Why Self-Care Really Matters

I wouldn’t call it a health kick, because I ate three and a half slices of pizza last Tuesday night. We can call it a self-care groove, the kind where I find myself on the yoga mat and sprinkling drops from a cheap bottle of lavender essential oil into a hot bath a few times a week. Novels are an especially welcome retreat. (World War II will put just about any set of travails into perspective.) It’s the work of making my little second-floor apartment, my weekends, and the hours that bookend work as supportive and replenishing as possible.

“When there is a crisis,” a friend told me Tuesday night (before the pizza), “there’s enormous potential for change.” We all know what that feels like, in whatever form it’s taken in your own life, to be rocked to your core.

Here’s what’s perverse: I love this time’s thick silver lining. A crisis can put everything into relief. What I care about, what’s important, what truly matters — those things stay. Connecting in meaningful ways. Cooking good, simple food. Taking thoughtful care of myself, my life, and the people in it. But whatever is toxic, draining, and inconsequential, I just don’t have the energy or patience for. There’s no room for it right now. Even those words don’t quite capture the black and white sense that drives my life right now. Let me try again: Life’s been edited down to my own version of the essentials. 

So what does that look like? I try a little harder to keep the house tidy so that in the evenings, when I light the taper candles in the windows and on the coffee table, there’s a real sense of calm at home, a needed foil to whatever the day has served. I say “no” to more social things, when I know what I need is to not spend $70 on a night out, but to make a big pot of grains for the week and climb into bed a little early. I wonder with one breath if my friends think I’ve gone boring, and with the next breath I just let it go. There’s no room right now for that kind of worrying. “It’s extremely clarifying,” my mom said to me one sunny morning on the phone. It was the word I’d been looking for.

There are times in my life when I’ve successfully done what’s best for me, when I’ve realized eating entire bags of Hint of Lime Tortilla Chips or reading gossip blogs until 2am wasn’t actually making me any happier. As I get older, it seems a little easier (at times!) to not be quite so self-defeating. And so I find myself struggling a little less with the question that’s long plagued me: why is it so hard to do what’s good for you? But there’s something a little deeper going on right now. The choices I’m making feel important. I think what I’m talking about is life at its most nourishing. A walk in the park on a cold afternoon isn’t just me, squinting in the sun and navigating around slicks of mud. It feels like something more, like embodying my best self, or stepping into the flow, or doing what some part deep within me, beneath the shoe choice and the hair style and stretchy jeans, wants to be doing.

Sometimes I feel like I use my blog to track my journeys as a traveler, out into the world of distractions and proving oneself, and then home again to something more meaningful. I circle back to the same ideas over and over and declare “aha!” each time. But maybe that’s just the nature of navigating through this world looking for meaning. We remember what’s important, have moments of clarity, and then over time, forget again. Tara Brach said recently that there are moments of extreme clarity in life: when a baby is born, when someone is dying, when we say our wedding vows. But there are smaller moments too, like when we are chopping vegetables for a meal with friends, or when we allow ourselves a few moments before we launch into the day to sit quietly, or when we are riding the bus and look out the window and can hardly fathom the brightness of the blue sky. We remember.

There have been quite a few moments recently when standing at the cutting board in my poorly-lit kitchen I had such a contented feeling. One of those times was a couple weeks ago, when I had Monday off and spent the morning baking a cake for old friends coming over whom we hadn’t seen in much too long. Peeling the apples, chopping them, listening to the low hum of the mixer beating eggs, oil, and sugar into a rich, sweet batter kissed with cinnamon — there was a sweet, steadying rhythm to it, not unlike how I felt on that walk in the bright and muddy park. Something inside our body knows, even before our heads do, when we’re on the right track.

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