Recently I had the chance to sit down with bestselling author Katherine May for a conversation as part of our School of Joy interview series. I had loved her book Wintering, in which she explores those periods of darkness we all go through at some point in life, whether because of illness, loss, or devastation. In that book she talked about how our personal winters often seem like times of incredible stillness, but they are actually times of profound change.
In her most recent book Enchantment, May chronicles her search for meaning and wonder in the complex age in which we find ourselves. As we navigate unforeseen challenges (pandemics, wars, climate change, and more), she reveals the power of a slow intimacy with our surroundings to help us feel grounded and whole.
In this wide-ranging conversation, May and I talked about what to do when you’re feeling lost, practices for finding daily wonders, and creating a new definition of pleasure in an uncertain world.
Q&A with Katherine May: In Search of Enchantment
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
I want to start by asking you, what is enchantment?
I’ve borrowed the word and I’m trying to rescue it from the kind of Disneyfied idea of magic and unicorns and princesses. I really wanted to express this sense of being able to have a connection with the world around us. One that lets us feel things like joy, which you write so beautifully about, and fascination. And to create this reciprocal relationship with places, plants, animals, people, and things that can sustain us through the really difficult parts of life.
So much of my work, too, is about this idea of reconnecting with the physical world, as opposed to getting so lost in our heads. I’m curious, why do you feel we need more enchantment?
I think it’s really urgent at the moment, actually. I think we’ve deliberately disenchanted ourselves. We’ve deliberately walked away from things like community and religion. And towards a kind of scientific understanding of the world, which, I’m right behind, but I also don’t think it’s enough.
I think we’ve got a capacity for something greater that we are just not allowing ourselves to have at the moment. And we need that, because right now we are dealing with so many incredibly different, difficult circumstances. We’re all coming out of this pandemic, which isn’t over, but we are going back into the world again.
We are dealing with global politics that frighten us. And we are facing a future where environmental catastrophes are looming, and we’re afraid. We don’t have a roadmap for this age, and one of the things that we can do in order to cope with the enormous emotional and mental burden of this time and these circumstances is to give ourselves some space in which we can ground and connect. And sense beauty, and feel connected, and build those relationships, and put down roots again. It’s so easy for us to dismiss that as a bit of a frippery and unnecessary. But it’s actually exactly the toolkit that we need in order to survive right now. We need to feel that sense of wonder in order to compel ourselves to take care of this world and to tend to it.
Why do you think we have a tendency to dismiss it?
I think we tend to see it as the very grown up thing to do. I write in the book about how, as a teenager, I felt this tremendous pressure to race towards adulthood and put away anything that felt uncynical. We think that cynical is deeply cool. And we take that cynicism into adulthood with us, even when we’ve stopped being cool in other ways. Like, once we’ve started wearing giant underwear and we’ve accepted our deep love of like, Tina Turner rather than Beyoncé, and we’re deep in that comfort zone, but we carry on believing that cynicism is the thing that we should adopt in order to look like we are grown up enough to understand how the world works.
Lack of cynicism, to us, reads as naivety, and we’re scared of looking naive. But actually, that’s not true. It just makes us feel so desperately lonely and desperately unsupported as we are trying to make sense of a situation that’s changing so much, and we’re exhausted.
In some sense, it sounds like you’re saying that the barriers to letting this enchantment happen are often about appearing a certain way. We can appear a certain way and maintain that facade, and yet be undernourished or almost impoverished behind that facade.
Yeah. There’s a lot of acting about spiritual connection right now. Alot of expressions that get passed around on the internet. You know, when people say, “I’m so blessed”. And you’re like, are you truly feeling that? Because if you’re feeling really blessed, that’s amazing. But, I am not sure that we’re doing it as much as we are saying we are. There’s this terrible tendency for us to put a photo of ourselves experiencing wonder on the internet, rather than just engaging with the moment.
And when you think about what those photos mean, not only have you staged a photo of you looking the exactly right level of enlightened in that moment, but you’ve got someone else to take your photo. The whole thing is so deeply constructed and I don’t read true connection behind those things. I read performance.
I think a lot of us have got to learn how to stop performing those values, those qualities, and to start actually living them. When we do, they’re much more complex than they look on a photograph. You don’t always get the emotional hit that you think you’re gonna get from those moments.
