How ‘Wintering’ Replenishes
Katherine May is an author of fiction and memoir whose titles include Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, The Electricity of Every Living Thing, and Burning Out. She is also the editor of an anthology of essays about motherhood, called The Best, Most Awful Job.
Krista Tippett, host: In so many stories and fables that shape us, cold and snow, the closing in of the light — these have deep psychological as much as physical reality. They draw us, even force us, to do what Katherine May calls deeply unfashionable things: slowing down, resting, retreating. This is “wintering,” as she illuminates it in her book of that title — wintering as at once a season of the natural world, a respite our bodies require, and a state of mind. A cyclical, recurrent weather pattern, if you will, in any life. It’s one way to describe our pandemic year: as one big extended communal experience of wintering. Some of us are laboring harder than ever on its front lines and also on its home front of parenting. I don’t know a single person right now who isn’t exhausted, almost as a state of being. It feels like Katherine May opens up exactly what I and so many need to hear, but haven’t known how to name.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being.
Katherine May is the author of several books including The Electricity of Every Living Thing. She writes widely — and beautifully — on subjects from her love of cold water swimming, to her own mid-life diagnosis of autism.
Tippett: The title of your book — of your newest book is Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. And I thought it might be interesting to ask you — because I started thinking about this, reading you — to cast your mind back to how were rest and retreat experiences you had in your childhood — or didn’t have [laughs] — what did you learn about those things, either actively or from what you saw around you?
Katherine May: That’s a really interesting question. I’m not sure if I’d have thought about those things very much as a child, in a way. I had a very quiet childhood. I grew up in what we’d call a council estate. I think you guys would call it the projects or whatever — like a state-owned housing. And my mother was not very keen on leaving the house; she was agoraphobic. And I found my childhood very boring, actually. We were always stuck inside; I was always asking to go out to different places. And the only places we were really able to go to was to my grandparents’ house, which I loved, and to the supermarket on a Friday. [laughs] That was the extent of the excitement. So actually, in lots of ways, it was enforced retreat for me, as a child. There wasn’t the opportunities that I wanted to have, to get out into the world and to see it, really.
Tippett: Was there at all a spiritual or religious tradition in that background of your childhood?
May: There was none at all. In fact, actually, there was almost the opposite of that; a kind of antipathy towards — not any particular religion, but also towards the idea of, I don’t know, ritual or belief or anything that was seen as a little bit too fancy.
But I went to church schools, and I was a member of the Brownies. I used to absolutely love going to church, funny enough. I loved the singing as much as anything else, but I really liked the sense of ritual and the sense of stuff happening. And by the time I was at university, I became a chorister — again, the only non-practicing-Christian chorister in the chapel choir — but actually, I loved that peaceful time in chapel three times a week, where we sang. So I suppose I’ve always been slightly drawn to it, but it’s certainly not part of my background, no.
Tippett: I do feel some of those impulses surface in this investigation you’ve done, in how you live — this idea of wintering. By which you’re talking about, all at once, certainly the season, the rhythms of the natural world, and the rhythms of the needs of our bodies; but also seasons and rhythms of a life. You do begin your book, Wintering, with the sentence, “Some winters happen in the sun.” [laughs] And you begin with a blazing day in early September.
May: I thought that was really important, actually. I wanted to make it really clear that although a lot of Wintering is about my love of winter and my affection for the cold and even the dark, that wintering is a metaphor for those phases in our life when we feel frozen out or unable to make the next step, and that that can come at any time, in any season, in any weather; that it has nothing to do with the physical cold. So it was very useful from a narrative point of view, to be able to start with what indeed happened, which was an unseasonably sunny day in September just before my fortieth birthday, when my husband fell very suddenly ill.
Tippett: Here’s one way — I thought this was such a beautiful way of — one of the many places where you describe what you’re talking about, with wintering: “There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open you, and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. And Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on.”
May: That’s a key feature of enduring a wintering, I think, in that it feels like everybody else is carrying on as normal, and you’re the only one with this storm cloud over your head. And that’s a very particular feeling, because it brings up loads of emotions, I think; not just sadness, but also a sense of paranoia, a sense of humiliation, a sense that we’ve uniquely failed. And actually, whenever you start talking to people about your own winterings, they start telling you about theirs, and you realize what huge community there could be if we talked about this in a different way. But I think for all of my life, that experience has been a feeling of falling through the cracks, being there on your own, and looking up through those cracks at the world carrying on around you.
