Memoir Mental Health Personal Growth

Read Wintering

Read Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult T…

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. For May, her husband fell ill, her son stopped attending school, and her own medical issues led her to leave a demanding job. Wintering explores how she not only endured this painful time, but embraced the singular opportunities it offered.

A moving personal narrative shot through with lessons from literature, mythology, and the natural world, May’s story offers instruction on the transformative power of rest and retreat. Illumination emerges from many sources: solstice celebrations and dormice hibernation, C.S. Lewis and Sylvia Plath, swimming in icy waters and sailing arctic seas.

Ultimately Wintering invites us to change how we relate to our own fallow times. May models an active acceptance of sadness and finds nourishment in deep retreat, joy in the hushed beauty of winter, and encouragement in understanding life as cyclical, not linear. A secular mystic, May forms a guiding philosophy for transforming the hardships that arise before the ushering in of a new season.

Liked some of this, wasn’t sure about other parts. The second half I liked better than the first. She has a keen eye for observation and describes her feelings vividly. I liked the bits of other places and natural history — dabbling in other people’s cultures less so. I’m not sure it all pulled together for me though I thought she ended it well.


Emphasis mine.

What winter is

Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

“That’s what you learn in winter: there is a past, a present, and a future. There is a time after the aftermath.

“[W]e are in the habit of imagining our lives to be linear, a long march from birth to death…This is a brutal untruth…We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones.”

“Winter opens up time.”

“That’s the gift of winter: it’s irresistible. Change will happen in its wake, whether we like it or not.”


Finding relief from winter

“I was scuppering myself.” <– I like this phrasing.

This is like the come down from adrenaline: you can run for a while on the chemical shock of your fight or flight system, but when you let up, it hits you:

I had been wound so tight with stress that I could no longer see past my own knots, and now, having relaxed ever so slightly, I’m feeling the full force of its impact.

What to do when you feel the onset of winter:

“When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favoured child: with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable and that my feelings were signals of something importantI asked myself: What is this winter all about? I asked myself: What change is coming?

Build yourself a buffer in good times:

“All of these things make a buffer, and I say I like to keep my buffer broad. Sometimes problems come up that narrow my buffer, and then I have to make sure I build it up again. Keeping well is almost a full-time job. But I have a wonderful life.” — Dorte Lyager

Community care

On asking for and accepting help:

“Some winters creep up on us so slowly that they have infiltrated every part of our lives before we truly feel them.” “I can’t help but feel that I let the stress run so far out of control that it has begun to eat away at me; that I should have asked for help sooner. But then stress is a shameful thing, a proclamation of my inability to cope.

“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.

Usefulness is a useless concept when it comes to humans.

Welcome liminal spaces

Over and again, we find that winter offers us liminal spaces to inhabit…The work of the cold season is to learn to welcome them.

Don’t flinch away from sleep and sleeplessness:

“There is not enough night left for us. We have lost our true instincts for darkness, its invitation to spend some time in the proximity of our dreams.

“Sleep is not a dead space, but a doorway to a different kind of consciousness—one that is reflective and restorative, full of tangential thought and unexpected insights.” “Yet we are pushing away this innate skill we have for digesting the difficult parts of life.”

Accept invitations to difference:

“A snow day is a wild day, a spontaneous holiday when all the tables are turned…Here was yet another liminal space, a crossing point between the mundane and the magical. Winter, it seems, is full of them: fleeting invitations to step out of the ordinary.

Marking and honoring the passage of time:

“The year will move on no matter what, but by paying attention to it, feeling its beat, and noticing the moments of transition—perhaps even taking time to think about what we want from the next phase in the year—we can get the measure of it.”


Embracing all emotions

Happiness is the greatest skill we’ll ever learn. It is not a part of ourselves that should be hived off into a dark corner, the shameful territory of the wilfully naive. Happiness is our potential, the product of a mind that’s allowed to think as it needs to, that has enough of what it requires…”

“But if happiness is a skill, then sadness is, too.” “That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can.”

I’m beginning to think that unhappiness is one of the simple things in life: a pure, basic emotion to be respected, if not savoured…After all, unhappiness has 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 adapt.


“There is an unrest in my gut that feels like hunger.” “I am a seething mess of uncertainty, my mind so full of forked paths that I worry it could spill. I want to be everything, but I am nothing.

Underneath this chaos and clutter lies a longing for more elemental things—love, beauty, comfort, a short spell of oblivion once in a while. Everyday life is so often isolated, dreary, and lonely. A little craving is understandable. A little craving might actually be the rallying cry of survival.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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