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1. You have a good girl and a bad girl inside you, and the good girl is usually the one who gets you into trouble.

The good girl waits to be called on. She takes no for an answer. She doesn't want to disturb anyone. She carries maturity and good citizenship to the point of paralysis. She holds herself in check, tells herself, "Don't you dare." The bad girl dares. The bad girl shocks me, and I have a lot to thank her for. She said, "I love you," and she said it first. She said, "I quit this job." She said, "I've been working on this book for eight years and it stinks and I'm throwing out the manuscript and starting over." When I look back at the things I regret—the jobs I wanted and didn't go after, the editors with whom I never got in touch, the misunderstandings I didn't try to clear up, the interesting people I never talked to—I can see how often the good girl was in charge: cautious and correct, and wrong.

2. Sooner or later one of those "How can she stand it?" things is going to happen to you, and you'll stand it.

My father's suicide. Without warning, on a February morning when he was 61.

3. Having one "How can she stand it?" thing happen does not protect you from more things happening.

A year after my father died, my mother was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. Along with the fear and grief and rage, I felt a sense of cosmic unfairness, as if the universe had lost track of the quota and given our family more than its share of pain. The hard truth is: There is no quota. You can get hit once, twice, or ten times, clustered together or spaced far apart. It's one thing to know intellectually that anything can happen; it's another to actually feel the chaotic vulnerability of life, which for me didn't come with the first terrible occurrence, but rather with the second.

4. Sometimes the only answer is "Who knows?"

My mother's surgeon said this, when I asked him about her prognosis. I wanted to hug him, even while I believed that deep down he knew that she was going to die. But she went through surgery and chemo and she didn't die, though the next few years were terrifying. Learning to live with uncertainty is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, and I'm continually having to re-learn it. But there is also something deeply lovely about uncertainty: the possibility of optimism. If the story of the future truly isn't written yet, who's to say it won't end well?

Next: The essential marriage truth

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