Tuesday, October 29, 2013

moving beyond no

T H E   P A I N

Like the human brain, which organizes
The swirls and shades of the bathroom tiles
Into faces, faces
With expressions
Of exhaustion, of disdain. The
Virgin Mary in the toast of course
But also the penance in the pain, and the way
My mother invented
Plums and tissue paper, while
My father invented the type of
Sudden kindness
That takes you by surprise
When you’ve expected to be chastised
And makes you cry

—Laura Kasischke

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A few weeks ago our WB teacher circulated an article among us entitled The Gift of No, mentioning that many parents struggle with saying "no" to their children. I smiled; I really do not have this problem with my kids. In fact, I may be too good with no in general; it's become an attitude on which I am all too apt to rely.

"No" is a powerful little word. I remember years ago, after my divorce, I tried using it silently with waiters or other strangers. The dating scene in NYC was bewildering, and after a few broken hearts, I felt the need to practice my blanket refusals. The first time I tried this was at a café on the Lower East Side—some hip, well-lit establishment done out in wood and concrete—with a sleepy-eyed waiter wearing a stocking cap and a five- o'clock-shadow. When he came to take the order I regarded at him as if he'd just asked for my phone number. Silently I said "No, no way. I don't think it will work out," then ordered a scone and a latte. I was thrilled by how easy this was. And, like exercising, it got easier and easier. By the time I met my now-husband, I had gotten fairly good at it. I remember one evening in particular, during Lent, when some hungry parishioners—including Charles—were lingering around after church, chatting and making furtive attempts at planning dinner out. I was intrigued by this tall, opinionated man, but I knew better than to waste my time trying to get to know him. I turned to a girlfriend next to me and said, "Let's get going. Do you want to grab a bite to eat?" We made quick work of a general good-bye and headed out into the passages to the street. A few moments later I heard heavy footsteps coming down the passage. It was Charles, running after us, asking if he could join us for dinner.

But I had so much more no to learn. It was only after marrying Charles and moving into Manhattan that I came to understand that I had coasted by in life with as little conflict as possible. Neither my work or my personal relations had asked too many difficult no's of me. And by difficult, I mean the kind of no's that are followed by negotiations; where you stay in a difficult moment and ask for what you want, where you find out what the other person wants. Where, when faced with conflict, you don't turn tail and lay on the bed crying. So, unpleasant as it was, I learned yet more kinds of no.

Then there were children. Saying "no" to children is not so difficult to learn. They are small, impressionable, and and can be forced to do things. In fact, a few strong no's seemed to put them at their ease. At the same time I was raising children, I was learning about social negotiations. How to keep my boundaries and my integrity while engaging my neighbors and community. This is not something I've by any means mastered, it is one of the most difficult parts of my life. And I think, perhaps, I've learned to rely too much on no, quickly distancing myself from people or activities I find difficult, draining, or untrustworthy. Walking my son to school the other day, I found myself coaching myself in this direction—to be honest, courageous, direct. I caught myself. You don't need to be more honest, Amber, you've got that down. You need to be more kind.

There it is: I do need to be more kind, and gentle, and open-hearted. Being more comfortable with my boundaries, I can risk being kind. Because, ultimately, kindness transforms. Being strong and brave and honest—saying no—can only take me so far. Invulnerability is not my goal. It is vulnerability that invites grace, and it is grace that "takes you by surprise / When you’ve expected to be chastised / And makes you cry."

{ p o e t r y   w e d n e s d a y }


Julia said...

Interesting, beautiful, and wise, Amber. I love this little window into your mind, soul, and history.

Kate T. said...

This is a great poem - what a heartbreaking turn at the end.

I recently read a father's strategy for parenting, which was that he aspired to say "yes" as much as possible to his children. Meaning, being open to life's possibilities, I guess. Lately I've been trying to figure out how to use this perspective when I hear myself barking "NO" too much. But maybe he was speaking about children older than two...

Manuela said...

Thank you, Amber. Something I needed to read just today.