The restorative power of ‘wintering’

Middle Aged Women Having A Conversation At The Beach

Much as we want to live full lives, we also need fallow patches.

In recent years I’ve come to think of the winter months as a quieter time, with not so much running around. It might’ve started with Covid, but I like the idea of some empty space.

In May I deliberately switch into another mindset — digging out blankets, long sleeves, and cool weather recipes.

But I also try to stay home more, say no to too many distractions, and get plenty of sleep. I feel like I need to build my reserves before the busy lead-in to Christmas and summer, which I can find draining.

It helps that the people in our street also seem to go to ground in the middle of the year. Come December it’ll be all lawn mowers, parties and barbecues, but from June to August there’s barely a sound. Usually.

This year though the fallow patch didn’t happen. My plans were sucked up by the demands of life.

These included a mum who’s 90 and needs support, a dear friend going into palliative care, and a seemingly endless list of errands and admin.

Even the neighbours stirred early and organised a get-together this month.

Realising that my hibernation idea had fallen over, I went looking for ideas in a book called Wintering: the power of rest and retreat in difficult times, by UK author Katherine May.

She moved into her own winter burned out by work and shaken by the near death of her husband.

With a book in mind, she expected she’d travel the world experiencing different winters and interviewing people she thought had wintered in extreme ways, to glean their wisdom.

Instead, she stayed home doing things like knitting and making gingerbread and pickles.

As it happens, May’s quite wise herself. She recognised that nature is cyclical and that winter is an integral part of that. Plants and animals don’t pretend winter doesn’t happen. They prepare for it.

We don’t. We assume that we should keep on going and being productive, and that there’s something wrong with us if we don’t.

But humans need periods of rest and repair just as much as plants and animals do.

As she says, “Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting — are radical acts these days, but they are essential.”

Her book was a reminder that we need more than sleep and holidays. Those are important, but most of us also need to cultivate other spaces for recharging our batteries.

In any case, holidays aren’t wall-to-wall relaxation. A friend heading off to Africa for a few weeks recently messaged saying: “I’m excited but also exhausted. It’s a lot of work to go on holiday!!!” Agreed.

Of course, different personalities find different experiences depleting or restorative. We need to find our own ways to winter.

That means tuning into what we need and embracing it rather than overriding it to fit in with others. And if your battery seems to run down more quickly than someone else’s, and you need more rest, so be it.

It can also help to recognise whether the restoration we need is physical, mental or spiritual, notwithstanding that they very much overlap. But it might suggest whether what we need is a good lie down, more headspace or a way to soothe our heart and soul.

All of this takes insight as well as the courage to act on it. As Katherine May noted, rest can be a radical act.

How often have we gotten sick and later realised that the signs of being stressed or not well were there, but we’d ignored them?

Wintering doesn’t have to literally happen in winter. May’s lasted from September to March. Seven months.

Above all, the message is to not wait until our needle is on empty before we act.

So this year I’m shooting for winter in September. Life will still keep coming, but my aim is to get to the beach, make more time to lie down and read, and as much as possible, do less and say no.

Wish me luck.

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