Upstream

This is the part of my story I didn’t want to write. It’s the part the filmmaker sometimes leaves on the cutting floor, because the character does something to offend, like cracks her gum or runs over a cat with her car, and you think, “Can I finish this movie? Can I get past this and still like her? Can I root for her story long enough to see her through until the credits roll?”

And so, the small offense is edited out, because to like the movie, you have to like its protagonist, and if the texture of gum-cracking or cat-running-over doesn’t add enough to the story to compensate for its barrier to likeability, well then, chop-chop.

But I am not a movie character, and this is not a film, and I think every texture adds enough to the story because I find meaning in all of it. And so, I cannot edit out this small offense, this meaningful offense, because it is important:

Living slowly, saying no, surrendering expectations – all of it causes tension.

It is against the grain, and it shoots upward, like the prickle you feel when you rub your finger against the wrong side of the grass blade. It is offensive to nearly each and every fish swimming the other way, and often times, they will shout at you:

Slowing down is a privilege. It’s entitlement. It’s selfish. You are living in a bubble. You are justifying your laziness. Wake up, get out, get busy doing what you’re supposed to do like the rest of us.

And those fish are right, and they are wrong, and it matters even though it shouldn’t.

Or perhaps, it doesn’t matter even though it should.

Yesterday, I had a brief conversation with someone I ran into, and it was brief because the other person wanted it to be. You can feel those tensions really deep, like a melody, or a current, and we both knew the best thing to do was to blame the kids.

Great to see you; the baby’s getting grumpy. Nap time! Take care!

And I understood. It was understood, all of it. The week prior, I’d missed an event that was important to her but not important to me and it illuminated our differences like the noonday sun. Our priorities woke through the desert cracks and scampered about like lizards running in opposite directions, and we both knew that, when the dust settled, we’d shifted from friends to acquaintances.

When the world is in order, when you’re swimming with the rest of the fish, relationships move from acquaintance to friend.
When the world is not in order, when you change direction and begin to swim upstream, relationships sometimes go the other way. Your waves create whiplash. Friend to acquaintance. Acceptance to tolerance. Vulnerability to veneer.

And I suppose that’s what this small offense is. It’s precisely that – an offensive move, an intentional decision to begin changing the way you live. And moving on the offense can often bring the defense.

I have been taught, on many occasions, that our lives are to be lived in service. In sacrifice, in selflessness. And somewhere down the line, I confused service with “Yes.” I confused sacrifice with, “I’ll be there. I’ll do it. Count on me, I’m your girl.”

It’s a wildly popular thing to be everyone’s girl. It’s a surefire way to win adoration, and respect, and accolades.

And yet. When the “Yes” stops, when the waters still, when you change directions? The fish will shout. The current becomes strong. And you are left with a forced smile and an awkward hallway encounter.

So I am, simply, really, trying to tell the truth. I am trying to let my Yes be Yes and my No be No and am trying to own them both – the former without resentment, the latter without apology.

I am trying to tell the truth while offering kindness, trying to explain that I’m doing things differently now, and that I’m committed to something else, that I’m working toward peace and prioritizing rather than pursuit and perfection. And I’m getting it jumbled, I’m sure of that, and there are awkward silences while I’m trying to choose my words mindfully, but the truth is this: I am learning.

I am learning to accept the unpopular opinion, and I am building new muscles that make it a bit easier to swim upstream.

You want to know the coolest part, the best thing about swimming upstream? There are two ways to pass another fish in the hallway. We can run into each other, stop, and offer polite smiles and forced excuses.

Or we can simply keep swimming and offer a high five along the way. Fish to fish, fin to fin.

  • This is beautiful and it came into my life at exactly the right moment. Thank you, sincerely.

  • Swimming upstream for years, I never regret and it’s easy when I see my friends around, who may think, we might be crazy going our own way, but are so far from being happy. Life happens now.

