The Healing Power of Community

Every year, I struggle when the days get shorter, grayer, and colder.

I feel the sadness and inertia creep over me around the middle of November, and I grapple with it well into March or April. Never, though, has it been as intense as it’s been since moving to Minnesota (or Minnesnowta, as I like to call it).

In addition to the simple weight of the season, I’ve also been wrestling with some personal hurt and trauma, as well as the hurt and trauma of some people I love so very much.

As a result, even getting out of bed has been a struggle lately, and I’ve had to build extra structure into my schedule to make sure that I accomplish even the bare minimum of the hefty load on my plate.

So you can imagine my loving partner’s response when I told her that I would be spending the months of January and February in a 45-hour sexual assault survivor’s advocacy training through an amazing organization called the Sexual Violence Center.

“Jamie, is spending between seven and thirteen hours a week in a class that deals solely with sexual violence (not to mention the extra homework) the best thing for you right now?”

And honestly, I couldn’t give her a good answer.

The truth is that I was afraid that all of this talk of trauma and violence would only add to the weight that I’ve been carrying during this difficult time.

Yet, seemingly inexplicably, the class has helped tremendously.

I couldn’t explain why until a recent counseling session when my counselor asked about the class. I told her about my partner’s concern, and in my explanation, the words came to me.

“At first I was worried she was right, that the training program would make some of my other struggles worse. But when I’m sorting through the impact that sexual violence has had on my life and on the lives of those I love, what better place to be than with 25 other people who care deeply and passionately about eradicating sexual violence? It’s brilliant actually!”

A few days later, Daniela, one of the activist trainers from our program, tweeted something with the hashtag #communalcare.

That’s it! That hashtag named it.

As important as self-care can be, for many of us, communal care is equally as vital!

Holding Space

Obviously not all community or communal time is healthy and healing.

If you feel anxious in large groups, going out with friends to a concert (even of a band you really like) may not necessarily be healing or self-care for you. And even communal experiences that we enjoy may not be ones that help us to cope with or heal from the weight or trauma we carry in our lives.

But healing community is about holding space: holding space for love, care, reflection, laughter, crying, feeling what we’re feeling, dancing, screaming, sorting through, moving past, sitting with, or for whatever else we may need.

Healing community is not about putting our problems off on another person, but about holding space for us to set down the weight we’re carrying for a while, and sometimes it’s even about letting others hold and share our weight while we do the same for them.

In the words of one of the wonderful advocates in training from my class,“Everybody has issues, and [in this space], we’re all just healing with each other.”

SVC volunteers and trainers from INCITE Minneapolis circle up before class.  Photo courtesy of SVC's Facebook

SVC volunteers and trainers from INCITE Minneapolis circle up before class. Photo courtesy of SVC’s Facebook

I can tell you without a shred of doubt that spending time every week for two months talking about sexual violence with people who are not intentional activists and advocates would be quite the opposite of communal care.

But the space held within the advocates training program intentionally focuses on care, healing, and sensitivity, even when we’re talking about those things that make my chest tighten and my breath shorten.

As a result, when I feel that tightness in my chest, I know there are people whose chests are tightening with me, and I know there are people who are also ready and willing to hold space for me to talk through why my breath has shortened.

And more often than not, just knowing that space is being held is all it takes for me to breathe deeply and allow my chest to open, letting light into a dark space.

Communal Care for Introverts

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

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Stop. Breathe. Unplug. A Reminder for Self Care

This morning I was sitting in a comfortable chair, simultaneously looking over a beautiful mountainous landscape in Vermont and staring at 36 pressing, unanswered emails and another 15 that needed attention but weren’t as important.  I took a heavy sigh before slogging through them…

And the power went out.

I’m visiting the heavenly, rural retreat that my dear friend refers to as her “Bit of Earth,” recovering from a few stressful days: ten 1-hour+ presentations or trainings in two days at three schools in Vermont, all at least an hour from one another, all on some of the hottest days these un-air-conditioned school buildings have seen this year.

Thankfully, my friend opened her Bit of Earth to me to relax for a day before I get back on the road and back to my busy life in Minneapolis.

Ironically, last night we had a long talk over delicious local salads and wine while tremendous thunderstorms raged outside about the need to step back from the hectic demands of our “plugged-in” society.  We waxed poetic about the importance of simply taking our time in responding to emails and of unplugging regularly from the world.

Then, as if the conversation hadn’t even happened, I sat down this AM to fight my way through some very stressful emails.

But it’s as if these stunning mountains and the storms that poured over them last night said to me, “I’m sorry, Jamie.  You speak well of what you need, but you don’t take your own advice.  So we’ll help you.”

Zap.

No more internet.

So I am simply writing this short reflection before I sit down in a hammock with a book, a few words that I hope will be a reminder to my readers to

Stop.

Breathe.

Unplug.

Whether our lives are weighed down by the pressures of classes or job responsibilities

or whether our hearts are weighed by talk of wars across the globe or hurts here at home

or whether our minds are occupied by endless status updates, inbox *dings*, or voicemails,

it is so vitally important that we take some time, no matter how long or complex, to care for ourselves.

This is my self-care for today:

My dear friend Karen at her Bit of Earth

My dear friend Karen at her Bit of Earth

Turning to Self Care in Times of Trial

Whenever those around me are experiencing hard times or are hurting, I am the first to ask them what they are doing to practice self care.  However, when it comes to actually practicing self care, I am pretty terrible.  I don’t exactly practice what I preach.

