I knew I was in trouble when a gentle question floated by another activist cracked the thin shell of tension holding me together, and I burst into manic laughter. The question was: What are you doing for self-care?
What? Who has time? Dial that phone! Make another banner to hoist at another rally! Sign that petition! Somehow, keep your work life afloat and remember to do a load of laundry and get some groceries in the house. Self-care? We don’t need no stinkin’ self-care! But: I am starting to see the wisdom of the concept … because it turns out you really cannot sustain yourself in a heightened state of activist frenzy without crashing.
So, I’m finding inspiration in Emma Goldman, the early 20th century anarchist feminist who famously proclaimed, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” Even while protesting, she wore fabulously fashionable hats. (Google her mugshots and you can enjoy her sartorial sass.) She knew — as did her compatriots — that activists need to fuel their work by occasionally rolling up the rug to cut loose, preferably with a beer in hand. As the song goes, “Give us bread, but give us roses, too.”
I got an unexpected crash course on self-care on Inauguration night. I had been feeling crushed by … everything — by the surreal images of the DC inauguration, and by the myriad details of a community event that day. I was part of a committee putting on a “People’s Inaugural Ball” that night at the Civil Rights Heritage Center— which seemed like a good idea a few weeks earlier. But by late afternoon on January 20, I just wanted to go full fetal position, preferably under a muffling quilt. I grimly soldiered on, not feeling the decorations I’d borrowed from the Queer Straight Alliance on my campus — rainbow disco lights, confetti, and sparkly table-toppers I’d grabbed on a grumpy last-minute run to the party store. I wasn’t sure anyone would even come. It was cold, already very dark, and our event space felt hollow.
But then: right at go-time, a clutch of moms and dads, eager for a family-friendly distraction, showed up with a mob of wired little kids who couldn’t tear off their jackets fast enough as they skidded onto the dance floor. Our DJ started rockin’ the house, and toddlers and grade-schoolers began wiggling and jumping — all electric silliness, and with such abandon the adults couldn’t resist joining in. Something crackled up inside me, too, and I peeled off my suit jacket and just tried to keep up, laughing and out of breath as the kids shouted to the music: “Watch me whip! Now watch me nae-nae!” Women from the local mosque joined the crowd and by then the room was jammed as the “Electric Slide” started playing and I began spinning, soaking in the crazy mix of those who knew the moves and those of us just stomping and cha-cha-ing and clapping, sloshing around in the sea of people — all ages and colors, a swirl of beads and hijabs and light-up shoes and sweat and laughter.
I’m still finding mirrored confetti from that night that I’ve tracked into my campus office. Those tiny, out-of-place sparkles remind me of ideas in The Pillow Book, written by the Japanese court lady, Shônagon, over a thousand years ago. In it, she enumerates mundane but shimmering examples of “Things that Delight.” Now, on days without dancing, I still try to stretch toward delight. I push myself into simple yoga positions — a big breath, and then I riiiiise into downward dog — and then I recite a mantra of the heirloom seeds I’ll be planting just the month after next: paper seed packets of Aunt Gertie’s gold tomatoes; moon and stars watermelon; burpless muncher cucumbers; mammoth melting snow peas; purple plum radishes; peppermint stick zinnias, prosperosa eggplants, and on and on. I think of a sign painted on cardboard from a recent protest: “They tried to bury us, but then they discovered we are seeds.”
It’s self-care, I think, just to remember the world is still full of beautiful things, and we are planting them, and they will grow.