Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times

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. Perhaps I was already teetering on the brink of Somewhere Else anyway; but now I fell through, as simply and discreetly as dust sifting between the floorboards. I was surprised to find that I felt at home there.

Winter had begun.

Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again.

Wintering is a season in the cold. It is 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. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. Some winterings creep upon us more slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.

Yet it’s also inevitable. We like to imagine that it’s possible for life to be one eternal summer and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves. We dream of an equatorial habitat, forever close to the sun, an endless, unvarying high season. But life’s not like that. Emotionally, we’re prone to stifling summers and low, dark winters, to sudden drops in temperature, to light and shade. Even if by some extraordinary stroke of self-control and good luck we were able to keep control of our own health and happiness for an entire lifetime, we still couldn’t avoid the winter. Our parents would age and die; our friends would undertake minor acts of betrayal; the machinations of the world would eventually weigh against us. Somewhere along the line, we would screw up. Winter would quietly roll in.

I learned to winter young. As one of the many girls of my age whose autism went undiagnosed, I spent a childhood permanently out in the cold. At seventeen, I was hit with a bout of depression so hard that it immobilized me for months. I was convinced that I would not survive it. I was convinced that I didn’t want to. But somewhere there, in the depths, I found the seed of a will to live, and its tenacity surprised me. More than that, it made me strangely optimistic. Winter had blanked me, blasted me wide open. In all that whiteness, I saw the chance to make myself new again. Half-apologetic, I started to build a different kind of a person: one who was rude sometimes and who didn’t always do the right thing, and whose big stupid heart made her endlessly seem to hurt, but also one who deserved to be here, because she now had something to give.

For years, I would tell anyone who would listen: “I had a breakdown when I was seventeen.” Most people were embarrassed to hear it, but some were grateful to find a shared thread in their story and mine. Either way, I felt with great certainty that we should talk about these things and that I, having learned some strategies, should share them. It didn’t save me from another dip and another dip, but each time the peril became less. I began to get a feel for my winterings: their length and breadth, their heft. I knew that they didn’t last forever. I knew that I had to find the most comfortable way to live through them until spring.

I am aware that I fly in the face of polite convention in doing this. The times when we fall out of sync with everyday life remain taboo. We’re not raised to recognize wintering or to acknowledge its inevitability. Instead, we tend to see it as a humiliation, something that should be hidden from view lest we shock the world too greatly. We put on a brave public face and grieve privately; we pretend not to see other people’s pain. We treat each wintering as an embarrassing anomaly that should be hidden or ignored. This means we’ve made a secret of an entirely ordinary process and have thereby given those who endure it a pariah status, forcing them to drop out of everyday life in order to conceal their failure. Yet we do this at a great cost. Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.

 

Katherine May,  Riverhead Books, 2020

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