And so often, once you start to dive into that way of living, you get that emotional hit from very small moments, from very insignificant things, which take you there much more than that sunrise that you’ve climbed the top of a mountain to see.
A big thing that we talk about in the School of Joy is this idea of small moments. Small moments really are the seeds of our well-being, and we often overlook them because we’re so focused on the big revelation. I think it’s interesting, your point that the performative nature of spirituality, of well-being, of happiness, it’s almost like our attention gets shifted into a mode where we can’t see those small moments as much. Is that it?
Yeah. Because we are looking for something that isn’t really there, you know? Sometimes I can get overtaken with the wonder of how the lights hit the towels when I’m doing the washing up. That can be so beautiful. But there’s nothing in our culture that tells us that that’s a beautiful moment. You know? And part of the important thing that I’m talking about is how democratic this is. Accessing enchantment, accessing wonder is open to everybody everywhere, and it absolutely should be. We should really fight to establish that that’s the case rather than keep sharing these marketable moments that can sell something. Like an expensive trip or an outfit that you are wearing in order to look amazing enough.
We really need to help everybody see that wherever they are at this point in their life, there is this kind of emotional toolkit that’s open to all of us all the time.
That’s beautiful. I would love for you to share a little bit about the genesis of the book on a personal level, because you share a little bit about what you were grappling with at the time that this book started to emerge.
At the beginning of Enchantment, I write about the state of mind I found myself in after, I think I was in the second lockdown by then in the UK. And I was visited by this brain fog and this sense of burnout that was so deep that I felt like I’d lost myself in it, like I couldn’t access my thoughts. Time was behaving so strangely, like whole days would skip by and I couldn’t really remember them.
I was really blocked from doing some of the things I loved.
I found that I couldn’t read. I’d open a book and my attention would just glance off of it. I was too preoccupied with worry to really focus on this thing that before has saved me and healed me and given me access to other minds. And in that state, I was trying to begin a book. That was really, really hard. I didn’t know what to say and I felt like I couldn’t even see the problem. I thought at the time that that was just me. And it was only when I began to think, hang on, I think other people are expressing this too, that it began to look like a space I could write in.
But even then I was so lost and muddled that I kept having to make attempts at it. I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. I was chasing this feeling, but I wasn’t sure what it was. And the book is totally authentic in showing the journey I took in order to really find what I needed. And the different things I did to go out looking for that tingle of joy again, and that tingle of fascination and magic that made the world feel like it was welcoming to me again, rather than this sort of space that I couldn’t get a foothold in anymore.
I will say that the beginning of the book was uncomfortable for me to read and I felt a great resistance to it. It’s interesting to reflect on that and to see it in its context. In the beginning arc of the book, it’s a book about being adrift, about being unmoored and even lost, and this is, I think, a state that many of us can identify with. I think that is why I felt such resistance to it. It was a sense of, I know this. I don’t like this feeling.
And yet, I feel sometimes that it’s the resistance that makes it worse. When we can’t accept that we’re lost, we’re sort of desperate to appear that we know the way, even when we don’t know the way, and it’s only when we can surrender to the state of being lost that we can find it. It feels that you surrendered to some kind of quest.
Yeah. For me that lost-ness is a deeply comfortable space that I know I can find a path back through again. But I also know that I don’t know what the path is yet. I think I’m unusual in that. Other people will do anything to avoid it and go looking for positives and solid answers. I don’t expect to have the answers. I find the process of finding the answers really interesting. And I also think that’s where a lot of my creative process lies. So yeah, I’m deeply comfortable with taking you into that uncomfortable space. Because it’s a really human space to be in. And it’s a very unacknowledged human space that so many of us know so intimately. But I think most of us think that we’re the only ones that have ever found ourselves in it.
I wonder if there’s anything that you can share that would help those of us who find ourselves uncomfortable in that space to be able to find the possibility in it the way that you do.
I think the first thing to do is to look back over other times that you’ve been in that space. It is a repeated space for all of us. I think it’s the space we all land in when change is happening. When you start to recognize it and realize that it’s part of this process that you’ll be going through, you can then reassure yourself that actually you do find your way out of it again.
