Katherine May, WINTERING

Katherine May, WINTERING

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Katherine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Katherine May: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. I cannot wait to discuss Wintering, your beautiful new orange-covered book. We’ve been just discussing where it’s going to go on my color-coded bookshelf. I had to flag that it was orange and beautiful. Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, which could not be coming out at a better time. This winter, difficult times, you nailed the timing on the publication here.

Katherine: I would really like to put it out there that I neither planned nor caused this moment in history, but I’m very glad to be landing in it.

Zibby: Noted. Understood. Katherine, can you tell listeners, please, what your book is about and then what inspired you to write this book?

Katherine: Wintering, it’s part memoir and part something entirely different. It’s really about the times in life when we fall through the cracks. That’s familiar to all of us. I’m trying to draw a line between those experiences of all the awful things that happen to us as human beings. That might be illness. It might be mental illness. It might be things like divorce. It might be bereavement. It might be the loss of a job. It could just be one of those times in life when everything seems to fall apart. You’re ready for a change, but you don’t know how to make it. I explain that by drawing on winter, the season. I’m a big winter lover. I have to come straight out with it. I’m one of those people that’s very uncomfortable in the summer. I love the winter. I also see winter as a real time of rest and renewal and restoration. I wanted to show how if we think about winter as a dead time, we completely miss the point. Actually, when we’re wintering, we’re amassing our energies for the next stage.

Zibby: I love how you applied that to everything from how the popular advice is misguided, that you should cope. You have to buck up. It’s going to be okay. Instead, by shifting your mindset and expecting winter to come and not hoping that every day of winter is going to be a summer’s day, same thing with any of the trauma, loss, job, any issue, if you have the right framework, it can make you feel so much better in a difficult time. That’s really the secret sauce to this book. It’s reframing, almost. It’s reframing how to fit a difficult time into the chaos of everyday life, especially when other people are not having a difficult time.

Katherine: Actually, this year, everyone’s having a difficult time, aren’t they? That’s the big change. Everyone’s wintering at once at the moment and in so many different ways. I suppose I’m thinking about, there’s a problem that we’ve got with positivity nowadays. We’re all busy sharing memes on Facebook and Instagram. We want to be seen to be positive. We want to be those people who are always on it and always impressive. Obviously, that hides a lot of stuff. The message that we receive from that is that we’re not allowed to fall. We’re not allowed to mourn. We’re not allowed to be ill. We’re not allowed to suffer. We’ve got to put a brave face on it pretty quickly. I think that’s harming us. I think we’ve got to the point where we can no longer keep pretending to be perfect. Actually, by living through those really painful parts of life, we get a lot from that. That’s part of being human.

Zibby: Your book is so great because you make yourself instantly relatable and likable when you talk about your vacation when you’re playing on the beach with your son, Bert, and your husband who you call H. Your husband starts complaining of feeling sick. You’re kind of annoyed by it. I have to find this quote because it made me laugh so much. You were talking about your husband, who you call H in the book, and your son, Bert, playing on this idyllic seaside around the time of your fortieth birthday with your friends. He starts feeling very sick and comes back and he tells you that he’s vomited. You say, “Oh, no, I remember saying, trying to sound sympathetic while privately thinking what a nuisance it was we have to cut the day short and head back home. Then he probably needs to sleep it off.” It’s so funny. Our loved ones are sick in front of us, and you’re like, oh, gosh, now what’s Bert going to do the rest of the day when the rest of his friends are at the beach? How am I going to entertain him? I just loved that you put such a relatable moment right in the beginning, especially because this became a horrific situation. You started with such humor. Tell me more about Bert and what ended up happening in the hospital and everything.

Katherine: I was absolutely the last person to realize that he was really, really sick. He had very severe appendicitis, very bad infection from it, and eventually ended up being taken into hospital and then had to wait a very long time for surgery because the hospital was so busy. It was really terrifying. It was really life or death. It meant that after he’d had the surgery, he was in hospital for over a week just failing to recover in the way they expected him to. It was just an absolutely terrifying time. We couldn’t work out what was wrong with him. He was so sick for a long time. It was just a real mortality reminder that comes every now and again. We really felt like we could’ve easily lost him. I felt like I had to personally be there advocating for him all the time to make sure he absolutely got the care he needed. It was a wake-up call for us.

