Living With Lines

ImageA few months ago, my husband received a birthday card from a relative who never forgets a birthday, anniversary or holiday. Although our paths rarely cross, I always enjoy the chatty letters she encloses with her thoughtful cards.

However, the last line in this recent letter was a bit sobering. It said something to the effect of, “I am paring down my card list, so this is the last one you will receive from me.”

My first reaction was disbelief: how could this loyal, consistent relative decide to stop sending cards? And then, as is my nature, I started to overthink what I might have done to cause this sudden stoppage. That thought soon turned to guilt, for in truth, I don’t acknowledge this relative’s birthday as often as she does mine.

Then, I started feeling a bit defensive. Doesn’t she understand that I am BUSY? I have four school-age kids! I work part-time! My husband travels nearly every week for work! I have my hands full keeping up with my husband’s side of the family, which includes 33 people, most of whom live nearby!

And finally, I realized my thoughts were getting the best of me, and decided that acceptance was the best course of action. I acknowledged that my relative simply had to draw the line somewhere, and my family happened to stand on the far side of that delineation.

We all draw lines in our daily decisions, separating friends, family, activities, charitable causes, morals and breaking points into to-dos and to-don’ts. And, as we quietly make those choices, we don’t think much about the people or events that get ignored or dropped.

Would it have been kinder if my relative hadn’t mentioned her list-editing? Probably not; after a few missed holidays, I would have noticed the cards’ absence, and would have wondered if she was ill or what I had done to offend her.

However, honesty can hurt. I still remember when my husband and I were driving to a family birthday party with one of his close relatives and that person’s wife. After discussing the gifts we had purchased, the in-law turned to me and said, “You know, the family is really big, and its expensive to buy all of those presents. So, we won’t be getting birthday or Christmas gifts for you two any more. You have to draw the line somewhere.”

She had every right to drop us from her gift-buying list, and her honesty brought clarity. In laying it on the line, this in-law gave us permission to stiff her on her birthday, and spared us the embarrassment of giving and not receiving.

At the same time, I was a bit taken aback, and the fact that I still remember the conversation nearly two decades later speaks volumes. The statement just felt just a little too direct: “Sorry, you aren’t on my A-list.”

So much of life relates to being on one side of a line or another, both literally and figuratively, and we all know how it feels when that line excludes us. We learn in sports that when we cross lines, we’re called out or out of bounds. As all athletes know, only one person can cross the finish line first. Or, as Ricky Bobby’s dad taught him, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

We realize that after waiting in line for tickets, the best ones, or even the last one, might be distributed before we get to the cashier. And, we understand that colleges and employers often draw lines based on GPAs and test scores, and if our numbers don’t add up, we won’t make the cut.

Those of us with small children experience the emotional “you didn’t make the cut” phenomenon frequently. It’s hard not to share a child’s anger the first time he or she is excluded from a friend’s birthday party. Over the years, I learned to say, “I know you’re disappointed, but Johnny probably could only invite a set number of people. If you could only have five friends to your party, would he make the list?”

Tools for accepting others’ hard lines are useful later on, too, such as when a child doesn’t make a select sports team, isn’t included in an outing because the car is full or, perhaps most dramatically, is rejected by his or her first-choice college.

A few weeks ago, I had to help one of my kids deal with a different kind of line. He was with some students who broke a school rule, and as the only one who was caught, he was charged as an accessory to the crime. While the school’s former principal was willing to treat such offenses in a flexible manner, the new regime seems to be taking a tougher, more hard-lined approach to student delinquencies.

Although my son presented a strong case for his innocence and begged for leniency, the administration drew a hard line in the sand. For the child and his parents, the situation was extremely painful.

I’m sure my kid went through the same range of emotions as I did regarding my relative’s birthday-card list: first disbelief, then overthinking, then guilt and defensiveness and finally acceptance.

And although I am trying to model this positive response, I still feel the need for closure with that far-flung relative. I’m marking my calendar now to ensure I send a nice card and long letter when her birthday rolls around.

-Linda Williams Rorem, 9 April 2012

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  1. Thanks so much for your reply, Toni, and I appreciate your continuing to read Permission Slips!

  2. Linda,
    I always enjoy reading your Permission Slips posts. Your writings either make me smile, laugh or contemplate and this one was no different. Thanks!

  3. This posting demonstrated how easy it is to lose focus of the purpose of a card or the lack of receiving one. I think we all tend to over-analyze why someone stopped sending a birthday or holiday card. We try to remember…did I send them one or why did I get cut? Often our tendency is to draw a line and reciprocate the “cutting” from the list. I think as women/moms we are exceptionally good at complicating matters by thinking too much about a response. Perhaps it is human nature to draw a “line in the sand”, the question is; Are you willing to move it when you realize it didn’t make sense? Linda, I appreciated your honest analysis of how you have processed lines that have been drawn by others and your willingness to adjust your thinking to accept those lines. Establishing a “line in the sand” can be effective in the right situation, but can also be awkward or seem unfair at times. I think you did a wonderful job of demonstrating all of these aspects through your own personal trials and tribulations. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I have to agree with Eleanor. Linda acknowledged the 33 relatives who live near to her are on her A-List and the distant relative seldom, if ever, receives a birthday greeting from her. Obviously the distant relative is not on Linda’s A-List, so why should she be surprised if she is not, or no longer, on the relatives?
    I will be wondering if you (Linda) actually do send a birthday card to the distant relative. Perhaps the reason you were cut because the D.R. had to guess that you don’t care about the greetings. And if you don’t reciprocate, how is she to ever know that you are busy, writing a book, walking with your friends, writing a blog, taking care of children, have a travelling husband, etc. ???
    Maybe the D.R. should have used a different approach, but I am not sure why you are so surprised and/or hurt. It’s not like it’s one of the Near and Dear 33 who has cut you off.

  5. What about acknowledgement as one step in the process? Acknowledging your part in being on this side or that side of said lines. Did you put forth your best effort? Did you have the skills or grades? Did you reciprocate the correspondence? Personally I think it’s self centered to be surprised at not making the cut.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read the post and comment, Eleanor. You make a good point. Of course, I don’t have enough information to know why this relative pared her list (and the note was in a card to my husband, who is a terrible correspondent), so it might also be “self-centered” to assume the issue is me, and not her finances, time or something else. However, hopefully the “acknowledgement” aspect is apparent in the post’s ending.

  6. Carolyn B. says:

    …and then there’s that lovely line between tact, grace, diplomacy and self-centered, insensitive, careless. While it’s nice not to ‘beat-around-the-bush’, some definitely need to get-a-clue.

  7. says:

    Linda: You write beautifully! Taking the “hard line” is not the best approach for relationships. In terms of the school administration, they aren’t helping the kids when they make decisions to punish them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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