Wintering, a Q&A with Katherine May

From the Deep Winter 2021 issue of Maple

By Katharine Herringer | Author photo by Sara Norling

Katherine May is a UK-based writer, living by the sea on the north coast of England. We chatted with Katherine about her charming and insightful book Wintering. Part memoire, May's book details her own Wintering through a difficult time and suggests that exploring the dark side of winter has its benefits. Learnings and stories from cultures that live with long winters throughout Scandinavia– not to mention her own personal explorations into cold (wild) swimming. Dotted with a few comical Brigitte Jones-esque moments, it's a perfect read for the times. 

Maple: Katherine may set the scene a little bit for readers who are just acquainting themselves with you. Where are you in the U.K., what you're up to? 

Katharine May: I live in Whitstable, at the very southeast tip of England, about a four-minute walk from the sea. It's a beautiful little town. At the moment, along with the rest of Whitstable, I am in what we call tier-3-lockdown, which is our highest level of lockdown in the U.K. We are not allowed to do anything. We're not allowed to meet with friends unless it's out in the open and not even in back gardens. We're not living the most exciting version of our life at the moment. 

M.: In your book, you wrote, "We must learn to invite the winter in. Learning to recognize the process, engage with it mindfully, and even cherish it. We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how."

K.M.: These periods of wintering, when we're cut off from the rest of the world, we're feeling isolated, we're feeling thwarted and blocked from progress, and we feel like we're frozen and can't make the next step. We're all doing it together this year—but separately. 

M.: What are the accessible tools in your toolkit that help you "winter"? 

As you just quoted, we've got to learn to invite winter in.  We accept our winters as a part of life that's inevitable; we can't put it off. We can't delay it. We can't refuse it. It's much more painful to push it away and to resist it than it is actually to invite it in and walk alongside it. Watch what it's asking us, watch what it's demanding from us and deliberately adapt to it. And that means slowing our pace down very consciously, which is such a hard thing to do. We value busy-ness; we value feeling important, and busy-ness makes us feel like we are the center of the action. But when we winter, we suddenly have to accept that we're not the center of the action for a while and that the world is going on without our input. You learn that the world maybe doesn't need you as much as you thought it did. It gives you space to step outside and make the changes you need to make, go through those processes of reflection, healing, and rest. God forbid that we talk about actually resting.

M.: What about all those objects that we surround ourselves with during winter? For example, the Danes are famous for Hygge. According to the European candle association, the Danes burn the most amount of candles of any European country; they also eat a lot of cake. Do you recommend we should burn a lot of candles and eat a lot of cake? 

K.M.: I do indeed burn a lot of candles and eat a lot of cake. I feel like you've seen into my soul here [laugh]. The principle we can draw on Hygge is learning to make the space that you're forced to live in during this time as happiest space as possible. It might also just be about rearranging your space. When lockdown first happened in the U.K., one of the first things I did, I made new spaces in the house to be in; I cleared out a load of old clutter that I'd otherwise not have had time to do. 

M.: When you became sick from overwork, you described yourself as feeling hollowed-out and that you had forgotten how to rest. How have you thought about it since then—that sort of hollowed-out feeling, even how you see it in other people or in your community going through this winter.

K.M. That hollowed-out feeling for me, it's a really distinct phase when I've just run out of fuel to live on, not that I'm hungry, but I burned through every ounce of my passion, my commitment, my drive and my faith in what I can do and what can be done. And I'm just at the bottom of a process whereby I've emptied myself because I've not been restocking and replenishing. I'm one of those people always on the go who always got ideas but finds it really hard to stop. That doesn't mean I don't need to rest. I can only achieve all the things I'm trying to do if I'm rested and replenished. Rest doesn't necessarily mean sitting down doing nothing. A rest can be a shift in attention. It can be switching on to something else. If you're a desk worker, rest can be switching into something like hard labour in the back garden or light labour, like baking—keeping your hands moving.

Rest is about mixing up what you're doing, opening up opportunities to reflect. I don't think that we only reflect when we're doing absolutely nothing at all or deliberately trying to reflect. I think we often reflect when we're on a long walk or doing something with our hands. It opens up a space for my mind to do some work while my hands are moving. Sometimes rest is just about resisting that sense of urgency and just being genuinely unavailable for a while. 

M.: Let's talk about wild swimming. It does have a profound effect on the body. Tell us how you first got into exploring it. How did you get into it? How did you start swimming, and do you swim all winter?

K.M.: I do, actually. I didn't until I started writing the book. I always swam in the sea in the summer. I've always absolutely loved swimming in the sea in the summer. I'd always wanted to swim through winter, but I just didn't quite have the nerve. It just scared me, really. And while I was researching Wintering, I opened my inbox one day to an invitation to a Facebook group where a load of local women talked about how we should start swimming all year round. As I scrolled down the page, there were a lot of people saying, "maybe next year. Oh, I don't know. No, I'm a bit scared." And I was like, "yes, please."

I mean, there's something about writing a book that dares you into these things. It was late February, which is our coldest point of the year. I turned up at the beach one day when it snowed the day before. Only one other person came. I felt like I couldn't back down; I had a lot of respect for her, so we got into the water; she had done it a little bit before, so she was managing a couple of minutes, but that first day I got in, screamed and ran out again—like 20 seconds.

Interestingly, as soon as I got out again, I was just overcome with this sense of euphoria. I felt like I had survived a really hard thing.  I immediately thought about going back in again. And after that, we both swam together every day. At the end of the week, I had jettisoned the wetsuit I had started in, and I could stay in the water for 10 minutes. Regular cold water swimming creates the same chemical mix in your bloodstream that ecstasy does. You feel incredibly euphoric but also blissful and peaceful. It's a really lovely feeling. You get a massive dopamine hit; you get loads of serotonin flowing through your bloodstream. It's very hard to pinpoint, but it happens as soon as you get in the water; there's this kind of shedding of stress. It is incredibly good for inflammatory conditions; you're essentially icing whatever joint is painful. There's good evidence that it alleviates depression and anxiety. Specifically, putting your head under the water helps to sort of soothe the vagus nerve that runs from your brain right down into your lower body. That is supposed to increase the stress-busting effect. 

M.: In your book, you wrote a lot about being "in sauna." The Finns have a way of saying the sauna is more like a state of being. 

K.M.: There is a real kind of cultural practice for the Finns and Iceland, too—being in the sauna was like this moment where you get together with the people you love and have this very contemplative calm point in your day. They will use it as a rhythmic break in the day. These long-isolated days that happen to them because of the heavy snowfall, it creates this kind of moment of magic and specialness in their day. And I think I'm seeking that [with wild swimming] without the extreme heat. 

M.: Doing the cycle of hydrotherapy; hot, cold, rest, they say that the rest period is the most healing period. 

K.M.: Yes, and it's always available to us. And we want to be really ready to go out into the world when this [the pandemic] is over. And actually, if we are still exhausted, then we've learned nothing. We could learn such a lot during this time. I think we have to allow ourselves to learn whatever this is all trying to teach us. We're not going to learn it unless we slow down.

The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times
By Katherine May
241 pages. Penguin Random House Canada.

Join the conversation! Listen to the full interview on The Maple Podcast