Knowing When to Say No
I first moved to New York City in January 2016. I was 21-years-old.
The first thing I was struck by was awe and wonder—how does that not consume you when you move from a college in Amish country Pennsylvania to the biggest city in the United States. The second thing I was struck by was how expensive a jar of peanut butter was.
But the third, and perhaps most important thing that I immediately noticed was how much opportunity surrounded me. There were art exhibit pop-ups and readings by my favorite poets that I could swing by after work even though I hadn’t known they’d been speaking until 30 minutes prior. There were subways to ride end to end and parks to explore until my feet were sore. There was an endlessness I’d never felt before.
Once I got out of the funk that was “how did I just move here and what was I thinking and also why are the mice inside the apartment,” I told myself that I was here to make the most of every moment. I was prepared to say yes to every opportunity that presented itself, even if I didn’t feel qualified, even if it took me outside my comfort zone.
Thus began a beautiful, inspiring, and yes, hectic, year of yes. I was volunteering for local nonprofits and babysitting and dog walking. I was working coat check for fancy museum events after my full time nonprofit job and leaving with what felt like a million bucks in cash tips.
Weekends I worked at a breastfeeding resource center that I had no business being at. I taught new and expecting parents how to use a breast pump and I fit them for nursing bras, fully knowing the regular bra I was wearing was surely not the right size.
I look back on my early New York years fondly—the air mattress behind the sofa, the nights at Paddy’s dive bar playing Skee-Ball, the way dollar slice saved me on more than one occasion.
But I also look back with a new awareness of what it means to always say yes. It was a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of “sure that pop-up art gallery sounds cool, but I’m already committed to stocking shelves at a granola bar warehouse in Queens…” (This one worked out okay, though. I left with a bag of snacks I lived on for weeks and a cute human’s phone number.)
The first time I noticed the problem with “yes” was when I’d asked someone a few years older than me if they were interested in supporting a volunteer activity with me. They took a moment to look over the information and then told me they didn’t think it was the right fit for them but to keep them in mind for future events.
I was floored. I hadn’t thought about it that much. But if I did, I think I might have realized that it really wasn’t the right fit for me either. I was just going through my motions of habitual “yes.”
Moving to New York, I was determined to soak up everything the city had to offer. But in saying yes to everything without giving it much thought, I had packed my schedule to the point of having to say no to things I perhaps would have loved even more.
Over the years, I’ve learned to be more selective in my “yes.” I’ve learned that I don’t have to act on everything that interests me. And I’ve learned that it’s completely reasonable for a “yes” to slip into a “actually, maybe not” at any time.
And with this selectiveness, I’ve been able to say yes to strolls down Broadway where the streets are closed for 15 blocks, even if I end up passing the same funnel cake stand 3 times. I’ve said yes to entire afternoons in the grass at Riverside Park nursing a thermos of herbal tea and a good book. I’ve said yes to elaborate dinners that create way too many dirty dishes and even more elaborate desserts whose assembling time is spread across entire weekends.
I’ve said yes to lingering goodbyes and late nights at the arcade and love. So much love.
So perhaps it isn’t as simple as “yes or no.” Perhaps it is about taking the time to decide if something is right for you in this moment. And then, if it is, making space for it in your heart.