Not your Sister’s Self-Care

I was asked to write a wellness article for a local women’s magazine, sharing practices that can help us find our footing in the midst of uncertainty. I was in the midst of drafting it when the world blew up for the second time in a few months, with George Floyd’s murder.

Not for the first time, that confluence of events made me really think about self-care in the context of  inequity and social change. Is self-care an inherently selfish act? Does it require donning blinders and living in a syrupy bubble of pampered and precarious comfort?

Not the kind of self-care I mean.

Embodiment teacher/activist Abigail Rose Clarke has said that having the time and space to do mindbody practices is a privilege. And the very fact that this kind of practice is a privilege, she notes, makes it a responsibility.

We who have the time and space to create the change within ourselves that can help heal the world, must do so.

I believe that building our personal resilience does in fact heal the world. I think of the white woman who called the police on a Black birdwatcher and claimed he threatened her, after he lawfully requested that she leash her dog. The level of reactivity in that act, aside from its painful demonstration of racism, indicates (to my mind) someone who is not awake to her own need.

Self-care, and not your sister’s self-care of pedicures and bubble baths and pricey skin toners, is a muscular act. It requires facing up to the boiling mess of emotion inside us, and giving it room to flow and transform. So often we suppress the things we don’t want to feel, but they don’t go anywhere but underground.

Then they burst out in annoying and sometimes dangerous ways, like chronic pain or low-grade irritability. Or acute reactivity that puts another in danger.

In actual fact, turning towards our emotions on the regular, with self-kindness, is what relieves and releases them. And it may not look pretty or feel yummy. Rolling on the floor and wailing is not a Calgon-take-me-away moment (totally dating myself with that reference). But I would much rather have a private tantrum than inflict that pent-up frustration, fear, and resentment on another.

(It doesn’t necessarily have to be a tantrum. Maybe it’s just experiencing that inward trio of sensation, thought, and emotion—and following where they lead with curiosity.)

By turning to kinder practices that nourish the body and soul, we become more resilient and less reactive. As we move through our day with less fear, suspicion, and hostility—less triggered, or more able to stay with the triggers and breathe before acting—we truly do build a more compassionate community and world.

I used to teach a class I called Radical Cell(f) Care, offering self-care practices I’d gleaned from various energy healing traditions. I called it radical because this kind of practice gets to the root, because it gives us tools to pause, because it creates change from within. It generates more kindness in a world sorely in need of that.

portulac

The portulaca blooms closed up in yesterday’s rain, and opened again when it stopped. Life inhales and exhales, contracts and expands. 

Now, kindness alone won’t solve the pattern of deadly force against black people and the dearth of justice for their murders, or other ways massive inequities show up in our society. It won’t halt a pandemic’s spread (but may slow it down, as people take precautions, expressing their care for each other). On its own it won’t fix the breakdown of our planetary systems, or the rise of fascism, or other seemingly intractable problems. But I still contend it is a vital tool for addressing the general awfulness that faces us at every turn.

Policies are behind much of the awfulness—policies set by people with power. We are also people… with our own power. Our choices and behaviors can uphold the awfulness, or challenge it, transcend it, create something brand new.

We need to continually refuel for the big and small acts that will make change. We need to embody and radiate the kind of muscular compassion that doesn’t look away from the awfulness, and doesn’t allow it to persist, and points the way to a different kind of world.

Gratitude: I am grateful for the view I have from my desk—our tiny back yard, where I can see young robins eating mock strawberries, and all the garden freshening under rain, and all the chipmunks, neighborhood cats, hummingbirds, bluegray gnatcatchers, sparrows, cardinals and so on making it their playground.

Tip of the Day: From the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is HardI learned that willpower is a finite resource. We exhaust ourselves quickly if we power through with grit alone. It’s not high-quality fuel. I’ve been cultivating a new motivation to fuel I do throughout my day, connecting to a feeling-level motivation where I can. Positive feelings like love, kindness, pride, excitement, and joy have staying power. If you are working toward change, it might be useful to check your fuel levels!

