Knowing When to Say No

by Maria Theresa Maggi on April 12, 2015

"Going to Seed" orginal chalk pastel by Maria Theresa Maggi

The thrust of measurable success eating a no oil low fat whole foods diet is decidedly outward. We constantly chronicle our dramatic weight loss, our training schedules, hikes, trips, first marathons, returns to work.

In my case I’ve showered you with what I call my “Little Victories Over MS” and ”Plant Based Lifestyle Epiphanies.” More mundane than entering a first iron man marathon, they still ring true to me of success I had not counted on—no matter how ordinary or slow the victory came into being. The more I can take care of the ordinary things in my life on my own and with relative ease, the more victorious I feel. On that scale, being able to get in and out of the bath tub easily without the support bars that it was necessary to install at the old blue house nearly 20 years ago, is hardly “small,” especially as I approach the age at which most people have to start thinking about whether they need them or not.

But sometimes, though, the victory lies in the power to say no to something that, viewed from the outside, would seem like a great achievement, a pinnacle of success, even without a health challenge. A couple of years ago I listened to Lani Muelrath interview Dr. McDougall. He said something about success that stayed with me, and that I’m going to interpret here. To paraphrase, he said something like “success is achieved when you can do the things you want to do. For me, that’s hang gliding. But for someone else, it may be something entirely different. It’s up to the individual person.”

I’ve been eating this way long enough that those of you who read my blog regularly know I have seen a string of remarkable victories. And they were all things I really wanted to do, like hike back to a spot I hadn’t seen in 20 years with my son and daughter-in-law, or lift a toaster oven, then a 3 gallon water jug into its dispenser myself.

But sometimes success means having the strength to pass an opportunity up. To say thank you but no thank you. To trust when something others want me to do might in actual fact be a case of me biting off more than I can chew.

This isn’t an easy aspect of success to master, but it’s an essential component of true long term healthy success living with a serious diagnosis. To date, there are many many people living good lives following eating plans for MS recommended by Dr. Swank, Dr. Jelinek, and Dr. McDougall. But none of them have ever guaranteed there is a moment of total cure, when vigilance to dietary choices and careful ecology of stress and activity level can be ignored. And all of them caution that the most dramatic improvements are seen in those who start early and stay the course. Those of us who start later will see slower or less dramatic improvement, or merely a halt to getting worse. But the underlying damage already done is either thought impossible to correct or extremely slow to heal.

What I feel has happened in my case is that this way of eating has so lowered my inflammatory response that my symptoms, most of which cannot be touched by conventional medication, soften to the point of being mere irritants or seem to disappear altogether. Despite following a straight and narrow (and Dr. Swank’s admonition to take at least an hour nap each day), stress and overdoing can make a symptom or weakness flare, though now with rest and proper pacing and sticking to my diet, things clear up in record time.

That’s why it was very tempting when the City of Moscow Arts Commission announced they were creating a position of Poet Laureate of Moscow and seeking applicants. It was very hard to brush off the immediate cluster of e-mails I got from friends sending me the application, enthusiastic that I should apply.

I’m on the Moscow Arts Commission e-mail list, so I had already skimmed the notice. My first reaction was that would be way too much for me. The position is for 3 years. It involves creating outreach programs, meetings, workshops, and probably the more the better. I am okay with the occasional meeting and the occasional public speaking. And by that I do mean occasional. Once every few months, with little or no preparatory stage that involves meeting with others. I still do not have the strength in my vocal cords to talk all day long, like I once did when I was a university writing instructor and writing counselor. And 3 years is an unimaginably long time to commit to for a person like me who needs to take things one day at a time in terms of energy and stamina.

On the tempting side, it was easy to see that my previous experience writing and then having my chapbook If A Sparrow published, made me and my work as a poet relevant as someone who wrote about Moscow. I literally walked around town as those poems came to me, and that’s why If A Sparrow has interested many people here who might not ordinarily buy a book of poems. But alas, the application process also required a video of the poet reading her work. Before my chapbook came out in October 2013, I had done no public readings since the winter of 1996 when my first book The Ring Around Saturn came out. At that time, the ubiquitous presence of video cameras on iphones and even the internet was yet to come. I missed the 17 years in which all that exploded. But one filmmaker friend was so eager that I apply that she wrote me she would come over and tape me reading in my living room.

I thought about this for a while. In fact I began a long reflective retrospection on my past and my present as a poet. And I discovered some wonderful and surprising—or perhaps not so surprising—things about myself.

I knew I had two recent radio pieces in which I read my poetry, and I wondered if they would count. One was a half hour interview on our local radio station KRFP, and the other was a short snippet of me reading my first poem at BookPeople, which a friend who worked for another radio station had surreptitiously taped so that she could do a little radio blurb on it. But then I remembered that before I moved last summer, I had taken some VHS tapes to be converted into DVD format. There was not much: a series of videos Mike helped make the year we built the masonry stove, and a couple of videos I remembered only vaguely about appearing on a local morning television show in Lewiston to tell about the distinguished visiting writer visit of my former poetry mentor Brenda Hillman, and also my own reading.

I had not played these DVDs when they were done; I had only had time to pick them up and pack them. So I got them out and put them in the computer. There I was: 19 years ago, sitting in a chair in the television studio talking pleasantly and articulately about Brenda Hillman’s poetry. And then there I was, trying to answer questions about my own work, which evidently didn’t come quite as easily. The interviewer asked me why I wrote poetry. My answer was that “it’s my response to being alive.”

What struck me the most about this answer is that just two years ago, and 17 years before I said it in that television interview that I had forgotten all about, the radio interviewer asked me the same question. And I gave her exaxctly the same answer.

I also noticed the thoughtful pauses in each interview, and how hard it is for me to articulate what poetry is and does for me or why I write it at all. I think that might be because in writing poetry I am translating what I see and hear with my senses into language in a way that’s less immediate than when I draw or paint or even hum a tune or make a noise.

But alas, I was not asked to read a sample poem in that interview, so still no evidence of my history as a “professional” poet. And then I remembered that just 3 months or so before If A Sparrow came out, I went to the city council meeting where the pocket park I had worked with others so long and hard to get was either being voted in or voted out. There was a period of public comment before the votes were cast, and when it came my turn, I went up to the podium with Romeo, said a few words supporting what my   allies had already said, and then I read a sonnet I had written in honor of the little creek being daylighted as part of the project. And those meetings are all televised and recorded. So that was on tape somewhere. And I couldn’t have dreamed a more relevant public context up.


It took me while to find it, and then an even longer while to figure out how to get it to play on my Mac, but finally, I saw myself as I was that summer, reading the sonnet “Seeing Hog Creek.” My hair is silver now, and my ability to project my voice was a little weaker, but I still had the same quiet yet powerful manner. If application materials were all I needed to engage in the application process, then I was all set.

Seeing Hog Creek photo of sonnet by Maria Theresa Maggi

But there were also these corollary considerations. Besides my initial gut feeling that this would be way too much for me (which I conveniently ignored whenever I felt like it), I noticed that those who were most enthusiastic about me applying were friends I hadn’t known for years, but who found my writing and my example (after improvement) “inspiring.” Among close friends who had known me upwards of 20 years, I noticed a cloud of worry darken their features before responding. Each would choose their words carefully, so as not to dampen my spirit, or make me feel I would not make a good poet laureate. Each respects and admires my ability as a poet. But they were, to a woman, privy to what I had been through, and each knew what it takes me to stay on top of things now. And so I noted these clouds gathering, and waited some more.

Another most important thing I noticed was that my daydreams about being poet laureate did not include any of the activities described as required on the application form. The daydreams were far more fanciful and simple: handing people lines from my favorite poems while walking on the street downtown, and even sillier things like getting to write my former teacher poet Charles Wright, who is currently the Poet Laureate of the United States and tell him that I am the poet laureate of Moscow, Idaho. That one made me laugh out loud every time I thought of it.

But I realized that in effect, I had already crowned myself a kind of poet laureate of Moscow, back when I walked around with Romeo and wrote about all the things I saw and felt. Some of those things were ephemeral, and some have since disappeared in the chaos of urban renewal, and I’m glad I recorded my version of them. But what is most important is that I have already done this, and there’s a lovely record of it in the form of my chapbook, and I did it on my own terms and at my own pace, as my gift to living in Moscow.

In the end, I was able to be my grown-up self and see that my daydreams about it did not match the reality of what would be required, and that what would be required might not be at all the best commitment of my time and energy for 3 years out, especially now that I want to be free to paint and draw, and not necessarily have to write a poem on demand for a public occasion. My creativity works best within its own quiet margins and time table, when I can call the shots about when to rest and when to tire myself out with complete and utter engagement in it.

In the meantime, I’ll cheer whoever is chosen on. I’ll watch and see what the position becomes. Maybe I’ll take stock in another 3 years. Maybe it will become my version of Dr. McDougall’s hang gliding. But I don’t think so. Nevertheless, my retrospective reflection process was powerful and healing. And I learned this too: saying “no” is not necessarily the end. Sometimes it helps me keep walking my road in my own time, trusting I’ll find my way. And for me, that’s what the real healing is all about.

Maria (moonwatcher)


Leave a Comment

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Deborah April 12, 2015 at 2:15 pm

Yes, yes, yes for saying no! Thanks for again sharing your reflective journey. I love how your writing always inspires me.


2 Maria Theresa Maggi April 12, 2015 at 2:25 pm

Thanks for reading and for the vote of confidence, Deborah! I think it’s important, for us women especially, to learn to say no when we need to. So happy my writing inspires you! 🙂


3 Silvia April 13, 2015 at 4:43 am

Dear Maria,
I think that is what your writing here in the blog reinforces: Listen to yourself in every sense of the word.
This post is a strong and wonderful example of not only listening but also learning to be true to oneself.
Thank you!
As always I struggle to express myself…
Greetings from Silvia in Germany


4 Maria Theresa Maggi April 13, 2015 at 9:11 am

Dear Silvia, I don’t know what it’s like to write in English when German is your native tongue, but from this end, you do a beautiful job with expressing yourself! And thank you for these words. This blog was born out of journal entries I was writing for just the reason you pinpoint–I was then encouraged by my son and then Susan to make them more public. So the first purpose of all of this is to affirm that I can listen and can be true to myself and my choices. Without that, there would be no blog, and the fact that it helps and inspires others is a double blessing on top! Heartfelt greetings back to you from Maria in Idaho! 🙂


5 Charity April 13, 2015 at 10:20 am

Thank you for sharing your daydreams with us, and your poems.


6 Maria Theresa Maggi April 13, 2015 at 12:09 pm

Welcome, Charity, and thanks for your comment. Poetry and daydreams are a bit part of my decision making process! 🙂


7 Veronica April 13, 2015 at 10:38 am

This resonates with me a lot. This past week with my family has been like that – they say “oh you should do….” and “why aren’t you…” etc. Good intentions, but they don’t understand what I really want out of myself and my life right now. I’ve changed over the years (notably the last 2), and they still focus on the 20-something year old me and those goals, not who I am today. Thank you for sharing your eerily spot-on experiences at just the right moment for me, helping me know I’m not alone in my thoughts. “No” can be an immensely freeing word, and I just need to release the guilt (and sometimes anger/frustration) that comes with it. And as you say, it’s not necessarily the end of something, but allows me to reach wherever I’m going at my pace. xoxo


8 Maria Theresa Maggi April 13, 2015 at 12:06 pm

Dear Veronica, so glad it was spot on for you and came at the right time. Discerning what we want out of ourselves and our lives, especially when living with a serious illness, is often vastly different from what we used to want or how we used to be. You sound strong in knowing that it’s different now, and I so agree that “no” can be an immensely freeing word–and not one women always feel comfortable with, either. Here’s to traveling life at our own individual pace! xoxo


9 Kiwi Fan April 13, 2015 at 10:38 pm

Wonderful writing again, dear Maria. Thank you.
‘No’ is a good choice, a hard one to make when you are surely suited to this honour. With a 3-year commitment you won’t be so free to pace yourself. You want to be ‘free’ now to enjoy and treasure the things you can ‘do’ now, write your amazing poetry, paint (lovely painting), experiment in the kitchen and, yes, write this inspiring blog.
Greetings from the Antipodes where we are just experiencing our first cold blast from the Antarctic: snow in mid-Autumn (though not by the sea where I live, only on the mountains I can see). Brrrr…
And kiwifruit are now in season!