Tippett: I think that’s also where the framing of Wintering, of the understanding of the seasonal, cyclical, of the rhythmic nature of these things gives you a frame, actually, to live with it. There’s somewhere you said, “Our winterings” — as you said, not only to live with it, but to wrest from it what it can teach you. Not that you would wish for it or wish this thing for anything else, but, you said, “They are asking something of us,” our winterings. “We must learn to invite them in” and to stop wishing it were summer. But I think what you discovered, that is really the hardest thing to believe when you’re in the midst of that dark place, is that there is a summer on the other side of this; that there can be.
May: I think, almost, looking for summer is part of the problem: that summer is too much of a high for us to be seeking. Not that summer doesn’t come, but actually, when we’re in a winter, we almost need to look for spring or autumn, [laughs] those kind of intermediate stages that are manageable for our dark imaginations at the time. And I don’t know if we ever really figure out how to think about how we want to be. I don’t think we want summer that often. I think summer can be a bit too much, in the way that winter can be a bit too much; those extreme highs. You can’t abide with them for too long.
But what we can abide with is a sense of balance and self-regulation, I suppose I’d say. And I think that’s often what we’re seeking, on our way out of a winter: How can I come back into an equilibrium, rather than keep bouncing between extremes?
Tippett: I’d love to hear you read a bit of your book. It really does read, in places, like a meditation. It’s a very lovely, restful, retreating experience.
May: No problem.
“A surprising cluster of novels and fairytales are set in the snow. Our knowledge of winter is a fragment of childhood, almost innate. All the careful preparations that animals make to endure the cold, foodless months; hibernation and migration, deciduous trees dropping leaves. This is no accident. The changes that take place in winter are a kind of alchemy, an enchantment performed by ordinary creatures to survive. Dormice laying on fat to hibernate, swallows navigating to South Africa, trees blazing out the final weeks of autumn. It is all very well to survive the abundant months of spring and summer, but in winter, we witness the full glory of nature’s flourishing in lean times.
“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.
“It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting — is a radical act now, but it’s essential. ”
Tippett: Thank you.
May: There were some really difficult words in there. [laughs]
Tippett: [laughs] Well, you did an excellent job. It was wonderful.
You call these the “unfashionable things.” It’s just like, even when you look at the individual words, some of those difficult words, like “recuperation,” “slow replenishment,” even “reflection,” there’s a sense in which everything in our culture — our cultures, both the culture you live in and the one I live in; the culture of the West, I think — inclines us to resist these things.
May: And to see rest and the need for rest as shameful, like rest is something that you only ever get forced into or that it has to be commodified, somehow, too — that rest can only be something that you’ve paid to do; a fancy retreat or a day at spa, or whatever it is that you fancy doing. And I think we’ve just got that all wrong. Rest should be part of the simple rhythm of our day and of our week and of our year, in different ways. I don’t think we know what rest even is anymore, to be honest. I think we’ve lost track of that.
Tippett: I really recognized myself in some of the ways you described the self that you were reflecting on as you were forced to stop, you were forced to go inward, you were forced to slow down and seek replenishment as much as survival as anything that would feel luxurious, as you say. And I have to say, I recognize in what you describe, also, reflection I’ve been doing, and would not have forced myself to this kind of stop, but that the pandemic forced. But I’m trying to take this wintering moment — both the season and in our culture — to try to get really clear, in myself, who I do want to be on the other side, how I want to live on the other side.
Again, I recognize myself so much: you say, “People admired me for how much I got done. I lapped it up, but felt secretly that I was only trying to keep pace with everyone else, and they seemed to be coping better.”
I felt like that all the time, for so many years of my life.
May: Are we just a big mesh of people that feel that way? I sometimes feel that’s probably the case, [laughs] that we all suspect everyone else is doing it much better than we are.
Tippett: And we’re hiding it. We’re hiding it, and we’re all hiding it from each other, and so feeling more alone with it than we are.
May: It’s like our dirty secret. [laughs]
Tippett: Dirty secret. And you also describe how you were actually, officially declared ill, and you had to take a break, from your doctor.
May: Yes — I was rubber-stamped. [laughs]
Tippett: [laughs] And you said — you’re pleased, slyly and secretly, that you have actual “pain to contend with, rather than a more nebulous sense of my overwhelm. See? I am not unable to manage my workload. I am legitimately ill.”
