Sometimes people will ask me for advice on how to maintain both creative work and social activism for the long haul, and every time, one of the most crucial suggestions I can offer is to take honest-to-goodness breaks. I’ll say, “You are no good to anyone if you are too tired or too burnt out.” The truth is that this is not advice I’ve ever been good at taking myself. I habitually work for ridiculously long stretches of time; long days with no breaks, week after week, with no days off. And even when I would take a moment or two for myself, these weren’t real respites because in my mind, I was still thinking about all the things I wanted or needed to do at work.
At a certain point in this cycle, I started to feel the extraordinary weight of this, and I knew that I couldn’t maintain such a relentless pace without a break for much longer. What I learned when I was actually forced to take time off was that the best, most inspiring ideas really do come to you when you give your brain a rest. Feeling the weight of burnout with a deep fatigue in my bones and having a hard time getting past my creative blocks, I decided that February was the month that I was going to take some time off. I finally have an extraordinary team running Feminist Frequency who are more than capable of handling things while I’m away.
Despite knowing that I needed to step away for a bit and actually had the capacity to do so, it was really hard to give myself permission to take this time off. The plans had been made before the election, and as my first day off was looming I started to think, “The world is burning! I can’t leave! I have to stay and work! I have to keep taking action, what horrors will I return to if I leave?!”
And yet, when the time came, I turned off my phone completely and engaged in no social media, no news, no email, no nothing for 12 glorious days. And when I got back, you know what? The world was still turning, and yes, the news was still horrifying, but with some wonderful glimmers of hope. I read a lot during this time and found myself inspired and invigorated by that experience, so I wanted to share some of the books I read with you. But first, let me say that if you are concerned about burnout and maintaining mental health, 16 Acts Of Self-Care To Get You Through 2017 and How to #StayOutraged Without Losing Your Mind are two great articles that provide tips and suggestions.
Everything Belongs to the Future – Laurie Penny
A prolific writer and journalist, Laurie Penny is best known for her brilliant feminist nonfiction on politics, culture and current events, but she has recently begun to dabble in fiction, and the results are splendid. The novella Everything Belongs to the Future explores a dystopian future when the rich (and the few artists deemed important enough) are given access to nearly unlimited time and unlimited youth through a little pill.
As is familiar to us, the rich have access to all the privileges society has to offer while the poor continue to be excluded. And while the story has a “good versus evil” element to it, Penny wonderfully complicates this dynamic by giving her characters real depth and raising serious ethical questions. What if the creator of this technology is unhappy about what has come of it? What role should activists play in fighting against the growing social and economic inequalities? It’s a short, fast read that encourages us to reflect on what kind of world we want and what sacrifices we’re willing to make to try and achieve that.
Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If you haven’t read Adichie’s Americanah, go do that now. As soon as you’re done, like me, you will probably start trying to read everything this Nigerian author has ever written. This urge to devour her work is the reason I picked up Purple Hibiscus blind to what the story was about, and I truly did not expect it to be as intense as it turned out to be. As fifteen-year-old Kambili tenderly narrates her story, we quickly learn that her life is suffocatingly constricted in the way that children familiar with abusive households know all too well. Her father is a wealthy religious tyrant who has very clear and firm rules for his children, wife, and anyone who wants to interact with him. If those rules are violated, archaic punishment is doled out.
The book almost never gives the reader a break, and I found my shoulders tense and my jaw tight from start to finish. Kambili is so attached to her father, even at the risk of pain, that watching her struggle with forces that challenge the perspective her father has ingrained in her or that indicate the possibility of a different life is gut-wrenching. Adichie captures the human yearning for attachment even in the face of emotional and physical abuse so vividly and believably that I felt subtle horror and empathetic pain for Kambili as I turned each page. This might not be a book for everyone, but it is a truly important one nonetheless.
Hope in the Dark – Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit is another prolific writer who brings a philosophical and almost poetic lens to a great many subjects. Even if her name doesn’t ring a bell, you are probably familiar with the term ‘mansplaining.’ While Solnit didn’t coin the term, her 2008 essay Men Explain Things to Me brought widespread attention to the reality that men often patronizingly explain things to women that we already know, and discussed how this tendency silences women and undermines our credibility.
Hope in the Dark is Solnit’s wonderfully successful attempt to share her eternal optimism about progressive and radical social movements with a wider audience. It can be incredibly difficult to stay optimistic in the face of oppression and hatred but Solnit gives us a realistic foundation for hope by walking us through the global interweaving of social movements, illustrating how a protest or action in the United States that appears unsuccessful may fuel a movement in another country that creates enormous change for their population. She carefully lays out how the result of a successful resistance movement might make it appear as though nothing has changed, because the goal of the movement was to stop destruction.
The lack of institutional memory within activist movements makes it hard for us to remember these wins or make these connections, so Solnit does us an incredible favour by sharing her research of social movements around the world and the invisible glittering threads that connect us. Hope in the Dark is a time capsule of sorts, with the first edition having been published in 2004. The examples of global crisis do not continue past the prolonged Iraq War and it felt odd at times to read about moments, social movements, leaders, and organizations that have come and gone, but it never felt irrelevant. This book reignited my inspiration, reminding me that the long-term struggle we are engaged in did not start, nor will it end, with a Trump presidency. Reading this helped me to feel more deeply connected to a resistance movement that spans the world, the past, and the future.
It’s that deeper sense of connection to the history of resistance movements, that acknowledgment that the work we do matters even if the results of it aren’t always as visible or immediately dramatic as we may have hoped, and most of all, the realization that we can do our best work when we treat ourselves with compassion and care, that I’m taking with me as I return from my break. I hope you’ll keep these things in mind and take care of yourself, too, because we’ve still got a lot of work to do.