Rating 4 stars
Wintering starts as a memoir of a time in Katherine May’s life when she felt that she had been frozen. Margaret, who blogs at From Pyrenees to Pennines, included it in her August Six Degrees of Separation this summer. I immediately reserved it at the library.
I enjoyed May’s writing style. She is a clear communicator and observes her own experiences with an unemotional detachment. She reveals early on that she is autistic, which possibly explains the calm clarity she brings to her observations. I could imagine this book as a radio documentary.
I didn’t always enjoy what May says. I found this book a complex read, in the context of my responses to the things May discusses.
The book moves through the winter season month by month, beginning at a September picnic in what we Brits call an Indian Summer – those days before autumn when the weather decides to grace us with a little more summer warmth. May was about to turn 40, had made a momentous life decision about work, and was enjoying a series of birthday celebrations. Then her husband fell ill.
May behaves as though her husband is exaggerating his illness, ignoring his symptoms because she doesn’t want to have to leave her picnic party, resentful because it means their son’s enjoyment of the beach is cut short. But then the grumbling appendix that had caused two previous hospital visits came good on its threats and ruptured.
May doesn’t go into too much detail, but it was a stressful time and, on top of the stress in her job that had led her to resign, it had a profound impact on her. She became physically ill, the stress manifesting itself in the tissues of her body.
I found the passages where she talks about the impact of the stress of the pressured busyness of working life difficult to read.
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.
That really connected. It’s normal now, it seems, to work to our limits and then be expected to do more. There’s a lot of knee jerk reaction to change, and everyone feeling constantly on the back foot trying to keep up. We have a work culture where being too busy is applauded and needing a break, or falling ill in some way, is seen as lack of resilience. We can try to carve out time in the day to step back from the blur of work, because that blur isn’t healthy, but things like meetings being scheduled back to back, including during lunch breaks because that’s when people are ‘free’, makes it hard. More so now many are working from home and our meeting rooms are virtual, on our computers, and instantly accessible.
May doesn’t expressly say that this is the case for her, but it forms part of the pressure she feels, this ‘doing everything’ that includes the expectations of motherhood. She calls the disconnect she experienced in response to the pressure ‘wintering’. What she says about this state of being is interesting. She recognises that it’s a natural part of being human, that we have a false desire and expectation that life will always be summer, and that we are too often forced into putting a brave face on and pushing through what might be diagnosed clinically as depression or anxiety, or might be self diagnosed as the blues or feeling a bit withdrawn.
There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on. Somewhere Else is where ghosts live, concealed from view and only glimpsed by people in the real world. Somewhere Else exists at a delay, so that you can’t quite keep pace.
What May describes of her experience is familiar to me from my experience of anxiety as an illness. She talks about her physical inability to leave the house, her sense that she is outside everything that is happening around her. She explains it as being frozen, spending a season in the cold. There is a bleakness to this state similar to some aspects of winter. The world flattens, colours become dull if not monochrome, movement slows and life itself seems to fall dormant.
May decided to try to understand her personal winter better and recognise that it isn’t a death but “a time of withdrawing from the world … where the transformation occurs.” The result of her research is this book.
She probes Finnish friends to find out about what winter is like in Finland, how the people there prepare for it, how it differs from winter in Britain. She shares the story of a friend who almost died from bacterial meningitis and, a few years later, was plunged into her own wintering when her sister and then her parents moved to the US and left her feeling orphaned by the distance. She explores Gaelic and Celtic traditions around winter, and how contemporary society has pushed death and transition as far from our everyday existence as we can get it, how we have convinced ourselves that human existence is linear not cyclical. She finds support for her perspectives on wintering across a range of books, fiction, non-fiction, novels for children as well as adults. She starts sea swimming and talks to someone more hardy than her from Jutland in Denmark who is a regular sea swimmer, using it instead of medication to manage her hypermania and depression.
She retrains herself to recuperate, fighting the guilt of letting colleagues down, accepting the permission of her GP to go ahead and take a planned holiday to Iceland, taking pleasure in doing what we now call mindful activities – colouring with her son’s pencils, watching starlings fly in their artistic murmurations, baking and pickling.
She’s funny, too. She embraces the Nordic approach to wintering all at once, plunging into the sauna life and causing herself to collapse in a minor way. Letting go of doing everything to the max seems a hard thing for May to do. She’s wryly self-deprecating about it.
I enjoyed her exploration of the impact of artificial light on our bodies’ natural rhythms, and the changes in our daily rituals. She reminded me of a visit Mr Hicks and I made to the Tudor Merchant’s House in Tenby, where the guide told us about the old way of sleeping sitting upright for a chunk of the night before getting up to do some work, chat with family or visit friends for an hour or so, then having another sleep.
