I’ve long believed in a self-care checklist — masks, massages, taking time to read a book. Part of the reason is because I’m obsessed with skin care (I currently have four different masks in weekly rotation); the other part of it is because I lived a tech-exec lifestyle in New York City where there was always more to do and every month delivered a new crisis of faith, job or life. Self-care was my solution to the anxiety of it all. If an article or online self-care research rabbit hole told me it was a good way to survive the week, I did it: Korean snail masks, reiki, foot scrubs, lavender baths — you get the gist. It never felt quite self-care-ish enough, though. Each attempt just felt like another item checked off my to-do list in my minute-by-minute life in the big city.
Then, last year, I moved to Dallas in the midst of political upheaval and a pandemic. I left my big-city life, full of friends, events, meeting new people, and that minute-by-minute life scheduling. I also left a city where everyone I met was liberal — now I was in the midst of Trump flags next to Biden flags and wondering whether I could make the same political comments to my neighbors as I could in New York. Suddenly, self-care meant something very different.
Where my weekdays used to be running from meetings to clients lunches, to industry dinners, they were now work-from-home quiet. Without my 45-minute subway commute, I suddenly had time to make myself breakfast every morning. In my mental montage, grinding my own coffee beans and making avocado toast was serene and magical. But when I started doing it in real life, I realized that I hated not being able to go to my local coffee shop and say hi to my local barista. That while other people were reveling in beautiful breakfast recipe creations and at-home perfected latte art, my daily trip to go get coffee was part of my sanity routine.
Every city I’ve lived in, I’ve found my go-to coffee shop where the baristas worried when I missed a few days, and where I knew them, their life goals and bad days. I loved starting my day off with familiar faces in a sea of unfamiliar ones and having a human moment in what would otherwise be a transactional one. That human moment was more self-care-worthy than any SLT fitness class I’d taken in the years prior. So eventually, I dropped the idea of self-care being grinding my own beans and making my own avo-toast, opting for a local coffee shop where they now know my order as soon as I walk in. It was soul-affirming.
The other soothing coffee routine in my life was on the weekends, which I spent at my brother and sister-in-law’s house, over lattes and a little one. They had a daughter at the height of the pandemic — the main reason I moved to Dallas — and I found myself inexplicably in love with this little child. My weekends no longer included errands, massages, beauty-routine nights or detoxes. They were fully focused on this magical ball of energy named Elizey. When I would normally be having brunch, I was instead changing diapers and singing songs to a baby girl who had my brother’s smile and my sister-in-law’s laugh. I would put her down for naps and stare at her for hours as she made me ask Google what sound every animal in the world makes.
Each weekend morning my brother fired up the espresso while we discussed politics, movies, the state of the world and also all marveled over the amount of energy toddlers have. Not once did I miss museum- and spa-filled days in the city. Because, as exhausted as I was after singing Baby Shark for the umpteenth time, nothing compares to your niece running up to hug you. Nothing.
Then my sister had baby Sarina and I found myself flying to Maryland to spend a month with our entire family — something I would never have thought of doing before: too much work or too many events always led to burnout that required a solo vacation. Now I found myself surrounded by two nieces who would take turns sleeping in my lap while I worked, and I knew no vacation could compare.
I reveled in watching my siblings become these fascinating new people as parents, becoming more complex and yet staying themselves. I learned how to bake lactation cookies for my sister and sister-in-law, brioche because I wanted it, and challah because it’s not easy to find outside of New York. (I almost convinced my non-cooking dad to bake brioche with me but the multi-hour time commitment was a hard pass on his part.) I baked for my whole family. I delivered fresh bread to my aunts in Dallas whom I hadn’t had the chance to spend time with in years. I found comfort in the way I could just call and show up, no questions asked. (But still, I tried to show up with baked goods).
When my sister flew back to Eastern Europe, my days became even simpler: morning coffee, FaceTime with Sarina, work, Facetime with Elizey, work, make dinner (ahem, 50/50 order dinner), talk to my parents. The rest of the day: text nonstop with my chosen Framily.
I started live-texting my reactions to the show Arrow with two friends who were appalled at my TV show choice. They were more appalled when I re-watched the entire series but I insisted it was to give better commentary on why Oliver Queen had complex PTSD and could learn a thing or two from Dean Winchester. But we laughed our way through my desire to re-watch these shows. They may have eye-rolled as well, but it’s text and I didn’t see it happen.
My female friends and I started a lipstick-of-the-day chain, exchanging shots of ourselves wearing bold lipstick to hang out at home. Even now, as the world is opening up, we text each other outfits, shoes, skincare questions, Dear Diary-style entries, and talk more deeply about real-life things than we did when we saw each other weekly for brunch, lunch, dinner. When I had a long-planned surgery, they researched exactly what anti-inflammatory foods would help me and had it all delivered. As my body turned on me, they gave me advice, love, and support that no amount of therapy could ever provide. And as I got my body back to a healthier place, they became my hype squad. I stopped using the do-not-disturb feature on my phone because there was never a time I didn’t want to hear about their day, their random thoughts, or learning about a new thing they found — even when that meant texts going off at 6am my time.
As 2021 closes and I brace myself for the “I accomplished X” lists, I take comfort in knowing that I put away unread books in favor of re-watching shows I loved. That I dropped my fancy vacations for time at home with my loved ones. Instead of long-nights out on the town, I had two-hour text conversations with friends and family. In the end, my 2021 list of accomplishments has only one big thing: it’s the year I learned to embrace what matters to me, rather than letting it be overshadowed by all the busy-ness life brings.