That has been my mistake.
My feelings about the past few dark months changed when, by algorithmic chance, I came across “Wintering,” a memoir by the writer Katherine May. It arrived in my life at the perfect moment, during seasonal winter but also a personal winter. Like so many others, I’ve struggled greatly with isolation, anxiety, the proximity to mass death and the ability to keep it all at bay in order to try to be a productive worker, a supportive partner, a son, a friend and a neighbor. I’d hit a wall and felt ashamed of it. Ms. May’s book offered empathy, acceptance and perspective that I suspect will stay with me long after the pandemic.
She describes wintering as “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.” It could be grief or depression or the end of a relationship or even a string of bad luck. She does not sugarcoat it. A personal winter can come in any season, but it is dark and potentially dangerous. Some do not make it out alive or intact. But there is power and clarity and wisdom to be gained from accepting these difficult times. It’s a lesson that Ms. May learned as a teenager suffering from depression as a result of undiagnosed autism.
Eventually, she writes, she was surprised by what she realized about herself. “Winter had blanked me, blasted me wide open. In all that whiteness, I saw the chance to make myself new again. Half-apologetic, I started to build a different kind of a person,” one “whose big stupid heart made her endlessly seem to hurt, but also one who deserved to be here, because she now had something to give.”
Her words are hopeful. Like so many others, the pandemic slowed my life (which I now realize was far too frantic) to a halt. Though I’m grateful for the reset, I’ve also felt adrift. Thirteen months worrying about the safety of myself and those I love has refocused my priorities. Who I spend my time with, and how and where I spend it, matter differently now from before. It is exciting, yes, but also painful and terrifying. Then there is the guilt — I’ve been so privileged and fortunate, while so many others have not.
I called Ms. May at her seaside home in Britain for what turned out to be less of an interview and more of a therapy session. While she stressed that there’s no easy how-to guide for wintering — you have to take it in and endure it — there is an art to the process.