Radical Self-Care Doesn’t End Here

Over the last three years in grad school, I’ve been aware of the necessity for and committed to radical self-care. I couldn’t have gotten through grad school without that commitment.

Now that I’m graduated, the importance of self-care has not diminished, but the urgency is no longer as pressing. I have plenty of time to make sure I’m eating healthy, getting enough sleep, exercising, having fun, hanging out with friends, stimulating my mind, caring for my emotions, etc. etc. etc.

I don’t have to choose what to sacrifice and what to give attention to anymore.

Ironically, now is when I’m realizing that I’m easily lulled into not caring for myself in the way that I need to.

Some things that I’ve sorely missed have been more readily done. I’ve been putting a lot more emphasis on getting outside and exercising a solid 30-60 minutes most days of the week—which is great! I’ve missed running and haven’t felt great in my body for a while. I really enjoy being able to take an hour to move my body without the pressure of deadlines looming.

Other aspects of my wellness are harder though. I have to remind myself to make plans with friends—to not let that piece of me that is introverted and passive about social activities to drown out the part of me that needs to see people and be assertive.

I also have to remind myself not to become too obsessed with one project or activity. My time limitations are no longer set by syllabi; I have to determine, on my own, how much time is appropriate to spend on something like a political discussion or novel. And I’ve discovered that while I might feel incredibly energized and engaged for a LONG time on one thing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good for me to remain buried in that one thing for so long.

It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that self-care was easier when I was in grad school…but in some ways I think it was. I knew how important it was to carve out time for my various needs because I could feel the energy depletions happening on me at every moment.

The five, ten, or thirty minutes that I would scavenge to practice my spirituality or write in my journal were precious. I could feel them keeping me going.

Now, I don’t feel my energy depleting as quickly. It’s easy to say, “Oh I can do that tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. I don’t need to bother with that today.”

But I do.

I need to bother with making sure I stay balanced.

In the process of realizing that I need to renew my commitment to radical self-care, I’ve been having conversations with people about the definition of “radical.”

Colloquially, it has come to represent a word that means zealous—almost to extremism.

My understanding of and commitment to radical self-care certainly sometimes felt that way—when it seemed like I was making extreme choices to prioritize my well-being over the never-ending obligations and demands around me.

However, as I’ve been talking with people about how radical also means “to the root,” it’s been shifting what radical self-care means to me.

What does it mean to be committed to the root of self-care—to the necessity for balance of the multi-faceted aspects of wellness, to the rejection of habits or cultural norms that delegitimize my well-being or erase certain aspects of my self which are important to my well-being?

I know that radical self-care has always partially been about more than my individual choices. There is a huge component related to work practices in the U.S., gender role expectations, familial obligations, etc. The environment and outside factors cannot be ignored.

Yet how often do we actually talk about those factors as more than obstacles? I don’t know about others, but I have never been to a meeting with an organization to determine how the organization can improve the atmosphere of wellness for those working for it. If an organization is going to get involved in a conversation about self-care, it’s generally going to be because an individual hit burnout territory—the meeting will be about what the individual needs to do differently or what they’re not doing enough of.

I’ve been itching to be able to delve into an exploration of the external factors involved in wellness and how radical self-care relates to those, and now I have time!

Which means that along with reminding myself to take breaks and diversify what gets my attention, I can also finally begin looking more seriously at the systemic issues.

I am zealous about self-care, as a form of self-love and preservation but also as a form of resistance; that means getting to the roots, not just of my own well-being but of the self-within-society because, as Donne once wrote, “no man is an island.”

 

Celebrating the Lessons of Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone turned 20 recently. It’s hard to imagine that  I was 10 when the first book came out! I didn’t read any of the books until I was in college, almost a decade later. My parents thought they were evil, filled with demonic energy, and a sure-fire path to the corruption of my soul.

They were…not wrong from their perspective, I suppose.

The books changed my life. I see it as a change for the better; they probably see it as exactly what they would have expected.

There were so many lessons I learned from Harry’s adventures. In honor of the birthday of the series, I wanted to share some of them with you this week in celebration of this incredible series.