Zibby: Even how you described being back and forth from home to drop-offs to having your son stay somewhere else. Then when you would get to a place, suddenly feeling like there was nothing that you even could do there, rushing back to the hospital to sit and wait and have nothing happen and twiddling your thumbs and trying to be like, what can I do in this time to help anything? and that feeling of helplessness amidst the chaos.

Katherine: I think we all come to that time in our lives at some point. It’s that feeling of being completely exhausted but also totally wired at the same time. You’re hyper-alert. You’re just trying to do the best for the people that you love and trying to balance the responses of your kids against needing to tend to your husband. That’s such a hard thing to do. Bert was absolutely terrified. He didn’t want to see his father. He didn’t want to look at him because he was covered in wires and pipes and just didn’t look like himself and kept dozing off mid-sentence and that kind of thing. That’s without my own fears. That’s without all the stuff that’s going on in my head, like, what happens now? It’s a terrible time. We had a week of it, and it was awful. For some people, that goes on for months and years. I’m very mindful of that.

Zibby: It’s so true. Then you move from there to talking about your own physical response. You tied it to your stress of your job but compared it to symptoms of bowel cancer, really. Tell me about what happened then.

Katherine: I’d been doing the stupid thing that you always hear about other people doing and you think you’ll never be the one that does it, which is carefully ignoring all the major symptoms of bowel cancer for about six months. It’s amazing how easy that stuff is to push away when you’re incredibly busy, and I did. I had a busy, stressful job. I was leading a creative writing degree at university. There was a lot going on. I was a mother, obviously. I was writing books in my spare time. I’d been coping for so long that I couldn’t hear the messages my body was sending me. I knew I was massively stressed. I knew I was becoming unwell. It was only when I was sitting in the hospital by my husband that I began to realize how much pain I was in. I assume it’s because it’s the first time I’d slowed down for a long time. Even that didn’t feel very slow, but I was sitting still.

I thought that it was probably sympathetic, almost. My pain was in exactly the same place that his appendicitis was. I left it again, of course. Then within a couple of weeks, I ended up doubled up over my desk at work on the phone to my doctor saying, “I don’t know what’s going on, but I feel like I’m in labor.” It took a little while, but it turned out that I had multiple bowel problems, luckily not cancer. I did go away with a very thorough ticking off and warning that I had the intestines of a particularly self-negligent seventy-five-year-old. I was sitting there going, but you know what? I eat my vegetables. I’m a vegetable fan. I’m really careful about my diet. I take exercise. Then I had to just sit down and think, yeah, but you have lived with enormous stress for years and years and years. That’ll do it. It doesn’t matter how many portions of cabbage you eat. The stress will get you in the end. It did.

Zibby: That’s a very sobering message.

Katherine: Sorry, everyone.

Zibby: No, it’s good to hear. It is so important and good to hear. It makes me want to take a deep sigh. It’s so easy to ignore the stresses or say, this is what we have. We have to do this. There’s no choice. Yet there’s only so much mind over matter can help with your body.

Katherine: So much pushing through, yeah. You can’t keep pushing through. You have to listen to those signals that we know we should listen to. Wow, I was so good at ignoring them. I was impressive there.

Zibby: If we could give medals for ignoring your body and being self-care negligent, congratulations.

Katherine: Woohoo! That’s not the medal I ever wanted to win, but there we go.

Zibby: Tell me about the decision to write this book. I know you were a creative writing professor. You are a brilliant, beautiful writer from the first sentence on through. The way you use metaphor all the time and the way you can cut through and use language sparsely and yet so beautifully, it’s very captivating, I have to say. I mean it. It’s really amazing. Perhaps this is what you teach your students, in which case I want to take your class. Tell me about the writing of this book and even your writing style, how it all evolved and developed.

