Boundaries, Conflict, Forgiveness — Oh My!

Photo: Oscar Keys

When you ask a question and the answer is no, that means the conversation is over.

“No” is not an invitation to push back, argue, convince, emote, cajole, or complain your way to a different outcome.

The time you spend fussing about doing a thing is often how long it would’ve taken to get said thing done.

You can accept not getting your way without a meltdown.

“No” does not mean, “I don’t love you.”

“No” does not mean, “You are unlovable.”

“No” does not mean, “I’m angry at you.”

“I’m angry at you” does not mean, “I don’t love you.”

“I’m angry at you” does not mean, “You are unlovable.”

* * *

Interpersonal conflict is part of life. It is absolutely unavoidable. It is something many of us are terrified of, unskilled at, and reactive to.

Making mistakes is also an absolutely unavoidable part of life. No matter how conscientious, thoughtful, mindful, caring, and considerate you are, you will have blindspots. You will misjudge. You will say a thing or ask a question or make a request and later think, what was I thinking?

That is the moment when learning begins.

That is the moment when a voice in your head is very likely to start up, likely with something harsh and berating, such as, “You idiot!”

That is the moment when your heart may start racing, when your bowels will loosen, when your hands will get sweaty. Fight, flight, freeze, fawn — one or more of these will appear in a nanosecond and your body will go into a system of red alert.

* * *

I recently made a mistake. In the moment, it didn’t seem like a big deal, though I could feel an undercurrent of pressure and rushing that should’ve been signals if I’d been paying closer attention.

Person A wanted to join Persons B and C for an outing. (My role: Intermediary between these parties.) Persons B and C had preexisting plans, that weren’t 100% ideal for Person A. Person A pushed on me to ask Persons B and C if they could change their plan to accommodate this.

Had I been more in tune with my values at this moment — such as respect, connection, trust, and honesty — I would have told Person A, either you can change YOUR plans in order to join Persons B and C, or you can let it go.

Instead, I caved and asked Persons B and C if they could change THEIR plans.

Why did I make this decision? Because this is real life: Messy, stumbling, incurably imperfect. If only we could see the whole picture in each and every moment.

Then came later. Because of going to an event 45 minutes later than planned, all the involved persons missed the highlights of the event, which Person C in particular had been looking forward to for months, perhaps even longer. Person C was hysterically sad. (It may be noted that Person C is a very young person, whose sadness was not unreasonable.)

And so it was that Friday night, I received a text from Person D, telling me how hurt she was by my asking Persons B and C to change their plans to accommodate Person A.

In a word, it sucked.

In another word: I made a mistake.

And there was no way to undo that, no way to go back and change it, no way to fix it. All I could do was take responsibility, notice what I wished I had done and said instead, and apologize six ways to Sunday for my poor judgment call.

Would the relationships all be ok?

Of course, that was the fear.

In a word: Loss.

Person A wrote a card with a very sweet drawing and put it in Persons B, C, and D’s mailbox.

I invited Person D to go for a run the next day. We met up in the driveway and gave each other a hug. We talked about how much we mean to each other. We talked about our families of origin and how we learned (or didn’t learn) to meet conflict, anger, and hurt feelings.

Persons B, C, and D forgave Person A and me. We all learned some things.

* * *

“No” means no.

“Yes, this is how that will work for us” is not an invitation to negotiating alternatives.

Boundaries are healthy.

Relationships worth keeping can withstand some conflict.

You cannot control another person’s reaction. We all bring whole lives to our responses to things, and there is almost guaranteed to be other stuff going on that may not be visible to the naked eye.

You are allowed to be angry.

You are allowed to feel hurt.

You are allowed to be scared.

You are allowed to make mistakes.

You are allowed to apologize. But it is not up to you whether or how your apology will be received. Not every song has a nice major chord of resolution at the end.

* * *

You are not required to learn form these experiences, but your world will be richer and your relationships stronger if you do. And there is no avoiding them, lest we live in a fragile, entitled state of needing everything to go our way.

Friends can become family. Family is not a guarantee of closeness.

Anger and hurt are inevitable and normal parts of being a human.

Forgiveness is a choice, not a duty.

Communication takes effort.

It’s worth it.

* * * 

Want to spend 2019 exploring how small but mighty words (like “honesty” and “courage”) show up in your everyday life?

Join me for Truth: A Year-Long Exploration of Personal Values.

