Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times

About Katherine May:

Katherine May is a New York Times bestselling author, whose titles include Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times and The Electricity of Every Living Thing, her memoir of being autistic. Her fiction includes The Whitstable High Tide Swimming Club and Burning Out. She is also the editor of The Best, Most Awful Job, an anthology of essays about motherhood. Her journalism and essays have appeared in a range of publications including The New York Times, The Observer and Aeon. She lives in Whitstable, UK with her husband, son, three cats and a dog.  (Source:

Wintering: A Summary

At the outset, in Chapter 1, Indian Summer, May describes what she calls wintering: “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 […] Some winterings creep up on us more slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely and deeply painful.” Examples she writes of include bereavement, difficult childbirth, illness, the loss of a job, failure in love, or some kind of humiliation—anything that involves falling out of sync with what is deemed acceptable in everyday life. 

Published in February 2020, the book is a memoir about her own personal winter. She writes of how an emergency surgery for her spouse marked the beginning of a slew of other difficulties— being unable to continue work when she was diagnosed with debilitating stomach problems, and the realisation that her 6-year old was too anxious to go to school. All of it coming together when she was on the cusp of her 40th birthday. No stranger to winter, having been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome at the age of 17, she writes of not having to fight the winter but instead of withdrawing from the world to maximise scant resources. “Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible,” she writes. 

Central to the book is the theme of acceptance of the many winterings one lifetime witnesses, and to gently steer away from the compulsion to set them aside by putting on a brave front and carrying on at a frenetic pace as if afraid of being found out or being seen as less of a person for not keeping up. Or as she puts it, “a lifting of the obligation to endlessly do.” 

In the cold, May finds a certain crystalline quality of feeling wildly and fully alive and present. It’s what leads her to begin swimming in temperatures of 3 degrees everyday with a swimming companion. An invigorating exercise which she says allows them to, “let the cold unburden us of our own personal winters, just for a few moments.”  Seeking out the cold is something May finds herself turning north to do at different intervals in her life to travel to “the top of the world where the ice intrudes”. In Reykjavik, she bathes in hot geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon and in Tromso, she goes to see the northern lights. In both places, she is struck by all the life and the survival she bears witness to in the deepest cold. As if nature itself is pointing to how to cling tenaciously to life, at the transformation that comes from it. She writes of coming to acceptance by learning to rest, surrender and dream, that it’s a gift of winter. 

The soothing powers of the natural world and the awe is evokes is another constant companion to journey with her through the book. Describing the dropping of leaves  by deciduous trees in a process called abscission, she draws attention to how even as leaves are falling and we’re confronted with its skeletal form, the tree is actually waiting with fallen leaves mulching the forest floor and roots drawing up extra moisture. “Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall form us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again,” she writes. Her description of the cold weather tactics of bees to survive the winter are also deeply reflective of embracing cycles of wintering. 

She also turns to children’s books like the fable of  The Ant and the Grasshopper to reiterate how all of us, in ways big and small, will have ant years and grasshopper years. That is, “years in which we are able to prepare and save and years where we need a little extra help.” Whether it is through reflections on books like this one or turning to the writing of Alan Watts, the book does a  great service of reminding us unpredictable change is the norm, not the anomaly and that we’re less along than we think is experiencing seasonality on our lives.  “Doing those deeply unfashionable things—slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting—is a radical act now, but it is essential. This is a crossroads we all know, a moment when you need to shed a skin. If you do, you’ll expose all those painful nerve endings and feel so raw that you’ll need to take care of yourself for a while. If you don’t, then that skin will harden around you. It’s one of the most important choices you’ll ever make,” she urges.    


Discussion themes and questions:

  • Is the idea of rest and recuperation radical?
  • What situations in your life have brought on wintering? How have you responded to them? 
  • Is the idea of admitting to be stressed, painful or shameful? Do people view it as being weak? 
  • ‘The problem with everything is that it ends up looking an awful lot like nothing; just one long haze of frantic activity, with the meaning sheared off’. Do you agree or disagree? 
  • May writes about cooking and colouring with attention in the fallow period of life. What are the ways in which you respond to these periods?
  • How does class affect how we winter?