One thing I have noticed in recent years is that my “no’s” and my “yes’s” have gotten stronger and clearer. Being able to listen to one’s self and sense (and offer) a true “yes” and a true “no” may be one of the superpowers we can claim with age, even if gracefully conveying an honest “no” takes a lot of tact.
Clear yes/Clear no
A few years ago, as I was traveling the on-ramp to 60, a very generous friend of mine offered me his ticket to a national conference that was taking place in Seattle. Tickets were pricey, and his was a very kind offer. It made good sense for me to attend since the conference was related to my field. But when I considered going, I heard a voice inside of me saying, “No.”
Sense or no sense, I didn’t go.
Instead, I stayed home to work in my garden. My garden had become my teacher and my creative calling; I needed those days to dig.
Later that year, a friend suggested that I take a clowning class. Even though I had never clowned (and it turned out to be bloody hard), I heard, “Yes.”
That decision also didn’t make sense.
With hindsight, both my “No” and my “Yes” did make sense. A new impulse was calling me forward. My love of gardening would lead me to start writing; my forays into clowning and improv would open up a deeper understanding of storytelling.
Alas, not all of my “yes’s” and “no’s” are that clear. Some decisions still take years for me to muddle through. Other times I delay saying, “No,” for fear of hurting someone’s feelings–not the best excuse.
The art of an honest “No”
There’s nothing easy about saying “No,” especially to a friend. Ironically, though, “no’s” are often key to real friendship.
A friend hit it on the head when she said, “I want my friends to be able to say “No” to me, so I can believe them when they say, “Yes.”
We can tell when someone is saying “yes” out of obligation or not wanting to offend. A “yes” with a ‘no” disguised within it has a yucky feeling, a half-heartedness. On some level, we know what we are hearing doesn’t jibe with what we are sensing. It’s disturbing.
We need to be able to say “No,” blessing the friendship while declining an opportunity.
Saying “No” to support your creative time
In general, I prefer to be around people who live life with a spirit of “YES!” instead of a stream of “no’s.”
That said, many writers and creatives describe how important it is to prioritize their creative work, and to say “No” to invitations that might pull them away from it. I would love to have more coffees with friends, go on outings, or host a dinner party reciprocating some of the hospitality my husband and I have received.
But I can’t. Not just now. My work is tender, and I have to stay focused.
But how to be honest?
If I were to be totally honest (not there yet), what I might say to a friend who hosted us for dinner is, “Thank you so much for dinner–I really enjoy being with you and appreciated your lovely meal. I want to reciprocate but here’s the truth: cooking is not where I want to spend my time right now, and writing is. If I don’t keep going, my progress will dissipate. In another world, perhaps that of The Crown, the Netflix series I am binge-watching in my downtime, I’d have my housekeeper prepare the house, my royal staff would cater dinner, and my personal assistant would handle all the accompanying details. (I’m anticipating this after I’m anointed!) But even though I’m not entertaining these days, I care about you and enjoy being together.”
I’m afraid that’s too many words. I’ll probably just stick with the first sentence.
Open space in a calendar is not blank space
Growing up, I lived for weekends and wanted entertainment. Now, when I reach the weekend, I’m happy if there’s nothing on my calendar. These days, life comes in front and center pretty hard, and I need more and more recovery time. Even though open spaces in my schedule mean I could do something, I know in my heart that I need that time to do–nothing.
When you’re on a creative roll, allowing open space in a calendar is often more potent than filling all of your time slots in.
The nuanced “No”
Repeatedly saying, “No” to pursue your creative work can seem selfish. You can mitigate that risk by asking, “What am I being called to do now?”
You may have to bend your schedule and change your plans. A friend receives a call that her ninety-year-old mother has fallen; my friend’s painting project is put on hold. When my mother was in her last years, I flexed my schedule to say, “Yes,” whenever I could. Some sacrifices are worth making, not out of obligation but out of an inner knowing.
