Ann Patchett
Photo: Melissa Ann Pinney
I do not envy my friend Liz "Eat, Pray, Love" Gilbert for her blockbuster success or even her swell dog. What I do envy, though, is her ability to give presents. No matter what the occasion, Liz sends something that is both thoughtful and utterly original. She has sent me a floor-length wrap skirt printed with leaping emu, a good-luck chicken, and a carved wooden beetle box. But the best thing she ever gave me, which is really the best thing that anyone has ever given me, was an Indonesian boundary god.

My boundary god is carved from a pocked gray stone and is the size of a medium grapefruit with a neck. His facial features—two dots for eyes, a slight shelf of a nose, a straight line for a mouth—bring to mind a tropical snowman. He has no batteries. He does not sing or glow. He sits on my desk, quiet and wise, and protects my personal boundaries. He does a very good job.

For example, when asked if I would go to San Diego to give a talk in September, two weeks after returning from book tour in Australia, I sat for a minute and stared at my boundary god and, together, we had a nonverbal conversation. "Will you want to get back on a plane so soon after your 20 hour flight?" he asked (without asking).

"What if they really need me?" I (didn't) reply. "How can I let down these people I don't know?"

"You think there are no other writers?" the boundary god asked (without asking).

I nodded, quietly awed by his wisdom, then I called and declined the invitation.

The boundary god arrived, via the postman, when I was having a particular problem with houseguests. I was averaging about two sets a week. I didn't invite any of them, nor did I ever say no. They just kept coming. But my little stone friend made me stop and focus. He encouraged me to think about what was actually best for my long-term mental health, and that's when I got the situation under control.

The more I consult my boundary god, the more I realize a person could empower almost any household object with his insightful qualities. You could, for example, start consulting your toaster or your toothbrush or your parakeet. When someone asks you to take on another responsibility, excuse yourself for a moment. Go to your personal boundary god and ask the question, "Is this really something I'm going to want to do three days from now? (Three months? Three years?)" If the answer is no, then let it be no. Having a talisman, even if it is your toaster, that reminds you to be honest with yourself, can save you untold suffering in the future.

Just remember, sometimes the boundary god says yes. "Take a chance," he tells me. "This crazy thing that's being asked of you is going to be worth your time."

I always listen.

Ann Patchett is the bestselling author of Run, Bel Canto, and, her newest novel, State of Wonder.

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