The resilience of most of us has been tested a lot lately, but has also prompted us to re-think our coping strategies and prioritise self-care like never before. We’ve talked to Katherine May about her latest book, Wintering: the power of rest and retreat in difficult times, and discussed the best way to approach winters in our lives, from getting a daily dose of fresh air to seeking good company wherever we can.

Wintering is a cold season in life

This is such a personal book for you – what inspired you to write it?

The inspiration came while I was talking to a friend over a glass of wine. She was reeling from a recent bereavement and struggling with her career, and felt as though this miserable time in her life would never end. From where I was sitting, I could see that she was in the middle of a process which was painful, but which was necessary and finite. I found myself saying ‘You’re wintering!’ and then I had to go home and write down what I meant by that.

How would you define ‘wintering’?

Wintering is a cold season in life – a time when we feel lost, isolated, frozen or cast out in the cold. It might come from a range of different sources, from loss, mental or physical health issues, relationship problems, or unwanted change, but it’s a universal experience. I wanted to write a book that drew the lines between all these different crises, and show how we could actually be united in them. I think we urgently need to let go of our shame when we fall into a winter: it’s not our fault. It’s just part of human life.

I think we can learn to deliberately take care of ourselves when we feel winter coming. Rather than ignoring it, we can make way for it, and treat ourselves tenderly while the process unfolds.

Is it something that ‘happens’ to us, or is it something we can consciously dive into?

Both! We can’t stop winter from coming, but we can learn to winter well. I think it’s still possible to find joy and pleasure when everything stops by immersing ourselves in small, gentle things like cooking comforting food and getting a daily dose of fresh air. But at the same time, I think we need to learn to walk alongside our sadness – to witness the processes that are going on within us – and to let ourselves slowly change. We spend so much of our lives fighting our winters, and they come for us anyway.

Most Scandinavian cultures have some way of approaching winter with uplifting, positive mindsets, which make the cold, dark months of winter much easier to bear. Can we take a similar approach for the metaphorical ‘winter periods’ in our life? And can you ever be prepared for them?

I’m not sure that’s entirely true about Scandinavians – I’d say instead that they’re realistic about winter, and they’ve developed excellent coping strategies. That includes getting prepared (for example repairing your house before the snow comes, or stocking the freezer), and it also means deliberately seeking good company and moments of celebration. I think we can do the same to some extent. If we can accept that we winter in cycles, then we can make sure we get prepared in the good times. But that has limited value, and we should never punish ourselves for not being ready.

It’s possible to find joy and pleasure when everything stops by immersing ourselves in small, gentle things like cooking comforting food and getting a daily dose of fresh air

This whole year has felt like a long winter for many, and the uncertainty around the colder months ahead can feel quite daunting. Do you have any advice to make the best of the current circumstances?

Yes, it’s been a long and awful year. I’d offer a few pieces of advice. First of all, allow yourself to feel whatever you need to feel about what lies ahead – abandon any idea that suffering is somehow competitive or that you don’t have the right. Find joy where you can, and deliberately nurture, even in the smallest ways. Get outside as much as you can, whatever the weather. Absorbing natural light and feeling the seasons change will help so much. Don’t be afraid to get wet and cold. That’s part of the fun. Finally, find some ways to mark the passing of time – celebrate each full moon, for example, or make an effort for Halloween, Guy Fawkes’ Night, Diwali, New Year – whatever excuse you can find to bring light and life into your world.