Happiness is the greatest skill we’ll ever learn…Happiness is our potential, the product of a mind that’s allowed to think as it needs to [and] that has enough of what it requires.
But if happiness is a skill, then sadness is, too…we are taught to ignore sadness, to stuff it down into our satchels and pretend it isn’t there. As adults we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.
-Katherine May, Wintering
Katherine May’s superb book, Wintering, refers to the annual season of Winter, but also to the seasons of winter that can enter our lives anytime we are experiencing disruption or loss from illness, identity crises, depression, or grief. Certainly, our pandemic season would count as a winter.
In this book she shares personal stories as well as research about animals, trees, the cold and the dark, to advise us not just to survive the winters in our lives but to come out of them transformed.
A central theme of the book is the acceptance of and appreciation for sadness as a source for bringing more clarity to our lives, and, thus, the means of transformation.
Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.
It is a beautiful book I plan to return to and it’s already added to my Soul Library.
Acceptances of Sadnesses
It just so happened that my reading life this Winter, was full of opportunities to reflect on sadnesses of different sorts in the pages of the books I read.
I read three books that connected me more deeply with the sad results of our collective decisions as consumers and voters. The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson is a Cli-Fi (Climate Fiction) book that I started in November but didn’t finish until December. It’s a long story imagining what might happen to our planet from 2025-2055 - the levels of destruction it might take before we are compelled to act as well as the human response, challenges, and resistance to necessary actions - told through the perspective of activists and quasi-governmental officials. It’s believable enough to be a very sobering story.
Also sobering is Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum. Applebaum is an American journalist who lives in Poland and in this book she situates the authoritarian trends in Poland and other places around the world as part of a growing anti-democratic mood that has planted its seeds in the United States as well. She does an effective job of describing how individuals in authoritarian movements rationalize their involvement and play key roles in maintaining authoritarian regimes.
The Yellow House by Sarah Broom is an up close and personal account of life for one black family in New Orleans. In sharing a complete history of four generations of the Broom family and their deep ties to the City of New Orleans, she makes the event of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath more devastating, raising questions about what it means to belong to a place and what we all owe each other when we are all citizens of the same place.
Each of these books highlights the different ways that our addictions to self-sufficiency, greed, and zero-sum thinking create danger for all of us. It feels like an imperative and mighty spiritual task for us to make a collective turn and nurture a sense of abundance and a belief in the possibilities of our collective pursuits. If we can’t figure this out, I fear we will ride our self-sufficiency all the way to unimaginable suffering for all.
Sadness in Novels
I didn’t find much relief from sadness in the novels I read this season either, though the beauty of fiction is that it usually ends on a hopeful note even in the midst of sadness. Novels, after all, are usually about a transformative journey of some kind, either large or small.
I read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in December and it was wonderful to read the words on a page after seeing so many adaptations for the screen (The Muppet Christmas Carol is a new favorite). Particularly delightful was the character Belle, Scrooge’s former love, who delivers the most poignant lines about Scrooge’s love of money and her hope that money would be as good to him as she would have been. You feel her love and despair in these lines and also feel the heartbreaking truth of what they mean. It’s her love for Scrooge that made me root for him.
I also read Sally Rooney’s Normal People which is a fairly melancholy, coming-of-age story of two young lovers. It follows them through their last year of high school and all through college in Ireland. The book is beautifully honest about the struggles many of us face to feel acceptance and belonging - “normal” - while also desiring to be known and seen for who we truly are. Time and again, Connell and Marianne risk vulnerable feelings with each other as they grow into early adulthood. To borrow a word from Glennon Doyle, it’s a brutiful story and the Hulu series based on this book is nearly equal to the book as well.
Other novels I read this season included The Midnight Library by Matt Haig which uses a library as a mechanism to explore the wide range of choices we all make in our lives and how those choices may or may not change our experiences of sadness and joy. In a similar vein, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield untangles the mysterious life of a successful author. This tale in a tale is told in flashbacks and references many other works of literature as it explores how we form our identities and how these identities then shape who we are. I enjoyed both of these books very much. I also enjoyed Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid which is a light satirical novel that pokes at affluent white Americans’ virtue signaling as a way to feel okay about their privilege.
