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From the Bookshelf: Wintering by Katherine May

Written by Isobel Lobo, 12th December 2022

As part of our ongoing work around The Reader Bookshelf, we've asked staff to share their thoughts about some of the inspirational texts in the collection.

This month, Anna explores some of the quiet and impactful lessons she and her Shared Reading group discovered as they read Katherine May's memoir.

2Words by Anna

I felt like I was being let into a secret when I picked up the book Wintering, a reflection on life in difficult times.

I read it with a small group I didn’t know very well. In my preparation, I naively focussed on how accessible the book felt and hadn’t given thought to the deep connections May would forge with us as readers. We find in the first chapter a description of a life on the very edge of coping – a life governed by work, the pressures to be ever present, the constant interruption and guilt of unanswered emails: ‘After all, I had colleagues who regularly replied to emails after midnight’. May finds herself surrendering to the pressure of overwork and is signed off with stress. Then the big admission: ‘I was ashamed. I always thought that I, so very wise, would never succumb to work addiction. But here I am, having worked so hard, and for so long, that I’ve made myself sick. And, worst of all, I’ve nearly forgotten how to rest.’

As we read together, as a small group of readers unknown to each other, we were able to say, ‘yes – that is me, I have felt that shame.’ Shame is an interesting - a brave - word. We shared times in our lives when we have felt a kind of pride in overworking, in that email sent out of office hours; and times when we couldn’t do that, which can also lead to a strange kind of guilt. But the admission of shame is an honest truth – the very things we serve are poor masters – they don’t care for us. We are forced to breaking point, and then the very master that calls for all of our attention is the master that shames us when we fall to pieces. ‘Stress is a shameful thing, a proclamation of my inability to cope.’

As we read this together, our tentative admissions of ‘that is me’ led us towards solidarity, to empathy, to community.

Wintering goes through the natural seasons of life through the physical seasons of the year. In our group, we read the chapter ‘October’ about the ways in which we get ready for winter. May uses the season as gentle medicine for her soul. ‘I feel as though I’m cooking autumn into my house’, she says as she buys ingredients, cooks slowly, and enjoys the sensual pleasure of colour: ‘A box of 14 delicately bloomed figs in cerise papers…velvety soup from a pale green pumpkin…a cured fillet of salmon with salt, sugar, dill and beetroot, giving it a bright red coat…I had time. It was all possible, and all worthwhile.’

As the book develops, May invites these ‘quiet pleasures’ back in as she deliberately pares back her life, preparing for winter. The solace we felt with her as readers, the humanity of her writing, and the acknowledgement of the natural seasons of life – designed to allow us to care for and repair ourselves.

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