Self-care is a popular topic, and has become the go-to for anyone stressed out by life. One Google search pulls up almost 97 million results!
(Hang on. I’m a bit floored by that.)
Okay, whew. I’m back. So, I’m not going to read millions of articles, but I suspect most of them hold a basic assumption that self-care is important so that you can get back to your job, family, or other capitalist expectation without feeling depleted. That’s fine, and actually probably helpful for many people for a time. However, I suspect it ignores these important questions:
What if it’s your job that’s causing your stress? What if your stress is brought on by poor communication with your family? Lack of access to quality mental health care? Overwhelming debt due to school loans or a volatile housing market or medical costs or historical economic inequity due to racism?
In thinking about systems and self-care, I’m reminded of a story I heard from a horse whisperer friend of mine. She describes her experiences tending to and training horses who “could not be tamed”; spirited horses who would not be bridled by their owners. I can’t blame the horses for wanting to be free, and in my friend’s work with them, neither would she. Instead, she would listen to these horses in a way their owners could not. She could uncover their personalities by allowing their needs and playfulness to emerge, to which she would turn all her attention. After communicating with them, gently teaching and training them, the horses would become calm and not afraid of her. But sometimes, when the horses would return to the owners, the owners often would not understand that in fact it was they who needed to be trained to listen to the horses, to care for them, and to communicate with them. The most devastating part of the horse whisperer’s job is to send the horses back to a hostile environment where they would no longer be cared for emotionally.
This is kind of how I think of self-care. We can, and we must, take good care of ourselves if we want to keep our inner fires going. But when we are in challenging, oppressive, or restrictive environments, even with good care practices we can feel exhausted. In some cases, we may be able to change our environments, but this is not always true. It may be that your need for an income outweighs your need for a healthy work environment, for example. And, like racism and misogyny, oppressive systems surround us at all times. We cannot separate out individual responsibility from holding systems accountable for creating and maintaining power differentials that lead to emotional and spiritual depletion. (And a lot of the time, our self care needs come from holding these systems accountable. That's taxing work.)
In other words, we can’t pretend like our environment doesn’t impact us.
This is the complicated nature of self-care. It is up to each of us to practice care not to feel better about oppressive systems, but to survive them, and thrive in spite of them. Self-care is about taking care of ourselves as much as it is also about cultivating and supporting mutual care efforts on the community level.
With that, here are some activities that are free or lower-cost, accessible to many, and give the opportunity for both self and community care.
- Get outside, into nature, in whatever way possible for you. Somewhere quiet on a bench, if that is accessible to you. Wait there. Listen. Smell. Move if you like. Just wait. Don’t rush through it. Remember that nature has a pace much different from what you’ve grown used to.
- Make a lotion for chapped lips and hands. This recipe and this recipe both make several containers worth, so you can bring some to work or a community meeting, or take some to your neighbors.
- Draw with whatever you have lying around. Collage. Mixed media. Recyclables. Cardboard. Paper bags. No need to purchase anything. (It’s a good opportunity to look around at what you’ve got in drawers you haven’t opened in a while.)
- If you are physically able, try a yin yoga class. (This is the most expensive on the list, usually about $20.) It’s restorative and gentle and lets you chill out. If you can, try to find a location that is queer friendly, POC run, and doesn’t appropriate elements of spiritual yoga into their stretching classes.
- Make a pot of rice. Seriously inexpensive comfort food. Add whatever you like to the rice cooker or pot. Here is a simple recipe for cilantro lime rice. Bring some to a neighbor if you have leftovers, or save to make meals for the rest of the week.
- Write a card to someone you haven’t talked to in a while, who you remember fondly. Just to say hi. People generally like getting personal mail and it can be kind of a rare treat.
- Write to someone in prison. Here is a place you can get connected with a LGBTQ pen pal. Our trans siblings in the system especially need our attention. If you have the cash, you can also donate a toy from Amazon to a mother in a Chicago prison through this link.
- Do mail art! Never heard of it? It’s pretty great: What Is Mail Art?
- Learn how to knit. With YouTube and Instructables, you can teach yourself to knit for free. The yarn and needles can cost between 10-20 bucks and you can create a lot of little projects out of one skein of yarn. Like this fashionable tiny dog scarf for these chilly eves. Knitting can be fun and meditative without much expectation or stress. (I'm pretty certain your dog won't mind if you skip a few stitches.)
You can't self-care your way out of a shitty system, but you definitely can keep your vitality even in the face of stress and oppression. We need your spirit as alive as can be. "Don't ask what the world needs," says Howard Thurman. "Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is more people who have come alive." (And, more people who take good care of themselves.)