The Art of Self-Care

TLA and Self-Care

The following article by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is a preview from The Power of Words: A Transformative Language Arts Reader, available through the TLA Network.

Nobody told me there'd be days like these Strange days indeed – most peculiar, mama. – John Lennon

When we imagine facilitating a writing and ecology workshop, consulting with a business of storytelling for a more just workplace, or coaching an at-risk teen on developing a local theater project, we probably see our work glowing with meaning, ourselves alive with purpose. Yet there are and surely will continue to those times when we’re fighting a cold, driving to our work in a car in bad need of a major repair, just hanging up the phone from a teenage son who’s freaking out over his physics exam, and worrying about whether we actually paid the electric bill. Strange days – and sometimes nights – indeed. We have stories in many traditions to illustrate the need for the sustainers to sustain themselves – such as “The Shoemaker’s Children” who go without shoes while their good father shods the whole town. Yet we still face the challenge of cobbling tog ether a living as a workshop facilitation, consultant, educator, Transformative Language artist, and in many of our lives, mediator between arguing teens, chauffer for younger children, night watch woman for older ones, dishwasher, laundress, constant student in accounting 101, and always-behind-the-season gardener. This essay is not meant in any way to suggest that there are fits-all solutions for any of us reading this, or for any one of us over the changes that life brings us, often point blank and on the afternoon you would be least prepared to deal. Instead, I offer up the notion of pondering – along with the ethical dimensions, purpose and logistics of our work – how to be students of self-care so that TLA will serve those who serve their communities. Like many of you, I sometimes find that the very things that bring me such joy and freedom, such liveliness and meaning, are also the things that keep me from joy and freedom, liveliness and meaning. As a workshop facilitator, educator, and writer, not to mention a mother of three (did I mention two are teenagers?), I’ve done phone conferences while prowling grocery aisles for the pizza sauce; facilitated a heated debate – while driving up to a hospital to lead a writing group for people with cancer – with the kids over who gets to watch his or her video; and loaded dishwashers while poetry readings, conference budgets and student melt-downs danced in my head. I’ve also journeyed through serious illnesses, some having to do with whatever mystery of the cosmos lands bad news on us with no clear reason why, some coming from the toll persistent multi-tasking can take on a gal….or a guy for that matter. Taking care of ourselves over the long haul in whatever work we do is essential to being able to lead a life where we actually have time to read the poem, write the novel, hold the kitten, walk the woods, inhabit the bath and generally feel our own pulse again – as individuals, as part of the larger world, and as people who come alive in the afterglow of language. The balance between work and play and doing nothing at all and doing all we’re passionate about is a precarious one, shifting from moment to moment. It’s a little like holding a very full glass of water while walking quickly…..up a hill…..in high winds……with a dog chasing you……a too-heavy and ill-fitting backpack…..a thunderstorm approach……and did I mention our shoes are too tight? Yet I believe that one of the most crucial things we can do for ourselves and for each other is to foster a continuous education about the art of self care. This encompasses everything from the dilemma of watching your computer screen download 59 emails at just the hour you were going to work on your own writing to that moment you’re facilitating a storytelling session for teens, and you’re panicking just a tiny bit on the inside because you’re worried that your own child is going to fail math, lose his direction for his life and blame you. It includes the feast and famine swings of being a writer, workshop facilitator, storyteller, educator, counselor, healer, and/or artist (e.g. “has the check come yet?”) as well as the quiet moments when you realize your body is trying to tell you something, and it’s time to listen. Growing into our work in balance with growing our work in the world means breathing into the inexplicable understanding of living in this body, this time, this place while also trying to book enough work to balance the check book without having to do special breathing exercises. The moment-to-moment answers of what to do (read the book, answer the phone messages, lie in the hammock or, if you’re like me, stare at the wall wasting your time wondering what to do with time) are extremely individualized and mutable. Since the answers are so individual, even for each person at any given moment, and since the answers are mostly known best by the ones asking, I wouldn’t presume to offer you any one-size-fits-all solutions. What I do offer instead are the things I tell myself – everyday – as my cup runneth over with questions and blessings while I’m thirsting for health or answers.