I worry that putting a shield around my schedule may discourage friends from remembering that I’ll be there for them if they need to go to the hospital, work through an urgent problem, or have a heart-to-heart conversation.
If you’re reading this, remember this offer to you!
Where it all starts
Etiquette aside, hearing (and speaking) a true “yes” and true “no” begins with listening to your heart. In today’s chatter of overfilled schedules and continual opportunities to do more than any mortal possibly could, hearing the subtle soundings of the soul takes particular attention.
A true “yes” and a true “no” have a ring. When a friend who has thoughtfully considered what she’s being called to do declines my invitation, I might be disappointed. I can also be inspired.
By listening with the heart and speaking from her inner knowing, my friend offers me permission to listen more deeply to what is calling me.
We all have rhythm. It’s built into us through our heartbeats and the circadian (24 hour) rhythms that influence when we feel hungry, energetic, or sleepy.
As our biology influences our rhythms, so, too, does the way we work.
Our distant ancestors followed rhythms that were tied to light. Our parents may have worked “on the clock,” subjected to a rhythm established in industrial times.
We no longer follow the sun or work 9–5. With our increasingly flexible workdays, we have the option of working 24-7.
Such flexibility might seem like a good thing. If you’re a night owl, you might be more than happy to forego commuting before dawn for another dread breakfast meeting.
I can assure you that I wasn’t happy when a former client announced that he was scheduling my workshop for 7 am. (I like to write in the morning – but strictly in my pajamas.)
Lack of schedule: liberating or not?
Freedom from an imposed or arbitrary schedule can feel liberating, which is why vacation, retirement, or working for one’s self can feel great, at least for a while.
But, devoid of rhythms imposed by other-directed schedules, our days can lose their spines, and we’re left feeling like we’re spinning around.
At a minimum, those external demands, deadlines, and meetings keep us pulsing through our days.
Without them, where’s the incentive to get out of bed on a bad hair day?
Job or no job, many of us have gone a-rhythmic with our days.
I was initially delighted when the Internet offered me the freedom and flexibility to work when I wanted. Ride my horse at ten am? Yay! Work at 9 pm? No problem!
Until one day, I woke up and realized that I couldn’t tell, from my schedule, when I was “off work,” and when I was “on.”
My schedule had lost its boundaries. It was as if I was composing music by stuffing in more and more notes while forgetting to add rests. (Usually called cacophony.)
What I lost
As I survey our new world, I notice how many the rhythms that used to be part of life are endangered:
Eating regular family meals together. (Stats vary, but a 2003 study suggested that US families eat dinner together only three or fewer times a week, with 10 percent never eating dinner together at all.)
Going to bed and rising on a regular schedule. (Sleep doctors keep trying to convince their patients on this one.)
Observing a sabbath, rest day, or even intentional time off, consistently every week. (Read Marilyn Paul’s book with her convincing rationale for rest days. You could try a rest break if you’re not yet up to taking a full day.)
Taking vacations at all. (In one 2017 study, 52 percent of Americans didn’t use all of their paid vacation days.)
Stopping work at a given time, or establishing work-free zones. (Guilty as charged!)
Rhythm is about more than schedules
Our loss of rhythm isn’t just about our crazy schedules. It’s about listening to our bodies in a world that’s gone head-centric and body-negligent.
In some African cultures today, the beat of work lives like a pulse entering the body and then manifesting through music, song, and dance. It’s as if the rhythm lives in their bones–and in their souls. You can see it in this video.
Listening to the rhythms of life
Can we recapture that sense of everyday rhythms by listening more to life?
Watch how people walk and see if you can feel their beat. Listen to how a rooster crows on fixed intervals. Explore if that amorphous rush of traffic might contain hidden rhythms that give its noise a shape.
Maybe some of your everyday work, whether chopping onions, sweeping a broom, or pumping iron, might be more fun when you can feel its beat.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the erratic tap tap of my fingers on a keyboard gives me the rhythmic boost that I need.
