My assistant tells me I curse too much. She has advised me that perhaps I should make a New Year’s resolution to curse less. Even my husband says there are times when my language could rival any sailor’s.
Are you surprised?
If you know me in my professional incarnation, perhaps you are. I am calm and cool as can be when on the phone or in an interview with an editor, publisher, or client—the epitome of professionalism and courtesy. And it’s not an act. No, it feels perfectly natural to be accommodating and kind to the people who pay my bills.
But once the phone is hung up, the deadlines are looming eerily, and the wireless office network has decided yet again to go on strike, the four-letter words start pouring out like spilled coffee. And pretty soon, the office is resounding with phrases that would make my mother cower in shame and which, fortunately, make my assistant devolve into giggles.
However, there is one four-letter word that is off limits, a word I never speak, a word I never allow anyone I care about to speak. And that’s can’t. If you want to get me really fired up, just say “I can’t” within earshot.
Even my four-year-old daughter knows this word is taboo. She knows if she makes the error of saying it while trying to put a floor puzzle together, she’ll be the recipient of Mommy’s so-called “look of death” and will receive no empathy whatsoever, just a tirade on how there is no such thing as “I can’t,” that she can put that puzzle together all by herself, that she will put it together, and that she will do so without any help from mommy. Silence and diligence ensue. 20 minutes later…Disney princess puzzle completed, and a delighted, “Look, Mommy, I did it!”
I’m not sure where my aversion to can’t came from. My mother would likely contend I’ve hated the word since at least age 2 since my common response to her telling me, “No, you can’t do that,” would be to do it anyway. And I’m afraid my husband would agree with her on that point. Both have since learned that “you can’t” is like giving me a call to action—some sort of weird reverse psychology phenomena that makes me dig my heels in and pursue whatever action I’m being told I cannot pursue.
But what can you expect? I come by this honestly enough. Raised by Midwestern Lutherans of Scandinavian descent, I have to say that bullheadedness is part of my cultural inheritance. You can’t live in a part of the country where the announcement that it’s 20 degrees below zero with the wind chill factored in results in a response like, “Well, I sure am glad it’s warmed up today,” without being stubborn. Stubborn is the key to survival, as is doing the seemingly impossible—like hauling your truck out of a half frozen lake after an ice fishing expedition gone bad or shoveling the front walk with diligence despite the fact the snow is shoulder-high.
Yet there were times in my life when I was tempted to succumb to the words “you can’t” and almost did—like when some of my most admired college professors scoffed at the idea I wanted to be a writer, thinking I’d be far better off pursuing an academic career instead, or when I decided to build a house on a shoulder of the appropriately named “Snowy Mountain” with a near mile-long driveway with a 300 ft. elevation gain. I didn’t listen, and that willfulness has made all the difference in my life.
Perhaps that’s why, when I hear people I love say, “I can’t,” I get all fired up. To me, those words speak grief. They say that what we want or need is impossible to have. They say, “I’ve given up. I’m not capable. I don’t believe. The opportunity has passed me by.”
Yet listen, and you’ll hear these words spoken all the time, and you never hear them in the context of anything good.
A friend of mine said to me recently, “My job is high stress, exhausting. I’d love to do something else, but it pays well, so I can’t quit. I have to provide for my family.”
Then an editor acquaintance told me she and her husband dream of selling all their possessions and moving to Paris, “but we can’t,” she lamented. “We have a toddler.”
I find myself scratching my head at these statements, wondering what they mean. Is caring for one’s family incompatible with a rewarding and happy career? Does living in Paris mean one can’t have a child under age four? I don’t think so. I don’t really think it’s an issue of “I can’t.” I think it’s an issue of, boy, it would be a big change and a lot of trouble, and what if it’s not worth it in the end? Better just to stay here with what I’m doing where it’s nice and safe.
“I can’t” has nothing to do with ability or even guilt. It’s all about fear.
