What Does Self-Care Really Mean?

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I’m glad that Self-Care is finally a “thing.”  I’m glad that when we hear that phrase now, it’s not considered selfish so much as it is believed to be self-preservational.  But I hail from the former way of thinking and it’s taken me a lot to arrive at the latter.  I think I’m officially…finally…sorta-kinda-maybe-please-God…there.

But first…let’s dip back into the 1960s.  And 70s.  And 80s.  People didn’t “work out” when I was growing up.  Handsome men had bodies like Rock Hudson and Cary Grant—with soft middles and borderline man-boobs, skinny legs and gentlemen bi-ceps.  Women had “love handle” hips, and god-forbid muscle mass.  Hell, Marilyn Monroe was a size 14.  Super models were a size 6.  I was a size 6 and people told me I was too skinny.  When I became a size 8, people told me I was “just right.”  No one belonged to a gym.  The only mainstream Yoga was with Lillian on PBS– strictly spiritual, not for sculpting an attract-a-Hedge-fund-manager ass.  Frozen yoghurt was a sexy craze, especially with carob chips on top.  Woo-woo!  Health food was for Hippies.  Milk came from cows, and you were supposed to drink a lot of it.  Plenty of the population smoked and boozed and not a lot of people felt guilty about it.  When Jane Fonda hit the scene in make-it-burn leg warmers and striped leotards, we all were a bit confused.  When Richard Simmons introduced this thing called jogging, my grandmother said, “how unattractive, jiggling yourself all over the road like that.”  She and her Marshall Fields girdle.  She was also known to say, “Why stand when you can sit, and why sit when you can lie down” and made a mean southern fried chicken.  She lived to be 98.

I’m not saying that these were better times.  I’m just saying…that people had a very different relationship with their bodies then…compared to now.  Some people joined the fitness craze.  I didn’t.  I was lucky.  My body was just naturally healthy and fit.  Fit enough, anyway, so that I didn’t think too much about it.  As I moved into the “real world” from college, I walked and rode my bike as much as I could, but more because I didn’t have a car.  I ate healthy food, because healthy food was everywhere.  I lived in Seattle, after all.  Organic food was the norm.  Farm to table was the standard.  Foraging was a good afternoon in the forest with friends.IMG_4873

My mid-western father would scoff:  “Why do you have to go and spend all that money on fancy food.”

“Because when you were young, all food was organic, Dad!  They weren’t poisoning it!”

He never bought it.  He ate the same old same old.  He walked the Chicago Loop every day to work.  Played a little tennis.  A little golf.  Raked a lot of leaves.  He lived to be 86.  Worked happily until he died.  Healthy to his final good-byes.

“You come from good farm stock,” he’d always say.  And I believed him.  All the way through my 30s.

But little by little, as I moved into my late 30s, I started to feel like I was missing out on this fitness craze.  My friends’ bodies were looking sculpted and better in bathing suits, (bikinis, mind you)…than we all did in our 20s!  They were, in their words, “Getting after it.”

I wasn’t sure what the “it” was, but I figured I’d better give it a whirl.  My body hadn’t really recovered from having two children, and I hadn’t worn a pair of jeans, never mind a bikini, in years.  And in my subconscious I knew…(I just didn’t want to admit)…that I had honored my mind all my life.  My writing was the outward sign of that.  In it all…there was always writing.  Writing doesn’t make your ass look great in jeans, but it feeds the soul.  Writing has always been the constant, all my life.  I still hold:  that writing should be up there with diet and exercise in the realm of preventative wellness.  Key word:  exercise.IMG_4873

Exercise meant moving my body.  I knew how to move my mind.  My body was secondary and always had been.  I knew that it was supposed to be my temple, but I didn’t need it to be a fancy one.  I’d watched plenty of women attempt that.  It had always seemed so frivolous.  Like such a vacuous pursuit.  The columns of my temple had seemed well-enough fortified to hold up more important affairs—that of the mind and soul and spirit.

But now it seemed like those columns were starting to become a little bit shaky.  (Side note:  No one was calling this “it” Self-Care.  Yet.)  And it occurred to me that without my body…my mind wasn’t worth much.