I also think letting go of the idea that you have to be in control of everything is a practice that I’ll keep revisiting throughout my whole life. It’s not easy. It’s a really difficult concept to engage in. But we do not control the way the world runs. And we often don’t control the way our life runs. We have agency within it. We can make choices, we can choose directions, we can express preferences. But ultimately we don’t have that level of control. And when you let go of that, that lets you look for solutions rather than to try and force your will upon it. Because that’s often what causes us so much pain in those spaces, that they’re not responding to our will. And that’s very, very disappointing for a group of people that have been brought up to believe that their willpower is everything.
One of the questions when you’re in a very foggy place is, how do I feel something again? What would make me really feel like I’m locking in on the world again?
It can be hard to even know what you are interested in. I think for loads of us, we’ve got so far away from listening to our gut feelings. And to really being able to intuitively know what we love and what we don’t know.
And that’s why there’s so many traumatized people in both of our countries. We are told to keep running towards the things we hate and the things we’re reacting very strongly against. Our gut reactions have gone skewy because we haven’t trusted them for so long.
We can reengage with our gut feeling, but it takes some time and some patience. Once you do, it’s so much easier to feel that sense of wonder. And to feel that tingle that the world gives you back when you’re making a connection with it.
I totally agree. Those signals all get scrambled and there’s so much out there telling us to go inward to reconnect with that. But I find it’s like we need something to push off of, and sensation is such a helpful thing to push off of. It reminds me of the section of the book where you talk about hierophany and I’m wondering if you can define that term and share how it can be a pathway to enchantment.
Hierophany is this term coined by the sociologist Mircea Eliade. And it refers to the way that the sacred expresses itself in the real world. So that could be loads of things. It could be, for example, an ancient standing stone which we understand as an ancient object of worship, even if we don’t understand the exact meaning of it. Or it could be a landscape feature that has been given a creation story or some level of meaning. But it could also be those more traditional symbols of the sacred, like the cross or the altar in Christianity.
Whatever it is, it’s this real world, physical place or object that’s imbued with a sense of the sacred. When we move through those landscapes that have got these sacred incursions in them, we start to move through a much more storied landscape, a place that’s full of meaning. It’s a really beautiful concept.
I began to wonder what my hierophany is. What are the sacred objects for me that take me into a sensation which is very embodied and very physical. I think there’s something about that sense of the sacred that’s beyond words. But also which I can start orienting myself around to make new meanings.
I want to talk about play because you have a really interesting insight about play and the notion of deep play and the shallowness of what we give our kids.
I was writing about my attempts to imbue my son with a love of nature. Which is an ongoing project that I’m still failing at. He likes it enough, but he’s very bored by my constantly forcing him towards it. But I think there’s a lot in this book about play and how we play. And how play for adults might not look like the play of children. We are not really letting children play to their full extent because we’re not leaving anything very open-ended.
We’re often trying to teach them to read while they’re playing because we want them to get ahead. We are teaching them numbers while they’re playing because we want them to be great mathematicians when they grow up. But what we are doing instead is we are stealing complexity from them, and we are stealing the ability to sink deep into their attention and to create whatever imaginative universe satisfies them. And we are stealing their independence. We are guiding their play too much, and we are not letting them just be.
As adults, we’re doing exactly the same to ourselves all over again. We’re constantly being channelled into one place and one interpretation. Then we wonder why we feel so dislocated. I think it is because we don’t get to play, in the broadest sense of the term, in any rich way. We just get to play in very limited ways. We are fed this dire of really shallow material to play with.
You’re making me think about social media now and what the affordances of social media are because they are very constrained and the algorithm constrains them even further. They are designed to elicit certain behaviors.
I think the interesting thing about social media is how often we resist that algorithm. And how hard we fight against it. But yeah, you’re right. I’ll tell you an example. I sit on Pinterest quite a lot when I’m thinking and, you know, you can train Pinterest to serve you stuff that you’re gonna love. And then every now and then I get ‘a lose your belly fat’ ad and this pisses me off because there is nothing in anything that I’ve searched for, anything I’ve looked at, that has anything to do with diet or even food.
And basically, it said you’re a woman in your forties. Like that was its whole answer. Like you don’t get to be interested in the stuff that you are looking at here. You need to be interested in losing your belly fat, which I assume is hideous because I’m the Pinterest ad bot. Honestly, it made me want to riot. How dare that incursion into my beautiful space during my leisure time? There are these assumptions, but I do think that we resist them really hard, which is cool.
