Written by Kate Billing, Founder & Creative Director, Blacksmith

A 5-minute read

Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.

From ‘Wintering’ by Katherine May

As with all things in nature, our human experience has a seasonality to it.

This is something that was a core conversation throughout a senior leadership programme I’ve delivered over the past year: the seasons of nature and how our human experience is shaped by them, the seasons of our own lives and their impact on our leadership, and the seasons in organisational life.

Unlike the seasons in nature that – depending on the hemisphere – we all experience at the same time, the seasonality of life comes to each of us at different times for different reasons.

Right now, I am in a period of wintering. Not just because it’s actually winter here in New Zealand, but in the existential sense as well.

In her book ‘Wintering:The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times’, author Katherine May describes this human experience as follows:

“Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you are cut off from the world. Perhaps it results from illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. Some winterings creep upon us more slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you work for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.”

My current wintering has been building steadily over the past two years through the whole COVID schmozzle along with the deepening elements of an uptick in perimenopause symptoms and the ‘falling between two worlds’ that May describes as a period of transition, an experience I share with many other Gen Xers who are feeling ‘no longer young but not yet old’ and on the precipice of a whole new second life in our 50’s and beyond.

More recently, my descent into deep winter has been accelerated by a combination of illness (COVID isolation on my own whilst travelling away from home for work), end-of-life decision making for a much loved family member, and the grief of those decisions playing out and life going on without her.

At this point you may be thinking “Bloody hell, Kate! This is all sounding a bit doom and gloomy…” – and you know what, it would be if I didn’t know about wintering and the natural inevitability of it. 

We’re so used to living a life largely without seasons – walking into the supermarket and buying the same food all year round, living in air-conditioned comfort, following the same daily routines all year round supported by technology and artificial light.

And it extends to our existential seasons too. All too often we’re encouraged to go around behaving like it’s spring or summer all the time – pursuing happiness, putting on a smile, keeping up appearances, and never letting others know you’re suffering.

May offers this “If we don’t allow ourselves the fundamental honesty of our own sadness, then we miss a cue to adapt. We seem to be living in an age when we’re bombarded with entreaties to be happy, but we’re suffering from an avalanche of depression. We’re urged to stop sweating the small stuff, yet we’re chronically anxious. I often wonder if these are just normal feelings that become monstrous when they’re denied.”

If we have seasons as a lens through which to view our Fully Human experience, we can watch for them, prepare for them, and embrace them when they arrive, for all that they offer.

This isn’t my first wintering rodeo, I had a prolonged period of it in my 20’s from which I learned a lot that has sustained me in the decades since. This time I’m older, wiser, and more prepared to do the things I know will make the most of this winter.

This time around I’m employing FOUR key principles to help me find my way along this particular part of life’s meandering path through the woods:

  1. CREATE SPACE: I’m retreating from the world a little – deliberately doing less, saying no to more, turning off technology, turning off the lights, and making my needs for rest and reflection a priority. This creates the capacity to process all that winter offers, including its role as a time of transformation and preparation for new growth.
  2. DIVE IN: I’m diving headlong into grief, giving myself permission and time to experience ALL OF IT rather than resist or try to move through the experience too quickly in an effort to leave the pain and sadness behind and get on with life. I’ve learned the hard way, that doesn’t work.
  3. SLEEP MORE: I used to be a card carrying member of ‘The 5am Club’ but now I’m allowing myself to sleep until I wake up without an alarm. Part of the natural seasonal shifts in our circadian cycles, driven by changes in bright light and length of day, is that we need to sleep more in the winter so I’m rolling with it.
  4. EMBRACE SILENCE: There is a stillness, a glorious quiet, a silence that whispers beautiful questions in the winter – especially in the mornings. I’m embracing it by sitting in the hot tub on my own contemplating the stars that are still up and letting my mind wander. I’m sitting on the couch with a hot cup of tea and the fire going, looking out at the lake as the sun slowly fills the sky and quiet amazement fills my heart about the healing and regenerative power of winter.

We live in a time when it seems that acknowledging winter and allowing yourself to experience it as an act of self-care, growth and healing is a radical act! All too often we think it would be selfish to do the things I’ve outlined above. That we must put others’ needs before our own.

But our lives are cyclical, not linear. Better that we see them for what they are, prepare for the seasons that will inevitably come, embrace the winter when it arrives, and use it as the crucible for life that it is: creating the conditions for the spring and summer that always follow.

Be safe and well.