Toni Cade Bambara’s “On the Issue of Roles” is one of my all-time favorite essays and a particular passage has been on my mind a lot lately. Bambara writes:
Running off to mimeograph a fuck-whitey leaflet, leaving your mate to brood, is not revolutionary. Hopping on a plane to rap to someone else’s “community” while your son struggles alone with the Junior Scholastic assignment on “The Dark Continent” is not revolutionary. Sitting around murder-mouthing incorrect niggers while your father goes upside your mother’s head is not revolutionary. Mapping out a building takeover when your term paper is overdue and your scholarship is under review is not revolutionary. Talking about moving against the Mafia while your nephew takes off old ladies at the subway stop is not revolutionary. If your house ain’t in order, you ain’t in order. (The Black Woman, 134-135; emphasis mine)
Talk about crunk. Bambara gives the side eye to the notion that you can attack capitalism, racism, or other systems of dominance out in the world without challenging those same systems (especially hetero-patriarchy) within one’s own relationships. That, in fact, leaving your own house “out of order” not only jeopardizes but it, in fact, undermines both your potential for good work and your potential for intimacy and happiness. Indeed, for me, Bambara’s call for us to essentially get our ish together charges us to recognize how important—how revolutionary—it is for us to love (and love on) each other and ourselves fiercely and fearlessly.
Family, I’ve been trying to get my own house in order. The past few years have had a lot of joy, but they’ve had a lot of pain too. Betrayals, disappointments, setbacks, and outright bad luck have played an all too prominent part of my life. At times it seemed like everything in my personal and professional life were conspiring together to get my pressure up. I’ve been sick, tired, frustrated—you name it. Of course, I kept chugging along, smiling, showing up, doing my thing, but I was so over it. Where was my joy? I wondered.
One day I was in my office, checking Facebook between classes and an intriguing quote showed up in my newsfeed:
“If your compassion doesn’t include yourself, it is incomplete” ~Jack Kornfield
I remember sitting in my chair and becoming quite still. How was I trying to be this feminist teacher/scholar/activist/ mentor/daughter/sister/lover/homegirl when I didn’t (really) treat myself with the same loving kindness I was trying to put out into the world? Why wasn’t I extending the grace I tried to extend to others to myself?
The answer to that question is complicated, but, suffice it to say, the quote helped to catalyze some thoughts that had been swirling around in my mind for some time. Sitting at my desk that day, I typed up the phrase “Are you taking care of yourself?” and printed it out. I put the question all over my house. When I get up in the morning and go the bathroom “Are you taking care of yourself?” is pasted on the mirror so I can consider it as I brush my teeth or wash my face. The phrase is also pasted under the Ochun altar I have in my bedroom so that when I light candles and meditate I don’t forget to think about how I am caring for myself. The question is pasted on my front door so that as I am rushing out (invariably late for something or other) I can take a moment to check in with myself.
Asking myself this question, being compassionate to my own self, checking in with myself, my needs and my feelings, has not made me superhuman or super-selfish. I’m just more present to myself and to others because I am less drained by the consequences of ignoring my own happiness. Maybe I’m getting all New-Agey and touchy-feely. Ha. Maybe so. But, I do know that being more intentional about my self-care has brought me a greater sense of joy, peace, and purpose. And that right there is revolutionary.