10 Maria Theresa Maggi April 14, 2015 at 9:17 am

Dear Kiwi Fan, thank you for all the lovely sentiments in this comment! And just as we are enjoying the arrival of a long awaited Spring, you will be bundling up for Winter. So wonderful that the kiwifruit is now in season–I LOVE them!! Enjoy some for me. 🙂


11 Airyfairycelt April 14, 2015 at 1:44 am

I found this writing about where you have been, where you are and what you may be able to do in the future completely absorbing.
It is always fascinating to hear poets talk not just about their walk but on their poetry ways, and by that I mean where it comes from and why it comes, what they do.
I have just imagined a poet laureate as someone who writes poetry but has to do it to order to, something I should imagine is abhorrent to their natures. Someone visits so a poem, an occasion so a poem, an anniversary is marked so a poem, all of these seems so unnatural to me. Poem to order. I am not at all sure it would suit any poet although it is supposed to be an honour it sounds like an ordeal!
I love that it has sparked off so many memories and occasions and deeper thinking about the why.
I am glad you have made a choice that is right for you and I know that after my disability coming I have had to think carefully about what is possible and realistic, what is HONESTLY manageable. After pondering the NO for a good while I suppose it has taken time to come to the YES. You are so adjusted and if I did half as well as you do then I shall be pleased indeed.
As you say, you crowned yourself a poet laureate years ago and there does then seem little point in applying for your own job!
Most interested, laughing and hoping to achieve the inner peace you simply radiate.


12 Maria Theresa Maggi April 14, 2015 at 9:18 am

Dear Airyfairycelt–Thank you so much for this wonderful comment. I agree with you so much, and you made me laugh out loud about there being little point in applying for my own (self-appointed) job!! Indeed. I am blessed to have such wonderful readers. I have just had a lot of practice, and so shall you! 🙂


13 Pam April 15, 2015 at 11:42 am

Maria, what a beautiful “ode to No”! 🙂 Saying no can be so difficult, and yet as you and others have pointed out, it is so freeing. Thank you for sharing your world and your heart with us, and I’m so pleased to see that you have an international following! How wonderful. <3 I hope the dandelion becomes a card some day. It's gorgeous!


14 Maria Theresa Maggi April 20, 2015 at 11:08 pm

And Ode to No! I love it! Thank you so much, Pam, for all these lovely sentiments, and your faithful reading and support. I’m so happy you think the dandelion is gorgeous. If it every becomes a card, I will let you know. 🙂


15 Gena April 23, 2015 at 4:08 am

Such a wise post, Maria.

I, too, struggle hard with saying no to things. I see this largely as a good thing — an appetite for life and for experience — but the tendency has been known to get me into trouble, and this has been especially true in the last three years. I’ve actually made a conscious effort to work on saying no more often (professionally most of all, personally to some degree), and it still does not come easily to me, but last weekend, when I was able to take my first Saturday off in years, I understood what kind of space opens up when you don’t commit to everything.

Given your health needs, I think you made the right choice. And you are so right that you “had already crowned myself a kind of poet laureate of Moscow, back when I walked around with Romeo and wrote about all the things I saw and felt.” That, it seems to me, is the essence of being a poet, living as a poet, seeing the world as a poet. Titles don’t validate the work; it’s the other way around.

Thanks for this thoughtful and personal post!



16 Maria Theresa Maggi April 23, 2015 at 8:16 am

You are welcome, Dear Gena! And thank you for these kind and very astute insights. I very much like your notion of saying yes as an appetite for life and experience. But I also agree it can get us into trouble, especially if fueled by a compulsion or even a sense of greed that is not even fully conscious. Kudos to you for finally having a Saturday off after years of not. I find those seemingly “empty” spaces are the ones from which the best inspirations arise. New thoughts and feelings have to have an opening to surface!

And thank you for your wise words about how titles don’t validate the work–it’s the other way around. Always good to remember that truth.

I am happy this resonated with you and others so well. Saying no when needing is always a work in progress. . .



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