Seasonal Living: Winter’s Renewal and Regeneration

In case you prefer to be read to more than to read, I offer you this video of me simply reading this post word for word. You can play it as background noise while busying yourself with a task, much as you might a podcast. Or, you can read it below.

“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.” ― Katherine May, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times

I have been living very quietly and simply for awhile now, but in particular throughout the past few months. There are many reasons for this, most of which I won’t go into in this post. However, one thing I am reflecting on is that last year in particular felt like the ending of a long personal cycle for me. Living through my own difficulty alongside the endless pandemic combined with parenting, life decisions, the daily grind, and trying to find answers, and I just felt…completely, totally out of adrenaline. My get-up-and-go had got up and left. I could feel a heaviness and eyelid-closing fatigue, a deep bone-tired exhaustion that was years-long in the making.

I know I am not alone in this; I know some people (and parents) who feel the same way for reasons of their own.

By winter of last year (in 2021), I needed time do its own thing for awhile without me pushing things along. I was completely tapped out. I had an abiding image of going to bed, closing my eyes, and getting years of sleep, only rising to imbibe pots of homemade soup and buckets of chamomile tea, which were sometimes served to me in tablespoon-sized doses, just like in Peter Rabbit.

We live on an island in the Pacific Northwest at latitude 47 degrees, not far from Canada and the northern lights, where the dark and light deepen into long polar opposites throughout the seasons. In the summer, it stays light until 10:30–sometimes a dusting of light even covers the water as late as 11 p.m., while the shadows make their way to midnight.

But when winter arrives here it feels like someone comes in and just switches off the lights, poof. In the deep of winter it gets dark before 4 p.m.. This last November winter descended upon us as surely and completely as always with its cloak of darkness. I remember staring outside our window, our house a pinprick of light in the middle of a sea of blackness and it felt like time to plant myself deep and wait out winter beneath layers of endless quiet. And for the first time in years, I let myself really do it. I rested.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t live full days with my family, of course, nor did I hide away so fully that I didn’t pick up my kids from school or make meals and go grocery shopping and clean house and go for walks in the woods and care for our animals and make lists and pay bills and be a dedicated mama and wife. It wasn’t like that. Life still went on.

But. I read books, a series of beautiful books that brought inspiration and balmy doses of recognition–ah, yes, that’s just what I needed to read, I would feel myself say–and I bought a journal and started writing in it regularly like I used to when I instructed myself to do such things. And I picked up knitting again thanks to gifts of needles and skeins of yarn from my family, and I finally let myself really sink into the reality that I was going to allow myself to rest. I was going to allow the hours of a Pacific Northwest winter dictate the hours when I was going to corral my most active moments of the day.

I started working to drop the worry that a season of rest was a season of waste. Instead I started to imagine that, like many of the seeds or bulbs I plant in my garden, I was participating in a necessary step by going dormant for awhile.

It was around early December that I allowed myself to go to bed early. If I made dinner and sat around the fire with my family in my wool socks and jammies with a cup of Sleepytime tea, I could reasonably get myself into bed by 8:30 even, like a kid who had growing to do. I started to do this as often as I could. I became deeply grateful for the coming of the darkness each day and the joy of putting myself to bed. I began to allow myself to simply close my eyes and drift, without worrying if I was going to get enough proper sleep to be productive the next day. Sometimes lying in bed was just a blissful meditation on the darkness and a slow drift into sleep instead of a struggle to find sleep quickly.

Yes, I know it is a privilege to be able to rest. I haven’t always been able to do this. I understand others can’t make that choice. But I had a window of opportunity, and my family supported me in it. And I decided to dig in deep and let the roots of my being rebuild their quiet pathways to my heart.

There were lots of adjustments to be made. You might not think trying to go to bed early should require so much effort, but it did. There were lots of learned behaviors I needed to unlearn. Like, we needed to eat dinner earlier, rather than working around an old schedule that was built around my husband’s former workday and commute. I had to remind myself that he was here, able to eat dinner with us at a healthier time. Dinner at 5:30 became a goal, as did more simple meals that required fewer ingredients and more leftovers. Then we had hours before bed to use for reading and journaling or a family movie or just sitting by the fire pondering the day.

I found myself sinking into sleepiness. It was wonderful. And, we started sleeping better. We woke more rested. I started to be more present and productive in the mornings. I made a habit of walking in the woods every day that I could. The days started to feel a bit less foggy. I didn’t feel like I needed to take a nap every afternoon (it had gotten pretty bad there for a few months at the end of last summer; I couldn’t get through the day without a nap, and I’m not that old yet, ha). Winter was having its way with us, pressing reset on everything. We started to create new habits. I began to remember what it felt like to totally disengage from the day and let my nervous system go quiet.

Through my winter reading, I became inspired by the gorgeous book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, by Katherine May. I found in there a treatise of support for this season I was in. It became the backbone of my own wintering–a definition of one’s own personal season of quiet and retreat combined with the actual season on the calendar. I was reminded, too, of the importance of ritual and celebration around the polar opposites in our environment–hot and cold, fire and ice, darkness and lightness, growth and hibernation, sunrise and sunset, the stretching and shrinking of hours, and the joy of welcoming the light and even of welcoming the darkness and its quiet gifts.

