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.

TRUTH: A Year-Long Exploration of Personal Values

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The Back Story

I recently announced a new offering. It was going to be a year-long group based on a small but mighty book, “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words,” by the Scottish poet David Whyte. But I ran into an unexpected snafu: His publishing company contacted me, kindly telling me that my offering stood in violation of their “no commercial use” policy. I apologized and removed the web page.

(Cue agonizing over what to do.)

I didn’t want to just slap something together, but I was also reluctant to let it go. I slept on it, then slept on it some more, trying to strike the balance between playing with ideas while knowing you cannot just coax the muse on demand.

Then a coaching session with a client who had signed up for that original group brought some clarity. When Nukhet asked me if I had decided whether to offer an alternative. I told her I was wrestling with — and probably overthinking — it.

“Everyone’s lives are so full,” I said.

Her response was so perfect.

“I disagree. I think people’s lives are often so full… of stuff. But not necessarily fulfilling.”

And that’s when I told her the phrase that had come to me as I was drifting off to sleep last night: One True Thing.

But that is the name of an Anna Quindlen novel! And I didn’t want to run into anymore unexpected copyright issues, thank you very much.

Which is how I landed on this: Truth. Simple as that.

Because that is what we do in my groups: We show up and explore what’s true. We do not need the work of a brilliant poet and philosopher to guide this practice. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

And while I would have loved to use Consolations with its 52 everyday words as an anchor for this year-long group, what I realized this morning is that the essence of the group can remain: Exploring what’s true and meaningful, week after week, in our everyday lives. Exploring our values: What they are, what they’re not, and how they show up (or not).

This is work I’ve been doing with folks for 15 years. This is work I can claim as my own — and that I would love to share with you. In fact, I’ve considered offering a values-based group in the past, but never quite found the right structure.

One door closes, another opens.

What’s true for you may not be true for me. The beauty of this practice is that we can explore what’s true for us in any given moment, week after week, without self-judgment. The intention of the group will be one of witness, not debate, thus creating a truly spacious container for showing up and seeing what it’s like to be more fully awake to our true selves.

The true things in our days are often small, unremarkable. Not only that, but so often we say we want a regular writing practice, but then don’t follow through because it becomes yet another thing to keep up with.

What if it could be so simple?

What if once a week, for a year, you could notice when you were being really… yourself. Really… present. Really… true?

One word per week.

There are many splashy January offerings out there.

Instead of making resolutions and bending under the soul-killing pressure to strive harder, be better, do more, to grow, to change, join me for a slower, more spacious practice, of rooting more deeply into what’s already true.

HOW IT WILL WORK

A Weekly Invitation

For 52 weeks, we will explore what’s really true for us in our days, with each week centering on a particular “values” word.

  • Each Monday morning, you will receive an email from me with that week’s word, along with an image and gentle invitation to explore your relationship to it and one true way it shows up for you during the week. “Tell me the truth about…” is how we will begin each new week.
  • In addition, I will  post each week’s word in a secret Facebook group, sometimes along with a related poem or piece of writing.
  • The invitation will be to explore each week’s word in whatever way feels easy and right to you that week. You might choose to do a 10-minute timed, unedited freewrite, write a haiku each day, or make a collage inspired by what the word evokes. You might have a strong response to one week’s word while not feeling any particular connection to another’s. You might use the practice to really challenge your assumptions. You might write your own definition. You might tell a story, unearth a memory, or simply notice how and where that word shows up in your everyday interactions. The idea is to let the word be a guide inward, a gateway, to one true thing each week.
  • You may share your reflections, writings, photos, poems, and responses in any form throughout the week. Sharing in the group is entirely optional. It’s also fine to simply participate quietly; the choice is yours and may shift throughout the year.

A Year-Long Practice: January 1-December 31, 2019

  • Because we will be moving through 52 specific words together, participants are asked to commit to a year of participation.
  • A year sounds like a LONG TIME. In some ways, it is. Every single day is a life, after all. I am also intensely curious about what happens when we start something and stay with it, watching our own ebbs and flows and peaks and valleys — and each other’s — with more compassion and curiosity and less self-judgment, fear, and doubt.
  • Some weeks we will be all in, some weeks we will check out. What we will discover is community, connection, and more space to show up in the context of our real lives as conditions in and around us change and unfold.
  • Participation in the Facebook group is OPTIONAL.
  • There will be no attendance taking or critique, nor an expectation of reading and commenting on everyone’s posts. This practice is intended to be expansive and permission-giving. How you engage with it will likely evolve over the course of the year. The idea is to stay with something — especially ourselves — over time, and see what happens without attachment to outcome.