  • In general, treat yourself with utter tenderness, as if you are your own best beloved……until you realize you are. Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend (provided your best friend isn’t a masochist).
  • Spend some time every day, even if it’s only 15 minutes, alone. Breathe. Do whatever relaxes you (walk, sip tea, lie on the couch, stare at tree). Ask yourself how you feel, and listen carefully to whatever comes. (Key tip for people like me: buy a hammock, hang it up, lie there, and don’t bring the cell phone or a notebook along for the ride.)
  • Before facilitating a workshop or beginning a performance, take a moment to connect with your heart beat. Place your hand over your heart. Or take your own pulse. This will remind you that you’re in a body. If you’re carrying anxiety or heaviness or pain, imagine placing it in a beautifully furnished room, and tell it, “I’m going to go to work now, but I promise to come back to you, Sweetheart. Watch a favorite movie or just rest, and I’ll see you in 90 minutes.”
  • If you take a glass jar and fill it all the way up with rocks, you’ll get to the point where you can’t put in any more rocks….but you can pour in sand to the top….and then you can pour in water. Don’t treat self-care as the water you pour in at the end of the day, filling in small spaces. Instead, treat it like the rocks that go in first. This means doing the walk that refreshes you, the yoga that relaxes you, the lying under a tree that replenishes you before turning the computer on.
  • Do all you can to get a good night’s sleep. Avoid the computer screen before bed, if possible most of the evening (I struggle with this mightily!). Try aromatherapy baths or lotions, quiet music, walks, old magazines, hot cocoa – whatever helps you slow down.
  • Treat the work you’re most passionate about with enough respect to give it its own time and space, and then don’t miss your appointment with it. I strive to keep write-and-wander Wednesdays each week (where I don’t allow myself to do anything but my own writing….or wandering) because I know that if I wait until Friday to do my own writing, it won’t happen. Find what works for you, and treat it like an appointment that absolutely can’t be broken.
  • Reach out to friends and colleagues facing similar challenges. Meet for breakfast or afternoon tea or evening decaf to talk about what you’re facing and how to take loving care of yourself in the process. Perhaps you might want to form a talking circle, in which each person gets to say whatever she/he wants without anyone interrupting to try to fix what ails the speaker. The general rules for such circles are that each person gets an allotted amount of time to speak, no cross-talking is allowed, and deep listening is encouraged.
  • Tell yourself that the work-work will still be there tomorrow, and there will always be more to do tomorrow. So you couldn’t finish it all anyway! Think of your self-care as the ongoing foundation of all else you want to do in this life.
  • Speaking of this life, try to remind yourself as often as possible what’s most important to you. The more you can de-escalate the little things (the snitty email from your sister-in-law, the extra charge on your phone bill, your spouse fighting with your teenager), the more easily you can deal with those little things without causing yourself extra stress. Save your freak-outs for the freak-out-worthy whenever and however possible.
  • When facing health issues, bring TLA along to treat yourself. I once helped heal a foot wound by singing to my foot (when I was safely alone of course). Write your questions, and then write or sing your body’s reply (a great exercise is to let a part of your body tell its story). Seek out metaphors to help you reflect on yourself. Bring in the tools that help – colored pencils or gel pens, sturdy notebooks, great CDs.
  • Treat the things you do to connect with yourself with as much respect as you would official therapy sessions (including anything from psychotherapy to massage therapy). Sometimes I tell myself I’m doing hammock therapy, movie therapy, ice cream therapy, nap therapy (great way to boost the immune system by the way – and so is sex), walking therapy, friend therapy.
  • If that word “therapy” isn’t one that brings you a sense of health, don’t use it – tell yourself you have an appointment with a shamanic flick, or a well-being walk. Or say what my kids say (although they often say it sarcastically): I’m going to my happy place now.

When life becomes too stressful, first chance you get, declare it “spa day.” Isolate yourself in a room in your home or a beautiful place you can set up a blanket outside without being disturbed. Play your favorite music, take a bath with eucalyptus or lavender, prepare yourself (or buy something already prepared) healthy and delicious food, read a book you enjoy, and if possible, get a massage or pedicure or whatever is a great physical treat for you. There’s no need to travel to those high-priced spas in the Sonoran desert. Take vacations (even to the Sonoran desert if that’s what you want). Real vacations. Not ones to visit family members so stressful to be around that you have to pack extra antacid. Not ones to work or pitch your work. Even if you only have enough time and gas money to get to your own backyard, declare yourself on a vacation (and don’t bring your computer or cell phone along). Pitch a tent, sit in it with a cup of tea and good book, high quality organic chocolate within arm’s reach and lot of pillows. If anyone or anything calls you (barring real emergencies), simply say, “I’ll get to that when I get back from vacation. Wish you were here. There are inexpensive retreat centers all over the U.S., many of which are run by religious organizations. There are also camps everywhere, and off-season, they tend to be quiet, picturesque and quite affordable. Look into what’s near you, and make it a habit to regularly visit a place where you feel renewed. If money is tight, see what work-study arrangements you can make (could you do a storytelling workshop with the staff or present something on writing and social change to the board).

  • Do what you love as often as you can.
  • Live the poems, stories and songs you love.