Rest, Remembrance, and Rereading: Reflections on Wintering by Katherine May
By Rachel Schwartzmann
Ordinary Story is a monthly series by Rachel Schwartzmann that features musings and conversations on one of our favorite ordinary habits: reading. In the eleventh installment of this series, Rachel reflects on Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May.
The last time I reread a book was the winter of 2019 (The Girls by Emma Cline for curious minds). It was a time when I felt every aspect of life shifting—my reading life included. Stories became urgent, and I yearned to feel familiar pages between my fingers.
After interviewing Nicole Caputo for Slow Stories in December 2020, my desire to reread grew tenfold. At the beginning of our conversation, Caputo mentioned Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. As she described May's work, I immediately knew that this was a book I needed to read. Within the first few pages, I promised myself it would be a book that I would return to at the beginning of each year.
In Wintering, May makes a compelling case for navigating (and accepting) the difficult periods in our lives. From "September" to "Late March," we follow May as she recounts overcoming illness, career evolution, and family tumult. She traverses literature, science, and lived experience, creating a rich exploration of the rest and renewal that comes when we embrace our winters.
At the core of this narrative is a sense of duty. For May, wintering is an obligation—and an offering. "Here is another truth about wintering," she explains, "you'll find wisdom in your winter, and once it's over, it's your responsibility to pass it on."
Aside from explorations of tougher subjects, readers enjoy beautiful renderings of May's ordinary habits: appetizing accounts of food preparation, foraging, cold water swimming, and snow-laden walks. Little things I might not have fully appreciated as a global crisis pervaded my reading experience, or perhaps more simply, details I didn't know I needed to read in the first place.
As May writes in her introduction, "[Winter] is a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order." Reading these words after a tumultuous year felt like a balm. I just didn't remember how much May's story spoke to me until now.
When I begin rereading Wintering for a second time, I'm not looking for anything prescriptive. I've always enjoyed personal narratives, and May has a talent for distilling her experiences gracefully on the page. But after a year of growth in my reading and writing life, I'm surprised at how alert I am to May's own reading habits.
In "Slumber," May examines her relationship with winter nights. She shares worries that keep her from sleeping soundly but celebrates the power of hibernation and retreat. When no longer able to fall back to sleep, May turns to books as a respite, attributing "loose, exploratory reading" as her preferred mode. "For once, I am not reading to escape;" May writes, "instead, having already made my getaway, I am able to roam through the extra space I've found, as restless and impatient as I like, revelling in the play of my own absorption. They say that we should dance like no one is watching. I think that applies to reading, too."
As I dive further into May's elegant prose, I rediscover her penchant for children's literature. It's a delight. From classics like The Children of Green Knowe and The Chronicles of Narnia to fables like Aesop's The Ant and the Grasshopper, May crafts a thoughtful portrait of how the earliest stories often influence (and stay with) us, especially in more difficult chapters of our lives. "How is it that we can code so carefully the weight of loss, grief, time, and continuity into our children's books, but forget them so thoroughly ourselves?" May ponders. Whether intended to or not, May reminds us to look at our own stories in new ways—no matter our age.
In "Epiphany," May writes about her son Bert's difficulties with school. After truly recognizing his despair, May withdraws Bert from classes and ushers him into a period of wintering. Together they rest and find refuge. ("We baked cookies and kneaded pizza dough, and played more Minecraft than I would have preferred," May writes.) They also face their demons.
Ultimately, May shows Bert (and readers) the power of story in one's transformation. One night, while watching the last Harry Potter film together, May employs a tactic she once used with her undergraduate students to show Bert "the shape of a story." She draws a diagram and demonstrates the beginning and end but notes that the middle is always a low point. "It's called the nadir—the moment when things have got so bad that you can't imagine a way out," May explains. While there's no straightforward trajectory toward resolution, she tells Bert that this is a turning point. That times can change; in a plot, but also in life.
Bert considers this. "So this is what it's really like," he finally remarks to May. "This is how stories work," May tells him yes—but with a caveat. "Except in real life, it carries on happening," she says. "The adventure doesn't end on the last page."
Stories have started and ended. Seasons have come and gone. Winter is here again. Like May notes, the cold has a habit of bringing things into focus. As a result, my relationship with time is changing in more ways than I can describe, though I've grown to think about it in less concrete terms. I no longer subscribe to statements like "what's done is done" or "there's no use living in the past." They bring neither comfort nor reliability—upon reflection, I'm not sure they ever did.
Instead, I've realized that time moves through us like light, flickering and flaring, casting a spotlight on the moments that make us whole. I look at May's writing as an invitation to revel in the seasons of our lives—to embrace uncertainty, to honor our pain, to delight in the potential of what comes next. But to do this, we must first remember: Remember that our winters are not stories waiting to be rewritten but continued. Remember to acknowledge the beauty of reflection. As May writes at the end of Wintering: "There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard. To make that manageable, we just have to remember that our present will one day become a past, and our future will be our present. We know that because it's happened before. The things we put behind us will often come around again."
As we settle into the year, I've spent time revisiting parts of myself—paying attention to my needs—and slowly discovering the habits that have remained constant. Reading is one of them.
When I return Wintering to its rightful place on my bookcase, I pause to gaze at the dozens of spines lining the shelves. Words and phrases and scenes jump out at me. I'm surprised by the minute details I remember about these books and feel compelled to reread one page (and then another). Truthfully, I'm not sure how this particular habit will unfold long-term. But perhaps someday revisiting these—novels, essay collections, memoirs—will help me endure the winters that lie ahead.
For now, I marvel at the ordinary stories I've had the pleasure of retreating into over the years. The ones that have become part of me. They are evidence of a habit in practice, of a well-read life, of time well spent. If there's anything I should remember, it's this moment.