British author Katherine May’s “Wintering,” published at the height of the pandemic in 2020, spoke to the darkness of the times and captivated readers with its warming advice on how to get through low periods by accepting them and slowing down. She urged us to embrace winter – by which she meant not just the cold, but fallow stretches when you feel cut off and “out of sync with everyday life.”
May’s lyrical follow-up, “Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age,” is another beautiful, determinedly uplifting volume that manages to transcend typical self-help books. It concerns immersing oneself in the world rather than withdrawing from it, largely by opening up to a sense of the wondrous. Suffering from a post-lockdown funk – which May senses is widely shared – she searches for ways to lift herself out of it.
As in “Wintering,” May mixes memoir with reportage to diagnose and alleviate what ails not just her, but modern culture. Once again, she turns to nature and a quirky series of excursions in her English seaside town of Whitstable and further afield to ameliorate her mood. But where in “Wintering” she sought solace, she now seeks sparks of enchantment.
Diagnosed with autism as an adult, May notes that “Autistic people are intimate with burnout.” She describes feeling “discombobulated.” Life feels flat to her. She is having trouble focusing. She is unable to read, especially fiction, which she finds embarrassing for a writer. “It is frictionless, this sliding of attention” she writes.
She knows these concerns are not unique to her, and flags disconnection and fear as emblematic of our times. “We have been running on empty for so long that we’ve lost the urge to refuel,” she says.
More troubling, she misses the “ability to sense magic in the everyday” and to engage deeply with the world around her. Dizzy spells and fear of riptides have caused her to give up the invigorating ice swimming that she wrote about in “Wintering.” She misses her swimming buddies and “the sense of worship that comes when I get into the sea. I miss the feeling that I am entering a vast cathedral, and, rather than sitting in its dry pews, that I am merging with it.”
Her conclusion: “I need a better way to walk through this life. I want to be enchanted again. Enchantment is small wonder magnified through meaning, fascination caught in the web of fable and memory. It relies on small doses of awe….”
May divides her book into the four primal elements – earth, water, fire, and air. In each section, she is drawn to phenomena – like meteor showers – which “sit perfectly on the cusp of the mundane and the rare.” Her part-scientific, part-mystical pursuits broach the sacred, albeit separate from formal religion, and result in a form of communion with nature that is at once deep and whimsical. A visit to eight large boulders erected high above the town of Whitstable in 2020 (in what is perhaps a nod to Stonehenge) offers “an incomplete answer to a question that we have not quite yet learned how to ask. How do we worship now?” She comments that stones, “like small concentrations of gravity,” seem to say, “Make your own meaning.”
“Enchantment” glimmers with resonant, offbeat observations. Nostalgic for the old-fashioned upbringing she experienced in her grandparents’ home, May laments, “Childhood used to have dirt under its fingernails. Now it has hand sanitiser.” Writing about the moths that swarm her lamps on summer nights, she comments, “We are more moth than we know: small, frustrated, capable of only tickling a world that we wish would feel our heft.”
In beekeeping classes, she delights in feeling the weight of swarming bees in her gloved hand. Brocken Spectres, eerie projections of a person’s shadow cast onto cloud cover by a low lying sun, also delight her, “a ghost of our own making, a literal projection of the dark part of our self onto an unstable surface.” When a supermoon obscures the meteor showers that she’s driven hundreds of miles to see with her husband and son, she finds another, unexpected source of wonder projected from the night sky: moon shadows.
May’s prose reaches for the heavens as she describes what she is searching for: “the chance to merge into the wild drift of the world, to feel overcome, to enter into its weft so completely that sometimes I can forget myself.” Fellow seekers will be enchanted.