About the Words

Since 2003, when I hung my first coaching shingle and began working with private clients, I’ve been using the same list of “values” words as a starting point for our work. With some thoughtful tweaking, I’ve reshaped this list into one that will guide us through the year. From “accomplishment” to “trust,” these are all words that show up in all of our lives in some form or another. Each presents an opportunity to explore what’s true for us, how we have changed, and who we’re becoming. Each presents an opportunity to be more awake and alive.

Cost + Registration

Cost: $9/week

Think of it as us meeting for lattes each week to talk about words and life and everything from ambition to destiny to heartbreak to procrastination to self-knowledge.

Get Your Seat

To register: Pay in 12 monthly installments of $36.


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Be An Angel

We live in a culture where people who cannot afford to allocate $36 each month towards a creative practice such as “Truth” live in the margins and shadows. Since of my own core values is justice, it’s important to me not only to name this, but to create and offer concrete opportunities wherever and whenever possible to address and dismantle this disparity.

Those with higher degrees of economic security are much more likely to be able to participate in groups such as this one. If you are living check to check or working three jobs or single parenting or have medical bills or are helping to support other family members, this might be out of reach.

My Big Audacious Goal is to offer 50 scholarships for this group. If you have the financially ability to spare between $36 and $360/month for a year, please consider sponsoring between one and ten participants for this year-long exploration. One-hundred percent of your contribution will go to scholarships.

Community is where change happens. Thank you for being part of it.

Payment Options
Sponsor one spot : $36.00 USD – monthly
2 spots : $72.00 USD – monthly
3 spots : $108.00 USD – monthly
4 spots : $144.00 USD – monthly
5 spots : $180.00 USD – monthly
6 spots : $216.00 USD – monthly
7 spots : $252.00 USD – monthly
8 spots : $288.00 USD – monthly
8 spots : $324.00 USD – monthly
10 spots : $360.00 USD – monthly

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Special Add-On: Your Personal Values Inventory Session

An in-depth private session, where we discuss in detail your personal values, how you know when they’re being honored, and what changes you can and want to make in your everyday life to feel more like your true self in the world.

The session lasts 60-90 minutes and will leave you not only more connected to what’s most important to you, but with an actionable plan for putting that knowledge into motion.

The regular cost of this is $360, but members of this group pay just $200.

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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.

Tell Me About Moving On

Photo: Tj Holowaychuk

Regret is like striking a large bell in an empty field and then running through the empty grass trying to gather the sound of the strike back into the bell. It’s impossible. ~ Mark Nepo

Moving on. From the squabble. The sugar crash. The bad mood. The old moon. The first marriage. The mortgage. The last zip code. The eggshells. The old guard. The tension you carried in your esophagus. The pushing. The holding. The silence. The wishing. The wanting. The better life you never got to by trying to get to a better life. The binge. The bender. The way you berated yourself. The inhale. The exhale. The need to “go out.” The constant escaping, as if your self might be waiting for you on the outcropping of rocks at Oakledge Park or in the alley between buildings or on those three back steps behind the old white barn with the gnarly apple tree in the yard. From the hovering over kids and harboring resentment over money. The face tired from smiling. Doing the right thing. Keeping the peace. Making everyone happy like it was your Job. Keeping your guard up. Keeping your weight down. Keeping your anger down. Keeping your life together.

Moving on made room for you to learn new things.

Like how to relax. How to stop putting so much pressure on yourself to get it right. How to recognize the way perfectionism and comparison are no better than the mean girls your own daughter confronted in fourth grade (and fifth, and sixth). How the voice in your own head wasn’t a reliable narrator, and you could start to tune out much of the noise you used to take so seriously. How to be silly and lack all accountability and still be loved. How to stop jumping through hoops. How to have fun. How to wear tight jeans and shake some booty. How to get out of your own way and just try stuff. Take risks, fail, disappoint, and not die as a result.