Again, that’s so familiar. It’s a way we’ve not only lived, but actually respected and honored. We have rewarded that way of living.
May: Like, I needed a doctor to approve my illness, in order to believe it myself. And that’s economic, obviously; I needed to know I had state guarantees behind my illness, should it carry on for too long. But it’s also the way we’ve bought into what health and illness actually are. And we’ve come to see that as something that‘s externally approved from our own knowledge and knowing. We’ve divorced ourselves from our gut instinct, actually, I think. If I felt I had the right to judge my own wellness, I’d have declared myself ill a year before that, and I would’ve taken a rest much earlier. But I didn’t feel like I had the right to decide it for myself, ultimately.
[music: “Them” by Nils Frahm]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with Katherine May on wintering — as a season in nature but also as a season in life.
[music: “Them” by Nils Frahm]
Tippett: There’s the reality that the circumstances of life do, again and again — literally, there’s that divorce, you said, of what we really need and what we think we can ask for or give ourselves, that is culturally imposed, and then there are true circumstances of life that make it impossible to rest. And parenting, at so many stages, does that.
May: [laughs] Oh, my goodness.
Tippett: And this year, being a parent during the pandemic — people who are also, actually, not getting a rest; and there are so many of them who are working harder than ever before, because we’ve called them essential workers, which there’s some irony in that.
May: They’re so essential that we don’t let them have a break.
Tippett: And we’re wearing them down. And so that’s happening at a larger, societal level. But even you, being a mother and being sick yourself, and being present to your child, and also the situation so many people are in, of being stretched in literally too many different directions.
May: It’s hard not to conclude that that’s a problem that comes from the privatized nuclear family, the way that we are all stuck in our small, separate family units. And the issue that comes from that is, A, that that little unit requires a lot of money to fuel it, and that means that two people are responsible for all of that money coming into the house. But also, it means that we lack basic support, so often.
I don’t have any — and this is like so many people, I think — any kind of convenient family that I can call on. And more than that, incredibly recently we’d have lived in bigger family groups. We’d have lived in units where our lives were intermeshed. And we think it’s a virtue to all be so separate. We think that this privacy we have is worth it. But I actually don’t think it is. I think it’s part of our profound sense of exhaustion, actually.
Tippett: I remember feeling that in the years since I’ve researched this — and I know how unnatural the nuclear family is, in the sweep of most of our species.
May: So rare.
Tippett: But I remember when my daughter was young, and I was living in a place I had just moved to, didn’t know a soul, all family very, very far away, and just thinking: This is not a natural thing, for an adult and a small child, [laughs] to be alone in a house all day just by themselves. It has some beautiful moments, but this can’t be the way it’s supposed to be.
May: I think that felt really, abundantly clear to me, in those early days of motherhood, when you’d get those moments where you’d been trying to occupy your child and occupy your child, and — I don’t know if this is universal, but for me, there’d be moments when this silence would fall between the two of us, and we’d look at each other, like, “I’ve got nothing.” [laughs] “I’ve got nothing for you right now. Can you watch TV for a while?” [laughs] And those were the moments when I thought, this is so unnatural. This is not how we’re supposed to do it.
And I remember, at the time, asking around and saying to people, “Can we find a way to be in each other’s business more, in a more natural way? Because actually, I don’t want to go to coffee mornings, arranged in a local church hall.” [laughs]
Tippett: It needs to not be a playdate. “Natural” is the word. [indistinct]
May: I didn’t want to do any of that. I just want someone else in the house while I’m doing this. And I want our children to play with each other without us doing their play for them all the time, because I don’t think that’s how children were ever meant to play, actually. And I need to be able to stop managing all of this, because it felt genuinely unnatural, to me.
Tippett: I’d like to talk a little bit, also, about — you grew up with undiagnosed autism. In fact, you lived until you were 38 without that diagnosis. And that’s informed so much of your adventure and struggle — just everything that wintering represents — but just making a life. And I also want to talk about it because the autism spectrum, as we say now, we’re becoming more fluent, culturally, in that language and realizing how much that has defined so many people in our midst. This is not some very rare condition. It is a way of being human. And it was so interesting to me, for you to describe how you were 38 years old and you had never recognized yourself in all the descriptions you’d seen, a movie with a person with autism, generalizations about the official medical definitions. That never described you.
