books

Is It Possible to Enjoy This Winter?

In her memoir, Katherine May suggests that retreating from the world in the coldest months has its benefits.

Photo: Morten Falch Sortland/Getty Images
Photo: Morten Falch Sortland/Getty Images

The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa located just outside Reykjavík. From the city, you drive along a highway for 30 minutes, take an exit, and travel down a road surrounded by black lava rocks coated in moss. Five minutes later you arrive at a modern building, pay a fee, and are directed into a fancy locker room to shower before oozing into the water.

You may have seen this photogenic lagoon on Instagram. It is precisely what it sounds like: blue, and a specific milky blue that is rare enough in nature to look implausible, as though God himself had put a VSCO filter on it. Seven years ago, I was trapped at the office on a weekend with some co-workers when we discovered a website selling discounted plane tickets to Iceland. Our tickets got us there in May, but Iceland was the most wintery place I’d ever been. Not only in temperature — although that, obviously — but in all things. Icelanders were comfortable with negative space. They seemed to drink alcohol in great quantities but without aggression. At a gift shop, I bought a candle that described itself as “scented with rhubarb and longing.” Bathers at the Blue Lagoon stood beneath an artificial waterfall that was calibrated to feel “like being beaten by trolls,” as I recall a sign explaining.

Katherine May visits the Blue Lagoon in her book Wintering. May is a teacher and writer who falls ill — it’s gastrointestinal, maybe bowel cancer — and takes sick leave to recuperate. At home, she is irritable, tired, uncomfortable. Her house grows dirty. She can’t drink alcohol or coffee because of her stomach. She spends her time pickling marsh plants and wondering whether her colleagues at the university are gossiping about her. Instead of construing this psychological condition as depression, May massages it into what she calls “wintering”: part hibernation, part resignation, part devotional activity. She lives in England but finds herself roaming further north, under the reasoning that “you apply ice to a joint after an awkward fall,” so “why not do the same to a life?”

Thus she visits Iceland. And other Arctic-adjacent places, such as Norway. In addition to wandering these nations, May writes about pregnancy, wolves, C.S. Lewis, homeschooling, and Margaret Thatcher’s speaking voice. Like meditation or free-range jogging, Wintering is both meandering and disciplined. It’s a memoir in the tradition of Darkness Visible or The Year of Magical Thinking, with May joining a lineage of authors writing through misery in hopes of (a) wresting control of it, or (b) stepping away from it, or (c) manufacturing a second type of misery — the misery of writing — as a decoy to trick the first. This book has to be the most accidentally fortuitous publishing event in recent history. We’ve all been living in winter since at least March, locked indoors with careers and social lives in dormancy, engaged only in our own tortured internal travelogues. And now, having never left, winter is back. The sky gets dark roughly five minutes after lunchtime. Unemployment claims are rising. COVID cases are spiking.

If you piled up all the world’s wintery literature and set it on fire, the resulting pyre might rival the sun in its heat-producing capacity. There’s Tove Jansson, whose novel The True Deceiver demonstrates how coziness can be a yarn’s width away from claustrophobia. There’s Ethan Frome, in which winter offers an explanation for all the title character’s miseries. There’s probably Karl Ove Knausgård, whom I’ve never read despite a friend’s tantalizing summary of his opus as “Thousands of pages about a guy eating fish and hating his family.” There’s Moby-Dick, which contains a powerful endorsement for keeping your bedroom freezing at night: Ishmael, snugly embedded in a frigid room, imagines himself “one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.” But the densest concentration of wintery verbiage comes — not surprisingly — from a Russian, in the 16 lines of Fyodor Tyutchev’s Dusk. This translation of the poem by Nabokov is almost bleak enough to merit a trigger warning:

Now the ashen shadows mingle,

tints faded, sounds remote.

Life has dwindled to a single

vague reverberating note.

In the dusk I hear the humming

of a moth I cannot see.

Whence is this oppression coming?

I’m in all, and all’s in me.

 

Gloom so dreamy, gloom so lulling,

flow into my deepest deep,

flow, ambrosial and dulling,

steeping everything in sleep.

With oblivion’s obscuration

fill my senses to the brim,

make me taste obliteration,

in this dimness let me dim.

