Beauty in a Cold Season: Katherine May’s Wintering

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For most of us, a state of crisis is not one we regularly seek. We do not venture past the tip of the iceberg. We prevent catastrophe with safety nets, dodge apocalyptic fears with the humdrum of everyday productivity. But in Katherine May’s newest book, this plunge into crisis is inevitable, a necessary and vital phase of human experience. There is a world in these icy depths that we can learn to endure—and even to find beauty in.

In Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times—written before the pandemic but published this past November, an uncanny act of foreshadowing—we take that plunge with May as our guide and, more often, our friend, teaching us how to prepare for, to see, to experience the cold. The winter, for her, 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.” It is a season of hard truths, “involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.” Though May is no stranger to winters—her first began as a girl with undiagnosed autism, the second at seventeen during an immobilizing depression—her book’s winter is still unexpected, beginning the week of her fortieth birthday after a brush with illness, then with the realization that the everyday demands of her job and school on her six-year-old son no longer seem to fit her life or her son’s. She retreats to her home, knowing winter is approaching, “determined to go into it consciously” and “to make everything ready.”

So begins the first month, September, which soon passes into October, during which May bakes bagels, pickles Japanese daikon radish, gathers marsh samphire. In November, May observes the world as it transforms: her darkening hair, the abscission of trees on the cusp between autumn and winter, the sleep cycles of hibernation. December is a month of holidays, a solstice celebration, Christmas and the New Year; January brings encounters with reindeer and a man who tracks wolves. In February, May explores snow with her son and swims in winter seas. When March comes, May sings with the robins. While her book journeys steadily through these months, giving its passages their momentum, time itself is not linear but cyclical. Over the course of winter, we travel across time and place, the only connecting thread the ever-present season of cold. The book itself is an exercise of mindfulness, an immersion not in the linearity of a plot but in the practice of thinking, meandering through each month’s themes—slumber, hot water, cold water, light—to ponder what it means to be alive and how to make a life. As we go, we are breathlessly held in an in-between state, a limbo, a transition. We are always on the cusp: as we reach the end, it does not feel like an end at all, but rather a resurfacing into consciousness.

May’s practice of thinking often comes closer to prayer or faith-inspired meditation. In Wintering, we frequently find ourselves in places of worship—a church, the rocks of Stonehenge—but the most religious lines in the book are May’s reflections on nature. May’s faith may be best described as animistic—a word she uses again and again to describe her deep feelings for her surroundings: the dormice sleeping through winter, the wolves hunting and hungering, the wild and transformative power of snow. As in her 2018 memoir, The Electricity of Every Living Thing, those reflections burst into something more transcendent when what May is describing is her immersion into nature, particularly the cold, icy water in which she learns to swim. The water makes her blood sparkle and tingle in her veins, as though “infused with some magnificent serum.” Indeed, May’s deep regard for nature comes close to transcendentalism, reminiscent of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

Dillard, in particular, wrote often about the violence of nature: the dangerous wildness, gnawed trees, bloodied creatures. May’s most violent passages—the attacks on the wolves, the grisly death of Saint Lucy, the “hard and unaccommodating, brutal and dangerous” qualities of snow—are sudden and quickly recede. Much of May’s philosophy is soaked in childlike wonder, drawing imagery and metaphors from several children’s books, from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Golden Compass, and defending survival and life even in the darkest of winters. The result is a profound comfort, a reveling in the life cycle that follows the knowledge that it is, in fact, a cycle, that nothing is permanent. When the darkness, the cold, the death come too close, May pulls us back to the other side: the light, the warmth, the life. Often that tension is drawn in a single image: Narnia’s White Witch’s “icy beauty, sharp and crystalline, testament to the power to walk alongside the hardships of the cold,” the hibernating dormouse that is “lighter than air and surprisingly cold, but also soft and slightly squishy… you can leave fingerprints on a hibernating dormouse, so fluid is the layer of fat underneath its skin.” We rely on our senses as we read, on May’s equal rendering of both fragility and durability.

