The unchangeable past


Several weeks ago, I read “25 Things People in Healthy Relationships Don’t Do.” The whole post is good, especially if you’re struggling with a relationship, but the sentence I illustrated for this post has stayed with me all these weeks, poetic, profound, and true.

Here’s the whole quote:

“[People in healthy relationships] don’t focus on the unchangeable past. Sometimes happiness in relationships amounts to making peace with something that can’t be fixed.  Sometimes you let it go, and sometimes you hold it broken. It amounts to forgiveness in any case.”

I think I’m drawn to this quote because it’s untidy. It doesn’t reduce love (or the business of being human, because I think this truth applies to more than just relationships) into something more manageable than it is. Recently I was talking to one of my closest friends about platitudes, about how they aren’t so much wrong as grossly inadequate. To a large extent it’s true; we can “choose happiness,” we can “move on,” we can “be kind,” “love more,” “let go.” The reason we say these things to each other is because there is truth and wisdom in them, and they’re a kind of shorthand for all the things that are much harder and take more time to say.

They also fall woefully short as advice for someone who is heartbroken, or wounded, or lonely, or lost.

This isn’t a platitude; it’s simple, unadorned, boots-on-the-ground truth. When you’re hurting from something that happened in the past, you really do have two options: you can let it go (which is usually, let’s face it, a long, drawn-out process of letting it go and then falling into it again and again because no matter how good your intentions, letting go is hard and messy and seldom consists of a straight line right on through to Zendom), or you can hold it broken, which is all about acceptance (and also choice and grit and tenderness and resilience.)

Neither choice is easy. Or right. Or wrong.

And, honestly, there is a third option: you can rail against the unfixable thing. I do that all the time. I focus on it until I’m miserable and exhausted (as all good railers eventually are). Then, inevitably, I hold it broken for a while, because I can’t let it go, and I’m too tired to keep fighting with reality.

When I’m very lucky, after I’ve tried to let it go only to fall back into it again and again – a pattern I sometimes repeat for years before I get past it – I get to the place where I really can let it go.

And then, just like that, I’m reborn.


I have new stuff to show you!

Check out my new, illustrated fact-filled ABOUT page. Plus, I have galleries. They’re illustrated too, by virtue of their being galleries and all.  And, there’s a WORK WITH ME page now, so no one will ever have to wonder again if they can, in fact, work with me; it’s right there, in black and white (and also blue, and this really cool mustard color I’m currently in love with).

I worked hard on all the new pages and to celebrate, I want to give away some original art. Leave me a comment (about my post or my site), and just before I post again on August 22nd, I’ll pick a name and give them their choice of one original from the doodles below. These were all drawn during my recent 30-day Art Challenge.







  1. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) on August 8, 2014 at 6:31 am

    This is really beautiful, j. I absolutely love that quote, and I love your point about “railing against it,” too. This is just all so true.

    • j on August 8, 2014 at 6:40 am

      Thank you, Annie. I’ve been frustrated, especially lately, by my inability to let go of a bunch of stuff with my father. It was helpful to realize, as I wrote this post, that it’s all pretty unfixable stuff, and that letting go is a process. And that’s okay.

  2. Karin on August 8, 2014 at 7:15 am

    The quote and the doodle with it are perfect. When we struggle too much against the inevitable, we are only stressing ourselves out. We can’t change what’s been done, we can only change ourselves.
    The mantra “let it go” is really making its rounds lately. (Perhaps a certain Disney movie is to blame… 🙂 ) But it’s certainly important to remember that holding on is the hardest thing to do.
    It’s like all of our problems, our worries, our everyday events are their own baggage. There’s no way we are going to be able to carry all of that while we are traveling. We can check in some of the baggage, carry what we need, but eventually we are all going to have to let go of certain things. It’s all about priorities.

    And how could anyone pick out of those wonderful three doodles?? Whoever gets picked is certainly going to have a debate on their hands 🙂

    • j on August 8, 2014 at 1:30 pm

      Aw. Thank you, Karin! I love your baggage check metaphor, and I agree completely. xo

  3. Pam on August 8, 2014 at 7:25 am

    I love the illustration of the quote.

    Like so many things in life, forgiving can be something we do many times (at different stages of awareness) regarding a particular person or event with a person. Also I think sometimes it feels like too big of a gift to give ourselves–forgiving that hurt or failure or mistake–so we can’t bring ourselves to do it just then. If we work on it, we’ll get there. <3

    • j on August 8, 2014 at 1:32 pm

      Yes, absolutely, forgiveness is always more a gift to ourselves than to the person we forgive… unless its ourselves we are forgiving, and then I guess it’s a tie. ; )

      Forgiveness in stages… yes. I think I’ve been doing that without realizing it. You’re so smart!

  4. Patrick on August 8, 2014 at 7:26 am

    Very appropriate for this day.

    • j on August 8, 2014 at 1:33 pm

      It’s not often that my timing is impeccable, but every now and then…

  5. Vicki Lee on August 8, 2014 at 7:59 am

    I’m so glad I found you on Facebook. One of the really beautiful things about a very weird platform. I love your art and it seems I’m coming to love your soul. Thank you for baring it.

    • j on August 8, 2014 at 1:37 pm

      What a sweet comment, Vicki. I’m glad you found me too. I love how we are all drawn to the members of our tribe, often long before we know there is a tribe. Thank you back.