Out of Sadness, an Appreciation for Joy
While the reading was a little heavy, I found bursts of joy on the television. During this season, I enjoyed the spiciness of Bridgerton, the satire of I Care a Lot, and very much delighted in the warm, humor of Ted Lasso!
Most surprisingly, I also found great comfort in a video game! I played all levels of Monument Valley during the Christmas and New Year season. This puzzle game features the journeys of courageous, quiet women through the fantastic landscape of an ancient and forgotten valley of monuments in order to make amends, slowly and carefully rebuilding something that was lost. It features such a quiet and clear purposefulness, along with a lovely music score, that I was truly moved by it.
Importance of the Why (and How to Live)
Along with an appreciation of sadness, there was also a big bright shimmering of hope in my season of reading. And it’s exactly the type of hopefulness that Katherine May predicts as when she suggests that the gift of Winter is clarity, especially clarity of purpose. What could be more hopeful?
Thanks to Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering I feel a renewed sense of purpose toward something important to me - gathering people together. Many of us have spent the winter season of this pandemic reflecting on the state of our relationships while we yearn to gather in person with the people we love again. Parker gives loads of advice for how to make the most of any gathering. Yes, even those on Zoom!
But for me, this book is so much more than a “how-to” book for throwing great parties. When I think deeply about the concepts Parker shares in this book, I see that “gatherings” come in all kinds of shapes and sizes from weddings, to meetings, to asking people to comment on a social media post. All through our lives in formal and informal ways, we are inviting people to join us in some way and it’s worth considering how we can make each of these encounters more satisfying. In this way, Parker’s book has become a “how-to” live book.
According to Parker, all satisfying gatherings begin with a clear purpose. A clear purpose gives necessary guidance about who to invite, the agenda, and all of the details needed to make a gathering feel worthwhile to those who attend. I was able to reflect on different sorts of gatherings I’ve attended and now understand that the least satisfying were, indeed, the least clear about their purpose. And isn’t this true about life as well? When our purpose is clear, aren’t we better able to sort through the clutter of possibilities and pull together what’s most necessary?
Another key takeaway for me is the importance of the invitation and what it communicates. An invitation is the first experience of the gathering for the attendees. It should set the tone and expectations as well as communicating a date and location. Too often, we do not share with people what we expect and isn’t this the root of many misunderstandings?
The last insight I’ll share here is about leadership. When people are invited to gather, they want to be led. Most of the time, they are willing to let you rule for the short time you are hosting. You have the power and permission to care about and take your hosting responsibility seriously as well as to experiment with rules for your gatherings that allow you to create unique, one-time experiences. I believe this is true in life as well. When you have a clear purpose, people will let you lead them for a time if they can help and if they understand you will also follow them in their turn.
It is a soulful and powerful book that I have also added to my personal Soul Library. If you’d appreciate a quick dabble, you can listen to Parker on Brene Brown’s podcast.
Out of wintering comes hope. It’s always that way. The winter brings us the clarity we need to be purposeful and creative. Just as we need sleep to clear the clutter of our minds, our seasons of winter clear the clutter of distractions and unfulfilling activities. So too, a season of sad and heavy reading brings us deeper understanding and empathy that we can employ in our lives. It makes us into more human humans who are better able to meet other humans where they are, making them feel seen and known. What could be more transformative?
I’m grateful for the winter and full of hope as we approach the Spring Equinox, celebrated by the Celts as the festival of Alban Eiler. It’s a time when the daylight and dark are equalled out and the worst of winter is over. We can imagine seeds of all sorts being planted and springing forth into new life.
It often seems easier to stay in winter, burrowed down into our hibernation nests, away from the glare of the sun. But we are brave, and the new world awaits us, gleaming and green, alive with the beat of wings. And besides, we have a kind of gospel to tell now, and a duty to share it. We who have wintered, have learned some things. We sing it out like birds. We let our voices fill the air.
-Katherine May, Wintering
Wonderful. Late reading this one but I remembered it on a quiet morning and read it as I had my morning coffee.
I read Dickens too over Christmas and I didn’t think one bit of Scrooge’s love as other parts of the book got to me, I love how you said her love for Scrooge helped you to love Scrooge. That is the beauty of reading- how different parts hit different people and how upon a reread of his novel I will more than likely think about what that part meant you and allow it to be more meaningful to me.
Also, I just may have to purchase that Wintering book those quotes were fire! I really take strength in them this morning.