Wintering: How I learned to flourish when life became frozen

Katherine May

Finished Reading:
Jul 26, 2020

Edition Publisher:

Edition Release:
Feb 6, 2020

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ISBN 9781846045981

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Highlights & Annotations

“Either way, I felt with great certainty that we should talk about these things, and that I, having learned some strategies, should share them. It didn't save me from another dip and another dip, but each time the peril became less. I began to get a feel for my winterings: their lengths and their breadth, their heft. I knew that they didn't last forever. I knew that I had to find the most comfortable way to live through them until spring.” (11)

“Plants and animals don't fight the winter; they don't pretend it's not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through.” (13)

“Doing those deeply unfashionable things– slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting – are radical acts these days, but they are 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 old skin will harden around you.

 It's one of the most important choices you'll make.” (14)

“The problem with ‘everything’ is that it ends up looking an awful lot like nothing: just one long haze of frantic activity, with all the meaning sheared away. Time has passed so quickly while I have been raising a child and writing books and working a full-time job that often sprawls into my weekends, that I can't quite account for it. The preceding years are not a blank exactly, but they're certainly a blur, and one that’s strangely devoid of meaning, except for a clawing sense of survival.” (20)

“I have used up all my energy just to see this, and it's worth it. But how could I ever justify that to the outside world? How could I ever admit that I chose a muffled roar of starlings over the noisy demands of the workplace?” (36)

  • The stress that comes from feeling like you need to constantly justify rest

“I've been wound so tight with stress that I can no longer see past my own knots, and now, having relax ever-so-slightly, I'm feeling the full force of its impact. I'm run down. I've skittered over to Iceland in the wake of a bomb blast, and now the aftershock has caught up with me. Life is clearly teaching me some kind of lesson, but I can't decipher it yet. I'm worried that it's about doing less, about staying at home and giving up on adventures for a while. That's not something I want to learn.” (43)

“I shrink from even writing these words, because I do not have friends who pray like this, or who talk about the world in this sense. I'm ashamed of it. I find myself groping for the basic vocabulary to express what I mean. I flinch away from the certainties of religion, and from the carefully non-committal language that I find online – the Internet-spiritual, celebrating the moments in which we're blessed and grateful, but reluctant to pin down by whom are blessed, or to whom were grateful. I could not, in the tradition of various 12-step programs, defer to a higher power without knowing exactly what that higher power constituted, and what they would have me believe, and whether I agree with their principles. I am a profoundly rational being, prone to asking questions. I cannot accept vagueness. I require a systematic understanding of any beliefs that I might hold. I need them to make coherent sense.

But my prayers – earthwise as they are – take me to a place that I am unable to dissect or scrutinize, a space beyond words. When I'm not praying, I struggle to imagine a god that I would be willing to pray to, but still I am drawn to prayer for prayer’s sake. It is an act that my mind knows, that happens without my intervention. (133)

“Here is another truth about wintering: you'll find wisdom in your winter, and once it's over, it's your responsibility to pass it on. And in return, it's our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us. It's an exchange of gifts in which nobody loses out. This may involve the breaking of a lifelong habit, passed down carefully through generations: that of looking at other people's misfortunes and feeling certain that they brought them up upon themselves in a way that you never would. This isn't just an unkind attitude, it does us harm, because it stops us from learning that disaster happens, and how to adopt when it does. It stops us from reaching out to people who are suffering. And, when our own disaster comes, it forces us into a humiliated retreat, as we try to hunt down mistakes that we never made in the first place, or wrongheaded attitudes that we never held. Either that, or we become certain that there must be someone out there we can blame. Watching winter, and really listening to its messages, we learned that effect 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 kindly on other people's crises, because they are so often portents of our own future.” (143)

“... but I was also gripped by the notion that I need to get an awful lot better at being an adult before I could produce a child. As I have for most of my life, I felt that I was just on the cusp of getting it all right, and only needed a little more time.” (156)

“‘I'd been waiting a decade for the medication to mend me. The change came when I stopped believing it could.’

