1️⃣ Sentence Synopsis
This book encourages us all to embrace the “winters” of our lives —times when we are cut off, sidelined or otherwise compelled to retreat from the everyday grind—as necessary lulls that can offer the time for reflection and renewal, for hibernating before the spring comes again.
I heard about this one on NPR, just as I was contemplating my own retreat from a stable and well-paying 40+ hour workweek. After 20 years of working in this way, and feeling the fiery career ambitions I once had turn to embers, I picked this one up at Interabang Books in Dallas. As is echoed in many reviews, this book was a balm that provided language to what I was feeling. May writes poetically about the ways in which winters—literal and metaphoric—overtake us only to transform us into wiser, gentler humans (that is, if we can come to find the beauty in the cold rather than grasping for eternal sun).
🔑 Key Takeaways
- We have lost touch with the seasonality of life, with the natural world and its cycles such that we assume, as human beings, that we can maintain constant productivity, constant output, constant “spring”.
- In observing and embracing our personal “winters,” we can give ourselves (and others) the grace to rest when the inevitabilities of life—such as illness, grief, or burnout—compel us to slow down.
💯 Strong Lines
- Life is not linear: “…we are in the habit of imagining our lives to be linear, a long march from birth to death in which we mass our powers, only to surrender them again, all the while slowly losing our youthful beauty. This is a brutal untruth. Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.”
- On Teaching: “In teaching, you cannot walk into the room unhappy or unwilling. You must sacrifice your own energies for your students’, throw your personal reluctance onto the pyre of their lack of interest. You must do without the traditional pedagogic luxury of believing that the people you teach are lazy or rude or entitled. You do it instead, knowing that they are all straining under the load of their own grief, their own fear, their own burdens of work and care. You walk into your classroom and try to entertain this mass of people just enough for them to learn something that will help to alleviate their woes in the future.”
- On usefulness: “We are not consistently useful to the world at large. We talk about the complexity of the hive, but human societies are infinitely more complex, full of choices and mistakes, periods of glory and seasons of utter despair. Some of us make highly visible, elaborate contributions to the whole. Some of us are part of the ticking mechanics of the world, the incremental wealth of small gestures. All of it matters. All of it weaves the wider fabric that binds us.”
🧠 Brain Tickles
- Knitting can lower blood pressure as much as yoga (crafting, in fact, can produce a number of positive effects: reduction in loneliness, mental acuity, and helping smokers to quit).
- The longer nights of winter offer invitations to explore “liminal spaces” – to sleep more, to reflect more and to thus gain unexpected insight as we, in the dead of night, “repair the fragmented narratives of our days.”
- Loss of ritual in modern life (an example of the Druids, and their 8 festivals spread across six-week spans, is offered as a model)
🍎 Ideas & Excerpts for Teaching and Learning
- The chapter called “Hunger” (pp. 151-159) presents an interesting overview of the mythology and symbolism of wolves that would pair nicely with any lycanthropic literature (the elusive Old English poem ”Wulf and Eadwacer” came to mind).
- Halfway through “February” (p. 167) May explores the meaning of snow as presented in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, specifically as it relates to coming-of-age themes and the onset of “adult knowingness.” Brief but thoughtful exploration of winter as a setting in literature.
- In “Survival,” she presents a retelling of the “Ant and the Grasshopper” —from Aesop’s Fables—that she deftly turns into a commentary on classism, productivity, and worth. I’ll leave you with this quotation:
If only life so stable, happy, and predictable to produce ants instead of grasshoppers, year in, year out. The truth is that we all have ant years and grasshopper years—years in which we are able to prepare and save and years where we need a little extra help. Our true flaw lies not in failing to store up enough resources to cope with grasshopper years, but in believing that each grasshopper year is an anomaly, visited only on us, due to our unique human failings.