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 on the eve of 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 the 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.”