  • I happened across this piece. Its part of life. Myself and my wife had had this happen to us last year. Different reasons, but we decided to ‘distance’ ourselves from a couple who had been great friends once, but then became the; “can you; Would you mind babysitting for us to go out with; we’ve been invited. Endless lists of expectations and the offers of dinner, lunch, party invites ceased. It was all about them.
    We had numerous drunken texts and messages on social media, and because we were honest we were Unfriended and blocked.
    I’m glad we had been friends, but we change and we had decided to start saying no. It cost us, but I wouldn’t change it. Thanks for this piece. It validates our decision to see others swimming against the current.

  • love love love this post. I needed to hear this so much. “that I’m working toward peace and prioritizing rather than pursuit and perfection” peirced my heart. Peace is where it’s at. Thank you!

  • This is such a beautiful encouragement to keep swimming. It reminds me of truth God has been bringing to my mind again and again this season. If you’ve read Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist, you may remember the first essay about swimming in Lake Michigan. In it she talks about a difficult season where she fought what God was doing instead of riding the wave and letting Him do His work in her life. I feel like this is a companion to that essay.

    I need to keep swimming in the direction He is calling me to swim, despite the resistance. It is much easier to swim with the current than against it. But as you said, it’s still work (we ain’t standing still!) and we must grow our strength to keep that work up.

    Cheers to growth!

    • Thank you, Jackie! And oh, I do love that Shauna, and I think I need to re-read Bittersweet! It’s been too long. :) Thank you for your encouragement!

  • I know that when Kristen Chase shares someone’s writing that I am in for a treat. This was exquisite for the honesty, the lack of apology, and the liberating ripples that washed over me—learning, swimming, and high-fiving, indeed.

  • So well said. Thank you. I’ve let some friendships go because I was bending over backwards to make them work. Sometimes it’s best to move on and be true to your own life. I love the high five metaphor. It saddens me a bit because some friends are so wrapped up in themselves that they’ll never grasp that.

  • This is beautiful Erin. I needed to read this. Saying no is so so hard, especially for women. On one hand, we need to learn to do it to keep our sanity, especially those of us who juggle so much. Prioritization is so essential, and one yes to something we feel obliged to (but resent) can mean no to something that was really important. Life is a series of choices, as my mom always said.

    But on the other hand, we need to learn to accept it when other people say no to us. It’s not necessarily personal. Even if it always feels that way.

    • Totally! Accepting other people’s no’s is our duty if we want ours to be accepted, as well. Full circle, yes? Gah.

      And your mom is so smart – life is certainly a series of choices!!! :) Big hugs today, Liz!

  • This is also something I am working on.. making my Yes mean Yes and my No mean No. But when I want to say no..I sometimes make up excuses to make the no sound better. I literally just told someone 5 minutes ago that I would be out of town next week to get out of doing something. Such a bad habit..

    • First: beautiful post. Your words read like poetry, Erin.

      Second: Morgan – I’m working on this too! I always feel compelled to pad a “not” with a reason – as if I feel I have to soften it or justify it. And that’s not the case. A “no” can simply be a “no” without an addendum attached. A “no” can be the vote in favor of doing more of what you love and creating life more on your terms – no other explanation needed.

      • Oh, you’re so kind. And yes, I am a padder, too, like Morgan! Yes = yes, no = no. It’s hard, but I’m working on it. ;)

  • Lovely. Just lovely.

    As someone who used to say yes a lot and then started saying no, the first thing that happens is that they DO protest. We are no longer playing along and making nice and making it all comfortable and easy.

    I’m a mom of a 9 year old girl and it’s been interesting to see the shifts amongst the moms. When our kids were all babies there were the usual divisions – sleep training or not? Bottle or breast? Plastic toys or wooden?

    Now that we are parents of tweens, the stakes are higher (in hindsight of course – those baby dilemmas seemed so real at the time). Screen time. Social media. Piercings. After school activities. Bed time. Being sporty and active.

    This is a whole new level of division, of boundary setting, of saying, “we’re a family who values X”.

    It’s creating distance. But it’s also opening the door to new parent friends. As we are more explicit about our values, others who share the same values are connecting.

