“The search for love continues even in the face of great odds.”
—graffiti message shared by bell hooks (All About Love xv)
I’ve written previously about the roller coaster of emotions I’m currently riding—fired up one minute and laid low the next. My guess is this up-down, high-low rhythm will be my norm for some time to come.
At one point, I’m knocked down by the force of historic, mounting injustice; the next I’m connecting with and inspired by others truly committed to racial justice. One day I’m literally curled up from the HURT of this era of dehumanizing pain; the next I’m filled up with HOPE from seeing people show up in persistent and powerful ways.
This morning I’ve riding high and want to share why, as I hope these resources might help with finding love, fueling justice:
I’m truly inspired after seeing activist Shaun King speak last night here in Milwaukee. I’m deeply grateful for his reporting and calls to action via social media.
I’m feeling unbridled by reading Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/LaFrontera and planning an experiential gallery walk for class today. I’m committing (again) to working against all forms of injustice, including linguistic prejudice.
Today is a day when so many of us celebrate love. May we search for love in the face of great odds. May we work to understand love better—to truly know and create it in our lives. May we build the emotional literacies, stamina, and resiliency needed for addressing our own complicity in injustice. May we seek to enact love, as we make actionable commitments to justice.
“To truly love we must learn to mix ingredients—care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”
—bell hooks (All About Love 5)
This fall I returned to Milwaukee after a year in Washington, D.C. The move back home allowed me to re-see familiar spaces, including where I practice yoga-asana and where I write. Though seemingly unrelated, yoga and writing have blended for me, as I’ve constructed a single contemplative-working space. In this week’s post, I ask about the spaces that energetically nourish, revitalize, and activate work for justice.
My return to Milwaukee allowed me to feel/sense more clearly the need to change my home space. A lot still feels off about my home, and I’m still thinking about how to downsize—a choice rooted in privilege and mobility that calls for greater responsibility. I’m thinking, for example, about how to take up and heat less space in a household of only two people.
Within this context of re-seeing space and re-thinking hOMe, my desire for a blended yoga-asana and writing-work space became and remains absolutely clear. That is, I want to have my writing desk physically positioned within dedicated yoga space.
It doesn’t follow any logic (and certainly not any design advice!) to fit yoga mats between a bookshelf and writing desk. I’ve considered other layouts, other spatial arrangements. Yet, the only thing that feels right—the only strong YES in my body—is the close proximity of yoga to writing props. In this way, close proximity represents a close relationship.
In the fall, as I was arranging this space (and buying a large new rug to tie it together), I had a vivid dream. I saw myself moving with strength and grace on the yoga mat—practically gliding from a standing half-moon pose into the chair before me. I visualized an easeful movement from the mat to the desk, from my fingers gripping yoga blocks to pressing laptop keys, from eyes softly glancing downward to facing forward toward the screen.
In the few months since returning home, visualizing this movement, and following my strong YES to create shared yoga-work space, I’m beginning to see my dream materialize. I’m noticing more and more that I’m practicing yoga through writing.
So, why am I sharing this post about my yoga-writing space?
Because it’s reminding me to listen to inner guidance, to the strong YES. Even when (especially when) intuitive messages counter all-best-advice, I need to honor the wisdom within. For too long, I’ve prioritized external measures or guidance over my own knowing. I want to re-prioritize, which means getting better at listening to myself. Currently, the yoga mat and the keyboard (two seemingly unrelated, but for me deeply connected objects) invite deeper listening.
Because the more that I align my everyday work (writing and activism, especially) with my spiritual life, the more I am able to flow freely. This yoga-writing space represents, for me, a tangible reminder to align all aspects of life with my deepest commitment to justice. To find alignment, I need to feel within my body, yet also abandon the “shoulds” defining how my yoga, writing, or other practices take shape.
Because this week has been so intense that I’m still writing, writing, writing about all that’s occurred—and not in a way that I’m ready to share yet. Again, listening to the strong YES, I know that I need to write, but be willing to let the writing sit and simmer and take its time before emerging into the world. Again, I can see connections with and lessons from my yoga practice, including the reminder to write daily—and without expectations, including the expectation that I’m ready to share.