That pivotal point came, for Dorte, when she found a fresh perspective on her situation that changed the way she conceptualized it. Feeling that, yet again, the drugs weren't working, she made an appointment with her GP, and happened to see a doctor she’d never met before. He told her that they could keep tinkering with her medication, but it would never solve everything. ‘This isn't about you getting fixed’, he said, ‘this is about you living the best life you can with the parameters you have.’

He was the first person to ever say that, and the effect was profound. Perhaps a year before – perhaps even less than that – she wouldn't have been ready to hear it, but that day she was. It should have been devastating to face the idea that she would always be bipolar; after all, it was currently having a terrible impact on her health and happiness. But for durte, this is not a moment of lost hope, but an invitation to finally adapt to what she needed. ‘Nobody ever said to me: you need to live a life that you can cope with, not the one that other people want. Start saying ‘no’. Just do one thing a day. No more than two social events in a week. I owe my life to him.’” (207)

“We may sometimes drift through years in which we feel like a negative presence in the world, but we come back again, not only restored, but bringing more than we brought before: more wisdom, more compassion, greater capacity to reach deep into our roots and know that we will find water.” (236)

“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. We don't have the answers, after all. And if she can't pull that off, then you'd better disappear from view for a while. You're dragging down the vibe.

 This is opposite of caring.” (266)

“I would never dream of suggesting that we should wallow in misery, or shrink from doing everything we can to alleviate it; but I do think it's instructive. After all, unhappiness as a function: it tells us that something is going wrong. If we don't allow ourselves the fundamental honesty of our own sadness, then we miss an important cue to adopt. We seem to be living in an age where we're bombarded with entreaties to be happy, but we're suffering from an avalanche of depression; we urge to stop sweating the small stuff, and yet we're chronically anxious. I often wonder if these are just normal feelings that become monstrous when they're denied. A great deal of life will always suck. There will be moments when we’re riding high, and moments when we can't bear to get out of bed. Both are normal. Both, in fact, require a little perspective.” (267) Yes!

“But here I am, and here it is. The only difference – only reason I have finished this – is experience. I recognized winter. I saw it coming ( a mile off, since you asked), and I looked it in the eye. I greeted it, and let it in. I had some tricks up my sleeve, you see. I've learned that the hard way. When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favourite child: with kindness and love. I assume my needs were reasonable, and that my feelings were signals of something important. I kept myself well-fed, and made sure I was getting enough sleep. I took myself for walks in the fresh air, and spent time doing things that soothe me. I asked myself: what is this winter all about? I ask myself: what change is coming?

At its base, this book is not about beauty, but about reality. It is about noticing what's going on, and living it. That's what the natural world does: it carries on surviving. Sometimes it flourishes... sometimes it pays back to the very basics of existence in order to keep living. It doesn't do this once, essentially, assuming that one day it will get things right and everything will smooth out. Winters in Cycles, like, forever and ever. For plants and animals, winter is part of the job. The same is true for humans

To get better at wintering, we need to address our very notion of time. We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical. I would not, of course, seek to deny that we grow gradually older, but while doing so, we pass through phases of good health and Ill, of optimism and deep doubt, a freedom and constraint. There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard. To make that manageable, we only have to remember that our present will one day become a past, and our future will be our present. We know that, because it's happened before. The things we put behind us will often come around again. The things that trouble us now will one day be past history. Each time we enjoyed the cycle, we brought it up a notch. We learned from the last time around, and we do a few things better this time; we develop tricks of the mind to see us through. This is how progress is made. But one thing is certain: we will simply have different things to worry about. We will have to clench your teeth and carry on surviving again.

In the meantime, we can only deal with what's in front of us at this moment in time. We take the next necessary action, and the next. At some point along the line, that next action will feel joyful again.” ( 269-71)