This book is a study of one woman’s management of her depression. Covering October to March, it’s a meditation on life that examines how we can anchor ourselves in the natural world to cope with the demands of modern society. May sets out her manifesto in the prologue:
“Everyone winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again.” “Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”
The book opens with the author signed off sick from work. Her days stretch empty as she tries to manage the darkening of her mind. The tone is less confessional, more exploratory as she relates personal experience, introducing us to friends such as the blunt, Finn Hanne.
May’s style is somewhat like therapy as she seeks to examine her own motivations. There’s the recount of travel to Iceland as she feels the need to go further North. However, scenes like the comical retelling of a fainting fit in a sauna stop the book from becoming too ‘navel-gaze-y’.
What makes the book so interesting is how May explores Winter traditions in a range of cultures. In the October, there’s an examination of the culture of Hallowe’en and the urges behind communing with ghosts. May reflects that it’s driven by a reassurance that “we do not fade so easily from this life.”
Many of the observations are rooted in nature. Dormice feature heavily and May concludes that for many of us, winter offers the opportunity for hibernation -something that’s seen as natural for animals such as dormice, but something we try to resist in ourselves. She explains that sleep in winter can offer restoration and explores the idea that perhaps insomnia is just our body’s way of breaking sleep – like the gap between first and second sleeps common before the advent of electric light. There’s something reassuring in this analogy – that those of us who struggle in the darker months can take comfort in the fact that it’s simply part of life – something to look forward to and prepare for rather than struggle against.
However, there’s no flippancy – this isn’t just a self-help book filled with meaningless positive assertions. May examines Seasonal Affective Disorder and looks at how other cultures try to combat the darkness of the winter months. Like with many other sections, she looks to the Scandinavians and the section on St Lucy is fascinating as she explores the role of religious festivals and the role of St Lucy as the bringer of light in many traditions.
This brings her to Stonehenge, sunrise and the comfort of prayer – which takes her unaware. The affirmation “We have turned the year” brings her comfort and the image of her and her friends reciting this on a beach by firelight is surprisingly emotive.
As the winter deepens, May again looks to the North. On a trip to Norway she “learned to rest and surrender”. As the snows begin to fall, again she turns to her Finnish friend for guidance and we learn about the traditions of those stoic north people as they begin preparations in August. Much of the wisdom she passes down from her friends is matter-of-fact – and by relating it through conversation, it gives the reader a sense of ownership – we feel like we too are party to these private conversations and the wisdoms unearthed feel more ‘earned’.
The benefits of wild swimming have been much discussed in recent years and it is no surprise that May too looks to the sea for comfort. The descriptions of wild swimming in the cold sea avoid the mawkish through their matter-of-fact recollection – the point here seems to be less about the swimming and more about the benefits of routine and companionship.
As winter’s grip begins to ease, May looks to bees and the construction of the hive. She examines the benefits of keeping one’s hands busy and the merits of crafting – as explored by Sylvia Plath. One of my favourite lines is “Winter is a time for libraries.” I’ve never personally had an issue with Winter – I’ve always enjoyed it as a time for snuggling in and many of the revelations in this book suggest I’ve been on the right path with this philosophy.
May is right when she criticises positive affirmations as meaningless – and it’s refreshing to see the words “unhappiness is one of the simple things in life” in print. There’s a realism in what May writes – the natural world carries on surviving, and so should we.