Well, in the last week or two, I have been struggling.  Between the loneliness of being in a new city, a bunch of online blogger drama, tragedies in the lives of those I love, tragedies nationally and internationally, and struggles with my own personal demons, I should be doing more to take care of myself.  But, in true Jamie fashion, I just smile and push on.

In college, one of my mentors and close friends committed suicide.  I was devastated, and I struggled with depression for many months.  The funny thing, though, is that almost no one knew.  I was a public figure on campus (student government, lots of clubs, all that silly jazz), so I just sighed heavily and put on a fake smile before leaving my room every day.  Then I came home and cried myself to sleep.  If it weren’t for a few close friends and one professor, all of whom forced me to focus on taking care of myself, I don’t think I would have survived that time in my life.

Though I am not quite THAT bad about self care these days, I haven’t improved much.  About two months ago, I let a close friend know that I was struggling with some intense feelings of loss and sadness.  She helped me check in with myself about why, and she encouraged me to practice some self care.  And I did.  For about a day.

Last night I was talking to her on the phone, and she asked how I was doing with the heaviness I shared a few months back.  My response, “I honestly haven’t been dealing.  I am just so busy.  It’s there in the background, and I should probably do more about it, but right now, I am just trying to get settled into my new city and trying to invest in my partnership.”  Her response: “Jamie, take care of yourself.”

Then this morning I saw this piece at Everyday Feminism, an amazing blogging community that you should definitely be following.  In it, Melissa Fabello reminds us who work for justice that it can be really heavy work that drains our bodies and our souls, and she offers a few suggestions for self care.

Between these two reminders and my partners’ almost daily reminders to practice a little bit of the self love, I think it’s time I do so.  As I sat down to blog today, my busy-minded self shouted, “You need to get on that piece about how only using the Lisak & Miller study to talk about perpetrators of sexual violence is dangerous!”  And from another corner, I heard a shout of, “That promo video for your corporate consulting is not done yet.”  And, “Don’t you need to work on the content for that upcoming keynote?”  Endless.  That voice is powerful, the voice inside of me that says, “Self care is unimportant.  Stay busy.  Then it won’t hurt.”

But today, if not for me then for my partner, my dog, my friends and family members that rely on me and love me, I am taking a few minutes to focus on self care.

When I entered a comprehensive training to become an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, I showed up on the first day with a box of tissues.  I had heard about the program, and I knew there would be a lot of crying.  On the first day, though, there were no tears.  Instead, we were given an amazing assignment.  We were to create a “Self Care Plan.”  We had to create some sort of list of things we would do to practice self care as we went through the advocacy training program.  We were told that some items should be small, easily accomplished in a moment or with a few minutes time.  “Think deep breaths,” we were told.  Other items in the plan should be longer-lasting, along the lines of taking 15 minutes, half an hour, or a whole evening to ourselves.

After completing the assignment, I had a self care plan hanging in my bedroom and in my office for a few years.  For the last two or three, though, I haven’t had one.  Today that changes.

Below is my Self Care Plan, excluding a few of the more personal items, to give you a few ideas as you create your own Self Care Plan.

Quick Action Self Care

1.  Close my eyes, breathe deeply, and focus on clearing my mind.36487_118770518167624_2480645_n
2.  Look through a few of the photos of those I love.
3.  Cuddle with Chloe (my dog) for a few minutes.
4.  Do a few Yoga back stretches
5.  Put on any of the following songs:

6.  Scream.  Loud.
7. Dance.  Preferably to Robyn.
8. Rub Chloe’s velvet ears.
9. Hug Chickadee Longbottom (the stuffed animal I’ve had since I was little)
10. Think clearly about at least one of those wonderful people that love you very much.

Self Care That Takes a Little Longer

1.  Meditate for 15 minutes.
2.  Go for a run with Chloe.
3.  Ride your bike hard.
4.  Listen to a whole bunch of the songs from ^^THAT^^ list.
5.  Turn the music up REALLY loud and allow yourself to cry for a while.

Shaun Tan's "The Red Tree"

Shaun Tan’s “The Red Tree”

6.  Write.
7.  Read “The Red Tree” by Shaun Tan
8. Read some of “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White.
9.  Spend some time throwing on your wheel.
10. Read a few items from the “Self Care Box” (a box of letters from people who love me).
11. Call S, N, B, J, E, K, or S.  Or call all of them.
12.  Work in your garden.
13.  Make an elaborate meal for someone you love.

These are just a few of the things I need to be doing more often in my life.  What suggestions do you have for self care?  What songs do you listen to?  What movies do you watch?

Whatever they are, please take some time this week for self care.  You need it.  We all do.

Self Care and Social Justice

On the first day of my training to become a sexual assault survivor’s advocate at Earlham College in their RAINN-recognized advocacy program, I came to class prepared for the hard stuff.  I even had brought a box of tissues, knowing that the material would be difficult.  What I didn’t expect, though, was a lesson on stuffed animals, long runs, Cherry Garcia ice cream, and listening to good music.

The first week of advocacy training focused almost completely on self care.  Now, before this lesson, I suppose I considered self care in a passive sense . . . I knew that I needed to do some things that make me happy to add balance to my hard work.  However, never before had I considered self care as not only vital but the first, most primary exercise in any social justice work.

We were tasked with creating a self care plan – a carefully-crafted plan for how we would take care of ourselves as we trained and eventually worked in the trying, hurt-filled, saddening, yet incredibly fulfilling work of advocacy.  My self care plan involved eating licorice, cuddling with Chickadee Longbottom (a stuffed chick I’ve had for a long time), and listening to a mix of music that makes me most happy.

Cat Stevens “Trouble,” One of the songs included in my self care mix

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