    It’s that first step that’s scary, when you realize that you DO have to take a stand and put yourself out there. In a respectful way of course.

    • You’re so right, Sandra! A friend is dealing with something similar now that her girls are “tweens” and you’re right – for every broken friendship, there’s a stronger bond with those who are living with similar values. Thanks for showing me the bright side!!!

  • thank you for this erin (and this also reminds me of “this is water” by david foster wallace–which is itself a good reminder of what we are swimming through and in.) xo

  • “So I am, simply, really, trying to tell the truth. I am trying to let my Yes be Yes and my No be No and am trying to own them both – the former without resentment, the latter without apology.” My “Aha” moment-Thank you for owning it and sharing!

  • I feel like I’ve been doing life “wrong” these days. I am not used to friends turning into acquaintances! It’s hard! But pretending is harder, I suppose. I’m loving that I’m not alone in this!!! You’ve made my day. xo

  • Your post made me think of something Amy Poehler said in her book, Yes Please, “good for her, not for me.” I am working hard on adopting this attitude. Life is hard enough without the added pressure of having to live it in fear of what everyone else will think.

  • Very well said! This is so true. Although not always easy at times to do – it is definitely worth it. We must be brave and swim upstream again the current when need be.
    Thank you for saying what others do not Erin. I was meant to read this today.

    xo!

  • I am new to your blog. Loved this! I am learning this as well. I have a long history of people pleasing, which is not good for me OR others (often I enabled, instead of really helping). Thankfully is is getting easier over time!

  • You have a way of saying exactly what I’m feeling almost before I feel it. Thank you for putting words to this journey we’re all on, in some way. High fin!

  • When the fish shout in unison, “Slowing down is a privilege. It’s entitlement. It’s selfish. You are living in a bubble. You are justifying your laziness. Wake up, get out, get busy doing what you’re supposed to do like the rest of us.” I have mixed feelings like you.

    I believe one is better company when one truly wants and decides to be there, rather than out of obligation.

  • “And somewhere down the line, I confused service with “Yes.” I confused sacrifice with, “I’ll be there. I’ll do it. Count on me, I’m your girl”

    This is me. I would love to hear more about learning how to say “no” and yet still living in service. Because I can’t figure it out.

    • Oh man, yes – learning how to say no and yet still living in service. This is what I’m working through right now, and it is SO hard, but I’m learning a bit. Post to come, I’m sure!

  • Beautifully said!! Thank you for putting words to feelings I have struggle to express with some friends. Knowing I am not the only one to feel this way eases the guilt and conflicting feelings I so often feel when I choose to go my own way and second guess it. THANK YOU!.

  • Thank you, so much, for this. I am new-ish to your blog and I adore your writing. This piece put into words something I have felt so much these past several years as I, too, have slowed down, said no more often than not, and made more time for my husband and myself. It does often feel like I am swimming against the current…and it’s so nice to read this and remember that it is okay, and even good. Thank you.

  • This same thing happened to me with a friend who is now an acquaintance, and you know what? I think it takes courage to say Yes when you mean it and No when you want/need to without apologies. Few things are more important than the way we spend our time.

  • Erin, I loved this post so much and for so many reasons. I constantly feel the tension of swimming upstream with a “no” and pushing through to say “yes” to all things and all people, when ultimately, it steals my joy (and the joy of the five other people in my home) in the process. I am learning and growing in relationships…. and finding freedom in recognizing that sometimes, friendships are for a particular season of our lives, and that is more than okay. Love you, friend.

    • Oh man, yes – a hundred times yes. :) I’m an introvert, so often times the more scrawled my calendar is, the less energy I have for the sweet ones under my own roof. I’ve been seeking to give them the best of me lately, rather than my leftovers. It’s a learning process for sure!
      Love to you, sweet friend.

  • Beautifully stated. My favorite part: “I am building new muscles that make it a bit easier to swim upstream.” The law of inertia (paraphrased) states that the more you do something, the easier it is to do that thing. Keep focusing on your family, your faith, the simple best and it will increasingly make sense and just become your way. The leaving behind hurts, for sure.

