Wintering – May

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

Author: May, Katherine

Genre: Nonfiction

Category: Rest, Recovery, Mental Health, Depression, Nature


It is a lie to ignore Winter and not to recognize it as a natural season in Nature and in our lives. Modern day disorders like depression or anxiety, even the sequelae of burnout following hustle culture, likely are related to an unnatural resistance to this season. In Wintering, Katherine May presents the argument for the importance of Winter as she lives through a Winter of her own. May paints a beautiful picture of how, even in the low points of the year or even in life, rest and retreat, although uncomfortable to allow, are nourishing and formative. May’s story confronts the denial and dissonance that culture has created around Winter and encourages us to accept these seasons and learn what lessons we can from them.

Important Points:

What is Winter?

Winter is a natural season in Nature and in our lives. When things don’t go as planned – you lose your job, a relationship ends, etc; Winter is the season you find yourself in. In nature, Winter is that natural period that follows growth. The trees shed their leaves, animals hunker down, and the weak die. Without it, there could be no Spring. The same is true in our own lives. Modern culture has sold us on the message that we should strive to always be happy and we should always be working. That we can be and do all of these things. May says that we have been educated to ignore the cyclical nature of life; “…Instead we are in the habit 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 the while slowly losing our youthful beauty. This is brutal untruth.” She reminds us that “Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.” 

We risk living outside of the natural seasons and chapters of life. Ignoring these cycles, blunts our experience of the world. Feeding into the cultural myth that we can accomplish everything, that we can work forever, is at the expense of robbing the true essence of life – one colored by both ups and downs. Living in this manner is akin to denying death. At worst, it will delude you into thinking you have lived well when you arrive at the inevitable conclusion we all will meet. 

What to do in Winter

You can arrive at Winter by recognizing the season and then living accordingly or Winter can surprise you and come on suddenly. When you are surprised by Winter, you ignore it at your own expense. To recognize Winter is to pause the unconscious cycle, to step back from living the story, to retreat. May reminds us to give Winter the respect it deserves and from her own experience we can deduce some simple principles to apply during Winter:

– Recognize when retreat is warranted and then approach that retreat by simplifying – cutting out the nonessential and focusing in on values that nourish you like Family, Community, and Service

– Return to Ritual and recognize it’s value

– No new projects or habits

– Choose activities and projects that have no tangible “outcome”

– Return to the land and spend time in Nature

– Go on long walks and swim in cold water


“We must get back into relation: vivid and nourishing relation to the cosmos and the universe…We must once more practice the ritual of dawn and noon and sunset, the ritual of kindling fire and pouring water, the ritual of the first breath and the last”

“…If only life were so stable, happy, and predictable to produce ants instead of grasshoppers, year in, year out. 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. Our true flaw lies not in failing to store up enough resources to cope with the grasshopper years, but in believing that each grasshopper year is an anomaly, visited only on us, due to our unique human failings”

“Winter is a time for libraries, the muffled quiet of Book stacks and the scent of old pages and dust. In winter, I can spend hours in silent pursuit of a half-understood concept or a detail of history. There is nowhere else to be, after all.”

“I would not, of course, seek to deny that we gradually grow older, but while doing so, we pass through phases of good health and ill, of optimism and deep doubt, of freedom and constraint. There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard. To make that manageable, we just have to remember that our present will one day become a past, and our future will be our present. We know that because it’s happened before”

Similar Books/Further Reading:

The World Ending Fire By Wendell Berry

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

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