Rilke reverenced winter as the season for tending to the inner garden of the soul: “Suddenly to be healed again and aware that the very ground of my being — my mind and spirit — was given time and space in which to go on growing,” he wrote to a grief-stricken young woman who had reached out to him for consolation. “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer,” Albert Camus wrote a generation later in his stunning essays about travel, which are really meditations on homecoming to our strength. Camus was soon to become the second-youngest Nobel laureate of all time and soon to die in a car crash with an unused train ticket to the same destination in his pocket. We are not invincible. But in how we garden the winters of the soul, we find the summer of our strength and the bloom of our fragile aliveness.
That is what Katherine May explores in Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (public library) — a gorgeous book, a great book, a layered book of uncommon sensitivity and substance, drawn from May’s own experience of living through a profound and disquieting winter of life. She writes:
[Since childhood] we are taught to ignore sadness, stuff it down into our satchels, and pretend it isn’t there. As adults, we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition; our actual needs are felt keenly as a knife.
Like happiness — which, as George Eliot well knew, is a skill we incrementally master as we grow older — sadness, May reminds us, is also a skill: There are self-punishing ways to be sad and self-salving ways be painful. In skillful wintering, we learn the difference between the two. Rilke, who wintered amply and wisely, knew that great sadnesses clarify us to ourselves — winters of the spirit come in various sizes and cycles, each meaningful, all cumulative in their soul-sculpting beneficence. May writes: