With news of ice storms, power losses and frigid temperatures across most of the United States, Floridians may be thinking that severe winter conditions don’t apply to them. But make no mistake – we are all experiencing winter these days. We are all wintering.
Winter is not only a season. It is a state of mind.
“Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again,” says Katherine May in Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.
“Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds.”
Katherine May understands what it’s like to be in the cold. As a child, her autism went undiagnosed, and she was often forced to fend for herself in the isolation of her condition, learning to winter early on.
“Some winterings creep upon us more slowly,” May warns, “accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new.”
Or finding yourself suddenly coping with a global pandemic.
“However it arrives,” May explains, “wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful. Yet it’s also inevitable.”
“Winter light” by blavandmaster is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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Florida doesn’t have a real winter season. There are no snowdrifts, freezing nights or snow smoke (a winter term I learned from reading Snowdrift by Swedish mystery writer Helene Tursten), but thanks to COVID19, we have all gotten a crash course in wintering. Forced into hibernation of one sort or another, we have had to learn how to process all the losses we have been experiencing — from the loss of being able to circulate freely in the world to the devastating physical losses of those we love.
During this winter of our lives, we have been offered the chance to learn how to winter. Wintering, it turns out, is an art.
“Snowdrifts” by christianreimer is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
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Poets, novelists and short story writers have often used winter as a metaphor for gaining insight. From The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to the Game of Thrones with its ominous warning that “winter is coming,” it is not an accident that winter has also long been a staple of children’s literature and fantasy tales. Winter is a season that almost by definition — or at least by Centigrade and Fahrenheit — prompts contemplation, a turning inwards.
In 1962 Sylvia Plath wrote a poem she called “Wintering,” the last of her circle of bee poems. She used the dormant state of bees during winter as a stand in for her own reflection on the depression that once again was gripping her, this time after the painful collapse of her marriage. Setting the poem in winter, she asks the question, “Will the hive survive… to enter another year?”
The question of survival has seemed a particular urgent one in the era of COVID as we have witnessed so many deaths, but that question — Will we survive the winter? — is a reoccurring one for all of us. Pandemic or no pandemic, it is not a given that we will survive any winters of our lives. But if we do, Plath’s poem urges us to use the fallow time we are experiencing to prepare for the time ahead.
She ends “Wintering” with an image of rejuvenation, a declaration of optimism and, yes, with a celebration of surviving another year – “The bees are flying,” reads the last line of Wintering. “They taste the spring.”
Winter — whether it is the actual season or just the concept of wintering, hunkering down and withdrawing from the world — can teach us how to prepare for the rest of our lives.
“That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you,” writes Scottish novelist Ali Smith in Winter, a quirky novel that imagines a dysfunctional family gathering at Christmas time in Britain.
Plath eventually did not survive the winter of 1963. On February 11 of that year she committed suicide by placing her head in an oven. In the unpublished book of poems that she left behind — which was eventually published posthumously as Ariel and Other Poems — she chose ”Wintering” to be the final poem.
“The poem… ends with an image of rejuvenation, a declaration of optimism and survival,” says Kate Moses, author of Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath, which imagines the last days of the poet.
When Ariel was published in 1965, however, Plath’s original life-affirming arrangement of her poems was altered. Her husband, Ted Hughes, who was also a poet, rearranged the order, burying the “bee poems” in the middle of the collection, placing at the end a poem called “Edge.” Unlike the more forward-looking “Wintering,” “Edge” is a poem about death that seems to foretell Plath’s eventual suicide. It wasn’t even included in her original Ariel manuscript.