Harry Potter taught me that standing up to injustice is something that anyone can do, even an ordinary school child who isn’t that talented and doesn’t quite fit in. From Harry to Ron to Neville, there was a consistent theme of “ordinary” people (as ordinary as wizards get among other wizards) doing extraordinarily brave things that have both small and large effects on the lives of others. These books are a consistent reminder that I matter—that my actions (or inactions) matter.

Harry Potter taught me that it’s possible to find a loving family through the relationships built with friends. He didn’t have a loving family. He technically lived with his uncle and aunt, an orphan grieving the parents he never knew. Even though my parents weren’t dead, I too had to go through a period of mourning the archetypal, good parents that I didn’t have.

Yet, the books provided more than a glimpse into the pain that can accompany something you never knew. In contrast to his biological guardians who try to control Harry because they can’t manage their own anxiety about his gifts, Harry and his friends and mentors display friendships that are close but not fused—that are supportive but not smothering. He models building a chosen family based on love rather than biology.

Harry Potter taught me to give people a chance. Whether it was Dumbledore’s insistence on trying to save Draco from going down the path of his father or the development of Neville from a bumbling annoyance into one of the most important people in the defeat of Voldemort, these books illustrate how people are not defined by their family history, awkward childhoods, or odd beliefs (Hi Luna!).

They are defined “by their choices” as Dumbledore so eloquently puts it. We each have the influence of our genetics, environment, and desires…but we do not have fates mapped out for us over which we have no control. Rather, our fates emerge out of our choices, and there is always the opportunity to choose differently, e.g. Regulus Black.

Harry Potter taught me that sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily mean obeying the rules. This is one of the most important lessons throughout the books, and can be seen in different ways.

On the one hand, there are times when genuinely good people are in power, and the rules are there for a seemingly good reason. But Harry still understands that sometimes he needs to break the rules in order to do what is truly right. In this way, Harry modeled advanced moral reasoning and critical thinking, something I wasn’t really exposed to in any other way within the cult.

But then there are times when people are abusing their power even though they might be occupying a position that has previously been “good” (i.e. Dolores Umbridge at Hogwarts or Voldemort after he corrupts the Ministry of Magic), and Harry, along with many others, understands that it is imperative to resist that power, demonstrating in a different way that blind obedience isn’t the highest good. The Order of the Phoenix, in particular, was responsible for planting the seeds of rebellion that eventually led me out of the cult, sprouting into my current commitment to justice and activism today.

On the other hand, Harry Potter also taught me that you have to be prepared to accept the consequences of your actions. Not every time he went against the rules or advice of his elders did it turn out well. He has to live with the knowledge that he led his godfather to his death because he failed to heed warnings that Voldemort might try to manipulate him.

He also doesn’t always use his power for good. He nearly murders Draco by shouting out an unknown curse in anger, and he attempts the cruciatus curse on Bellatrix out of rageful grief.

Part of his coming of age is working through the consequences of his choices and learning that he is neither invincible nor infallible. He has to learn that he needs others to temper his impulsivity and help him learn to compensate for where he is vulnerable. He also has to guard against becoming like those he fights against. What good is it to defeat Voldemort if he becomes as bad as Voldemort?

I’ll go ahead and wrap up now because this post is already getting long. These are just a handful of the lessons I learned from this remarkable collection of books. They guide me in some way every day, whether in my relationships, my activism, or my professional life.

I’m curious now, in what ways has the Harry Potter series influenced you?

 

The Lessons I Learned: A Graduation Post

This weekend is my graduation weekend. As I look back over the last several years in grad school, I can’t help but be amazed at how much this experience has transformed me. As I celebrate how far I’ve come, I have been thinking about some of the lessons that I’ve learned along the way.