I also read many other lovely books, including Stop Missing Your Life, by Cory Muscara. As I read it I followed his easy guidance and tried to meditate in simple 10-minute increments where I felt breath arrive and go while following my dancing thoughts. I read The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, and sunk deeply into his maze of possible futures. I soaked in the words of Jane Goodall in her and Douglas Abrams’ book The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, and I considered all the ways that we can shape our natural world by showing up and speaking up. I also began to dig into a lovely book called The Blue Zones Solution: Eating & Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, by Dan Buettner, and found inspiration there about what centenarians around the world are doing to live long and happy and aligned with their purpose.

Each of these books made me feel galvanized to more intentionally align with my own purpose on our farm and through this blog to bring awareness to others about growing beautiful food and finding inner healing at the same time. While not immediately apparent, the two activities are innately entwined: Getting your hands in the soil and planting seeds that grow connects you to the entire cycle of birth and growth and death and regeneration, as well as a timeless narrative about natural selection and doing the work today to rewild one’s own inner landscape for a better tomorrow.

Healing has a more tangible trajectory when you see how it plays out in nature through the fruits of a real harvest that can really be shared and enjoyed and stocked away, rather than trying to measure that sometimes amorphous and less concrete (though vastly important) world of personal growth.

Did you know that healing takes time? Lots and lots of time? It’s not a linear process.

I’ve needed to heal. Trying to push myself to live life as a regular person after going through cataclysmic trauma has not only been hard….It has been impossible. It is a truly effortful and exhausting to show up and pretend to make all the motions of normalcy despite all the broken bits and jagged edges that are still trying to reconnect and resew themselves, and not only did I feel I never had the time to focus on healing, but reminders of the pain were also painful, so I was in a constant cycle of trauma and re-trauma and burnout and exhaustion.

Does that make sense to you? Can you remember a time in your life when you experienced something terrible or difficult or terribly difficult and you were still trying to show up in your life as if you were the same person as you were before?

I kept showing up because I needed to, but I was different. I was still trying to pull from the same playbook, one that I had honed over my lifetime, a refrain about working hard and showing up no matter what…likely informed by that old American “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality that we all know is admirable but also flawed and archaic, giving no nuance to the layers between reaching down and grabbing those bootstraps and all the things that get in the way until eventually, finally, you’re able to pull them up and get on the road where you can walk yourself to brighter horizons.

You might have a similar experience somewhere in your past, with your own shades of difficulty or trauma or exhaustion. Maybe you, too, are like a seed that needs to over-winter quietly beneath the soil so that you can rest and heal and regenerate and even bloom by springtime.

If any of this resonates with you, I encourage you to sink deep into the last month of winter and try new rituals around personal renewal and regeneration as you make your way toward spring.

In her book Wintering, Katherine May wrote about the importance of sharing one’s own difficulty rather than pretending all’s well, because it is a gift to others who will undoubtably go through their own personal period of difficulty and renewal, and it’s incumbent on us to show others the ropes and share how to get to the other side:

“Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on. And in return, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us. It’s an exchange of gifts in which nobody loses out. This may involve the breaking of a lifelong habit, one passed down carefully through generations: that of looking at other people’s misfortunes and feeling certain that they brought them upon themselves in a way that you never would. This isn’t just an unkind attitude. It does us harm, because it keeps us from learning that disasters do indeed happen and how we can adapt when they do. It stops us from reaching out to those who are suffering. And when our own disaster comes, it forces us into a humiliated retreat, as we try to hunt down mistakes that we never made in the first place or wrongheaded attitudes that we never held. Either that, or we become certain that there must be someone out there we can blame. Watching winter and really listening to its messages, we learn that effect is often disproportionate to cause; that tiny mistakes can lead to huge disasters; that life is often bloody unfair, but it carries on happening with or without our consent. We learn to look more kindly on other people’s crises, because they are so often portents of our own future.”

May also wrote about the importance of celebrating the coming of the light. She noted that many cultures put their largest focus on only two big holidays in the last two months of the year, and that humans do better when we have things to look forward to throughout the year, things that mark time and give us something to celebrate, more often.

Considering, too, our culture’s focus on holidays as a time to spend money and create undue stress, I love the idea of simply celebrating the sun’s path around the earth as it brings us warmth and play, and quiet and rest. As I read May’s words I decided that our family, too, would celebrate the equinoxes and the solstices with a certain pomp and circumstance appropriate to the coming of the sun. Because, really, what is more exciting than the warming of the earth and the lengthening of the days after a long, quiet, dark winter?

I think we become mired in ideas that we can’t evolve or grow outside of what we know. But the opposite is really the truth. We are capable of anything, and it’s that possibility and potential that calls us forward every day and lulls us to sleep at night.

And we must rest and renew in order to welcome the new world, and be ready for it:

“Doing those deeply unfashionable things—slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting—is a radical act now, but it is essential. This is a crossroads we all know, a moment when you need to shed a skin. If you do, you’ll expose all those painful nerve endings and feel so raw that you’ll need to take care of yourself for a while. If you don’t, then that skin will harden around you” (May, Wintering).

I understand rest is a commodity many do not have. I realize that this post and its message arrives wrapped in the privilege of my season of rest.

Yet, nevertheless, my wish for you today is to find a moment or a tiny fragment of time or a series of days when you can rest so well that when you unfurl to the coming of the sun, you are ready to grow again.

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