When I was in high school and boys would ask me out, rather than politely declining if I wasn't interested, I would say, "Oh, I'm so sorry, I actually have plans that night." The poor boy, understandably thinking I had pressing prior engagements, would nod agreeably and then call me another night. After realizing that I was "busy" on every weekend night and most weekdays, he would stop calling.
(For the record, that is not the way to handle things. As I look back I realize how mean and evasive that was, and I feel extremely guilty. I wish I'd either given them a chance or at least had the decency to graciously thank them and decline.)
I've never been good at saying no. Directly, at least. For some reason, I just can't make the word come out of my mouth. I can come up with a hundred subtle, roundabout, I'm-saying-it-but-I'm-not-really-saying-it ways to say no. But I can't say the n-word.
It's not something I'm proud of. I think I do it because I don't want to hurt the asker's feelings, but I know that being indirect with someone can be even more wounding. So. Working on that.
I feel really bad when I get requests from Salvation Army workers, Girl Scouts vending cookies, little clarinet players peddling wrapping paper magazines for their school fundraisers, or that guy on River Street in Savannah who weaves trinkets from tall stalks of pampas grass. I get talked into things easily, and then I feel guilty for spending money on things we don't need.
I've developed a strategy for when I'm accosted by strangers hawking their wares. They don't accept rejection easily, so I've had to learn to cut them off with a polite, but succinct, "No, thank you" and keep walking.
Today I was working on making Silas' birthday dinner when I heard someone knocking at the door. Thinking it was the UPS guy with the package I ordered for Si last week, I ran to get it.
I opened it to find a sweet-looking Hispanic woman, her back a little stooped from the years she'd been doing battle with gravity. She smiled kindly at me and held up a sign that said, "TAMALES: $1.00".
Without even thinking, I instinctively said, "No thank you". I could tell she didn't speak English, but she understood, nodding and smiling cheerfully. She waved goodbye as she made her way back down the stairs to the parking lot.
Immediately I was consumed by guilt. This was how this woman made her living. I couldn't even spare a dollar?
I searched frantically for some cash until I remembered I'd received some in my birthday card last week. I grabbed some money and ran back outside, hoping the woman was still there. I found her talking to my neighbor Craig and I ran up and told her I wanted to buy five. She smiled happily and told me to wait while she went to get the tamales.
She wheeled over a large, soft-sided cooler that was insulated to keep the food warm. She unzipped it and covered her hand in plastic as she reached in and carefully placed my tamales, one by one, into a little bag. The smell of the corn husk-wrapped treats would have been extremely tempting had I not just eaten six of the rolls I was making for dinner. I decided to sample some later. I exchanged the money for the tamales and the woman thanked me, pleased.
I looked into her bright eyes, framed by delicate little wrinkles that bore testament to a life of laughter. She came from humble circumstances, but I knew it would be a mistake to think her simple. As I watched her walk away, I silently wished her happiness and success in her endeavors.
And I didn't feel guilty.