107. Read: Wintering The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times

books mental fitness Jan 18, 2021

By: Michael Beiter


Every now and then my timing is good. I finished Wintering by Katherine May as we were blanketed with snow during a blizzard warning in my native Iowa. 

I sat by the window of my apartment on the end cushion of my couch and watched out the window as snow started falling calmly. Then the wind picked up and made it into the aforementioned blizzard. 

First the gray sidewalks and streets disappeared under a blanket of white. 

Then the trees and siding of homes took on snow and everything became uniformly beautiful for a while. Snow has this unique capacity to do that. It equalizes everything it touches. It all becomes cold and white. It's serene. 

I haven't always had this perspective of snow. Like many people I interact with for most of my life I've had a tendency to push away the winter in favor of spring, summer, and fall. What a mistake. 

Winter is part of a necessary annual cycle of decay and rebirth. This doesn't fit the now ubiquitous narrative of linear improvement and growth that my millennial generation has been raised on. One that I've seen affect people in their twenties, thirties, fourties, and fifties. Most of the sixty somethings I encounter have figured it out and embrace it.

Winter is never going away. It is necessary and unless it is embraced for what it is you will have a hard time getting through them. This is the premise of Wintering. Katherine May wrote a wonderful book that I will admit has changed my perspective on how to handle the time from November to March. 

Before this read I cautioned my clients and prepared myself for winter every year with some simple instruction.

• Work out for an hour per day.

• Take some Vitamin D.

• Get outside as much as possible.

• Log your food and mind your diet. 

This wasn't bad advice. But it wasn't that different from what I told them to do during the other seasons. It wreaked of linearity. Of reducing winter to something to clench our teeth through and endure. 

Now my suggestions have changed a bit. And they come from this book - one that I plan to reread every winter from here on. 

• Reduce your work time

• Sleep more and be OK with it (my trend is 7-8 hours in the warmer months, 9-10 hours in the winter months)

• Eat heartily - fruits, vegetables, soups, stews and the like

• Exercise as much as you can tolerate but like sleep understand it is natural to feel less energized 

• Lower your social expectations - 1-2 events per week is enough

Humans are the only primates that don't have a distinct cycle to their year. We think we need to produce, create, and achieve in the winter like we do during the summer. This is false belief and unsustainable. 

We need to embrace the cyclic nature of the year. We must downshift during the winter. 

May writes: 

Wrapped in socks all day, my feet turn form their summer brown to winter white, and my sunshine freckles fade away. My shins and knees are drying out; my face drinks in moisturizer every morning. Deprived of sun, my hair darkens, and the skin frays around my nails. Mine is a drab winter coat, usually lifted by bright red cheeks, the legacy of coastal winds. But then, winter is no time to put on a display. I love the separation it brings, the way that people are scarce even during the daylight hours, when you can drink in the dilute light of the low sun, your shadow stretching long at your feet. 

Our modern beauty standards favor summer presentations, not winters. Wouldn't it be great if we found our winter glows as beautiful as our summer tans? Our covered bodies with only our faces revealed in our winter clothing compared to the near nakedness summer can sometimes produce in our attire. 

I vote to make winter sexy like summer. 

It is true that throughout history we have thought of our lives in a cyclical manner. Where the energy of spring arrives again and again, nurtured by the deep retreat of winter. 

We are no longer accustomed to thinking in this way. 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 a brutal untruth. 

May is right, we live with a lot of these regressed, brutal untruths. 

Have we really got so far into the realm of electric light and central heating that the rhythm of the year is irrelevant to us, and we no longer even want to notice the point at which the nights start getting shorter again? If our current society lacks a way to offer us the meanings we seek, then it's entirely reasonable to reimagine the old ways of doing it or to create new ones. 

I can attest to hardly noticing the shortening of days until it becomes nothing but a complaint. "Ugh, daylight savings time is so stupid. This is really fucking with my mood and output. I need to move to a place that has uniform weather year round." 

I don't believe that anymore, but for 31 years before this book I did. 

May writes on happiness and childhood: 

Happiness is our potential, the product of a mind that's allowed to thing as it needs to, that has enough of what is requires, that is free of the terrible weight of bullying and humiliation. As children, we tolerate working conditions that we'd find intolerable as adults: the constant exposure of our attainment to a hostile audience; the motivation by threat instead of encouragement; 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, during childhood, this comes with physical threats, too - being pushed and shoved on the playground, punched and kicked. The eternal menace that something more savage is waiting around the corner on your way home. Imagine how that would feel to you as an adult: that perpetual threat to your bodily integrity and your mental wellbeing. We would never stand for it, but we did as children because it was expected of us and we didn't know any better. 

Retreat via the winter is one way to heal such trauma. Yet we march our kids right on through school during the winter months any ways. Because mom and dad have to go march on through their work life and need somewhere to put the kids. God forbid they get time to be at home, in our space, with us all day like in 2020. Did you hear of people celebrating this beautiful time with their kids or bemoaning it? 

I have experimented with various methods of marking meaningful passages in the books I read. I have tried highlighting and underlining which I don't recommend because it ruins a reread. I have paused to copy the passage down in my notebook. I don't do this anymore because it is too start and stop. Now I rabbit ear the page. Wintering is one of the first books I've done this with and looking at the copy in my hand from the side shows dozens of folded down corners. Proof that this book was full of 'aha's.' 

The last one I'll share is about a depression and a woman's experience with winter swimming. She, like myself and many of my clients has battled with depression for much of her life. She was reaching the end of her road with cycling medications until she found the right combo. She found her 'cure' by jumping into the sea during the winter and swimming with others in their Polar Bear Club. 

By embracing winter, rather than trying to push it away, we have both found a way to keep going. "In October 2013, I was at the end of the road," she tells me. "For the last ten years, I had been sick with recurring hypermania and depression. I'd tried every single drug. My psychiatrist kept telling me that it was a matter of finding the right combination; the aim was to become rask. It's a complicated word. It means, well, healthy - but also fixed. I'd been waiting a decade for the medication to mend me. The change came when I stopped believing it could."

This woman goes on to claim she was cured by accepting a theory of depression that it is the result of a swollen brain. What do we do to swollen joint? We ice it. She applied the same logic to her brain. 

She started submerging herself in 40 degree water daily and sure enough, there went the depression. 

The human body is simply amazing. After reading this I've started my shopping for cold tubs so I can begin my own polar therapy. This change is encouraging as I as just beginning a search for a psychiatrist to try my own hand at drug rotation. 

Ahhhhhhh, the power of reading strikes again. 

Wintering is a superb book. I see it being in my Top 5 for the year and we aren't even a month in yet. I plan to crack it open again in November when the season starts changing again. Only this time I won't be upset with the change. Now, I will welcome the winter. 


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