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Book review: Wintering, by Katherine May

Review by The Rev Ian Dewar, Lead Chaplain, University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust.

‘Now is the winter of our discontent.’

At least according to Richard lll, as placed on his lips by Shakespeare. Given such a cheery disposition it’s perhaps no wonder that he ended up in a car park in Leicester for a few hundred years.

But to cut the man some slack, he had a point - winter can be a miserable time and that’s the way it is. Or is it?

In an intriguing book, ‘Wintering. The power of rest and retreat in difficult times' Katherine May seeks to challenge that notion.

The book opens with the sentence: "Some winters happen in the sun". You get the gist. May wants to use winter as a metaphor for some of the challenges of life and that’s precisely what she does by linking her reflections on winter to her own family's physical (and thereby) mental health. It is worth pausing here and noting that too little attention is paid to mental health when we deal with physical heath; illness brings questions and that can bring mental and spiritual pressures with it.

The book, however, is not just a metaphor but a genuine attempt to explore winter as a season of life in its own right. Sound odd? Well not really. It’s very easy to forget that only as we hit the Industrial Revolution did time seriously become seconds, hours and minutes into which factory shifts and railway timetables could be fitted. Indeed, it was the need to run a railway system that standardised time in Britain and, along with maritime activity, had an impact on the rest of the world - GMT. If there is a question at the heart of the book, it would be what did we lose as we gained?

It’s worth noting that May is not alone in this. Recent research has begun to uncover the fact that the Industrial Revolution also changed our way of sleeping.

The book itself is neatly organised, not into ‘chapters’ as such, but months. We move gently from September to March, and it works. To give two simple examples, her reflections on the loss of marking out/remembering the dead in November and marking out the turning point of winter, carry a resonance. It was an interesting observation that: "We spend a lot of time talking about leaving a legacy in this world ... hidden under our bluster: we hope that he dead won't forget us." Grief is a two way process, and what comes through the book is a sense of loss of what we could call the everyday life support systems.

Life and the seasons are as much an inner journey as they are the passing of time on a clock. It is this notion, the need to ‘reconnect’, that lies at the heart of the book. To be truthful, I think that it could have been shorter and may be best viewed as a book to be dipped into, but that’s obviously personal preference. It does at times seem to meander or have one anecdote too many, but there is an important point at stake. We no longer live as we once did, and it may be that, as a consequence, we no longer live as well as we once did. This is not a romantic wistfulness for living in the past. I am quite happy with clean water, good sanitation and antibiotics. But progress must be the servant of humanity not the other way round. We are far too often slaves to what we have created.

One final example from the book may help us understand this. Without wishing to draw too close an analogy to human society, the author notes that in March bees and ants that have overwintered are ready to burst forth into new life with renewed energy. How many of us I wonder enter March ready to drop, having tried to live winter like it was summer?

May’s book poses some important questions and offers some interesting options. It is worth a read simply for that. But you don’t need to read the book before you start.

Anyone can create simple rituals for living with winter. When you get home, the curtains are drawn and the rain is hitting the windows, why not light a candle, turn off the electric light and have a minute's silence, telling yourself: "I accept this season of life".

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