If Tyutchev were alive today (he died in 1873), he would receive an immediate diagnosis of full-blown seasonal affective disorder and a Wellbutrin prescription. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, was first recognized in the 1980s after a doctor realized that his mood shifted dramatically with the end of Daylight Savings Time. Studies were done, and a terrific acronym coined, and the public responded the way the public always responds when a common experience is officially pathologized: SAD went viral. The symptom cluster included lethargy, compulsive eating of sugary and starchy snacks, and an inability to concentrate. (Who among us …) A book called Seasonal Affective Disorder for Dummies was published in 2007.

Winter doesn’t stop at damaging moods, either. There is now research suggesting that our cognition itself worsens during the season — that winter shrinks our attention spans. And it can sicken you too, especially if you live in a place where the weather is wintry for more than a few months. Kids with insufficient exposure to sunlight once suffered in droves from the bone disease rickets, which is caused by a vitamin-D deficiency. After the link between sunlight and rickets was established, children were urged outside as a preventive measure. This too became a meme: “In the 1920s, photographs of children in loincloths on skis constituted a genre of sorts,” writes Daniel Freund in American Sunshine: Diseases of Darkness and the Quest for Natural Light

Sunlight was what got New Yorkers through a summer of COVID. Outdoor dining, with its hasty construction and improvised charm, was the urban equivalent of a Victory garden. Streets closed down to allow for biking, jogging, and strolling. The parks and beaches were full (but distanced). Stoops became picnic tables. You could buy takeout margaritas! We put our masked heads together, albeit not literally, and made the best of a nightmare. As winter shoves us back indoors, even that sliver of solace evaporates.

I grew up in San Francisco, which doesn’t have a winter. Instead, the weather is mildly uncomfortable all year round, except for sunny days deposited irregularly like rat-food pellets in a science experiment. San Franciscans didn’t use seasonal metaphors when talking about mood. “I’ve been feeling low” or “I’m bummed out” were the closest approximations of what May describes as a state of ambiguous disquietude with no implied urgency and no implied ending. As far as I can tell, every elementary school in the Bay Area had a unit on the Donner Party, which is where temperate children first learned of winter’s horrors. Naturally, it was the cannibalism part that captured everyone’s interest, but you couldn’t tackle the cannibalism without understanding why the settlers were starving, and they were starving because it was December in the Sierra Nevada. Winter was an evil fairy tale about being stuck with your family under a snowdrift for four months — eating mice and pine bark and, eventually, each other. The season was semi-fictional. There was no need to develop the homey adaptive strategies of a person like Katherine May, located several parallels higher. No need to knit, bake gingerbread men, hang fairy lights, or preserve quinces.

When I moved to New York, I was delighted to discover winter. What I liked most about it was how it forced everyone to temporarily share the same reality. Lingering on a subway platform at 17 degrees was unpleasant, but it was nice to know that everyone was experiencing an identical form of unpleasantness and thinking identical thoughts about it. (“I am cold. When is the train coming?” Repeat.) Shortly after I arrived, smartphones annihilated the communal properties of foul weather. It became instantly impossible for two phone-having strangers to share the same reality during any season: One of them would be looking at 4chan as the other played Candy Crush, each marooned in a separate dimension despite sitting within smelling and touching distance of the other.

At the onset of COVID, this intervention was reversed. In January, you could stand on a city block and reasonably guarantee that at no moment would you think or feel anything in common with the pedestrians streaming past. But by April you could and you did: the claustrophobia of the mask, the repulsive sensation of re-inhaling your own breath, the anticipation of ripping off the muzzle as soon as you got home. COVID became the existential threat that winter used to be, and humans respond to such threats in simple ways that repeat themselves throughout history. These reactions — and I’m talking about fear, the instinct for risk-mitigation and self-preservation — do not break down along lines of gender identity or sexual orientation or your taste in clothes or whatever. We have all been inducted into a temporary cult of empathy.

But that is already curdling as we become further homebound. Our exchanges with real humans have diminished. We turn to the internet for simulated engagement, and it is a poor substitute. We are sick of Zoom. We don’t even have the cheap consolation of gossip, since there are precious few opportunities for its generation: no office parties, no public feats of drunkenness, no observable acts of horniness. There is nothing to do and nothing to talk about.