May: In fact, I’d have considered myself quite well-versed in autism, as well, in terms of the fact that I’d always worked in education, my degree was partly in psychology — I’d come across descriptions of autism over and over again, and never once recognized myself. And it was only once I heard another autistic woman speaking about her experiences on a radio show that I got this immediate sense of recognition — profound. There was no doubt in my mind, all of a sudden, that this was me. This was absolutely me.
And I now know that actually, a lot of the research that I knew was incredibly outdated. But the problem with that is that a lot of the research that other professionals know is the same research, and it remains outdated. And we’re carrying on reproducing this meme of what autism is, which is just not true. And over and over again, we show each other the vision of the young boy, the young white boy, in particular —
Tippett: Right, and you think that was one reason nobody ever thought — one simple reason nobody ever thought of you in connection is because you weren’t a boy.
May: Wasn’t a boy, and wasn’t middle-class, as well. The autistic kids we show are often middle-class kids, as well. And there are so many people that are excluded from our very narrow understanding. If you’re poor, you’re more likely to get a diagnosis of being naughty. Or you might get ADHD, if you’re lucky. If you’re Black, you have very little chance of getting an autism diagnosis at all. And if you’re a girl, then that’s — honestly, there’s actually quite a lot of active prejudice against the idea that girls can be autistic at all. We’re now beginning to diagnose about a quarter as many girls as boys. But my personal belief is, there’s probably just as many autistic girls as there are autistic boys. But we often exhibit it very differently. We are very, very invested in masking it; and we can, so we do. But that leads to incredible damage over the course of our lives, and to the kind of breakdowns that I describe in my book, actually, because it’s exhausting, pretending to be something you’re not, and constantly putting yourself into situations that are actually really harmful.
And that leads to my expertise in wintering, [laughs] in a way.
Tippett: Your expertise. [laughs]
May: When I sat down to write it, I started to plan the book out and thought, “Am I allowed to write this?” And then I thought, actually, I know this better than anyone. I’ve been cast out in so many different ways. I know what it is to feel like an outsider. And I know what it is to crash. It began to feel like finally, I’d learnt something, maybe, [laughs] from all of this.
Tippett: After a short break, more with Katherine May. She spoke with me at greater length in our full interview about her mid-life diagnosis of autism, and the cultural simplifications she herself had to see past to grasp it. You can hear that in the unedited version of our show that is in our podcast feed every week, or at onbeing.org.
[music: “The Magic Place” by Julianna Barwick]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with Katherine May, who’s written a lyrical and wise book which lands with such resonance in our pandemic year: Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.
Tippett: As much as we are, and you are, writing, and we’re speaking about wintering, both as an aspect of being alive, and also — you also do move towards actual winter.
May: [laughs] I do, yeah.
Tippett: And even as I’m preparing to speak to you today, I’m thinking of my friends in LA, who just really don’t have this experience, and even when they think they’re having it, when it gets to be 50, they’re not; or my friends in Australia, where it’s the height of summer. I have to say, I, like you, I love the cold. I’m convinced that it’s in my genetic makeup. But you go to Iceland as part of the research for this book. You talk about snow as such a unique and complex experience, and loving snow, even, as a complex experience.
May: I think snow — what I love about snow is the way that it makes a clean break. It transforms the landscape. Everything’s different. Everything sounds different. The quality of light is different. The light kind of sparkles off it. You know, before you open your curtains, that snow has landed. And for me, I just think that’s such a gift. I know it’s less of a gift if it’s there for five or six months. But it’s a break in the routine. It’s a little bit like a kind of pause. You can’t go about your normal business. [laughs] School chucks out. But you get to see your world in a different way. And it’s beautiful.
I grew up in quite an unbeautiful place, and snow used to make it beautiful. And I used to absolutely love that. And I now live in a very beautiful place, and snow makes it magical [laughs] instead, when it comes.
Tippett: Somewhere you say that snow creates a “liminal space, a crossing point between the mundane and the magical.”
May: And actually, the quote that I read earlier was about the presence of winter in children’s books. And so often, snow is used as this trigger for change. The snow falls, and everything is different. And we see that when the kids cross into Narnia; we see that in The Dark Is Rising, when Will comes of age just as the snow falls, and suddenly, magic is possible. We see it repeated over and over again. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think we know that snow is a world in between the real world and the fantasy world.
