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Dr. Shruti Shankar Gaur’s Book Review of ‘Wintering’ by Katherine May

I am a summer baby. I love the sun. And I am not much pally with winter. Still, every year winter is forced upon me. I am clueless and rudderless. It scares the hell out of me. Winter is like: my body stops moving. And I don’t know what to do. How to cope?

Someone up there knew my misery beforehand and thus, I was born in a country and region with bright sunny days and hot summers for the longest part of the year. But one can’t run from winter. However, less it may be, it does appear. Let me elaborate the winter at my place. It doesn’t snow, in fact, I haven’t seen snow in my entire life. Extreme cold is only for two months. Mind you, my extreme cold can be between 5-10 degrees above zero (and that too remains for 10-15 days). I don’t live in freezing zones with sheets of white everywhere. Still, I find winters difficult to sustain. If you meet me in winter I am the polar bear who lives in the Tropic of Cancer. I start layering when the world is still enjoying the hot autumn. I feel cold more than others.

It was with this thought, that I picked the book ‘Wintering’ by Katherine May. It was highly recommended by one of the book groups on social media. All I wanted was that it teaches me a better coping mechanism. I was hoping it will teach me ways to turn my winters into vibrant summers. At least in my fantasy, I wished. Well, it did nothing like that. Instead, it taught me to value the winters of our life. It reinstated that winters are as important as summers.

Katherine May uses the term ‘wintering’ to describe the process to sustain the harsh winters; not only the season but our lives as well. She asks the most pertinent question: Haven’t we all wintered? Were we prepared then? Are we prepared for the winters that are yet to come? I was able to connect with the author because just like me she was stumbling with the winter. It was a relief to discover I was not alone in this. 

The book is an exploration of the cold. She does share various insights as she was ‘Wintering’. I could completely relate to her. Just like the author, most of the time I find myself ill-equipped to manage winters or my life. And I am sure, it is the case with many more mortals.  

Wintering is a natural phenomenon, yet something so basic isn’t taught to us. Katherine gives a few handy tips. Observe nature as they winter and learn to prepare as they do. For it’s the coldest winters that lead to the most magnificent spring.

“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency, and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”

Wintering is a time of self-reflection. It is the time of being with yourself and your loved ones. But do we acknowledge our wintering? Society ignores the winter, they want to continue life and its processes as it is. They have forgotten to rest and to pause.

“But if happiness is a skill, sadness is too. Perhaps through all those years at school, or perhaps through other terrors, we are taught to ignore it, to stuff it down into our satchels and pretend it isn’t there. As adults, we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.”

I was amazed by May’s tenacity and inquisitiveness throughout the book. She is always on the lookout. To survive. To sustain. To thrive in the coldest winters. Her explorations ranged from the sauna experiences, Northern Lights, reindeer, or the cold dips in the ocean.  I could feel my body shivering and feeling the cold as she elaborated her various adventures. Despite the goosebumps at the physiological level, my heart pounded with excitement as she narrated her journey.

We travelled through the dark moments together. I won’t pretend it was fun, but it was necessary, all the same. We raged and grieved together. We were overcome with fear. We worried and slept it off, didn’t sleep, and let our timetables turn upside down. We didn’t so much retreat from the world as letting it recede from us. We howled out in pain to our friends and family, and were surprised that so much rushed in to assist us, sometimes with practical support, but sometimes by sharing stories of their own. It helped. We felt broken into pieces, but at the same time, never so loved.

Katherine May’s Wintering changed my perspective towards the cold to the extent that I think I have started to value winter and to some extent even look forward to it. Fingers crossed. Bring it on! I am better prepared this time, at least in my head 😉

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