Certainly, there are days when I feel guilty about writing instead of spending time on the yoga mat. There are also days when I feel guilty about prioritizing asana over what’s due next. And then there are days when I let go of guilt and see a more holistic version of yoga—one that includes and is practiced through writing. This more holistic version is represented byand nourished within physical space.
Whether on the mat, in the chair, or curled around the laptop (as I am now), may I learn to stand TALL and TRUE through daily practice. I send love for the work, the resistance ahead.
I’d also love to hear about your practices and your spaces. What fires you up, ignites action, or allows you to emerge more fully into the world?
How do we work to align feelings, thoughts, and actions (heart, head, hands) with the world we’d like to see? How do we go about our everyday lives for the “ought to be,” for justice?
I’m thankful for Jardana Peacock (of the Liberatory Leadership Project) for modeling a contemplative writing practice that I’ve been using to think through these questions. At the end of each day, I’ve been filling in the answer to her prompt:
“Today resistance looks like …”
I immediately connected with this practice and the way I see Jardana enacting it in her life—situating self-care alongside community care and direct action. I see a connection to my focus on the everydayness of living a life for justice. I see how variable answers help us see resistance as many different things, including writing, reading, work, play, connection, friendship, reflection, practice, art, awareness. I see the potential for self-reflection—for noticing and questioning my habits and the privileges associated with these habits. And I see how this writing prompt makes daily resistance seem both possible and sustainable, especially in a time of chaos and uproar.
So, this past week I’ve been recording my own daily (and horribly incomplete and messy) responses. I’ve debated whether to share these responses, engaging in self-doubt, vulnerability, and fear. My inner judging voice has spoken up, lodging concerns that I’m not doing enough, that I’m doing more harm than good, that I’m doing only the sorts of “resistance” I find fun or comfortable, that I’m showing my privilege, that my ego is acting out … and the list goes on. Let me tell you!
Against this backdrop, I’m sharing my responses because I believe we must act, however imperfectly. I really struggle with perfectionism and with all-or-nothing thinking, but I see how both shut down the very real work we need in the world. Instead of listening to my inner judging voice, I want to listen to the still-small-and-quieter-but-brave voice that says, “Share. This might give others ideas or inspiration.”
I’ll always be writing from my position as a white woman with layers of privilege shaping my perspective. Still, I’m coming to believe that my voice is needed, too, if only to get other white folks to think about privilege, to act with the responsibility that comes with privilege, and to develop the readiness and resiliency needed for a lifelong commitment to justice.
So, I’m sharing my responses to Jardana’s writing prompt because daily writing can bring mindfulness and intention (in addition to reflection and recording) toward daily acts of resistance. I’m also sharing some of the stickiness—like my ego getting in the way and my privilege stepping out—that’s come up through this list-making exercise.
Here goes. Deep breath.
What resistance has looked like for me this past week—followed by some observations:
Today resistance looks like …
sleeping in (so greatly needed after a LATE night following nationwide bans, detainments, legal actions, and airport protests);
rewriting an article abstract (arguing for cross-campus collaborations for community-based learning);
enjoying my dad’s first-ever visit to Milwaukee—with brunch at the local café and the afternoon attending a friend’s concert (an activity my dad dearly loves that gave me time to really think and feel with the music);
drafting an initial publicity plan for an upcoming racial justice workshop; and
working to observe and affirm my boundaries by repeating my now-nightly mantra: “I release and bless the energy of the day.”
Monday Today resistance looks like …
taking time for a LONG processing conversation with a best friend;
affirming self-care (sustenance and sustainability for the “long haul”) through emails and phone calls with friends, family, and colleagues;
teaching and conferencing—and then writing about these relational acts through an advising philosophy statement;
starting a new e-course with guided meditation to call back energy by Chani Nicolas;
appreciating a network of campus and community partners who are teaching me about WordPress, Medium, and other important-for-the-work tech stuff;
signing a few more online petitions and continuing to post via social media; and
wearing snow pants to/from school to honor my desire for warmth, especially on a very cold day!