Tippett: And there’s something about actively wintering, or acknowledging this as a part of life, that is also about how we think about time and passages and seasons, even if they’re not so dramatic as they are in storybooks. You also have investigated, not just in the seasons and cycles of the natural world, but in rituals and ideas and celebrations, in folklore and ancient cultures, that we sometimes have just retained a kind of fragment of.
May: I felt like, actually, in the process of researching Wintering, I externalized a lot of the rituals that existed in my native land that I had been vaguely aware of, almost, at the edges of my consciousness, or that maybe I’d taken part in things that referred to them, but hadn’t really understood what they were. And so I started to celebrate Midwinter, and to really begin to notice what that says about the progress of light across the year, about the way the sun moves across the sky, about how long we’re spending in darkness and in cold, and about how we find hope at the deepest part of the cold season.
And I had the privilege of talking to Philip Carr-Gomm, who is our Chief Druid in the U.K. [Editor’s note: Philip Carr-Gomm passed the role of Chief Druid to his successor Eimear Burke in June 2020.]
Tippett: Yes, that was so interesting. Can I just say, Midwinter is also the winter solstice, correct?
May: That’s right, yes. Some people think Midwinter is the end of the shortest day, and some people think it’s the beginning of the day after. I like to do both; I like to top and tail it, really, [laughs] watch the sun go down, and see it come up again, and see that movement into that next part of the year.
But what Philip Carr-Gomm told me was that in the pagan year, there is a ceremony or a ritual or something being marked, every six weeks, across the year, and that that gives hope for anybody who is currently suffering, because you are never far away from the next moment when you can get together and when you can celebrate. But also, it gives you a sense of time passing, which is really helpful when you’re struggling, because time can begin to drag, and you can get mired in hopelessness. But actually, you get a kind of marker of your progress, so the next time that something comes up in the calendar, you can feel how far away you actually are from the last time you celebrated, and that that helps you to move through, and you can start to look towards the next one, and a pleasure in the next one, perhaps, as a way of dividing up those long months. And I thought that was very beautiful and very wise and very insightful.
Tippett: It is, and it also makes you realize how ritual-poor we are in our societies just for marking just passages. Passages.
May: And rites of passage, as well, actually, I think. And I began to notice that most of our rituals are clustered in the winter and that we’ve kind of dropped the summer ones, which I think is interesting, too. We’ve clung to the ones we really need. And maybe — like in the U.K., Easter is still really commonly celebrated, and that’s the very end of the winter, when you think about it; it’s the beginning of the warm coming back. But then there’s nothing. There’s nothing, through the whole summer. And I wonder if that’s because we’re not trying to survive the darkness anymore. But we’ve kind of forgotten, within that, the people that are surviving other darknesses.
Tippett: I did love the passage where you write about Philip Carr-Gomm, who is the Chief Druid in the U.K. there’s a New Age-y feel, sometimes, where the solstice has been appropriated. It can even be, I think, felt as pagan, and pagan as being something that is antithetical to the religious traditions, which of course, is just out of touch with the reality that all of these things arose together. They go hand in hand.
But there’s this wonderful moment where you describe contacting him. And you were reading an interview in the Times, in which he acknowledged the discomfort he has with some of these caricatures, and even some of these allusions. And he said to you — he’s the Chief Druid, again — “I think Druidry is a bit wacky myself. But then, a lot of what’s going on in the world is wacky. Trump is a bit weird. I look at Anglican bishops in their robes and think they are a bit weird. As John Cleese once said, ‘The greatest fear of the English is embarrassment.’ So I’m saddled with that.” [laughs]
May: [laughs] Do you know what? It’s one of the reasons I absolutely adore him, because he’s got an immense sense of humor. But I think that speaks deep truth about the British, [laughs] as much as how weird some of our beliefs can be. We are awkward about all of this stuff. We are deeply uncomfortable with ritual, as a society. We have deliberately rejected it. And we also, in so doing, have diminished our ability to talk about spiritual matters, in our country. And actually, I think, behind the humor, there is a loss that I think some of us are realizing that we need to begin to recover.
In fact that takes us back to what we spoke about, with me, right at the beginning; I’m a really good example of someone who grew up with that being almost forbidden. Not in an aggressive way, but just, it would’ve been seen as a very embarrassing thing for me to do, [laughs] to find a spiritual life. And as I’ve gone through my life, I’ve just felt a pull in that direction. And there’s not very much for me, in my country, that allows me to do that.
