Some books are like conversations with long-lost friends. And so it was with Waking Up in Winter by Cheryl Richardson, a diary of middle-aged vulnerability, grief, doubt and joy. A peek into what it is to question everything: who you are, what you meant for, your most meaningful relationship, and your place in a world that has come to depend upon your voice, when you no longer want to sing from the hymn sheet that has long sustained you.
Inspired by her beloved May Sarton, Richardson finds the answer to her own literary and spiritual quandary in the sharing of her journal during a year when she is enduring the grumbling pain of grief following the death of her friend Debbie Ford, coming to terms with the many changes menopause has inspired, and finally allowing herself to settle into marriage with a man who lives by his own rules.
While it rarely feels intimate, because its diarist seems too aware of her intended audience, Waking Up in Winter is quietly enthralling as it invites us into a world beyond our own, with its high days, snow days and a short spell of deeply claustrophobic days when Richardson seeks answers to all that middle-age is forcing her to question.
Like Sarton, she is haunted by her “shoulds” and her “can’ts”. The emails that pile up as she sits on the sofa and looks out upon her garden. A sudden dread of not being at home, when until now she has endured the endless travelling that is both the privilege and burden of success, without complaint. Her constant yearning for her much adored cat. A sudden, intense longing for the company of her husband (a singularly eccentric man, with the upside down rituals of a night-owl who crawls into bed at six o’clock in the morning and sleeps all day). The creeping rejection of all that work has meant to her now that Ford has gone and she has no choice to but to acknowledge how very short and cruel life can be, and to search for meaning thereafter.
Though the diary format could so easily encourage the kind of insular navel-gazing irritating to one and all, to me Cheryl never falls down that particular rabbit-hole, perhaps because though her career may have been more stratospheric than most, she is unafraid of spilling out her fears, describing her arguments, acknowledging the sides of her that offend others and being as real as it is possible to be when she barely knows who she is becoming.
For this is a journey about becoming. A renaissance of spirit rubbed out by reality. Of what it is to be so deeply grown-up and finally allowed to choose who we really want to be. The bewilderment that comes with such choice, when we are so very used to being carried along by whatever life throws or affords us.
That someone like Cheryl Richardson, who has made a living out of teaching us all how to be, should invite us into the very heart of her own vulnerability then is a blessing, for it provides us with a blueprint for our own version of this kind of bewilderment in middle-age.
For even when she is not teaching us, there is so much to be learned: about how to sit with grief. How to acknowledge what no longer fits as life changes shape. How to manage our expectations of those we share our most intimate lives with and above all else, how to move into the next phase of our life with honesty and commitment to the kind of truths that sometimes take a lifetime to reveal themselves.