Reading for Wellbeing: Wintering by Katherine May

This year I’m going to spend some time looking at bibliotherapy: the practice of reading and writing for wellbeing. So once in a while I’ll be reviewing and discussing books that can help your sense of wellbeing. Today, I’m looking at Wintering by Katherine May.

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times explores how people have prepared for winter, physically and mentally, and used it as a cycle to help deal with the challenges of life. The book argues that we go through cycles of feeling good and feeling low, and that this is natural, that retreating to nurture ourselves needs to happen on a cyclical basis like the seasons. For some this could be mental ill health, for others it could be life events. May talks to people who have endured hard times and recognises that people often retreat after a distressing life incident, such as a bereavement or loss, an illness or a change to their settled routine. She links this back to nature, discussing how plants and animals also prepare for winter, laying on fat reserves, finding cosy places to sleep, losing leaves etc.

Wintering – this beautiful cover

I enjoyed the book very much, partly because I found much in common with the author, and partly because the ideas within make sense. I remember periods following my father’s death, my miscarriage and even the birth of my child, where I wanted to retreat in order to make sense of changes and feelings. I am and have been lucky enough to have been able to do this, economically maternity leave and compassionate leave are not available to everyone which I imagine can impede a retreat process.

Winter in this country can often be disappointing, with little snow and more grey dreary days of rain and dullness which often leaves us feeling grey and wrung out. Think of those bright fresh winter mornings with a frost on the air and a bright sun. Once in a while those days can make you feel cheerful, eager to get out and enjoy the light, but on the whole a British winter is a dispiriting grey stretch that often feels never ending. It is this that we need to manage.

Katherine May in the snow

I liked the simple things that May suggests to help you cope, and find resilience. Near the end of the book, she loses her voice and is advised to take singing lessons to restore it. She is about to protest that singing is not integral to her when she realises that she does, in fact, sing every day – to herself, along with the radio or music. Me too. These small acts that we put in place for ourselves that help us manage the day to day anxieties – these things are important. I go for a run regularly, I sing, I bake, I knit and I spend time making home a comfortable and attractive place to be. This last year, the year of Covid, these things have all seemed very important as we have undertaken a kind of wintering process ourselves, retreating from our usual lives to try to keep ourselves and others safe.

The test for us comes next, as we try to emerge from this wintering and work out where to go next. May’s book offers us a path, to share our experiences and realise that wintering will come again, and again, and that we can make it through.

“We must test the air and be ready to shrink back into safety when blasted by unseasonal winds; we must gradually unfurl our new leaves. There will still often be the debris to shift of a long, disordered season. These are the moments when we have to find the most grace: when we come to atone for the worst ravages of our conduct in darker times; when we have to tell truths that we’d rather ignore. Sometimes we will have to name our personal winters, and the words will feel barbed in our throats: grief, rejection, depression, illness. Shame, failure,despair.

“It often seems easier to stay in winter, burrowed down into our hibernation nests, away from the glare of the sun. But we are brave,and the new world awaits us, gleaming and green, alive with the beat of wings. And besides, we have a kind of gospel to tell now, and a duty to share it. We who have wintered have learned some things. We sing it out like birds. We let our voices fill the air.”

Wintering by Katherine May is published by Penguin and priced at £9.99.

You may also enjoy:

Making Winter: A Creative Guide for Surviving the Winter Months by Emma Mitchell This lovely book contains a range of projects such as silver jewellery, paper-craft decorations and crocheted mittens, to foraged infusions, delicious recipes and nature diaries, that allow you to enjoy and get through the winter months.

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