Pull yourself up by your emotional bootstraps or why the self in self-care is starting to make me worry
|Karmela Padavic Callaghan||Jan 16|
Hi and thanks for subscribing to my newsletter! The breakdown: first a personal essay then some thoughts on my recent work, things I am reading, writing and listening to and finally some recipes or recipe recommendations. Feel free to skip to whatever interests you. Please do also hit reply at any time, for any purpose - these are odd times and I want to offer as much connection and support as I can. Find me on Twitter and Instagram too. I’d love it if you shared this letter with a friend!
Programming note: Life has been a bit overwhelming recently so Ultracold has, for now, moved to a monthly schedule.
BOUND STATES IN THE CONTINUUM*
In January everyone on Instagram is yelling at me about either setting resolutions, losing weight and growing my business or about having to resist the urge to set resolutions, lose weight and grow my business. Of course, they are not yelling at me personally, but the algorithm magic that puts me at the intersection of food, social justice, art and an occasional queer celebrity still saturates my feed with these messages so much that they start to feel personal. An ironic, troublesome both-side-ism emerges when it comes to the larger and larger banner of “self care” as propagated by influencers and others capitalizing on the social media ecosystem – you can make both being, for instance, pro-diet and anti-diet work for you as a form or encouragement and growth and refuse to admit that you are both indirectly shaming and directly profiting by doing that work.
Criticizing self-care as it has emerged in past years, especially once it became part of the collective lexicon securely enough to be turned into something companies (candle companies, CBD companies, bath bomb companies, nail polish companies, low-calorie ice cream companies…) can use in their ads, is not all that new. Many have already pointed out that much of what counted as self-care originally required money, time and space. Doing face masks or taking baths or even going to a yoga studio all assumed that you could pay for the experience and that you had free time. More bluntly, you were probably not working multiple jobs or trying to save money by buying green bell peppers instead of red (they’re usually about half a dollar cheaper). Questions of class, race and ability are inextricably tied to these observations. It was then not surprising and not unremarked upon that early self-care promoters were mostly thin, mostly white, mostly affluent and mostly able-bodied. It is often said that privilege is about questions we do not have to ask and for these folks the “care” part of self-care did not beg the question of “is care accessible to me?” Care of any sort but particularly when it comes to health and wellness in America is, as we have very much known and learned yet again in 2020, largely inaccessible.
This past year, however, I have become bothered by not just the loss of nuance in discussing the “care” part of self-care, but also the size and stature that the “self” part has gained. Instagram and Medium posts trying to encourage you to believe and invest in yourself are overrun with discussion of “cutting out toxic people”, “trauma bonds” and “codependency”. Bulleted or numbered lists explaining how to diagnose those things in your life and how to address them are all over the Instagram explore page. Just like a tofu recipe requires five steps that take you from a beige piece of wet sponge to a crispy and saucy bite luxuriating on top of a bowl of rice, a Canva-generated infographic will help you set any and all boundaries in as many easily checked-off steps. The point, of course, is to improve yourself. And increasingly it seems like improving yourself means becoming emotionally independent to a point of non-trivial self-sufficiency and nestled in-between an almost mythical number of boundaries. Often, this is referred to as doing the work. It is hard to not see the words “work” and “independence” close to each other and not think that there’s something inherently American happening here.
The economic and class critique of self-care applies here as well. The response to the inaccessibility of self-care that marginalized communities or communities lacking certain kinds of societal privilege have always had lies in community care – in kindness, compassion and togetherness. Reading my billionth infographic on whether it should worry me that I care what others, including my partner, think of me I again find the concept of relying on a community rather than just my own emotional resources and instead of working on myself by myself and only for myself much more compelling.
Not to be misunderstood, I think boundaries are often useful and necessary. And I do believe that some people do not deserve as much of our energy and care as we sometimes, for a myriad of reasons having to do with both us and our culture, feel compelled to extend. I do think you should stand up for yourself and love yourself and want to grow in ways that feel good to you. The undertones of “pull yourself up by your emotional bootstraps”, are worrisome nevertheless. Converging on some sort of emotional rugged individualism, an American brand of exceptionalism masquerading as therapy language (doubly vicious given how many cannot afford therapy and do look to social media for genuine guidance), simply cannot be the answer to sadness or disconnect that many of us tend to feel, these days in particular.