But when Philip Carr-Gomm talks about feeling a little bit embarrassed by it all, I just feel so grateful, [laughs] you know what I mean? There’s permission right there, to do it anyway, even though it’s a bit weird. [laughs] I love that.
[music: “Baiulus” by The Black Atlantic]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with writer Katherine May, on wintering — as a season in nature, but also a season in life.
[music: “Baiulus” by The Black Atlantic]
Tippett: I wonder how you would start to talk about what you learned — how old is your son now?
May: He’s 8.
Tippett: He’s 8. And he was 6 and 7 when you were writing, which are such amazing ages. What have you learned from him, and through walking through life with him, about what how we do these passages and how we learn to winter or learn to resist it? How has he taught you?
May: So a key part of the book is that I had to take him out of school, because he was really struggling. He was really suffering from anxiety. And there was a clear choice for us, which was that the conventional thing to do was to find a way to force him to carry on, and I felt very, very strongly that — although I’d never intended to be a homeschooler and that I really didn’t want to, I wanted my time — that I knew that if I didn’t take him out of school at that moment, when he was in such extreme distress, that I would be teaching him a very, very bad lesson for his future, which is that your suffering is not relevant and that you must just put your head down and carry on and tamp down your feelings.
And I couldn’t do that to him. And so we had to — he’s back in school now; he recovered really well and went back to a new school, where he’s incredibly happy. But while he was out of school, we had to spend some time together, learning to winter, teaching him how to acknowledge this time and to see it as a narrative arc, almost; to see it as something that wasn’t permanent, but it was a process he was working through, and he was learning something about himself and what he needed. And I felt very strongly that he was learning to trust us, really, with his darkest feelings; to know that if he shared with us his suffering, that we would act and that we would take him seriously.
And that was a really important process for me. I’m not the most mumsy mum. I’ve never felt like I’m one of the Instagram mothering clubs. My parenting has always felt very ad hoc and chaotic. And I’ve often written about my quite ambivalent feelings about being a parent, as well; that you can love someone unbearably intensely, but also resent what they take from you, at the same time. And I’d always wondered if I would step up, if it was required of me. And I did. And I’m proud of myself for that, actually. It was a very important moment for the whole family, where we had to make everything stop.
And that was really hard. It was financially hard, it was emotionally hard. But that, for me, is the core of what we are now: We do this. We make everything stop, when everything needs to stop. And that makes me hope that in the future, he’ll make everything stop, when it needs to stop again. When it’s down to him, he will put the pause button on if it’s required. And I feel like I’ve taught him a really important skill there.
Tippett: As you describe that, I also feel like you made a move with him that is so counterintuitive, as a parent, but so essential, if what you’re raising is a human being in the world, rather than somebody who is your child, [laughs] which is, you taught him not to resist his sadness. Somewhere, you say, “If happiness is a skill, then sadness is, too. Unhappiness is, too.” But, boy, that’s a hard thing to carry with your child.
May: Really hard. And I feel like we talk about raising our kids for resilience a lot, and I don’t think we can raise them to be truly resilient unless we’ve let them be sad, sometimes. And I think the reason we’re so afraid of sadness is, when we hear accounts of people talking about being sad in their childhood, they’re often sad because they’ve been somehow abandoned, emotionally, or they’ve been treated badly, or nobody’s listening to them.
But I think it’s very different to allow your children to be sad and support them, and to be there for them, because actually, that, for me, is gonna hopefully — [laughs]… this is my intention — maybe come back to me in 20 years — but I’m trying to raise an emotionally intelligent child who not only can meet their own needs and can do that without terror at what sadness unlocks, but who can also be compassionate to other people. And since he had his crisis and he’s come back from it, we’ve been able to talk about that in terms of other kids, when they’re maybe struggling a little bit, and to use it to help him to be part of a community and to find empathy and compassion for other children. And I think he’s doing all right. [laughs]
Tippett: Would you read — it’s on page 236.
“I’m beginning to think that unhappiness is one of the simple things in life: a pure, basic emotion to be respected, if not savored. I’d never dream of suggesting that we should wallow in misery or shrink from doing everything we can to alleviate it, but I do think it’s instructive. After all, unhappiness has a function: it tells us that something is going wrong. There will be moments when we’re riding high and moments when we can’t bear to get out of bed. Both are normal. Both in fact require a little perspective.