Become your own composer
Once you start to listen, then you can compose. Has your life become bland as you march to a steady, but monotonous, four-four beat? Could you add more rhythmic variety?
If you’re always working at a high rhythmic intensity, could you deliberately insert some downtempo activities?
Have you structured the rhythm of your days to be so complicated that even a professional dancer might stumble? How about notching back, and introducing some time in an easy to follow two-two beat?
If no one but you is driving your schedule, why not introduce a few regular beats into your life to set a rhythm for your week?
Create routines, for your early morning, evening or mealtimes, that punctuate your day.
Set regular weekly meetings with friends and colleagues, or join a class.
Plan together-times with your family or partner you can count on.
Create deadlines that fit the rhythm you want to establish for yourself.
Publish a blog every Thursday–my secret formula!
Finding more flow
Rhythm comes from the Greek word that means “to flow.”
Let’s give it more attention, so we can become master composers of our days.
My husband is not guilty of crimes against the state. The state may be guilty of crimes against him.
The news about what is happening or not happening in Washington, D.C. is robbing him of his optimism and faith in the future.
I watch him going down as he reads about venality, greed, the partisanship that forgets the common good, and failure to act upon the pressing issues of the day. Top that off with doses of real tragedy and unconscionable actions or neglect–no wonder he looks droopy.
By nine am each morning, after spending a piece of his prime time reading national newspapers, he emerges with a hang-dog I-can’t-believe-what-they’re-doing or did-you-hear-what-just-happened look. So much for the rest of the day.
OK, many of us are suffering, but after seeing what the news is doing to him, I decided to take drastic action.
For the record, I believe in the importance of educated citizenship. But what good results from keeping up with the news if it leaves one feeling hopeless, like there’s nothing that can be done? Broken spirits will not save the country.
That’s why he’s under house arrest. Unlike the fictional, aristocratic hero of my favorite vacation read, A Gentleman in Moscow, who lived under house arrest for twenty-six years, my husband can still go out.
News of the world will reach him through NPR as he travels to his morning coffee conversations with his guy friends. And I can’t prevent them from talking politics.
At home, though, strict limits are called for.
Here’s what must be banned:
Washington Post headlines as well as articles.
New York Times headlines and articles.
Teasers on Facebook or social media (he’s not too susceptible).
Spending too much time thinking about the Supreme Court.
I haven’t decided whether he can read the Guardian. Consumer Reports is OK.
What he can do:
Give money to causes he already knows are important.
Vote intelligently and give money selectively to campaigns (and no, he can’t support all the worthy candidates.)
Give time to LOCAL causes. He is not likely to fix the national health care crisis, but he has a good crack at contributing to preserving the future of health care on our island.
Take naps and read novels.
I am NOT denying him his deep compassion for the unfairly treated of the world.
I do want him to try laughing again.
I don’t suggest that we should all tune out, just that we need to pay attention to how the news flattens us.
Perhaps my husband is a special case because of his age and heart condition. But I doubt a regular diet of heartbreak is good for any of us.
I can’t place YOU under house arrest, but my cautions still apply. Stop absorbing news when you feel it weakening your spirits, your resolve, your compassion or your heart.
Last year a good friend went through a true dark night of the soul brought on by medical circumstances. The prednisone she was given for an acutely painful condition weakened her bones, leading to a serious fracture of her lumbar spine. Even in rehab, the excruciating pain contributed to a trifecta of misery. Like many who have suffered intense pain know, it’s hard to keep the faith when your body is relentlessly challenged. Friends kept a flame of hope going for her, lighting candles and sending love and prayers. She says the support was key to keeping her going.
I had the enormous joy last week to spend a little time with her. She shared how every morning before she starts her day, she lifts her arms in gratitude and appreciation for the apartment she returned to, for her friends, and for her life. She doesn’t kid herself that the future ahead will be easy or that her years will be without sorrow. In her profound gratitude, she embraces life. She radiates hope.