Friday Today resistance looks like …
finding my way back to the gym after almost a week away (it’s been a wild week!);
designing a new course I’ll teach in the fall—focused on writers’ rights and asking, “Who has a right to speak? To write? When, where, and under what conditions? How does our social positioning (i.e., race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and other intersectional identities) impact our rights as writers?”
nourishing my soul with friends and colleagues over lunch and dinner meetings focused on firing things up in writing, teaching, and community engagement;
processing with my mom some hurt through social media and thinking about our own participation (and how to stay in the work and be true to ourselves);
continuing to heal longstanding back pain through acupuncture and cupping;
gathering groceries and pre-cooked meals for the weekend from a local coop;
responding to plans to hold a teach-in on February 17th (in alignment with plans for a nationwide general strike);
curling with my spouse, while sending Reiki for collective healing; and
getting back up after only an hour or so in bed when my heART desired writing more than sleep.
Saturday Today resistance looks like …
reading the first of three graphic novels in the series by/about John Lewis, March;
following up on a campus climate issue involving racial microaggressions;
sending activist love letters and thank you notes and other handwritten mail J;
getting organized for the week ahead, checking in with students, planning classes, and completing service responsibilities;
taking an afternoon walk along Lake Michigan in deep conversation and connection with my spouse (thanks, Jonathan!);
refueling via time soaking in an Epsom salt bath, talking with a good friend, and moving on my yoga mat; and
reflecting and setting goals while drafting this blog post and feeling my way through vulnerability.
Now I’m imagining Jardana asking, “What have you noticed through this writing exercise?”
Centering Resistance Around Education and Healing (My Work and Spiritual Life)
As soon as I began record-keeping, I noticed that my daily forms of “resistance” center around (1) my work as an educator (writer-researcher-teacher) or (2) my self-care and spiritual practices (e.g., yoga, meditation, Reiki, acupuncture, walking, and eating vegan). This surprised me, though it likely shouldn’t have. I’m an educator and a healer, so it follows that my resistance would center around these activities.
First, these observations help me feel especially appreciative for a job that allows me to engage in social justice work daily—with and alongside others and in ways that encourage both my own learning and my community engagement. I often grumble about injustices I witness at work, so it’s refreshing to feel appreciation. Through my work, I clarify and make actionable my deepest commitments. It’s a privilege to have a job that matters in the world. May I act on the responsibility that comes with this privilege. May I use it well.
Second, these observations help me value healing and spiritual practices as part of (not just the precursor to or the result of) activist/resistance work. Truly, self-work matters, as Jardana argues in “Winning Our Movements Inside and Out: Shifting the Social Justice Back into our Work.” I’ve had a number of conversations with white folks recently about how to be in social justice work for “the long haul,” for the lifetime. If we understand justice as both the end and the means (an idea I hope to address in a future blog post), then we need to enact now the lives we’d like to see. After all, we cannot get to justice down a road of injustice. Such work means healing ourselves and our inherited ways of being in the world (e.g., inherited and internalized white supremacy). Such work means rethinking how we take up, use, and exist within space. Rethinking our ways of being in the world. Rethinking our very being, which has been assaulted through racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of injustice that create deep hurts—trauma—for us all.
This trauma is NOT THE SAME for each of us, as we positioned differently across privilege and power, facing differences in degree and in kind. Yet, this trauma results from/in shared inequities that undermine humanity. For those of us conditioned by and positioned within white supremacy, this supremacy denies human connection, equal rights, and equality. Further, the trauma of supremacy underlies the dysfunctional ways we continue to relate with self, with others, and within institutions.
Together, these observations bring me back to the problem of white folks colonizing the spaces and practices of others. My resistance lists read clearly as the product of a white, well-educated, upper-/middle-class, able-bodied woman in the United States—someone fairly close to Lorde’s “mythical norm.” This means that my resistance involves a lot of un-learning, destabilizing, and upturning of what is assumed to be normative. It also means a lot of stepping in and smelling my own shit (and, interestingly enough, using frequent poop emoticons and metaphors, it seems) … It means getting good with the reality that I’ll always be doing harm, even as I’m trying to do good. It means living in paradox and mess.
Still, here’s the question I’m still not sure about, still wrestling with, still feeling shitty about, even as I press “publish” on this post: Does sharing lists of actions that are clearly “normative” uphold “the norm” that I’m working to de-normalize?
The Problem of Normalizing Particular Notions of “Resistance”
By raising this question, I hope to acknowledge that we not only show up for resistance differently, but these differences also represent inequitable material conditions. My privileged position enables me to participate in resistance more readily and to navigate to, from, and within resistive spaces/acts with relative ease.
To illustrate, this week I read a powerful Facebook post by Sagashus Levingston (of Infamous Mothers). Sagashus addresses how people (especially people with privilege) express a desire for more diverse leadership in social justice movements, yet at the same time, fail to recognize, value, or organize around these diverse experiences. Sagashus provides this insight into how we differently show up for the work:
“But we get uncomfortable when it comes to addressing or even talking about the REALITY of difference—the reality that they walked and you drove to the stage or that they stood in the food pantry line before you all’s meeting. You’re both there—the hero and the antihero—but the pathways to showing up this morning were different. For one, the road was smooth and clear, for the other, it was filled with hurdles and thorns. And while you’re glad they showed up, you’d rather not talk about how they showed up and what they had to go through to get there—even when, for them, their path was as normal as your morning coffee from Starbucks. Why is that?”
To echo Sagashus: why is that?
Because it means that those of us who experience privilege and power within resistance (and I’m thinking of white folks, though there are many interlocking forms of privilege at play) need to do serious self-reflection about our own lived experiences, assumptions, worldviews, and complicity.
Because resistance needs to be more variable. It would need to address and confront different sorts of lived experiences, assumptions, worldviews, and complicity.
Because resistance means rethinking everyday ways of doing things (like choosing meeting locations accessible bus or foot instead of car OR rethinking systems of public transportation and the inequities that stack up around car ownership and the racialization of space).
Because resistance invites some serious self-work—personal and collective healing that goes layers and generations deep.
Because … the reasons continue, on and on …
As I end this week of tracking my acts of resistance, I’m thinking about how much needs to change, especially in how we conceptualize this word: resistance. Jardana writes about the need for change, asking:
“We need to honestly ask ourselves and consider: what does it means to build towards love and liberation for the long haul? What needs attention individually, in our internal structures, interpersonally, and collectively in order to realize more balance? What does wellness really look like for folks across race, class, sexuality, gender, and ability? How can we expand our definitions and imaginations to create a more dynamic and expansive understanding of healing? What needs to shift, change or be enhanced within ourselves, our communities, and in our movements in order for social change to be actualized inside of ourselves and outside in the world?”
Jardana’s writing prompt “Today resistance looks like …” has invited me to explore these questions and to take notice of my habits. I’m encouraged to see that I’m getting stuff done, despite feeling especially distracted, ungrounded, and emotionally roller-coasting through this chaotic time. I’m also encouraged to see the centrality of my work and spiritual life in resistance.
At the same time, I’m going forward with serious questions about how to upset normalized notions of resistance. I’m looking for broader definitions and depictions of resistance. I’m questioning how to write about resistance—how to encourage other privileged folks to act without taking over or taking up too much space. I’m thinking about how to shift from the stance of power over into stances of power to and power with. And I’m questioning the links between resistance (critique against) and vision (critique for).
Perhaps you’ll join me in these inquiries. Perhaps you’ll join me through contemplative writing. Perhaps you’ll join me by filling in the prompt: “Today resistance looks like …”
This week I overfilled my hot cocoa, knocked the mug, and spilled sticky-sweet almond milk on the kitchen counter. Before thinking, I was already saying aloud: “Ahhhh, Bethhhh …” I could hear a parent scolding a child, over-reacting about spilled milk. And I was shaken—stopped in my tracks—because I would not like to respond in such a way to any person, let alone myself.
Spilled cocoa. Sticky surfaces. Mess.
Mess characterizes life, and I like to think that I’m good with mess. As a researcher, I like to describe the research process as “incredibly messy” and to delight in scattered post-it notes, coded transcripts, piles of books and papers, and other materials. As a teacher, I like to announce: “This semester we’ll get to roll around in the messiness of understanding race/ism (or feminism or the writing process or other complex things).” Mess is perhaps one of my favorite words, something I run toward instead of from. I even describe myself as “a mess”—affectionately so and at moments when I seem to be experiencing the most growth.
