Wintering & the Turning of the Seasons of Our Lives

‘We are in the habit of imagining our lives to be linear’ writes Katherine May in her work Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. We imagine ‘our lives to be a long march from birth to death in which we amass our powers, only to surrender them again, all the while slowly losing our youthful beauty.’ But, this is simply one way to look at life.

Our lives are not linear, they are cyclical. We do not rise to crescendo and then collapse into nothingness; rather, our lives are a series of peaks and troughs, twists and turns, blooms and decays. We are not born and then die; rather, we are born and experience multiple deaths and rebirths along our journey of becoming. We can look to nature as a teacher here. Like a tree,

We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.

Winter for a deciduous tree is not a period of death, but instead, a period of letting go of the old to make space for new growth. The dropping of leaves is not an unfortunate accident for the deciduous tree but a necessary part of its life cycle; and so it is for us. The depression causing us to despise our very bones, anxiety attacks leaving us unable to leave the house, and mental illness rendering us unable to communicate with close friends are not signs we are deformed and defected, but rather, are processes of what Katherine May calls ‘wintering’, whereby old parts of ourselves’ are being let go to provide room for something new.

The dropping of leaves by a tree is called ‘abscission’. Occurring on the cusp of autumn and winter, it is ‘part of an arc of growth, maturity and renewal’. While leaves are dying off from the tree, a layer of cells is weakening between the stem of the leaf and the branch: this is the abscission zone. Over time, this zone halts the flow of water to the leaf, where it withers and falls off. Yet, ‘even as the leaves are falling, the buds of next year’s crop are already in place, waiting to erupt again in spring’.

We think we’re seeing the skeleton of the tree, a dead thing…

But if we look closely, we see the tree is already in bud, waiting for the turn of the seasons to bloom once more.

Even as the leaves are falling, the buds of next year’s crop are already in place, waiting to erupt again in spring.

The cyclical nature of the seasons is a mirror to the soul. We experience periods of vitality and exuberance, only to have them followed by periods of despair and defeat; but these moments are not aberrations or deformities, but stages in a cycle, providing the space for us to retreat, rest, and recuperate, before entering the world once more, a little older, a little wiser, and a little more mature than before.

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