How do you take care of yourself when the world seems to, in some ways, be standing still and, in other ways, changing so much? What does nurturing your creative life in a pandemic actually look like?
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These days, I seem to be going through a personal renaissance, re-thinking who I am, what I do, and my contribution to the world. I tend to do this every so often—my friend Casey calls it “cocooning” and says creatives tend to do it more regularly than “normal people.” So take that for what it’s worth. During this time, however, I still have work to do, bills to pay, mouths to feed, and my own health to consider. And I keep running into other writers, artists, and creative professionals who seem to be struggling with the same thing. So I put together a list. Here are the habits and practices that have helped me during this weird year with a few links and references to resources that you might find helpful as well:
- Reading books from different authors. With all that’s happening in America regarding race relations, I’ve been reading from a more diverse set of authors, because I’m embarrassed to say that my bookshelf has not typically consisted of many non-white authors. I’m changing that. Currently, I’m finishing up Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is a beautifully written letter from a father to his son. After that, I’m going to start The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. In addition to that, I just started The Hidden Life of Trees, which is just a fun and fascinating look at the woods. Reading always nourishes me but listening to voices who share experiences and perspectives unlike my own challenges my creativity.
- Walking. I could call this a lot of things: running, hiking, moving your body. But the truth is that this simple practice of moving my legs back and forth has been the single most important habit for my mental and creative health lately. Every morning, almost without exception, I go for a walk for an hour or two or three. Yes, it takes time, but it’s an easy way to exercise, process stuff I’m going through, and think about creative work. I always come back from my walks, bursting with ideas. If you’re looking for a short but challenging read on why walking is so important, check out Thoreau’s essay on the topic; it was the last thing he wrote before he died, and in it, he claims to have walked four to six hours per day. It made me feel not so guilty for my hour or two spent at the park each morning.
- Cooking for fun. Yes, we all have to eat to live; but I love preparing an elaborate meal even just for myself or sometimes a friend who’s visiting. Cooking is an art form to me, and I’ve enjoyed spending hours in the kitchen, sometimes after the kids have gone to bed—not to eat it but to just experience the act of making something. I also like figuring things out in the kitchen; it’s a form of problem-solving for me and one that challenges another side of my creativity. That said, if you feel lost in the kitchen and want a simple, science-based approach to cooking (because you’re a nerd like me), check out The Food Lab cookbook. It’s taught me a ton and challenged a lot of my assumptions about how to make simple everyday foods like eggs and grilled cheese. Oh! And if you missed it, I had a cooking show on Instagram for a whole week; I’m considering bringing it back.
- Listening to friends. I’m ashamed to admit that most of my life, I’ve not been a very good listener. I still probably would rather talk at someone than listen to them. It probably comes from being a shy kid who felt like he had to perform his way into people loving and accepting him. Anyway, I digress. When was the last time you called a friend and just listened to what was going on in their life? And what if you just held space for them and didn’t try to offer advice or fix things? Well, you might be thinking: “Jeff, that’s called being a good friend.” Yes, yes. I know. Or at least, I’m learning. I don’t always have to have something to say; I can listen, too. A great resource on this would be Malcolm Gladwell's latest work.
- Reading and writing poetry. I have fallen back in love with the art of poetry since quarantine began, and I’ve grown so much through this creative expression. It’s been really fun. Two books I love reading over and over are called Every Word You Cannot Say and Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy. Also, I’ve been writing and sharing a lot of poetry on my Instagram account.
- Getting a good night’s sleep. This is so important, and I’ve been terrible at it for most of my life since college. But I’m no spring chicken anymore and if I get a few bad nights of sleep, I start to get sick. If you’ve struggled with this yourself, may I suggest two books: Why We Sleep and Shawn Stevenson’s Sleep Smarter.
- Working on what matters. With all this sharing about self-care and reading and cooking and other tomfoolery, you may be wondering: What about work? What I’ve focused on in this season of work are the essentials. What needs to get done to move my business forward? I do that first, then focus on my family and myself, and if there’s still space left over, I spend time working on a new creative project. But this, for me, really feels like a season of persisting and persevering, not so much hyper-growth. I know that’s not true for everyone, but it feels right for me. Focus on the essentials for now, as the cocoon starts to grow; change is coming.
- Feeling all the feelings. Another word for this is therapy, but really therapy in itself is not that helpful in my experience if you can’t learn how to process your emotions. This has been invaluable for me this year: learning to just let my body express the emotions it wants to express. Some resources that have been helpful in this are The Body Keeps the Score, which is about trauma recovery, and seeing a therapist who practices EMDR. Also, just movement and music help a lot with letting the emotions out.
- Meditating. I’m not very good at this one, but I actually hired a meditation coach for a few sessions to tell me how to do it, and she basically said, “Stop trying, start noticing.” So, literally, my practice is to sit on a park bench and look around without forcing it or looking at my phone every five seconds. Sitting in meditation for a few minutes per day has been really helpful, and I’ve enjoyed the app Insight Timer which has some great guided meditations. Also, a meditative spiritual book that I really enjoyed was The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen, which is a private journal of his darkest season in life.
- Loving someone else. Viktor Frankl said the keys to living a meaningful life are to have work to do, a redemptive view of your pain, and someone to love. Whether that’s a dog or kids or a partner, you’ve got to be able to focus your loving energy on someone else. This is the most enriching part of being a human being, and for me, my greatest experience in loving another is as a dad: taking care of my kids, creating new and meaningful memories for them, and just doing fun, silly things together. It keeps me sane and reminds me that it is possible to love someone more than yourself without condition. At least, I think it is. 😉
So. That’s what’s keeping me sane. Hope it helps. Hang in there. You have important work to do and need to take care of yourself to do it.