Essential Care, Handling and Training of Oneself
Part 3 of 3

A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine invited our family over for lunch. She was serving “Miracle Chili.” The miracle, she said, was that for the first time in her life, she had discovered how to cook something that she liked to eat and wanted to share with others.

I understood exactly.

I remembered a hazy afternoon in my early 20’s, laying on an unmade bed, wearing the sweatpants I’d put on the night before to save time, surrounded by piles of clothes, books strewn about, an empty fridge, and a notice of overdraft on my checking account. I dreamed of a magical day in the far distant future: a day when all of my socks would be matched and tucked neatly in a drawer. When I would know how to balance my bank account and have invented some schema for paying bills on time. I would know how to shop and plan a menu and cook something I might actually like to eat.

If I’d had more energy or imagination that day, my fantasy might have become even more complete: I might have a regular exercise routine, a physical practice that I approached with structure and commitment. I would discover some spiritual path, a meditation practice and a values-based community that would feel authentic to me, not strained, randomly chosen or forced. Some part of every day would be silent. I would learn what my body needed to be able to get to sleep at a reasonable time, stay asleep through the long night, and wake up feeling ready to face the world. I would have time to read books of my own choosing, spend enough time in nature, and explore museums to feed my hunger for beauty. I would remember to take my vitamins and get my haircut when I needed it. I would find a doctor – a general practitioner, a gynecologist, a dentist, and an acupuncturist that I trusted and would keep appointments regularly.

The process of self-care and healthy self-parenting never ends; it moves and doubles back, re-formulates as we age, change careers, and enter into new stages of life.

In my mid 20’s, I realized for the first time that I needed to begin some kind of regular exercise practice, when I first dated a guy who ran regularly.

I bought a cheap jogging trampoline – with legs that I could screw off and store under my bed. I would run/bounce, singing along to loud music with all the lights off. Obviously, I could only engage in my chosen “sport” when my roommates were out of the apartment. As a long-term exercise plan, it had some limitations.

I signed up at the public pool, swam laps at designated shifts. Frozen hair in the winter with no blow dryer outlets in the changing room ended that. I joined and quickly quit a gym- skeeved by all the indoor sweating, the damp leather seats, and the disturbing Orwellian image of people watching the Nature Channel while running on treadmills.

By my 30’s, as I began my clinical practice, it became clear to me that I needed a daily physical practice more than ever to feel well – and that my own right exercise needed to happen outside. I needed air, weather, horizon, wind, ground, and distance. I began hiking the trails outside of the city on weekends, and taking 10-12 mile urban walks during the week. I skipped subways and scheduled appointments so that I had opportunities to walk as my primary transportation. I bought an ergonomic backpack and all the weather gear I needed.

As my schedule intensified and I had less time, I bought books and looked at videos on speed walking. I did my pointy-elbowed-hip-swinging-goofy laps, 3 miles religiously around and around Washington Square Park. I grew less embarrassed, and prouder of myself, when I began to pass the slower runners.

A move to a new apartment put me near a softer running path – and I began running 2 or so miles several days a week. When we became parents, I realized that since there was no more reliable silence in my home, I needed my exercise to double up with my meditation practice. I began studying tai chi and bagua individually once a week with a martial arts master. For the past 7 years, I’ve had my own regular practice – running, meditation, and martial arts practice 4 or 5 days a week, outside, in the park near our home. And with the proper gear, neither snow nor rain nor heat will delay this courier from my appointed rounds.

Learning to cook, finding the right health care providers, establishing a meditative practice, finding a spiritual community, creating systems for housekeeping, devising my own rituals for good sleep hygiene, all involved lengthy processes of building up mastery, growing pride in myself, uncovering knowledge about what was realistic and sustainable for me, and gathering data about what actually felt good, right, interesting and pleasurable.

Don’t even think about getting it right the first time. Forget about finding and “settling” on one routine or system. Your needs will shift; your time, your energy, your location, your commute, your finances, and your priorities will change over time. And so will your bill-paying routing, your workout, your diet, your shopping list, and your bedtime.

As all things, these are fluid practices – you are unlikely to find a routine that “fits” all of your life stages, local logistics, and physical changes as you grow and mature. In Winnicottian terms: “holding” and what it takes to feel held becomes increasingly complex and changes throughout life and development. An infant is easier to hold and care for than a toddler; and providing a sufficient holding environment for a teenager is a far more complex process than mere diapering and bottle warming. Holding our adult selves well – creating a rhythm of life and activity that makes our adult needs feel contained, soothed, regarded and respected is a veritable Rubik’s Cube: needs coming into conflict with each other, switching and flipping back, working through, to find the right time and space for them all.

And then doing it over again when growth or change messes it all up.

Miracle Chili actually takes years and years to cook. Years of first learning what you are hungry for, what you like, what you digest well, what tastes good together, and what really feeds you.

And I vividly remember the day when I opened my dresser drawer and realized that somehow – after years of struggling to pay attention, many starts and stops, relearning, reworking, and regrouping – that all my socks were matched and rolled neatly in my sock drawer.