I have long struggled with winter. I grew in Minnesota where winters were long and brutally cold. I remember hauling myself through hip-deep snowdrifts on my walk to elementary school and that was in the suburbs! The North of England, where I lived for nearly twenty years, has a much milder climate. But being so far north, I was plunged into infernal darkness from Halloween to Candlemas. It started getting dark at 3:30 in the afternoon and by 4:00 it was pitch dark. Remember those horror movies where it’s dark ALL THE TIME?? That’s Lancashire in midwinter. I felt I was trapped inside some brooding gothic novel.
Now that I’ve moved to the Silver Coast of Portugal, I get a lot more daylight in winter, but also storm winds and torrential rain. My Welsh pony is not impressed!
Yet no matter where I’ve lived geographically, I have always faced the same struggle. I find I just can’t get as much done in winter as I do in the summer. Winter’s short days and long nights seem to drain my energy and drive. While summer is expansive with so many sun-filled hours to fill, in winter everything seems to shrink to the size of a single candleflame. Every year I fought tooth and nail against that contraction. But winter always won.
This winter, curled up by the fireplace on a stormy night, I plunged into Katherine May’s highly recommended book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. In her book, she refers to winter not just as a season in the year, but any fallow or difficult period in our life when we must withdraw, lick our wounds, and replenish ourselves. Our personal winter might be an illness, a relationship break-up, the death of a loved one, a feeling of spiritual dryness, or a time of burnout when we just have to stop and rest.
In Nature, darkness and winter are absolutely necessary for life’s regeneration. May adds that our personal winters, though we would never seek them out, are likewise regenerating and ultimately healing if we can be present with them, as scary and painful as they seem, without seeing them as some personal failure we brought upon ourselves for not being strong enough to resist the natural cycles of death, dissolution, and fallowness.
We live in a culture deep in denial about winter and wintering, where we’re supposed to be “on” all the time, as if we existed in a perpetual summer, full of summer’s buzz, energy, and busy-ness. But if we try to doggedly maintain this level of intense activity during winter when all the elements, as well as our internal rhythms, are telling us to slow down and rest, we get ill, we get burn out, we get depressed.
“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter,” May reminds us. “They don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in summer. . . . They adapt.” She adds that once we stop fighting the winter, it can be a most blessed season of reflection and recuperation. In an age when even getting enough sleep and rest feels like a radical act, May teaches us to invite the winter in.
May’s book taught me the importance of welcoming the most wintery aspects of my own psyche, all the shadowy stuff I like to repress. Winter is a time of welcoming the shadows. No part of myself needs to be left out in the cold. Anger, doubt, sadness, and uncertainty are not flaws that need to be “fixed.” I try to stay present with them in compassionate awareness.
As well as our personal winters, there are also collective winters, such as the Covid pandemic, where we meet not only our personal shadows, but the horrors that were lurking in the collective that we can no longer afford to ignore. I shudder to contemplate the vicious divisiveness that is tearing apart the United States and threatens our very democracy.
If we go through a personal or a collective winter, we need a refuge. A mature spirituality that meets us where we are, that’s robust enough to carry us through the Dark Night of the Soul. Spiritual bypassing and trite tropes like “everything happens for a reason” have no place here.
Mature spirituality gives us the courage us look deep into the darkness without flinching. Without seeing it as evil or as punishment for personal or collective sins but as the deep, compelling, beautiful mystery that surrounds the divine. The fertile darkness. May we all find rest and regeneration here.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelations, about the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, is now out in paperback. Visit her website.