On Self Care and the West Coast Port Shutdown

“Here’s where I’ve come to,” I explained to Paul Kivel (my activist mentor), “In the realm of Self Care.” Paul and I were checking in over the phone. I’d been going non stop from meeting with Jewish Youth for Community Action (JYCA), to board meeting, to music rehearsal, to Occupy assembly to Occupy protest… and so Paul had started encouraging me to sit down and do some reflecting on this illusive topic: Self Care. Two words that have haunted me for years (though “haunted” seems a little dramatic).

When I hear those two words I picture: wealthy women dipping manicured hands into luscious coconut cream and paraffin wax, cucumbers over their eyes, an unnamed person rubbing their feet, as a small breath escapes their lips forming a frozen comic book bubble above them reading: “I just needed a little Self Care.

I also picture activists who needed Self Care, who went inward, and then never seemed to return to the movement.

Capitalism tells me Self Care is going shopping, is getting drunk or hooking up with someone, is eating to the point of discomfort, is watching TV ‘til my brain feels like birdfeed and burnt out firecrackers… all because I needed to “let loose” and “have a little fun.” All because I just needed a little Self Care. When I look at it this way, I can’t tell how coconut cream, going inward and birdfeed equals the collapse of capitalism. Sounds more like collusion. Sounds like systems of oppression running just fine. I’m trying to bring this shit down, not fuel it.

The day before my phone check-in with Paul, the Occupy Oakland camp was raided for a second time, and there was a 4am call for support. I thought: I should go. Then I thought: I’m exhausted, I’ve been worried about getting sick and I have lots of work. I’m staying in bed. So I slept. It was later that morning when I finally took Paul’s advice and sat down to do some writing before giving him a call. I wrote, “I guess I made the Self Care choice by continuing to sleep…. But it seems like the Self Care choice for everyone should have been to stay home. How was 4am healthful for anyone? And so does the movement depend on some people not following Self Care practices? And then why should I be one of the people who gets to take care of myself if not everyone can? And how does Self Care make sense for a movement, when it depends on some people not actually paying attention to it?” I wrote and wrote, but could not arrive at an answer.

“Here’s where I’ve come to- in the realm of Self Care,” I told Paul on the phone.

“You have to see it as over a lifetime,” Paul said, “It’s not just one 4am protest, or one meeting, or one action. It’s the whole movement over a whole lifetime.”

We talked about the ebbs and flows of a movement, the ebbs and flows of our lives, and what each of us has to give. For some, being a parent is the top priority during a time period, and parenting in and of itself can build towards justice for future generations. And when their child grows up, the parent can refocus their energies to contributing in new ways. For others, creating posters for events and email blasting all of their friends is more healthful than actually going themselves. Self Care, Paul reminded me, isn’t just a bath and tea candles. Sometimes Self Care is actually showing up. For some, getting to support Occupy Oakland at 4am was completely thrilling. It gave them energy and passion. And maybe they even had time later to go home for a nap. For those folks, showing up was Self Care. When each of us thinks about our goals, passions, capabilities and roles, we get to show up at these Self Care times.

“Besides,” Paul reminded me, “The day before the raid, you were at Occupy Oakland supporting youth to lead an Adultism and Youth Empowerment workshop. Youth Empowerment is one of your main roles in the movement. That is what you are showing up for.”

And for me, youth work is energy-giving.

This past Monday was the West Coast Port Shutdown to show solidarity with workers’ rights and against the corporate greed that drives this hyper-capitalist system. There were two picket shifts: 5:30 am and 5pm. JYCA youth planned to have an evening contingent.

I spent a while thinking about that 5:30am shift. If one of my main roles is youth empowerment, then it was important that I be awake and energetic enough to bring JYCA in the evening. But as I thought, I kept feeling drawn to the 5:30am shift, to the idea of seeing the sunrise over the Oakland port picket line. And, I realized, I would have time to take a nap before 5pm. Could it be, in this case, that showing up at dawn actually was Self Care?

The night before the port shutdown I laid out my clothes. I set my alarm for 4:40am. I packed oatmeal in a Tupperware. In the morning I headed out towards BART, noticing how empty streets feel like an extension of my bedroom: my bed, my closet, my carpet, my front door, the cement broken by tree roots, the storefronts and their “closed” signs, the dirty white of the crosswalk, the ticket gates, the BART train… I arrived in West Oakland and found a friend with a nuzzle-able cheek. I clenched her hand and we started marching. Other faces, familiar from the past few months of occupying, early-morning fuzzed around me. Knowing smiles were shared as we groggily chanted: “We! Are! The 99%!” And the sun began to spill out over our picket line.

Later that morning, I did get my nap. As my toes thawed out under a blanket I started to dream. There I was, back at the port. The sun-spill even more golden than in real life. Our picket line circled and we chanted loudly: “We! Are! Fully Alive! We! Are! Fully Alive!”

Update 10/15/12 Just read this blog post by B Loewe at Organizing Upgrade that I think gets at some of the systemic issues involved with the feelings I was grappling with. Loewe’s point is a good one- if what we’re striving for in justice is a sense of community and connectedness, why would “self care” be the goal, instead of “community care?” But many, including  Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha at brown star girl, have accurately pointed out how this rhetoric privileges able-bodied people. What do you think?