Since life has crumbled, start where you are.

This is an open letter to anyone whose life has recently fallen apart.

My father told me, “Life begins at 36.” That turned out to be true. But before my new life could begin, my old life had to crumble. I did not see that part coming.

Nevertheless, I made it to the other side of the great crumbling. Here I am today, intact enough to write this letter to you, wherever you are.

When you’re standing in the rubble of your own life, dazed and confused, wondering “What the hell just happened to me?” it’s natural to think things like:

I will never recover from this.

 Yes, you will. You can and you will.

My life is ruined.

 Yes, that’s true. Your old life lies in ruins at your feet, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. There is no going back to the way things were.

No one will ever look at me the same way again.

Also true. Some people will criticize you. Some people will pity you.  Some will tell themselves that such a thing would never happen to them, because they are not as reckless, foolish, crazy, desperate, or (fill in the blank) as you are.  Some will admire the hell out of you for enduring what you have, but will never tell you this. You may take their silence for disapproval, but don’t assume you know what anyone is thinking.

Don’t assume anything right now.  When your life has fallen apart, you don’t know shit. I’m not trying to make you feel worse than you already do.  I say this with a smile, and I offer my congratulations.  Realizing you don’t know shit is an invitation to become a more humble, curious, and determined student of life. Whole new worlds will open up to you when you admit you don’t know shit. Public libraries, the internet, and your fellow human beings are standing by, waiting for the opportunity to blow your mind with the multitudes they contain.

demolition kitchen

Have you ever remodeled a house? After the demolition, it’s a mess — much like your life now.  And yet, people knock down walls and tear up floorboards every day, in the name of change, in the hope of building something better. The same thing happens in our lives. The structures we build for ourselves can only withstand so much.  Even when the ground beneath our feet feels solid, some fissures run deep. Forces we cannot see or control may come rippling through at any moment, shaking our foundations and bringing our walls tumbling down.  

Maybe you took a sledgehammer to your own life.* Maybe a hurricane or a death in the family swept away everything you knew.  A lover walked out, or doctor walked in with the worst news of your life. You lost everything.

Whatever happened, your life did not go the way you expected it to go, and now you find yourself at a place you don’t want to be, e.g. reeling from a loss, frustrated or burned out in a career track, dealing with a serious illness.

Whether you chose it or not, you’re in the middle of a life remodel.  This is a profound and fortuitous event, the chance of a lifetime. Do you know how many people dream of making a major life change, but never quite get around to it?  You are ahead of the game! Your life has already changed in a major way, has it not?

Thanks to your life falling apart, you are now free to rebuild it.  Since everything has crumbled around you anyway, and your foundation is not as stable as you thought it was, it’s the perfect opportunity to change your life, to rebuild it into the “you” you’ve always wanted to be.

The best part is, you can start small. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And it can be a baby step. That’s okay. You’ve got to start somewhere. Just start where you are. It doesn’t matter how far you get at first. What matters is that you’re taking steps.

— — —

*I did this, and I do not recommend it unless you are as reckless, foolish, crazy, desperate, or (fill in the blank) as I was, and you are prepared to pay the price.  That journey is not for the faint of heart.  Once you begin, there is no turning back.  There will be no undoing what you have done.  The only way out is through.  So make the journey worthwhile.

How do you talk to yourself?

Change the way you talk to yourself and to others, and you will change your world. Not just your brain, but your life. Not just yourself, but your relationships and the lives of the people whose lives you touch.

What do you say to yourself during the course of a day?

“Ugh, I’m so stupid!”

“I can’t do this. I’m not good at this.”

Or “I should have…”? “If only…”?

Or do you stop and say to yourself, “I have come a long way.  I’ve made it this far. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished so far. I may have further to go, but I’m not giving up.”

Words are powerful. Our words come from our thoughts.  But it is also true that our thoughts are shaped by our words. We have words running through our head all day. These are the brain patterns that determine our behavior patterns. But our behavior patterns also shape the pathways in our brains, so we can change our brains by changing our words, our thoughts, or our behavior.

To calm, comfort, and encourage yourself, talk to yourself the way a friend would. Take  moment and think of the person you call when you need a shoulder to lean on.  Does that friend judge you as harshly as you judge yourself? Of course not. Our friends remind us what matters most about us: our beauty, our strength, our capacity and capability.  A friend says, “You can do this. I believe in you.”

Friends not so supportive?  Maybe it’s a teacher, then, or mentor or coach, whose tone of voice and sage advice you can summon when you need support.  It could be a family member or a fictional character.  The who is not as important as the how. What does that voice sound like? What does it tell you?


