When Life Gets Hard

I bought thirty-six peonies yesterday at Trader Joe’s. They were having a sale, six stems for $6.99 and although my grandmother would have disapproved—she wouldn’t buy flowers because “they always die”—I decided that staggering beauty was at least as important as Greek yogurt. As the cashier—a twenty-something woman with pink hair, three silver nose rings and a rainbow-serpent tattoo twining around her left arm—was ringing up one double-ruffled bunch after the other, she said, “forty-two dollars and worth every penny!” I nodded and thought of the lines from the Mary Oliver poem about peonies and their “eagerness/to be wild and perfect for a moment before they are nothing, forever.” (I like the wild and perfect part, but I’m not so sure about being nothing forever).


As I was arranging the flowers in a vase, my friend Sabine called. “My brother had another brain aneurysm,” she blurted. “He is in critical condition, they don’t know whether he will survive the night.” After another minute she said, “I don’t want to be the only one left in my nuclear family.” When I hung up the phone, I thought once again how difficult it is to be in a human body. How everything is taken away, either quickly as in having a brain aneurysm or slowly, as in getting old and losing one function after another. (Note to self: if there is reincarnation, and if anyone is listening, I’m not coming back. Besides avoiding brain aneurysms and dementia, not having to go through high school again is at the top of the list.)


A spiritual teacher once told me that “what’s real never dies.” That whatever you can lose in a shipwreck (clothes, money, people, your life) wasn’t yours to begin with. And that you might as well spend your life paying attention to what can never die otherwise you get to the end, and you can’t believe you are actually dying and are about to lose everything you love: your cat, your iPad, your body.


Since I didn’t want to be hanging on to my pink angora sweater when I took my last breath, I attended dozens of meditation retreats, took trips to India, practiced presence. But, no matter how much I sensed, practiced, and meditated, I was haunted by the feeling of not enough–not enough success, not enough money, not enough love—and the attendant belief that having enough meant having more. I was absolutely convinced that enough was a quantity, and that once I reached that magical amount—which was a moving target, and always more than I had at any given moment—I could relax, be at peace, be comfortable in my own skin.


Then, six years ago, my husband and I lost every dime of our combined thirty-year life savings in a Ponzi scheme. I was already well practiced in disasters and catastrophes— I’d almost died from a drug reaction, had suffered with a long-term debilitating illness, and had been in three near-fatal car accidents, one of which landed me in a wheelchair for a few months. After each event, the day-to-day experience of being alive, of looking and listening, of touching and tasting felt magically luminous in even the most ordinary situations. But within a short time, my familiar self reconstituted and I was back to seeing through haunted and hungry eyes. When we lost our money, however, I felt as if a fire roared through my life as I knew it, and burned it to the ground.


And although I’ve written about this event and its many repercussions in my book Lost and Found, it occurred to me last month—I’m a slow learner—that nothing has been the same since. Eckhart Tolle might call it “a shift.” Carlos Castaneda in the Don Juan books might refer to it as “moving the assemblage point.” And what I would call it is an ongoing recognition of beauty and sufficiency. Because living with the terror and shame following the loss was like running on broken glass, I needed to be fierce about redirecting my attention, moment to moment, on what really mattered. Sensing my hands, my legs, my inner body was no longer a luxury, it was a necessity—and the only place in which I could rest.


Before we lost our money, I wrote and taught about the inner life, about what it takes to be at peace in earth school—while secretly harboring the belief that true fulfillment was still to be found in the world and in the future. But after we lost our money, and because wandering one millimeter away from this exact moment (where nothing was wrong or lacking) felt like going insane with grief and terror, I realized that what I had been looking for (in relationships and in success, in chocolate and in wealth but mostly in more of anything or everything) was here the whole time. In the smoothness of the cup in my hand, in the click of my heel on the pavement, in the sound of the hummingbird’s wings. In the fact that water came out of a faucet when I turned it. It was as if I’d been blind and half-dead for sixty years and was suddenly sprung into a life brimming with color and double-ruffle peonies.