To May, the charms of winter are not experienced in units of the crowd but in units of the self or family. She bakes cookies with her son and daydreams about tending a beehive. She reads and watches birds and goes to bed early. She reminds herself that survival is a practice, not an effortless flow state. One frigid winter morning, she opens the back door and appreciates how a layer of frost is “glamorizing” the lids of the garbage cans outside. She is inarguably an enchanting noticer-of-things, with a mind that conjures peculiar and effective metaphors. “You could put a skewer in me and find my juices running clear,” May notes, describing her sense of being overcooked after too long in a sauna.

One of May’s Finnish friends teaches her the word talvitelat, which doesn’t have an exact, or even inexact, English equivalent but which roughly means “being stowed away for winter” — the feeling you get when folding your summer clothes into boxes and shoving them on a high shelf, for example. A second of May’s Finnish friends reminisces about hanging laundry on a line not to dry but to freeze; apparently the cold air kills bacteria and makes woolens smell nice, so you don’t have to wash them. These two hardy Nordic souls have an arsenal of coping mechanisms: candles, coffee, ice cream, vitamin-D supplements, and special curtains to let in light reflecting from snow. But most of all, saunas.

May dislikes saunas, which she finds too hot. But in one chapter, with Finnish wisdom in mind, she coaxes herself into a session at her local gym’s facility. The sauna makes her dizzy, and she is forced to lie down on the locker-room floor in her underwear until she feels well enough to ask a fellow gym patron for some water. Instead of fulfilling this simple request, the woman runs out for medical help, causing a swarm of defibrillator-wielding people to bust into the locker room. “I only need a glass of water,” May repeats, annoyed. She is given water.

The sauna has a conceptual significance for Finns that it doesn’t have for the rest of us. It’s not a post-gym digestif or a method of bathing but a ritual event. You aren’t supposed to cuss or get mad or whistle or sing or even think about having sex in a sauna. When the sauna gets too hot, you don’t complain. Instead, you step outside for a break — and, optionally, dive into cold water or roll nude in the snow — before heading back inside. A properly applied sauna will transform weakness into strength, chaos into order, filth into purity, and anger into tranquillity. To sauna with someone is to forge a bond in sweat. There’s a Finnish-American proverb that goes like this: If a drink of liquor and a sauna won’t cure an ailment, it is a fatal one. A Finnish word that May doesn’t mention (but evokes) is sisu: both a characteristic and a value, as well as another word with no direct translation. Sisu means something like grit, bullheadedness, fortitude, tenacity, and gutsiness. The ability to thrive in a brutal environment. The strength to outlast everyone else in a sauna.

The strength to outlast is a through-line. Despite her illness, May is amazingly hardy. She tramps across frozen mud, mentally overriding whatever her prescribed painkillers can’t stifle. She swims in 41-degree water and then strips off her bathing suit to dry in the wind, naked as a seal. It seems that cold immersions increase dopamine levels, but May is less interested in brain chemicals than in a kind of moral feedback loop: By doing a resilient thing, she feels more resilient, which prompts her to do more things that call on resilience, and the cycle continues. I pictured her like one of those high-altitude pine trees that thrive in harsh soil and weather. A being not just immune to inhospitable conditions but bolstered by them.

Not surprisingly, May spends a moment with the Sylvia Plath poem “Wintering.” It is a tricky piece to reckon with: grammatically ambiguous and tonally uneasy. Plath wrote it a few weeks before her 30th birthday, and it reads a little like a suicide note. The poem’s final line sounds a note of optimism: The bees are flying. They taste the spring. Coming at the end of an ambivalent treatise on barrenness, I’ve always read those lines as intentionally unconvincing, like a person forcing her grimace into a smile just in time to take a photo. But May’s reading is less discomposed. To her, those lines are straightforwardly about the return of life, and the poem a comment on “the lean times that women can survive.” Except that Plath didn’t.

The book is most effective as an act of world-building. The world is wood-burning stoves, plump pillows, flasks, cardigans, hot cocoa, pajamas, cookies. Hunkering. Cottagecore. Hibernation of the soul. It’s a cozy blanket, but there’s also something alarming in the absolute retreat of this approach. The author’s diagnosis isn’t ultimately cancer but something less serious, and for that I’m glad. But Wintering still reads like a program of palliative care. Coping with darkness is a skill, and everybody needs to do it. I just have trouble finding the romance in that.

Is It Possible to Enjoy This Winter?