Self-care is sexy. I’m not sure where the phrase originated, but the first time I heard it was at last year’s Witchcamp. But like most sexy things, self-care is also complicated. For me, the idea tends to conjure up feeling of guilt.
I’ve heard jokes about Catholic guilt, but mine is of a more mixed flavor. My pentecostal roots maintained that I should be empty and weak so the Holy Spirit can live in me, Calvinism indoctrinated me with a rigorous work ethic, and my German upbringing taught me to always strive for efficiency.
You shouldn’t focus on yourself, the voices in my head say when I practice self-care. You shouldn’t be so selfish. You should be working more. You should be helping others right now. You should be SAVING THE WORLD! Sometimes the voices sound like a preacher, sometimes my parents, sometimes they just sound like me.
Last weekend I indulged in self-care. I drove for four hours to get to my favorite hot springs, slept in a tent suspended between Jeffrey pine trees, and soaked in warm pools. I treated myself to a massage, gazed at the stars at night, went on walks, read books, and alternated hot and cold plunges throughout the day. And yet it is entirely possible to visit a hot springs resort and not be present, to engage in one relaxing activity after another without actually relaxing.
My struggle began as we were leaving the Bay Area. We loaded our gear into the car much later than I thought we would. I wanted to tell my partner to hurry the frack up so we could go relax! Instead, I did a quick grounding meditation and ever so spiritually calm explained to him that we could take our time getting there in order to start relaxing now. He gave me a quizzical look, as in what else would we be doing? Right. Not everyone struggles with this.
We arrived so late that we set up our campsite after sunset, providing a twilight feast for blood-sucking bugs. It reminded me of Witchcamp where mosquitoes were a constant nuisance. I thought back on an English woman in my group who said she had made peace with the insects. Because of them, she said, her blood would be carried all over this redwood forest, from mosquito to birds, to frogs, and bats, and through them to larger predators. Ribbons of her DNA would stay here even after she had flown home across the Atlantic.
I felt a bat swoop over my head and laughed. Go on and take my DNA across the Sierras then, I said out loud, and shifted my focus from the itching welts on my limbs to the softness of the surrounding hills in the dying light.
I managed to sink deeper into relaxation the next day. There was nothing to do and nowhere to be except right here. My partner and I went on a hike and discovered vestiges of civilization in the forest. We made up stories about the abandoned objects, the dilapidated table and chair reminded him of something out of Hemingway. He estimated the age of a decaying car covered in branches and I thought up suspenseful tales of why it might have ended up here.
My afternoon massage returned me to the struggle with guilt. The therapist’s energy was odd, she seemed angry or upset. While the massage itself was wonderful, my mind projected my own insecurities unto her. She must think everyone here is wealthy and snobby. She must resent working on self-indulgent people like me. I knew she was probably just having a rough day completely unrelated to my massage, and I breathed into being present to my own experience. Nevertheless, in the end I stuffed some extra cash into her tip jar, indulgences for my self-care indulgence, I suppose.
Somehow, after a delicious nap in our hammock tent, guilt went on hiatus and left me and my self-care to ourselves. The next day session of aqua yoga acquainted me with muscles I didn’t know existed in my body. Later I floated weightlessly in warm water. Time slowed and stretched until it became meaningless and there was only the here and now, moments of blissful relaxation, uninterrupted by outside reality. It was simultaneously ecstatic and grounding.
And just as my self-care weekend was coming to a close, I saw an old acquaintance, someone I knew five years ago when my partner and I were living out of our vehicle, struggling to find gainful employment and a safe place to live.
We fell into each others’ arms and then burned in the midday sun as we told our stories. Like me, she had experienced a significant upgrade in life. She had focused on her own well-being and left a relationship in order to move into a small place of her own. She’d changed direction in her work and eventually succeeded in starting her own business, doing exactly what she always wanted to do. She now works teaching music and empowering girls and young women.
I then condensed my last five years into fifteen minutes, from living in a car to founding an intentional community, from being painfully alone to having many loves. My old-new friend glowed and said, “Annika, I know this is exactly what you have always wanted. I am so glad you are taking care of yourself and allowing yourself to follow your vision.”
Taking care of yourself. I looked out over the valley shimmering in the heat of the day. We had both decided to take care of ourselves. We both stopped putting others first and gave ourselves permission to heal. In healing, we found ourselves, and in finding ourselves, we became able to empower others.
Why do we say self-care is sexy in my tradition?
Sexiness is relational, it arises out of our relationship with ourselves, attracting lovers and friends. Self-care also starts with ourselves and then emanates out into our relationships. Our own healing empowers us to heal others, our strength to strengthen others, our self-care to care for others. That’s what makes self-care so sexy.