This essay was originally published on the Forth Chicago blog. You can read it there, too.
Last month, I went to the Chicago Women’s March alongside 250,000 brilliant women and allies. I carried a neon pink, handwritten sign that read “Radical Love, Real Power,” and I wandered amidst families and organizations, following groups chanting rebellious slogans and stopping every so often to take stock of the immensity of the event.
We were powerful that day, ladies. PowHERful, if you like. But since then, almost every day has felt like a defeat. Every community I’m in is scrambling to better respond, react and resist. We’re at a loss for how to care for each other or ourselves in the turmoil of political instability.
In the midst of these questions, conversations about self-care are emerging more and more often in expected and unlikely spaces. I’ve seen everyone from my mother to my dentist share this Audre Lorde quote:
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Do y’all know Audre Lorde? She liked to describe herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” and she was certainly all of those things and more. Audre Lorde was a radical political activist and a radical self-care champion. She always emphasized the connection between the political and the personal, reminding us of the obvious but oft-forgotten fact that there’s no politics without people.
What’s lost when this quote is extracted from Lorde’s work and used as a self-care mantra, however, is the very concrete advice that Lorde gave us for how to care for ourselves, particularly our femme-selves. For Lorde, self-care isn’t about buying a new candle or drinking the good bottle of red wine instead of the $3 bottle (not to hate on candles or nice wine). Those things are nice salves, but they don’t cultivate real care for the self.
Rather, self-care is about identifying your deepest desires. It’s an embrace of feelings, emphasizing joy but including pain, through which we learn to accept and love ourselves.
Self-care is important not simply in and of itself but as a necessary step toward self-love. We often think that we care for people and things we already love, but it’s also true that as we care for people and things, we come to love them. It works on us too: as we care for ourselves, we come to love ourselves. Self-care leads to self-love.
I’ve spent the past five years or so of my life on a long, winding path toward self-love. In a lot of ways, the Women’s March seemed like the culmination of that, a moment where I was able to come together with thousands of other women and proclaim our love for ourselves and our womanhood. But something was still missing. After the march, I went home and felt more exhausted than I had in years. My sign read “Radical Love, Real Power,” but what did that really mean? How could I radicalize the self-love I had learned and fought for in the face of the precarious political climate?
Turns out Audre Lorde also has a lot to say about radical self-love. As Lorde puts it, self-love puts us in touch with the erotic power that every woman holds. Not a sexual or sensual erotic power, but a relational, community power:
“The power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual.”
The erotic is what bonds us to others as we work together to build relationships, worlds and lives. It’s the deep, creative source that fuels us at our most joyous. When we connect with others with erotic intensity, our power grows beyond any measure we can imagine. We resist the powers that be and all the ways in which they attempt to oppress difference. As Lorde says,
“Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama. For not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.”
So how can we pursue genuine change? By using self-care tools to cultivate radical self-love that radiates outward and builds deep connections with the individuals we organize with and for. Focusing on the news or abstract causes or political agendas leads us to resistance fatigue and political-personal burnout. But focusing on the relationships we build and how they organically create powerful webs of resistance will provide an endless source of energy to abolish whatever obstacles stand in our way.
Every February I send out an open call on social media offering to send valentines to anyone who sends me their address. The first year I sent a half-dozen cards, the second a dozen, and this year over two dozen. I've mailed cards all over the US to old friends and recent acquaintances. This small effort has come back to me tenfold, as women I've only shared a single conversation with have sent me heartfelt gifts thanking me for taking the time to care for and about them. This small act I put out into the world once a year is a simple way to tap into my deeply creative source that Audrew Lorde talked about. It's just the beginning my learning to wield my erotic power.
When 250,000 women gathered in Chicago for the Women’s March, we felt just an inkling of our true power. The connections that we, as women, develop from our deep, creative source are powerful in ways we can only imagine. They can take over the world, one act of radical self-love at a time.