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books that left a significant imprint

a review of Wintering by Katherine May

Every now and then I would browse the new arrivals section of the national library’s e-book collection. I was surprised to discover quite a few interesting books there, books that I wouldn’t have known about through my typical discovery vectors. There is a sort of visual serendipity through browsing random book covers and waiting for something to jump out to you. The cover and title of Katherine May’s Wintering jumped out to me:

“Truly a beautiful book”, endorsed Elizabeth Gilbert on that cover, and I know people think of Gilbert as a chick lit authour but I loved her prose, so I was eager to check out if this was truly a beautiful book.

Spoiler alert: It was.

Katherine May uses the seasonal winter as a metaphor for all the dark, cold and difficult periods we endure in our lives. From the get go I was captivated by her beautiful prose. I recognise beautiful prose when reading it makes me feel admiration, envy and jealousy at the same time – I wish I can pick the right words and string them together, like music:

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.

But more that the beauty of the prose itself, I had found myself deeply resonating with the way she describes her experiences in her book, as well as the little stories she included throughout. This is how she describes what it feels like to endure a personal winter:

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…However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely and deeply painful.

It is not common to read about people’s experiences with their struggles in general, because of the stigma and shamed attached:

We’re not raised to recognise wintering, or to acknowledge its inevitability. Instead, we tend 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.

It is even less common to encounter the precision of describing the experience as “sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider“. We often read about the actual pain and suffering, but for me what is a lot more subtle and insidious is the alienation one feels, the feeling of being left behind or being the cursed child while everyone else is progressing nicely along.

She writes about herself being pleased when she actually falls physically ill, because physical illness serves as a legitimate reason to stop working:

But then stress is a shameful thing, a proclamation of my inability to cope. I am slyly pleased that I have pain to contend with, rather than a more nebulous sense of my own overwhelmedness. It feels more concrete somehow. I can hide behind it and say, See, I am not unable to manage my workload. I am legitimately ill.

…and that it was only on her break that she could finally notice the effects that stress was having on her body:

I’ve been wound so tight with stress that I can no longer see past my own knots, and now, having relaxed ever so slightly, I’m feeling the full force of its impact.

It is deeply comforting to me, to read of someone’s experience that I so deeply related to. Even though I knew what I have personally been through it was an experience that was so isolating and personal that I may as well have imagined it all. We cannot have witnesses in our interior world, we have to develop the capacity to be the steward of the authenticity of our own experiences, because it is so very easy to be gaslit, and sometimes the worst gaslighter is ourselves. It feels powerful to see one’s own interior world being mirrored elsewhere, that someone else knows what it is like to hover precariously in that particular corner of the world.

She writes about her son being bullied and unable to fit in school, the fact that children tolerate a lot of conditions that adults will not tolerate:

As children, we tolerate working conditions that we’d find intolerable as adults: the constant interrogation of our attainment to a hostile audience, the motivation by threat instead of encouragement (and big threats, too: if you don’t do this, you’ll ruin your whole future life …), the social world in which you’re mocked and teased, your most embarrassing desires exposed, your new-formed body held up for the kind of scrutiny that would destroy an adult. Often, in childhood, this comes with physical threats, too – being pushed and shoved in the playground, punched and kicked…Imagine how that would feel to you now: that perpetual threat to your bodily integrity and your mental well-being. We would never stand for it, but we did as children because it was expected of us, and we didn’t know any better.

If you don’t do this, you’ll ruin your whole future life…how familiar it sounds. Unfortunately there are many of us who never had the space to grow away from what we tolerated as kids, continuing to tolerate the threats to our wellbeing because we do not know anything else. We accept it as part of life to give up our agency and autonomy.

She responded to her child with a decision that would break my heart a little:

I was not willing to get him back into school by breaking him, however desperate I was for my own time again…I sat down with them and learned that my son was just one of hundreds of children across the county who felt flattened by school, and that I was one of hundreds of parents who felt a gut refusal to force him back into it and to train him to take the consequences. The parents told me how it took a while, but that their children had become happy again out of mainstream schooling, having been violently unhappy within it. ‘She’s a different child now,’ said one. ‘She’s recovered a part of herself that we thought was lost forever.’

