La via negativa, poetry, peace

A few years ago I read Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please in my car on the way back and forth from my new job. (It was the audiobook, obviously. Poehler’s narration makes it a fun listen.) Poehler’s thesis can be summarized as such: say yes to every opportunity, have fun with it, and eventually you will find success.

This advice is something I’ve heard echoed from other successful women, and it’s served me in good stead in many aspects of my life. But it can also be dangerous advice — there’s only so much of you to go around, after all, and if you’re not affluent enough to hire folks to do your cleaning, cooking, and caretaking (or your spouse doesn’t do a hefty amount of that for you) it can mean feeling stretched thin. Over the last several years on this blog, I’ve talked about that feeling a lot. I’ve talked about it even as I pursued a bunch of wonderful opportunities, including hiking and silks and baking pies and permaculturing my yard and all the other things I’ve gotten up to. And I regret none of those things.

But of course 2020 brought on some self-reflection — we’ve all spent a lot of times with ourselves over the past years, uncovering things we’ve tried to ignore. 2020 is the year that I stopped saying yes to things and started saying no.

I started writing this post before my partner and I contracted Covid in November. Before November, I felt myself sliding back into old ways of being in some aspects of my life. I felt hurried and confused and guilty when I wasn’t productive enough. I felt like I had to maintain momentum to move forward, to achieve acceleration, to go faster and faster. In my speed would be the key to success. And at the same time, I was listening to David Whyte, and beginning to question that feeling in a way that was fundamental. In opposition to Amy Poehler’s advice, Whyte discusses what he calls “la via negativa,” which I think would loosely translate to the path of negation. Specifically, he talks about saying no to things that aren’t the right fit, to saying no until the yes comes to you. In 2020 it was a message I needed.

In 2021 it became something I acted upon.

Saying no to something is of course an act, a choice, though it’s often framed as an absence of doing. Thinkers such as Tricia Hersey, who founded The Nap Ministry, take this a step farther. Hersey specifically talks about rest for rest’s sake as a radical act in the face of a society that calls for constant productivity and entertainment. The S.O. and I decided to take our trip in February, directly after my aunt passed due to complications with Covid. We decided to step away.

It was the best choice we could have made. It was la via negativa — saying no to all of the alternatives presented, saying yes to the one that felt right. It was also rest — despite the fact that I used the past several months as a sort of prolonged writing retreat, I also used this time to rest as much as my constantly churning mind allowed me. I’m not perfect at resting yet, or at work-life balance, or at not drinking up all that life has to offer. But I don’t think I have to be.

We’re coming up on my one year anniversary with Covid, and the pandemic isn’t over. There’s a lot to be scared about if you’re looking out in the world, but there’s a lot of beauty, too. Instability is so hard on all of us. Security is something most of us cling to in some fashion, but security itself is an illusion. Having it “all figured out” is an illusion — it’s never going to happen. You’re not a static entity. Sometimes, you say yes to everything, hoping that one of those things will turn out. Sometimes you say yes to one thing at a time.

Sometimes, you say no and you take a nap. They’re all valid options. At the risk of sounding overly religious, everything in this life has a season. The idea of constants is the fault. And so the wheel of the year turns, and we continue forward.

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