Monthly Archives: August 2018

The power of No

In my last post, I touched on the basic, physical and mental aspects of self-care, and one thing I mentioned in passing was saying No. I wanted to look at this in a bit more detail.

We live in a culture where ‘No’ has a bad rap. We’re supposed to be all about acceptance, about positivity, about saying Yes to whatever life throws at us. There have even been books written around the notion of actually, practically saying Yes to any request or suggestion.

Ah, but sorry, folks, life isn’t like that.

Kabbalah, the esoteric Jewish mystical tradition, has an interesting take on how we came to exist. Initially, they say, God was everything there was. And he wanted to make a universe. But where could he make it, if he was all there was?

So in his infinite wisdom, God withdrew. He emptied a part of himself, made a space where there wasn’t God, and that was where he sent the divine spark of energy that eventually (after descending down through ten vessels, and shattering them en route, which is why nothing’s perfect) became the material universe we know and live in.

This process by which God emptied himself, made a boundary, said No to being Everything so that something else could be Something, is called in Hebrew tzimtzum, ‘contraction’. It’s not just a feature of Kabbalah. The regular creation story in the Torah has God drawing boundaries – light from dark, day from night, heaven from earth, sea from dry land – all the way through.

If you want something less mythological, consider how the human body forms. Every cell in our bodies contains the total DNA code to make all of us – and in early embryos, every cell is pluripotent: any cell can become any kind of tissue (which is why stem cell research is such a big deal). But if cells retained that ability, they couldn’t form a body with coherent parts. Instead, under the influence of chemical pathways, cells ‘switch off’ the genes they don’t need as they develop, so they end up only able to express themselves as skin, nerve, blood or whatever. They say No to being anything else.

Similarly, look at how hands form. An embryo’s hand at first looks more like a flipper, a little featureless nubbin of flesh. The cells that will become the fingers continue to grow and develop, but the ones in between, die off. So that we don’t end up looking like the Man from Atlantis, chemical signals say No to everything that isn’t ‘finger’, rather like Michelangelo cutting away every part of the marble block that wasn’t ‘angel’.


And so we get to our own creativity, where we also shade the background so the design can stand out, cut away the fabric so we can see the pattern pieces, leave spaces so that the notes can sound, cut out paragraphs so we can make sense of the words that remain. It’s the same process.

Saying No has another significance, though. That’s in making room for creativity itself.

Creating boundaries. Saying:

No, I can’t work late this week.
No, I cannot deal with one more dramatic phone call.
No, I don’t need to watch that toxic news channel.
No, I don’t want to date you right now.
No, I cannot bail you out again…

….so that we can do something better, something more fulfilling, with the space that’s left.

And it works the same way in the larger world, when we collectively say:

No, we will not be led into another pointless war.
No, we will not let you scapegoat these innocent people.
No, we refuse to countenance your lies.
No, you do not get to harm the people we love.
No, this planet is not yours to do what you will with.

That’s a bigger refusal. And we shouldn’t forget that not everyone has the privilege of saying No, personally or politically, and that consent (not just the sexual kind, although that’s pretty important) is still, for some people, fraught with issues of coercion and necessity and the least worst option. Not everyone has a free choice.

But where we can say No to whatever’s harmful or useless or (like God) just taking up too much room for anything else to exist…we should. Because that’s how we carve ourselves out a place for something better.

So if there’s a small No that needs saying in your life, say it. Remember that you don’t have to explain it, that No is a complete sentence. And then, see if the space left by that No doesn’t allow you the possibility of a more interesting Yes.

Self-care for the creative soul

We live, you may have noted, in troubled times. And when it seems we have no choice but to fight for our lives, in one way or another, it’s important not to forget to look after ourselves.

Self-care has become quite the buzzword these days. A quick search reveals a slew of books giving hints, tips and suggestions on how to look after your own needs, and every other magazine is full of articles on self-care.

The commercial world being what it is, however, a fair amount of this advice seem overly focused on a particular type of reader: female, and middle-class enough to be able to afford spa days, hot stone massages, chia seeds, spiralizers and other accoutrements that are either out of reach – in time or financial terms – for many of us. Or it places the words ‘glowing’ and ‘healthy’ alongside photos that suggest they really mean ‘young’ and ‘skinny’ (and not coincidentally, white and blonde – I blame Gwyneth Paltrow).

For most of us, there are rather more basic things we could benefit from. Making sure we’re properly hydrated, especially in the weather the UK has had recently (and yes, tea and coffee do count as hydration). Adding the odd fruit or veg to your intake. Remembering to floss your teeth. Getting to bed a little earlier. Getting out of doors at some point during the day. Saying No to yet one more demand on your energy. Stopping to take a few deep breaths. If you’re working long hours in a crappy job, dealing with parenthood, eldercare or chronic health conditions, short of money or in poor housing – or even if you’re not – you are much more likely to try and look after yourself if your goals are small and simple.


Beyond the basics, however, self-care isn’t just for the body and mind. It also encompasses the soul. As the union worker Rose Schneiderman pointed out, we need bread, but we must have roses too. Not just survival, but creativity, is what we need. More urgently than ever, when times are trying.

