I know what makes me happy and whole. I also know the list of things I need to thrive is not simply filled with selfish wants — and, those things aren’t solely self-focused. Often, even if an act of self-care starts with a form of isolation, it will press outward in some way in want of connecting with another human being or a higher being. I believe we need downtime alone, with our loved ones, and with the world at large — all of these to thrive. To move out of survival mode. Writing a “Love List” is a good start.
So, put on your oxygen mask first, friend.
This has become one of my life mantras. Let me tell you that it’s not selfish to embrace what makes you happy, what makes you whole-er. It’s called “self-care,” according to Annemarie, my psychologist friend. It’s funny that I’ve had to learn this.
You fellow givers, empaths, children, and parents might identify (as I do) with willingly — happily — putting yourself last out of love for another. This isn’t a “wrong” message whispered from the deep; however, we might’ve misinterpreted it at first. Or, at the very least, we might’ve formed the short-sighted understanding that taking care of our loved ones means not taking care of ourselves.
We are human beings, as in be-ing.
I’m not referring to Hamlet when he waxes existential in his soliloquy whether “to be or not to be,” I’m talking about how to be. Just…be, so you can find — yes, I said it! — or get back to yourself. Becoming your best self requires self-care.
Hang on. Just when you think I might be getting a little woo-woo or trying to loosely tap into a trending keyword, let me explain. I’m saying that writing is one way to practice be-ing, and thus, self-care. And, for now, I’ve winnowed it down to a simple writing exercise: the Love List.
Self-care requires stillness, silence, and a little navel-picking. Getting away for an hour, a day, or a week, having meaningful conversation with a friend, laughing with and listening to my kids, breathing in nature, exercising, and detoxing in an infrared sauna. It always requires reading, writing, and cuddle time with my loves. That’s what I’ve figured out in my exploration of self-care over the past few years.
What you don’t see on my self-care list is work. That’s because, while it fulfills me, and because I’ve chosen work I love, there’s always plenty of it spilling over into my first life. As in, pressing the last bits of oxygen out of my waking hours. Work might be on your list, just take care to measure it by whether it’s an act of self-care or not.
Writing As Self-Care
This blog on self-care, in fact, is a result of self-care for me. I recognized a few years ago that I was constantly deferring my be-ing, and thus, my growing, to “okay, tomorrow morning” or “starting next month” or “in the new year.” I was chasing survival, rather than chasing a life in which I could and would thrive. What that led to, eventually, was apathy. I woke up one day and recognized that I had checked out so that I wouldn’t feel too much. I had given myself no time to process what emotions and epiphanies my life was producing. And, I wore myself out checking off my list of “to-do’s.”
That led to my “soul surfacing” season. I felt limp personally at that time. And so, by what was a God-breath for me, I rose to the surface and found myself gasping for air. I wanted to thrive. I wanted to stop drifting through my loved one’s lives and live in them. I had to put on my oxygen mask first, take care of myself — and figure out exactly what that looked like. I had to trust the process long before I heard the term “self-care.” I had to rise above the noise in my life, be still enough to hear what my soul was saying, and then, make healthy shifts.
MY STREET-SMART SCIENCE: Put On Your Oxygen Mask First
It didn’t take long to see results from putting on my oxygen mask. I was calmer, happier, more patient. I started sleeping better, so I lost weight (no lie). My focus wasn’t as scattered. I finished writing projects. Most importantly, I began listening deeply to others.
Listening deeply when someone is trying to communicate is the single most life-changing, outwardly pressing action that arose from my self-care.
Newton’s third law is: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” I find that out of every good act of my self-care comes a good reaction. A good measure. That’s the street-smart, scientific logic I’ve applied to this practice. That’s why it’s now one of my life mantras.
As another outward pressing, I’m compelled to share this self-care message with others. I encourage my grown Mama-daughter to practice self-care. She gives and gives as a young wife, mother, friend, daughter, and business owner, but she’s learning much earlier than I did that it’s okay to give yourself gifts…because they keep on giving. I hear her sharing the message, the “permission,” if you will, in her sphere of influence. Ripples.
Self-care is akin to hitting a reset and recharge button. What I can’t and won’t do is tell you what kind of self-care you must practice to be whole-er. Though, I will offer some writerly advice on how to figure out what makes you thrum.
