May I suggest

Snowy road through grassland of marsh with woman walking alone. Wintering with Katherine May
Kevin Trimmer/Moment/Getty Images

Winter Is For Hibernation

Text me when its spring.

You know how when the trees begin to drop their leaves you think you’ll be sad about it. Then, when they actually do, all that happens is you can see more sky?

That happened to me this winter.

Last December, I took Katherine May’s 2020 book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, off the shelf. May chronicles a retreat from her life — she quits her job, cancels travel plans. She isn’t exactly sure what she’s doing or what it means when she starts doing less, but she pulled back because there was something happening to her body that was not quite right — maybe to her mind and spirit, too. She turned inward in search of answers. “Winter is asking me to be more careful with my energies, and to rest a while until spring,” she writes.

My life had already began to mirror hers. I was descending into my own hibernation.

My retreat, like hers, was multifold. My husband and I have two young kids, and I wonder now if all parents of very little kids are basically in a form of hibernation (or ought to be) most winters. We’d moved houses in October, and fallen immediately into a cycle of constant illness. With mere hours of relief between fevers and runny noses, and moving boxes still to unpack, we were not fit for life outside the house. At first, it was painful to cancel things — my son’s 5th birthday party was a real gut-punch — but from there, it became easier to bail on scheduled outings. A full December calendar was emptied, plan-by-plan. Cancellation became such a default, eventually I adapted. I stopped making plans at all. I came to expect emptiness.

I started liking it.

“Over and again,” May writes, “we find that winter offers us liminal spaces to inhabit. Yet still we refuse them. The work of the cold season is to learn to welcome them.” Maybe I wasn’t hiding. Maybe I wasn’t weak for choosing rest. Maybe I was welcoming something healthy, something I was built to need. Whatever was going on with work or the kids, 8 p.m. found me wearing every favorite, cozy, worn-in layer, under a blanket with a mug and a book and a cat on my lap. May’s words helped me see that I’d fallen into a wintering — something instinctive, nurturing. Our empty calendar soothed me. I work from home, so nothing was expected of me by anyone beyond the four walls of our house. I allowed my world to shrink. I basked in its smallness. Any threat of obligation was dodged, artfully or not. Even text messages went unanswered.

I allowed my world to shrink. I basked in its smallness.

I wrapped myself in a burrito of hibernation, I think, to recover from living for years in adrenaline-spiked survival mode. There was a global pandemic, of course, that hit right when my first child turned 2. There was me, getting older. So there was a second pregnancy and then a mid-pandemic baby; a newborn and a 3 year old at home with nowhere to go, and then I decided to work more. Our house got crowded so there was us, selling the house we lived in, with a baby and a preschooler. All of us, moving, and the unsettling of it all. Life has been a constant churn, full and joyful in many ways along with the stress and the terror and grief of the last few years, and I was grateful for it. But somewhere in there, late late at night, awake alone in a sleeping house, I lusted silently after a pruned life. A bare tree, the obvious shape of branches in an empty sky.

Transformation is the business of winter. In Gaelic mythology…Cailleach is thought to be the mother of the gods, the gruff, cold, originator or all things…Cailleach offers us a cyclical metaphor for life, one in which the energies of spring can return again and again, nurtured by the deep retreat of winter.

From my blanketed vantage point, I clung to May’s bolstering words. For me, though, at the time, wintering looked a lot like boredom. My life was shaped around a singular goal: Rest.

Pot of coffee. Work. Meditate, walk around the neighborhood. Kid bedtime, tea, book, TV, book, sleep. Wake, well-rested. Do it again. “I am a store stump,” I said to myself as I crawled into bed for yet another, coveted long night of sleep. The next day, I pick up the book to find a Finnish friend of May’s call what she is doing — and what I am doing — talvitelat: A state of being stored away.

Over the month of December, I sink deeper. It feels like my blood is moving more slowly, and like it’s fitting that it is. Runs become walks. Dinner became incredibly unambitious (spaghetti again) then purely subsistence-based (crackers, cheese, apples) thrown together from things I knew my kids would eat. Ease, less, at every opportunity. A revelation that our summer plans could be to have none. The one trip, to a wedding, was canceled when I woke up remembering that five hours in a car with a 2 year old is misery. I’ll send a nice gift, I texted. Great! they replied. I stopped so many things. No one seemed to really mind.

I spent time with my kids, and measured it less. Their exact bedtime mattered less and less as I became more deeply rested. I had nowhere to be after they were tucked, so what difference did 10, 20 or even 30 minutes make? Weekends stretched long and wide, spread through with rest and laziness. I was free, we were free, to enjoy the fact that my youngest isn’t a baby anymore and life is easier than it's been in ages. I’m not pregnant. I have not freshly pushed a baby out of my body. We’re not pushing our preschooler through a sibling transition, or through the adjustment to a new school. We’re not pushing ourselves through a move. An empty calendar and minimal everything-else gave me the space to see that we had graduated into an easier time — and to enjoy it.

A wintering is the opposite of productivity culture, though it is not unproductive.

With so much empty space, it is much easier to see where you’d like something to grow. A wintering is the opposite of productivity culture, though it is not unproductive. After an extended — and lovely — examination of the life cycle of tree leaves, May explains that in winter, “The tree is waiting. It has everything ready…It is far from dead. It is, in fact, the life and soul of the wood. …Life goes on abundantly in winter, and this is where changes are made that usher us into future glories.”

I like the idea that winter is a season. To winter — as I have, as May did — is not to live in this pared-back (admittedly unsociable) way forever. It's naturally a cycle, a tidal undulation between the too-muchness of summer and the boredom of deep winter. We're not very good at perfect balance, but we can swing wildly between extremes pretty well. That seems to be human nature, and also nature’s nature.

It wasn’t until I began to taste the first hints of a “spring” that I realized I really had been wintering. After a month or so of devotion to idle days and long nights of sleep, I found myself signing up for a just-for-fun class, on a whim. I was calmer with the kids, kinder all around. I was rested, I had bandwidth. I wasn’t dragging children to things neither of us wanted to do, or nagging them to hurry hurry to the next obligation. There was sometimes even time to kill. I renewed my passport, a stupid annoying thing that’s been hanging over me for too long. I cleaned the mirror where we brush our teeth and saw myself again. I started a more challenging novel instead of the beach-y reads I’ve been escaping to. It has stunned me, this room for whim. For care and investment, or reinvestment. It feels a bit like seeds of myself — buried in the work of adulthood, of motherhood — blowing back to me and sowing themselves in the open spaces I’ve made out of boredom and less. From my wintering, a spring is emerging.