  1. Excellence is not about perfection; rather, it is about wholeheartedness, open-mindedness, creativity, and passion. I couldn’t hold onto my perfectionism and survive the demanding pace of graduate school, but I could throw myself exuberantly into everything I did and work passionately on it while I had the time, letting go when it was “done enough.” The last three years taught me how to dive in deep without drowning in the details, how to create quality work by accepting my own limitations.
  2. Self-care is vital. It’s the fuel to the flame of life, and I have a responsibility to honor my own needs, physically and emotionally. But it’s not a solo effort. It’s a collective one. I need to surround myself with people who also value and honor my wellness and the things required for me to maintain it. A focus on radical self-care is not something I can afford to lose, nor is it something I can carry out on my own.
  3. Success is just as scary, if not more so, than failure sometimes. It take courage to step boldly into possibility, and when I don’t fall flat on my face right off the bat, it takes even more courage to keep stepping into possibility. Sometimes I get frustrated with myself over how scared I can be, but what I fail to realize in those moments is that I keep moving forward despite my fear. I’m learning to respect the courage I find to pursue my dreams.
  4. I am more capable than I think I am. It’s so easy for me to doubt my own abilities—to listen to the doubt of others as well as my own insecurities. I have had to learn how to respect my own limitations, as I mentioned above, but I have also had to learn that I have more to offer than I have previously learned to think I do.
  5. Lastly, grad school has been transformative in helping me learn what it feels like to be part of a healthy organization. All of the skills and knowledge I gained pale in comparison to the experience of building stable attachments with mentors, teachers, and peers within an institution that values autonomy, critical thinking, individuality, and wellness.
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Quote from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carol

Springing into the Future

I can feel the stirrings of spring. There’s that certain smell of the earth re-awakening, the energy of plants getting ready to burst forth into growth and bloom, even the mud seems to hold the promise of transitions.

I wonder if the earth feels as apprehensive and excited as I do on the cusp of my own transition of graduation.

In my last tarot reading, “The World” came up as my card moving into the future, and it feels so fitting—the end of a journey, the beginning of another, the promise of the fulfillment of having everything as it should be.

There are days when I can feel the promise of new things to come, and it fills me with joy. I want to jump into the unknown and discover what’s on the other side, certain that there is something wonderful to discover on this crazy-assed path I’ve chosen.

I wish I could just hang on to the good feelings: the hope, anticipation, joy, and confidence.

But with “The World” there also comes the fear of becoming the fool once again. I have completed a phase of my journey, and with that end comes a new beginning where I am no longer the “seasoned” student but the new professional.

I have to balance the doubt that is in that. With hope comes the possibility of failure, and I can’t entirely say I know what I’m doing. Can anyone starting on a new phase of life?

I have to balance the fear because I can’t get rid of it…but also because I shouldn’t. Those fears want to protect me. They’re meant to help me.

Yes, sometimes they also try to hold me back, convince me I’m not good enough to be a professional, I’m not experienced enough to graduate, and I’m a damn fool for thinking I can make it on my own.

I try to see the good even in those messages.

As I watch the seasons war it out, with winter dumping snow in defiance of spring, I realize I must allow the hope and fear to war within me. I must be willing to embrace each as they present, trusting that the fears are not working against the hope so much as against careless naiveté. I can trust my path even while questioning my steps.

The spring always wins in the end, and that is where its strength lies. No matter how many times a warmer week is followed by a weekend of whiteout snow and ice, the trees, the grass, the flowers—they know they will succeed.

Just as I know that somehow I will find my way to where I need to be.

 

 

The Art of Intentional Imperfection

As I’ve been getting acquainted with my creativity again, I’ve been thinking about my own perfectionism. Somewhere along the way, I picked up this silly little idea that creativity is about making art…and art needs to be perfect.

Perhaps it’s related to my own personality.

Perhaps it’s related to something in society that conveys the idea that only good art is worth our attention.

Perhaps it’s related to something I learned from my brother or parents about how to get affirmation and praise.

Perhaps it’s related to the cult, where I was taught that anything less than perfection is a sin.

Where it comes from matters less than how it’s affected my life. For almost a decade, I refused to sing in public, even for things like celebrating a birthday. I’ve shied away from playing my violin if others are around to hear, especially if I am trying to learn a new song. I’ve avoided trying out new hobbies that I am interested in for fear that I’ll be unable to do them well enough to warrant the time, money, and effort put in.

And I’ve come to this realization—perfection is the death of creativity.

An artist friend of mine once told me that if I’m freezing up in front of a canvas, I should intentionally make a mark on the canvas because it will free me from the pressure of making my painting perfect. I don’t know if that is a universal idea that beginning artists learn or if that was her version of overcoming the “blank page” syndrome, but it works!

