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Kathryn Livingston Headshot

What's Your Excuse?

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I have a bit of a dilemma, caused, I suspect, by the clash between two conflicting philosophies that I've been following -- or trying to follow -- in the past few years, ever since the youngest of my three sons left for college and I began to re-focus my life on myself. Basically, the problem can be described by two short words: yes and no.

Prior to the momentous morning when my husband and I dropped our youngest at a small liberal arts college in New Jersey (not too far from our home, but far enough so that it makes sense for him to dorm there) my mind and calendar were jam-packed with such jottings as "bake brownies for the spring concert sale," "pick up Ben's marching band uniform at the dry cleaners" or "proofread remaining college application essays." As a stay-at-home, working/writer mom, my world had revolved around children and family for two decades. My life and my calendar were simply not my own.

In the past few years (Ben is now a senior) I have adjusted to liberation remarkably well. My days fly by in a whirlwind of "me"-related activities (I am not the sort of wife who rolls my husband's socks or feels compelled to make his dinner every night). I walk, I write, I read, write some more, attend a yoga class, meditate, read some more, lunch with friends, shop for interesting organic veggies, do some more writing and more yoga... My days are living, moving, me-driven creations (although there are some when I do have to clean or pull up weeds in the garden).

My first yoga teacher (I began practicing eight years ago) once advised me to "say yes to everything!" and recently I've pretty much been doing exactly that. So strangely enough, at a time when I should be breathing a little easier (especially with all the pranayama I'm doing), it seems like my schedule is more packed than ever. But even though I love all the myriad activities I'm engaged in, I sometimes feel a longing for the old Nancy Reagan years (well, not really!). But I do miss that wonderful "Just say No" slogan that worked so well for things besides or in addition to drugs (I don't really know how well it worked for drugs). "No" or even better, "Sorry, that doesn't work for me," were so easy to say to friends, family members and other adults when my kids were in diapers, or when my children needed help with homework, or when they had to be carted around to college fairs.

Yes, when my kids were home it was way easier to say "No." (But not to them, of course!) Kids are a great excuse for not going to yoga or exercise class, for not joining a book club (or in my case, two), for not going out to lunch every other day, or taking on more writing assignments and deadlines than one can handle, or driving sick friends around, or making elaborate soups from local produce, or any number of other things. Kids in and of themselves can fill up your day, making it quite easy to bow out of any number of other commitments.

But now, I just say, "Yes!" Yes to being in a play though I have no real desire to act. Yes to driving my friend to a doctor's appointment one hour away. Yes to feeding four cats and two birds while another friend is on vacation. Yes, yes, yes to everything!

While briefly chatting online with my aforementioned yoga teacher the other night I revealed that I'd promised my cousin I'd accompany her to Washington D.C. for the inauguration if Obama is elected. "That's great!" my former teacher (who moved out West a few years ago) typed back. "Just say yes!"

"Say yes to a martini?" I typed back naughtily, knowing (like me) she's a health nut. Certainly she would have to say no to that!

"Yes to chia beer!" she responded.

But what about no? What about, "That doesn't work for me?" What about standing up for yourself, preserving your solitude, your time, your sense of equanimity? How do you know when to say yes and when to say no, especially when you no longer have children around to make such decisions easy? Especially when kids -- or grandkids, which I don't have yet -- can't be your excuse?

I'm sure there's a happy medium between yes and no (and I don't mean maybe)... a place where no excuses are needed, where there are just enough yeas and just enough nays, where one feels balanced and satisfied and content. I just haven't found it yet.