Post-holiday season, it’s tempting to let the winter blues get the best of us. Particularly in the wake of yet another covid winter and yet another sombre New Years. There’s something particularly, poignantly sad about canceling the celebration of a new year, isn’t there? Before the holiday season began, as the days got darker and the weather grew colder, I checked out the audiobook of Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by British writer Katherine May. I listened to it as I walked through a wooded path after the first snowfall of the season.
The UK focus of the book did give me pause, I admit. “Oh, my sweet summer child,” I thought, quoting Old Nan, “what do you know about winter?” But May’s concept of “wintering” transcends the season itself and is also applied to the dark, low “winter” periods of life. Just as winter is an annual, perhaps unwelcome visitor, so too are these low periods. Wintering was written before the pandemic hit, but its timing could not have been better. Published in December 2020, the ongoing pandemic has given the book a striking relevance that May could not have anticipated while writing it.
May’s quest to learn the wintering habits of cultures with harsher climates than that of mild England takes her to neighbouring Nordic countries like Iceland, Norway, and Finland. Countries whose people, while far from rejoicing in the waning light, have found ways to embrace the darkness (the Danes introduced us to the concept of hygge, after all). There are passages dedicated to Christmastime rituals like Sweden’s candlelit Sankta Lucia ceremony, as well as neo-Paganistic rituals closer to home like the Druid celebrations at Stonehenge, ringing in the new year by watching the sun rise over the ancient monument. The chapters are structured according to the calendar, from October to March, with subheadings such as “Metamorphosis”, “Midwinter”, “Epiphany”, and “Thaw” as guideposts. Throughout these chapters, May discusses sometimes her own personal crises (how should one adequately prepare for recurring bouts of depression?) while also taking meandering dips into nature writing, looking to the life cycles of beehives and the hibernation habits of adorable, disappearing dormice for inspiration on how to handle the ups and inevitable downs of our own lives.
In my attempt to read more non-fiction, I picked up Angela Chen’s Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex. I was drawn to the book because I am more often drawn to memoirs than to information guides and I felt that Chen combined these two styles of non-fiction well in writing about asexuality through her experience of it. Not only was this book informative and engaging, it left me with a lot to think about.
For those unfamiliar with what “ace” means, it is the short-form way of referring to asexuality. Asexuality is an umbrella term that generally refers to “not having sexual feelings toward others: not experiencing sexual desire or attraction” (Merriam-Webster). As with most identity markers, this definition does not describe all asexual experiences and individuals but it is a good starting point for those learning about it.
Angela Chen’s book focuses on asexuality, what it is and how we can define it, but it also discusses the idealized notion of romantic relationships. It really unpacks the common notion that relationships have to look a certain way (especially as it relates to physical intimacy). Why do romantic relationships have to have a definitive physical scale? Not only is this harmful for aces trying to find their place in the world, but it can be harmful for allosexuals (the opposite of asexual!) as they have to mold their preferences to fit a certain ideal of what a relationship can be.
I have a distinct childhood memory of being at some older cousin’s wedding, listening to the Maid of Honour give a speech. She was my cousin’s best friend, and I remember her saying something along the lines of “we can go months without seeing each other, and then pick right back up where we left off.” To little me, the idea of not seeing your friends for months was preposterous. How can you even call yourselves friends, if you’re not seeing each other every day? Of course, as an adult, that speech now makes a lot of sense to me. Even before COVID, it wasn’t unusual to not see good friends for months and months. Keeping in touch is easier now, of course: smartphones and social apps. But in-person hangouts are far less frequent than as kids. Reality isn’t like Friends or New Girl—you probably don’t live across the hall from or in one giant apartment with your adult friends.
Adult friendships are a lot harder to maintain than sitcoms would suggest, due to competing commitments. Jobs, significant others, children. We’re busy! If you’re an avid podcast listener, you might know Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman from Call Your Girlfriend, the hit podcast “for long distance besties everywhere.” The show’s manifesto is as follows, from the website: “We believe that friendship—particularly among women and femme-identified people—is a defining, important, and powerful relationship, and that conversations among friends can be the source of incredible social and political power.” A bold statement, and one that’s at the core of their new book Big Friendship, though in a down-to-earth, accessible (and fun!) way.
In Big Friendship, Aminatou and Ann (as they refer to themselves) work through their living example of a successful friendship that has survived all sorts of adult problems. The trick? They simply cared to maintain that friendship. And that meant putting in work, the kind of work we usually associate with romantic relationships (they have, for example, been to Friend Therapy). Big Friendship makes the argument that, though society doesn’t seem to value it as such, deep, lasting friendship is—and always was—a vital part of the human experience.