Upon a recent exchange of self-care posts by influencers that don’t always hit quite right, this time focusing on how self-care can be hard and painful (remember – it’s work after all!), a friend pointed out that using this framing to promote individualism has another sinister undertone. They notes that it subtly discourages folks from relying on their communities instead of seeking to figure everything out by themselves. I was struck by their observation because one of the big themes of 2020 was certainly the power of community and who the state allows to harness and grow that power.
Many protests that we saw during the summer of 2020 emerged form community organizers. More recently, political upsets such as the one in Georgia have also been attributed to the kind of advocacy that requires folks to talk to each other one-on-one and invest in each other emotionally before being told how to cast their vote. There is power in being able to rely on each other, in being able to depend on each other and work together as a consequence. Even the horrific show of power from the extreme right we saw when rioters and looters stormed the Capitol depended on coordination and cooperation. Ironically, those claiming to be the most American, the most zealous believers in freedom and independence and individualistic rights needed to come together to maximize their violence. Discouraging anyone from being anything other than a self-sufficient individual is in some way denying them the parts of their own and societal power they could gain by occasionally leaning onto someone else.
A truth about being in community with anyone, in making genuine bonds and offering genuine trust is also that things get messy and complicated and, at times, hurtful. Relying on other people means that sometimes we get let down. Setting porous and flexible boundaries means that sometimes there’s a step too far and we get harmed. However, navigating these challenges, learning how to build emotional resilience together, even when some parts of the process are suboptimal, makes us stronger. Certainly, it makes us stronger than only working on ourselves and for ourselves. The scarcity mindset, the one that says that there may only be a fixed amount of care so maybe I better just only douse my own self in it is inherently not just American but a staple of capitalist and colonial logic that treats everything as a limited resource. It can be dangerous to remind people that this is not true, that we can generate more care for each other, that we can be kind even when we are messy, and that kindness always surpasses self-sufficiency.
As January is seen as a month of new beginnings in all spheres it also happens to be a month when people flirt with the idea of veganism or going plant based, in larger and larger numbers every year. This concept of Veganuary at times surely edges on the more problematic January-diet-reset, but it also provides momentum for a kind of change that is often hard to spark (eating habits are so complex and so deeply rooted). Last year, I posted a long series of tips and recipes for eating vegan or “more vegan” on my personal Facebook page and this year I am trying to move some of that content over to my already food-centric Instagram profile as well. Thinking about the merits of undertaking this project and wanting to be very conscious of how I frame it, I was struck by how rarely I actually use my social media to discuss why I am vegan or why veganism matters to me. There are many reasons for this and most have to do with anxiety and fear over backlash, and especially the kind of backlash that sites like Facebook and Instagram (notably owned by the same company) bring out in people.
After making one post about my “why’s” as a kick-off for this year’s Veganuary a past colleague quickly pointed out that labels such as “vegan” are exclusionary and make people recoil even when they do care about animal welfare and environmentalism. I was taken aback: my vegan motivation has always been one of connection and empathy. What is more inclusive than being in community with all living things and our planet by refusing to hurt any of them further? So much of what plagues our food system and makes the issue of vegan eating so pertinent to begin with is the capitalistic take on food that treats it as a product disconnected from cultural, spiritual or environmental value. Unfortunately, vegan products are not immune from this and corporations are certainly profiting from treating “plant based diets” as a fad they can capitalize on. The issue of commodifying an attempt at unity plagues the macro level on top of the cruelty and exploitation that is already present in the dairy and meat industries, in factory farming and meat processing plants and so on. On the smaller, personal level, there is a trickle-down effect of nihilism, cynicism and disconnect. I saw more than one acquaintance indulge in a thick steak this holiday season as a form of something adjacent to self-care, as a way to dull the pain of the pandemic via treat.
