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.

The coming climate crisis: the ultimate turning point?


News bulletin from the continuing drought in the west: it was too hot to water the plants today.

I don’t mean it was too hot for me as a human being to be outside watering today – although that is true as well. It was over 100 degrees today.

The water itself was too hot to put on the plants, so hot it almost burned me coming out of the spigot. Luckily I had put on garden gloves; the nozzle of the hose was too hot to pick up with bare hands.

Hot water is bad for plants. It shocks the roots. Plants need a certain amount of water, within a certain temperate range, to survive.  Humans reach for a cold glass of water on a hot day, not a cup of boiling hot tea.* Likewise, a plant’s roots reach out to take in cool water from underground.

The water coming out of the hose was more like the temperature one would use to cook vegetables.

At first I thought, well, this is normal. This water has been sitting in the hose, which has been baking out in the sun. Of course it’s warm. Let it run. I waited for the hot water to run its course so the cold water from underground could flow.

But it didn’t. The hot water just kept coming.

It got me thinking. What if it was always like this? What if this was ‘the new normal’?  If climate change proceeds as predicted, is this what I can expect? Hotter temperatures, extended drought, plants dying… at what point will this land I love no longer be able to support life as I know it?

“Why didn’t they do something?” future generations will ask. “They stood idly by as their water supply dwindled? They watched their plants perish, knowing that they were sure to follow… but they still denied there was a problem, and refused to act in the interest of their long-term survival?” In retrospect, it will seem so obvious: they should have conserved more of their resources, enough to sustain themselvesThey consumed too much, too fast, and so entire peoples were wiped out. Just like that. They’ll shake their heads, feel sorry for us, perhaps. Shudder and lament a way of life gone extinct.

Sometimes I am baffled by people who remain steadfast in their denial of climate change. How can they not see what is happening?  Answer: people don’t see problems that they don’t want to see. The brain is wise enough to protect us from things we cannot handle, and particularly from those that could threaten our survival.

Acknowledging climate change can feel threatening. Our way of life is threatened by climate change. We may not survive it, individually or collectively.  If we do, we will have to live differently.  We will not be able to sustain ourselves as we did before.  It doesn’t take much extrapolation to imagine what surviving in a changed climate might require. “Civil unrest” is far too polite a phrase to describe the acts that desperate people without food or water might be driven to commit. Scarcity and fear bring out our most brutal human instincts.

This can be a terrifying thought, one we’d rather not think about.


However, not thinking about it doesn’t make the problem go away. What if we responded by opening up our minds to the possibilities, and envisioned the future life we might build for ourselves? What might we do differently?

How might climate change be a turning point for us, individually and collectively? How do we want to respond?

We can turn away from the threat of climate change by pretending it doesn’t exist. We can stay stuck in that first stage of grief, after shock: denial. Or we can face it with our heads up and our eyes open. We can respond in productive ways. We can come up with creative solutions. We can adapt. We can survive and perhaps even thrive. But only if we are honest about what’s happening in our world. Only then can we go confidently into the future.

*British folk excepted. I know y’all love your tea.



Begin again.

Sister Mary Kay, this one’s for you.

How did I become a writer? What or who gives me the authority to say that I am a writer?

To be sure, I have written many things. But so have many others.

I’ve often been drafted to write first drafts, because “that’s the hardest thing, starting with the blank page,” clients say, looking at me meaningfully.  My task? Do the dirtiest and most bedeviling of writing work: stare at the blank page and transform its nothing into something. To do this is to confront one’s demons straight on and wrestle them to the ground.

“Who are you, to call yourself a writer? You insignificant thing, you imposter, you talentless hack?”  My first demon to confront, always, is this one.  Who am I, indeed? To have the temerity to scratch out my words and dare to call it “Writing,” with a capital W?

The only possible answer I can give: I am the only me there is. This combination of elements, this soul may have lived through many lifetimes, but will only live this one once. No one living now, before or after – not even my closest relatives and friends, nor any other member of my cohort – will see and experience the world as I do.

Almost everything I needed to know about writing came courtesy of one person: Sister Mary Kay Lampert, my AP English teacher in my senior year of high school.  She gave me the the confidence and the audacity to call myself a writer. She also did the biggest favor anyone has ever done for me as a writer: she critiqued me honestly, no holds barred. She didn’t let me muddy up my prose with unnecessary nonsense. She never let me get complacent. The better I got at writing, the harder she pushed me to be even better.

I thought of her tonight, as I was making excuses for why I hadn’t been writing lately. Procrastinating, doubting myself, not summoning the courage and discipline to put pen to paper. (Okay, more like fingertips to tablet… which sounds a lot less poetic than pen and paper, doesn’t it? This is what we’ve lost with technology.)

Remembering my teacher and her lessons, I got a sinking feeling like cement in my stomach. Ugh… if Sister Mary Kay was alive today, she’d be kicking my ass right now.  “Molly Rose McDowell, why aren’t you working? This is a timed exam!”

She was the nudge I needed. Because life is a timed exam, too, with the difference being that we don’t know how much time we have. You don’t know when the bell will ring and they’ll say, “Time’s up! Pencils down!”

All the more reason to start now, right this instant, wherever you are. Doesn’t matter where or how. Just start where you are.

In the words of another teacher of mine, Dr. Oliver Sacks:

“Let’s begin.”

Again. Starting here. Right now. Wherever we find the thread again. Wherever it may lead.

Communities, causes and countries have turning points, too.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

— Margaret Mead

The history of the world is full of turning points.  Often the fate of an entire country rests upon the shoulders of one individual, on his or her choice to be a beacon of hope, an agent of change, a fighter for peace…or something quite the opposite.

Liberia in the year 2000 was one of the most brutal places on earth. In the grip of a warlord who seized power in a bloody coup, Liberians endured a six-year civil war in which human rights abuses were widespread.  Government forces and rebel groups roamed the country and terrorized the population. It seemed no one could stop the madness.

Yet in 2005, Liberia held peaceful democratic elections and chose Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as its President, becoming the first African nation to elect a female head of state. Women took an active role in peace building and recovery.

How did such a dramatic change happen in such a short time? After decades of war, how was peace finally achieved in Liberia?

The answer begins with women who were tired of the brutality and said, “Enough is enough.”

Continue reading Communities, causes and countries have turning points, too.

those moments in life that change everything