For the past two weeks, I’ve been on the road: talking about my book, living out of a single carry-on suitcase (a point of pride), and hearing from women about what’s on their minds. Everywhere I go, there are two questions that always seem to come up. The first is one I’ve gotten on a daily basis since the 2016 presidential election: What can I do to make a difference? There are lots of great answers to that one — from voting to organizing around an issue you care about to showing up at a town-hall meeting to running for office.
The second question, though, is harder: What do you do to practice self-care? The women who ask — and it is almost always women — look at me with hopeful expressions, waiting for me to share my secret to staying sane and balanced in these crazy times. And I get it. It’s impossible not to feel demoralized when so many of the values we share — not to mention the progress women have made over the past century — are under relentless assault. Just scrolling through Twitter or reading the headlines can be physically and emotionally exhausting.
I can see the disappointment on their faces when I have to admit that I’ve never been great at self-care. As hokey as it may sound, I feel enormously privileged to get to choose to work as an activist and troublemaker. My work is what drives me, inspires me, and keeps me going.
But the truth is, that’s only part of the answer. For me, there has always been one place where the usual rules don’t apply. When I was a sixteen-year-old high-school student in Texas, looking for a summer job, a neighbor family with three small kids said that I could be their nanny for the next few months in Maine. The dad was a history professor and taught in Boston during the summers. I’d never been to Maine, but the idea of being away from home and out of the Texas heat sounded great.
That chance encounter changed pretty much everything about my future. I flew up to Maine with an enormous suitcase, full of every possible kind of clothes since we didn’t know any better, plus several homemade shirts and skirts my grandmother and I had sewn together. This would turn out to be a familiar pattern in my life — my mother always wanted to make sure I had the right outfits for any occasion. Little did I know that all anyone needed in Maine was a pair of cut-off shorts, a sweatshirt, and Wellingtons for the inevitable rain — none of which I brought. Since I would be gone all summer, my suitcase was also filled with cans of Old El Paso enchilada sauce, tortillas, and Herdez hot sauce, plus a few cans of Ortega jalapeños. We were certain these would be difficult to procure in Maine. At least on that count, Mom and I were correct.
I arrived in Portland by myself and found Widgery Wharf, the pier from which the ferry left to head out to the island where the family lived. Portland in those days was a true seafaring town, with no restaurants or downtown to speak of. There were fishing boats, clam shacks, seagulls, and lobster buoys everywhere.
Hauling my gigantic suitcase down the ramp to the boat, it was so clear I was not from Maine. People were friendly enough on the ferry, but I now know that more than a few must have been making jokes behind my back about what in God’s name I could be bringing out to a tiny island. Luckily for me, a truck was waiting on the shore to meet the boat — otherwise I never would have gotten my suitcase to the house. As it turned out, there weren’t really cars on the island, only walking paths. And there wasn’t any store, so good thing I’d brought the tortillas.