It started as a simple question, “Do you like salmon?” My friend Steve texted before my trip up to Ashland, Oregon. I’d be staying with Steve and his wife Kate, who were hosting a half-day Wild Writing workshop for their friends, and in honor of Steve’s 70th birthday.

“Do you like salmon?” Steve texted a few days before I arrived. He’d be making dinner that Saturday night, and I know he was trying to make it nice for me.

I froze, holding the phone in my hand, not sure how to answer. The simple answer was no, I don’t like salmon unless it’s completely disguised by sauces and doesn’t taste anything like salmon, but I didn’t think I could tell Steve that, though I tried.

“Um,” my text began, “I don’t really like salmon…” but that felt unkind like I wasn’t being gracious. Here I was, headed to Ashland to spend two nights with these generous students who would be giving me the actual bed they slept in, feeding me for a few days, and gathering their trusted friends to work with me for four hours on a weekend, even though they’d never met in person before.

Delete, delete, delete.

“You know, I’m more of a chicken girl…”

Delete, delete, delete.

“Dinner? Who needs dinner?”

Delete, delete, delete.

I imagined myself eating the salmon quickly so I couldn’t taste it. I’d camouflage it with bites of rice, taking a slug of wine so the fishy-ness would get washed out – so all those flavors would blend and I could sit back at Steve and Kate’s table smiling, appreciating, ever the grateful guest.

I could do this. I’d done it all of my life.

I mean to be an honest person, but I didn’t know how to tell Steve that I didn’t like salmon. I didn’t know how to ask for what I wanted – which was probably anything but salmon. I only knew how to override what I might have wanted in favor of making it simple for Steve, saying yes to what he was offering, not putting him out or being one of those people who needed things.

Cue the lifetime theme song.

I’m fine. I’m good. No worries. Whatever you’re offering is great.

I stood in my kitchen staring at my phone, and a small sadness crept over me. Such simple words. “No thank you, I don’t like salmon.” Steve would have been happy to read exactly those lines because then he could make something I might like – which was his intent – to host and take care of me – not to stuff a terrible, pink, wiggly fish down my throat.

I had a class coming in a few minutes and needed to handle this.

“Sure,” I texted. “Salmon sounds great. I’ve heard it’s really good for you.” I put the phone down and greeted my class.

The next day I got a solid hour of therapy out of it. This little fish story. This little story about keeping people happy, not troubling them, and not just overriding what I needed, but not even knowing what I needed – that muscle so atrophied in a life of reading other people’s needs before mine.

I come by it honestly, of course – a complete survival instinct; keep the people happy and you will stay out of harm’s way.

It’s really worked for me. I’m an empath, I’m pretty good at knowing what people want and which is part of what makes me a solid teacher. But this other business, this fish story, it troubled me for all the reasons it should have – for those uncomfortable moments when someone wants something from me and I don’t say no as clearly as I could because I’m afraid of angering them.

It troubled Steve too, because the next day he texted, “The Jewish papa in me wants to know: Salmon or Chile Verde, (a delicious, slightly spicy chicken stew) for dinner tomorrow night? Both are easy!”

He had me at Jewish Papa.

“Chili verde!” I practically screamed into my text.

“I knew there was something about the salmon when you said you’d heard it was good for you,” he texted back.

“I got a whole session of therapy out of it,” I wrote.

“Only one session?” He texted back.

The weekend in Ashland was beautiful.

The trees were blazing with color – reds and oranges and bright yellows that we don’t get down here in the Bay Area. We hiked through the forest, we sat in a big circle with good people who bravely tried to tell the truth about their lives on the page – something I’m still learning how to do.

The chili verde was amazing, we all had seconds.

“It was probably easier to make than the salmon,” I joked with Steve at dinner.

“No,” he said, smiling. “The salmon would have been easier.”

We laughed, and I was grateful – not just on Thanksgiving – but every day – to be reminded of the places where I’m still growing, and to have that lesson learned again and again, and with such kind people.

May all our lessons be delivered with so much love.

Listen to Laurie read the piece here: