Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times


Title: Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times

Writer: Katherine May

Publishing House: Riverhead Books

Date of Publication: November 10th 2020

Rating: 5 stars

‘’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.’’

Suddenly life decides to overthrow everything. Schedules, plans, habits, obligations, pleasures. Life turns against itself, lifts a hand, cries ‘’Hold. I’ve changed my mind.’’ And you have two options. Give in or swim against the current. A sneaky illness. A school that exhausts its students. A career change. When winter comes, it may just be possible that it comes to confront you, help you, nurse your doubts. It may be possible that it comes to point the way and heal you.

‘’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.’’

In her beautiful, moving memoir Katherine May takes us into winters of change, reflection, sadness, hope and love. She explores the significance of winter in novels and fairy tales, its bond with our childhood delights, the quiet joy that accompanies the silent season. As soon as autumn knocks on our door, the need to put a light in every corner of our house seems to become greater than ever. We need to pause and find whatever peace of mind can still be found. The smell of the woodsmoke and the chilly air. And, yes, we turn our collars up to protect ourselves against the wind and our steps become faster because the cold is a tiny bit too much. And I wouldn’t trade this for a thousand eternal summers.

‘’But winter is a time when death comes closest – when the cold feels as though it might yet snatch us away, despite our modern comforts. We still perceive the presence of those we’ve lost in the silence of those long evenings and in the depths of darkness that they bring. This is the season of ghosts. Their pale forms are invisible in bright sunlight. Winter makes them clear again.’’

May opens a door into her life and speaks to us as if to an old friend. In Iceland and Norway, in the polar nights and the wealth of the Sami culture. In the ghost stories of Halloween. In the depths of Gaelic Mythology, the figure of Cailleach, the Midwinter experience in Stonehenge and the festival of Imbolc. In John Donne’s A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day. In the darkness lit by Saint Lucia’s crown of candles through a marvelous scene in the Svenska Kyrkan in Marylebone. In the comfort of spending an evening in church. In the particular pleasure of winter sleeps. In January’s Wolf Moon. In the legends about bees and robins. In the February snow. In overcoming the threat of losing your loved ones. In standing by your child’s side when he has had enough of an outrageous school system. In the comfort of books, the trustworthy companions made of paper and ink, in children’s stories, in the enchanting malice of the White Witch, in Sylvia Plath’s cry.

That is where winter is hidden.

I don’t need verbose bits of wisdom. I don’t care about the ‘’wisdom’’ of others, whatever wisdom God has granted me has led me to safe harbours for 36 years. It is memoirs such as this that I cherish. The writing, the beauty, the images, the smells and sounds. I lived inside this book, I treasured every page, every confession. What more could I possibly ask for?

‘’Winter is a quiet house in lamplight, a spin in the garden to see bright stars on a clear night, the roar of the wood burning stove and the accompanying smell of charred wood.’’

‘’That’s what you learn in winter: there is a past, a present. And a future. There is a time after the aftermath.’’

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