On Winter: A Season, A Subject, A Practice

We are in the darker months of the year and the winter season has been on my mind, becoming the subject of my work. My latest painting, “Winter Path,” is based on a scene I came across while out walking in late December 2020. The catalyst for this painting was how wonderous it felt to see the sun peaking through the clouds, shinning brilliantly on a forest path that was just up ahead. I wrote about the winter colour palette I used—dark purples and light mauves and browns—for this painting in my last post, but this seemed just a beginning of a reflection on the topic.

I have always loved winter: the magic of watching snow falling softly against the dark night sky, the coziness of a crackling fireplace, (usually) the gathering of loved ones and the sharing of warm drinks and meals. But for all its wonders and joys, the winter season is also long and difficult; in Canada, it’s the cold, in Belgium, it’s the dark. I am always just on the cusp of purchasing a sunlamp.

I still recall the winter three years ago, which was one of the darkest on record in western Europe. One day during this winter, a faint beam of sunlight entering my apartment window was such a shock to my system that I walked toward the light with a trance-like awe, my eyes immovable from the pale orange breaking through the dark sky for the short time it lasted.

In her recent book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, author Katherine May explores winter not only as the season it is but also as a verb (“wintering”), as a practice of serious self care. May explains that during life’s difficult times we often feel a call (or sometimes, a demand) for a slowing down and a prioritizing of our basic needs—think: breathing, resting, walking. While the season of winter itself invites rest and retreat—sometimes in the form of cuddling under a warm blanket, gazing out a frosted window to appreciate the cold season at a distance–wintering, May posits, as a practice, is something in which we can engage (by choice or necessity) in other months of the year too. The need to winter can occur when we are dealing with life’s myriad struggles and refueling is a non-negotiable.

May explains that during life’s difficult times we often feel a call (or sometimes, a demand) for a slowing down and a prioritizing of our basic needs—think: breathing, resting, walking.

In some ways, living through this ongoing pandemic is a wintering: we stay indoors and pare down to the essentials of rest, exercise, and new or old hobbies of baking and crafting. For many of course—essential workers and parents, for example—demands during this time grow exponentially and there seems little possibility of recharging. A recent episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Forever35, focused on the experience of essential workers and asked how they were getting through this demanding time. It was an important reminder that while we are all going through this strange time, the experiences of this pandemic period are vast: its difficulties affecting us all in different ways.

I was in the middle of my own wintering when the pandemic began, and that experience has actually helped me cope with staying home this past year. During my own wintering, I had to slow way down (stand still, really) and redefine my own understanding of daily productivity. Starting with the basics of rest, exercise, and a healthy diet, I added painting to my daily activities–a practice I had always loved but which I’d put on the back shelf for too long. The experience of slowing down could be, at times, frustrating. Painting, as I have written about here, helped me to practice patience. These colliding wintering seasons have taught me that the basics–including painting, for me–are not indulgences, extras or after-thoughts, but essential parts of my own well-being. I connected to the following passage of May’s book, where she describes deciduous trees in winter (p.80 e-book):

“The tree is waiting. It has everything ready. Its fallen leaves are mulching the forest floor, and its roots are drawing up the extra winter moisture, providing a firm anchor against seasonal storms. […] It is far from dead. It is, in fact, the life and soul of the wood. It’s just getting on with it quietly. It will not burst into life in the spring. It will just put on a new coat and face the world again.”

What I’ve learned from my own experiences, and what I appreciated in May’s book, was this idea that a wintering period is not detached or separate from life, though it may sometimes feel that way. Resting serves the purpose to regain our strength; eventually we will “put on a new coat and face the world again.” For me, the practice of painting is a quiet and meditative practice. It requires slowing down and looking intentionally. At the same time, painting is a rejuvenating experience, something that gives me an abundance of meaning and renewed energy, even and especially in darker seasons.

Winter Path, Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 cm, 2021.

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