Into the Blues
During the winter months, when the thermometer hovers below “chilly” and the sky turns metallic, I have to dig a little deeper for my joy. This stretch of calendar feels trip-wired for small bombs of worry and valleys of melancholy. Going about my day, the blues retreat into the background, like a mist or vapor. But at 3:30 AM, they puff up into full-blown fears as fast as a packet of microwave popcorn.
I have the standard grocery list of concerns now that I’m on the other side of 50. This middle place was described to me once as the period when “the only big unknowns left are to meet your grandkids and die.” While the comment is humorous, it’s also a version of the truth. At some point, each of us will wrestle in different degrees with the narrowing aperture on our world of possibilities.
The 20-something me who once thought 40 sounded ancient, now believes firmly that 70 is the new 50. Aging brings a crow’s nest perspective from the top of the mast, and hopefully, a patina of mellow. It’s not a version of settling for something less, but about accepting the way that life rolls out. At this stage, I am more the antique brass gong than the silvery tinkling wind chime of my youth. I’m the golden retriever by the fireside, no longer the Chihuahua on the pant leg of life.
We have seen this all before, we remind ourselves when the blues float in without a solid explanation or obvious trigger. We tell ourselves that better times always chase the tough ones. Our moods can be refreshed simply by walking outside, calling a friend or getting into downward dog.
But yet there I am, wide awake in the middle of the night, running through my “to-do” list and stringing the mental worry beads. I touch on my own mortality, my aging parents, the deep desire for our children to be happy and healthy. Those are the garden variety worries; the usual. And naturally there are others, monogrammed with our family crest and tailored to our specific issues.
A few years ago, having made it through a family trauma and gotten the rest of them safely to shore, I myself was out of gas. A remarkable counselor entered my life that knew how to listen and, more importantly, dole out practical wisdom. One basic pearl has stayed with me, and it’s essentially just a version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s a form of meditation and it works.
I have learned to employ this tactic when the blues perch on my headboard, studying me like a desert vulture over a dying man. And when I answer “yes” to the questions below, I can usually roll over and go back to sleep. Which is why I share them with you.
So, when you find yourself anxious, worried or tossing and turning about things you cannot control, ask yourself these questions:
Do I have a roof over my head?
Do I have enough to eat?
Am I loved?
Do I have people whom I love?
Do I have “enough” (whatever that may be)
Have I always been able to figure something out, one way or another, to mostly make it work?
If you can answer “yes” to all of these, (and I recognize that many Americans cannot) take a deep breath, roll over, go back to bed and I guarantee it will look a little more possible in the morning.
Of course everything does look better when the dawn begins to pink up the sky and the coffee is percolating. In those hours, the future brims with untapped potential. As I roll through the winter days and weeks, I work on being mindful of what I call “small wins.” These are the moments I try to be more present; to focus in on, freeze dry and shrink down to savor. I make a point now of standing still to watch a sunrise and I relish my first cup of coffee with frothed milk. I keep fresh tulips in a vase by the sink and breathe in the smell of my daughter’s skin as I wake her for school. A friend calls to walk on the golf course and we marvel at the grace of a blue heron.
These aren’t the big ones; the diamond engagement ring in the soufflé or baby’s first steps. But the moments of being present, of cherishing the little joys, are the rungs on the ladder out of my mental mineshaft. I’ve worked to make peace with the fact that there is good with the difficult, truth with the hard parts, discord with the comfort and beauty even in the ugly places. This has been the gift of aging, to understand that real life mostly toggles in between the extremes, ever the see saw and so rarely the straight-away.
And here is the other thing I know. On the first warmish day toward the end of winter, I’ll look down at the purple flash of something embedded in the snow and see the tip of a crocus, pushing up toward the sun. It will remind me that spring follows winter, that joy exists on all bandwidths and that we all have the power to push back as we head into the blues.
Lee Woodruff is the coauthor with her husband, Bob Woodruff, of the number one New York Times bestseller In an Instant, the author of the essay collection Perfectly Imperfect and the novel Those We Love Most. She is a contributing editor to CBS This Morning and has written numerous articles on family and parenting for Parade, Ladies’ Home Journal, Redbook, Country Living, and Family Fun. She and Bob founded the Bob Woodruff Foundation to assist wounded service members and their families. Woodruff has four children and lives in Westchester County, New York.
Article used with the gracious permission of the author, Lee Woodruff.