Yet, I really struggle with mess, perhaps more than I know. When I spilled the hot cocoa, I not only needed to clean up right away, but I could also feel a wave of negative emotions wash over me. I could hear an old familiar voice asking, “What’s wrong with you?” And I could see my tendency to shrink, a tendency that runs counter to my current affirmations:
It is safe for me to be seen.
It is safe for me to stand TALL.
Certainly, I’ve been on a roller-coaster this week, following (inter)national events, feeling fear within my body, and fumbling to move forward. Last week, I wrote about “mucking around in the mess,” and this week I’m still very much in mess and a mess.
One minute I’m signing a petition; the next I’m confronted by 2 or 10 or 20 new problems.
One afternoon I’m inspired by an exciting teaching collaboration with community partners; the next I’m intervening into a campus discussion in which one person disparagingly calls others “foreigners.”
One day I’m feeling uplifted (participating in, seeing friends’ photos, and reading great critiques of the Women’s March); the next I’m swinging low (e.g., asking why professional associations encourage action for some causes but not others—and realizing that rifts run deeper than I even imagined).
So, how do I navigate the current roller-coaster ride? What does it mean to be living in mess?
It means giving myself permission to feel my emotions and ask what they’re communicating to me.
It means giving myself permission to eat sugar and break out with acne and still work on cultivating radical self-love that’s needed for standing in solidarity.
It means welcoming the Divine feminine that’s struggling to break through the shadows.
It means a lot—a lot more than I can or am ready to unpack here—but it surely means asking questions and looking at the self and wondering why I’m so quick to snap or scold.
My Reiki teach Marty Tribble often reminds me: “We teach what we most need to learn.” And it’s clear that right now I’m learning about mess: how to live in mess, befriend mess, be truly ok with messing up …
So, some more mantras for the days ahead:
I give myself (and my home and my relationships and my writing) permission to be imperfect.
I allow my actions and activism to be imperfect, emergent, uneven.
I give myself permission to act out, smart off, play hooky, miss a week, fall behind, let loose, whine, cry, rebel, take risks, get hurt, try again, etc.
This post wasn’t planned. It wasn’t the “next up” in my drafting schedule to write a new piece weekly in 2017 (#52essays2017). Yet, it’s flowing forth this morning, as I try to make sense of this day before me. An inauguration day? A general strike? A media black-out? A ramp-up to coordinated global demonstrations?
What I worry about—and why I feel the need to write—is that I’m experiencing the day as a day like any other. A day that makes complicity possible. A day of routinization. A day that normalizes what should never been normal.
Today I’m in Madison (Wisconsin), where I’ll march with friends tomorrow. As I set up for daily writing in a local coffee shop, I overhear a number of conversations—all among white people (or at least people who appear white). Among the conversations, people talk about an upcoming football game with excitement (apparently, the Packers are doing well in playoff games). And the “chunky monkey” smoothie is the best someone’s ever had, leading to discussion of various smoothie recipes (and would you believe that I planned to post a smoothie recipe next?!?). And two older white people are talking about Trump’s election.
They just don’t understand, they say.
Racism was a “non-issue” when growing up, they say.
They remember class mattering—they knew whose parents worked at the local plant and whose didn’t—but even then, they treated everyone with respect, they say.
And they know they’re biased “a little,” but not in a big, “harmful way,” they say.
They just don’t understand what’s happening these days. “Is it this younger generation?” They say.
And their conversation reminds me of another …
As a teacher, I so often have conversations with younger white people, people who express shock, confusion, and anger when realizing their own power, privilege, and sense of security (as opposed to vulnerability and precarity).
After Trump’s election, I was told by someone around the age of 20 that they’re really proud to be a millennial, that their generation is really open to talking about racism, and that they’re certainly “less racist” than their parents and grandparents.
I’ve been gifted access to these two conversations side-by-side. So, what do I make of them?
I’m wondering if white people are beginning to realize that white people are doing and have done harm, but it’s still easier to imagine other people (i.e., other generations of white people) as responsible?
I’m thinking about the title of this blog (heart-head-hands) and wondering how white people develop the emotional intelligence—the heart space—to do significant self-work. Such self-work would involve rewriting narratives rooted in white ignorance. It would also involve thinking about why we talk about football or smoothies instead of the day’s inauguration, strikes, media black-out, or forthcoming demonstrations. It would involve mobilizing this feeling and thinking toward acting.