I was not willing to get him back into school by breaking him…I often wonder about the person I would be if I was not broken, what it is like to not lose parts of me forever. I wonder if one day in the future we would finally understand the harm we were subjected to, and the harm we continue to perpetuate. I wonder if I will see this in my lifetime, but for now I am comforted with stories like this one.

We should not try to deny the possible existence of winters in our lives, May tries to persuade as she rightly criticises the phenomenon of toxic positivity:

This is where we are now: endlessly cheerleading ourselves into positivity, while erasing the dirty underside of real life. 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? These people might as well be leaning into my face, shouting, Cope! Cope! Cope! while spraying perfume into the air to make it all seem nice. The subtext of these messages is clear: misery is not an option. We must carry on looking jolly for the sake of the crowd. While we may no longer see depression as a failure, we expect you to spin it into something meaningful pretty quick.

Instead, we should accept that these times are essential periods of our lives when we recover and regroup ourselves:

Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered…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.

Reading the book, I paused and reflected the longest at the following passage:

As we so often find in ancient folklore, the Cailleach offers us a cyclical metaphor for life, one in which the energies of spring can arrive again and again, nurtured by the deep retreat of winter. We are no longer accustomed to thinking this way. We are instead in the havit of imagining our lives to be linear; a long march from birth to death in which we mass our powers, only to surrender them again, all while slowly losing our youthful beauty. This is a brutal untruth. Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.

I think about the epiphany I had a while ago, the one of the greatest sources of psychological suffering is to believe in the illusion that life is a linear hero(ine)’s journey, that we would conquer challenges along the way in order for the big payoff at the end. Perhaps that’s why many of us put up with so much when we’re young: we work ungodly hours, sacrifice our sleep and health, put up with unfair treatment and ridiculous threats to our safety, because we believed in that narrative that it will all pay off in the end.

But most of our lives do not play out like a fairytale. Working hard does not necessarily lead to success, compromising our selves and integrity becomes a inability to enforce healthy boundaries, sometimes we don’t realise we are losing more important things than whatever we were working so hard for, other times even if we do get the payoff it does not lead to a happily ever after. There are always more winters to come.

The only way out is through, as she referenced Alan Watts but the lesson is essentially Buddhist/Taoist in nature:

…life is, by nature, uncontrollable. That we should stop trying to finalise our comfort and security somehow, and instead find a radical acceptance of the endless, unpredictable change that is the very essence of this life. Our suffering, he says, comes from the fight we put up against this fundamental truth.

Happiness is the greatest skill we’ll ever learn, she proclaims. I think more than happiness, learning to endure winters better is the most important skill. We believe happiness is the default state of being, so we attempt to disown or deny negative emotions. But I have learnt that unhappiness (or winters) can be a teacher, a compass that directs us to where we need healing and/or transformation. Life is basically a lifelong process of navigating unchartered territory.

May eventually got used to winters and shares how she copes with it:

I recognised winter. I saw it coming (a mile off, since you ask), and I looked it in the eye. I greeted it, and let it in. When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favoured child: with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable, and that my feelings were signals of something important.

This is something I relate to. I used to spiral deeper and deeper whenever I got sick. I suffered from the sickness itself, and suffered more from the feelings I had about the sickness. The second arrow, like the Buddha taught. I blamed myself for it, and felt deep resentment and shame about it. Learning to parent myself better made a whole world of difference: tending to my self like I would tend to a sick child.

I have shared my favourite passages from the book. I would recommend reading it as a whole, it felt like it was sang to me like a song, nourishing the depths of my lonely soul. Perhaps it is not a subject matter that would appeal to everyone, though it seems like to be doing well at the moment, which is not surprising in a time like this.

This is only the second book review I have ever written, because it is so. much. work. But I’m losing out if I don’t write them, because I lose the lessons and sentiments post reading the book. I have decided that writing a possibly terrible book review is better than writing none, so please pardon me if this comes across as choppy or unstructured. I merely wish to have a record of the quotes I loved and the thoughts the book provoked out of me.

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by Katherine May completed: 22 Jan 2021

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.

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