In which I discourse at length about the power and privilege of saying no

This photo depicts a bunch of blue moon phlox, a purple-blue flower, blooming in a flower bed
The blue moon phlox currently blooming in front of my house.

Last year, as I wrapped up the last thing on a list of obligations, I decided that I was going to take a break from extra professional engagements and commitments. For a period of six months, I was going to say no to all libraryland requests and invitations to speak, present, write, teach. And instead, I was going to say yes to any kind of event or experience that fed me creatively.

I understand that being in a position to be invited to speak and write and present and teach is one of privilege, as is the freedom to say no to such requests. And I also have to note that having the time and resources to say yes to other things is part of that privilege as well. I am acutely aware that the position I’m in is one of privilege, dumb luck, the right place at the right time, as well as hard work and labor of both intellectual and emotional varieties. I am exceedingly grateful for every bit of it.

So, what happened in my six months of saying no? Let’s quantify it:

  • I went to the opera three times
  • I went to the ballet twice
  • I went to three holiday concerts
  • I saw Rufus Wainwright in concert twice
  • I took four art classes at the Speed Art Museum.
  • I attended a local creative writing conference.
  • I read a piece of creative writing at an open mic.
  • I baked 17 dozen cookies at Christmastime.

And that’s just the stuff that comes to mind right away. I’m sure I’m missing things. And these are also just the things I can count. The unquantifiable experiences include: spending entire Saturdays on the couch in the parlor with a pile of magazines, iced coffee, a cat in my lap, and my beloved nearby; seeing a bunch of movies (did not keep track); reading a bunch of books (did not keep track); baking cakes and cookies just because I felt like it (i.e., not for holiday reasons); practicing calligraphy…and, in general, enjoying my leisure, and reveling in how unfettered it was, with nothing hanging over me, no looming deadlines to dampen my pleasure.

The impact of deliberately clearing mental space to engage in creative pursuits has been life-altering. I’m not exaggerating. It helped me discern more clearly what I want and what I don’t want. I have a better understanding of how I want to spend my time. I have long since felt that there was something more that I wanted, something more that did not involve working out my feelings about information literacy and library instruction and pedagogy in public. I can’t say that this time and space has given me a definite answer to what exactly that thing is. I don’t know if there’s a definite answer anyway, other than to just continue saying yes to creative pursuits that feed me in some way. My time of saying no, if nothing else, validated that that yearning for more is legit and real and worth listening to.

And I should also point out that I’m not done with all of the libraryland professional extras I said no to during this time. I still have percolating ideas, nascent ideas, projects that are starting to bubble up and make themselves known to me. But now I have a stronger sense of where and how I want to allocate my time and energies. And now I know that my time and energy and labor are unquantifiable. Let me just be candid here. When I’m asked to name my speaker’s fee, I have the hardest time naming a figure, in part because no one talks about this. No one tells you what the budget is. Am I not asking for enough? Am I asking for too much? And anyway, what am I being paid for? My literal actual time? My intellectual labor? The indignities of air travel? How much does an idea cost? I don’t know! But what I do know now is that except for rare circumstances, you can’t pay me enough to spend more than 24 hours away from home in a place I cannot drive to. This is my bottom line. I know this closes off opportunities. It means I will continue saying no to those things. It means that the no will be said for me. (But if I can do it online with a webcam and a headset? Well, maybe. Let’s talk.)

It’s also noteworthy that during this time, I went to therapy 43 times, but this is something I do anyway, year-round, regardless of what I’m saying yes or no to. I go weekly, sometimes twice weekly, and it is such a central part of my life and my internal landscape and the lens through which I see and experience the world. It’s a true fact that I thanked my therapist in the acknowledgements of my most recent book. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to say no to things if not for my work in therapy. The work of therapy is re-contouring everything I ever believed to be true about myself in powerful and ineffable ways. And I’m not even close to being done yet.

The work of grief is also noteworthy. September 1, 2017 marked one year since my mother-in-law’s death. During my six months of no, we experienced the second Thanksgiving without her, the second Christmas. Grief is never over. It is protean. It re-forms and re-shapes itself, depending on I don’t even know what. What day is it? What is the current phase of the moon? Just like authority, grief is constructed and contextual, and like information, it has value. It is instructive. I continue to have ever firmer boundaries between work-life and life-life and I will probably never ever hold any kind of administrative professional position because I am unwilling to blur those boundaries. Unless there’s, like, a natural disaster or an active shooter or some actual life-and-death situation, I am unconvinced that there’s any such thing as a work emergency. It’s just work. Look, my mother-in-law died in my living room while I watched and listened to her last breaths and I closed her eyes when she died. I am never going to be the same person again and you can’t pay me enough to check work email on the weekend or on vacation.

Anyway, what’s the point of all of this. I guess I’m wondering if it’s possible to ever really know who you are? Isn’t this all an ongoing journey of knowing and re-knowing what is real and what matters and what’s beneath all of the versions of ourselves that we perform? I’m not necessarily ending this time of no knowing who I am for sure, once and for all, but I do know and feel like I shed layers and masks, dead hands, dead stringencies. My intuition is drawing me ever closer to authenticity, empathy, compassion, and belonging, and this is where my next projects will live in some kind of way, although I don’t know exactly how yet. And it’s okay that I don’t know it yet.

And similarly, there is no tidy ending to this, my attempt to reflect on what it means to say no, and that’s okay, too. Let’s turn to poetry instead. Let’s contemplate the  poem linked here, “Evergreen” by Oliver Baez Bendorf, and I end with the poem’s closing lines:

“Safety is a rock I throw into the river.
My body, ready. Don’t even think
a train run through this town anymore.”




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