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The Girl Who Couldn’t Say Yes

November 25, 2013
In a random north side neighborhood Spencer is NOT moving to.

The sign reads: “A motivational sign in a grassy field is nice and all… But it is not going to do the work for you. That’s up to you.”

Even as a child, she practiced at proclaiming no.  When her father tried to buy her a present, or her mother bought her clothes, she would accept them with a child’s disregard- unless she really loved it.  Then, she’d say ‘no.’ Her parents vacillated between thinking it a charming anti-capitalistic gesture and being worried at the girl’s asceticism.  Sarah would feel a burst of intense giddiness at her strength, her goodness.

Later on, she would push herself farther by giving away her favorite possessions to friends, curious and seeking the rush of disappointment and loss mingled with feelings of purity and joy.

When she was ten, she discovered fasting as a means of proving to herself that she could say ‘no.’  She would pick random days, days when she woke up particularly hungry, to not eat.  She would pretend to feel slightly ill to avoid concern, and lightheaded but triumphant she would wait out the hours.  At the stroke of midnight, she would descend the stair to make a bowl of cereal.

"Now tell me Ms. Winer.  Are you the hawk, or the rabbit?"

My first day of law school, I saw this red tailed hawk devouring a rabbit next to the Law Library building.

Her father once said that if she had been born in a different time to a different family, the girl might have been a member of a religious order, an eager martyr.  This notion had some appeal.

When her parents divorced, there was a small, unacknowledged part of Sarah that relished the additional burden that it placed upon her.  She made it her mission to care for her younger siblings.  Caring for them made her stronger, gave her even more control over herself and her pesky desires.  For if she had a moment of weakness, and almost gave into saying yes to visit a friend, or going wild, or being bad, she would remember her baby sisters.  She had to say no for them too now.

‘No’ was the response to the first boy who asked her out on a date.  That it was to see a Ricky Martin concert made it all the easier.  ‘No’ had become her default response when someone attempted to get close to her, to open her up, see the tender workings of her inside motivations.  Sarah refused to be vulnerable.

Sarah refused to play the petty popularity games that pitted people against one another in high school.  She would sit in the cafeteria and let those around her percolate, talk, ingratiate, laugh, smile, cry, maneuver and feint.  She was a rock in the river of humanity. She would watch, a small smirk on her face, one that didn’t reach her eyes.  She was better than all that.  She was superior to these childish, small people.  She was above it all.

This isn’t to say that Sarah didn’t have friends.  Sarah had lots of friends, even a few friends who she’d share secrets with.  They were different, you see.  They were above it all too.  They shared her mistrust of things that happen too easily, too painlessly.  It had to be some kind of trick if they weren’t in control; and if there was one thing that Sarah and her friends knew, it was that they weren’t going to let anyone take advantage of them.  They preferred to work hard for whatever reward they eked out of the world because then they earned it.  They could trust it.

A sad, angry law student. Is there any other type?

A poem on the bathroom door of Espresso Royale. Notice that it is written by a law student.

Sarah went to university and did very well there.  She didn’t allow herself to get distracted.  She was very polite to teachers.  She had lovers, dated a few weak men who she could control.  They never lasted long.  She wasn’t quite happy, but she wasn’t sad either.  She just was.

Sarah got a good job right out of college, one of the few people her year to get employment that paid.  She moved to New York and lived in a tiny sleek apartment in Chelsea.  Everything was calm, clean, cool.  Sarah ritualized her life.  She made habits.  She bought groceries at Whole Foods.  She was like clockwork, perfectly oiled.  No one could hurt her, not even herself.  Her will was strong, her denial of self complete.

Sarah liked simplicity.  She found a man who was steady and simple and had strong hands.  She married him.  They moved out to the suburbs.  Sarah bought Chanel everything, did yoga and meditated.  She had her books and her poetry to protect her.

Sarah grew old.  Her husband died.  Sarah mourned his loss in her daily rituals.  She grew frail.  She refused to let her body give out.  She knew she was stronger than life.  Surely she should be stronger than death too.

But death came for Sarah, despite her saying ‘no.’  In the end, her will wasn’t strong enough.  As she struggled to breath, Sarah felt cheated.  Sarah, for all her numbness, died angry.