Real Talk Isn’t Easy

There is so much we don’t share, or write or even talk about. None of it is simple.

Navigating the territory between personal and political is a mighty task. In fact, it’s not a task at all but a life — with aspects that are and deserve to remain private, while also bearing responsibility for standing up and speaking out. The word “discernment” comes to mind.

Synagogue, Friday night services, welcoming Shabbat in community. Someone dear to me whispers in my ear something about Hondurans trying to cross the border, being treated like criminals. It’s safe to say most of the congregants in this sanctuary believe Trump is a nightmare. Many are actively working in the local sanctuary and anti-racism movements. There are a handful of Jews of color, as well.

“I feel like they’ve stolen our country,” she says.

Outwardly, I nod. Internally, my mind immediately races, in a way I’ve become accustomed to. Statements like this send me in so many directions at once, and I’ve been working to recognize the shortcoming of my heightened reactivity. Among the thoughts that fire like so many overheated neurons:

1. Agreement. Yes. This is not the America we (want to) believe in.

2. Disagreement. No, that America has never been.

3. Agreement. The way this administration is treating refugees and immigrants is unconscionable.

4. Pushback: This country’s relationship to refugees and immigrants has always been ambivalent — at best. Relevant, since we’re sitting in prayer: We turned Jews away from Europe during WWII.

5. More than one thing can be true at the same time. This one gets me every time. I’m working with and on it.

6. They stole the country from us? No, Europeans stole the country in the first place. It has never belonged to “us.”

7. Who is “us” and what is “our”? As Jennifer Harvey writes: “there is no non-racialized woman.” It’s imperative to keep this front and center — no matter your gender.

8. My own privilege — an upbringing in an upwardly mobile, financially secure, white, Jewish family, with strong emphasis on the arts, on education, and on inclusion. I was not raised to be “colorblind” but I also faced very few obstacles and none related to my skin color, religion, or class.

9. My father’s historical memory of anti-semitism. My mother’s historical memory of integration.

10. The limits and dangers of choosing to see mostly or only what we want to see: i.e. progress.

11. The way “progress” is a myth that makes liberal white Americans feel less helpless about racism, and how this keeps the focus on white comfort and not on reality.

Oof. See what I mean? And this is just a tiny sampler of the way my mind gallops. Not particularly productive.

* * *

Another moment: My son got tearful one day, when he was working on a school assignment and eliciting my help. Some of the suggestions I made pointed back to how race might factor into one’s choice of where to live.

“You always do this,” he said. “Everything is always about race or politics.”

The kid had a point. There is a thing called balance… maybe. And yet how do I prioritize balance when the world is so imbalanced? This feels to me like one of the biggest practical and spiritual challenges of our lifetimes.

I won’t apologize for my voice — nor do I want to be reactive. No one, of any age, can drink from a firehouse.

And yet my own words come back to me, words Omkari Williams echoed back to me during our conversation on her podcast recently: Don’t look away.

How do I live, write, parent, and love without looking away, while also not becoming a person who cannot take a breath, who cannot slow her racing mind, who cannot see anything without the glaring filters of injustice?

If we are closed to connection with the very person sitting next to us in the pew, how can we truly care about the stranger?

It would be so nice to say, “Love is the answer.” But what does that even mean? Platitudes will not suffice.

Our rabbi and congregation have been focusing on the mandate not to oppress the stranger. And so to not become strangers to those in our immediate circles and spheres of influence becomes intensely important and sometimes, for me, the most difficult thing of all.

One thing I know is that this is not about me being “good” at something. It’s about keeping the focus where it belongs, which is not a single point. The focus belongs on so many places at once: The big picture, the systemic oppression that has never not been present in our country, the feelings and needs and thoughts of those under my own roof, and the ability to take care of my mind rather than allowing the ugliness of what we know to be true to splinter me into a thousand broken pieces.

Healing cannot happen without justice. Justice will not happen without real talk, and real talk is, frankly, not easy. We all have relationships to navigate, those who may not see as we see.

The less insistent I am about being right and the more intent on moral courage and righteousness — individually and collectively — the clearer the task becomes: To keep doing the work that none of us alone can or will complete. To keep widening the circles while tending to the ones closest to us. To keep asking hard questions and not looking away, not backing away from the moments that make us most confused or agitated or fired up.

To step into that fire and learn.

What needs to burn? What good are these ashes? How are we each other’s keepers? What is it to really listen?

So many questions.

