I sat in a coffee shop with a latte and a pumpkin scone, my journal from summer of 1977 before me. Pages and pages of my fat cursive filled the college notebook. At one time, I’d felt burdened by the huge tub of journals—a sporadic record of my life dating back to my early teen years. But lately, I am grateful that I saved these ragged books; they give me insight into who I was and am and the forces that shaped me. I laugh out loud when I come to a passage about my strange encounter on a Greyhound bus from Gravenhurst to Toronto. I describe the encounter as “euphoric.” A handsome man sat next to me:
Every time his arm brushed against me, shivers went up my spine. For a while we slept, and our bodies were quite separate. While he was awake, I was always worried that he might know exactly what I was thinking. At some point, when the bus turned, my arm was nestled next to his. . . . And then he began to gently stroke my arm. I kept telling myself I was imagining it, but I wasn’t. The rest of the ride was seventh heaven. He continued to ever so lightly caress my arm. Neither of us looked at the other, yet I felt an infinite closeness, a bond with this gorgeous man. As we approached Toronto, I was surprised, the ride seemed so short. . . . When he got off the bus and it pulled away, I saw him standing on the sidewalk looking at me. I looked back. He was so beautiful. That was a most incredible experience.
I love that 18-year-old me: naïve, open to life, hungry for it. Trusting, fearless, sensual, absurdly passionate, saying yes to everything. Wait a minute, though. I take a pause. Yes, there’s something juicy about her eagerness to embrace the strange. But let me think past the wild beauty. This young woman’s lack of boundaries sometimes led her into the dark: dangerous situations and unhealthy relationships. It’s a little easier on my heart to squint from both the distance of time and third person point of view.
The romance of saying yes to life masks an inability to say no, to discern what you truly want, what’s good for you. I see with clarity and growing acceptance how my early childhood experiences of boundary-less-ness have engendered a lifetime of struggling to set limits. I learned early on that to say no, to set a limit, meant to risk being rejected, unloved, or abandoned. Thus, I said yes even when I felt no. I accommodated others at all costs, a human pretzel, ignoring the internal cries that grew fainter:
“I can’t do this, this doesn’t feel right, I don’t want to, I don’t like this, no, I can’t, no…no…no….” Whispers fading away.
Author James Joyce apparently described “yes” as “the female word” that showed “acquiescence, self-abandon, relaxation, the end of all resistance” (see Hugh Kenner’s  Ulysses. Johns Hopkins University Press). At the end of Ulysses, Joyce puts “yes” into his character Molly Bloom’s mouth many times during her pages-long monologue that ends the book.
“yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
I was enamoured by Joyce when I studied Ulysses during my PhD program, and his idea that “yes” was a female word aligned with my view of myself as a nice, easy-going, accommodating female. But now his gendered claim about “yes” disturbs me. Sure, I see the value in saying yes: the self-abandon and relaxation Joyce cites. And female energy has long been associated with yielding, opening, giving birth (the ultimate yes), just as male energy is associated with law and logos. But—as with most things—context is everything.
I am learning to say no. No thank you, I don’t want to teach a course next semester. No, I’m busy with other clients—I cannot edit your dissertation. No, I’d rather not. No, that doesn’t work for me. Kindly, but firmly: no no no no no no no. Like the terrible or terrific two-year-old, I am the terrible terrific 62-year-old: No, no, no, no. Because saying no makes space for a-flesh-and-blood-I-mean-it-down-to-my-toes, yes.
Hard Work of No To push the muslin down into the vat of boiling blue, I used my broomstick pounding, nonono and nonono It took a month to wring it out. My shoulders ached, my hands turned blue, each drop a no no no no no Ten yards of billowing indigo—a sister to the sky— I hung it out to dry, to crackle in the wind: no no no no, nononono With bundled sheet across my breasts, I headed back to childhood, and there I found a cache of suffocated noes reduced to infant bones, all petrified, but still faint echoes of the negative. From those timbers, I built a scaffold and as I worked, I sighed reminders to my infant bones of the pleasures of autonomy: a no and a no and a nonono Birds helped by lifting corners of the sheet, then draped it on the bony frame. A blue-domed tent appeared before my eyes then Spent, I crept inside, where bluish light bathed me to sleep and children’s bones sang me a lullaby of no no no and no no no of no and no and no and no It took the hardest work to get here. Know my tool of choice: Nicely, firmly, thank you, thank you, no and no and no A month went by. I woke refreshed and listened to a sound, a curlicue of pink that whistled through my core And there again the whistle, delicious worm of want winds up my empty throat, and from my tongue slides out the baby of a thousand noes, the pretty word all plump with meaning: yes Madeline Walker, October 2021