“Sometimes the best response to our howls of anguish is the honest one. We need friends who wince along with our pain, who tolerate our gloom, and who allow us to be weak for a while, while we’re finding our feet again. We need people who acknowledge that we can’t always hang on. That sometimes everything breaks. Short of that, we need to perform those functions for ourselves: to give ourselves a break when we need it and to be kind, to find our own grit in our own time.”
That paragraph is my editor’s favorite one, as well. That’s quite funny.
Tippett: Oh, it is, really?
May: [laughs] Yes, she’ll be really pleased you chose that, I think.
Tippett: Well, you say this thing that is — this message has an edge to it. You say that we surround ourselves — and even, you point out how we say, “Hang in there. You’re stronger than you know” — that we’re doing that in a spirit of care, but it can be the opposite of caring. I think this description, that we “need friends who wince along with our pain, who tolerate our gloom, and who allow us to be weak for a while when we’re finding our feet again.”
May: I think that’s so true. I think we’re so uncomfortable with sadness. And our instinct, when someone tells us they’re sad, is to solve it for them or to find a message that’s going to inspire them. And I think that can feel a lot like being pushed away. It can feel a lot like being told that our feelings aren’t acceptable and that our state of being isn’t acceptable. When we’re in this position, it’s more than a feeling, it’s a whole state of being. And it’s a skill that we can all learn, to say to people when they’re suffering, “Oh, God, that’s awful,” and make space for their sadness. Open up a space that their sadness is acknowledged and validated.
When we do that, it doesn’t cause harm. It doesn’t encourage them, [laughs] somehow.
Tippett: It doesn’t make it worse.
May: It doesn’t make it worse. And I think we’re often afraid of opening the door to it, because we see it as this unruly thing. But my belief is that it’s only unruly when it’s being pushed away and when we’re only ever allowed to glance it from the corner of our vision; that actually, when you make a space for your sadness to come into, it’s a known thing. It’s something that we actually can understand and that we can be with and work with. It’s not terrifying. What’s terrifying is the flinch away from it.
Tippett: This is my last question, and it’s a huge question, and so I’m not asking you to definitively address it. But just how would you start to think, through the life you’ve lived and the person you are and informed by this thinking and writing, reflecting you’ve been doing on wintering, how is this all evolving your sense of what it means to be human?
May: I think what it means to be human is to live a life that’s deeply cyclical. There isn’t one path, straight path through, and certainly not an uphill path that works its way to a summit where, I don’t know, someone puts a crown on our head, I’m not sure, and the angels sing. I don’t know. I’m not sure how we think that’s gonna work. But actually, my understanding now, as I get older, of being human, is that my life is fundamentally cyclical, that everything repeats itself, that nothing lasts. And that sounds very nihilistic, but I don’t think it is, actually. I think that if we can truly grasp and believe in how fleeting this life is, how delicate, how subject to powers beyond our control, that we can begin to set our minds to a better way of living within it, that isn’t tormenting itself with trying to grasp onto things that cannot be grasped and trying to assert ourselves in places that is [laughs] completely meaningless to do. That, for me, is humanity.
Tippett: I wonder if you would read one more passage, starting on page 237.
May: “There were times when I thought that I probably couldn’t write this, that I wasn’t up to it, that doing so would bring about some kind of catastrophe of embarrassment just for having the guile to think I had anything to say on the matter. Once upon a time, this would’ve engulfed me entirely, for a season, and I would’ve emerged in a year or two, shaking my head and starting again. But here I am, and here it is. The only difference, the only reason I finished this, is experience. I recognized winter. I saw it coming a mile off, since you ask, and I looked it in the eye. I greeted it and let it in. I had some tricks up my sleeve, you see. I’ve learned them the hard way. When I started to feel the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favored child, with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable and that my feelings were signals of something important. I kept myself well fed, and I made sure I was getting enough sleep. I took myself for walks in the fresh air and spent time doing things that soothed me. I asked myself, what is this winter all about? I asked myself, what change is coming?”
[music: “ekki hugsa” by Ólafur Arnalds]
Tippett: Katherine May’s book is Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. Her other books of fiction and memoir include Burning Out, and The Electricity of Every Living Thing, where she explores her mid-life diagnosis of autism and all that brought her.
The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Laurén Dørdal, Erin Colasacco, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Colleen Scheck, Christiane Wartell, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, Jhaleh Akhavan, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Ben Katt, Gautam Srikishan, and Lillie Benowitz.
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
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