the radical act of putting our oxygen mask on first

In my community, a lot of folks are talking about radical self care – not just self care, but radical self care. But what makes taking a vacation or a bubble bath or watching Pretty in Pink or your favorite guilty pleasure movies with a pint of chocolate Coconut Dream and a package of gluten-free chocolate chip cookies radical?

I think you have an idea why. I think your deep heart knows. Your deep heart isn’t the questioning your real need for a break. It’s the other voices questioning you– the inner critic, the internalized perpetrator, your inner radical activist wanting to know how you can possibly justify an hour for a walk around the lake at the heart of your town or – holy shit – several days’ vacation when the revolution is nowhere near at hand and people are starving and beaten and suffering while you decide you’re just gonna take a little down time. Really? Who do you think you are? ask all the voices in unison.

Writing has been the place where I learned the power of a regular self care practice. I’ve had few other consistent self-care practices, save going for long walks. Writing has been my meditation, my grounding, my chance to be more fully in my skin for at least 15-30 minutes a day. On the days I don’t write, I am a less pleasant version of myself: cranky, crotchety, crabby – still disassembled. The days I write I find I breathe more easily. I feel more human. And still I’ve had stretches of days or weeks during which I told myself I didn’t have time to write – the voices of self-denial and abnegation are strong; they’re embedded in our very flesh.

We are not supposed to take care of ourselves. We know we’re not worth taking care of: those meant to care for and protect us didn’t, so who are we to do otherwise?

We live in a culture that trains us in dissatisfaction with our bodies and lives. We live in a culture that routinely disregards the lives and needs of those who have less power, and so we are left to struggle and battle for better living conditions for all. If we are activists, we inhabit a culture of overwork, in which direct and secondary trauma impacts everyone around us. We see our comrades doing too much for too little (if any) pay. We see frontline activists, direct action workers, burn out; we see long-timers harden into a professionalized cynical mindset that helps protect them from the pain and stress they see every day. It’s awful, but it’s par for the course. This is what you sign on for if you want to change anything in society. Right?

We are asked, during our job interviews for these jobs, how we take care of ourselves; we understand that we have to have an answer to this question. We also understand that our self care is never supposed to take priority over the work. The work.

I don’t believe this anymore. I used to, but after hitting a massive burnout in 2008 and then continuing to overwork myself for 2-3 more years, I have finally opened my eyes to the idea that there might be other, maybe even more effective, ways of engaging in a longterm and sustainable relationship with trauma and social change work.

Our self care is radical because we have been trained from birth to look to others’ needs first. Our self care is radical because it sustains us for the journey, it keeps us in the game, it makes our work more effective, it opens our hearts, it brings self-love back to the table as a necessary goal and practice.

We have to ask what kind of world we’re working for. Don’t we want — for all people — lives that have more life in them?

I know, you say. I’ll get there. I just have to finish this grant, do my shift at the co-op, organize tonight’s transformative justice roundtable, answer these 27 emails and cover the hotline…

Then I’ll take care of myself.

There’s no good time. There’s always going to be more work for we who are activists or other sorts of creative beings engaged in work that doesn’t get done. To do lists are only marginally useful when they include items like “upend patriarchy,” “write healing book,” “undo white supremacy,” “end sexual abuse.” I don’t know about you but I’ve had to do lists like that. The work seems endless – we’re a part of an enormous transformation. For us to be able to show up consistently and reliably in this work that we love, for the people and communities and world we believe in, we have to take care of our hearts and bodies and souls/ This is how we sustain ourselves in the world.

This decision, to sustain ourselves, is radical – especially for those of us whom society deems not at all worth saving. Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Self-care is radical when it directly contradicts the messages living in us, telling us we deserve to die.

Self care is uncomfortable for many of us: we fear judgment from our friends and communities, our comrades, our families, those around us who are not taking care of themselves. Of course it’s uncomfortable at first — and maybe for awhile: it’s discomfiting to act in direct opposition to the voices of those who say we don’t deserve to live, much less have joy, comfort, ease, pleasure and celebration in our lives.

Radical self care looks like acting with intention, looks like small daily or regular centering practices, looks like creative intervention in a way of life designed to sap all of your energy into the daily grind and away from love, intimacy, and cultural change.

Radical self care looks like leaving work on time instead of staying an extra two or three unpaid hours to finish “just one more thing.” It looks like learning to listen to your body.

