First, a preface:
Rest. Regroup. Resist.
The morning after the election, the above words were posted on social media by my mentor from United, Cindi Beth Johnson. This was the first thought I read that morning that really spoke to the sense of grief I felt, a moment of clarity reaching into the swirl of emotions, disappointment, and fear.
2016 was a year that I learned a lot about grief and loss. In addition to the continuous stream of deaths of artists and icons of all genres, some of whom influenced my work in one way or another; I also experienced the loss of eight loved ones – family members, good friends, and respected colleagues. And my experience wasn’t that unusual, naturally I have many friends who intersected with some of these losses of mutual friends, and can add other losses from their respective circles. It was a tough year of loss, with a contentious, stressful and disturbing election and political season, police shootings of unarmed citizens, a resurgence of activism by white supremacist/white nationalist groups, atrocities by ISIS, the further destruction of Syria and Aleppo and the brutilization of #nodapl water protectors, serving as a backdrop.
During much of the last year, as I became more and more aware of my own soul-weariness, I considered writing a post on self-care, in fact I’ve written and rewritten many drafts on this issue, and I know a lot of articles started to come out about self-care. Maybe too many articles, ha ha, I can remember one friend commenting on a thread sometime around October, something to the effect of “if I hear one more person say the words ‘self-care’ …”.
And I get that feeling too, because sometimes life just sucks, and you just have to claw your way through it. The problem for most people is that if the tumult of life lasts long enough, a stoic attitude can only get you so far. And you know, I realize there may be some of you reading this post that do not agree with my take on the election, perhaps you welcome the changes to come; and if you do, God love ya, but I have to tell you, if you were hopeful that the world as it has been these last few years was going to settle down after the election and feel more ‘normal’, or less divisive, or people would just accept a return to the old status quo, you need to put your hope somewhere else, because you are going to be disappointed. The foreseeable future is going to be extremely tumultuous, people are not going to accept a future full of bigotry and misogyny, lacking compassion and kindness – and we all need to develop strategies to make it out the other side with our humanity still intact.
Developing strategies to guard against soul-weariness, to replenish the power of our agency is maybe especially important and necessary for creatives. As someone who thinks a lot about the creative process, and tries to be intentional about that process in my own life, I think it’s important to be intentional about pursuing what will replenish the creative spring within. Creatives tend to be a pretty sensitive lot. Many of us have a lot of empathy for others. Almost all of us have high antennae to feel changes in the metaphorical atmosphere. Creatives tend to have intuition about cultural shifts, and when we are tapped into that pulse we can sense where the river and its tributaries are flowing. Creatives also tend to have a large inner world with which we withdraw to process the charged atmospheres around us – as we process, we pour ourselves into our creative work. This synthesis can be rewarding, and it is extremely valuable to the larger culture around us; if we are to preserve and grow the life-giving things about our culture, if we are to suss out what is true from what is slight of hand. This synthesis is valuable but it can also be draining to tap in and absorb so much emotional and cultural electricity – we must replenish, so that we can continue.
Rest. Regroup. Resist.
To this instructive phrase, I’m adding: Repeat.
Self care, must become a part of our creative process. No more allowing ourselves to create on the edge of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion. No more sacrificing ourselves for the art, when in reality it is the work that will began to suffer. The art will never exist if we don’t create it, and it cannot be created apart from us after we have worked ourselves into personal crisis and creative paralysis. The creation of the work is too important to stop doing altogether, and so we must examine the patterns of our lives, and adjust those patterns, not for the sake of perfection, but for the sake of sustainability. We must do this for ourselves. We must do this for our communities and those who want to, and maybe need to, hear from us.
