My therapist often reminds me during our sessions about my commitment to care and joy in my life. “What are you doing that brings you joy?” I usually think to myself, “not a damn thing, which is part of the reason why I’m here” and on the direst of days, I blink and ask: “what is joy?”
As I work to define self-care, joy and pleasure, and how I want and need it to look in my life, I fail miserably as soon as I turn it into an intellectual exercise, which occurs on more than the rarest occasions since it happens to be my dissertation topic. What is joy? What does the literature say about joy? How is joy different from self-care and what are the implications for my research on the self-care practices of Black women and gender non-conforming activists in Milwaukee?
I do not yet have satisfactory answers to these questions, but I know that as soon as I start theorizing about joy, I thrust myself into a never-ending, joyless experience. Being in my head, and not my body, serves only to further distance myself from joy, care and pleasure, a life changing truth I experienced through generative somatics. Generative somatics “integrates the body as an essential place of change, learning and transformation.” This is a sharp departure from my academic training that centers the university as the place for learning. The cultish insistence that knowledge is contained to the halls of academia is tantamount to the belief that our soul’s worth is attached to the churches we belong to, and that’s far from the truth. Our knowledge, just like our connection to spirit, happens much closer to home in our bodies.
I yearn for care that brings joy and pleasure, and pleasure that also brings about care and joy, because they are necessary for healing and sustaining our activism, no matter where that activism takes place. My activism often takes place in the classroom, my research and community. As a scholar-activist, I am all too familiar with the hamster wheel of productivity. Looming deadlines, tight budgets and dismantling that which no longer serves our progress are all common factors in the lives of many scholars and activists that I know, my life included. The absence of self-care from my own life and the lives of many Black activists I worked alongside, made the topic of self-care and wellness urgent. I wanted to ask activists how they were taking care of themselves, so that I could learn how to center care in my own life and share the good news of how we can all center care in our lives.
Before my dissertation research, I did not feel alive in my body. I would go through my day not experiencing or even thinking about care, joy and pleasure. I was probably too tired. Exhausted, I would read the words in books although I often felt too rushed to actually engage with the text. I worried about managing my meager graduate stipend where a flat tire or a desperate need for snow boots could mean an overdrawn account. It was nearly impossible to take care of my basic survival needs (paying rent and buying groceries) let alone pay for a manicure, go to the spa or indulge in any other consumerist idea of self-care.
Monetizing care, joy and pleasure is the great myth of capitalism — to the detriment of the working poor and those wanting to divest in oppressive economies.
The Black women and gender non-conforming activists I interviewed illuminated how we can all access joy, regardless of our tax brackets, and even in the midst of challenging injustices. Social justice activism serves as a critique to imperialist capitalism and offers rich possibilities by creating communities of care.
Models of Black women and gender non-conforming activists I found included interrupting outdated and unhelpful ways of putting everyone else’s needs before their own. What I found instead was a reclaiming of wellness by way of self and community care practices. Black activists’ practices of care ranged from meditating, body movement and being in community with one another. From the interviews I learned that community making, in all types of settings, is essential to our individual and collective wellness.
My journey to self-care was not traveled alone. It took place at kitchen tables over food, during walks by the lake and in challenging injustices with other activists who are also invested in healthy, liberated communities. As I continue to explore my self-care practices, I do less working at it. I say no more often to virtual meetings, committee requests and other offerings that do not bring me joy. Instead, I pause more through meditation. I get quiet so that I can get in touch with what brings me pleasure and helps me remain grounded.
Other practices have had long lasting benefits to my self-care and mental health. For instance, the summer of 2014 I sat my first Vipassana course. Vipassana is a form of meditation that allowed me to focus on my breathing and bodily sensations as a way to heal from past traumas and trespasses. A twelve-day experience, filled with silence, no music, no talking, no writing. Just meditating. I cried everyday as I imagined running through the closed gate and not stopping until I was on the other side. Fear was coming up pretty strongly for me. Then, while meditating on the sixth day, I wept uncontrollably for what felt like five minutes. One of the teachers meditated with me-I remember her breathing like me and then slowing her own breathing down. Mine soon followed, and I was able to sit with the wave of grief that had manifested in my body. I remember it feeling both ancient and like a garment I wore daily.
Years later and post-Rona, I participate in virtual Vipassana meditations which helps me feel grounded and connected to community. One year later from my first Vipassana sit, I came out as queer. Coming out, and embracing me opened the floodgates to pleasure, acceptance and unconditional self-love as a self-care practice.
The journey to self-care has been a process of trial and error, reflection and letting go of rigidity and roles that don’t support my well-being. This is an essential part of any self-care journey, making room for the lives we want to live, for the wellness that is our birthright by letting go of antiquated, narrow concepts of who we are, or should be. In this way, we get closer to our definitions of being free.