Arbitrary Conventions, Untwisting the Overalls, and Learning to Say No

This morning, after drinking coffee and greeting writing groups online, I walked over to the bookshelf in my living room. I closed my eyes and scanned the spines with my right hand, then landed on one and slipped it out from the shelf. When I opened my eyes, I saw that I had selected a beautiful volume of Thich Nhat Hanh’s journals from 1962 to 1966, called Fragrant Palm Leaves. The copyright of my edition is from 1998. Like many of the books that have survived move after move, this one has stayed with me for two decades now.

I opened to page 89.

“Youth is a time for seeking truth. Years ago I wrote in my journal that even if it destroys you, you must hold to the truth. I knew early on that finding truth is not same as finding happiness. You aspire to see the truth, but once you have seen it, you cannot avoid suffering. Otherwise, you’ve seen nothing at all. You are still hostage to arbitrary conventions set up by others. People judge themselves and each other based on standards that are not their own. In fact, such standards are mere wishful thinking, borrowed from public opinion and common viewpoints. One thing is judged as good and another as bad, one thing virtuous and another evil, one thing true and another false. But when the criteria used to arrive at such judgments are not your own, they are not your truth. Truth cannot be borrowed. It can only be experienced directly. The fruit of exploration, suffering, and the direct encounter between one’s own spirit and reality — the reality of the present moment and the reality of ten thousand lifetimes. For each person, it is different. And it is different today than it was yesterday.” 

Take your time reading that paragraph. Go back and reread it if you’d like. I’ll wait.

Now take a deep breath and just take a moment to notice where your thoughts went.

Mine went all over the place — back to youth, when I first read this book, to this morning, when I practiced setting boundaries, something that is difficult for me probably because I have acted for so much of life according to outside criteria for what’s good and virtuous, and to the reality of this present moment, with the early April light melting the snow that stuck this morning.

Seeing what’s true means seeing suffering. There is no unseeing it. But there is being conscious of how we see and how we respond. There is the truth that truth is different for each person, and anytime I assume what’s true for another human without asking, I am asleep at the wheel.

Falling asleep at the wheel is, in a word, dangerous. Have you ever done it? Literally nodded off while driving? Or felt your eyes heavy just in time to pull over safely? That is some terrifying shit.

* * *

“Truth cannot be borrowed. It can only be experienced directly.”

I keep returning to that sentence. The magnitude of it, the simplicity of it, even as direct experience is often anything but simple. What it isn’t is borrowed, manufactured, imagined, or intellectualized. Either a thing is happening or a thing isn’t happening.

How we meet experience, and process it in our minds and bodies afterwards, how we digest and metabolize experience, how we release the waste and keep the nutrients — these are complex functions. They require time and care, patience and compassion.

These days are bringing many opportunities to look at arbitrary conventions I’ve taken on and taken in as truths.

For example: A good mom is always available to and for her kids.

For example: Being self-employed means I should drop everything when someone needs me (since technically, I can).

* * *

This morning, after reading page 89 in the randomly selected and timely book, I wrote a poem:

The pit of the belly
of the beast
of the people pleaser.
The pool of fear
that seethes
in the chest
in the interstitial places
between ribs
of the little child
whose parents are
fighting
down the hall
their s’s curving
down the narrow
tunnel between
rooms
careening into
catastrophe
in a young girl’s
mind.
Go further
and she has
rainbow wallpaper
small tufted clouds
she writes notes
slips papers
beneath doors
apologizing
though she has done
nothing
wrong.
Years later
a woman sits
in her own living
room and says
a simple “no”
to a simple question.
First a man asks
then a girl
and both times
the woman
says no, not today.
No, I am not able.
No, that won’t work
for me.
Her belly
clenches
and chest tightens,
mind revs up
like a motor
that will burn itself
out in a stench
if she’s not careful.
Just say no.
Just say it.
Practice, she tells herself.
What is the worst
thing
that will happen?
She will peel back
the layers
to see the tender
fragile skin
where this began.
And maybe
it will even
heal.

Recognizing that I can rewrite the story and change the narrative — based on direct experience, based on exploration, based on trusting the messages my own body sends me — feels big. It is a way of saying to myself and life: Let’s try something different today, shall we? It’s choosing an unknown instead of the familiar pattern.

Interrupting patterns and creating new ones is the work of a lifetime. I want to do these things with great care, but without walking on eggshells. I want to trust myself to communicate in ways that are loving, honest, direct, and clear. If I’m not sure how to respond to someone, I want to say, “I’m not sure how to respond to this right now. Let me sit with it and get back to you by [enter specified time frame here].”

Without the slowing down piece of this equation, you know what happens? Something seemingly small can overtake my entire day. I can spend hours going over what I wrote or said, questioning myself, thinking through alternate scenarios, and addressing a thousand thoughts about why maybe I could have or should have acted or responded differently.

THAT, my friends, is madness. And life is too short and relationships are too important to settle for madness. I’m a much bigger fan of sanity, clarity, and ease.

* * *

What we think is reality can get so twisted.

It’s like when you do laundry and there’s a pair of overalls in the machine along with shirts and pants, and when you go take the load out to put it in the dryer, the straps from the overalls are wrapped around and around and around the other clothes. A big tangled mess.

Why not just wash the overalls separately next time, right?

Now I’m not even sure quite what it is I’m writing about. Something about truth. Something about rewriting old stories that are more rooted in arbitrary convention than in lived experience. Something about boundaries and learning how to say no and knowing that it won’t ruin a thing, and if it did, that might be an indication that said thing was a bit too fragile in the first place.

Strong, healthy, mature relationships can not only withstand boundaries; they can grow stronger as a result. This goes for my marriage and my parenting, as well as for my work. But man, getting there, living this, is a real work in progress.

* * *

I’m learning how to just say “no.” It makes the times I can and choose to say “yes” so much more authentic. Arbitrary conventions I’ve swallowed and internalized insist I’m being stubborn, selfish, and inflexible. They say I’m not playing nice. I’m noticing how strong those are, and replacing them with a message to myself that in fact, I’m being clear, kind, and real.

If someone I love has a true emergency, you better believe I’ll drop everything. But the frequency with which I drop everything — whether it’s to get a kid a glass of water or give someone a ride or respond to a message that can really wait a few hours — is a signal. It’s time to heed it. It’s time to pull over to the side of the road, splash some cold water on my face, and not cause harm by functioning in ways that are more habitual than fully awake.

I’m going to practice washing things with high tangle potential by themselves, hang them to dry, and do what I can to minimize creating a frustrating mess. The more real, honest, and courageous I am in terms of boundaries, the more truly available I can be for the people and things that are deeply precious to me.

When I look at it that way, it’s not a hard choice to make.

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