My intention is that this post will be a living document for those who know themselves to be creative folk (though others might find it helpful too). That the suggestions and strategies that are listed below will grow as new helps are discovered, as readers offer new suggestions, and as we begin to discern which ways the river is flowing over the coming years. As such this document will be focusing on the Resting, Regrouping and Repeating portions of the above formula. Some of these things may be fairly obvious, or things that many other people have lifted up as self-care, but are worth reminding ourselves about. I will be expanding some strategies in this list into separate posts, as I find the things that work for me, and I will link to those posts from this list. Also, I will begin linking to other folks who speak to these strategies, and have good things to say as well! The Resisting of course, is also very important, and as of late I am again dusting off my old thesis on non-violent creative resistance, to reconsider, do some new research, expand, and revise my thinking around all of that too, so, I’ll be sharing some thoughts on that in future. I also want to think a bit about strategies for how activists might arrange together over a long period of time for either being “on duty” or “off duty”, to make sure vigilance persists, and burn-out is avoided. In the meantime, I think it’s worth remembering that in times such as these (or in deed, any time) the act of creating, the act of proclaiming truth, the act of building-up beauty and kindness is a powerful resistance to the forces of destruction and deceit.
Strategies for Self-Care (an on-going listing, use only what’s helpful to you):
1. Limit your exposure to the things that disempower your creativity.
Examples: Toxic People, Social Media (particularly people and outlets who display troll-like behavior and spread disinformation), Disturbing New Stories (it’s important to be informed, it’s also okay to limit news consumption if it drains you creatively, and catch up every few days, when you feel psychologically ready to go to that place), Toxic Habits or Behaviors (you know what these are for you).
2. Allow yourself to sleep. When you are feeling well, allow yourself an adequate amount of sleep each night. When you are feeling ill, or depressed, allow yourself an extra two or three hours of sleep, go to bed early. If you can’t sleep, seek help with a professional.
3. Eat well. Don’t go hungry. Eat for pleasure as well as sustenance.
4. Be active every day, whether that means a guided class, team sport, going to the gym or just moving throughout your day in ways that make your body feel good – stretching, taking a walk outside, biking, hiking, dancing to music, etc. For some people they need to move/exercise to exhaustion; other people need to move for a long time, including leisure and meditation in their movement, a long walk or hike in nature for example. Learn what sort of movement works best for you and commit to it, but also try something new every once in a while to surprise and wake up your body a little bit!
5. Yoga. I feel best physically when I am following my yoga practice. Or maybe running, I am not a runner, but my friends who are runners seem to have a physical-spiritual experience with it, in the way I do with yoga.
6. Make a practice of building other artists/creatives up. Be supportive, seek others out for the sole purpose of supporting their work. If you can’t say something nice…
7. Doodle. Doodle a lot. Make it a meditation (especially if you are a visual artist of some kind) and keep a journal. This isn’t about drawing “well”. Do this when you are watching TV, listening to music, waiting for a meeting, sitting in a coffee shop or just relaxing.
8. In addition to doodling, find and develop a variety of other meditative creative practices – examples that have been helpful for me: knitting, sewing, playing an instrument, singing (alone or in a group), dancing, working with clay, baking, cooking, beer making/brewing, canning, gardening, coloring, etc.
9. Read Fiction.
10. If you are taking a break from News, consider reading non-fiction in an area that you have fear or concern about – go deeper and thoughtfully into the issue that gives you fear.
11. Volunteer or become involved in advocacy over the issue that is depressing or unsettling you – for a starting point google “Organizations advocating on behalf of ‘issue’ ”.
12. Meditate. For me this is different than prayer, as it is not necessarily a petition, although prayer and other religious activities may be helpful to you in your creative life as well. I have been helped by Zen meditation(sitting meditation, walking meditation, loving-kindness meditation to name a few), meditation with prayer beads (repeating a simple mantra or affirmative statement), breathing meditations, and labyrinth walking.
13. Develop Ritual practices that ground you. This could be through a religious/spiritual/philosophical observance – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Humanism, Neo-Paganism, etc., or it could be some other act, that you repeat that brings meaning and grounding to your life. For instance, my friend Leslie, once described her practice of finding and walking through forests with old trees. She said those places were her “cathedrals”.