* * *

Desiree Lynn Adaway frequently quotes these lines from Assata Shakur’s autobiography:

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.

In “The Hate U Give,” which I saw with Aviva last night, Starr, the main character, also quotes these words, over a loudspeaker in a profound moment of claiming her voice. We both sat there in the dark theater, crying.

I will not let those tears be in vain.

I will not let those tears be white tears, crocodile tears, or fragile tears. I will not abdicate my responsibility to fight for freedom — yours, mine, my children’s, your children’s — even if it makes you uncomfortable.

And I will also continue to practice quieting my mind and seeing myself in as honest a light as I can — which is to say, learning when to be quiet, when to be curious, and especially to remember to listen to people of color, to those whose lived experience of oppression is daily, cellular, and immediate. To put to use my ancestral and generational memory, while also knowing my place as someone with so much privilege.

That’s what I’ve got this morning. Thank you for reading, for wrestling with me, for staying in this for as long as it takes.

As long as it takes.

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
down the hall
their s’s curving
down the narrow
tunnel between
careening into
in a young girl’s
Go further
and she has
rainbow wallpaper
small tufted clouds
she writes notes
slips papers
beneath doors
though she has done
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
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
that will happen?
She will peel back
the layers
to see the tender
fragile skin
where this began.
And maybe
it will even

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.

The Roar Sessions: Chris Leslie

ROAR:  Reckoning Our Actions Rigorously
by Chris Leslie 
Chris Leslie
Reckoning – Archaic for the process of settling accounts.

When Jena Schwartz invited me to contribute to her ROAR sessions I began to muse about an acronym for the word “ROAR.”  After considering several variations I settled on the one that means the most to me at this time of year and the title of this essay.  Having grown up in the south, the word “reckon” is among my favorite southern words so this works for me. Maybe it will for you, too.

Over the last 15 years I have learned a fair amount about reckoning my actions rigorously.  This has become a way of life for me, one that helps me address and remedy actions I have taken that were not in my best interest and/or in the best interest of others.  It has also helps me to acknowledge and commend myself for actions that have been in my best interest and/or in the best interest of others.

Settling my yearly accounts has become a very healthy strategy for me that is fun, meaningful, and readies me for the next year.  The origins of this practice are varied.  In the business world it’s called “auditing the books” or “taking an inventory.”  In some religions it’s called “the confessional.”  I like the term “reckoning” because it carries both spiritual and practical connotations in one word for “auditing the books” and visiting a confessional booth.

Marley’s ghost, the character in Charles Dickens, Christmas Carol, has played a part in why this process of “reckoning our actions rigorously” makes good sense to me.  Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner, comes to Scrooge on Christmas Eve laden in chains binding him for eternity. He wove the chains burdening his soul by being miserly and unconcerned for the welfare of those much less fortunate than he when he walked the earth. He comes to warn Scrooge that he will suffer the same fate unless Scrooge sees the errors of his ways, which he does with the help of three spirits: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future, who escort him through the process of reckoning his actions rigorously.

Scrooge is very moved by revisiting scenes from his life when he could have made different choices, and then again, when he reviews choices he could make differently in the future.  Scrooge awakens from his reckoning journey to discover that it is not too late for him and he can indeed live the balance of his life well by amending his miserly ways and by being kind, generous, thoughtful, and merry.

And so it is with me each year now.  I take a reckoning journey over the choices and actions of my life at the end of each calendar year.  I assess what was healthy and what was not so I can learn from and go on from my mistakes and, if possible, mend any harm done.  I also love reveling in the good stuff!

2015 was a challenging year, as well as a pleasantly surprising, good year!  The first six months of 2015 were filled with some very difficult circumstances that made life very stressful.  My spouse and I were able to weather this stormy period by supporting each other and calling out the best in each other instead of the worst, for the most part.  Yeah us!

CL-snowWe were able to do this because we tended our relationship.  We started by going to an amazing couples’ retreat in the snowy woods of western MA over Valentines weekend.  We laughed and cried a lot and we learned a lot. We left the retreat much more appreciative of each other.  After getting through a glacial winter, we spent 10 exquisite days on the Gulf Coast of Florida in mid-April. In late May we spent six days in D.C. so we could attend the wedding of one of our nieces, visit with dear friends and family, and take in some of the sights.

CL&MLIn mid-June, the Supreme Court declared marriage legal for all couples wishing to wed in this great country of ours, relieving our considerable worry that our marriage might never be legal in every state of the union.  At the end of June, we made the decision for Mary to end a job that had become very unhealthy for her and for her to retire.