So I went after this version of “it.”  Hard.  I joined the gym, got a personal trainer, and worked out every day, rode horses three times a week, got a nutritionist, and heck, while I was at it…a therapist to see how to connect my mind to my body once and for all.

Those happened to be days when there was some money in the bank, but even still, I felt guilty and self-indulgent.  What was I trying to prove to myself, anyway?  That I was strong?  That I had willpower?  That I could be skinny and fit like the rest of the women out there who seemed to agelessly fit into designer jeans?  I was never that woman to begin with.  I had energy.  I felt healthy.  But this pursuit did not make me feel happy.  I started to dread the gym.  All those people going nowhere fast on all those machines.  And here we lived in Montana!  What was wrong with taking a good old-fashioned walk?

Then one day, I walked into the gym and this woman came out of the yoga room with a towel over her shoulder.  “You just missed yoga,” she said like the worst mean girl in high school.  Was this some sort of competition?  Were people trying to win some sort of medal?  It brought up all of my early childhood I’m bad at sports S***.  And I turned around and didn’t come back.  Aggressive gym people weren’t my peeps.  Especially aggressive yoga gym people.  I stuck to my horse.  And walks in the woods.IMG_4873

But I’m a writer.  I sit for a living.  My back was a mess.  My stomach was slack like it had never been before in my life.  And then I fell off my horse (but at least it’s a helluva good story—other day, other blog post) and spent three months in bed.  I felt weak.  And frustrated.  I was in my mid-40s then, and my body was changing.  Fast.

And then the damn steps thing had to come out.  And suddenly everyone was bragging about how many frigging steps they took.  At my kids’ soccer games.  At the grocery store.  So then it wasn’t enough to lift some weights in my living room and get my heart rate up on my treadmill or up the ridge for half an hour.  Now I had to have 10,000 steps a day if I wanted to live to see my grandchildren.  Oh, and p.s. suddenly milk came from nuts.  So coffee could never taste good again.  And you couldn’t eat a good loaf of bread.  And butter was absolutely positively out.  And so basically, I couldn’t eat anything except for avocados.  And almond butter.  And bananas.  But only before noon.  And freaking kale.  And brussel sprouts.  And BEETS.  Couldn’t a girl get a good steak in this world of “getting after it?”  I was depressed.  I’m sure of it.  My temple, including my mind, was crumbling.

So…I just gave up.  On the whole thing.  Ate as much butter and toast as I damn well pleased.  Felt guilty about each bite.  Turned my treadmill into a clothes rack.  Felt guilty about it.  Took walks when I wanted to.  And felt guilty when I didn’t.  Basically I guilted myself into a place of not eating.  And not moving.  Just sitting and writing.  And that doesn’t work either.  Menopause really doesn’t like not eating and not moving.  So suddenly…no clothes fit.  And I noticed one day that I was starting to get that thing under my chin that my grandmother had.  The one who said, “Why stand when you can sit and why sit when you can lie down.”  I’d blown my thyroid.  And my blood pressure, in my doctor’s words, “sucked.”  I was moving rapidly into my 50s.  My face, and a lot of my skin, had fallen.  And it couldn’t get up.

Things needed to change.  Really change.  I needed to rip up my relationship with my body and my mind…and start all over again.  I needed to ease out of all of this mania.  Find a new way.  A way that would work for me.  Because I realized that somehow, after everything I had tried…I was still separating my mind from my body.  I wasn’t caring for my whole self.IMG_4873

And then this thing called Self-Care came along.  People were talking about it and it didn’t have anything to do with a gym.  Or kale.  It had to do with something that met me in a place I had been longing for all my life.  A place that I only knew on the page with a pen in my hand, or tapping a keyboard.  I wanted to learn just what Self-Care really meant.  Not as an action verb.  But as a way of being.

So I hired a therapist.  Again.  Fifteen years later.  Maybe this one would help me in a new way.  In a way that would feed my soul.  A way that would be about my whole self.

