It’s almost two years now since I first started The Seasoned Year, and in the cave of winter 2018 something very clear emerged for me. It was time for me to open up this exploration I’ve been making and start discovering what other people find makes up their seasonal lives.
Alexis Blenkarn was one of the very first people I reached out to. A doula, pregnancy and postpartum coach and breast-feeding consultant at Mamajestic, she has a unique insight into women’s cycles of fertility and pregnancy. She’s also a fellow immigrant to Portugal, from where she posts beautiful pictures of her life just outside the University City of Coimbra on her instagram.
We’d emailed back and forth a bit before this conversation, but this was the first time we’d spoken. Listening back, I’m amazed at how quickly we moved on to “the big stuff”. Alexis has a warmth and also a thoughtfulness to her that really invites you to move beyond small talk. I’ve edited a lot of what we talked about, but there’s still plenty here to savour. Pour yourself a cup of tea, settle in and enjoy.
The Seasoned Year Conversations: Alexis Blenkarn on winter into spring
Madeleine: So I think the first question I asked you was about your favourite season.
Alexis: Which shouldn’t be a complicated question.
It kind of is though, I think! Maybe it depends where you are in your day or your week or your life?
You can also ask “what’s a season?”. I’m studying Ayurveda, so I’m trying to get my head around this idea of having six seasons instead of 4.
In Ayurveda, everything revolves around the elements: fire and water, earth and water, air and space, and you have these six seasons where there’s “tendencies”. So in early spring, then you have a lot of water and earth.
That makes sense right now.
Yes! Everything’s so moist right now, isn’t it? Damp. And you can just feel it all breathing. That slowness, as well, that’s a very earthy thing. And the shift in the season, it’s not this kind of arbitrary, “Oh it’s March now, so it must be Spring.” You can feel in the air around you when it’s actually changing.
I was reading your latest letter, and thinking, I know that feeling so well.
“When is spring coming?”
And this morning when I was driving into town, it felt like this “oof”, that springy feeling, and I thought – I wonder if Madeleine’s feeling that?
I could hear the birds. The birds are starting to ramp it up a notch! And it’s much warmer today. I think I also put it in the letter, but I feel as though that itchiness, that impatience, is also quite a spring-like energy.
Completely. A sort of zinginess I feel today.
It’s crazy because in November when it was still hot, I was just craving winter. I would have been happy for there to have been an endless winter, really, at that stage.
Me too. I think I usually am, really waiting for winter. It’s not that I hate hot weather. But this dry Portuguese heat is really challenging to me. As soon as the wet weather comes in, I suddenly feel like I’ve got more energy, I’ve got more patience, I’ve got more space… I feel better, straight away.
Those are qualities I associate with winter. Patience and space. These days, when I’m trying to think about the energy of the season more, this idea of the void in winter keeps coming up.
I loved that thing that you wrote about the period around the winter solstice being the savasana of the year. That really struck a chord with me. It kept going round my head. And I think that’s right, isn’t it? Making the space to let ourselves relax. We have all these different means to not let ourselves do that now: the internet, phones, TVs.
I love to cuddle up and watch movies around Christmas, but at the same time, I love making the decision to turn that off and just be in the dark and enjoy it.
Winter felt like such a rest this year. Such a relief. I think I felt that in my bones. That’s probably where that savasana image came from. More than ever, this is the time of year when we can all just stop, and we need to do that. It’s so healthy to.
My associations are really different in Portugal than in the UK. In Portugal it is the time when I do tend to suddenly get a burst of energy, and coming out of it again as well. Usually, creatively it’s quite a good time for me. I like the quieter vibe.
The work I’m doing tends to be focused on Spring and Autumn because they feel like these big transitions. How does connecting to the season show up for you?
I think it’s the sense of being sped along by something. That’s definitely how it was feeling last autumn. Especially here because you get all the wind, and its really dramatic as a visual metaphor for what’s happening everywhere. I think I tend to prefer the transition seasons, because I like seeing all of the change, and I like the sense of progress.
Summer and winter can be waiting games, especially summer here. It took me years to surrender to this idea that I was not going to do almost anything in July and August because it was too hot, and to really enjoy that.
I find the waiting thing challenging. The same in winter, when we’ve had really really long wet winters. At the moment, this is the week where our firewood starts to run out. Sometimes we don’t have fires any more by now, and this year it’s that bit colder, I’m looking at the woodstore and thinking hmmm…
It’s funny isn’t it because in the autumn, the first time you light the fire it’s such a treat!
You just want to look at it. And the kids all gather round it. But it’s such a slog as by now, at this time of year, it’s just that extra thing, to clean out the fire, chop the wood, to lay out the fire, on top of everything else, the day to day living stuff… it’s such a relief when that one big task is out of the picture.
Winter does just add that on doesn’t it? Muddy boots, everyone’s wearing more clothes, there’s more to wash…
I had 5 jumpers on last night.
Life is more complicated. And so it does make sense for things to slow down. So what’s it like then when you’re at a point when you really can surrender to each season?
It feels really good! I love when we are here in the summer, and you realise that you just have to stop doing. You have to relax into it or you’re going to go insane. Because the days are getting longer, and you have to rest in the middle of the day…
The nights get warmer and there’s more life in the village, there’s going to be old people walking past at ten o clock talking at top volume. You get to a point where the rhythm is untenable. The same in winter. Going outside just isn’t that appetizing.
Nowadays, the idea of maintaining the same rhythm throughout the year, keeping the same times, eating the same stuff… that just doesn’t feel very healthy to me.