I’d be lying like crazy if I ever said I wasn’t afraid. I’m afraid a lot. I find myself facing fear on an almost daily basis on things ranging from terror of falling off that paddleboard into an icy cold river once I finally get the gumption to get off my knees and stand up to near paralyzing anxiety at the thought of overhauling my life for a better chance at happiness. And while, “I’m afraid!” will creep into my head, “I can’t” doesn’t.
Because it’s perfectly okay to be afraid.
The problem arises when we let fear keep us from living the lives we’re meant to live. We love to say we can’t do this or that because we don’t have enough money, don’t have enough time, because we’re too old, because it will disrupt the lives of our children or will make our friends and neighbors raise their eyebrows. Well, I have to report the following: You will never have enough money or time. You are never too old. And you will disrupt your children’s lives despite your best efforts not to. Plus, your friends and neighbors are always going to find something to raise their eyebrows over whether you give them cause or not.
Don’t wait until the time is right…because it never will be. There is always a ready excuse for failing to move to Paris, failing to start your own business, failing to leave that hateful job. Because living life is a bit like falling in love. You’re going to get burned a lot before you get it right, most likely, and the longer you wait to live the next chapter, the less time you have to make the climax, the conclusion your own.
Sometimes my 70-year-old father will lament that he’s never traveled to Alaska (though he’s always wanted to), that he’s never hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (despite the fact it’s been on his bucket list for years), that he’ll never see a Norwegian fjord (even though he’s dreamed of it). When I ask him why, he’ll often say, “I’m too old,” or “your mother wouldn’t come,” or any other of a long list of excuses that really don’t suit the man who made me believe I really could understand trigonometry and, much later, was the only supporter of my biggest, wildest childhood dreams.
And I have to remind him, in reverse parent role, that his age is all the more reason to go and to go now. Because time is slipping, health is temporary, and the world is big. Don’t waste it living a life that isn’t yours.
A few weeks ago when I was visiting my family and was seated at the dinner table with my parents, my grandmother, and my daughter, my four-year-old pointed to my plate where I had left some of my mother’s very good but far too calorie-laden lasagna and said, “Mommy, you didn’t finish your dinner.”
She saw the injustice, as I was requiring her to finish hers. I smiled at her and replied, “I know, sweetie, but I’m all grown up, so I can do what I want, and when you’re all grown up you can do exactly what you want to do, too.”
My mother shot me a glance and said quickly, “No, you can’t.”
I looked back at her, the woman I’d willfully defied since childhood, not because I wanted to make her crazy but because I had a very definite vision of what I wanted from my life that she did not always share, and then turned to my daughter, and said, “Heidi, you can do whatever you want when you’re grown up, and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.”
My mother, wisely, said nothing. She and I had been down this road a thousand times before. And to be fair, I’ve had my doubts at times about what I can do. I always knew I’d be a writer, but I never dreamed in a million years I’d ever be able to buy a farm on it, build a house on it, support a family on it. That I’ve been able to I can only credit to one thing, and it’s neither ability nor intelligence—it’s a high dose of bullheadedness.
And perhaps it’s that bullheadedness that turns me into a spastic ball of adrenaline when the stakes are high, the deadlines are looming, and the life I want is so close I can taste it. I think my assistant knows this, so she tolerates it when the four-letter words come rolling off my tongue on one of those days when there is so much to accomplish in so little time. One four-letter word she knows she won’t hear is “can’t.”
Instead, I release my anxiety in a string of epithets and then get down to the business of doing what needs to be done. Because no matter how crazy, tragic, or overwhelming life becomes, I can meet it with strength, if not always grace, as long as I keep the end goal in mind. And when the time comes to take a wild leap of faith, I may not feel ready, but I’ll be damned if I’ll say, “I can’t.” Nope. The only valid response to meeting a challenge, an opportunity, a dream head-on is to say, “I can.” And then do it.