  6. Nancy on August 8, 2014 at 9:01 am

    Oh J, how I love you! And, how I love the synchronicity of our lives. I read that post, and I too was just fascinated by the quote. It is so true…and how you describe the process is absolutely perfect! I’m going to e-mail you about a tattoo idea…because now that mama’s gone, I can decorate my body! Love, love, love you to the moon and back, my friend!


    • j on August 8, 2014 at 1:38 pm

      I sort of love that one of the things you want to do now is “decorate your body.” Yes, send me an email. It’s been way too long, anyway! xox

  7. Terri on August 8, 2014 at 9:21 am

    Hi Judy, As I wrote on your FB page, I really agree and understand where your emotions are in reference to what you read and this blog. I have always loved the way you write as if you’re just sitting and chatting with us at the kitchen table. 🙂

    • j on August 8, 2014 at 1:47 pm

      Best writing compliment ever! Thank you, Terri! <3

  8. spirallady on August 8, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    Excellent! And so true (dang it).

    • j on August 8, 2014 at 1:49 pm

      “Dang it” made me laugh!

  9. Joanne Marie Firth on August 8, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Hello, I’ve been lost at sea but I’m here now. My arms are so full from holding it all broken, yet I remain hopeful that eventually the broken things will not be quite so heavy. I appreciated this post, it made my arms stronger.

    • j on August 8, 2014 at 1:51 pm

      Joanne, my long lost friend! I’m so happy to see you! Okay, you hope for lighter broken things, and I’ll hope you get to that place where you can let them go… use both your arms for dancing. ; )

  10. miragi on August 8, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    Amen to the ‘hold it broken’ part! I’ve done that a lot and so has my beloved because it’s what works best…when we can admit that we are flawed beings. You just have to be able to LOOK past the broken and see the unbroken. <3 I'm off to check out your new pages, and I feel ya on the mustard yellow…our kitchen backsplash is mustard-colored, which was all over my hands the other day when I repainted it…. 🙂 If I had your art, it would hang in my kitchen, where I sit at the table every day working 🙂 xo

    • j on August 9, 2014 at 7:39 am

      When I was writing this post, I was, of course, thinking of my own past, and the way that it has affected my present. But I was also thinking of someone I know who lost her baby before it was one year old. I assume she holds tragedy broken, and will never let it go. Sometimes holding it broken isn’t about forgiveness at all. It’s about remaining functional in a world that keeps right on spinning no matter what happens to us tiny humans, and daring to love again after your heart’s been devastated.

      That has nothing to do with your comment, I know, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the kinds of things we hold broken, and the reasons why sometimes we simply can’t let them go.

      And, I’d be honored to hang on your wall, visible every day when you sit down to work!

  11. lunajune on August 9, 2014 at 6:51 am

    Love your take on holding the broken part.
    Having let go of so many things, from today’s stand point I make it look easy
    but I know one of the hardest things I let go of took me over 25 years, even got the person
    who initially shattered my heart to apologize at the weakest point in his life & in that second
    I really saw all those years, it was ‘I’ who broke my heart, not him… he did it 25 years ago
    but every time I held those memories, walked down that road, held the images, no matter ,it was me that was trying to breathe life back into the embers that were long gone.
    now I check in on a regular basis to what I’m holding… for what we hold, holds us
    the most freeing thing I’ve found in my whole life

    • j on August 9, 2014 at 7:44 am

      Wow. Beautifully written, June, and so true. I have a similar situation right now, a relationship that cannot evolve because I can’t seem to shake myself loose of the past. I see (often incorrectly) past patterns in the current relationship, and I let all the old wounds open up. I know, without a doubt, this is my thing to let go of. So I keep trying, and falling back in, and trying some more. It’s been years – most of my life – but I believe I’ll get to the letting-go place.

  12. Estrella Azul on August 11, 2014 at 7:57 am

    That is such a great thought to think about, j. I have been having issues with this very thing, after my dad died a few weeks ago, and find that it is even harder to let go when one knows that things have no way of ever changing in the relationship.
    So, perhaps I was going about this all wrong. Maybe I should give holding it broken, and accepting reality a try.

  13. Alarna Rose Gray on August 11, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    I really love Lexi and the bed hair! But also, in keeping with your love manifesto, I think this idea of ‘holding it broken’ is pretty powerful. It’s acknowledging that sometimes we love broken things and, sometimes, they don’t require us to fix them. And all of that is A-okay.

  14. j on August 12, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Writing this post, I was thinking more of the things we hold broken without loving – the loss of a loved one, our wounded hearts, a bad diagnosis, painful truths. I hadn’t thought of it the way you’re thinking of it – that sometimes we love things that are broken. That could be, I guess, the ultimate acceptance of what is.

  15. Nina Badzin on August 14, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    We are thinking along the same lines. I’m in the middle of several drafts of different articles for the High Holidays where I am mainly focusing on letting it go . . . and I love that quote about holding it broken. That is such an important, eye-opening way of thinking about it. Don’t be surprise if some of this is quoted (with your permission and assuming you don’t mind me using your name). I would send you a draft first to approve!

    • j on August 14, 2014 at 3:36 pm

      I’ve spent a lot of time beating myself up for what I can’t let go of, truly believing (in some cases knowing) that I would be so much better off if I could. But letting go is a process, and until I get there (or for those things that I’ll never get there with), holding them broken is a healthy way for me to think of it (albeit sometimes heavy).

      You can quote me anytime. I always like seeing my name amid all your other well chosen words.

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