No. In Ayurveda diet is a huge thing, you change what you eat to suit the qualities of the season. But for winter you have the dry and the wet winter, you have to decide that, and see how you’re feeling, before you even think about what you’re cooking. This idea of having a household where you’re efficient and you plan things, and you plan what you’re going to cook a week ahead of schedule… that just doesn’t work for me. Maybe it would if I lived somewhere else.
Does having children change how you experience the seasons?
With the kids, they are in the middle of the season in the way that we’re not always. I mean literally… face down in the season. Whatever it is, they’re just covered in it head to toe. A total physical experience.
It’s not an abstract thing.
Having kids also changes your body. One of the things I noticed this autumn – one of the reasons why this was not my favourite autumn – was I stopped breastfeeding. My body had physically shifted quite a lot already because we’d been gradually slowing down for a really long time, but the complete disappreance of milk, that drying – that really changed my relationship to the season.
Even though it’s hard in some ways to be pregnant or breastfeeding when it’s hot and dry, because your body’s more earthy and has literally more liquid in it, somehow I think that helps you to find that sweet spot.
All three of my pregnancies were peaking in the summer and early autumn, and then nursing… I felt it was this thing that hadn’t been visible to me, but that had been quietly helping me for years.
But this Autumn, when it was really dry and windy in the transition of the season, and my body was feeling dryer… I had so many physical sympotoms, migraines, I had this weird low level anxiety that wouldn’t settle. Just changing my diet and having more baths and stuff brought it into balance a bit.
And how is that now? You’ve been through winter, had this wet weather. Does it feel different, do you feel you’ve gone back?
No. No, you don’t go back, you never go back (laughs). It’s all new. It’s kind of nice, I was really ready for her to finish breastfeeding. It felt like the right time for both of us. And it just kind of happened really naturally, so I didn’t have a lot of emotional upheaval about it, I just did have this physical upheaval.
It’s interesting you saying about giving birth in the summer. I remember saying to Nick at one point, the main thing about being a parent is that everything is constantly damp.
(laughs) Oh you’re sending me back in time now! The amount of fluid that will go in and out of a child in a 24 hour period.
In Ayurveda the first phase of life is meant to be the earth and water time. You can really see why, especially when they’re babies.
I’m so curious into how the seasons fit into our cycles as women.
Pregnancy, and to extent just cycling generally, it brings you more in touch with your physical form. You’re acutely aware that things are changing inside you all the time. You can’t make too many bets over what your body’s going to do or not do – how much you can walk, or how much you’re going to sleep, you can’t make too many plans because you don’t know what your body’s going to be doing. And that makes you more aware of the seasons around you.
I notice patterns as well, I see a lot more pregnancies coming to an end in spring time and in early autumn. I mean, I don’t work with many women at once, so it’s not like there’s masses of data there, but I notice those are two points in the year.
Especially the spring time. I have more women coming to the end of their pregnancies at the moment than I have had all year. It would be really interesting to see what patterns would emerge if we lived in a more connected way.
I was talking to the midwife I work with about it, because with my daughter I had this very intense false labour, and at the time he said, “it’s just the full moon messing with you.”. According to him, the new moon is what brings babies on. And I questioned that, because it’s quite easy to gather data on when babies are born, and that doesn’t seem to be borne out.
His explanation was that it’s because of how we live these days. Most people live in cities, with artificial light – it messes with that cycle. But working where he is, with a lot of women who are consciously choosing to connect to an older way of life, he says he notices a pattern.
Maybe it’s the darkness, the blanket of darkness. It’s traditionally they say when women would bleed, on the new moon.
In Portugal they count the moons, traditionally, don’t they? That’s the grandparent’s tradition. Ten moons I think.
That’s right, I had a pregnancy book called ten moons. In some ways our bodies are already tuned into this kind of old calendar.
Yours was a solstice baby, wasn’t he?
Very nearly. That felt significant. And you’re right, there was something about the process of pregnancy, and really surrendering to the physical. Observing so much. “Oh interesting, today she has heartburn. Fascinating, I’m craving this food…”
The sense of smell thing is crazy.
You become much more animal. And it seems much less weird, if it ever seemed weird, to connect to the landscape around. I felt that the illusion I had of being in control of things was gone. Especially in those last weeks, of waiting for the baby. You just have no idea. You have to be patient. It’s like waiting for rain, or waiting for spring.
The only certainty is you know that it will come. When?
But WHEN?!! (laughs)
You just have to surrender to your body doing what it’s going to do.
But it’s so hard. You can have that readiness for it to happen that comes on all of a sudden. Like “That’s it: I’m ready now!”
But when it really is happening, you know, deep down. Even though you can play so many tricks on yourself. There’s something underneath, and as soon as you let go you can see more clearly. And then it actually speeds things up sometimes.
Because then you’re actually back in the moment, in the present and it all flows again.
And definitely with birth, that letting go is so important. You need your brain to change from beta waves to alpha waves and then go into theta and delta waves. Eventually, your body will win in a fight against your mind, but it will take a lot longer. And sometimes it just does take ages.
Yes I love that we’ve talked a lot today about waiting. The way we separate from what’s happening because we want it to be different.
And then we come back to the present, whether it’s giving birth, or being in Spring , and whoosh you’re back in the flow. No longer trying to resist it or change it.
I hadn’t thought about the different experiences in pregnancy, thinking about it as an analogy for seasonal shifts, but it does fit. It’s all this physical stuff. All this material existence stuff. It all fits together. I see it more and more.
That’s something I want to chew on a bit more, think about a bit more. It feels like a theme that’s emerging. Thank you.