Updated: Feb 28, 2022
roadmaps for reclaiming our time
stepping out of the boil
say the word "january" to anyone in academia, and odds are you'll actually feel the shudder that runs through their body. august is similar, but it often pales in comparison, following, as it does, a little summer respite. january, that starting gun of the spring semester, abuts right up against december, the time when we're all trying desperately to chase down old grades and late assignments, grade finals, input grades, make the inevitable incomplete agreements, AND redesign classes and post syllabi and materials for the upcoming spring semester. the 10-14 days "off" around the dominant western winter holidays are little help, as we work to see family, exchange gifts, enjoy food together, and try desperately to squeeze in a little foggy (or is it fugue-y?) wandering-around-in sweatpants time. one follows hot on the heels of the other, and quite frankly, its a tale-as-old-as-time recipe for starting back up already worn out.
this bittersweet labor-of-love has been the song of my winters for nearly 15 years, until this january, when life intervened and actually made me step out of the blistering grind and into the whisper-quiet void. before i go further in that direction, though, i'll back up a bit to put my january shift into a deeper and more complicated context.
sorry. that word. i had to poke the bear. truthfully, if i never have to read the phrase "in these unprecedented times" in an email or on a news cast again, it will be too soon. there's plenty of precedent--we just have a VERY short cultural memory.
as promised, before introducing you to my january and to the concept of wintering, i'd like to layer up my experience a bit with its own unnnnnnprecedented pandemic particularities, so that you can better contextualize the oddly (and delightfully?) deafening silence that was my first month of 2022.
since 2008, i've worked either in higher ed provision as faculty; in higher ed administration as a coordinator, program director, or dean; or (from 2015 on) in a patchwork of both. on a good day, those are complicated (and transformatively rewarding) jobs, but in march of 2020, an ever-intensifying gradient of "bad day" dropped in like a ton of bricks and began to consume everything.
as news of the potential impact of the pandemic rolled out, early in spring semester of 2020, we as a staff at the small school where i was employed tried to be as thoughtfully proactive as possible.
(**as you read this, knowing what you know now, you really have to put yourself back into that first space. the collective "we" had no idea about the impending spread or impact of covid-19. we had no idea the degree to which misinformation would fuel the politicization of a life-sparing vaccine. we had no idea that life would fall apart so dramatically and that people would actively let it do so for the sake of "freedom". we were babes in the woods, and the smaller scale "we" at my job were making the best decisions that we could for the school that we were tasked to steward.)
in the early stages, when we were energized, resilient, and capacitied, the academic staff sat in the floor of my office, mapping out plans for temporarily moving a couple of classes online. we had it. we could do it. it just took some creativity. i mean sure, we'd recently had some really big staffing changes, a conversion to non-profit status after 30 years as a private institution, a total academic calendar re-work, and a complete executive handoff, but we could do it.... sure!
i will spare you the long story and painful details, but suffice it to say that over the next two years, the small group of us who poured our lives into keeping the little school afloat, that plucky cohort of on-the-floor planners, were absolutely, positively torn to shreds. we were chewed to our bones by our work. we made increasingly impossible decisions (and were *only occasionally* sworn at or yelled at by frustrated and disappointed students). we pulled off absolute miracles, one after the other, completely rewriting curriculum to keep an in-person training program viable online, shepherding the entirety of the faculty through course rewrites for zoom with no training and no more hours than usually allotted to run the school. update. pivot. update. pivot.
those of us in the middle were run ragged from above and from below. it was completely and utterly demoralizing. we had to keep pivoting, keep pivoting, keep pivoting through a fog of uncertainty and without blueprints or much in the way of support from any direction. below us, students weren't happy (and more than once told us they didn't think we were working hard enough, which was heartbreaking), and above us, basic executive tasks weren't happening and the structure was coming unmoored and heading for breaking point... and we just had to keep pulling off miracles, one after another.
behind the scenes and off the clock, we as staff and faculty had babies, we struggled with infertility, we shepherded partners through life-changing illnesses and surgeries, we had surgeries of our own, we had cancer, we had covid, we lost family members and couldn't say goodbye, we couldn't get the diagnoses we needed because typical care came to a halt... our midwifery clients were being put on ventilators... some of them were dying there. some of them were telling us we were harming their children by "shedding vaccine" on them in prenatal visits. some of them withheld infection diagnoses to avoid going to the hospital and instead knowingly exposed their care teams.
it was all JUST. SO. MUCH. but the work that we did had always been a labor of love and vocation driven by passion and dedication, so we all just kept doing it. (just keep swimming.) we did it during the day. we took it home with us. it rang our phones after hours. frogs in warm-hot-HOT-boiling water. one more emergency. one more student in crisis. one more individualized education plan. one more change to policy to keep everyone safe. one more class that had to stop halfway though and would need to be made up (some time?) in the future. one more faculty member who left us in the lurch by dropping all their classes at the last minute. one more. one more. one more.