WRITING THE LOVE LIST
So, to the writing bit. As a writing coach, I believe everyone can write — and, should! It’s good exercise for your brain and good therapy for your soul. Certainly, writing can be a conduit to the condition of your heart. One way to put on your oxygen mask is to get still and quiet enough to listen. There’s a running stream of thought—even conversation—we’re having with ourselves. Most of the time, we only air out the safest or loudest thoughts, and then, they define us, whether we like it or not. When we write a “Love List,” we’re tapping into that stream and using a heart-shaped sieve.
With a “Love List,” we capture the beauty in our life, and usually, discover what’s beyond the obvious. I’ve found it to be one of the most accurate records of my life experience. Writing our “Love Lists” has the power to recalibrate us on overcast days. Focusing on beauty and how it speaks to us — how it moves us — is an act of self-care.
So, every February in “love month,” I write a new “Love List.” Then, I add it to my last one, so now I have an unending “Love List” as a partial record of how I view beauty in my life.
These writing exercise rules allow you to just write. You’ll learn to silence your inner editor (she’s the one who tells you not to write things, not to write at all because you’re not a real writer, blah blah blah). You are NOT writing to your inner editor with this exercise; you’re listening to your heart and writing down what it tells you.
Okay, I get a little conceptual with my writing exercises, but I’ve never run into a student or friend who hasn’t been satisfied with this process. It’s so freeing — and often, revealing!
The intangible stream of wisdom flowing from our life source of experiences, beliefs, and desires wants to be tapped, put to paper.
What this exercise is, technically speaking, is a practice in stream of consciousness. That’s why I talk about getting into the flow.
You must learn to follow your inner voice or to be brave enough to step into the stream untethered. You might be surprised where it takes you, what words come out. Can you edit later? Sure. You’re in charge when your inner editor is allowed out of her cage. I would also encourage you also to share your writing somewhere. “Showing” is a huge part of writing, and a Love List like this increases the world. You can also tuck it away like a private diary entry. This is a no-judgement zone.
A DEEPER DIVE: PRACTICING MY “READ, THEN WRITE” METHOD
This idea about writing—really, how to write what you want to write—is so simple that it took a beloved professor in the first semester of my MFA to sum up what is now my best writing advice: “Read, then write. Read, then write. Read, then write.” I tried it with short stories. I practiced it on my son after he’d taken four year vacation from reading in high school. It is my pedagogy as a Literature and Writing teacher, tutor, and workshop leader. It works. This epiphany changed my personal writing practice and skyrocketed the potential of it.
Winnowed down to the core, I believe our writing is the sum total of what we read plus what we live plus what we practice.
Whatever it is you set out to write, read a version of it. For example, want to write more stream of consciousness passages about other things in your life? Read James Joyce or Virginia Wolf. Want to write a narrative song? Listen to the best narrative songs. Want to write a news article? Read a respected newspaper or newsfeed. This is how you practice the Read Then Write Method.
Let’s put the RTW method to work.
WRITING EXERCISE: WRITING A LOVE LIST
Setting: find a quiet spot with a journal or a blank document. I encourage you to hand write it, though, because the act of scratching pencil to paper exercises our minds in a different, deeper way.
Instruction: set a 10 minute timer. Start writing and keep writing the entire time. Don’t erase. Don’t correct. Don’t re-read. Don’t stare into space (too long). Don’t worry if it’s “okay” to write something. Don’t put your pencil down until the 10 minutes has passed. Just write without stopping for 10 minutes. If you find you want more time, repeat your timer — or, ignore it and stay in the flow!
Time: 10 plus minutes.
Fast-write Writing Exercise Version: Set a timer for 2-5 minutes and hit repeat until the “writing flow” slows down to a trickle. Not sure how to do a Fast-Write? Read more here.
Here’s one of my Love Lists:
I don’t claim that it’s the greatest or most earth shattering, but it IS a record of what I love:
Being in nature makes me happy. Hearing the sound of water lapping the shore. Having an old conversation with someone new. Staring at pictures of my family. Laughing with girlfriends. Reading. Giving myself the necessary gifts of fitness and writing time. Making my mom laugh. Getting Italian cooking lessons from my dear friend. Watching my children discover themselves and the world and Truth. Being still. Teaching. Stepping foot in a new country and trying out a new language. Hugging. Nesting. Buying a new book. Eating outside. Getting a pedicure and haircut. Serving the homeless. Having conversations with children. Watching an old movie. Watching a new movie. Snugglng. Deep, nerdy literary gymnastics with my Spalding peeps. Attending a book tour talk. Listening to live music. Voxxing with a faraway friend. Having a girlfriend sleepover and staying up late talking about LIFE. Finding a new coffee shop. Laughing. Did I mention that one? The list goes on and on. I don’t have to explain me to me. What a relief.