When I give a dollar to one of the homeless people in my neighborhood, I always say, “take care of yourself.” You could say both of those things are meaningless. A dollar doesn’t buy much of anything and that phrase can be as empty as “have a nice day.”
But while I don’t have any illusions that giving tiny bits of money or paying a bit of attention to people in harsh circumstances is going to do anything much, my statement is sincere. I do want them to take care of themselves anyway they can.
And I am both heartened and saddened when I walk past the tent encampment in my neighborhood park and see that people have arranged plants in pots around the entrances and otherwise done things to make that very temporary place (the city could decide to enforce the law against staying overnight in the park any day) a home.
Making the place you live pleasant and comfortable is part of taking care of yourself, after all. Having a safe and permanent place to live might be the ultimate in self care, if you think about it.
Many of us take that for granted, but it’s not just the homeless that lack it. People in abusive relationships don’t really have a safe place to go. And way too many people are in precarious financial situations, meaning their homes might not be theirs for much longer.
When we talk about self care, it’s often to recommend that people take long soaky baths or eat the cheesecake they’ve been craving. I’m certainly not going to object to the healing powers of soaking in hot water or of indulging in a treat from time to time, but I don’t think that’s what self care is truly about.
Even when you’re dealing with very difficult things, such as taking care of someone else who is seriously ill or dealing with financial or legal problems, things that take up so much of your life that it’s exhausting just to get up in the morning, there are basics to self care before you get to little pleasures.
The most basic is a safe and comfortable place to live and enough to eat. If you have to struggle just for those things and they’re never assured, it’s hard to have any resources for yourself at all.
Beyond that, we need community. We are social animals, after all, even if we also need to get away by ourselves. Another thing I notice at the tent camps is that people do build community there. They look out for each other, visit, do all the things people living in apartments and housing do.
(I try not to stare or invade the privacy of the people living in those tents, so I’m just noting the impressions I get when I walk by. I don’t want people staring into my living room either.)
Last week I took a day trip to an island nature preserve set up on Brooks Island in the San Francisco Bay by East Bay Regional Parks. We took a boat there and back from Berkeley.
All we did was hike around the island, with several naturalists and the island caretaker telling us about the plants and the birds and the history of the island. It was a group outing, because they only let people on the island in supervised tours since they’re letting the plant life and the birds rebuild the ecosystem.
I came back with a feeling of peace that I haven’t felt in months. I’ve found 2019 difficult so far. I’ve lost some people who mattered to me and felt overwhelmed by the state of the world. But getting out in that particular way removed some burden I didn’t even know I was carrying.
I don’t know if that sort of thing would work if you were homeless, especially if you live outside most of the time. I have the luxury of a home and food and enough money in the bank to get what I need and even treat myself.
But while those things are basics, without which it’s hard to take care of ourselves, we do have other needs. Spending time in nature is one of them, just as making connections with other people can be.
It worked for me.