Wintering: A Rite of Passage

I am about to end the year with a perfect, intimate, and revelatory memoir ‘Wintering’ by Katherine May. And I am so pleased, heart-warmed and none the wiser with the nuggets of wisdoms and the life lessons sprinkled throughout the book.

A moving personal narrative reinforced by examples and lessons from the natural world, wintering rituals, literature and mythology, the book offers instructions and wisdom on the transformative power of rest and retreat. From winter solstice rituals to dormice hibernation, from swimming in icy waters to sailing the arctic seas – the memoir looks at ways through which we can care for,restore, and reinvigorate ourselves when life throws some unexpected and anticipated bouncers our way.

Sometimes you slip through the cracks: unforeseen circumstances like an abrupt illness, the death of a loved one, a break up, or a job loss can derail a life. These periods of dislocation can be lonely and unexpected, writes the author. The book takes us through ways to change and adapt ourselves during our own winters – when things are bleak, harsh, hollow, lonely, and severe. It explores the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and philosophical nuances of our state of being during winter – both the season and the metaphor embodying our dark and dismal days.

Wintering for the author was a time when she and her husband fell ill, their son stopped attending school due to anxiety issues and during which she experienced moments of deep existential crisis. She writes about enduring this painful and dark time and also embracing and accepting the cyclical flow of life and learning from the opportunities it offered.

She advises an active acceptance of sadness similar to that of the winter season to find nourishment in retreat, joy in the quiet beauty of winter, and reassurance in understanding that life is cyclical, not linear. I particularly loved the continuous use of the word ‘liminal’ which relates to a transitional or initial stage of the process. In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage.

Although written before the onset of Covid, Wintering couldn’t have been more apt and timelier during our times of loneliness, desolation and isolation spiralled by the pandemic. Many of the things that we had relied upon — health, career, stability, family, linear progression— suddenly feel uncertain and we are left unmoored and marooned. We’ve all been surviving several such winters since early 2020, locked indoors with careers, social lives and travel plans in limbo.

Katherine May, who has earlier written before about her experience as someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, describes “wintering” as “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.” It might include bereavement, difficult childbirth, illness, the loss of a job, failure in love.

But it’s a time that comes for all of us, and the judiciousness is in embracing the uncertainty and possibilities for growth that exist in the liminal spaces of winter, which May calls as “the places between what once was and what will be later, between “the mundane and the magical.” She writes: “We must stop believing that these times in our lives are somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower. They are real, and they are asking something of us. We must learn to invite the winter in. We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how.”

Narrating about her present ‘winter’ the author also mentions that it wasn’t her first.. With undiagnosed autism during her childhood leading to depression at 17 and the final diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, she saw the chance to make herself new again. Wintering, she says, is a way to get through difficult times by hibernating, and healing. “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.”

Importantly, she negates the culture of “endlessly cheerleading ourselves into positivity while erasing the dirty underside of real life…” Although she agrees that “Happiness is the greatest skill we’ll ever learn,” she insists that it’s equally important to experience sadness. “We are taught to ignore sadness, to stuff it down into our satchels and pretend it isn’t there. As adults, we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need… Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.”

The book also explores the soothing powers of the natural world and the cyclical nature of lives, the way other creatures,cultures, and communities deal with winter. Her experience bathing in the hot geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon in frigid Reykjavik, Iceland, visiting the Stonehenge, seeing the Northern lights in Norway, and understanding the wintering rituals and traditions of her friends who have had borne harshest winters. Drawing on the analogy of tress, she writes: “The dropping of leaves by deciduous trees is called abscission. It occurs on the cusp between autumn and winter, as part of an arc of growth, maturity, and renewal.”

Writing about the cold climate of the winter,she says “the cold has healing powers…After all, you apply ice to a joint after an awkward fall. Why not do the same to a life?We let the cold unburden us of our own personal winters, just for a few moments.”

The author’s views on winter transcends to established notions in the society as well. Disagreeing with Aesop’s fable of “The grasshopper and the ant,”she notes “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…The most helpless members of our families and communities are what stick us together. It’s how we thrive. Our winters are social glue.”

May’s survival mantra is also to keep our hands and bodies moving – a walk to the sea, knitting, cooking et al. It merely “feels good to be making something, even while my contribution to the world feels very small,”she says. And when we are not moving, we have to be still and observe the things and people around us. In between doing and stillness, living and suffering, we see what we are capable of, what we can and cannot control—and so we rest.

For each of us, the Winters of the soul, spirit and body comes at different  times, in various dimensions and cycles, each teaching us something. “When you start tuning in to winter, you realise that we live through a thousand winters in our lives — some big, some small… Some winters creep up on us so slowly that they have infiltrated every part of our lives before we truly feel them,”she writes.

May contends that contrary to our notion, our lives are not really linear, but cyclical. So is our growth and progress in life in contrast to the dominant cultural narrative of self-improvement centring on linear progression and constant productivity. She writes, “we are in the habit of imagining our lives to be linear, a long march from birth to death in which we mass our powers, only to surrender them again, all the while slowly losing our youthful beauty. This is a brutal untruth. Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.”

She also advises to share our wintering wisdoms and learnings with others.“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, she reflects.

Wintering  is a warm shawl, a cosy fur coat,a soothing salve, and a treasure trove of wisdom. It convince us of the pleasures and sadness of the seasons, wisdom of slowing down, the comforts of rituals, the warmth of kindness and acceptance of bleak and dark periods in our lives to welcome the clear dazzling light once again. So, embrace your winter, as truly reflected by writer Albert Camus, “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

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