Radical self care looks like saying Yes when someone I trust asks to give me a massage, rather than reflexively saying no out of some guilt that I hadn’t asked them first and wasn’t already giving them a massage. It means understanding what being an introvert means. It means listening to my energy patterns, my hungers, my curiosities.

Radical self care means being easy with myself, and it means pushing sometimes, too. It means releasing myself from the pressure to be like everyone else – either in mainstream culture or in my various alternative subcultures.

Radical self care means knowing that what works for me today might not work tomorrow – and what I think today is ridiculous, indulgent, woo-woo or way too Berkeley (body work? Ecstatic dance? Writing retreats? Somatic energy healing?) may very well be just the thing that works best for me tomorrow – so if I can ease off on my judgment of others, I’m likely to move more smoothly through my own healing process.

Radical self care means opening space in my life – means holding open room to move around. Down time. Breathing room. Means making sure that all these muscles I’m building and stretching have time to recuperate and strengthen – the resting is as important a part of the exercise as the contracting, after all.

What else is radical self care? Consent. Sobriety. Quitting the day job. Therapy. Going back to school. Quitting school. Media breaks. A movie marathon. Masturbation. A month of celibacy. A sex party. Tending a garden. Adopting a cat. Planning a vacation. Finding a different job. Leaving activist work. Returning to activist work. A cup of tea. Meditation. Making yourself a delicious lunch. Grieving. Watching movies that make you laugh and cry. What’s your list?

I think one of the reasons we call our self care radical is that we want to assert its importance. No, really, this matters: it’s radical. Things that are edgy, dangerous, and transformative are radical. Radical is about roots, is about shifting the core of a thing: of ourselves.

So, sleep is radical for those of us raised on exhaustion. A long talk with our best friend is radical for those of us isolated away from community. Deep, prolonged belly laughter is radical for those of us fed despair. These are transformative practices. Radical acts.

For me, it meant writing every day (and then reaching beyond a writing practice into other healing modalities, once I found the limits of what writing could do for me). Writing practice has helped me discover when I needed a break, has also helped me understand what I might need to do to take care of myself or make a change in my life. The writing itself, of course, is also a healing and self care practice. When I take the time to go back through the notebooks, to meet myself and my mind, as Natalie Goldberg encourages, I am confronted with clear information about where I’m out of balance. What am I complaining about regularly? What am I refusing to write? Where am I putting most of my energy? Is there a part of my body bothering me? Do I need a massage or a steam or a run or a hot bat or a nap or a swim or a movie or some play time? Am I in procrastination or avoidance mode and do I need to take some action? Am I lonely or people-overloaded? When I take the time to be in reflection (itself a practice of radical self care), then I can respond to what my body and life are asking for. In the end, this is about crafting a life that is sustainable and consistently nourishing me so that I can engage in work that nourishes others, so that I can be of use in the ways I am meant to be of use.

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What self care practices feel radical to you right now? What do you do to take care of yourself today that a younger self would not have been able to imagine? How would you like to be able to care for yourself? Can you give those ideas and imaginings 10-15 minutes on the page today? Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Thank you for your generosity and spaciousness with yourself, the way you model powerful self care practices for others. Thank you for your writing today, and thank you for your words.

2 responses to “the radical act of putting our oxygen mask on first

  1. Oh, right on, Sinclair — thanks for reading, and for sharing your thoughts! I love this right here: “everything makes more sense when I’m continually cracking myself open, even if things are harder in that cracked open space.” Totally, totally.

    So grateful for the space you’re making for your words — we need them as much as you do!

    xo,
    Jen

  2. ohh this is beautiful. love the radical self-care lists and examples. what’s on my list? … therapy, acupuncture, yoga, visiting the baths. saying no, quitting things that don’t pay, picking up volunteer things on purpose and not accidentally. reading a book. writing. every day. god what a jerk I am when I don’t write daily. everything makes more sense when I’m continually cracking myself open, even if things are harder in that cracked open space.

    I love how committed you are to the act and art of writing, it is inspiring, a reminder to me. I’ve been so distracted and pulled just slightly off track with blogging, teaching, social justice, activism, gender, queer community, all those topics of things that can be so time consuming and other than writing. but at the core heart of it all, I’m a writer, and I want to keep coming back to that, building my life around having my own space to write.

    love reading you here. I’ve been reading through the archives, too. thanks for putting it out there.