Her description of the visit she and a friend make to Stonehenge at the winter solstice is interesting for how uncomfortable May feels. She has clearly understood the significance of the site to people who follow a range of beliefs, but feels out of place when she observes their behaviour and attire. It’s as though their freedom of expression is a challenge to her sensibilities. She uses the word interloper to describe how she feels, but immediately acknowledges that nobody makes her feel unwelcome, it’s a feeling that comes entirely from within. I wondered whether this was partly an expression of her autism, as much as it was her middle-class niceness not having much experience of exuberant free spirits. Her reference point for the ceremony at dawn is the tradition of a Church of England ceremony, clearly unfamiliar with the ecstatic nature of CofE churches that are in the charismatic movement. Although, for various reasons, I no longer go to church or believe in god, I do believe that humans are creatures who need to worship and give thanks, and however much we dress that up or ascribe it to particular gods, we are all doing the same thing when we worship – acknowledging that the world is bigger than us, we’re an insignificant part of it, and we haven’t a clue what’s going on, but we’re grateful it exists. May has reached a similar belief through her use of meditation as an alternative to prayer.
Occasionally, I found May’s middle class comfort as background to her wintering irritating. What I perceived as her middle classness became weird later in the book when she reveals that she grew up working class, in poverty. The things that annoyed me were her assertion that certain middle class traits (fear of embarrassment, discomfort at being thought of as unconventional) are pan-British traits, and the freedom to give up work without fear of losing her home or putting food on the table, plus the lack of censure for removing her son from school. They all made me reflect on how a working class background forms a different outlook on difficult times, not knowing at that point that May has that same background. I don’t know whether it’s a more practical outlook or one grounded in an atavistic obedience to societal expectation, but I couldn’t imagine myself, my parents, grandparents or other family members making the lifestyle choices May does in response to her anxiety. The word that pops into my mind is indulgence. There’s nothing wrong with indulgence, it’s good for you, but it’s not something that everyone has access to without consequence.
It made me think about the career break opportunities available in some workplaces and who the people are that take them up. I’m not saying that an unpaid year off from work to have different experiences and grow yourself doesn’t come without a lot of planning and weighing up of the benefits of the break versus the loss of income, but that an unfamiliarity with living paycheck to paycheck probably makes the decision easier. When May does talk about living paycheck to paycheck, it’s in the context of someone with a well-paid job who has accumulated masses of debt, but who nonetheless chooses to leave the job that is stressing her out and declare bankruptcy. A difficult decision, I’m sure, but still at a remove from those who don’t have well-paid jobs, have accumulated masses of debt just to have a home and food, and can’t afford to leave a job they hate. It takes May until the epilogue to glancingly admit that she is living precariously through her choice to leave work.
I’m being judgemental, of course. I detect in my impatience with May and the world she inhabits a flicker of jealousy – that she presents the option of indulging the need for sadness as a straightforward one, when my personal experience says it isn’t, and I’d like it to be. I’d like that middle class confidence that the world won’t end if I step off the treadmill for a while. I wonder how May has cultivated it, while I have struggled to accept that I’m no longer working class.
Elsewhere, I understood what May says about wintering being “the active acceptance of sadness … the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need”, but I also felt that, as well as the freedom to withdraw from the source of sadness that May followed, there should also be the freedom to be sad in the spaces where other people don’t want us to feel sad. There should be equal freedom to remain in work, feeling and expressing sadness, without the worry of being categorised as lacking in positivity and therefore team spirit. There should be more understanding of sadness and the role it plays in our lives, an acceptance that we need to be down as well as up. As the Danish woman May talks to about sea swimming says, “you need to live a life that you can cope with, not the one that other people want.” That should include remaining of the world, not hiving ourselves off from it.
The section on cold water and its power to invigorate and boost resilience was one of my favourites. I love swimming, but haven’t made time to do it regularly since the mid-90s. I don’t even own a swimming costume any more. I tried swimming in the sea a couple of times on holiday and at university in Wales but hated the saltwater that went up my nose too much. The thing that I enjoyed about May’s experience of sea swimming was that it put her into a community where the shock of the cold water briefly peeled away inhibition and allowed the participants to share their anxieties. Talking about our feelings helps to reduce their power over us.
There’s a lot of food for thought in this book. I don’t know that I’m in the right mindset currently to do much with those thoughts, though. As May says at the end of the book, “Some ideas are too big to take in once and completely.”
One idea that I will try to take hold of is the importance of recognising when I need to care for myself better and not allowing that all consuming empty busyness to prevent me from doing things that are better for me than busyness.