I recently read, Wintering, The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, by Katherine May. I learned of the book through an On Being Podcast with Krista Tippett.
“Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again. 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. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. Some winterings creep upon 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. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.
Yet it’s also inevitable. We like to imagine that it’s possible for life to be one eternal summer and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves. We dream of an equatorial habitat, forever close to the sun, an endless, unvarying high season. But life’s not like that. Emotionally, we’re prone to stifling summers and low, dark winters, to sudden drops in temperature, to light and shade. Even if by some extraordinary stroke of self-control and good luck we were able to keep control of our own health and happiness for an entire lifetime, we still couldn’t avoid the winter. Our parents would age and die; our friends would undertake minor acts of betrayal; the machinations of the world would eventually weigh against us. Somewhere along the line we would screw up. Winter would quietly roll in.”
The author shares that she learned to winter young through undiagnosed autism and a bout of depression at 17 that immobilized her for months. But somewhere in the depths, she found a will to live, optimism, and the opportunity to make herself into a new person. Like the author, I learned to winter young….but until now I never defined it or understood that it is a natural cycle of life. I always felt guilty for those times when I struggled to move forward, felt overwhelmed, depressed, and lonely.
The world always wants us to keep a smile on our faces (especially women), and “pushing through the pain” is applauded, encouraged, and often mandatory.
This time of COVID-19 has been a wintering for me. In many ways, I have been fortunate – generally working from home, and most of my closest family and friends have stayed healthy. Yet, working from home isolated me from connection and forced a reckoning within my soul. Suddenly, the intensity of the life I had created diminished. I could no longer avoid diving into the depths of my being and evaluating my life as it was. I was no longer so busy that I could ignore my sadness and feelings of overwhelm.
After reading this book along with several others, and through the growth and development of my mediation practice, I am learning to accept and welcome this time of wintering….and to be kinder to myself.
Wintering has turned my life upside down
This reckoning has resulted in me turning my life upside down.
I have resigned from my job and from several volunteer positions in an attempt to slow my life down and figure out a new direction more in keeping with the person who I would like to become. This is not without fear……because I am letting go of so much of what has defined me for many years. But if I do not let go, I will never find out what else I can be….and once again I will be saying to myself that my hopes and dreams are not important enough to fight for. I do not believe that wintering needs to result in this sort of life-altering action, but it always results in growth and change.
We need to learn to embrace the winterings in our life and gather in all that they can teach us.
Meditation with a purpose
Sometimes they force us to learn difficult things. The recent focus of The Resilient Activist’s Sunday morning meditation teaching has been on using meditation to bring compassion and equanimity. We have been meditating on the following statements:
I wish you well
I’d like to do my part
I deeply respect that it is not all up to me
The “I wish you well” is both for yourself and others. Wishing others well is not hard for me. Neither is the “I’d like to do my part.” I am a doer by nature…to the point of over-commitment.
What is hard for me is extending those same well-wishes to myself.
The statement “I deeply respect that it is not all up to me” is nearly impossible for me to grasp. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to my family, friends, and other organizations to which I belong to make things happen and keep things moving forward. This often results in taking on more responsibility and picking things up that really are not mine to do or fix. My mode of action is “to fill the void.” This often results in frustration and despair when I take on more and more without a way to say no.
Through meditating on these ideas, I am learning to wish myself well by allowing myself to not say yes to every request that is made of me, and not feel like it is my responsibility to fill every void that I see. Instead, I am working to thoughtfully consider saying “yes,” with a sustainable plan of action to support my family, friends, and like-minded organizations.
As this current time of “wintering” is winding down for me, I am finding this passage from the book to be deeply resonant:
“I began to get a feel for my winterings: their length and breadth, their heft. I knew that they didn’t last forever. I knew that I had to find the most comfortable way to live with them until spring. I am aware that I fly in the face of polite convention in doing this. The times we fall out of sync with everyday life remain taboo. We’re not raised to recognize wintering or to acknowledge its inevitability. Instead, we tend to see it as a humiliation, something that should be hidden from view lest we shock the world too greatly…….Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered. In our relentlessly busy contemporary world, we are forever trying to defer the onset of winter………We must stop believing that these times in our lives are somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower…..They are real, and they are asking something from us. We must learn to invite winter in. We may never choose winter, but we can choose how.”
Now that I understand wintering, I have chosen to let this time of wintering teach me how to better care for myself through acknowledging my own needs. My hope is when winter knocks on my door in the future (and it will) I will welcome it in and let it teach me something new.