When I started writing this post—this totally unplanned post—I began with a single line: “We’re all mired in the muck.”
I kept looking at this line and seeing myself literally covered in mud, as I so often am when hiking (and, ironically enough, am a bit today, as I trucked through melting snow in what’s likely to be the hottest year on record).
The thing about mud is that the more you try to wipe it away, the more it spreads or gets deeply ingrained in fabric. It certainly can slow movement, add extra weight, and look unpleasant. And yet it’s absolutely possible to keep walking with and through mud. If I let the mud stop me, I would miss out on so many trails, so many sights, so much time in my most reflective and relaxed state.
So, yes: we’re mired in the muck, but I hope we’ll keep walking/working right through it. If we’re truly committed to the long haul toward justice, then we must attend to the terrain (to see and understand the muck or mud), but also not get so tripped up in it that we fail to move forward, to accept responsibility, or to imagine and enact visions of the “ought to be.”
Mash the banana; then mix in the cacao and peanut butter (or other nut butter).
Enjoy for breakfast, snack, or whenever a boost is needed throughout the day.
This recipe has just three straight-up ingredients: ground peanuts, cacao/cocoa, and banana. Unlike many sweets, this one is exactly as described (no hidden sugar or artificial ingredients).
It’s full of iron, potassium, and other anti-inflammatory and mood-boosting vitamins and minerals that I often crave, especially whenever feeling low.
It allows me to feel that I’ve had a “sweet” without eating sugar, and the protein keeps me feeling full for a few hours after eating.
This snack helps with my ongoing struggle with sugar addiction. I now notice when I’m craving sugar and ask myself to reflect on “why?” while still enjoying this sweet.
Changing My Relationship with Sugar
SUGAR! Sugar. sugar …
Growing up, I loved Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster and identified with this character whose key personality trait was an endless appetite for sugar. Like Cookie Monster, I could easily down more than a handful of cookies (or other sweets) and would readily binge-eat.
Growing up, sugar of various sorts (cookies, ice cream, cake) became associated with holidays, seasons, and special events. I’ve found myself eating sugar to recreate feelings associated with these memories—feelings tied to a sense that “everything is ok.”
Growing up, sugar became my addiction of choice (especially as I don’t drink alcohol or coffee), and I’ve found that it’s taken a toll on my body. Now when I over-eat sugar, I often get sick and end up with derailed plans. It’s like sugar has become a coach taking me out of the game when I don’t recognize or act on my desire/need to cut back.
I’m still very much in the middle of figuring out my relationship with sugar and how I use it to harm (rather than heal) myself. Yet, these memories of “growing up” give me important clues into this troubled relationship—a relationship I want to better understand and to change so that I can fully show up in everyday and ongoing work for justice.
I’m noticing that I use sugar at different times to purge or hold onto, to comfort or disrupt, to numb or feel, to decompress or energize, to forget or remember … Sometimes I use sugar to “fill me up,” as though feeling full and sweetly satisfied will take the edge off vulnerability. Other times I use sugar to punctuate (like a period at the end of the sentence)—to mark the end of an interaction, encounter, or period of time. Still other times, I find sugar sweetening (like softening) what’s hard about getting through the day.
The more I become aware of these patterns with sugar, the more I find myself asking: Why am I using sugar in these ways? What emotions underlie and lead to these habits? How might I heal what’s unresolved in my relationship to sugar—and to what it’s representing in my life?
Changing My Relationship with Sugar as an Act of Self-Care?
I understand changing my relationship with sugar (and I’m still far away from an actual changed relationship) as an act of self-care linked with self-love. And self-love linked with love for others. And love linked with justice.
That said, I’ve really struggled to write about self-care, because it’s so often watered down, meaning everything and nothing at once. It’s also really problematic when used to shame (e.g., fat-shame or body-shame). And because talk about food or movement is wrapped up with embodied experience, histories of body-shaming always linger around the discussion. Additionally, self-care (like pretty much everything else) is racialized so that a quick Internet search shows images of white women meditating or smiling, alongside images of outdoor and spa-like spaces. Even the images that just convey mantras (e.g., “keep calm and practice self-care”) invoke histories and contexts wound up with whiteness (in this case, motivational posters used in Great Britain during World War II).