Katherine: When I first started writing, I did start writing poetry. I think that’s such a great school for economy and finding that exact image and just that image that’s necessary. Also, I think the writing style comes from my really deep engagement with winter. I just wanted to write about all the lovely things about winter. One of the first lines I wrote was about the pavement sparkling in winter. There were so many things I wanted to say. I’d been pursuing it all my life, going on holiday in Iceland and Norway instead of Spain and Greece. That’s what my family has to put up with from me. The idea for Wintering, the book, came before that whole crisis, weirdly, when I realized that I was a kind of expert in living through those times of life. I recognized them really well. I actually had a technique for them. Not that I enjoyed them, but I could see the value of them. I’d learned to burrow into them.

I realized I had something to share. I wanted to write a book that told other people how to do it. I thought I was going to be writing it from the sunny uplands when everything was fine. I thought I could look back over wintering periods of my life and wisely give advice to people. That’s how the book was pitched. Then everything happened at once during it. First of all, I really resisted writing about them because it’s like, this is not my book. This is not fair. This was not supposed to happen. Then I realized I had to crack it open and let people into the process that I was going through at the time. I think that changed the book for the better because I think that brings that kind of immediacy to walking alongside me, going through the process with me. That then became my mission. I wanted to take people through day by day, those feelings. I think I wouldn’t have thought of loads of them if I hadn’t been living them at the time.

Zibby: What was your writing process like when you wrote it? Were you at this desk with these beautiful curtains behind you? Where did you like to do your writing? How long did the whole book take?

Katherine: I’m quite random in my approach to writing at the best of times. I’ve always been someone that will do a little bit on the kitchen table, a little bit on the sofa, a bit in a café. Actually, towards the end of the period when I knew I was going to have to deliver the book, and as I document in the story, I had to pull my son out of school because he had stopped coping. That meant that most of the book actually got written in the cafés of play centers and on benches in playgrounds. I have a favorite playground in my hometown of Whitstable that actually has a table and a bench which means that I can put my laptop on it if it’s not raining. It was really, really pieced together in tiny snatches and getting up very early, like four thirty in the morning, to get a couple of good hours in before Bert woke up. It felt very against the wire. I didn’t get the time on it that I wanted. I really did submit it in total terror that my editor would say, what is this? Go back and rewrite it. I said, at least that buys me some time if she says that. That’s the best I can do. But no, she loved it, luckily. I think I got away with it.

Zibby: You got away with it. It’s beautiful. It’s also something that’s nice to return to because you have something for each month. I read it all in one sitting because we were talking. Now that I have this, it’s like, it’s November, I can go back and read the November chapter. Maybe that’ll put me in the right mindset. Usually, you always talk about going north. You’re always venturing into new lands. That’s not my go-to thing. Even just getting to relive your moments in each month and not letting the depressing darkness, feel that, but feel uplifting, in a way, can be useful as someone who’s a summer lover.

Katherine: Maybe I can convert you. There are some people who are reading it month by month. They’re going very slowly through it, which I love. I wanted it to track the year because winter isn’t just one monotonous space. It’s actually full of really distinct moments. They are the going into winter, that mid-winter period where everything feels quite heavy and bleak. That’s actually the moment when we’ve arranged loads of celebrations, so maybe mid-winter passes quite easily. It’s then the time after winter, that January, February time when everything feels very heavy and you think the sun’s never going to come back again and all hope is lost. Everything’s very dreary. I wanted to track right through to that and then into the first signals of hope in the new spring that are coming when the wildflowers come out and things like that. I really enjoyed that part of it. I learned a lot about how winter progresses. It made me engage more with that season and really notice the changes that take place that had been invisible to me before, as they are to so many of us.

Zibby: Do you have any advice on periods of wintering that don’t have to happen during the winter season, so what you started out by talking about, all these different things that you can be going through? If somebody is going through a wintering season in their own life, season agnostic, what advice do you have? The advice that you reference on Instagram, you say, this is not good advice. This is not friendship. This is not how you cope. Give me the goods.