A week or so ago, after working on a lesson on terminal velocity, net forces and air resistance late into the night, close to the midnight TV date I keep with my husband even on our busiest days (and lately they are all falling into this category) I clicked closed all of the half-baked Google Slides and ended scrolling through newsletters that had accumulated in my inbox. I subscribe to too many and read too few, but some writer’s do manage to stop me from scrolling to a tracksuit ad instead. I read one of those and maybe because it was late or maybe because anticipating teaching challenges makes me so drained and raw or maybe because the stars just aligned to make me emotional, I did something I rarely do and wrote back after reading the letter. As much as I implore my readers to write back to me, I am intimidated by people who seem to be “more real” at doing the same kind of work and I always assume that they would not find time to offer any kind of personal connection. To my surprise, the next day, I found an answer on top of my inbox. They ended their message by writing
“My prayer this year is to be more grounded so that I can be attune to all the magical and miraculous things around me, in particular the natural world and all that we owe it. Sending you big hugs for 2021.”
Though I have no way of knowing how genuine the big hugs were nor how many other similar messages this writer may have sent to other readers, I felt a brief resonance, a connection, that had a tinge of hope to it. The mention of the natural world, situating the two of us within it as the year kicks off, felt like an affirmation of the kind of togetherness that, now more than ever, feels so much more necessary than anything that centers the “self”.
P. S. Shout-out to Alex for all the shady Instagram conversations.
* Bound states in the continuum are a kind of special energy state that exists among a number of other states and overlaps with them but keeps its localized, isolated character. While putting energy into one of the other states in the continuum may make it propagate through all the other states in that continuum, if energy is stored in the bound state it will remain there without dissipation.
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ABOUT ME LATELY
I have not done much pitching in this year so far (splitting time between writing and teaching continues to be a challenge) but I am still picking up some public information work with the quantum information science and technology center at my graduate alma matter here and there and hoping that some of the articles I had written as a part of this work in the past six months will eventually see the light of day. Though working on writing that does not always adhere to a clear deadline is a mental challenge at times, it has been nice to keep in touch with the research in the field that I had dedicated so much of my life too – folks in the department where I tried so hard to become a researcher are still doing really excellent work.
Due to some odd scheduling, two weeks after the end of winter break, my school is about to plunge into finals week. It’s a chaotic time in the semester and trying to stick to my values and practices when it comes to being equitable and kind to my students is certainly pushing me into more and more work. However, I do think that it is worth it to end the semester in a way that feels fair, especially given that there is no indication that we will return to in-person instruction here in New York City anytime soon.
My spring semester is looking packed but exciting and I am particularly looking forward to teaching a class on Modern Physics as a part of my school’s Early College program. At the same time, I am somewhat heartbroken when I think about all the great seniors that I will not get to meet in person before they graduate. Everything about being a teacher right now feels bittersweet in a very sharp way.
As has been the case since I started teaching at BHSEC Manhattan in August, this job has had a really steep learning curve when it comes to my own confidence and performance, my own time management and my own understanding of where my edges and boundaries are. These things are necessary for me to learn so that I can encourage them and nurture them in my students alongside their knowledge in physics and mathematics. This will be as much of a 2021 project as it was in the previous year and I am not so much cautiously optimistic as much as I am putting faith in my, and everyone else’s, resiliency. Some nights, before we go to bed, I tell my husband that I don’t know why I thought I could do this job, and without fail, he points out that there is no thinking involved because I have indeed been doing it for a whole semester now.
On a related note: Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter titled “On online” where she grapples with pressures and absurdities of having a large Instagram following. She writes:
“My hesitation around how information spreads on Instagram meant I didn’t accept a challenge to post a black and white picture of myself despite invitation. It’s why I never posted a black square. Both things that were revealed within hours to be well-intentioned but poorly executed and appropriative. Media literacy isn’t taught in the U.S., and it shows. Social media literacy is even less fluent, apparently. I, of course, share some text posts when they say something I believe. But I shouldn’t! Because I don’t know shit about the source. Often, it’s a lot of language that sounds radical, sounds true—but would it pass muster if it weren’t presented in a pretty square? Would it read as credible if it were not being shared widely, making one’s own share of it feel obligatory? Would it stand up to fact-checking, basically? And shouldn’t we on the left care about such things, especially when the right does not?”
“Every post is regarded as a categorical imperative rather than one person’s perspective or an invitation to conversation.”
Thoughts that resonated with me in an almost guilty way though my Instagram following has never even reached a four-digit number, no matter how much of my time I relinquish to the app.