(are you anxious yet? are you remembering to breathe?)
after a year in the mix, i hit the lowest weight of my life, a gaunt and emaciated result of controlling the only thing left i that could (people constantly complimented me on how "great" i looked); i was collapsing into bed 10-12 hours a night and waking exhausted; i was having panic attacks for the first time in my life, spending half of every saturday recovering from the week before and half of every sunday in existential crisis about what fresh hell awaited on monday; i was rapidly losing executive function capability, finding simple tasks like reading next to impossible; i obsessively checked my email; i jerked when a text message came through. i was utterly undone. i all but quit taking midwifery clients.
i didn't have the capacity to fully see or understand the weight of it at the time, but now, at a distance, i do. and it's terrifying.
now i'd like you take a breath and zoom waaaaaaay out. i will too.
because the point of this post isn't for you to feel bad for me or for me to tell you "how awful it's been for me". the point of what i've shared is to paint a picture that may resonate with YOU in painful familiarity-- to paint a picture of what so many of us have been going through, regardless of the specifics and details. i'm one of many. i'm an example. you know this struggle on some level--maybe smaller, maybe larger. if so, i SEE you. i'm a microcosm, and i share my experience simply to provide an opportunity for others to connect via resonance. you too? me too.
these past two years have been fucking hard, my love. i'm so glad you made it through and are here with me. i'm so glad you're here.
my first winter
midway through fall of 2021, our board made the unavoidable decision to close the school. there were many, many complicated factors that led up to that decision, and we all gave it every possible opportunity to be unnecessary, but it was finally decided, and rightly so, that it all just couldn't go on. by that point, we were all so numbed and ground to nubs that it felt like part heartbreak and part relief.
i was worried at first that, when january 1 rolled around, i would be heading straight into the category of "broke and aimless." it took a lot to resist the urge to fill the time with a thousand other tasks. want to teach? want to work here? want to, want to, want to?? at my heart, i'm a queen of the side hustle--the never-enough-to-live-on pay of all of my jobs in teaching and the helping professions has necessitated it. they say that nature hates a vacuum--well, so does an over-achiever.
but i was really broken. i was tired. i was sad. i was exiting something that had defined my life, whether as student, teacher, or administrator, for the past 11 years (14 if you count my teaching before midwifery). new opportunities kept popping up, but i was too deeply bone-weary to take them on. once you jump out of that boiling water, there's no way you willingly get back in.
what january forced me to do, for the first time in my post-college life, was to winter.
i'm a sucker for breadcrumbs from the universe. i've spoken before about books begging to be read, and the book that empowered me to share this experience definitely came to me via some cosmic signposts. i'd just finished reading and reflecting on if women rose rooted by sharon blackie when the helpful "you might also like" list from audible popped up with a book called wintering: the power of rest and retreat in difficult times by katherine may. i saw it, i had a credit, and i impulsively booped the "buy with 1 credit" button in the app. no blurb reading. just compulsion. i knew it was what was next. surely, surely that was what i was doing.
and the universe didn't let me down.
in wintering, may puts a finger on what so many of us are going through right now. the ragged-running. the overwhelm. the desperate doggy paddle of the over-tired swimmer trying not to get pulled under whitewater. her story doesn't center on the pandemic (published as it was in the blissful just-barely-before-times); rather, her storm is one of a mysterious illness necessitating a call of "STOP!!" in her hectic life.
may's offering to us is two-fold. first, she shares the deeply personal messiness, month by month from the end of an autumn to the beginning of a spring, of being forced to hit the brakes on a life defined both internally and externally by capitalist ideas of productivity. and second, she digs deeply into the ways other cultures and life stances view, plan for, mythologize, and even embrace and celebrate the periods of fallow living, of hibernation, and of soul-deep rest that are necessary if we're to keep going day after day, year after year.
through her explorations, may realizes that wintering is sauna time and sun lamps. it's thick socks and pre-dawn candle light. it's realizing that you can indeed survive and even find vitality in freezing cold swimming. its going deep into sadness and coming out transformed. it's listening to the narratives offered to us in the celebration of winter holidays. it's unlocking the height of summer sun when you open a jar of preserved fruit with friends on a cold, dark night. it's realizing when you have to stop and then really committing to doing so. it's taking as long as you need in the realm of hygge, whether physically, spiritually, or emotionally in order to find wholeness again.
it's letting go so you can come out the other side. and it's about being ready to do it again when you need to (and perhaps better next time).