When you’ve lost your money and think you might be living with your dog and your husband in a friend’s trailer and you feel—for the first time—indescribably unbelievably stunningly rich, you realize there is nothing to find or have or get that you don’t already have. You realize that for every doubt, for every fear, for every question you’ve ever had, there is only one answer, and it is now.


22 responses to “When Life Gets Hard

  1. Geneen: This was exactly what I needed today. I have been dealing with kidney failure for almost 6 years now. In addition I am dealing with the after effects of a brown recluse spider bite. There are multiple issues which are not ones that seem to “improve” but stay with me. So readjusting my attitude, my life, my expectations has been a challenge. I thank you for the flower reminder. I buy myself a bunch every two weeks and enjoy them every minute. Need to get new ones soon.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom and providing it “free” online. Many blessings to you and your work and all those you touch with your wisdom.

  2. Dear Geneen,
    For a couple years, I think, I had a virtual post-it on my desktop of a quotation from one of your newsletters. When IT was called in recently to fix a problem, that lovely message disappeared. I’m hoping you can help me.

    The message was that we too often live in regrets of the past, with “if only” influencing our present and future instead of focusing on the present moment, the only moment we can actually do something about. You said it so succinctly and elegantly and it has helped to anchor me in the present.

    Would you please send me a link to that article, or provide that quotation. I would very much appreciate it. Thank you!

  3. Always, your heart in your words brings me back to this ever present moment, to my gratitude for you and your
    presence in this world; for the gifts you bring, the sweetness you declare with your bountiful, shared wisdom.
    Today, I am grateful for all things in this moment, as they are each real….real gifts!!

  4. So easy to say..so hard to do..live in the now….but to stop trying is to give up hope..and that I will never do!!
    Thanks,Geneen..I have been a fan for over 25 years… please keep writing…you say what I need to hear..and for that I am most grateful

  5. wow! we don’t know what we don’t know until the time comes when we are able to get it. i, too, have struggled, lost everything, and survived. with each struggle, another piece of life’s puzzle seems to fall in place. it is an amazing ongoing journey journey for us all.

  6. This really is profound. I have been practicing for many years and have come face to face with a pattern I still struggle with. This was very timely
    In that I forget what’s there. I want to trust in the area of financial matters
    as I do in other areas of my life . Right now it appears I am being given many situations to develop that trust. Thank you for pointing me back to what is most important. I know this but forget when I give iin to fear .
    I am glad you immersed yourself in the beauty of your peonies. Thank you Geneen for your gift to the world?

  7. Geneen, without having experienced your specific experiences, I could have written your article until the last few lines-I aspire to moving from heady knowledge to day to day living, the mindful life and grattitude that you describe. Thank you so much for being such an inspiring, woman in your honesty with which you connect and express your inner world. I truly feel I love you every time I read your posts as I am still caught up in [greatly reduced] binge eating and with it comes the sense of isolation and nobody really understanding what I am going through internally, and then you take that feeling away. Thank you so much!

  8. I love how you write! My heart has been touched by your gift of words.

    Thank you for your time and support in this journey.

    in Beauty and love,


  9. Love this article. Have similar sentiments after loosing our business in the recession. I was certain our house would be confiscated as collateral (it was supposed to be), we’d never have the money to send our kids to college and that I jeopardized the comfortable retirement that we imminently planned to enjoy. My anxiety was so great that I could barely get out of bed as the events unfolded. Then I read an article about women who spent so much of their time fetching water for their families’ survival and decided to list my blessings before I got out of bed each morning (using the alphabet as a prompt helped i.e. A for the apples I can eat today, etc.). Indoor plumbing was at the top of the list, along with my families’ good health, a roof over our heads that day and so on. It did not take much for me to think of things to be grateful for. In the end we somehow saved our home from foreclosure, my son got a full scholarship to college, my daughter is on her way to college this September without having to take a loan AND we found the money to complete the renovations I’d always dreamed of. Ever since this sequence of events I’ve been awake to and aware of the abundance that is my life and it has made all the difference. Can’t say I’m grateful for how I had to learn this lesson but am certainly grateful I learned it, better late than never. Gratitude is my go to “cure” for nearly everything that ails my mind.