My slightly optimistic belief is that there will be a new generation of social media that’s designed at some point that let people use social media in the way that we want to.
One of the big things we are asking for is for it to be self-limiting in its timescale in the way that normal social life is. If you go for a cup of tea with somebody, you know you’ll be there for a couple of hours and then you both go home.That’s the natural timescale of that interaction. Social media at the moment is designed to say you never leave. I think there will be a generation that comes which says, okay, you’ve been on here half an hour now you’ve found everything. See you later.
One other thing that you talked about is our limited vocabulary for pleasure, how it can either be dark and smokey and adult, or primary colored and messy. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about that division and maybe where it comes from and what you think we can do about it.
Yeah, it’s like we think the work of childhood is primary colors and the work of adulthood is slightly naughty. It’s interesting that we are challenging that at the moment.
I’m thinking about the number of people that are no longer drinking, which seems like a really big challenge to that notion that adulthood has to involve some kind of a chemical crutch in order for it to be survivable. The question that arises when you don’t drink or you don’t smoke, is, how do we find pleasure that isn’t naughty, that isn’t self-destructive, that doesn’t have a whiff of danger and that isn’t youth focused. When you start to look around outside of those parameters, there’s just a million gentle, non-destructive cooperative ways for that to happen.
It’s amazing how little of that we’ve heard about because let’s face it, most of them are free. They’re not marketable. Nobody can charge me for my walk in the woods. Adults are finding many beautiful ways of taking pleasure that are way outside of this very narrow scope of, you’re gonna get drunk now and then you’re gonna go to sleep. You might have sex with someone in between.
We need something that complicates that narrative because right now it’s such an oversimplification. I also think that we have this sort of discomfort with the word pleasure. That pleasure is animal, or base. I love that you brought pleasure into a book that has so much to do with our spiritual selves, because I feel like so often there’s this bifurcation between meaning and pleasure, and it’s as if those two things are separate.
Well, it’s the head and the heart, isn’t it? It’s that notion that you’re either a cerebral person who thinks about things or you’re someone who goes out and feels, and they’re just absolutely not separate.
We need a different language of pleasure. Pleasure is quite an ambiguous word, really. The word that we use it most in conjunction with is sexual — sexual pleasure. That’s great, but actually there are loads of other pleasures. Landscape and the joy of spending time with animals, the pleasure we take in the company of our children, or in the company of our grandparents. The pleasure of cooking a beautiful meal and the pleasure of eating it. All of these different pleasures exist. For me, the pleasure of reading a great book. Yet, I feel like when we talk about books, we talk about those in a really shallow way; either highbrow criticism, or “here’s a pretty cover and here’s my book stack.” We have such a limited vocabulary for expressing straightforward love and adoration and deep comfort within a thing.
You’re right. We don’t have good language for it. It’s like we need to develop it. That’s why discovering some of those words feels so satisfying, because it starts to fill in that terrain.
I’m always looking for those words that open up a little crack of extra experience that you didn’t know you could name yet. Language gives us a framework to think in, and if we don’t have language for something, we struggle to think about it.
You mentioned happiness and the belief that we don’t need to be happy all the time. When it comes to happiness or joy, is there something you believe that most people get wrong?
Yeah, I think actually it’s in not valuing the rest of the emotional spectrum. Seeing happiness as the end game, and the moments when we are not happy as a little bit of a failure. There are so many interesting emotions that we have. Wintering, in lots of ways, is a book about melancholy and the pleasure that can be found in that melancholy space. If you see that emotion as completely valid and part of your fundamental human experience, then that space becomes really interesting cuz it’s a space of reflection and change and of true, pure feeling.
Which in itself is actually not only just okay, but really delightful in a strange kind of way. When we spend so long running away from those more complex emotions, those dirtier emotions that we don’t want to admit to having, that’s what causes us loads of pain.
We have capacity to feel these really powerful forces running through us. Like envy, nostalgia, frustration. Why would you not want to experience that full scope of what you can do as a human? All of them are informative and all of them will take you to a really specific place.
I think we need to learn to ride those emotions and to trust them and not to see them as toxic in and of themselves. They’re just part of what we’ll always do, what our human body will always do.
Find out more about Enchantment here, and pick up a copy from your local independent bookshop, library, or wherever books are sold. You can also learn more about Katherine’s work here, and connect with her on Instagram.