There’s something about setting out to intentionally be imperfect that holds a special (magical) power.

When I approach music, writing, painting—basically anything that requires a modicum of creativity—with the intention to “create art,” I find myself blinded by the pressure to make good art.

Not just good art—great art! Gallery-worthy, publishing-worthy, concert-worthy art.

And it’s downright debilitating because I usually can’t hope to be that good, especially not the first time I attempt something.

However, when I set out to be intentionally imperfect, something frees up in me. Suddenly the music or writing or whatnot becomes an avenue of play…and that’s really what creativity is about.

Creativity came effortlessly to me (and most others) as a child because I had permission to have fun, make mistakes, and explore without needing to have a finished project that measured up to some standard.

My first poem consisted of rhyming nonsense words that I put together because I liked the sound and rhythm even though it didn’t “make sense.” I was thrilled with that poem even though when I showed it to others they didn’t understand.

There is a small-scale effort to glorify imperfection. The whole “it’s the flaws that make it beautiful, special, etc. etc.”

And sometimes that is very true. I have stumbled upon some happy accidents by making what seemed to be a mistake into something that added character and uniqueness to what I was creating.

But trying to rewrite imperfection as a quirky form of perfection misses the point, I think.

When I’ve been playing with my watercolors lately, there have certainly been times when I was thrilled with what came out of an unplanned action…but there have also been times when I groaned, crumpled up my painting, and started over.

And that was okay!

Because the magic of intentional imperfection is that even if it turns out to be “trash,” that’s not failure. If I’m having fun, learning more about the medium of creativity I’m using, and allowing myself to play—I’m getting exactly the “product” I need.

The Melancholy Post

I’m not sure where to begin today. I feel the urge to write, my creativity sparking in a way that it hasn’t in a while…but about what?

I have undoubtedly been dry this semester. I couldn’t even bother figuring out how long my break from writing needed to be or what a feasible schedule for posting might look like since weekly seemed so out of reach.

I’ve been struggling with how orphaned I feel lately. I knew that cutting off my parents would come with its own version of existential abandonment, but the way that is expressing itself hasn’t been in the way I expected.

I realize I long for a place to put roots down—a place to belong. I don’t want my family back, but I want to be part of something that I can truly invest in.

Graduate school has been that for me for three years. I’ve felt accepted and valued by the faculty and students. I’ve found in them an organization that truly feels like a healthy system and people who have my back.

But I’m getting ready to graduate, and I am taken aback by how painful that thought is.

I want to graduate. I want to get my degree and start my career.

But I don’t want to lose what I found there. I’ve had a glimpse of being part of something where my autonomy is respected, my mind stimulated, my safety maintained, and my whole self truly loved. To have that and then lose access to it, in some ways, is more painful than letting go of a biological family where I didn’t have that.

My school has come to feel like my family, but I know I can’t belong there forever.

I’m afraid that I won’t find it again.

There’s a wounded part of me that feels like I will always be “moving on” and never quite settling down, that I’ll always be a temporary fit but never able to quite stay where I want to and unwilling to stay in other places.

I know there are other ways of looking at my life’s trajectory, but currently the one I am feeling strongest is the series of “walking away.”

It makes me wonder if there’s ever a sense of family that can come for us “emotional orphans.” If we don’t find it with the people who raised us…can we ever really find it? Or do we just go through life feeling a perpetual outsider?

I’m beginning to crawl my way out of this dark hole. Give me a few weeks, and I’ll probably feel differently. Nevertheless, I’m coming to realize that perhaps the sense of displacement never fully goes away.

Incidentally, this song from Evita perfectly captures my current mood.

 

Reluctant Villain: A Poem

I’m not sure I’m ready to be back blogging, but I decided to share a poem I wrote recently. When the people writing the story get to cast themselves as the hero, standing with my principles doesn’t always allow me to be labeled “one of the good guys.”

Reluctant Villain

It’s not a role I relish.
All I want is to be well-liked
By everyone.
I never intend to hurt
Or offend.
But, you see,
I’m out to infect the world—
With respect
With love
With peace
With human rights for all…
And if the hero of your story
Doesn’t stand for those values,
I’m prepared to be your villain.
Somebody has to.