Resource of the Day: I started watching the Reimagining and Remaking America replay with activists Valarie Kaur and Van Jones. Now I can’t wait to read her book, See No Stranger, which makes a case for the ultimate long-haul fuel: revolutionary love.

Who Lives, Who Dies

I am sort of obsessed with all things Hamilton. This refrain from the musical has been running through my head: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

What kind of country and world do we want to create: One where Black people disproportionately die at the hands of police and from the effects of COVID-19? Where the life expectancy of Black men is consistently shorter than that of white men? 

What story will be told when we look back at this time, and by whom? The people whose stories have not been heard or respected no matter how they try to tell them… are demanding to be heard NOW.

The next American revolution, civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs writes, is about “creating a new society in the places and spaces left vacant by the disintegration of the old.” (More on building a new world in the Resource of the Day below.) We see societal disintegration unfolding in real time now, even as some of us have been pointing to it for a while.

BLM

Photo by Victoria Pickering, via Flickr Creative Commons

The young people taking to the streets to express their grief and rage? They are the revolutionaries moving this country closer to the”radically different form of living” Boggs writes about. And revolutions are messy, chaotic deals. Violent acts are going to be part of the picture. Though I myself identify with a pacifist tradition, I can’t say anything against any form of protest, especially when the simple nonviolent act of “taking a knee” was so vilified, especially when, year after year, we see little change in the ongoing twin outrages of police brutality and escaping accountability.

When 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones talks about Black Americans being the ones perfecting America’s democracy, I get it. The people taking to the streets are working, at great personal peril, to make this country live up to its promise.

Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture-makers—and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

—Frederick Douglass

A major contradiction lives at the heart of our national history: our American ideals of “we the people” and “freedom” began as falsehoods that continue to this day. (Thanks to Hannah-Jones for making this plain.)

I have what I have largely because of white privilege. My parents bought their first home in Indianapolis in the early 1960s, benefiting from lending practices that excluded African American homebuyers. I still benefit from that legacy and a host of other exclusionary policies that preferenced white people over Black and brown people.

And even leaving policy aside, I live in a body that is seen as relatively “standard”—white, thin, currently able-bodied, cisgender, feminine in appearance (can pass for straight). Listening to Black voices tells me that my experience of moving through the world with relative ease (even as a woman, even as a close descendant of the culturally marginalized Amish, even as a lesbian, even as a socially awkward “weird kid,” even as I age) is not one Black people share.

My professional and educational status contribute to this ease as well. I’m about as close to the power structure as you can get without being hetero and male.

And the natural world that I so love, that soothes me? Can be a dangerous place for Black people. It’s heartbreaking to listen to stories of Black nature-lovers who just want to have a little breathing room, but feel unsafe (for good reason) even gassing up a vehicle on the way to some of the places I love. Let alone exploring a nature preserve alone as I sometimes do.

My sense of entitlement has not been plain to me over the course of my life, because it is the water I swim. But it is past time for the last of the blinders to come off.

I can’t change the fact of my privilege, but I can work within it to realign things in some way. Writer Eula Biss calls it the White Debt. I feel especially indebted to the protesters who are trying to turn the tide in this country, and that is why I support reparations, assist the Indy Bail Project, call the mayor, write my city council, contribute to Black-led changemaking orgs, etc. It isn’t enough. And it also isn’t about me. I know I have so much to learn.

But I do believe this quote attributed to a Queensland Aboriginal activists group applies to me:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Gratitude: This is an incredible time to be alive. Every day brings new learning, new chances to contribute.

Tip of the Day: Moment-to-moment choices define a life, and as Grace Lee Boggs says, “You don’t choose the times you live in, but you do choose who you want to be, and you do choose how you want to think.” Choose with heartfelt mindfulness, as you can.

Resource of the Day: Join civil rights attorney/Revolutionary Love founder Valarie Kaur and progressive activist Van Jones for a Dream Corps session on Reimagining and Remaking America Thursday, June 18 (or catch the replay). I have been a fan of Mr. Jones for quite some time and was blown away by Valarie Kaur’s TED talk.