So, self-care is nothing, if not tricky, and yet it’s absolutely essential to building resilience and resistance, particularly when under attack. As Audre Lorde wrote, when speaking from her positionality as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Lorde’s quote is so widely cited, so ubiquitous that it has deeply shaped how I understand self-care, even as I’m differently positioned as a white, heterosexual woman. Lorde names the importance of self-care as both an individual and collective, personal and political act. By naming self-care an “act,” Lorde ties it explicitly to activism.
Other feminists and womanists of color also name self-care as a “radical act—especially for black women,” noting the link between caring for and valuing one’s self (see the interview Evette Dionne). Similarly, Adrienne Maree Brown names the importance of “self-determined care,” which generates abundance for both self-determination and community-determination, naming the importance and interconnectedness of both types of care.
In reconsidering Lorde’s powerful quote, “feminist killjoy” Sarah Ahmed explains that self-care is an act of “warfare” because some bodies are always already under attack. To care for these bodies is to say that they matter. To quote Ahmed at length:
“Self-care: that can be an act of political warfare. In directing our care towards ourselves we are redirecting care away from its proper objects, we are not caring for those we are supposed to care for; we are not caring for the bodies deemed worth caring about. And that is why in queer, feminist and anti-racist work self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the experiences of being shattered. We reassemble ourselves through the ordinary, everyday and often painstaking work of looking after ourselves; looking after each other. This is why when we have to insist, I matter, we matter, we are transforming what matters. Women’s lives matter; black lives matter; queer lives matter; disabled lives matter; trans lives matter; the poor; the elderly; the incarcerated, matter.”
So, self-care signals mattering. Through self-care, we not only express our value or worth to ourselves, but we also invest in reassembling ourselves and our activist communities. In this way, self-care is related to “caretaking the collective” (part of community organizing) and other movement-building work that invests in relations, resources, and resiliency. It also invites attention to positionality and investment in making sure that every person has access to the time-space for self-care.
Certainly, self-care is differently experienced and differently needed because our positionality and attacks on bodies differ. Rather than flattening self-care, we can do more to think about inequities. Think, for example, about how leisure time, disposable income, and many other factors amplify both privilege and access to self-care. Think about how women, people of color, queer folks, and others are bombarded by everyday microaggressions, experiencing a greater need of self-care. Thinking along these lines, it becomes apparent that there’s a mismatch between access to and need for self-care—and this mismatch signals compounding oppressions (along the lines of double or triple jeopardy).
To address these inequities, we all need self-care, especially to build self-worth. And self-worth is needed in order to stop playing small. Self-worth is needed to stand TALL, to stand up for what’s right and what matters.
Practicing Self-Care as Engaged Refueling, Reassembling, and Resisting
The most powerful ideas I’ve encountered around self-care have come from feminists and womanists of color—like Lorde, Dionne, Brown, and Ahmed. I see that their understandings of self-care invest in bringing about a more just world. They also articulate a life-giving version of self-care, one that feels very different (and more consequential) than dropping in (and dropping out) of spas, yoga classes, or meditation retreats. Here I’m thinking about how dropping-in and dropping-out (and images of self-care associated with whiteness and white women) also invite dropping-in/dropping-out of one’s alignment with purpose, attunement with the body, and attention to emotional intelligence.
In fact, as I work to understand self-care and its importance, I realize that many of the ideas I’ve inherited around self-care actually run counter to refueling, reassembling, or resisting. Think of an image like curling up on the couch to binge-watch TV, while also binge-eating chocolate … Or of winding down the week through “happy hour” or other activities associated with alcohol … Or of over-working many weeks in a row followed by total collapse (characteristic of hectic semesters and long-desired breaks). So many images of “unwinding” or “winding down” are associated with binging (of one kind or another) and replace the goal of care with goals like immediate release, mindless retreat, or much-needed recovery. Self-care easily crosses into self-sabotage. Instead of being refueled, we can become further depleted.
Certainly, my relationship with sugar has been more about self-sabotage than self-care. So often, the short-term boost I get from sugar is replaced by long-term regret, guilt, shame, and other negative emotions. So often, the time spend eating sugar in front of the TV leaves me still feeling drained, still in need of refueling. So often, I end up questioning my own worth (a condition linked to all sorts of negative reactions, including white fragility and entitlement), instead of validating that I matter.
So, in changing my relationship with sugar, I’m working to understand self-care as truly showing myself that I’m of worth and, therefore, worthy to speak and act up. How might I invest in loving myself better? How might I listen to what my body’s really asking for, whether that be reflective silence, more engaged time with others, or something else? How might I learn more about the emotions or memories that sugar cravings are triggering? How might I befriend sugar?
In talking about and rethinking my relationship with sugar, I’m consciously engaged in loving myself and, in loving myself, opening myself to vulnerability, accountability, and responsibility to act. Self-care isn’t an out or a way to remove one’s self from the everyday life and activism; rather, it’s needed to fuel showing up with love within activist spaces.
These days, when I feel that I’m really gearing up for what’s to come, I need a version of self-care that lights self-love. May this simple recipe of banana, chocolate, and peanut-butter mash be one that energizes the work ahead.
Alexie’s narrative reveals much about systemic inequities, colonization, marginalization, and disenfranchisement. I hope students will relate to the main character Junior (Arnold Spirit) and find their way into thinking about central concepts of (in)equity, (in)justice, agency, power, and rights, which we’ll be studying throughout the semester.
I’ve loved this book since I first read it in 2008. That summer, I took The Absolutely True Diary on a multi-day hiking trip. I’d spend each day thinking about the book while hiking and each evening reading in the dim light of remote huts. Being removed from my daily life and with long stretches of time for reading + reflection, I read with a sense of both/and—both true separation from Junior’s experiences and total immersion in the importance of his story and its implicit call to action.
As I’m reading this time, I’m taking notes on major themes/takeaways for social justice, tracing the emotions impacting different characters (heart); key social, cultural, historical, and educational concepts (head); and the potential for action (hands). Here is my list, which is sure to be revised as the semester begins and as I process with students.
I’d love reflections, additions, or suggestions by any of you who have read the book. And if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!
Themes/Takeaways for Social Justice:
Identities are always already intersectional: Race, class, gender, ability, geographic/regional location, nationality, ethnicity, linguistic background, religion, sexuality, and other facets of ourselves—cannot be disentangled or pulled apart, but instead shape all our lived experiences.
Oppression and privilege are embodied: Our bodies hold histories, legacies, generational knowledges, grief, joy, and even trauma and injustice.
Oppression is internalized, limiting one’s sense of self-worth and erecting so many barriers/boundaries to jump over—and at every possible level: with one’s self, at home, in one’s community, and outward to the nation-state and international relations.
Both internalized oppression and internalized privilege/supremacy are pathologies—and with very different historical, social, and material consequences.
Schooling in the United States is, by design, separate and unequal. While the myth of the meritocracy persists, students encounter entirely different educational experiences—with many students facing what Jonathan Kozol has called “savage inequalities” (or grossly underfunded schools that cheat people out of their futures).
As a gendered construction, masculinity limits knowledge about and expression of emotions. At the same time, masculinity over-emphasizes/encourages physical dominance (e.g., fist fights and basketball). Men’s friendships, then, are shaped by the suppression of emotional expression—despite the obvious emotional tenor of any/all friendships—and by related performances of heteronormativity.
We always choose: if not solidarity, then complicity. Though only a few may be bullies, many make the bullying possible. In the words of Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Or, as Elie Wiesel put it: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Inequities stack up and feed into each other, so that colonialism walks hand-in-hand with systemic racism … and racism with loss of land and resources … and loss of land and resources with poverty … and poverty with dis-ease … and dis-ease with addiction/alcoholism … and addiction with death … and death with grief … and grief with loss of spirit, of hope. This downward spiral (or cycle of socialization) necessitates a total overhaul to break such structurally sustained dehumanization.
Hope is so important and so complicated! As Alexie writes (in Junior’s words): “I don’t know if hope is white. But I do know that hope for me is like some mythical creature” (51). It’s associated with possibility, mobility, and self-determination. Systems of oppression/colonialism/marginalization work, in part, by shutting down hope. In turn, any movement for justice must involve reclaiming hope.