold weather preparations of a beehive. She recounts her time travelling to the Arctic Circle while pregnant to see the Northern Lights and experiencing the frigid cold of Iceland. She interviews a Finnish friend about the necessity of a sauna, and witnesses a celebration of the winter solstice at Stonehenge. While exploring the winter around her, however, May takes the time to tend to her own wintering, advising that “doing those deeply unfashionable things – slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting – is a radical act now, but it is essential. This is a crossroads we all know, a moment when you need to shed a skin. If you do, you’ll expose all those painful nerve endings and feel so raw that you’ll need to take care of yourself for a while. If you don’t, then that skin will harden around you.”
During the challenges of this year’s winter, here is the hope that we can all take at least a bit of time to tend to ourselves when needed.
Check out “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times” at your closest Denver Public Library location.
Hannah Evans is the senior librarian at the Smiley Branch of the Denver Public Library.