Peter and I were discussing his piece for our upcoming performance class. Peter is eight, a spunky, dark-haired kid who spends much of every lesson telling me how cute my cats are. Thanks to the pandemic, he has probably had as many lessons online as in-person during our almost three years together, which has complicated the normal linear progress of both musical skills and performance etiquette. The piece in question that day was “Shadows,” a little elementary ditty from his method book.

“I made some changes,” Peter told me.

“What kind of changes?” I asked.

“Well, I added some snazz on the repeat.”

Maybe what we all need is a little snazz right now. In so many literal and metaphorical ways, we have all been living in a desert the last few years, deprived of the sustenance of human contact, nurturing interactions, the warmth and richness of smiles and a wealth of facial expressions. There have been plenty of shadows, for sure. And very little snazz.

Just to drive the point home, we are in the middle of the season of Lent, a time in the Christian calendar of self-denial and austerity. Six weeks of contemplation and stillness, no snazz allowed.

As I was thinking about all of this last week in our Covid quarantine, a thought emerged: It’s time to reclaim the definition of Self-Care.

I should go on the record here and say that self-care is one of those terms that has long annoyed me. Too often it seems like an excuse to disappear into a bubble bath with a bottle of wine and a box of chocolates and tell ourselves that we deserve this in the name of self-care. That, my friends, is not self-care. That is a treat. There is a difference.

I have no problem with treats. What I have a problem with is calling self-indulgent behavior (perfectly OK on occasion) self-care. Self-care is more robust than that. Self-care requires some discipline and a bit of backbone. Real self-care is some tough desert austerity: the impulse to give up chocolate for Lent, or the intention to refrain from buying shoes for a year, or the resolve to get up 20 minutes earlier to meditate. Self-care, it seems to me, requires something of us. It’s going for a walk instead of diving into a pint of Haagen-Dazs. It is choosing an hour at the piano over an hour of Netflix. It is an apple, not a candy bar, a half-hour spent journaling versus 30 minutes venting on the phone. These sorts of actions, I have come to believe, are real self-care.

This is not to say that a luxurious bubble bath is never the right choice after a long day, but the challenge is that there are so many distracting shadows in these difficult times vying for our attention and eating away at our better judgment. Our collective bank of self-discipline and steadfast resolve is in the red. Our willpower wanes in the face of everything the world is throwing at us these days. It’s hard to discern what is really self-care in the face of all the exhaustion, stress and general crankiness around us.

In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about her career as a priest in the Episcopal church. One day, she got a call from a colleague asking her to preach at his church in Alabama.

“What do you want me to talk about?” Taylor asked him.

“Come tell us what is saving your life now,” he answered.

Honestly, I had thought the original “Shadows” was fine as it was, but Peter’s version was better. He added a bit of unorthodox pedaling, an odd but totally acceptable transition between the original version and the repeat and one heck of a crescendo on the last line. I might even go so far to say that a little snazz saved “Shadows” from becoming one more forgettable performance.

But Peter’s snazz was no box of chocolates. Peter’s rendition demanded some creative thought, and some real effort and intention in his preparation. The easy thing would have been to simply show up with the notes on the page played half-heartedly. I know this because I have done just that too many times to count. I choose the chocolate, the venting session, the evening of Netflix. I do this and rationalize my questionable choice by telling myself I deserve this “self-care” because I am tired, overworked, stressed out, have a headache or—better yet!—all of the above. I do this even when I know better. Too often our best selves hide out in the shadows.

What is saving your life now? This is the question I am asking myself this season of Lent, this desert season of the world, this shadow season of our broken systems and crumbling infrastructures and warring nations. Both collectively and personally, we need saving. More than that, perhaps, we need to understand what truly might save us. It is up to each of us ask that question and to listen closely to the answer, to attend to our practices, to show up to the particulars of our lives, and to dig in deeply to the hard work around us.

And by all means, add some snazz. Please.

 

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