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Winterings, Liminal Spaces, and Ecotones

As I write this, it is deep winter—mid-January. In Colorado, even in winter, we have a lot of sunshine. But, not today. Today is cloudy—dreary. Whatever remnants of winter festivities linger show their tatters, tawdriness, and prevarications.

Writer Katherine May in her lyrical memoir, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, states that wintering is something that we all do, not always in sync with Nature’s winter:

Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again….However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful. Yet it’s also inevitable.

I’ve been wintering ever since my concussion. And, my concussion occurred right at the world’s ground-hog day, when we asked if it was safe to come out after the wintering of the COVID pandemic. So, I’ve been wintering for about 4 years now.

Being an introspective introvert, I’m probably more experienced at and comfortable with wintering than some. May advises that, although we may not choose when to winter, we can choose how to winter. May ends her memoir with the beautiful summary,

I recognized winter. I saw it coming (a mile off, since you ask), and I looked it in the eye. I greeted it and let it in. I had some tricks up my sleeve, you see. I've learned them the hard way. When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favored child: with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable and that my feelings were signals of something important. I kept myself well fed and made sure I was getting enough sleep. I took myself for walks in the fresh air and spent time doing things that soothed me. I asked myself: What is this winter all about? I asked myself: What change is coming?

We’re a society that values business and productivity. Wintering is slowing down, resting, and engaging in pursuits with little Instagram or Ticktock potential.

Psychiatrist and neuroplasticity expert Norman Doidge explains that neurorelaxation (otherwise known as rest and sleep) is when our brains accumulate and store energy, and discharge waste products and toxins. But, our autonomic nervous systems have to be regulated enough so that we can get to deep, restful neurorelaxation. In other words, we need to calm our sympathetic fight-flight-freeze responses and reduce our arousal such that our parasympathetic nervous system can improve the signal-to-noise ratio in our brain circuits. During winter, Nature is practicing neurorelaxation.

Artist and theologian Tricia Hersey, in her manifesto, Rest is Resistance, gives a more spiritual explanation for the importance of neurorelaxation. Hersey explains that rest is our birthright—it is the portal to the divine within ourselves, and the means to disrupt colonization and capitalization. Hersey states,

We must believe we are worthy of rest. We don’t have to earn it. It is our birthright. It is one of our most ancient and primal needs.

When we rest and winter, we will hear all that we have created noise to conceal—there will be sorrow. Wintering requires honest appraisals of delusions, change, and loss—grief. No wonder the temptation to divert ourselves with tinsel!

To winter is to inhabit a liminal space. In 1970, anthropologist Victor Turner defined a role transition as being comprised of three phases: separation, the marginal or liminal period, and aggregation. Often associated with rites of passage from childhood to adulthood, liminal spaces occur beyond adolescence—usually without the community acknowledgement and support that might make the transition feel less lonely. Without the ritualized and institutional patterns, we often find ourselves attempting all three phases—to separate, “liminate,” and aggregate—concurrently. We inhabit neither our prior role nor our future selves fully.

Beyond the direct wintering demands of my concussion and the January outside my window, I am in a liminal space. My university kindly extended me a 2-year phased out retirement which I started this past fall, expecting to work halftime for two academic years—community support for a liminal period. Then, another offer came along. Now, I am back to full time work and will terminate in 5 months—one year sooner than expected. This week, we started our winter quarter. As I taught consultation, I was aware that, “This is the last time I will teach this class, this content.” I am simultaneously separating from my life as an academic, trying to carve out space to liminate, and making plans for aggregating into retirement. No wonder there were some tears over the weekend!

With some special exceptions, my current experience of not having a protected liminal space is the common transition experience. Perhaps a fitting metaphor for separating, liminating, and aggregating concurrently is inhabiting an ecotone. An ecotone is the space where two ecologies meet—it can result in greater biodiversity than either of the two ecologies. This richness can also lead to competition for space and other resources. Seeing my transition as moving through an ecotone lets me appreciate both the richness and demandingness of this time in my academic career and life.

Although western cultures love linear story lines, our lives may be better understood as cyclical seasons. As teaching philosopher Parker Palmer states,

The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of the seasons does not deny the

struggle or the joy, the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all – and to find in all of it opportunities for growth.

If we conceptualize our lives as moving cyclically through seasons, we acknowledge there will be transitions and winters. As May states,

Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying

out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation

occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

Many of us have experienced a long winter of late. Although spring does inevitably follow winter, I wish to not rush through or miss the stark beauty of the winter that I currently inhabit. As I move through this chaotic liminal ecotone, I strive to make rest and reflection a priority—not to recharge my batteries so that I may grind more effectively, but so that I can notice the transformation and pruning possible during this crucible moment.

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