Katherine: The first thing I’d say is that you can’t avoid winter. It’s coming. Obviously, Game of Thrones was more insightful than we even realized. Winter is coming. If you know that downtime is coming in your life, then there comes a point when you have to stop pushing it back. You can defer it for a while, but actually, it gets worse. My advice, always, is to engage with it, to walk alongside it, to make some space for it, to be in that sadness or that grief or that fear, whatever those emotions are, to actually spend some time with them and to be with them because they’re always asking us something. It’s usually a change. I often think that a wintering is the process of accepting a change that’s coming anyway. That is the painful bit. If change wasn’t painful, then we would adapt to all sorts of things that happen to us in our lives instantly and it wouldn’t be a problem. We can’t. We have to, very, very slowly, adapt. I don’t think I’m alone in this experience.

When a major thing has happened to me, it takes a few months for it to enter my dreamscape at night. I don’t know if that’s true for you. I think there’s a sign there that that’s the moment when we’ve begun to integrate whatever it is that’s come into our life. It takes that length of time. Those of us that have lost a loved one know that there’s that year cycle in which everything is so hard that first year. You’re still grieving after the first year, but it takes that full year to really absorb the change that’s happened. I think at the other end of the scale, it takes a full year to absorb having your first child, perhaps, that massive, massive change. We’ve lost the ability to talk about change as slow and that that slowness is necessary and useful. We want to rush everything. We want to short-circuit everything. We want to find the book that gives us ten easy steps to get through it in a month instead of a year. I think we have to radically abandon the idea that that’s even possible and learn to know that we’ve almost evolved to accept things slowly. That’s how it works for us. It’s not an easily packageable idea.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Katherine: It’s not. It’s the hard, hard truth of being a human, that actually, we can live through those moments at a very slow pace, but that great work is being done.

Zibby: Back to that first year of having a child, you wrote about actually losing your voice, which, as I hear now, is absolutely beautiful, but that you literally lost your voice when you had your child and had to reteach yourself to sing and all this stuff and how you were a walking metaphor for losing your voice in parenthood. Tell me a little bit about that.

Katherine: I was teaching at the time as well. When I was a teenager, I’d always been a chorister, so I’d always really valued my singing voice. I love singing. I might not sing professionally, but it’s something that I do to release energy and tension. First of all, my voice just began to crackle. Then I experienced it cutting out fully mid-sentence. It would just go. I had various investigations. I didn’t have polyps or anything like that. I ended up going to a singing teacher after months and months of really struggling. It became very uncomfortable too. It was really tickly. I’d start talking, and then I’d cough, cough, cough. I felt like I was being silenced. I was in this point in my life when I suddenly felt really invisible and really irrelevant to the outside world and really overtaken with mother work and like I was just clinging on by my fingertips onto the career that I wanted to have. I didn’t know what to do until a friend who’s a professional singer said, “Look, I know this really brilliant singing teacher. Professional singers have trouble with their voices all the time. I bet he can help.”

I thought, you know what, if nothing else, I might quite enjoy it. I might quite enjoy spending some time singing. I didn’t think I could possibly hit a note. There was one particular note I couldn’t hit, which ironically is middle C. I don’t know if you’ve even done singing training, but you always start at middle C and sing upwards in your scales. The first note, I just didn’t have it. It wasn’t there in my voice. We retrained my middle C back in, but we had to do that by bouncing onto it from other notes. That retrained my whole voice. They can remap your vocal cords so that you’re using different parts of it. The process was remarkably quick. It took a few weeks, and I was talking again. He also taught me how to read from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas as a way of learning how to retrain my speaking voice as well so that I was almost singing. I think my voice is probably different now to what it was then, but I’ve got used to talking that way. It’s much easier.

Zibby: Last question. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Katherine: Just write. I hear so many people giving so much advice. I don’t think there’s any one system you can follow. I don’t think there is any practice that’s better than another. If you can sit down and write as much as you can on whatever subject you want to, whatever really moves you and makes you want to talk, then that’s the best start you can possibly have. It’s beguilingly simple, isn’t it?

Zibby: Katherine, thank you so much. Thank you for sharing Wintering, for your beautiful book again.

Katherine: I’m going to wave my coffee back at you. Look.

Zibby: Look at that.

Katherine: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been really lovely to talk.

Zibby: You too. Have a great day. Take care. Buh-bye.

Katherine: Thank you. Bye.

Katherine May, WINTERING