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On The Beauty Of Setting Boundaries: ‘No’ Is A Love Word


Perhaps I love the female octopus because she is like the very best people I love.

Happy March. The rain has been steady and insistent—rivers overflowing, streets flooding, both of our dogs look permanently like waterlogged Paddington Bears in their yellow slickers.

Still, last week while walking to Alley Cat, there were two solid hours of sun, which is exactly what you want in the Mission, which is colorful and steams with a heat that isn’t ever a reality for San Francisco: for this part of the city to be somehow hotter than the rest of it. An open-faced sky.

The two hours of sun, plus the two bulbs finally emerging from my tulip bed, are offering a bit of respite: March will be easier, if only because it signifies the end of Winter, which has felt particularly long and sad this year.

When the rainy season hits, I find myself dreaming of the high desert. Tuscon, my grandmother’s old, flat ranch house with the baskets large enough to hold my child body, cold terra cotta tiles that matched the shapely ones curving like fault lines on the roof. Cacti with their arms in the air, holding atop their heads screech owl nests and bats and colorless flowers.

Instead, because it’s clearly a year to stay close to home, I find myself going on weekend trips to places I loved as a child, places that signaled to me, when we moved from Southern California to Northern in the late-nineties, that we’d found abundance in the form of rocky shorelines and tide pools.

My mom, sister, and I took my niece and nephew to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium at the beginning of February, a belated Christmas present. We rented a little house in Seaside, and cooked, and played endless games of Uno, and gave each other nicknames, and spent one rainy day combing the streets of Cannery Row, eating salt water taffy and looking at the leggy jellyfish and seizing any moment when the sun disentangled itself from the clouds.

My favorite exhibit has always been the giant female octopus, even if she has crammed herself into invisibility in spaces the size of a bell jar.

Octopodes are extraordinarily smart, though that isn’t exactly why I admire them. I love them because they are seemingly equal parts fierce and vulnerable.

An octopus can make her skin raised or bumpy, change color, turn to spikes, or do anything necessary in order to match the landscape around her, by controlling the projections on her papillae. While this is a feature of both male and female octopodes, it is usually the female who deploys this skill, turning to a one-woman battalion if her young are threatened.

They have three hearts. Their blood is blue. Octopuses are boneless, which is how they can wedge themselves into jars, behind tight coral or curl around objects or plants in the sea.

Octopus mating rituals are nothing special. Many marine biologists have remarked that they look like “they’re just going about their business.” No pomp. The male octopus has a mating arm, which he extends and inserts into a cavity on the female octopus, keeping his distance lest she try to ensnare and strangle him.

“The males have a host of tricks to survive the mating process,” says Katherine Harmon Courage of BBC Earth.Some of them can quite literally mate at arm’s length. Others sneak into a female’s den disguised as another gal, or sacrifice their entire mating arm to the female and then make a hasty retreat.” 

Female octopodes are larger and hungrier than their male counterparts. It’s every bit as likely that they’ll mate with a male as strangle and eat him. Conversely, the females die shortly after laying their many eggs, dissolving their own bodies to feed their young. Joan Halifax uses this as an example of pathological altruism in her book “Standing on the Edge”.

As I stood at the edge of her tank at the aquarium, which was covered with small, white, rectangular signs that featured a picture of a camera with an X drawn through it and words reading “DO NOT FLASH THE OCTOPUS”, I watched men of all sizes and shapes shine their iPhones directly in her one visible eye. I thought about the lines from the Mary Szybist poem:

The Lushness of It 

It’s not that the octopus wouldn’t love you—
not that it wouldn’t reach for you 
with each of its tapering arms:

you’d be as good as anyone, I think,
to an octopus.  But the creatures of the sea,
like the sea, don’t think

about themselves, or you.  Keep on floating there,
cradled, unable to burn.  Abandon 
yourself to the sway, the ruffled eddies, abandon

your heavy legs to the floating meadows 
            of seaweed and feel 
                        the bloom of phytoplankton, spindrift, sea-
spray, barnacles.  In the dark benthic realm, the slippery neckton glide over
the abyssal plains: as you float, feel 
                                    that upwelling of cold, deep water touch
the skin stretched over
                          your spine.  Feel 
fished for and slapped.  No, it’s not that the octopus 
wouldn’t love you.  If it touched,

if it tasted you, each of its three 
hearts would turn red.

Will theologians of any confession refute me?
Not the bluecap salmon.  Not its dotted head.

