Self-care is a series of small actions

Sometimes you go looking for a book,
and other times the perfect book seems to find you.

As if some unplanned hand is guiding you to exactly what you need to read or hear in that moment.

I hadn’t planned on going to the library, but this branch was a few doors down from the lunch spot I happened upon after the hike I chose spontaneously that morning after a couple quick google searches. I wouldn’t have even been out of my house except that they were doing construction upstairs and had turned off the electricity.

I wandered around the stacks for a little while, until I happened upon the memoir section.

A chair had been pulled up alongside the shelf next to Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior. I had heard her interview on Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast “Magic Lessons”, so I plucked up the book to skim a couple pages. But I couldn’t stop. I found myself reading nearly the entire book sitting there in that chair in the library. Her writing is so clear and straightforward that it is easy to underestimate how searingly honest she is being every step of the way.

Later that same day I re-listened to that podcast episode, and when Gilbert asks her why she writes her answer is that she wants to be known. It is truly astonishing how clearly she sees and knows herself, and in presenting us with her most flawed, true, human self that, we are able to see and know ourselves in poignant, touching ways that left me reeling — but also freer.

Here are some of the important reminders from this book that I needed to hear this week:

  • We all learned to hide our bignesses starting in childhood. For the sake of the unspoken rules of the game, we are numbing and running from pain and from our “hot loneliness” (Pema Chodron’s words) when these are the very things we should be running toward. Each of our running and hiding takes different forms (food, sex, work, books, tv, money, positivity, productivity, etc.) but we know when we’re using those things to take us away and out of our very lived experiences. This pain, our loneliness, our struggles are inevitable. They are what make us human, and that means we are not alone. The ‘Journey of the Warrior’ is to stay with the journey, to stay with yourself in those moments, and to feel those things. Every crisis is an invitation to grow.
  • You oftentimes won’t have the answer. It’s not a big puzzle to be solved. All you have to do is figure out your next right action. One day at a time. It strikes me that the nuns at Nuns & Nones also talked about being able to sit still and listen and reflect and the importance of that practice in being able to discern the next right action. The way the sisters talked about it is that the root of ‘obedience’ is to listen. And whether you are talking about God, the Spirit, the Universe, or your own inner wisdom, if you are still and silent enough, that voice is clearer. It usually doesn’t tell you the answer (‘living the questions’ is more interesting anyway). But it can tell you what might be the next right action, right now. What you can do next.
  • You are loved. Just as you are. << It’s not about knowing or learning or coming to that. It’s allowing ourselves those moments when we can strip away everything else and remember that.
  • You can always find yourself home again, via your breath.

And more from the podcast re-listen, which has been so helpful. My belief in my artwork and how I spend my time has been shaky for the past 6 months, but the doubts have definitely been amplified in the past few weeks.

  • Your job is to make the thing and put it out there. Your job is not to defend it afterward, or to babysit it. Just let it go once it’s out in the world and go make more.
  • You are not unique and neither is your message, and that’s okay. That’s more than okay. The way you present it will be unique to you — and that might break through to this person whereas the way Liz Gilbert or Glennon Doyle Melton presents it might resonate with those people over there. Even if all of our messages are the same, we need the chorus of all the voices.
  • The way to grow your following is to deeply serve the following you already have. What an honor that they show up to read your words at all. Give them light.
  • Related to above point about next right actions: “Be still and know.” Listen to the voice inside. The book Love Warrior is ultimately about trusting yourself. When we say we don’t know what to do, more often we just don’t want to do the thing we know we need to do.
  • Stop deeming yourself unworthy of these invitations. Trust the inviter and show up before you’re ready.
  • Stay open / Go back in. It never ends. It’s a practice and an action.

I think my biggest mistake recently with self-care or emotional wellbeing is in believing somehow that there is a finish line. Like if I do enough therapy and read enough self-help and meditate enough and awaken enough and have enough language, that I’ll get to a point where I’ll be okay and that I will need less support then. That I might get to a point where I won’t fall apart, like ever, like ever again. Or that somehow I will have all the tools and capacities to “handle” falling apart better so that even if I fall apart, it won’t, like, affect me. But now that feels off. Because that would be like saying, I will eventually get to a point where I can stop being human. Emotional wellbeing is not an end state; it is a practice, a series of small actions that I need to take in my life to keep myself on track.