I credit the caffeine contained within.

But if you draw Smaug on your coffee cup, and a hobbit riding his tail, then you know that you are fully engaged with life. A nerd, yes, but at least a creative nerd.

We all have a bit of Sarah inside of us.  It lies in the tendency towards living in our comfort zones, taking ourselves so seriously that we become fragile.  It is safer to say no than yes to experiences that are potentially unsettling, upsetting, emotionally draining.  ‘No’ is the vehicle by which men find themselves living lives of quiet desperation.  And that’s not good enough.

I am now in law school.  ‘No’ sometimes seems to be the name of the game, limitation and narrowness the path to success.  Say no to going to that party, you have studying to do.  Don’t worry if you are unhappy, the three years of law school is supposed to feel like doing time.  Don’t live in the now; focus on the future.  Don’t question too deeply why you are going into law- you’ll make lots of money.  No one likes lawyers anyway.  Don’t focus on anything outside of the law school; don’t do anything that could get you in trouble, volunteer (but not so much time that it impacts your grades).

I know I am the type of girl who can say ‘no.’  But it is much braver to learn how and when to say ‘yes.’  To know that I can let go of control and be.

I almost never regret the things that I do; I only regret the things I don’t do.

Don’t you?

Taken at Brighton Beach.  "Knickers for a Nicker!"  Great advertising.

This, ladies and gents, is what happens when you embrace saying yes. You buy ridiculous one pound underwear from a vending machine BECAUSE YOU CAN.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 29, 2013 1:44 PM

    I Am a Rock is one of my favourite Simon & Garfunkel songs. I listened to it a lot in 2008 especially.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    December 15, 2013 9:01 AM

    Is your law school living in the fantasy era of the pre-2009 desolation of the legal profession? I’m asking because the attitude there that you cited was, “Don’t question too deeply why you’re going into the law––you’ll make lots of money.” It’s quite the opposite now; you can’t afford to not know why you’re going into the law, since it’s no longer a moneymaking proposition. If there’s any shred of that attitude left, switch schools. The only reason you should be in law school is because you want to be a lawyer: you must be devoted to the practice of law, and the rule of law. And kudos to you if your goal is to gain experience in that while in law school; it’s needed now. More kudos if you have something to do outside of school; you need balance.

    Sorry if this sounds tough and even a bit angry. But the attitudes of your law school seem out-of-date and contrary to my own experience of law school. I loved law school: it wasn’t like prison time, but instead it was fun and the best thing I did for my brain.

    • December 19, 2013 2:43 PM

      No worries, and congrats on law school being fun for you! That is not something I’ve heard before.

      I’ve encountered a variety of attitudes about lawyers and the law school experience, both from people within and outside the system. Most, are quite frankly, negative. The law school administration itself treats me very well, like gold. I have no complaints. But some of my fellow students here… I’ve met those who are here to make money, and some who are here because they didn’t know what else to do. A surprising number of them are smart but fundamentally un-creative and kinda dull. My friends outside of law school are mostly dismissive of the profession in general, but supportive of me and my individual goals and aspirations. It is a thorny contradiction and amalgamation of viewpoints.

      As for myself, law school has not been fun for me. I am admittedly, in my first year, and went from living in one of the best cities in the world and studying what I care about to Ann Arbor, MI where I am forced to learn about easements. What I miss most though is a feeling that I am making a difference in the world. People here are myopically focused on the law, which is fine, but misses the bigger picture of the world as it is; I miss making connections between conflicts in the Middle East, American foreign policy, the price of tomatoes in France and Chinese desire for the American lifestyle. I love being a part of the world, not just part of this dubiously regarded law school community.

      Thank you for your input, and again, congratulations on having a good law school experience. Hopefully my own impressions will evolve to mimic yours over time.


  3. Anonymous permalink
    June 12, 2014 9:58 PM

    Lauren, I am struck with the fact that you like solving problems, and isn’t that the central feature of what law is about!

    I have a two page article which I will send to you that I think you will find interesting. It was written by Ronald Dworkin. The title of the article is “Law from the Inside Out”. It was published in the New York Review of Books November 7, 2013. Let me know your address to which I should send the article.


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