The fourth time the flash flashed—when the octopus didn’t reach through the glass and strangle and eat the man next to me—I put my body between him and her. “You’re done here,” I said firmly. He looked at me with surprise, his own pupils large in the low light. I could see myself shining in his own pupils, arms crossed, a good foot shorter. Something moved in the blackness there, and I felt it as surely as a heart turning red: this is a man who has hit women. He looked at the people gathered around us, the children with their faces flat to the thick glass, and he walked wordlessly away.

Perhaps I love the female octopus because she is like the very best people I love: shape-shifting according to circumstance, principled in her priorities, and completely no-bullshit. When she needs to, she exercises extraordinary boundaries. At the same time, she knows when it’s time to acknowledge a great cause—in her case, the need to keep alive an entire next generation of youth.

The no-bullshit of animals means there’s no performance of self, no need to deconstruct the way a self is socialized. Maybe animals are a living manifestation of honesty.

Perhaps I love the female octopus because I have reached a level of self-awareness that includes knowing what I struggle to become.

When I was young, my adopted dad used to take the door off my room when I was in trouble, which always felt like the worst punishment imaginable. He read our emails, our diaries, listened in on our phone calls—he asked his friends around town to keep an eye on me and my sisters. When I had my first kiss in the almond orchard by my middle school, he knew about it before I even registered what had happened. Boundaries seemed, until embarrassingly recently, like a luxury that only the very well-adjusted and heartiest-hearted among us got to have.

Context: my adoptive dad was abusive. I got in trouble for everything from legitimate fuck-ups of youth (skipping class) to things that just bothered him (burning incense). As a manipulative, MENSA-level genius with a history of Vietnam-era warfare, my adoptive dad know exactly the kind of violation taking a door off the hinges was for a teenage girl.

Boundaries seemed, until embarrassingly recently, like a luxury that only the very well-adjusted and heartiest-hearted among us got to have. Click To Tweet

To circle back around–maybe the female octopus isn’t the best example of boundaries. However, she’s a really great example of understanding where her boundaries are. Anger, for example, is a useful tool because it shows us where our boundaries are, and thus, how they’ve been violated. And while we can’t be 100% certain that the female octopus is angry when she strangles and eats her mate (she might just be hungry, and that’s okay), she has a robust understanding of how to get where she needs to be in the world. She doesn’t care about whether or not her behavior is socially acceptable.

This is the moment where I meet and try to channel the octopus—there seems to be a lesson in this for me/us: the realization that boundaries are necessary for cultivating and protecting the work you’ve done on yourself. That psychic, emotional, physical, intellectual, romantic, platonic energy are expendable resources that all work together in an ecosystemic way.

We are taught, especially people socialized as female, that:

  • we have no right to boundaries
  • putting up boundaries means sacrificing love and care
  • putting up boundaries means people will leave rather than invest the time to respect them
  • putting up boundaries is cold-hearted, or less vulnerable than not
  • putting up boundaries means you are inflexible, unavailable to change

Furthermore, that forgiveness is not only a) mandatory, but b) must look like inviting someone back into your space and life, and lastly, c) the work of the person most harmed in the situation to do and do alone.

On boundaries, the magnificent Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes says:

“What steals energy that you do not fully grant, is a thief in the house of the psyche. Whether it be a person, a place, a memory, a conversation, a meeting, or you yourself being the leaking seal around the chamber wherein the treasure is kept.

Think on these things if you lose energy easily, and make the adjustments to what you can and cannot engage with, accordingly, as you can, as is within your will and within your power.

We all have an energy range, as does a light bulb. Put too little or too much or too sustainedly or not sustainedly enough energy through the vehicle, and the light will not be the brightest as it has been constructed for/to/with/about/regarding.”

In her podcast ‘Tarot for the Wild Soul’, Lindsay Mack says this of boundaries: “The management of the fences around the property of yourself are necessary to make sure your crops and cultivated self is taken care of.”

What a concept to realize that setting boundaries is something that usually happens because you love the people involved. My friend Joey Gould insists, “’No’ is a love word.”

Here’s the not-so-secret thing about introspection in winter: the season is, itself, remarkably boundaried. You have less energy, sleep more, are more accountable to the animal of yourself because the borders of your landscape (the weather, the city, the clothes, the darker days) are starkly clear. And perhaps tulips, and sun, both respectively breaking from their bulbs and the clouds, teach us that we must hold on to the borders of ourselves even as the world around us becomes less obviously boundaried.

The lessons we learn from the female octopus may not be one of taking her boundaries as our own, but rather, understanding what our own boundaries are. What’s more: how to be both fiercely protective and generously tender at the same time.