holding our no and our yes

graffiti depicting a concrete wall being pulled back, like a page, to reveal the green wilderness behindGood morning good morning! Outside, the morning is just starting to uncurl itself around the city, and I’ve been up for about an hour, working on morning pages and now moving into this space. What’s beginning to unfurl in your body in this early part of your Friday?

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There’s a lot I want to write about here — I’m feeling grateful to be drawn back into these “pages,” this blog space. This morning there are a couple of things: more about what’s nonnegotiable and, too, what it means to write like a girl. Maybe I’ll start with the first, and move to the latter in a second post.

I kept thinking about ‘nonnegotiable’ while I was walking in to my day job yesterday: There’ve been so many of my nonnegotiables, my bottom lines, my needs, my must-haves, that I rationalized away in order to keep others comfortable or make nice. What can nonnegotiable mean under these circumstances? How do I want to talk about this? It feels like another layer of reclaiming my yes and my no.

Was this your experience? When my stepfather would come to me and demand sex, he always required an affirmative response from me — he wanted me to verbally agree, wanted me to say yes (and, too, he wanted me to come to him, wanted me to ask for it from him; that’s another post, too). And so, even though all of me was no, what came out of my mouth in those times (most often) was, “Yes.” And so the very word “yes” came to have less meaning, does this make sense? I’m trying to get inside this experience of very simple words having complicated insides, an explosion of possibility living within two or three letters, a set of two or three letters that are meant to be, in our linguistic construction, nonnegotiable: yes means yes, no means no. Isn’t that our chant? But for me, yes meant no. No meant nothing (went unheard, unseen, unresponded to — it was almost a nonword, a verbal tic, a semblance of space, an utterance of inevitability).

So when could yes mean yes? What does nonnegotiable mean if I don’t know what is negotiable?

Much of the work that I’ve done over the last twenty years of my healing/trauma aftermath/body-soul-self reclamation has been to reenter the body of the words that were used against me — which meant, of course, working to reembody almost all of my language. The words that have been the hardest to get clarity around, still, are  yesand no. And I need those words to understand the inside contours of nonnegotiable, of boundary. It’s one thing for therapists and social change activists and others who love us and want us to be whole to talk about clearly stating our boundaries — and, too, we need to give ourselves the time and breathing room to get to the place where we can even inhabit the possibility that our yes and no will have clear and singular meaning again.

(As a side note: Vanissar Tarakali recently wrote about finding the goodness in all of our coping mechanisms, in the ways that we have found to keep ourselves alive in the aftermath of trauma (in, say, consumption of alcohol and drugs, or introversion, or oppression survival strategies). This is profoundly powerful thinking, something I first met when I was doing domestic violence work back in the 90s and then again much more recently when I began exploring somatic work last year — our bodies and psyches do so much to keep us safe, and we do a justice when we can hold that work in gratitude, even when we come to a place where we can release one practice for another. I am looking for the goodness in this capacity to hold, for a single word, mutually exclusive meanings, simultaneously, in my heart and body. Eventually I’ll find the language to express my gratitude for that ability.)

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Yesterday, I offered an invitation to write about what your (or your character’s) nonnegotiables might be — and today I want to drop down into that even further. What does nonnegotiable mean for you, for your character? What does boundary mean? What does No mean? What about Yes? Let yourself write into any confusion or sorrow or anger or complexity around these words that are “supposed” to be so straightforward and clear. We hold the capacity for a profound multiplicity — let some of that emerge today.

Thank you for your good thinking, your good body, your good heart, your good, good words.



3 responses to “holding our no and our yes

  1. I’ve had my no be a silent scream, I’m screaming and the person I’m telling only hears silence. My yes is often a lie. It means I can’t say no to you, I want you to like me, I give up myself for you.

    I have a piece of art called “Focus on the Yes”. In the center of the piece it just says YES, there are no’s littered around the edges, blurry and cast aside. I needed to see that word and keep in mind it’s freedom. I love to say yes, and feel it, even for a simple question. I smile when its a real yes or no and it feels like a small victory. I mentally puff my chest and feel strong. Do you want to eat? Yes. Do you want to come with me to the store? No. This table? No, that one. More? Yes, please. Honest yes and no have strength I crave, needed for making and keeping boundaries.

    “for months for years each one us had felt her own yes growing in her”. From “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev” by Adrienne Rich. Good yes and no thoughts in that piece. The poem is taped on my wall at work, it always reminds me to nurture the yes that grows in me.

    Great posting Jen. As always perfect timing.

  2. I wonder if my experience can interpose with yours? I know your experience was different because it didn’t feel authentic to say yes and I wonder if my experience could shed light in a different way. In considering my own experience with childhood sexual experiences with adult men who ask for sexual gratification I notice a tightening when I consider any kind of victimhood. I noticed that the advances only continued when I said yes and if I said yes then it was okay. Finding how it was okay with me allows me to see the fullness of my own authentic yes. Men ask for a yes because they are peaceful loving beings who have desires and I said yes or didn’t stop them when it was okay with me.
    Accepting that it wasn’t violent and it was okay was very important. Not being swayed by society’s problematization and victim thinking was important. The part that is scary and confusing is that the world says “he is taking advantage, you are a victim.” How can we find our own truth in this overarching drama? Getting very quiet and looking at the situations and the people clearly and with a kind heart allows our own truth to arise. Letting go of shame, regret or victimization is freeing. I also notice that I interacted with men differently as I matured. I look at how the experience is true for me and what judgments of both them and myself were created in the full embodiment of those experiences. Undoing my judgments is what is important for me. I loved your article and how it made me revisit my thoughts on my sexuality and I will consider more how my sexual experience today is still effected by judgment of my experience. Thank you.

  3. Hi Jen, This is so lovely. Thank you for affirming the traumatized body’s rich wisdom by unearthing the explosion of possibility in a “yes” (or a “no”). Entire bodywork sessions can be spent inviting the body to reclaim its authentic “yeses,” or “nos” or “maybes.” And a clarification of what I wrote in my blog: introversion is not a trauma survival strategy. It is a temperament that 25-30% of the population are born with. Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking” is a celebration of the overlooked gifts that introverts bring to the world–and folks, many of them are writers!