A few years ago, my youngest son’s school adopted a program based on the Growth Mindset pioneered by Dr. Carol Dweck and her colleagues.  It’s a way of talking to yourself about challenges, ability, success and failure.  For example:

Instead of saying “I’m not good at this!” try saying something like, “I will try, and if I can’t do this, I will try again.” Or ask yourself, “What am I missing? Who can I ask for help?”

Instead of “I can’t do this! I don’t have the talent!” you could say, “I may not be able to do this now, but with time and effort, I’ll be able to.”

Instead of “I give up! I’m not smart enough!”  how about “I can do this if I keep working at it.  I’m getting smarter every day!”

You can change your mindset by changing your words.  Borrow the encouraging words from a trusted friend, teacher, or mentor or channel the advice of a professional.

“You can do this. I believe in you.”

Advice to my younger self

“I am still every age that I have been.  Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still a part of me, and always will be.”  — Madeleine L’Engle

Summary (in case my younger self is too impatient to read the whole post):

Relax. You’re going to be fine.

It will all work out, somehow. You don’t have to know how right now.

  • Don’t ruin your health or waste your time on worry. Spend your time and energy appreciating and soaking up everything you do have, and have had in your life.
  • It’s been a pretty great adventure so far, right? That’s what you wanted: an interesting life. You’ve definitely had that so far, and there is more to come than you can even imagine.
  • You can’t predict the future. Everything has a time, place, and purpose, even if you can’t see it at the time. What works in one phase of your life isn’t necessarily going to work in other phases of your life, and that’s okay.
  • Each chapter of your life has merits, and is unique and perfect unto itself. You can’t compare one chapter to another, or say, “Oh, I should have done this instead of that.” Everything has a place in the tapestry.

What would you say to your younger self?  Now take that a step further, and imagine yourself in ten or twenty years.  What would your older self say to you about this moment in your life? What do you need to hear right now?

30 minute challenge…go!

When I have to do something I’m dreading, I do it in 30 minutes. My mother used to say, “You can do anything for two weeks.” She has more patience and persistence than I do. I can commit 30 minutes, tops, to something I don’t want to do.

Set the timer for 30:00 and just do it – whatever it is. It’s a foolproof strategy for making sure I give it my focused, intense effort and actually enjoy it — so much so that I’m sorry to see those 30 minutes come to end. Most of the time, I keep right on going for another 30 minutes, or longer, if I have time. If I don’t have more time, setting the timer ensures that I work with maximum efficiency.

Call it one of my “Traumatic Brain Injury Life Hacks.” I’ve got hundreds of those little workarounds. I’m pretty sure that every person who has made it through the unfamiliar territory of life after TBI has their own catalogue of coping strategies. In fact, I bet most anybody who has had to make big changes in their life has their own version of this list:

☆ Things that I have learned that make life easier

☆ Ways of working with, through, and around obstacles and limitations

☆ What I’ve discovered through trial and error

We live and we learn. When we are faced with a major life change, we have to relearn what seemed easy before. We have to learn new things. This is the way transformation happens. This is the potential hidden in every turning point.

On persistence: inspiration from history

“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

— Winston Churchill

The quote above comes from a speech that Churchill, then Prime Minister of Great Britain, gave before students at the Harrow School  in 1941.  Churchill is often misquoted as saying, “Never give up,” but this is simply a matter of semantics. The underlying message is the same, and unmistakable.  To quote a slightly less famous but more cherished mentor of mine, Dr. Moyara Ruehsen: “When you’re going through hell, just keep going.”

In our darkest moments, when it seems the odds are stacked against us and each day is a struggle,  we may feel like Churchill did in the midst of the catastrophic events that rocked his country in World War II: “quite alone, desperately alone.” He cautioned the students against placing their hopes in a quick fix or swift victory. Persistence, he told them, was the path by which Great Britain would secure its future.

“But we must learn to be equally good at what is short and sharp and what is long and tough. It is generally said that the British are often better at the last. They do not expect to move from crisis to crisis; they do not always expect that each day will bring up some noble chance of war; but when they very slowly make up their minds that the thing has to be done and the job put through and finished, then, even if it takes months—if it takes years—they do it.”

This is not particularly uplifting advice. We like our stories to have dramatic turnabouts and happy endings with all the loose ends neatly tied up. And indeed, many turning point stories do have moments like that, when “everything changed.” But as anyone who has been through any life challenge will tell you, there are many unglamorous moments, many days of slogging through or just surviving, and weeks, months, and even years of hard work that go into turning one’s ship in a new direction. And it takes tremendous patience and persistence to stay the course.

