A REFLECTION ON KATHERINE MAY’S WINTERING: THE POWER OF REST AND RETREAT IN DIFFICULT TIMES

Photo by Alex on Unsplash

For the past few weeks, I have been engrossed in the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May.[1] I was attracted to the book by the title and ordered it right away. Not every title has that kind of immediate appeal. 

I have always loved the winter season, but I have had difficulty articulating exactly why to folks who don’t like the cold. There is so much more to winter than cold, ice, and snow. Besides the appeal of winter for me, the words “rest,” “retreat”, and “difficult times” in the title of the book all spoke to me and my (or should I say our?) current situation. 

Working from home has become the norm for many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic. That has been particularly difficult in households where there are young children attending virtual school while the adults try to continue with their own work. The challenges of contemporary life made the subtitle of the book—The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times — all the more appealing to me. May’s book was written before the current COVID-19 pandemic. Life is certainly different now from what it was when the book was written. Nevertheless, the difficulty of adjusting to life amidst a pandemic makes her reflections on adversity all the more pertinent now.  

The book is an extended secular meditation on the fallow periods in life in which we can retreat, rest, and recover. May’s reflections are part memoir and part elegantly written investigation of the metaphorical concepts of “winter” and “wintering” that she invents to describe our way of dealing with our fears and anxieties. The book is deeply autobiographical. At the same time, it is written in such a way as to leave space for its readers to identify and reflect on their own experiences of “wintering.” That is the great strength of this book.

Reflecting on the falling leaves in October, May writes: “Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing bare bones. Given time they grow again.”[2]

“Wintering,” May explains, “is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you are cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider. …Wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful….We like to imagine that it’s possible for life to be an eternal summer. ” Life is not like that. 

Reflecting on an illness that struck her, May states bluntly that “winter blanked me, blasted me open. In all that whiteness I saw the chance to make myself new again.”[3]  

The book, she tells us, is about “learning to recognize the process” of wintering, “engage with it mindfully, and even to cherish it.” We might never choose to winter, but, but once we understand our experiences in light of that concept, she maintains, we are more likely to be in the place in which we can choose how we do it.[4]

In November and December, I experienced a wintering of my own.  Who knew that a slight twist of my spine unloading the car would lead to two successive surgeries on my back in the same place where I already had a previous surgery? It seemed like nothing at the time, so much so that when my back began to hurt the following day, it took me three days to remember that I had twisted it earlier that week. 

This event began two months of excruciating pain down my right leg all the way to my toes. The cause turned out to be a herniated disc in much the same place that I had had back surgery three years ago. This led to an additional surgery. My surgery went well and a couple of weeks out things looked promising. But that was not to be. Three weeks after surgery, I found myself back in the hospital  for an additional week with an infection that required opening up one of the surgical sites and cleaning it out. Because no visitors were allowed, I spent the week alone in my room. Of course, it was a hospital, so I was never really alone, but due to the state of the COVID-19 pandemic I was allowed no visitors. My hospital stay was followed by three weeks of IV antibiotics and then a couple more weeks of oral antibiotics. 

Throughout this ordeal, I took things as they came, calmly and in stride, never finding myself to be upset about much of anything. I can’t say that it’s always been that way when I have faced adversities like this in the past. This time, however, I seemed to have the resources necessary to cope with my circumstances, when at other times in the past I did not. Working from home, a loving family, a supportive church community, not going out as much as I had before the pandemic, time to rest, and taking time to read at night before going to sleep, had given me resources I never knew I had until they were needed.

Rather than fleeing from the difficult times in our lives, May maintains, we need to learn to embrace them —“we must learn to invite the winter in”— so that we can learn from them and grow.  She writes: “Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season when the world takes on a sparse beauty and even the pavements[5] sparkle. It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order.”[6]

After recovering from her own illness, which May interpreted in a metaphorical way as form of wintering, she writes, “ Winter is asking me to be more careful with my energies, and to rest a while until spring.”[7] That is advice I needed to hear. And it is advice, that you might want to take to heart. 

“At its base,” May concludes, the book “ is about noticing what’s going on and living it. That’s what the natural world does: it carries on surviving. Sometimes it flourishes…and sometimes it pares back to the very basics of existence in order to keep living…. It winters in cycles, again and again, forever and ever. For plants and animals, winter is part of the job. The same is true for humans.”[8]

We cannot move on from our metaphorical winter, without embracing it first. When we invite the winter in, we are not necessarily overtaken by it. Rather, we enter it so that one day spring will arrive for us, with all its possibilities for new life and growth.


[1] Katherine May, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (London: Penguin/Random House, 2020). The book was highlighted for the 2020 Wainwright Prize, sponsored by the National Trust in England, that celebrates the best in English Nature Writing. 

[2] Wintering, 78.

[3] Wintering, 10

[4] Wintering, 12.

[5] American, “sidewalks.”

[6] Wintering, 13.

[7] Wintering, 84.

[8] Wintering, 269-70.

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