In so many of my favorite childhood stories, the solution or missing knowledge to the protagonist’s problem turns out to lie within the character all along—Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz clicking her heels to take her home. Sebastian in the Neverending Story just needs to believe to save Fantastica from The Nothing… Lyra in The Golden Compass must learn to read the Alethiometer to determine her fate. These are all tales about instinct and intuition, about learning that we all do, in fact, have an internal compass for what we need if we only get still or brave enough to listen to it.

Bastian quote from The Neverending Story

These characters are my mascots this month, this new month of the New Year in which we are all supposed to be charting our courses to our great new selves, with big plans and wild ambitions. As an optimist, usually that fills me with excitement. But this year I’ve been grappling with a deeper round of the blues than usual. For a good week I was swept under its lead-lined heft, and it was the least enjoyable week of my life in many months. My blues had several origins, but as I’ve teased apart the morass I found that I’d stopped listening to the voice that is usually quite audible most of the time—a voice that continually points me back toward my truest desires, my most authentic sense of purpose. I know what feels “right” and what feels like effort and slogging. But sometimes, ambitions or the desire to succeed faster, the opinions of others, and many other things create their own screaming chorus that drowns out my own inner super strength.

The support of my good friends, good reading, and some wonderful meditations by Tara Brach helped remind me that it is precisely at these low junctures that I must turn to the tools I already have. It helps to think of myself as a character in an awesome fantasy novel. To prod myself, I began to listen to Madeleine L’Engle’s book A Wrinkle in Time, which I haven’t read since I was a child. I was suddenly Meg Murray again—surrounded by people smarter or less smart than her, impatient and uncertain and yearning after her father. L’Engle’s use of language coupled with the sheer intelligence and soulfulness of her storyline awakened feelings I remember so well from my very earliest experiences of reading: wonder, astonishment, not-alone-ness, followed by the urge to write.

Mrs. Whatsit sonnet quote from A Wrinkle In Time

Then I picked up my pen. I’ve long noticed a direct and immediate feeling that comes over me when I write, especially when I do so with pen and paper. It’s like a milder version of a runner’s high, a release and relief from whatever’s burdening me.

I realized, too, that between holiday schedules and illness, I hadn’t been exercising at my usual pace, so I urged myself to get back. Important note here: as I get older, exercise has become definitively about how I feel and almost not at all about how my body looks.

Then I had the realization that outside is a place I haven’t spent much time in a while, and I had no excuse like the polar vortex snowing us in or a monsoon flood. There were trees and birds and even sunshine out there all there at my fingertips! I took my son to the park and ran around the grass with my face tipped up to the sun, tossing a Frisbee with my kid like something out of a laundry detergent commercial. The fresh air lifted some of the weight from me.

What this bout of blues has taught me is that I have tools for the hard times, the bad feelings. They usually shift if I remember that, like my storybook heroes, I have the power inside me somewhere. The power might be a half-melted Christmas chocolate shoved in my favorite jacket pocket, or Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” played on repeat in the privacy of my office, or watching my kid finally master the monkey bars, or slipping into bed early with a good book, but they are time-tested and guaranteed to point me back to a place of balance.

What about you? What are your secret, hidden powers for lifting yourself out of dark places?

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