Odd, I know, for a piece meant to eulogise winter to begin with a confession that I have never really liked the cold. In temperatures below 20°C my extremities are always, unfailingly, icy. I have never bounded out of bed, bright as a lark, into the chilly air, or been keen to head outdoors when my breath turns into ominous white cloud.
I’m a phony mountain person when it comes to the weather, and it doesn’t help that all through my childhood, I spent winter in the plains of Assam – where the air was no crisper than crisp, and the days beautifully sunny and mild. The cold in these hills, and up here in Shillong, is, as they say, something else. Though this too I have mostly managed to avoid, by keeping my December visits home to a fleeting minimum – Christmas, perhaps New Year, and then off and away again.
Only in these last two pandemic years have I found myself here for any extended length of time – long enough for the chill to set in and truly make itself felt.
It hasn’t been easy; mostly I’m tempted to drag the radiator around with me like a strange metallic pet, or cradle a hot water bag to my chest as though it’s giving me life, which in truth, it is. But lately something has changed. I have become more welcoming of the cold, and perhaps it is because I have spent this winter walking.
It cannot be a coincidence that over these past few weeks I have also been in the company of Katherine May’s Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. This book, winter, walking, I suddenly find, are all connected closely, resonating through page, air, step, though perhaps it ought to come as no big surprise. May’s book, after all, is about the cold season – and about the many winters in our lives.
Our quiet, fallow periods, resulting from hard times and low times, sickness and loss, the end of relationships, and especially lately, the quivering precarity of pandemic times. In whichever shape or form they arrive, however slowly or unexpectedly, winterings, she says, are usually involuntary, lonely, painful.
At the turn of the new year, I’ve seen many messages of gratitude for having made it to the end of 2021 – “we survived” – and while I too am somewhat intact, Covid visa restrictions disallowed me from joining my immediate family for Christmas. It is the one holiday when I’m usually with my parents.
This time – though this too was a blessing – they were with my sister and her husband and daughters in Wales. I was on my own in our house in Shillong, though with a dear aunt and cousin next door, but still – what a year to end in solitariness! And added to that, the mountain cold rapidly closing in from all sides. I had nowhere to hide. Perhaps this is why I turned to Wintering.
May speaks of winter in many ways.
Some winters, she begins, happen in the sun. On blazing days in September. When bad news is brought upon us suddenly. Some winters, like the ones in storybooks, offer us whole new imaginings and adventures. Others are twinned with our children, as they struggle, and hence so do we, to deal with the world. “We like to imagine,” she says, “that it’s possible for life to be one eternal summer, and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves. We dream of an equatorial habitat, forever close to the sun; an endless, unvarying high season. But life’s not like that.”
It isn’t. And instead of forever trying to defer the onset of winter, not daring to feel its full bite, or show the way it ravages us, we could acknowledge that a sharp wintering, sometimes, would do us good.
As she instructs, we must learn to invite the winter in.
How? I asked myself. How?
First, by not pretending that it is not happening, and attempting to carry on living the same life you lead in the summer. May says winter is a time, quite naturally – look at plants and animals – of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, even vanishing from sight so you may reemerge later, in spring. In this way, “winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”
This retreat is meant for doing those deeply unfashionable things – slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting – radical acts these days, but ever so essential.
What might also help to recognise the winter within us is to recognise the winter without – to pay heed to how it is marked in the world. For May, the aurora borealis in the upper reaches of Finland, the shedding of reindeer antlers, the deep hibernation of dormice, the robin redbreast who sings in the snow, the marking of the turning of a year at the winter solstice at Stonehenge, what some consider the real year-end, the true turn of the tide.
She speaks with people who have deep, sometimes profound connections to winter, both literally and otherwise: a woman from Liminka, Finland, where the average temperature is 2°C, another who fell into a coma when she was seven, and took a year to recover, yet another who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression that arrives with shortening days.
How do you winter, she asks them all?
Through careful preparation, or talvitelat, a Finnish word that roughly translates as being stowed away for winter. Through simply waiting it out. By setting up bright pools of light that emulate the sun, sometimes as dazzling as a day in summer.
But what resonated with me most, uncannily, was a later chapter called “Cold Water”.
In this, May recounts her experience of swimming in winter, in the sea. Let’s be honest, it begins with the merest, quickest dip at the annual Whitstable New Year sea swim, and progresses to her joining a Facebook group filled with people committed to swimming through the year, whatever the weather. From here, a daily ritual with a fellow member, that lengthens from forty-five seconds in the water to a full glorious ten minutes.
After, “My skin tingles with the memory of cold,” May notices, and I feel like whispering back to her that I have been feeling the same! That, you see, I have started walking out into the pine forest behind our house, early, and then earlier – fighting against my own instinct to stay warm, dry, comfortable, and cozily, blissfully in bed.
At that time of the morning, an hour after dawn, the air is as fresh as a razor’s edge, the sunlight just about beginning to touch the treetops, the winter mist lifting off the ground. I admit I am not in Liminka, Finland, and for those of you for whom the cold has never intimidated, feel free to scoff, but for me this was a revelation. Like May, I shiver in a way that isn’t entirely unpleasant.
My body is warming itself up again, something that I haven’t really required it to do for years – cue warm radiator, constant hot water bag. I admit also that this is not the same as May plunging into icy seas, but it is my own humble equivalent. On the day after a terrific hailstorm, for instance, I set out to the forest to find it still patched in white, the air cold as ice, daitthah as we say in Khasi, ice that bites, hurting when I took a breath, stinging my skin, my eyes – “This is wonderful,” I said to myself and the trees, “This is amazing!”
The cold, rather than the heat, makes us feel more alive.
This is what I’ve come to learn. From the book, from wintering in my own way these months in Shillong. That winter, whether the season itself or within our own lives, sharpens us, and softens us, if we allow it to. That quiet retreat is not barrenness but preparation for living again, and again. For reemergence as a stronger person, more resilient, and hopefully more tender and kind. For when we winter, we recognise when others must too, and this then as May says, makes it the great gift that it is, for others and for ourselves. We invite the winter in, and in turn, it invites us back into world.