Raechel Anne Jolie writing about choices in her newsletter “Confront Our Sacred Figures” and reading my mind with this paragraph
“In many spiritual and self-help communities, structures are rarely mentioned. Instead, we are taught that our thoughts shape our life, and that we get to choose our thoughts. We can rewrite “limiting beliefs” around money, around self-worth, around what love looks like. Although not quite as harsh as “personal responsibility” frameworks, self-help spaces at least tacitly suggest that if things are shitty, it might be a little bit your fault.”
Desert Oracle, which is a wonderful tiny magazine, bordering on a zine, that showed up in our mailbox as a late birthday gift for me from my partner. It collects stories about the desert from people that live in the desert. The issue I recently read covered everything from alien sightings to searching for young eagles. I really enjoyed it and was delighted when my partner revealed he had actually gotten me a four-issue subscription. You can hear the interview with the magazines editor, Ken Layne, on this episode of The Press Box podcast from The Ringer.
My friend Adam’s newsletter Everything Else, now in its 4th installment, continues to be a really inspiring mix of photography, travel diaries, book deep dives and all sorts of other fascinating forms that words can be put into.
The poem her tin skin by Evie Shockley.
Pink Flag by Wire which is one record but seems to feature almost every subgenre of punk and new wave to have ever come out of Britain.
Skeletonwitch’s Devouring Radiant Light because this used to be one of my favorite fast-but-melodic-and-slightly-brutal metal bands. I’ll never forget a graduate school professor making light fun of me for wearing an egregious Skeletonwitch shirt, but this sort of music has always been a reliable pick-me-up for me.
May Our Chambers Be Full by Thou and Emma Ruth Rundle which is a more atmospheric and less screechy record than I expected, but really enjoyable nevertheless. I saw Thou play in New York City a few years ago and remembering the intensity of their performance, and some of their older work, always makes me think I’m in for something a bit more sinister than what they are putting out these days. I’m still here for it though.
I’ve been running to Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa which is a dance and pop music record that seems to have been grown in a lab to be the most essentially poppy thing to be around in years. The influences are everything from late 90s dance music to INXS to what even my previously pop adverse ears recognize as Lady Gaga. I hate that I’m not yet bored by this record, but I’m running sub-9-minute miles for five miles every day and the catchiness of these songs is so immense that I have to respect them just a little.
The Spy Who Same in From the Cold which is a 1965 adaptation of a John le Carre novel starring Richard Burton. It is drab and dreary and in so many ways the exact opposite of the glamourous syp trope the James Bond franchise placed deeply into my head when I was a child. This is a great film, from a technical standpoint and story-wise and it made me think that eventually I will have to sit down and actually read some le Carre.
The Vast of Night is a film about a radio host and a telephone operator in a 1950s New Mexico small town finding themselves in the middle of some extraterrestrial trouble. I was a huge fan of Welcome to Night Vale in college, I am weak for anything radio and snappy 50s dialogue, and years of re-watching X-Files probably primed me to like this movie as well. It is not perfect, and it is clear that the filmmakers worked with a somewhat limited budget, but it is also refreshingly simple and fun without being too corny.
Finally, we have decided to take-up watching The Wire as something of a winter-time project and are currently a few episodes into the show’s second season. I have a childish tendency for holding off on pieces of culture that are universally acclaimed, but in the case of The Wire I’m not sure that I have all that much nit-picking or contrarianism to launch against that consensus. This show is just good in basically every way and tackles such complicated and convoluted structures of harm and oppression without ever taking shortcuts that would allow us to forget any of the characters’ sins or indulging in dialogue that’s more didactic than realistically clever. This is one of those shows where no one is really likeable, yet everything feels important and real. I have high expectations for our continued watching. (It also helps that the Ringer has a re-watch podcast hosted by Van Lathan and Jamelle Hill who are big on The Wire trivia as well as hot-takes my husband and I have been habitually debating and dissecting on many of our recent work-from-home lunch breaks.)
Overly fancy overnight oat and chia bowls (one of these where nuts are blended to make a soaking liquid instead of buying almond milk). A spice-rum soaked bundt cake for New Years Eve, following this recipe and eaten with copious amounts of homemade coconut whipped cream and citrus and balsamic macerated strawberries. Steamed buns filled with makovnjača filling (poppy seed roll) or apricot preserves because I want to learn new skills (like making steamed buns based on this recipe) but desperately miss the flavors of my home country.