Wintering—Katherine May

Read In: 2022


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In the changing room later, I experience a different kind of warmth—the nakedness of a dozen women, all unashamed. These aren’t the posing bodies you find on the beach, dieted beyond all joy to be bikini-ready and tanned as an act of disguise. These are northern bodies, slack-bottomed and dimpling, with unruly pubic hair and the scars of cesareaen sections, chattering companionably in a language I don’t understand. They are a glimpse of life yet to come: a message of survival, passed on through the generations. It’s a message I rarely find in my buttoned-up home, country, and I think about the times I’ve suffered silent furies at the treacheries of my own body, imagining them to be unique. We don’t know ourselves in context. But there is evidence of wintering here, freely shared like an exchange of precious gifts.


The sauna has an almost spiritual significance in the Finnish psyche, acting as a place of relaxation and retreat, particularly in those winter months. Most houses have their own saunas, and in blocks of flats there will be a communal one in which you have an allotted time slot each week. Not having access to one is unthinkable. The sauna is seen as essential, like a bathroom or kitchen.
“It’s a calm time,” Hanne said, “a family time. You experience a clearing of the mind in sauna.” Hanne’s English is flawless, but I noticed that she used this phrase again and again: in sauna, rather than in the sauna. She’s not talking about a building, a little pine shed with burning coals in the corner; she’s talking about a state of being.
“All the decisions are made there,” she said. “My mother was born in sauna.” She saw me looking horrified—the idea of labouring in such a hot environment made me nauseous. “Everyone was! It was the cleanest place in those times, and all your hot water would be in there anyway. You were taken in there to be washed when you died, too.” Until very recently, the sauna hosted the entire life cycle. The whole run, from birth to death, is still symbolically there, brought close by winter.


A couple of years ago, I shared a sauna with a friend who poured water on the coals so enthusiastically that I had to scamper out of the cabin in fear that I’d be scalded. I was sure that he would follow me straight out and admit his mistake, but he emerged ten minutes later, lobster pink and with a dreamy smile on his face. I have decided that I need to learn from this: I need not fear the heat. I must instead surrender to it.


Ghosts may be a part of the terror of Halloween, but our love of ghost stories betrays a far more fragile desire: that we do not fade so easily from this life. We spend a lot of time talking about leaving a legacy in this world, grand or small, financial or reputational, so that we won’t be forgotten. But ghost stories show us a different concern, hidden under our bluster: we hope that the dead won’t forget us. We hope that we, the living, will not lose the meanings that seem to evaporate when our loved ones die.


Halloween is not longer a time for remembrance, but it still reveals our need to enter liminal spaces: those moments when we’re standing on the boundary between fear and delight, and those times when we wish that the veil between the living and the dead would lift for a while. But most of all, it hints at the winter to come, opening the door to the dark season, and reminding us of the darknesses that lurk in all our futures. We adults should learn to mark it, I think, but not necessarily with the commercialized disorder of our current Halloween. Perhaps we should draw on the rituals of Samhain—light bonfires, placate old gods, and do our best to divine the future. Somewhere, somehow, we will be shown the way to the next world.


As we so often find in ancient folklore, the Cailleach offers us a cyclical metaphor for life, one in which the energies of spring arrive 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. Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.


The dropping of leaves by deciduous trees is called abscission. It occurs on the cusp between autumn and winter, as part of an arc of growth, maturity, and renewal. In spring and summer, leaf cells are full of chlorophyll, a bright green substance that absorbs sunlight, fueling the process that converts carbon dioxide and water into the starch and sugar that allow the tree to grow. But at the end of the summer, as the days grow shorter and the temperature falls, deciduous trees stop making food. In the absence of sunlight, it becomes too costly to maintain the machinery of growth. The chlorophyll begins to break down, revealing other colours that were always present in the leaf, but which were masked by the abundance of green pigment: oranges and yellows, derived from carotene and xanthophyll. Other chemical changes take place to create red anthocyanin pigments. The exact mix is different for each tree, sometimes producing bright yellows, oranges, and browns, and sometimes displaying as reds or purples.
But while this is happening, a lyer of cells is weakening between the stem and the branch: this is called the abscission zone. Gradually it severs the lead from access to water, and the leaf dries and browns and in most cases falls off, either under its own weight or encouraged by wintery rains and winds. Within a few hours, the tree will have released substances to heal the scar the leaf has left, protecting itself from the evaporation of water, infection, or the invasion of parasites.
Even as the leaves are falling, the buds of next year’s crop are already in place, waiting to erupt again in spring. Most trees produce their buds in high summer, and the autumn lead fall reveals them, neat and expectant, protected from the cold by thick scales. We rarely notice them because we think we’re seeing the skeleton of the tree, a dead thing until the sun returns. But look closely, and every single tree is in bud, from the sharp talons of the beech to the hooflike black buds of the ash. Many trees also display catkins in the winter, like the acid-green lambs’ tails of the hazel and the furry grey nubs of the willow. These employ the wind or insects to spread pollen, ready for the new year.
The tree is waiting. It has everything ready. Its fallen leaves are mulching the forest floor, and its roots are drawing up the extra winter moisture, providing a firm anchor against seasonal storms. Its ripe cones and nuts are providing essential food in this scarce time for mice and squirrels, and its bark is hosting hibernating insects and providing a source of nourishment for hungry deer. It is far from dead. It is in fact the life and soul of the wood. It’s just getting on with it quietly. It will not burst into life in the spring. It will just put on a new coat and face the world again.


