November 29, 2016

Self-Care to Conquer the Struggle

Today, we conclude our series with Jen Cross. In this final post, she dives into writing as self-care and the struggles that come with that.

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It’s late where I am, on a Sunday. Outside, the evening is quiet — no birds chirping an odd night song, no owls, no turkeys announcing their victory over our November feasts. No sirens, no voices of neighbors, no train whistles, nothing. The only sounds are the clicking of these keys under my fingers, the quiet music streaming from my laptop, and the slow, persistent tick-tick-tick of the analog clock I have sitting up on the bookshelf behind me. Oh, and there goes an airplane overhead.

What are the sounds where you are right now? If you close your eyes, take a deep breath and then pause, what can you hear?
Sometimes I have to go back to the beginning. In the aftermath of this election, this might be one of those times to go back to the beginning. To go back to where I started with writing, to go back to the page, the pencil, the play. There’s supposed to be play in there somewhere, isn’t there? To return to writing as a place of radical self care.

In the beginning, I wrote my body. I wrote from the five senses: what I saw, what I heard, what I felt, what I smelled, what I tasted. I wrote what was immediately around me. I wrote what was on my table in the cafe, what the people at the next table were saying to one another, what the room smelled like when the back door opened and a blast of winter blew in; I wrote the concrete physical details of my immediate present. 

This helped to ground me, to get me into the now, to remind me that I was not lodged in my past, no matter how often I felt that way. And then, through focusing in on these specific details, I was able to write enough to be able to drop into something deeper — I could imagine a story, or to float back to a “time before this time” (as Pat Schneider likes to say it in her writing prompts) to write from a memory, knowing always I could return to these concrete physicality's: the taste of cooling coffee on my tongue, the way my neighbors purple puffy jacket had slid off the back of her chair and was about to slide onto the floor, but she wasn’t paying any attention to it because some guy had bumped into her and it turned out to be the guy she’d been flirting with — anyone could see she liked him by the way she looked away from him and studiously ignored his presence.

That is to say, I could come back up from the details of the past into the reality of the now, could move through time on the page.

What are the smells around you right now? What’s the last thing you tasted?

Going back to the beginning means returning to writing as a place to be free, a place to explore and play, particularly when the notebook has become a site of hazard and panic, when every time I sit down to write, I think, I've got to say something Important! I have to write out the hardest story now. I have to tell a real truth. I have to get into the pain, the anger, the hurt, the confusion, the ache, the loss, the panic, the fear… and after too many days, weeks, months, years of expecting that sort of writing from myself, I get less and less inclined to sit down at the page. You might not be surprised to hear that. Instead, I want to watch something ridiculous on tv, or take my dog for a long walk through the live oak grove up the hill a ways, or make another loaf of bread. Anything but write more hurt.

The trouble is, there’s a lot of hurt to write these days: my own, my communities’, my friends’, my country’s. And so I can get to a kind of impasse.

Do you ever find yourself in a situation like this, where the thing you’ve done to take care of yourself, the practice you’ve turned to for solace and clarity starts to feel somewhat radioactive, less like a space of invitation and creativity and more like a have-to, a should, an ought? 

I dunno about you, but there’s a 12-year-old girl inside me who’s not so fond of should's and have-to's, and rolls up our words and goes home, decides to quit playing if writing can’t be play at all any more.

Radical self care is a phrase I first heard in activist communities, for those of us who have been convinced or who convinced ourselves that self care is for the weak, or is indulgent, or maybe is ok for those folks over there but we, well, we have to finish this grant proposal and then write those last three poems we said we’d send to that community chapbook and then put the finishing touches on the podcast we promised to do for our friend’s organization and then do our shift at the crisis hotline and then and then and then … when the revolution is won, then we can take a break for some self care. 

But the revolution isn’t ever won; our job isn’t even about win. Our job is to stay in the struggle, and in order to stay in the struggle, we have to take care of ourselves. We have to sustain ourselves — that sustenance, those things we do to nurture our revolutionary bodies, that’s radical self care. Sometimes we have to step away from the work and give ourselves time to play, to rest, to ease, to laugh, to sing, to dance, to create, to remember what sort of life we’re working for in the first place.

When the revolution comes, what sort of life do you want to be living? What happens if you take the time, at least once a day, even for just a few minutes a day, to live that life now? How will you work? How will you play? What if you set a timer for ten minutes and wrote—try not to think too much about what to say, try not to censor yourself or edit or make yourself write it “right,” 'cause there's no such thing here—about what that life will look like, feel like, smell like, taste like, sound like? 

Follow your words wherever they seem to want you to go. And when the timer goes off, pick up the pen, take a deep breath, and maybe do something really nice for yourself—spend a few minutes snuggling with your pup, read a favorite poem, play a favorite song, or call a good friend who you haven't talked to in ages.

Be easy with you, ok? And thank you, today and on all the days, for your good, good words.




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A widely-anthologized writer and performer, Jen Cross has written with sexual trauma survivors and other writers for nearly fifteen years. In 2003, Jen founded Writing Ourselves Whole, an organization that offers transformative writing workshops, creating spaces in which the true and complicated stories of the body can emerge. Jen’s fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in over 30 anthologies and other publications, including Nobody Passes, The Healing Art of Writing 2010, make/shift, Visible: A Femmethology (Vol. 1), and Best Sex Writing 2008. She's the co-editor of Sex Still Spoken Here (CSC Press, 2014). Jen is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at San Francisco State University. Find out more about Jen at writingourselveswhole.org.

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