Being with her gave me hope. (I’ve started her practice of raising my arms in gratitude when I wake up. )
Is hope a distraction?
Some argue that hope distracts us from being present to life. Meg Wheatley writes that it’s time for us to give it up. She believes that hope sets us up with expectations and attaches us to results, According to her, we would be more present to life if we were more hope-less.
What Meg Wheatley is referring to is what I call “small hope,” hope that leads to almost certain disappointment. I may hope for a pony for Christmas, that I will win a contract, or that our country straightens itself out. When I was in 8th grade, I fervently hoped that Roger Wilcox would look at me.
He didn’t. Many of these little hopes won’t come true. I never got the pony at Christmas and had to wait until I was 42 to buy my first horse.
Small hope can deceive us into sitting back, believing that somebody or some group “out there” will fix the environment, and to no longer observing carefully or listening for what we may be called to do.
Finding deep hope
Yet hope can be more than that. A deeper kind of hope can infuse our spirits without attaching us to specific results. It can support us to listen and be more present. My friend blesses the day, not because she is going to get everything she wants the way that she wants it, but because she is grateful for the spirit of life moving through and around her.
Deep hope is a power, a state of being in the world that can say “yes” to life, even as we say “no” to a lot that is happening.
Deep hope lets us stand with an open heart in the face of an uncertain future.
Deep hope allows us to sit at the bedside of a beloved living with pain, and still find blessings. Deep hope allows us to cry about climate change while working with others for solutions.
Deep hope tells me that despite all the disappointments, and failures of the little hopes, I matter, you matter and this world matters and that it is still worth believing in truth, in goodness, and in compassion.
Deep hope asks us to be present and within that presence trust the calling we may feel, however it comes–the whispers that invite us to step into more of ourselves and to do our part for the world, however small that may be.
Deep hope does not seek proof in outcomes but offers us an invisible force and energy we can tap.
Vaclav Havel said it eloquently:
“Hope is a dimension of the soul. . . an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. . . .It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”
In these times when it’s so easy to despair about the state of the environment, we need deep hope to expand our imaginations, trust, and perseverance. Deep hope has spaciousness and helps us expand to find more of the creative potential we can use to solve problems. Deep hope allows us to stand together.
Without that hope, the force of constricting despair can become oppressive.
When I think about hope, a key question I ask is, “Is my hope such that if I don’t get what I want, hope will remain?”
Do I write a book hoping to become a New York Times bestselling author? If so, I’m setting myself up for all kinds of anxiety, expectations, illusions, and potential disappointment. Or do I write, because committing myself to writing my book expands me and feels in sync with the path that is calling me forward? Whether I am published or not, I am larger and more hopeful for having said “yes.”
Thomas Merton urged us to “concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”
No matter how dark the world can seem, I claim my right to be hopeful, to expand my spirit in partnership with the universe, and to find the strength to stay awake and present even when I don’t understand what is happening.
I can stand like my friend, with arms outstretched in the morning, and give thanks for each day.
I like the combination of hope and acceptance in this poem “Perhaps” by the contemporary Chinese poet Shu Ting.
Perhaps these thoughts of ours
will never find an audience
Perhaps the mistaken road
will end in a mistake
Perhaps the lamps we light one at a time
will be blown out, one at a time
Perhaps the candles of our lives will gutter out
without lighting a fire to warm us.
Perhaps when all the tears have been shed
the earth will be more fertile
Perhaps when we sing praises to the sun
the sun will praise us in return
Perhaps these heavy burdens
will strengthen our philosophy
Perhaps when we weep for those in misery
we must be silent about miseries of our own
Because of our irresistible sense of mission
We have no choice
~ Shu Ting ~
Thanks to Meg Wheatley for the article from which I drew the quotes.
When the late William Stafford, one of my favorite poets, was asked how he managed to write one poem (or more) every day, he offered a phrase that endeared him to many:”I lower my standards.” Stafford wasn’t suggesting that he had low standards for the poems he published, just that he knew how the daily practice of turning his thoughts and observations into poems furthered his craft.