Learning these things, you find yourself here, full of ravioli, about to have a conversation about everyday magic with a kindred spirit, knowing it’s neither luck nor blessing that landed you here, but something more akin to love and truth.

“How Can I Help You” and Other Three-Dimensional Questions

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If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lilla Watson

My first year at Barnard, I was part of a tutoring program where we went into public schools each week. It was called Students Helping Students. I loved doing it and can still picture sitting on the floor in a hallway, quietly cheering as a kindergartener made his way through “Are You My Mother?”

I also see now that it was White Students Feeling Good About Themselves by Helping Kids of Color in Underfunded Schools. Both of these are true, because truth is never one-dimensional. And I am still unlearning aspects of my amazing education, and educating myself about how not to be just another nice white lady.

But I have always remembered the name. And for as much as I’ve changed and hold myself to waking up, some things really are threads. The seeds of being of use, of using my skills to connect with other people — those are still here, in the form of women helping women and writers helping writes and humans being good to each other.

Questions of what I want feel short-sighted, and as always, I need to find that place where “what I want” intersects with “what do you — what does the world — need?” It’s a strange interplay, because needs are often most powerfully met by making an offering of some kind, the truest one you have, rather than taking a poll first and then scrambling to see what you can give. In other words, there has to be a balance, a meeting place, between self and world. Service and need. You and me. I and thou — minus the holier-than-thou crap.

This week, I finally dove into working on a manuscript of poems. It will be my third collection, and I’ve felt it swirling around for months now, a wispy suggestion to start that I couldn’t quite grasp. I don’t know what clicked — maybe it was writing a poem a day for a month. Or the urgency to connect, and this being one of my ways.

It’s too easy to write in generalizations. To write about bodies, to write about color, to write about religion. To use words like “justice” and “equality” and “safety” that must withstand so much battering. I fail when I attempt to write about these words. But I can assemble a book of poems. I can say, come in, sit down, and write what’s true for you. I can and will continue to ask what makes you happy, what brings you joy, what frightens you most. Where is your conviction?

I’m sitting here at my kitchen table, as I so often am when I come here to write. I’m sitting here being white. I’m sitting here being Jewish and gay and female and short and big and small at the same damn time. On my run this morning, I thought about all the times in my life I’ve had to remember how to dream, because dreaming got drowned out by the competition and walked not through but right into the doorway.

I do this, you know that by now, right? I sit down and start typing (actually, I sat down and started this hours ago), and just connect the dots and usually have no idea where I’m going. This is no different. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know where our country is going, though all I have to do is be awake to see that this is not a difficult one to guess. It’s going exactly like this.

It’s more polarized than ever, and all the movies about good and evil, about light and dark, have come true. Life imitates art and art imitates life until there is not point in distinguishing the two. Reality TV is politics and politics is the usual and not becoming jaded requires fierce strength, which we might enjoy momentarily but no one can sustain for long alone.

Which is why we need each other. Today, a coaching call. I heard: “Stuck, frustrated, embarrassed, want to help, white, privileged.” These were words that came up again and again. And we talked about how to be present and keep moving forward, rather than spiraling into stagnation, which is about as self-focused as it gets. We talked about showing up, as a learner, as an observer, and what it means to know you get to trust yourself.

“How can I help you?” takes on a whole new dimension of importance, and the answers are not always clear, nor is that always the best question. So be patient — and remember that this fight, like truth, like life, is three-dimensional. It’s happening in real time, and it’s not about feeling good or meeting our own needs, but about our liberation being bound up in each other.

Courage and heart and risking sounding like we don’t know what we’re doing, because sometimes we don’t, and the only way to start getting clear and making any kind of impact is to stumble through. Not one of us is some kind of savior, but uprisings happen when enough individuals refuse to play by the rules, especially when the rules are a sick and twisted distortion of reality, revisionism, and willful ignorance.

As a writer right now, it’s easy to feel pretty deflated. But to give up my voice that easily would be a betrayal to everything I care about. It may or may not matter, but I will keep offering my words. I will keep being as kind a human as I can, and as awake a white person as I can (though I will not use the word “woke,” as it does not feel like mine to use).

And I will assemble this next collection of poems, as an offering from my heart to yours, because it’s one of the only things I know how to do for sure.