14. Practice thankfulness for simple things, joys, and accomplishments. Keep a daily or weekly list of these things.
15. When ready, reframe derailing moments of trauma in your life that can be reframed, as moments of opportunity. This doesn’t mean that you deny the hurt or difficulty behind the trauma, rather you develop a framework in which to think about the trauma that allows you to move on/ avoid emotional paralysis. You may need to seek out a therapy professional to aid in this process! A great example of this can be found in this episode of On Being, in which Kevin Kling speaks to “turn[ing] loss into story.”
16. Spend time in Nature, daily if possible.
17. If you are feeling blocked, make sure you take care of your needs – sleeping, eating, moving, then began to explore ways to unblock. For example, set aside 30 minutes, an hour or whatever to work. Just paint, write, draw, whatever, with NO JUDGMENTS of your work, and no expectations of outcomes.
18. If you are not feeling blocked, but rather feeling a lot of creative energy, start to keep track of your creative time in 30 minute increments, each day. You can either do this in planning the day to come, or reflecting on the day you just had, whatever makes sense to you. This can help you learn to manage your time, and accomplish the goals you have set for your work more effectively. You can also do this for your whole day to see, where you are spending time in ways that are not helpful to your process, track whether you are spending enough time in taking care of need – sleeping, eating, moving. This is a strategy I learned years ago, in a class for time management through Springboard for the Arts.
19. Set your “9 to 5 work schedule” for creating your work and stick to it as much as possible, so you have time off, like in any other job, to be idle, putz around and avoid burnout. This might not actually be 9 to 5 – maybe it’s 7 to 9 in the evening or 2-4pm, or 5 to 7am – whatever works for your life schedule/family responsibilities/other jobs.
20. Similar to #17, take vacations from your work. After the completion of every major project, give yourself time away from the work to replenish your creative well.
21. Make time for community and face to face interaction, don’t isolate yourself – especially if you have introverted tendencies (as I do). But again, make sure your community is building you up, and that you are building them up too – that exchange will help to fill that creative well.
22. When you feel a strong and derailing emotion – positive or negative, take a moment to observe it. Reflect on why you are feeling that emotion – what’s really causing the emotion underneath the surface. This can become another habit for meditation.
23. If meditation or observation are not helping to dispel derailing emotions – find a way every once in awhile to “rage” safely. Letting out pent up anger, frustration, sadness, fear, can be cathartic, but channel it in a way that is safe for you and others around you. Build something out of wood and hammer the hell out of those nails. Put on safety goggles and smash tiles for a mosaic. Then make the mosaic. Weave a rag rug and make really good use of the beater bar on the loom. Throw clay on the wheel and collapse and rebuild your vessel again and again until you are physically exhausted. You get the idea.
24. Develop a strategy for how you interact on Social Media. How often do you interact with it during the day? Who do you share what information with (curating Friend lists and setting privacy metrics on Facebook, for instance, can save you some grief)? How do you want to respond to confrontational or negative comments directed to you on a thread, so as to not invest your creative energy in places that it does not benefit your work?
25. If you find yourself worrying a lot about a specific social issue, or multiple issues, this will eventually begin to drain your creativity. Channel that worry into advocacy for the issues most meaningful to you. Find a nonprofit organization or group of people locally who are working to address that issue and become involved in the work they are doing – or if the group you are looking for doesn’t exist, start your own group. Coming together with like minded people who are taking concrete steps to address the things that are worrying you, will empower your creativity, and remind you that you, and the community around you, possess agency.
26. Create work to please yourself. Not to please strangers or your spouse or friends or family or that unkind professor from art school who never appreciated you (but I’m totally over that, of course! heh heh).
27. If you feel stuck, consider speaking with a licensed therapist.
28. Be as kind, to as many people, as much as you can. Kindness is a practice you hone. Especially try to be kind to people who have less social power than you.
28. Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others. If everything goes to hell, start over tomorrow.