A few weeks ago, The Financial Times published a sobering essay on an urgent subject: loneliness in the time of COVID-19. Written by the paper’s Chicago correspondent, Claire Bushey, it described what it has felt like to live by yourself in this miserable year.
“Lonely as a cloud?” she wrote. “I am as lonely as an iceberg, an egg, a half carafe of wine. I am lonely as the body is hungry three times a day, hollowed again and again by an ache that does not ease except with the sustenance of connection.”
I have been haunted by her words, and I thought of them again as I read British writer Katherine May’s lovely, melancholy memoir “Wintering,” about a dark time in her life. It happened a few years ago, pre-pandemic. And though it wasn’t the worst thing imaginable — just as loneliness isn’t the worst thing imaginable in the middle of a pandemic but is devastating nonetheless — it ripped away her moorings and upended her sense of herself.
First, May’s husband fell ill with acute appendicitis that went untreated until his appendix ruptured. Then May developed debilitating stomach problems and became unable to work. (It turned out she had “the gut of a particularly self-neglectful 70-year-old,” as a nurse told her.) And finally, her 6-year-old son became too anxious to go to school. “I had thought his problems were ordinary, and it turned out that they were not,” she writes.
All of this hit her hard. In short order, many of the things she had relied on — health, livelihood, equanimity, the proper progression of her son’s childhood, her role as a mother and a professional, her ability to bounce back — felt provisional and unsettled. “Change was happening, and here was its cousin, mortality, not so much knocking on my door as kicking it down like some particularly brutal extrajudicial force,” she writes. “Winter had begun.”
May, who has written before on how to deal with anxiety and about her own experience as someone with Asperger’s syndrome, is an astute observer of life’s emotional discouragements. 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.” Examples might include bereavement, difficult childbirth, illness, the loss of a job, failure in love. “However it arrives,” she writes, “wintering is usually involuntary, lonely and deeply painful.”
But it comes for all of us, and we should embrace the uncertainty and the possibilities for growth that exist in the liminal spaces of winter, as May calls them — the places between what once was and what will be later, between “the mundane and the magical.”
“We must stop believing that these times in our lives are somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower,” she writes. “They are real, and they are asking something of us. We must learn to invite the winter in. We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how.”
Like an animal or a plant preparing for the cold, May steels herself, marshals her resources. In the tough months that form the heart of the book, she travels to Iceland and soaks in the restorative waters of the Blue Lagoon. (Sadly, she comes down with a high fever afterward.) Taking inspiration from Nordic friends, she heads for the sauna, “seeking out the elemental force of heat and finding a way to ride over the bumps of human life,” before passing out in the locker room.
The months go by, and literal winter settles in, the temperature outside matching her mood. May tries different approaches — spiritual, intellectual, physical — and offers thoughtful if sometimes meandering meditations on topics as diverse as the meaning of Halloween; the John Donne poem “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day”; Druidic rituals at Stonehenge during the winter solstice; the felicity of swimming off the frigid English coast at winter time; and, when insomnia has her in its grip, the history of sleep patterns. She takes refuge in children’s books. She bakes and makes preserves.
Her writing about the healing powers of the natural world is wonderful. She considers the annual cycle of deciduous trees. She holds a hibernating dormouse, a slumbering creature “the size of a walnut,” in the palm of her hand. She recalls the trip she took one January, while pregnant, to the far north of Norway. She thinks about the cleansing properties of snow, all the while trying to keep from being overwhelmed by anxiety and inadequacy, by her “chronic sense of unbelonging in this world.”
It is comforting to read “Wintering” in the midst of the pandemic, especially during what looks to be a dark and terrible winter that may — with luck — presage better times. Amid so much pain, it’s easy to feel confused about one’s own responses. Is it OK to feel deeply sad even when you still have a home, a job? How can we talk about our fear and loneliness when so many others are suffering even more?
“Wintering” does us the great service of reminding us that we are not alone in feeling undone. And although May’s book doesn’t offer a neat, easy ending in which she miraculously feels better, she does offer hope, an antidote to her tendency to “feel like a negative presence in the world.” She finds that hope in the ebb and flow of the seasons.
She quotes philosophical writer Alan Watts, who called for, as May puts it, a “radical acceptance of the endless, unpredictable change that is the very essence of this life.” And she sees light gathering anew, even in the dark days of December.
“No doubt the winter will still have plenty of remaining bite; the coldest days are yet to come,” she says. “Still, there will be snowdrops peeking up within weeks, and then the first crocuses. It won’t be long. The year begins again.”
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