Since making this decision, Mary has been able to rest, recuperate, and reinvent herself as we have reworked our priorities for the better.  Yeah us!

Over Labor Day Weekend, we made our way to north Georgia for our annual pilgrimage to the south lands to spend time with family and to welcome a niece’s new husband to our clan. Dionisio hales from Maputo, Mozambique, so my niece’s marriage to him crossed international as well as racial lines never crossed before in our family.  Mary and I were privileged to be present as my 88-year-old father conducted MJ’s and Di’s American marriage.

We were teary and joyful as they exchanged their wedding vows with the beloved words: to have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish until death do us part.  That we looked like drowned rats just in from the swimming pool did not phase us at all.  We were together.  We were strengthening our family and we loved every minute of it!

CL-TripletsTo top it off, the birth of their triplets was imminent in early September so we were all giddy with joy in anticipation of their arrival. We were relieved and thrilled when our two newest great nephews and great niece arrived on 9/15/15 healthy and raring to go!

Last but not least, in October Mary and I spent a week on Cape Cod enjoying the warmth of the late fall, walking on the beach, taking in the beauty that is second-to-none on Cape Cod, shopping in Provincetown, and eating lots of really good food.  Tending our marital tethers has been really good for us as has tending our familial tethers.  We highly recommend it!

Over the last year, I have made healthier choices, in large part, because I have a goal of living well into my 90’s in good health, God willing as the saying goes.  I have been more willing to go the gym and work out regularly.  I have been more willing to eat organic and unprocessed food, thanks in large part, to my spouse’s devotion to wonderful, well-prepared healthy food!  I don’t consume alcohol (stopped 15 years ago) and I don’t smoke cigarettes!  I ride my bicycle to work when the weather is good.  My spouse and I kayak in beautiful places in VT when it’s warm.  I downhill ski when we have ample snow.  Most important of all, I am taking more time to play, pray and meditate. As the above tells you, I am determined to be more intentional about spending quality time with my spouse, our family and our friends near and far. Every time I call and talk to my 88-year-old father, I thank God I still can.

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Now that I am well into my sixth decade, I am very mindful that I have lived two-thirds of my life.  This, too, is a reason I am more devoted to taking time to reckon my actions rigorously.  My goal is to live what life I have left with gusto, grit, generosity, and gratitude so when the time comes, I can leave this world with as few regrets as possible, with as many fences mended as needed, and with the unbounded joy that comes from having lived long and loved well.

Marley’s message was not meant just for Scrooge.  There is a Scrooge in all of us that, if left untended, can really wreak some havoc in our lives.  Hence, the process of reckoning my actions rigorously — on some kind of regular basis — helps me keep the Scrooge inside of me from reverting to some rather unattractive and less than helpful patterns/habits that once plagued me and sometimes still do.

Auditing my life’s books at the end of each year, settling my accounts, makes good sense and readies me for what is yet to come.  It takes a willingness, though, to be rigorously honest which is not for the faint of heart.  Looking ourselves squarely in the eye and making the decision to stop doing things that hurt us and others takes courage and spiritual fortitude.  In fact, I have found it necessary if I am to venture into the next year without the chains of mistakes and hurtful actions hanging all over me.

I will leave you with three mottoes that I strive to live by, ones you will probably know and perhaps take with you from this ROAR session:  we reap what we sow, we are known by the company we keep, and actions speak louder than words.  May the year ahead be filled with a bountiful harvest of love, gratitude, and joy; with people who are good for us and we them; and with actions that are thoughtful, helpful, inspiring, kind, forgiving, forbearing, and generous.  Then, when it comes time to reckon 2016, we might not have so much work to do!

Happy New Year!


Chris LeslieChris Leslie lives in VT with her spouse, Mary, and their dog, Indy.  Chris has been working as a Probation & Parole Officer with the VT Department of Corrections since May 2002.  Prior to this, Chris was in the ministry for 25 years and served in various capacities that included parish ministry, hospital and hospice chaplaincy, drug and alcohol counseling, and running the Habitat For Humanity affiliate in Newark, NJ that she helped to found in 1985.

Chris and Mary are looking forward to retiring in five years and moving to the Eastern Shore outside of D.C. where the hope to spend more time with their family, playing in D.C., and walking on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. And eating lots and lots of good food!