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  • Writer's pictureNora Curry


"I had no idea how much these quiet pleasures had retreated from my life while I was rushing around, and now I'm inviting them back in: still, rhythmic work with the hands, the kind of light concentration that allows you to dream, and a sense of the kindness done in the process. I make gingerbread men with Bert and find myself taking excessive care over them, as if they are reverse voodoo dolls. I imagine each one of them as a small act of defiance against the life I've been living. It's a kind of sympathetic magic to handle something so pointless with such reverence: I am tending to the dead, gently laying to rest a set of values for which I no longer have any use."

Early in Katherine May's reflective new book Wintering, the author describes a moment that will perhaps resonate with many would-be culinary pioneers in quarantine: "I am baking bagels. Or rather, I'm failing spectacularly at it." May goes on to briefly explain how after all of her already questionable efforts, she has realized that the yeast she used in her baking expired years ago and they likely won't rise at all. Yet the essential purpose of baking bagels has been fulfilled without the toasty end result: she has kept her constant internal monologue of dark thoughts at bay, occupying the hands as a kind of refuge from herself.

The premise of Wintering is summed up succinctly in the subtitle: "the power of rest and retreat in difficult times." As these words suggest, May poses winter as a necessity, arguing that we need this time to slow down, to do less. In gorgeous and resonant language, May tells of her husband's health scare and her own need to retreat from the responsibilities of adult life to heal and handle the anxiety that "lurked in my body like groundwater." The book is buoyed along by May's perceptiveness and openness about her own experiences and the conversations she has with others about how they endure both the actual and metaphorical times of winter, but she grounds these reflections in the cycles of nature, arguing with quiet conviction that it is okay to withdraw. There is a reason animals prepare for winter; it's what the time is made for, this drawing inward, recuperating. Winter signals that it is okay to light candles, stay inside, and tend the hearth as our form of gathering acorns and crafting a nest. May describes slowing down as radical but essential a message that may be particularly apt at a time when so many people across the world have, within the last year, found themselves suddenly removed from the regular rapid pace of "normal" life.

The underlying message of Wintering is that slowing down and retreating inward are not the same as admitting defeat. To engage in wintering is not mutually exclusive from engaging with hope. So much of May's poetic language has burrowed its way into my consciousness, ready to hibernate within. But perhaps what endures most acutely for me after closing the book is this early talk of gingerbread men as reverse voodoo dolls: a humorous image that speaks to the idea that if we do simple, small things slowly and with care, things that seem not to carry great import, we may be able to set our own pace, to restore ourselves. So that even when we fail spectacularly, we reserve the strength to endure through to spring. Hovering between meditation and memoir, Wintering has been universally lauded by reviewers and sought out by readers, speaking, it seems, to the need we have for May's message in this moment.

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