I don’t mind staying in. I realise that for plenty of people, it feels like a brutal restriction of their freedom, but it suits me down to the ground. Winter is a quiet house in lamplight, a spin in the garden to see bright stars on a clear night, the roast of the wood-burning stove, and the accompanying smell of charred wood. It is warming the teapot and making cups of bitter cocoa; it is stews magicked from bones with dumplings floating like clouds. It is reading quietly and passing away the afternoon twilight watching movies. It is thick socks and the bundle of a cardigan.
In summer, I average six or seven hours’ sleep a night, but in winter it’s closer to nine. As soon as the sun goes down, I start thinking about going to bed. Early nights are a habit inherited from my mother’s side; none of us are night owls, but neither are we particularly larks. We all need to sleep. I have travelled through distinct phases in my attitude to this: as a child, I found it highly congenial that my grandparents tucked themselves up at the same time as me; as a young adult, I thought it was hilariously tame. As I got older, I found my own urge to sleep more and more inconvenient, and dreamed of unlocking the extra time that, say, a five-hour night would bring. Becoming a parent cured me of that. Some people thrive on a little sleep deprivation, but I do not. I now know that I can achieve far more after nine hours than I can in the spare time afforded by a short night. Sleeping is my sanity, my luxury, my addiction. I’m fairly certain that my decision not to have a second child rests squarely on my worship of sleep.


I clear the surface of my desk and make a pool of light with my lamp. I go off to fetch matches and light a candle. One light is steady and sure, the other uncertain and flickering. I open my notebook and work between these two poles. On balance, it’s where I prefer to be: somewhere in the middle. Certainty is a dead space, in which there’s no more room to grow. Wavering is painful. I’m glad to be travelling between the two.


This is a time in which very few activities seem right. Mostly I read at this hour, perusing the pile of books that live by my favourite chair, waiting to offer up fragments of learning, rather than inviting cover-to-cover pursuits. I browse a chapter here, a segment there, or hunt through an index for a matter that’s on my mind. I love such loose, exploratory reading. For once, I am not reading to escape; instead, having already made my getaway, I am able to roam through the extra space I’ve found, as restless and impatient as I like, revelling in the play of my own absorption. They say that we should dance like no one is watching. I think that applies to reading, too.
The inky hours are also for writing: the scratch and flow of pen on good paper, the stuttering chains of words that expand to fill pages and pages. Sometimes writing is a race against your own mind, as your hand labours to keep up with the tide of your thoughts, and I feel that most acutely at night, when there are no competing demands on my attention. That slightly sleepy, dazed state erodes the barriers of my waking brain. My dreams are still present, like an extra dimension to my perception. But crucially, my sensible daytime self, bossy and overbearing, still slumbers. Without its overseeing eye, I can see different futures and make imaginative leaps. I can confess all my sins to a piece of paper with no one to censor it.
If my night-waking feels elemental to me, perhaps that’s because it was once a normal component of human sleep, only recently forgotten. In At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, the historian A. Roger Ekirch asserts that before the Industrial Revolution, it was normal to divide the night into two periods of sleep: the “first sleep,” or “dead sleep,” lasting from the evening until the early hours of the morning; and the “second” or “morning” sleep, which took the slumberer safely to daybreak. In between, there was an hour or more of wakefulness known as the “watch,” in which “Families rose to urinate, smoke tobacco, and even visit close neighbors. Many others made love, prayed, and . . . reflected on their dreams, a significant source of solace and self-awareness.” In the intimacy of the darkness, families and lovers could hold deep, rich wandering conversations that had no place in the busy daytime.


There is not enough night left for us. We have lost our true instincts for darkness, its invitation so spend some time in the proximity of our dreams. Our personal winters are so often accompanied by insomnia: perhaps we’re drawn towards that unique space of intimacy and contemplation, darkness and silence, without really knowing what we’re seeking. Perhaps, after all, we are being urged towards our own comfort.
Sleep is not a dead space, but a doorway to a diferent kind of consciousness—one that is reflective and restorative, full of tangential thought and unexpected insights. In winter, we are invited into a particular mode of sleep: not a regimented eight hours, but a slow, ambulatory process in which waking thoughts merge with dreams, and space is made in the blackest hours to repair the fragmented narratives of our days.
Yet we are pushing away this innate skill we have for digesting the difficult parts of life. My own midnight terrors vanish when I turn insomnia into a watch: a claimed sacred space in which I have nothing to do but contemplate. Here, I am offered a place in between, like finding a hidden door, the stuff of dreams. Even dormice know how to do it: they wake a while and tend to business before surrendering back to sleep.
Over and again, we find that winter offers us liminal spaces to inhabit. Yet we still refuse them. The work of the cold season is to learn to welcome them.


I may be embarrassed to admit it, but I pray earthwise, too. I learned to meditate over a decade ago now, and when motherhood made it sometimes impossible to find the time to sit for twenty minutes, twice a day, I found a way to distil a little of that experience. By closing my eyes, however briefly, and resting my thoughts on the core of my perception, I can gain some of the peace that meditation brings me. I have come to think of it as prayer, although I ask for nothing and speak to no one within it. It is a profoundly nonverbal experience, a sharp breath of pure being amid a forest of words. It is an untangling, a moment to feel the true ache of desire, the gentle wash of self-compassion, the heart swell of thanks, the tick tick tick of existence. It is a moment when, alone, I am at my most connected with others. I can feel entirely separate in a crown of people, but when I close my eyes, it’s as though I have waded into a river of all consciousness, bathed in common humanity.
I shrink from even writing those words, because I do not have friends who pray like this or who talk about the world in this sense. I’m ashamed of it. I find myself groping for the basic vocabulary to express what I mean. I flinch away from the certainties of religion and from the carefully noncommittal language that I find online—the internal-spiriautl, celebrating the moments in which we’re blessed and grateful, but reluctant to pin down by whom we’re blessed or to whom we’re grateful.


“Rituals are the doorways of the psyche, between the sacred and the profane, between purity and dirt, beauty and ugliness, and an opening out of the ordinary into the extraordinary,” write Jay Griffiths. For my own part, they open up a space in which to host thoughts that I would otherwise find silly or ridiculous: a voiceless awe at the passing of time. The way everything changes. The way everything stays the same. The way those things are bigger than I am, and more than I can hold.
More than any other season, winter requires a kind of metronome that ticks away its darkest beats, giving us a melody to follow into spring. The year will move on no matter what, but by paying attention to it, feeling its beat, and noticing the moments of transition—perhaps even taking time to think about what we want from the next phase in the year—we can get the measure of it.


As I have for most of my life, I felt that I was on the cusp of getting it all right and just needed a little more time.


I still retain a little of attitude towards the snow. Try as I might, I can’t produce the adult hardness towards a snowfall, full of resentment at the inconvenience. I love the inconvenience the same way that I sneakingly love a bad cold: the irresistible disruption to mundane life, forcing you to stop for a while and step outside your normal habits. I love the visual transformation it brings about, that recoloring of the world into sparkling white, the way that the rules change to that everybody says hello as they pass. I love what it does to the light, the purplish clouds that loom before it descends, and the way it announces itself from behind your curtains in the morning, glowing a diffuse whiteness that can only mean snow. Heading out in a snowstorm to catch the flakes on my gloves, I love the feeling of it fresh underfoot. I am rarely childlike and playful except in snow. I swings me into reverse gear.
Snow creates that quality of awe in the face of a power greater than ours. It epitomizes the aesthetic notion of the sublime, in which greatness and beauty couple to overcome you—a small, frail human—entirely.


That pivotal point for Dorte came when she found a fresh perspective on her situation that changed the way she conceptualized it. Feeling that, yet again, the drugs weren’t working, she made an appointment with her GP and happened to see a doctor she’d never met before. He told her that they could keep tinkering with her medication, but it would never solve everything. “This isn’t about you getting fixed,” he said. “This is about you living the best life you can with the parameters you have.”
He was the first person to ever say that, and the effect was profound. Perhaps a year before—perhaps even less than that—she wouldn’t have been ready to hear it, but today she was. It should have been devastating to face the idea that she would always be bipolar; after all, it was currently having a terrible impact on her health and happiness. But for Dorte, this was not the moment in which she lost hope, but an invitation to finally adapt to what she needed. “nobody had ever said to me, ‘You need to live a life that you can cope with, not the one that other people want. Start saying no. Just do one thing a day. No more than two social events in a week.’ I owe my life to him.”
We are soon having the kind of breathless conversation more usually reserved for reunions with old friends than for first-time digital meetings with complete strangers. But here, miles across the North Sea, is my mirror. Our contact with winter draws us close. I’m soon interrupting to tell her my own story about being diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and finally realizing that I couldn’t power my way out of it or find a therapy to fix me. The very permanence of the label—of having a brain that just happened to work in a certain way—was my salvation. I had to adapt. I had to surrender. The only thing breaking me was pretending to be like everyone else.




A year


When you start


My voice is now