  10. Laughed out load, got teary eyed and is amazed by your delivery of the profound truth……………what we are looking for, we already have/are!!!!!! Thank you Geneen.

  11. Hi Geneen, I read your book Lost and Found in search of answers after experiencing a similar loss that brought me to my knees in sheer terror. To be at the mercy of financial insecurity is frightening and brings you to such raw and primal feelings that at times felt like being on the edge of a precipice. In those moments it was the mantra that truly made the difference btw the fine line of survival or pure despair. We have navigated our way through these very difficult days and through the sheer grace of God and a lot of hard work and sacrifice have regained some ground whilst managing to hold it together for my two children’s sake. It tested my relationship with my husband to its very core and slowly the wall btw us dissipated and we found our way back to each other. Yet I still feel this panic within as all could change in a moment- we are working hard to reduce our debt and all is seemingly ok whilst both my husband and I are working but being closer to mid 50s this is not as easy as it would seem. This experience has brought to the surface so many beliefs and experiences from
    My past that I have worked through but fundamentally there is something I am still hanging onto because losing it all just seems too frightening. I too have travelled through my own journey to disentangle from a destructive relationship with food and have had many wonderful teachers and experiences including your book woman and God that have pointed the way back to myself but in the busyness of my life trying to durvive and keep my family and myself afloat financially I find myself lost again. I do not have the luxury of time for deep self exploration and healing and your weekly insights remind me to be kind to myself and are a glimmer of hope in the fog of doing. I also have not quite got it as I continue to want more than anything for financial peace of mind. This continues to distract me out of sheer necessity…thank you for your wisdom

  12. Bless you Geneen I did lose everything in a divorce after 42 years of marriage and I’m currently living in a travel trailer with my pugs but while I only have 23 feet of living space I have become a turtle and drag my home around the country visiting relatives I haven’t seen in a while. It’s been a nice adventure traveling just myself and the pugs. I always enjoy your Monday sayings on the way thank you.

  13. I usually find comfort and understanding in your words but these days, after my dad has died and I am indeed the only one left alive of my family, and I have no friends and no husband or partner, no children and nobody who would want what I might have to give, it makes me bitter to read this. Food is my only long time companion and for me, there seems to be nothing else, ever. I am already in my late fifties and there is nothing to look forward to. I would love to see things in a different light but I have almost no hope left.

    Sorry for whining.

    1. Der Karin,
      I feel really sorry for you and what you have lost with your father dying! Words can’t provide much comfort but food can’t either – at least not in the long run! You know that as well as we all do.

      Anyway I dare stretching out my hand and patting your shoulder very,very gently if you let me do so …

    2. Karin,
      I am almost the same as you. My Mother passed away May 30. Alzheimer took her from me and even though she was in a memory care facility I still was involved in her care. Now I feel that I have nothing that needs to get done. There is no father, husband, or sibling. I do have some cousins but only one was at the funeral and I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years.
      Unlike you I have lost my food crutch. I have a degenerative spinal cord disease and I slowly loose function of my body parts. Today I am in a wheelchair with no use of my left hand. I also need a tracheotomy to breath and a feeding tube in my stomach. I haven’t been able to drive or do any 2-handed projects for 5-6 years or so. So there is my whine, written just for you sorry.
      What I’d like to say to you is Geneen is right. Be grateful for everything Jesus is giving you. He gives us the cream of (earth’s) crop, that is how much he loves us. He promises a world filled of good things. Start by writing down a few things you are grateful for, keep them little. On my list is I am grateful that I have a ceiling fan in my dining room. The breeze feels great.

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