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.
And I say “Yes” to that.