May’s conception of winter pervades her politics, too. She does not agree with Aesop’s fable of the grasshopper and the ants, retelling the story to be both kinder and more complex: “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.” Nor does she approve the plethora of beehive analogies used by socialist and fascist leaders alike. Rather than reading human society into nature, May reads wonder into nature and winter into human society: “We can draw enough wonder from [ants’ and bees’] intricate systems of survival without modeling ourselves on them wholesale… The most helpless members of our families and communities are what stick us together. It’s how we thrive. Our winters are social glue.” May’s ideal political world is multifarious and communal, an acknowledgement of life’s unpredictability and instability, where those who are struggling are assisted by those who are not.

In this way, May argues against the cultural obsession with productivity, the measure of humans by their usefulness. In the 1900s, sociologist Max Weber defined this obsession early on as a religious draw to profit and strict control over use of time, which could not be wasted. May describes her old adherence to this productivity-centric work ethic as frantic, addictive, and grinding, a sickness that ate away both her and her home—what we might call burnout. Even as she recognizes “vital fragments of [her] identity have been squeezed out,” still she feels embarrassed and ashamed for admitting she is stressed, then for resting. She asks at the start of the book: “How could I ever admit that I chose the muffled roar of starlings over the noisy demands of the workplace?” Yet by the end, as May reclaims time itself and releases the idea of profit, it is clear divinity belongs with the starlings.

May grew up in England and now lives by the sea, but the real power of winter rests in the North, a place of near magical resonance, the origin point of the season. May admires the Finns for their hardiness, the Danes for their hygge, the Sámi for their animistic faith. As we travel with May through the baths of Iceland and on ships in the Arctic, we understand that a life of meaning can only be born from a life of struggle, which is felt most keenly and intensely in the coldest season. In struggle, we learn to endure, and when we endure, we survive. In struggle, we find true warmth: the hot saunas of the Finns, the green, pinkish light of the aurora. Often, May tells us that to survive, we need only to keep our bodies moving, whether that is a walk to the sea, knitting, or, for Sylvia Plath, collecting honey—women’s work, May carefully observes, which she wishes there had been more of for Plath. It is a different type of work than grinding productivity; this is work May describes as fluid and efficient. It merely “feels good to be making something, even while my contribution to the world feels very small.” It is a different claim on time, during which the action, not the contribution, means something—another hard truth May teaches us, forcing us to unlearn its opposite.

Indeed, as much as Wintering is a book of learning, it is also one of unlearning. This bit is the hardest work of all: in the pandemic, in the cold depths of winter, during a furlough, after a death, in times of uncertainty we turn particularly quickly to the roads social expectation and cultural habit have mapped. We crave rules, reminders, and steps. We want to be told there is an answer—we expect there is one. Wintering tells us there need not be, at least for now. Wintering tells us to forget the map and set out on our own, to live through doubt, uncertainty, and unrest—the “dirty underside” of life—by building our own homes, plunging into the cold, having long slumbers, taking long walks, contemplating, and observing the life around us: the trees, the oceans, the singing birds. In those depths of stillness and doing, living and dying, we see what we are capable of, what we can and cannot control—and we rest. Then, we return with something more valuable, and perhaps more innately practical: the next version of ourselves. It is this self that we are seeking with May in the cold by not seeking at all, but the opposite: wintering.

Perhaps even more important, wintering is not to be done entirely alone. Unlike the self-reliant, proudly independent spirit of the transcendentalists, May has a tenderness, a gentleness and camaraderie for the human life around her. She does not believe in isolation; she believes in the pack: in her son, in the women she swims with, in her mother whose singing mimics her own. Though wintering inspires a feeling of isolation, the voices of fellow winterers form an equally powerful sense of community, of togetherness. The sociability that arises from these cold months is not the pleasant, friendly kind that stimulates a perpetual optimism, that is linked to the grinding productivity of regular society, but rather the heart-wrenching, hard-earned bond that forms when two women meet to swim in icy temperatures, passing into a space of resilience and grit.

For those of us wintering now, isolated, far away from our packs, May is the voice that will accompany us as we live through the cold season. Wintering is a lesson, an unlearning, an exercise, but it is also an offering. For once you have wintered—and now we all have—it is our obligation to share what we have survived.

Erin Winseman has an MA in Cultural Reporting & Criticism from New York University and a BA in English & American Literatures from Middlebury College, where she was the recipient of the Mary Dunning Thwing Prize. She lives in Manhattan. More from this author →