g a t h e r i n g s

You Asked For It: Self-Care

I have to admit that for years (and years), money was sort of an abstraction to me. I separated it from the rest of my life, had to pay bills, or count my change, but it remained outside of myself, related to nothing but some transaction not set up by me but by which I had to live. When I was doing well financially, it was magical. When I wasn’t, it was bad luck, or bad something else.

Still, hate it or love it, money is our mainstream currency. It is our system of exchange. Politics aside. Economic theory aside. These fields are important, but I am focusing here on what is closer to home. Being in fair exchange with the world – the parts of it with which I choose to engage and those with which by law or ethics I must – is central to my efforts.

To have a home that allows rest and creativity. To have food that allows continuance. To provide children with what they need. To be able to pursue health, attention to mind and body, art, education, social gathering. To be able to give time or skills or funds to family, friends or others in need. In these ways, and a thousand others, money is not abstract. The common exchange with the common world.

There are images that I have held of my family that I am now getting to know in my conscious awareness. For years they lived only in my subconscious geography, so that I was in a deep conversation with the unknown from an unknowing place. Gambling, destitution, institutionalization, alcoholism, loneliness, desperation. These images and the difficult spheres that hold them are known to everyone. They are not particular to me; they do not make me special – just human in the company of humans.

Perhaps we were told, overtly or in a whisper, that we were not enough or that we were too much; that we had to be perfect; not make a sound; parent the parents; compensate for; be big; be small … Such terrible messages get to us in a way that their poison stays in the bloodstream. But as clear as they were, these messages were not meant for us; they are blind lashings out at a world deemed unfair and unjust. They reflect powerlessness. Still, we carry them, fully human in the company of humans.

And there are other messages, driven by deep community events – war, oppression, slavery – that come to us through the filter of trauma. We must. We cannot. Survival is enough. The world is dangerous. We must hide, fight, mourn forever.

As adults, there are two major obstacles to self-care, to making the money that self-care requires: a sense of unworthiness and an assumption of incompetence. I do not deserve. I am not able. These felt senses often prevent us from taking the necessary precautions or proactive steps. We may avoid the signs and alerts that tell us that we must attend to things. In hidden coercion with those images or secret acceptance of those messages, as adults we feel that all we can do is wait for the life raft; we do not know how to save ourselves or we are not deserving of salvation. Even when the life raft arrives, we may not know to get in. And if we do, we have only gained a little more time before the next crisis that challenges a too-small sense of self.

So, the original material, the information that is fueling present “decisions” – sometimes unbeknownst to the intellect – has to be seen in an expanded context. This is a step before other steps. I can begin to update the narrative to account for my own self within it; all of those images and messages to which I was exposed so early. I will tell the other part of every story that forms the backdrop: the part that begins with, “I was born.” The core sentence against which everything else pales. The more difficult the background, the more impressive the triumph. Life comes through. If you close your eyes and say it, the essential part of the narrative, on the exhale – I was born – you can feel the space and possibility.

Despite and because and with all of the challenges, a new life emerged and it was me; I am still a new life (no matter how old I become) and an aspect of natural unfolding is to take care of that life. Permitted, indeed compelled, to move beyond the narrow images of suffering and vulnerability, self-care is key to care for all else. This is the more fertile field wherein I receive and I contribute. This is the flow I am looking for.

On a daily basis, I am careful with this still-burgeoning movement of self-care. Alert to the old, narrow words, I try to stay out of the claustrophobic dyads wherein I simply replicate those images, putting myself into situations where I simply live them another time. When I wind up there once again (the draw of the past is powerful), I am careful not to build a philosophy around it: Why are you so mean? Unfair? Unjust? Why don’t I have? I hate, I am better than, I am nothing. The taste of these words is bitter, they give off a stench. Instead, I allow compassion to rise up: Oh gosh, I did that again. Soft breath and recognition. Okay. How best to move out, back to the open field?

As I pay my rent, I am grateful. As I put food to my lips, I am grateful. As someone responds to my being, I am grateful. As I open my eyes to another morning, I am grateful. From there, I see what I must do next, awake and connected. These gratitudes, wherever we can locate them, help us fill in, become more grounded, be more visible. They allow us to take new action, rather than to fall back to sleep, adding mortar to the internalized feelings of unworthiness and ineptitude.

Anger, resentment, dependence -- I know them in myself, in my history, but I must let them pale in comparison, I must allow life its full measure inside of me. It is the only path toward well-being. I can close my eyes and say it, the essential part of the narrative, on the exhale – I was born – I can feel the space and possibility. Preparation for the new.

Whatever the discomfort or the not enough that exists in this moment (different for each of us), we simultaneously forge a parallel path, one that can become wide because we take good care in the meantime, with both reality and dreams in view. Not putting vision on hold, but rather traveling step by step, steady forward, because when we leap, we tend to fall back further. Letting the vision be serious, truthful, generative so that the impulses toward less – the hollow rewards of immediacy – have little weight. Staying anchored in the present so that others might join us and together we can move as equals, neither resting too heavily nor withholding love, toward more life.

And, yes, there are those of us who are confronted with utter poverty, a force in our community, in our environment right now. The glimmer of hope may seem too dim to light the way. It may be so. The violence of disparity is undeniable. It would be naïve, even worse, for anyone to think otherwise. If we all do a little better, will we all do a little better? If I am able to extend my well-being, will the world benefit in ways that I cannot know in this moment?