Stay open. Go back in. It never ends.

After the move, I was relying on my crutch of workaholism (in this case, working from home and making art) in order to survive. I wasn’t really present, I wasn’t really here. I tried to workaholic through the days, but when that broke under the pressures of too much doubt, I turned inward and shut down completely. I was in a zombie state, zoned out, and escaping into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows which I reread in a marathon over 2 days. Sitting and reading for 10 hours straight really hecked up my neck. I realized yesterday that this was all because I was in survival mode and because none of my other support systems were in play.

“For me, I survived because of books. which doesn’t work for everyone, but you have to have something. You have to have something you care about that’s external to you and that isn’t dependent on other people, whether it’s art or music or reading or writing or a combination of the above, or knitting or running.” -Roxanne Gay, from her interview on the Rookie podcast, about how she survived the times that she was profoundly lonely and profoundly lost, those times in her life where she wasn’t sure it was going to get better.

It worked because I survived. Books have been my safe place since I was a little kid. I always prided myself in the story that I found the library the summer after second grade and proceeded to check out a pile of books every single week…but now I wonder if that’s just where I’ve been hiding and numbing all my life.

This summer, I was getting to a point of not recognizing myself. 

And it makes sense that I was running and hiding in my books — it was a very childlike response to my new schedule which mirrored childhood rhythms, alongside the reintroduction of my childhood language. I was falling apart in a new city where none of my normal support structures were in place, so I (re)turned to those old(est) habits that had always worked before. The reasons these self-care practices need to be habitualized and routinized and ritualized is because the stresses of the circumstances that cause you to need them zap you of the very energy needed to pursue them. It’s much more likely that I’ll find myself doing the physical activity that keeps me sane if I know the bike route to the climbing gym, and have biked it a million times before, and the membership is already pre-paid, and I have a routine of doing it every Tuesday and Thursday before lunch. If I find myself in a new city, trying to get used to driving again without any incentive to purchase a gym membership for the 3 short months that I am here, it makes sense that I might find myself sitting at home most days and not having moved much for an entire week…which will eventually lead to a deterioration in my mental and emotional wellbeing. And by the time your legs start to itch that they want to move and you remember in the back of your head that maybe you should go for a run or something?…you may have already built up so many unreleased stress chemicals in your body, that you feel too leaden and weighted down and heavy to even get out of bed.

(But then you get a notice that they’ll be working on the electricity upstairs and that there won’t be any power in your house, so you leave and find yourself hiking through the desert at high noon before making your way to lunch and a library and the chair that has been waiting for you next to the MEMOIR section next to Glennon Doyle Melton’s book.)

What’s hopeful and illuminating is that these support structures can be small actions, like baby steps. And that I can build them back up, one by one, for myself, into practices: find the library, bike to the store, call a friend, take out your yoga mat in the mornings and do just one something, figure out where the ice cream is, look up a hike, go for a walk, subscribe to a local mailing list, listen to that podcast which reminds me where your obsessive-curiosity lies, talk to the people who share your heart’s language, find your local book store, find your tribe…Breathe.

The small actions that I can do for myself that sends a message to my…brain/heart/soul/body/all of the above?…to my self that I matter and that I value myself and that I want to take care of me. 

I need to start infilling my life with these other pillars of care and support, so that I can get back to making art in a more carefree way.

So that it no longer has to bear the weight of serving as a lifeline and can return to being a tool for understanding and curiosity and synthesis and freedom and play.

Because of course I went to a different library today and of course I found a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which reminded me that:

  • Your art doesn’t have to save the world. In fact, when your quest with your art is to help others…as Katharine Whitehorn says “You can recognize the people who live for others by the haunted look on the faces of the others.” Write to save yourself, to heal yourself, to satisfy your own curiosities, and to follow your own fascinations.
  • “Do whatever brings you to life…The rest will take care of itself.”