what i spent my january doing was wintering. what i was worried would be the deafening, purposeless silence of boredom was actually the permission to stop, followed by the cozy and molasses-slow invitation to begin to heal. january 1 felt like that scene in the movies when someone (or a car, maybe) is running out of control and manages juuuuuuust to stop at the cliff's edge, rocks and sand tumbling to the depths below as they stumble-stop just in time, disturbing the loose bits on the rocky verge. instead of blasting off the edge, i stopped, just short of disaster, heart pounding. i stopped and i took a seat on the cliff edge in an effort to begin to admire the view (and to ask why the hell i'd been running so recklessly to begin with--why did my job deserve that from me?).
we really do get so caught up, especially in things that we're passionate about, things that feel unavoidable, things that feel non-negotiable. i couldn't stop nightmare-circus school admin in the pandemic because there was no one else to step in and take my place, because me leaving would mean increased crisis load for the coworker friends who i cared about, and because i couldn't and wouldn't abandon the students who were committed to the work and also trying not to succumb to the craziness of it all. if I'm honest, i probably also couldn't stop because i didn't know how to. they say if you want something done, give it to the busiest person you can find. i'm that person. gimmegimme.
wintering for me has looked like lots of sleep, lots of food, lots of stillness and silence, and eventually, lots of gently-embraced, low-pressure creativity. my wintering has given me time to write without deadlines, something i can't remember ever being able to do. i'm absolutely devouring books about rest, about transformation, about mythology and spirituality. lots of the women i'm reading, like blackie and may, are sharing their own personal journeys through midlife un-doing and re-becoming, seeing through new eyes and relating in new ways the old mythological templates for recreating and transforming. in my third-day sweatpants with my unwashed pandemic-length hair, i'm plotting my own slow, low-pressure, agenda-less recreation and transformation.
despite the fact that my own 24 months of crisis ended in me shaking a dry, empty glass in an effort to expel that last, non-existent drop so that someone else could have a drink, my january began a slow and steady cup filling. i'm pouring things in and stirring them around. i'm alchemizing. i'm mixing, tasting, tweaking, remaking. i'm a hibernating bear, just beginning to wake up.
i'm not, however, doing any of it in a perfectly linear, neat, or predictable way, and i invite you to forget the idea that healing is a clearly defined process with a beginning and an end. i have days when the existential crisis of muchness still creeps in around the edges, but those times are much fewer and further between now. i do sometimes feel a bit aimless and wonder what on earth is next, and at what point does wintering become stagnation? healing is never neat, but the realization that everything, given the time to rest, is slowly knitting itself back together grants a calming and reassuring perspective.
a january of hibernation led me into a february of consciously testing the waters. what i couldn't do was dive right back in. i've spent the past month, freshly rested for the first time in an age, examining what serves me and what doesn't and trying to be thoughtful about what i invite back in and what i let go of. i'm working on ways of demanding that my time, knowledge, and emotional labor be valued and fairly compensated. i'm rethinking profession as less of an all-encompassing identity and more of one simple facet of a complex self. when it comes to pouring all of myself into my job, i am, as they say, getting down off the cross because someone could use the wood.
in thinking about my own experience and my recommendations to folks who feel or who have experienced similarly, i need to acknowledge the role that privilege has played in my ability to winter, lest it sound like anyone could just stop what they were doing at any time. the one upside to an autumn of massive overwork was my ability to sock back a bit of money without any free time or capacity to spend it. i'm wintering right now on a laughable shoestring from my end, but i do have a tiny egg, and my partner is a solid rock who provides for us and keeps us housed and well-resourced. what i've saved won't last forever, but it did give me this time, and what i have i have not only because i worked hard but also because i had a leg up via unearned privilege in an oppressive system. some will winter more easily than i did--for many, it's much harder to claim the time because of obstacles placed in their paths.
same storm, different boats.
i'm curious what's come up for you in thinking about the need to slow down or to stop. did an example of overwhelm-induced breakdown resonate with what your life feels like right now?
has your experience of the past few years been smoother? if so, how do you build capacity to keep it that way?
do you need to learn to winter, or are you already good at it?
what does/would wintering look like for you?
do you take the time that you need to rest? can you do it without guilt at your "unproductivity"?
what are your barriers to wintering and how can you adapt your thinking or your approach to accommodate them?
if you find it helpful, as i do, to use other people's stories as templates, as approaches to try on and mirrors to look into, i encourage you to check out may's wintering. she shares so much more than i can do justice to here, and i think you'll dig the opportunity to connect on such a messy, beautiful, and deeply human way to someone else who's just trying to figure it all out.
we're all in this together, and i'm so glad that you're here.
be well, keep growing, keep going.
abby hall luca
the hearth chaplain