One day, in her bright little office by the river, she gave me a little frame with the word:  gentleness in it.  “Keep it for as long as you need it,” she said.

“What am I supposed to do with it?  Anything specific?”

She smiled.  “Just…whatever you want.”

So I put it on my bedside table.  I’m in my bed a lot.  My office has become overrun with too many stacks of too much grown-up left brain stuff.  My bed is soft and safe and holds my muse well, especially in these weeks before my house empties, my son goes to college, and it’s just me.

At first I wasn’t so sure about it.  I have plenty on my bedside table already.  Stacks of books of poetry and spiritual texts, fiction, and non-fiction.  Essential oils and candles and journals and so many really good pens.IMG_4873

And now this little frame.  Gentleness.  In lower case loopy script.  I figured it would get lost in the shuffle.

Instead…my eyes caught on it over and over.  Probably five-ten times before I even finished my morning writing.  Probably another ten times during the second cup of tea.  Again later folding laundry.  Talking to my daughter, away in California on her first post-collegiate job.  I miss her like crazy.

Gentleness.

Talking to my son, as he comes in with baseball news and plans for the night and the ever-present-request of gas money.  He drives the old Suburban after all and there’s no way to work when you’re playing Legion ball.  Still.  I am not made of money.  But man, am I going to miss that kid.

Gentleness.

Each time my eyes meet this little word in this little frame, I realize that my shoulders are tight.  My jaw is clenched.  And it does something to me.  I take in a breath and sigh.  Loosen whatever is tight.  It feels so nice.  So…gentle.IMG_4873

Gentleness.

My mother is moving.  She wants to know if I want my father’s WWII Army blanket and duffle bag.  If I want her old record player.  If I’m going to show up at my son’s Parent’s Weekend in Minnesota, even though I lead a retreat a week prior, and a week after.  And if she can come.

Gentleness.

And I’ve realized…that I have lived so much of my life bracing against it all.  I don’t have to.  Anymore.  Gentleness can be the most powerful way I have ever lived.

In the last few weeks with this new little frame as my companion, I’ve learned to be gentle about the way I care for myself.  It doesn’t come easily to me.  At all.  Taking care of others comes easily to me.  Taking care of myself…that still feels like a tall order.  But being gentle with myself?  I can do that.  In little moments.  Baby steps.  And I know…babies fall hard.  But they get up.  I was that baby once.  We all were.

I’ve found that the first place to start is with this gentleness.  To give myself permission to find my way to Self-Care, and not judge myself if it looks very different from how others might approach theirs.  Like you’ll probably never find me in a gym.  Or in an ISO floating tank.  Or running a marathon.  Or counting my steps with a watch on my wrist.

On a good week it looks like this:  riding horses.  Doing daily yoga in my living room.  And writing.

On a normal week it looks more like this:  taking walks.  Doing a few yoga poses here and there.  And writing.IMG_4873

I try to be kind to myself.  To go slowly.  To realize that to sit and be and notice and stop the madness of this cyber “cult of the personality” * which has become our civilization…is a powerful way of caring for ourselves.  We don’t have to be in constant motion.

Maybe I’ll be soft around the belly.  Maybe my heart rate won’t be monitored by a machine.  I’ll know it’s working by the way it carries me up the ridge behind my house.  I’ll know I’ve honored my body when I wake up the next day and feel that I moved it well.  I’ll know by the look in my eyes:  that my grandmother was right that carrots make them bright.  I’ll eat my carrots.  But not because I’m supposed to.  But because I delight in how they give themselves to me so that I can keep on going.

Gentleness.

There is a prayer that I use, not just for food, but for all that I do for my body and soul.  May it help you feel gentleness and gratitude.

This food is a gift from the whole universe.

The earth, the sky, and much hard work.

May we be mindful of our deeds as we receive this food.

May it transfer hatred, anger, and greed.

May it prevent illness and keep us well.

In gratitude, we receive this nourishment, that we may seek the path of love, compassion, and wisdom.

(A variation on the prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh)

Gentleness then, to us all.