Many of us have high standards and want much of what we do and plan to be the best it can be.
We want the report to look beautiful as well as be useful. We want to find the best AirBNB in Barcelona, the most highly rated pair of shears, and cook the best dinner for our dinner guests.
All are admirable goals, but “best” can be exhausting.
We’re egged on by online sites offering have-to-read rating systems, because who would want to buy an electric toothbrush that had a 4.2 rating when you could have one that was 5 stars? We study the comments. Two hours later, we’re still researching toothbrushes while being tempted to check out the best roller point pen before ordering our next batch. (Guilty!)
The problem with “the best” or even “great” is that it sucks up our time and turns us away from what’s most important. Often, our friends don’t want “the best” dinner–they just want us to be wholeheartedly with them. In the area of house cleaning, I am definitely “good enough” and not “great.” When I focus on making my home impeccable, it usually means I’m avoiding writing.
My singing teacher, Peggy, hung a sign on her studio wall that said it all:
“Don’t worry spiders, I keep house casually,”
That was so Peggy, choosing to focus on her students one hundred and ten percent plus, rather than worry about a little clutter or dust around the edges. Her students accepted the bargain and loved her for it.
When we set a bar too high, we may talk ourselves into giving up before we’ve even started.
Lower the bar, with humility
I recently took on a project of teaching Zumba at a local senior center. (I know, this defeats rule # 1 below, “Say No” to new projects.) I couldn’t resist the possibility of teaching Zumba for the first time with this absolutely wonderful group.
Turns out teaching Zumba takes way more preparation than I anticipated, and I didn’t have much time. Half of the day I had allocated for preparing was lost as my computer came up with every possible tactic to keep me from putting together a simple playlist of music. Then, I realized that my poor, getting poorer, memory was not about to allow me to memorize the choreography for seven songs in one evening. What to do?
I lowered my standards.
When I dance, I’m usually improvising, so I decided to call on that skill. With a heaping dose of humility, the next day I explained to the group that I’d need to improvise class for a while.
No one complained.
The group was more than OK, and we had fun together. Turns out they needed my smile more than perfect steps.
How many mountains do you want to climb this week?
Many of the mountain peaks in our schedules are caused by our expectations. I’ve been informed that podcasters “should” produce on a regular weekly schedule. Guess what? No can do, even though I have some great interviews in the queue. No one will die as a result of gaps in my production calendar.
Gardeners “should” weed and keep the most pervasive weeds down. My standards dropped below the low mark while I tried negotiating a truce with a major group of weeds: “If I don’t pull you out this year, could you promise not to come next?” (Lost that one.)
Writers “should” write. Now, this point is different because writing is a priority for me and not a “should do.” I aim to write every day and I do pretty well with that. Good enough.
Tips for best-aholics or those who always go for great
Learn to say “No” or negotiate. Breathe before you pick up that Zumba class (alas). Overfilling your tank won’t help your engine run any better, and it might defeat you. (But you already know that.)
Check your priorities
Reserve “great” or “really good” for what matters most. Then limit your priorities. (You can read about a cool system that helps you focus here.)
If Tom Sawyer could do it, so can you, Pay for help to paint that fence or stage a work party people can’t resist. Buying help may be pricey, but if it relieves you, improves the work, or allows you to keep your attention on what matters most, maybe it’s not as expensive as you think. At your workplace, delegate and collaborate.
Assess what’s required
When I’m avoiding a task, it looms large. When I assess how much time it will actually take, I usually calm down. I estimate that weeding that pernicious sticky weed out of the garden could be done in an hour. That’s do-able. The rest can wait.
Don’t polish the first draft
If you are working on a project that will go through multiple iterations, don’t fuss the early versions.
Choose when not to settle
Lowering your standards in some areas allows you to focus on what’s really important. Enjoy polishing that final draft.
