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.

This Day Brought Me to Tears

“We speak loudly but no one understands us.
But we are not surprised
For we are speaking the language
That will be spoken tomorrow.”

~ Horst Bienek, from “Resistance” (trans. Michael Mead)

Everything is making me cry today. My heart feels so exposed. Like I took off my armor and left it somewhere. Like I spun the prayer wheel so fast it didn’t give me time to worry about doing it right.

David Tennant’s face throughout this surprise tribute.

Bashō (translated by Robert Bly):

The temple bell stops–
but the sound keeps coming 
out of the flowers 

My kid’s fear about a trip without her parents, and the big sign she placed in her suitcase (after she emptied it out this morning) that didn’t mince words: I’M NOT GOING. Please.

Questions like: Who would I be without my work? Without my writing? Without my people? Without “my”?

Would I know, deep down, my worth?

Mani’s words:

“You can’t receive when you have clenched fists.”

Open your hands. Open your mind. Open your heart.

“The best-laid plans are are my open hands.”

(Which Mani can’t remember if she heard in a song or if she wrote herself.)

This song.

The way our names contain us — and how we can find either comfort in being held in, or the courage to push beyond the limitations of those syllables and the energy they carry.

I am not surprised if you don’t understand. I might be speaking tomorrow’s language already. I might have wondered if tomorrow’s language would ever come or if I’d be stuck speaking the same sentences over and over for all time. But no. Time won’t have it. The hardest things shapeshift as surely as the sun is melting the snow. And they also bring clarity, in the way fire burns and purifies but is impossibly hot to stand near for long. You won’t think you can stand it, but you can.

You can.

“I will write in words of fire. I will write them on your skin. I will write about desire. Write beginnings, write of sin. You’re the book I love the best, your skin only holds my truth, you will be a palimpsest lines of age rewriting youth. You will not burn upon the pyre. Or be buried on the shelf. You’re my letter to desire: And you’ll never read yourself. I will trace each word and comma As the final dusk descends, You’re my tale of dreams and drama, Let us find out how it ends.” ~ Neil Gaiman

The last big cry I remember was in the fall. I remember because I cried in the car all the way to the base of a small mountain, then parked and walked furiously uphill over leaves so deep and wet they decomposed before my eyes giving way to earth and winter coming. I remember because I reached the peak and looked out over the river and the valley and felt my dry cheeks and the relief of burning off the tears and getting some perspective.

Then last night I lost it, which isn’t true if you read it literally. I didn’t lose a thing. I just stood at the kitchen sink with the hot water on my hands, blood from where the potato peeler nicked the nail on my left middle finger, and the soapy sponge and the glasses and plates from a late dinner. And I didn’t lose anything, really. But I did cry. I started and I couldn’t stop right away — clearly this had been sitting there, just when I’d begun wondering if I’d ever cry again, a faint hint of concern cropping up that I don’t cry more often given the state of the world.

Well no worries. I can still cry. This is good, even if it freaked my kids out a little. (“Are you OKAY??”)

Last night, lying in bed, Mani put her hands on my back. Then she said just the right words, which she has a knack for: We aren’t here to save each other. We don’t need saving. We all come in with our karma and no one can burn if for us but us.

Then you love people and things get sticky sometimes; it is so painful to see someone you love suffering and to not know the answer. But there’s a reason you don’t know the answer. Your love is enough. It doesn’t feel like enough. It feels all wrong; surely you should be DOING something and the impulse to DO something is the same thing as the impulse to FIX it, SAVE THEM, make it BETTER.

There’s no saving.

So my heart is open and I cried and today, right now, I look out the kitchen window and the branches of the pine trees are swaying in the breeze. The sun is strong, and I’m surprised to glance at the clock and see that it’s after 4:00pm. The earth is turning and the seasons are changing and this is one of those moments when I can SEE time. And how bendable it is, and how it both requires so much faith and also none at all. All at the same time.

“We can know a lot. And still no doubt, there are rash and wonderful ideas brewing somewhere; there are many surprises yet to come.” ~ Mary Oliver

The mind loves to catastrophize. To seize the moment but not in a carpe diem kind of way, more like in a we’re-so-fucked kind of way. But it is a lie. A trap. Don’t fall for it, I tell myself. We no more know that things will be awful than we do that Mary Oliver’s “rash and wonderful ideas” are brewing and surprises are yet to come. Good surprises.

You want to write? So write.

You want to cry? So cry.

You want to love? So open your heart and know that it will break over and over and over and over.

And you will hug someone you love so tightly and suddenly your two bodies will be the shape of sky, which of course is impossible to imagine but perfectly reasonable in the ways of being.

After the fire, you will feel cleaner somehow, and heightened of senses. A bird in the morning will tell you winter is just a word, and you’ll spit out those two syllables with your toothpaste while the shower’s running and you’re standing there naked in the small bathroom looking at all that grey hair around your temples.

Time is not passing us nor are we passing time. Young people will be grown adults someday, full-bodied and with memories of their own, and someday we — you and I — will be the memories themselves. Long, long after we’re gone.

So yes. This day has brought me to tears. Because of love. Because of how empty-handed I feel sometimes. Because of how unbearably beautiful it is to be alive.