Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart,
it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.
– A.A. Milne
The Place des Cardeurs is the largest open plaza in Aix-en-Provence. A city block long and half as wide, the Cardeurs is ringed by restaurants and cafés and wine bars and beer pubs and gelaterias. It’s dining and drinking al fresco; open air in the summer, then under those large canvas and plastic tents the French have mastered through the years. Eat inside? But how would I smoke?
Weekend evenings in the Cardeurs are loud and collegiate, with throngs of students (there are over 30,000 in Aix) enjoying cheap drinks deep into the night. A chorus of laughs and chatter under strings of festive lights. Sundays awaken quiet and calm, with families and kids commandeering the massive terraced savannah, now void of the sea of tables and chairs from the evening’s bacchanalia. Off you go Junior, run that endless battery down while your mother and I enjoy a slow coffee.
It is to the Place des Cardeurs one comes for that Sunday afternoon glass late in the season. For, with its large expanse and low-slung periphery of buildings, the Cardeurs is the most promising spot in town to catch a few fleeting rays of hibernal sun. It seems to barely reach mid-sky during the Provence winters; a lazy ball that’s up late and done early. But it manages to arc just above the south-facing roofline through the afternoon, casting silhouettes of the tangle of unemployed antennas and vent pipes and chimneys.
The Winter Mood
Darker, colder days like these can shroud a winter malaise over the cheeriest amongst us. I tend to stay buoyant but have family and good friends who can get gloomy, and I have seen what a demon that can be to wrestle. I follow a winter strategy to fend off despair: (1) lean into the season and (2) inoculate against melancholy with a regime of winter indulgences and rituals.
I lean in mostly with what I eat (lots of stews and soups), when I sleep (early), what I read (long tomes for long evenings), and whom I see (just a lucky few). As for rituals, I light the apartment with candles, spend money on bath salts, listen to Coltrane and Chet Baker while making dinner, and take an inside table at Lulu’s (click here for her menu of the week). These things I never do in the summer, except for the occasional Baker.
Rather than resisting the seasonal change, you might try embracing your winter hermit with arms wide. Retreat into your cave. Build your books-to-read stack. Re-up Netflix. Knit (kidding, consider any home craft). Nest. Bears do it. Squirrels do it. I do it. Try it. Spring will bring a sharper contrast in light, warmth, friends, and merriment. The buds and blooms will seem somehow more extraordinary, more appreciated. (For a fascinating rumination on hermitude and recluses read Michael Finkel’s A Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.)
Your Best Defense Against the Blues
The Thanksgiving holiday is a reminder that beyond the turkey and football (in both variations this fall), gratitude is a healthy addition to the winter regime. Giving thanks is the low-hanging fruit of happiness and effective at fending off the winter blues. If you need a positivity boost when the days are dark, expressing gratitude is the easiest and most impactful ritual you can adopt. Its power in building resistance to the dark side has been studied extensively.
Through his cutting-edge studies, Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at my alma mater UC Davis, has shown that gratitude “can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders, and is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide.” All can feel acute in the dark months. His findings match those by other thought leaders in the happiness field, such as Barbara Fredrickson (UNC Chapel Hill), Sonja Lyubomirsky (UC Riverside), and Martin Seligman (UPenn).
Gratitude journals, gratitude letters, gratitude circles; these are just a few of the options available to practice the practice, something we do in our Interprize workshops. You can find endless links to infinite articles online about this stuff. For more rigorous findings and suggestions, search on the names in the previous paragraph. What works best for me: a simple end-of-the-month inventory of people and things to which I am grateful. I keep it short – 5 or fewer – and don’t dwell on what or who misses the cut, … there is always next month.
If interested in the Bill Magill November gratitude list, I offer it here in no certain order. This past month I have been deeply grateful for:
1. My adventurous grandparents’ talent at staying alive (or I wouldn’t be typing this now). My maternal grandfather managed to survive the trench warfare of WW I as part of the Canadian forces fighting in France. About 67,000 of them didn’t make the return, another 4x that number were injured. Chances of making it home unscathed was less than 1 in 2. He was short and perhaps that helped keep the helmet low. Papa made it home.
My fraternal grandmother, just out of college, travelled south to teach at the Calhoun Colored School in deep Alabama in early 1900s. She was part of an alliance of northerners committed to the education of post-slavery children in a deeply segregated south. The Klan were no fans of such enlightened idealism. Educated white women elevating poor black kids; what was next, the vote?! As that wasn’t enough excitement, she later took a steamer from New York City to Alexandria, Egypt, alone, and then continued on to the Sudan where she married my Irish grandfather, traveling amongst the villagers and crocodiles and malaria. They made it back to the US in 1 piece, had a pack of kids including my dad, and in 1957 my tiny zygote squiggled into the world.
2. The brilliance of the classic novel “A Confederacy of Dunces. It kept a grin planted on my face through the entire month. Sadly, its author John Kennedy Toole ended his life in 1969, shortly after completing the novel. It took his loyal mother 11 years to find a publisher, but his genius and her perseverance were awarded with a Pulitzer posthumously in 1981. (Many thanks to Canadian Dave for lending me his dog-eared copy.)
3. My daughter’s impulsiveness. This call I got in October:
“Hey dad, I had a great tip week at work and was thinking of coming for a quick visit.” (From LA.)
“Fantastic Stella, when?”
Fortunately her mother works for United Airlines. You gotta love those standby perks.
4. The American voter and US court system for protecting that right. The large slate of kooky candidates running this fall on a platform of 2020 election denial – one has to admire this cult’s tenacious cling to disproven fantasy – was universally denied at the ballot box. And the courts, up to the Supremes, shot down the many attempts across numerous states at voter suppression. The people’s voices were heard and counted. Democracy triumphed. Whew!
5. The craftsmanship of my Martin guitar. I bought this D35 acoustic in 1989 new, an MBA graduation gift to myself (Bill, you are so amazing you deserve a reward!). With its lifetime guarantee I can walk into any certified Martin repair shop around the world and have it refretted, trued out, and tuned up for free. Its tone has only gotten warmer through the years and the body of spruce and Brazilian rosewood still looks beautiful. If curious to take a look see I made this tutorial video last week on how to play Little Bird. Even with the cheap recording acoustics of my tiny iPhone its sound quality is unmistakable.