On Boundaries and the Necessary Magic of the Word, 'No!'

is a necessary magic

draws a circle around you
with chalk
and says
i have given enough

- boundaries



I was walking down to the garden the other morning, when a line from Maurice Sendak’s, Where the Wild Things Are ran through my mind. A friend had texted, asking if I might bring flowers in to work. I had paused before replying – I didn’t know if we had flowers left in the garden or not.  More importantly, though, I didn’t know if I had it in me to bring flowers or not.

I texted back, “Lemme see . . .”

After the boys got on the bus, I did a quick internal scan. Did I have it in me to bring in flowers? Yes, I did. Plus, the act of walking through the early morning dew, scanning stems for suitable blossoms, and arranging them in a vase would be good for me.


I am someone who grows and cuts flowers to bring into the office. I am someone who spreads poetry in the world, who writes, who tells jokes, and listens, and gives, and gives, and gives.

Most of the time, people like this about me. “We appreciate you,” they say. “You bring something we need.”

Most of the time, I like being liked.

Maybe you do too?


Liking being liked can be a problem.

Needing to be liked can be a more serious problem still.

It can lead to a giving that depletes so completely that the giver is left with an empty shell of self.


“. . . we’ll eat you up – we love you so!”

This the line I recalled from Sendak’s book. It’s what the wild things say to Max when he’s feeling lonely and longing for “someone who loves him best of all.”

I thought of that line and recognized something in it about the way church work can be; about the way parenting or teaching or any other form of service that involves deep self-giving and sacrifice can be. Caring for young children, tending a sick loved one, feeding a hungry church – all of these have the potential to eat us up, especially if we're looking to them to replace "someone who loves us best of all."


I went back and re-read Where the Wild Things Are a few days later.  I read how it’s Max’s realization of his loneliness and need for love that causes him to give up his position as “king” of where the wild things are. Aware of his own needs, Max prepares to leave. This is when the wild things cry, “Oh please don’t go – we’ll eat you up – we love you so!”

Then, a wonderful, magical thing happens in the story: Max says, ‘No!’

Of course, the wild things don’t like this one bit. In response, they “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.

But Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye . . .”


I hope you know the power of the word ‘no.’

I hope you see how every ‘no’ is also a ‘yes’ and that choosing self care is sometimes the best gift you can give to the wild things who love you so.

I hope you don’t give in to the “terrible roars” and “gnashing teeth” and “terrible claws;” I hope you have the wisdom to see they love you so and they're just afraid you won’t return.

Go ahead, step into your boat and sail away, “in and out of weeks and through a day” and find yourself home, again, in “your own room” where Someone who loves you best can care for you for a while.

Don’t worry. We know you’ll be back. We know you’ll bring flowers and, probably, a poem or two. We know. Because that’s who you are. 

But that's only part of why we love you so. We love you also for your ability to say, and to help us to learn to say, that magic word, 'no.' 

On Feeling Afraid and Finding the Edge

"Come to the edge," life said.
"We can't, we're afraid!" they replied.

"Come to the edge," life said.
"We can't, we'll fall!" they replied.

"Come to the edge," life said.
So they came,
and life pushed them,
and they flew.

- Guillaume Apollinaire


"Do you ever realize how often you feel afraid?"


This is what I asked my husband the other day as I swept up spilled cat food in our bedroom and he sat on the bed, watching. We'd gone upstairs to talk about knocking out a wall.

I’d gotten the urge that morning. Stepping out of the shower, I'd thought, Let's just knock out that wall.

The wall in question - which divides our bedroom into a small room main room and a pointless hallway - has been slated for demolition for some time now. But it's taken a back seat again and again to more pressing projects, like making a standing shower and putting in a dishwasher.

Recently, adding a shower to our make-shift downstairs bathroom has been at the top of the to-do list, but progress has been stalled by indecision and the awkward limits of several poorly placed windows and cast-iron radiators in the room to be remodeled. Neither of us can think of a layout that makes good use of the space and doesn't leave us feeling unsettled. In short, we're afraid to move ahead.

Which, looking back, is probably why I jumped to the more immediate option of knocking out that dang wall. Knocking out a wall feels so clear, so simple, so satisfying.

Of course, knocking out that wall will force us to deal with the fact that the ceiling in one part of our bedroom is lower than the other, as is the floor. And there’ll be radiators and some wiring to work around. No project in a 100+ year old house is ever simple.

But when you're feeling afraid, I've found, sometimes you need to just find the nearest edge and jump.


"Do you ever realize how often you feel afraid?" I asked.

"Sometimes," I continued, "it's like I'm afraid almost all the time."


Our conversation moved on to other territory, but here I am, still thinking about fear and its subtle sway.

I'm not talking about heart-pounding, fight-or-flight fear. But rather the dull constraint of corners cut out of safety's concern. The fear of failure, even on the smallest scale. The fear of even naming the fear that drives us for fear that this too will be seen as weakness unendurable. A fear so subtle it's easy to rationalize, easy to miss.

When I notice this fear in myself, I try to balance it by asking, "What would love say?" Love and fear have patently different voices, markedly different concerns. Sometimes, this question alone, is enough to shake the dark cobwebs and return me to the life-giving freedom bought by Christ.

Other times, forward motion helps. Knocking down the closest wall, diving off the nearest edge, and finding, in the falling, the momentum needed to soar.