The memoirist Kerry Cohen, with whom I did a writing weekend, encouraged me to keep writing by signing her book with this inscription:
Why is it that when we’re totally qualified for a job, totally right for a project, or totally entitled to a big dream, we feel the need to throw in the caveat, “Or, maybe not.”
I’m working with a new client who deserves the job for which he is applying–120%.
Yet still, the voice comes through, as it does in all of us, “Maybe I’m not that good.”
Welcome to the world of the Inner Critic. This is the codified voice within you that lives to point out your flaws. He/she/they might sound like your mother, like Uncle Harry, like Mrs. Zinsmaster, your third-grade teacher, like your husband or partner (I hope not!), or like a conglomerate of all the many voices that have tried to tell you that you’re not ok.
My Inner Critic always remembers, and is ready to remind me, that Billy Johnson thought my nose was funny in second grade. Mrs. Flatfoot (can’t remember the name,) told me that my voice stood out in our school chorus and not in a good way. Mr. Cosgood gave me a “B” in my 3rd-grade art class, which is when I stopped drawing. my Mother told me that I was selfish and my table manners were terrible (dooming me for life)…and, and, and,..you get the drift.
Combine all the voices and you create a stealth agent who spies on you from within your brain. Unfortunately, you have probably divulged to him all of the secret data that only you could know, including every way that you failed to meet an intention, stopped short on a project, didn’t meet a deadline, gave up prematurely on a dream you had, or mopped the kitchen in a rather sloppy way.
Your Critic lives in your imagination, where, if on a loose leash, he could (occasionally) be a helpful friend. There are times when you might want to hear, “How might I do better?” or “What are all the possible ways I could screw this up?” (so that you don’t).
You might suggest to your Critic that appreciation often works better than judgment, and, if he sincerely wants to help, he should get down from your shoulder and stop heaving banana peels for you to slip on.
Put your Critic into training with the rest of your pets. You wouldn’t let your new puppy play in the living room before he was housebroken, right? So why do you let your Critic poop on your path?
How to spot the words of the Inner Critic
It’s time to take action to beat the Critic at his game. Learn to recognize his language and the way he sneaks his phrases into your head.
“You see? I told you.” (Putting a hex on a project is not informational.)
“This will NEVER work out.” (It might not work out, but the word NEVER is a sure sign of the Critic’s handiwork, He is the MASTER of over-generalizations.)
“You always screw up.” (See above. You do screw up. But only sometimes.)
“Nobody likes you. Nobody will want your art/book/song/contribution. (Are you getting the drift that gross generalizations are a sure-fire sign?)
“Everybody hates you.” (See above.)
“If you do this, then”… (Insert terrible, but over-dramatized consequence.)
“Who do you think you are?” (An intelligent, good-hearted, flawed human being?)
“It’s no use.” “It’s hopeless.” (Fill in any kind of immobilizing despair.)
“It doesn’t matter. The world is screwed anyway.” (The world does have a particularly high rate of challenges these days, which is why it DOES matter.)
‘Save it for the next generation to handle.” (Nasty, nasty. The Critic knows you can’t fix the environment, but forgets that you have wisdom and resources that could support the younger generations.)
“Those people are…(some variation of) bad.” “Politicians are…(some bigger variation) of bad.” “Corporations are… (some jumbo version) of bad.”(All of the preceding groups may have faults, sometimes egregious, but they may also have the occasional good points which you will never be able to see from the Critic’s perspective.)
“You can’t trust….(someone you barely know.)” (The Critic starts from distrust and proceeds from there.)
“It’s foolish to dream/hope/try at your age.” (Well, frankly, what other age do you have?)
When you’ve been attacked by the Critic, there are many phrases you can use. But your three superpowers for taming him are:
The Critic HATES these.
Which is why I suggest appreciating your Critic. He might be trying to help. Thank him for his contribution. Laugh a little with him. Give him a hug.