So here are my humble suggestions for fifty small ways to look after your creative soul…

1. Make a list of five things you’re grateful for.
2. Whack on your IPod, or turn up the radio, and dance till you’re out of breath.
3. Go to a pound shop (or dime store, in the US) and get a bunch of kids’ art supplies. Make a piece of art with them. Stick it on your fridge and admire it.
4. Speaking of kids’ art supplies…do some fingerpainting.
5. Bake something. If you don’t have the knack of baking from scratch, get one of those super simple cake mixes you just add water to. Instant (almost) gratification.
6. Watch birds – in the wild, or at the feeder in your yard. Bonus points if you have somewhere you can see squirrels, hedgehogs or other wee beasties.
7. Do something different to your appearance. Dye your hair, arrange it a different way, wear earrings or a scarf or tie you haven’t worn in a while.
8. Whether you believe in astrology or not, write yourself a horoscope for the week ahead. Make it a good one. Tall dark handsome strangers may or may not be involved.
9. Get a current affairs magazine. Let out your inner eight-year-old and go to town with a ballpoint pen, adding zits, vampire fangs and insulting speech balloons to photos of your least favourite public figures.
10. Light candles.
11. Grow something: cress on wet cotton wool, a bean in a jar with blotting paper, or try and keep a Venus flytrap alive. (If you succeed, tell me how. The Magpie does not have green fingers.)
12. Write a haiku and leave it in a public place.
13. Go to a kids’ play park and have a go on the swings.
14. Write encouraging slogans on sticky notes. Decorate them. Place them around your desk, on your bathroom mirror, and anywhere else you need to see them.
15. With only what you have in your house, improvise a superhero costume. (If you feel brave, go out in public wearing it.)
16. Get Plasticene or Play-doh and make something from it.
17. Go to your local library. If you’re a regular library-goer, strike out and try a library further afield that you haven’t been to lately. Get out books you’ve never read on subjects that catch your eye.
18. Tell someone a harmless lie about yourself. Make it good and elaborate, and try not to get caught out. (Introvert version: do it in an online forum where nobody knows you.)
19. Go to the pet section of your local garden centre, and spend some time watching the tropical fish.
20. Watch goofy cat videos online.
21. Blow bubbles.
22. Make a good thorough list of your accomplishments. Exams, work promotion, grade 3 viola, babies, prize-winning tomatoes, divorcing Mr Wrong, quilts, watercolours…it all counts.
23. Get some nice smooth flat rocks, paint them (or draw on them with marker pens), and leave them for people to find.
24. When you’re out and about, talk to someone you don’t normally talk to.
25. Memorise a poem.
26. Go to a DIY store, find the paint chips, pick out colours you love and take them home with you.
27. Cut up an old magazine or two and make a collage.
28. Alter a plain cheap pair of sneakers with paint and sparkles.
29. Make a random scribble on paper. Add features and try and turn it into a person or creature.
30. Invent and use a new swear word. See if it catches on.
31. Visit a sacred place: a church, temple, mosque, stone circle…Be respectful, sit and absorb the atmosphere. If there’s a place to light a candle, feel free.
32. Get a colouring book and spend some time filling it in.
33. Create playlists (mixtapes, if you want to get old school) for different moods and situations: Summer Afternoon, Outer Space, Road Trip, Halloween, TGIF…invent your own.
34. Put on your scruffiest old clothes, don a pair of shades, go out somewhere and pretend to be a rock star.
35. Eat dessert first. Hell, eat dessert instead of. Eat dessert for breakfast. Not all the time, maybe, but once in a while, it cannot possibly hurt.
36. Make a piece of jewellery out of (literal) junk.
37. Go and find where the interesting graffiti is in your town. Take photos.
38. Get a postcard of your location or a local tourist spot, write on it and send it to someone. If you don’t have anyone to send it to, post it to yourself.
39. Go to a department store and test any perfumes you like the sound of.
40. Draw a temporary tattoo on yourself with eye pencils.
41. Go out in nature (to a park, if you’re in town) and collect twigs, leaves and what have you. Arrange them into art pieces à la Andy Goldsworthy and leave them in situ.
42. Paint a slogan on a T-shirt and wear it.
43. Re-read a favourite childhood book.
44. Go and find a photo booth and take silly shots of yourself.
45. Sit in a café and sketch people.
46. Write yourself a fan letter. If you want, write it from the point of view of your secret celebrity crush. Be totally over-the-top.
47. Go online, find an artist you love, and leave a message of appreciation on their blog or social media.
48. Go to a charity shop and buy the most bedraggled soft toy animal you can find. Take it home and give it some love by blinging it up with beads, buttons, ribbons and miscellaneous Shiny Things.
49. Mime along to the whole of your favourite album. Hairbrush mike optional.
50. Make your bed into a tent, get cookies and a beverage of your choice, and read with a flashlight under the covers.

You should aim to fit in one of these at least once a week – once a day would be ideal. But don’t beat yourself up if you can’t. It’s not another ‘to-do’ list. Think of it as a ‘could-do’ list.

Do some of these sound silly? Hell, yes. But ‘silly’ comes from the same root as ‘holy’, and there is sacredness in the small, silly moments of life. Childish? There’s nothing at all wrong with being a kid, especially when you’re old enough to know better. Most importantly, they’re actions that nourish the parts of you that kale, Pilates and Su Doku alone cannot reach. And that part matters – perhaps, most of all.