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Why We Need to Winter

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"Life has been busy, and in the general rush of things,... vital fragments of my identity have been squeezed out. I have missed them, but in a shrugging kind of way. What can you do when you’re already doing everything? 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" (Wintering, Katherine May, 20).

We are in a season when it is more difficult to be consistently social outside of our homes. This season requires more effort to be out and about, taking in experiences or visiting. This is true both because we are in the actual, physical reality of cold, dark winter and also because we are experiencing a different sort of winter, that of the COVID pandemic. I used to rail against winter, calling it a “half life.” I resented the way it limited my ability to move about freely with ease, without the necessary encumbrance of heavy coat, boots, hat, gloves, scarf. As a runner, I resented that I felt I could not safely run before or after work due to the combination of icy conditions and darkness. I still prefer the warmer seasons, but I have come to appreciate the enforced long drawing of the breath that is winter. Katherine May’s contemplative, important book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (2020) has deepened my acceptance of the quiet, internal season. If you have not yet discovered the On Being podcast with Krista Tippett, it is a jewel of a discovery for anyone who enjoys a synthesis of nature, science, philosophy, literature, and transcendence. Here is an On Being interview of Katherine May on “How ‘Wintering’ Replenishes.”

May’s book was penned utterly pre-pandemic, and yet it reads uncannily like a gorgeous meditation on how to derive nourishment and eventually ferment growth from seasons in which we feel derailed, detached, or stagnant. To Katherine May, wintering is, “a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, side-lined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider” (10). It might be a long illness or a divorce or a move that precipitates a winter. It might be the loss of a job or of a beloved friend or family member. Just as literal winter returns to us cyclically, May posits that we should always be prepared for periodic winters in our lives and be able to prepare for them, make peace with them, and even find rest and restoration there. And, with empathy and compassion, we should allow others the ability to do the same.

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There was a time in May’s young son Bert’s life when he was so deeply unhappy in primary school and so fraught with anxiety, that she pulled him from school to give him time to heal, to simply be, and to recover. His “wintering” coincided with her own, having recently stepped away from a job that left her overwhelmed, disconnected from herself, and trapped in a performance regime that was anything but satisfying. Together, she and Bert wintered. They learned that it is okay if sometimes everything needs to stop. Bert has since rallied and now attends school quite happily, but May doubts he would be in such a settled and joyful condition at school if she had not allowed him to come to a stop and to just rest with his sadness in restorative retreat until he had processed what was necessary and found new strength.

The pandemic has been instructive about this need for things to sometimes come to a stop. But, as many of us have discovered, we are quick to deny ourselves these outwardly less productive seasons. It is fascinating, really, how little we value what we can’t observe directly with our own eyes. If we can’t see a person in the act of “being busy,” or if we can’t admire works of our own hands, we are quick to determine that nothing is being accomplished. The reality is that often, when so much is going on outwardly, much less is growing inwardly. At least I find this to be true in my own life. I can be consistently busy and can still have peace and contentment and grow spiritually so long as I still make time for spiritual sustenance. But if I ever get so busy that all I am doing is accomplishing things externally while allotting no time to internal growth, I shrivel inside. I wilt. The pandemic enforced upon many of us a momentary cessation of all the outward posterings and aggressive productivity, allowing many to come up for air and then to simply tread water for a while. Some of us resented that stagnation, while others found it reviving. With or without a pandemic, the truth is we all need periods when things just go on pause for a while, and the more we give in to it, the more likely we are to discover its healing possibilities.

The mass exodus of teachers and healthcare workers since the pandemic’s onset is a testament to why taking seasons of rest and retreat when everything in the natural world is shouting at us that we must is the wisest response. Of course, out of necessity many in these professions have had to go on with “business as usual” to a greater or lesser extent. For many, there wasn’t a choice. But the fact that so many teachers or health care workers are leaving their professions, their “callings” even, in droves, speaks to the innate human need we have to able to listen to nature, to our bodies, to our spirit, to ourselves and to allow things to come to a stop when all systems are overloaded. Some of those workers who have not been allowed to do that are finding that they can no longer continue on the path that once stretched out before them as a chosen and beloved profession. They are now stepping away from the jobs they loved so well in a forced retreat.

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I look back on a season in my own life when I should have wintered but did not. When my deeply loved mother passed away from early onset Alzheimer’s in December of 2014, I should have taken time to process this massive loss and my desolation. She died at the end of what had been a series of excruciating years watching her deteriorate from the vivacious, funny, loving woman she was into a husk of herself, unable to walk, unable to know who we were, unable to bathe herself, or feed herself, or even drink on her own. I would drive down to Massachusetts from my southern Maine home most Sundays to spend an afternoon with her, wanting as much time with her as I could manage. She had been sick with the disease for nearly twenty years. The progression had been tremendously slow until the last eight to ten years when it accelerated, and her condition became undeniable. During the final years of her decline and just following her passing, I was working full-time, raising our two young daughters, and enrolled in a Masters program over a period of five years. I still had four years remaining on my Masters program when she died. In retrospect, I barely took any time off of work at all: perhaps a day, two at most. I don’t think I took a break from my graduate courses; I don’t remember asking for any extensions, or if I did, I don’t think I took them. Maybe at the time I found some strength or at least diversion in just moving forward, not pausing too long to process any of it. But I have discovered since then that what I really needed was a wintering. I would have been better off. I paid for my lack of wintering later with a sense of discontent, anger, and a moorlessness. I should have let myself sit with my sadness. I should have let myself wail for hours, for days if needed. I should have taken the time.

Now when I find myself feeling less productive, when literal winter comes, or when a kind of malaise settles upon me, I am less inclined to action and to avoidance. I am more likely to give space and time to the slower pace, to the difficult feelings and to accept and welcome them as a natural part of life. I know that the winter will not last forever, and I try to recognize that it has things to teach me. I often give in to the desire to get to bed a bit earlier in the darker months, and I don’t tend to judge myself for wanting to find pleasure and satisfaction in the comforts of home. Animals know how to winter. They prepare for it, they don’t panic when it comes, and they know they are uniquely equipped to weather it. I want to do the same.

What has wintering looked like in your own life? Are there some ways you can welcome and embrace winter, either as a physical season or the more metaphorical winter of May’s description? What are some things you can do this week that will make some space and time for rest and rejuvenation? Was there a time when you could have wintered more wisely? Can you think of a time when you wintered well?

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