Tuesday, 20 Apr 2021

Opinion | ‘When It Is Summer in the Light, and Winter in the Shade’

MISSOULA, Mont. — Early spring in this part of the Northern Rockies is cruel. When I was on a hike one recent afternoon, the clouds parted and bathed the hills in glorious 65-degree warmth. One day later, I stood in a field bracing against frigid winds and pelting hail. It snowed two inches that evening. Charles Dickens had it right in his description of March: “When it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”

I’ve been revisiting that quote as we mark a full calendar year of pandemic retreat. For me, the line perfectly captures more than the weather; it distills our current moment, when the medical miracle of vaccines is racing against new virus variants and our collective distancing fatigue. Now it feels as if we’re living between seasons.

These days, headlines hit like changes in the weather. “Pfizer, Moderna Vaccines Stop Infections in Real-World Study” feels like nourishing golden sunlight. It is freeing and a harbinger of the season around the corner. But there are pockets of winter all around. “C.D.C. Director Warns of ‘Impending Doom’” is a cold gust. A reminder that our current season isn’t finished with us yet.

Winter was especially fraught this year. The quiet joys of the season — the stillness, the cozy hunkering with friends and family — are cheapened when we’ve spent the past year in retreat and when gathering inside with others is possibly dangerous. The virus thrives in winter, which has meant a season of death. For the first time in my life, I found myself growing anxious as the sun set earlier. I began checking sunrise and sunset tables online and bargaining with nature for even a few more minutes of light each day. I’ve been bitter and resentful of winter. I’ve tried to resist it, to ignore it.

That has been my mistake.

My feelings about the past few dark months changed when, by algorithmic chance, I came across “Wintering,” a memoir by the writer Katherine May. It arrived in my life at the perfect moment, during seasonal winter but also a personal winter. Like so many others, I’ve struggled greatly with isolation, anxiety, the proximity to mass death and the ability to keep it all at bay in order to try to be a productive worker, a supportive partner, a son, a friend and a neighbor. I’d hit a wall and felt ashamed of it. Ms. May’s book offered empathy, acceptance and perspective that I suspect will stay with me long after the pandemic.

She describes wintering as “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.” It could be grief or depression or the end of a relationship or even a string of bad luck. She does not sugarcoat it. A personal winter can come in any season, but it is dark and potentially dangerous. Some do not make it out alive or intact. But there is power and clarity and wisdom to be gained from accepting these difficult times. It’s a lesson that Ms. May learned as a teenager suffering from depression as a result of undiagnosed autism.

Eventually, she writes, she was surprised by what she realized about herself. “Winter had blanked me, blasted me wide open. In all that whiteness, I saw the chance to make myself new again. Half-apologetic, I started to build a different kind of a person,” one “whose big stupid heart made her endlessly seem to hurt, but also one who deserved to be here, because she now had something to give.”

Her words are hopeful. Like so many others, the pandemic slowed my life (which I now realize was far too frantic) to a halt. Though I’m grateful for the reset, I’ve also felt adrift. Thirteen months worrying about the safety of myself and those I love has refocused my priorities. Who I spend my time with, and how and where I spend it, matter differently now from before. It is exciting, yes, but also painful and terrifying. Then there is the guilt — I’ve been so privileged and fortunate, while so many others have not.

I called Ms. May at her seaside home in Britain for what turned out to be less of an interview and more of a therapy session. While she stressed that there’s no easy how-to guide for wintering — you have to take it in and endure it — there is an art to the process.

“Part of wintering well is learning to expect it,” she told me. “That sounds pessimistic. But I think it’s more simply knowing that winter will be part of your cycle and looking out for the next iteration of it.” For Ms. May, the first signs are small annoyances, like feeling jaded or constantly fatigued or overly busy. “I also find there’s an itch for change. That’s my precursor of a wintering. And it’s when we deny and fight that change that the winter sets in.”

Though it might sound like it at times, wintering does not mean wallowing in sadness. It means accepting sadness. “If we don’t allow ourselves the fundamental honesty of our own sadness, then we miss an important cue to adapt,” she writes in the book. That notion is freeing. We cannot stop winter’s arrival, and feeling guilty or ashamed of your winter or trying to ignore it only means that we are not listening to the parts of ourselves that are trying to tell us that something is wrong.

“There is so much fear around comparing levels of suffering during the pandemic,” she said. “We don’t need to measure up to know who is suffering the most. What we need is to be compassionate about the way life is incredibly hard. Otherwise, we believe we don’t have the right to complain, and that is often the seed of anxiety and depression.”

That idea bristles against our societal conditioning to push away sadness and not talk about unpleasant things — even with ourselves. The pandemic has opened up some of those conversations. For example, we are, perhaps, slightly more open about the struggles of parenting than we were a year ago. But “Wintering” suggests that we too often shy away from the hard work of living. “We are pushing away this innate skill we have for digesting the difficult parts of life,” she writes.

She thinks we’re too conditioned to see our lives as linear stories of constant progress. From that perspective, any setback or lull or loss in our personal or professional lives is an abject failure and a sign of doom. In reality, she sees our lives as cyclical, seasonal.

“We have a narrative of perpetual growth,” she said. “We’re beginning to realize it’s harmful everywhere. It’s harmful in economics, with companies, with the environment. But also harmful in humans. It stops us from making wise and sustainable decisions about how to live our lives.”

Adopting a seasonal mind-set means knowing not only that more winters are on the horizon but also that each dark period will end.

After our conversation I noticed a small sense of pride toward my year of winter, whereas I once only felt guilt and shame. As we prepare to emerge from our long winter, some are fearful that many among us will want to stay hibernated forever and will try to force a perpetual winter upon us all. I disagree. Everyone’s timeline for re-entry is different. One way to view those wary of bounding back into their 2019 lives is to see them as successful winterers: those who’ve endured a long, traumatic event and learned something meaningful about themselves. I now see all my rumination and re-evaluation and withdrawing from the world wasn’t in vain. It was natural and even necessary — provided I learn from it and grow.

It’s a mind-set that makes the Montana spring feel more hopeful than cruel. We had a spring and summer last year, technically. But the past year has really felt like one long early March. Now for the first time, I can feel my own seasons changing. At some point, winter will be back, whether I’m ready or not. But first, warmer days are ahead.

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