Love,

Laura

* Braided Creek

For information about the February Haven Wander:  Morocco, click here!

For more information about Haven Writing Retreats, Montana click here!  We have few spots available for the 2018 fall schedule! 

To arrange for a phone call with the Haven team, email:  Laura@lauramunson.com

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10 Comments

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10 Responses to What Does Self-Care Really Mean?

  1. Kathy

    Thank you Laura. You’ve put into words much of what I have struggled with, Changing life, body, home and career. Yearning to connect with that place of peace within the words I nourish myself with are “Be gentle with yourself.” May you do the same.

  2. Jennifer Revill

    Thank you so much for this, Laura. I have a hard time being gentle with myself. And, like you, exercising my mind comes before exercising my body. I was told once by a consignment store clerk that I have a “vintage body”, and I was delighted by that. I too would rather hike on a beach or a swamp trail, thinking about what I need to write and read next, rather than pursue the perfect ass in the gym.
    Let us not feel stressed and guilty about pursuing the things that Nature, and our nature, desperately needs us to.

  3. Katherine Cox Stevenson

    LOVE this Laura! I read it three times as it so richly puts into words many of my experiences. I heard myself saying, “Yup” a few times. :-) My word is “compassion” and I have a stone with that written on it at my writing desk. I am adding gentleness to my inner dialogue about the decisions I have made, and continue to make, to get off the so called treadmill of life in terms of others telling me what is best for my health. Thank you Laura for consistently sharing your beautiful writing with us. <3

  4. Joy Staker

    This was so well written, so hilarious and so needed by me right now in my life! Thank you for sharing your thoughts which remarkably resemble my thoughts on this crazy subject.

  5. Well done, Laura. You cover a lot of territory in this beautifully honest piece. I continue to be a fan of your writing, which I first came across when I was editing a little magazine called Pilgrimage in the first decade of this new century. Although I am no longer a word wrangler there, the magazine lives on (www.pilgrimagepress.org) and might be of interest to folks in your writing workshops. In any event, thanks for your good words. Cheers, Pete

  6. Lisa Triche

    Bravo! As I find myself in the midst of another tragedy in my life, I have closed off my soul and allowed my mind and body to become obsessed with pain—that personal pain that feels like Life is something to be fixed in order for me to survive. My therapist and my dear spiritual friend and mentor recently told me, “Take care of yourself.” My reply was “What does that mean?” I thought I’d known and I did. Get back to my writing a poem for the day, my daily check-in with myself in my journal, write my book, and realize that all experiences change if I welcome them to change me. All is well and Life is not after me. I need not fix this nurturing flow. It doesn’t need me. I need it—as is. Thank you Laura for reminding me.

  7. jill Davis

    Der Laura,

    I enjoy your sharing about your struggles and journeyings. Do you ever look at the picture of Mehera I gave you? She was the lodestar of gentleness and strength and beauty. I wonder—and think she would be really pleased with your honesty and how you continue to lead women towards more self trueness.

    Your distant cousin,

    Jill

  8. Abbe

    This is so lovely and so perfect, Laura. I cried when I read it. I think we understand one another coming from such similar worlds. Gentleness is NOT part of my vocabulary when it comes to myself. I’m a chronic do-er. I’m always “getting after it” – as you well know. I get shit done. I am great advising others to seek balance and gentleness in their own lives. Not so good myself, of course. We are always teaching what we need to learn…right? I am going to tuck this article away in my mind as I head to the Camino in September. I plan to think about how I can be more gentle with myself…and remind myself that it’s possible to not have to push and claw through to world in order to get where I want to be. Thanks for doing such a wonderful job of articulating how many women feel! ❤️❤️

  9. Jeane

    This was just perfect! Thank you! I am in much thof same spot in life, having just moved my younger child into his college dorm. And I’m 50, and occasionally feeling it. I have yet to learn to be gentle with myself but what you’ve shared makes me feel it’s possible. So again, I thank you.

  10. Thank you— just beautiful to hear your voice! The repetitions of the framed picture, so poignant. I really appreciate being invited into your life in the way this piece of writing did did.

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