“I am baking bagels. Or rather, I’m failing spectacularly at it.” So begins the second chapter of Katherine May’s Wintering. But this failure is not the point:
No matter. I am not baking because I’m hungry; I am baking to keep my hands moving. Granted, the bagels weren’t meant to be quite so hard (both in terms of texture and difficulty), but they have nevertheless filled a gaping hole in my day where work should have been, and making them has pushed back my darker thoughts, at least for a while.
Wintering, published in 2020 and already a New York Times bestseller, is not a new book, but it is a timely one. In the book, May chronicles a season of her life that she calls “wintering,” in which she and her husband both experienced serious health problems and her son’s anxiety issues meant he needed to be pulled out of school. Written before the Covid-19 pandemic, the book was remarkably timely and helpful for a global moment that felt a bit like a long winter (and might still feel that way today).
The most remarkable thing about the book is May’s ability to recognize a season that many would dismiss as worthless or unproductive as a valuable time in its own right.
“Some winters happen in the sun,” May observes. She extends the use of the term not just to seasonal winter (though the book does chronicle the months of September through March), but to a kind of emotional winter, “a fallow period of life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.” For May, these periods of life deserve to be named and experienced—whether or not we name them, we will still experience them, and entering into wintering intentionally is a way to deal with its cold. She describes this feeling of wintering beautifully without idealizing it:
Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.
Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season in which the world takes on a sparse beauty and even the pavements sparkle. It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order.
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. 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 skin will harden around you.
It’s one of the most important choices you’ll ever make.
The rest of Wintering is the chronicles of May’s attempts to do exactly that—to take care of herself, to rest, to find meaning in a season where little meaning is immediately apparent. She weathers her own and her husband’s health problems. She stays at home with her son. She chronicles her experiences cooking with quinces from a neighbor’s garden, taking voice classes, trying cold-water swimming and saunas. She talks to friends from Finland. She visits hibernating dormice. She meditates on the lives of bees and wolves. And throughout it all, she chronicles the experiences of someone trying to winter well, with brutal honesty about the pitfalls wintering entails for her: anxiety, grief, and fear; health problems; waning fertility; passing out after spending too long in the sauna; and financial difficulties.
Suffice it to say the book isn’t Instagram-ready; it’s full of failed bagels and imperfect knitting. It’s endearingly honest, and May’s willingness to be honest about her own experience inspires me to be more honest about my own. While May models the acceptance of a difficult season in life and a willingness to give oneself time to rest, she also shows a remarkable level of gumption: plunging into the ice-cold sea, getting up at dawn to experience Stonehenge for the winter solstice, visiting Norway while pregnant because she is desperate to see the Northern lights. I found myself inspired: perhaps living well through a season of darkness doesn’t have to involve any cheerful feelings or powerful mantras—just the grit and honesty to see it through wholeheartedly.
May’s fundamental insight is that there’s a place for winter’s often accompanying feelings of sadness. Meditating on Facebook posts that are meant to be encouraging, messages like “Hang in there!”, May reflects:
I always read brutality in those messages: they offer next to nothing. 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? . . . While we may no longer see depression as a failure, we expect you to spin it into something meaningful pretty quick. And if you can’t pull that off, then you’d better disappear from view for a while. You’re dragging down the vibe.
Even when we let ourselves be sad, we sometimes have implicit expectations that this sadness must be productive or insightful in some way. We expect some sort of psychological reward for our suffering, or a way to fix it quick—hence the whole genre of self-help. May’s perspective is refreshing in that she models a way to live through a difficult time without necessarily transcendentalizing it.
Wintering is just a season, and it’s okay to brave it without amassing incredible insights or doing anything remarkably productive. It is this permission, more than anything else, that makes Wintering a powerful read. As May points out, “if happiness is a skill, then sadness is, too. . . . As adults, we often have to learn the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness.”
Strangely, accepting sadness is sometimes the first step to moving on. As we head into the winter season, it’s high time to give Wintering a read (or even a second read!)—if only for the joy of a companion on the road to springtime.