To those in grim circumstances, facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Churchill’s speech contains an interesting observation and bit of advice that may be even more motivational than his famous “Never give in” line. I’ll close with this, because I think it points the way out of despair, toward the horizon of possibility.

“You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done.”

On forgiveness

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.

— Ernest Hemingway

We are all broken down by trauma and loss, by disappointment, by life’s daily chores and challenges.  How do we become “strong at the broken places,” as Hemingway says?

We know the answer if the broken thing is a bone or a dish: take time to repair it, protect it, treat it with care, allow it time to reset.

But what about a broken heart, broken trust, or a broken dream?  For those we do not always take the time to heal.  We don’t always know how to soothe our aching selves.  We think we should be able to get over it or tough it out.

So we get right back out there, still broken and bruised, and get hurt again — often in the same places where we’re already injured. These can become our weak spots.

Becoming stronger isn’t about covering over and armoring up the weak and injured spots. It’s about healing them.  To do that, our wounds have to be treated with gentleness and whatever remedies strengthen us. Meditation. Sleep. Exercise. Water. Prayer. Music. Dancing. Nature. Friendship. Generosity. Kindness. Forgiveness.

Nothing else heals quite like forgiveness does. It takes practice, though. The hardest things and people to forgive take some working up to.  Getting ready to let go of the burdens that weigh most heavily upon us is like preparing jump off a high dive. Sometimes you’ve got to look at it for a long time, from many different angles, before you take it on. Sometimes you’ve got to make smaller jumps first, with less risk.

Having trouble forgiving someone, or yourself? Practice with a smaller thing of less significance to you. It can be a silly thing. In fact, if it makes you laugh, so much the better. “I forgive my dryer for eating all those single socks, and I forgive myself for the ever-growing mountain in the ‘sock basket’ that I never seem to find time to sort and match.”  Reinforce the memory that forgiveness can be fun and lighthearted, and you’ll remember it will make your heart will feel lighter.

Here’s another way to practice forgiveness: try it out for a set amount of time.  Say to yourself, “For this weekend only, I am going to forgive X (person’s name),  just to see what it feels like.” On Monday you can pick up the grudge again. Think of it as an experiment, like eliminating a piece of furniture from your living room and looking at the remaining pieces. What does it look like?

What would your life be like if you weren’t carrying that hurt and anger?  What space might be freed up, and what new possibilities would you see in its place and beyond?

Practicing forgiveness on trial basis, for a limited time only…who knows what you might discover? Try it. I dare you. You might like it.


On persistence: inspiration from the garden

“Man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots…”

I was thinking of this line from Ralph Waldo Emerson as I pulled up morning glory from my vegetable garden today. Insidious stuff, morning glory: it was winding through a patch of chard that I’m cultivating for summer salads and side dishes, stealing water, soil and nutrients, choking off my dinner supply.  So I summoned my own evolutionary advantages, and used my opposable thumbs to rip out as much of the vine as I could.

I give it credit, though: morning glory is persistent. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” could be its motto. It sends runners underground to seek out new sources of enrichment, like scouts sent to infiltrate and quietly plunder enemy territory. ISIS has nothing on morning glory. It can sneak in undetected and send up offshoots of itself anywhere, before you even know it’s there.

Looking at the knot of roots in my satchel, I am impressed by the strength, reach, and complexity of the network this plant has created. We humans marvel at our own creations – the aqueducts of Rome, for example – but one look here reveals the truth: nature did it first, and better.

The knot has another resonance for me. This line by Emerson — “Man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots…” was used by my great grandmother, Ruth Beard McDowell, on the opening page of her book about our family history. In a chapter titled, “Our Branch Takes Root in California,” she describes how her grandfather Elihu Burritt Beard, decided to come west from his native Indiana in 1849. That fateful decision set the course for my life, certainly. And it’s that kind of decision that comes up again and again in turning point stories.

A turning point almost always involves some sort of decision. In interviews, people say things like, “From that point on, things changed,” or “I decided that this time was going to be different.” It’s the decision that makes the difference, that sets the turning point apart from say, a daydream or a half-hearted attempt at change.  It’s when the “someday” in “someday I will…” arrives. It’s the point where it no longer matters what came before, or even what’s coming. The decision has been made: to reach out, to branch out, to grow, to seek new territory.

After that it takes persistence, a willingness to keep reaching, keep growing, and keep going no matter what obstacles may be in our path. For this, perhaps we can take a lesson and some inspiration from morning glory.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

those moments in life that change everything