    About 4 years ago your blog, and your responses to my comments were so sweet (and meaningful to me) as I changed course to swim very much against the stream. The muscles have grown and the flow smoothed out, so that “against” feels mostly alright now. You are on the right track, girl!

    You are a light and and inspiration to me, among many. It is a joy to watch you grow–along with your baby girl.

    • Oh Jenifer, thank you for those kind words – it’s so great to hear you’re still swimming upstream yourself, sweet friend! :)

  • You go girl! Do not waste any more years doing what others expect of you rather than what feels right to you. Friends will come and go and if you are lucky, in later years you will have a fistful of those who are truly friends for life, not just for the season. If you are happy and content and fulfilled those who are important to you will be also and the others will just have to swim quietly away to find their own little spot of this big ocean we call life. So well said as always!

  • This is so beautifully written. As a semi-obsessive blog reader who’s been sifting through the noise to figure out what voices add meaning and which voices add clatter to my day….and then stumbling upon this….it makes me think about why so many of us started blogging in the first place. Because we love words and images and they can be beautiful. I love the way you write.

    I’m on a similar journey as you. To have less. To slow down. To be quieter. One of the things we’ve been talking about in a yoga philosophy class I’ve been taking is the balance of ahimsa and satya….kindness with truthfulness. Originally we talked about each element separately, but in our last class, we talked about how one doesn’t work without the other. We can be kind and not truthful (saying yes when we’d really rather say no), we can be truthful but not kind, but if we can find the balance between truthfulness and kindness and we can respond with that balance, then we can let go of the outcome. We can let go of the fish who is now just an acquaintance. We can accept that she’s swimming a different direction because that’s okay. And like you said, maybe give her a high five in passing :)

    • Thank you for your kind words, Jessica, and OMG I love this idea of truthfulness with kindness! That is such a hard balance to strike but you’re right, we can’t reall and truly have one without the other. So much to ponder this morning, thank you!

  • This is absolutely true. I’m smack dab in the middle of being an upstream fish, and it’s hard. But it’s easy. Both of those. And the easy part is knowing deep in my heart that I’m right, and because of that it’s okay to let go of the hard, to let go of the relationships and people who don’t understand my new way of life and my peaceful decision to get there.

    So much love to you, friend. xoxo

  • Erin, I loved this. It spoke to so many of my emotions and thoughts as I’ve been wrestling with a similar situation. Thanks for providing truth and light. (:

  • I relate to this so much. At times I feel more like an observer of society rather than a participant. I watch the hurried and flustered people around me using different systems because the systems exist and provide something to do. It’s not wrong or better it’s different and something I think is often futile and frustrating. I also see the value in living contrary to what most people expect and not apologizing for it. We don’t have to believe the world works or exists in the same way but we can let the differences slide.

  • Ah yes. I am certainly experiencing the friends to acquaintances shift, the boyfriend to friend shift, the “we don’t have much in common anymore” shift of deciding to go the route of self employment when the circles I roll in are still very traditional. And there are sacrifices: time, relationships, commonalities, attention. And sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice, or if “swimming with the current” would have helped me hold on to those friends or that relationship a little longer. But then I realize I was always a bit different: I too, did forced smiles and forced fitting in. But I never really believed what everyone else did and the relationship was never going to last forever unless we both became completely different people so… I think I’m okay with this choice. And it’s nice to hear that others that make it (whichever current you happen to be swimming against even if it’s different from someone else’s current) also experience this loss. That its normal. Even though it’s still a bit sad. So thank you for writing this—it makes me feel a little less alone!

    • Ah, I hear ya, Sara! Employment is one of many decisions that are so visibly different we can’t ignore them – wishing you peace in your decision! (Self-employment was one of the best decisions both Ken and I have made in our lives together!).

  • Hi Erin,
    This is my first time here, I still have to read about you, but found this post touching and it resonated with me, thank you for sharing! Have a good week,
    Maureen
    (Found you via link from Blog Society)

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