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Life

Cecile Richards on How to Stay Sane in This Wild Political Moment

How the former president of Planned Parenthood does self-care.

cecile richards
Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

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.

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To top it all off, it was cold — something Texas absolutely never is in the summer (or even the spring or fall). I was freezing, so we made a fire in the fireplace and Sarah, the mother, sent me to bed with a hot-water bottle to warm my feet. As I fell asleep, I wondered about this crazy place I had landed. But over the course of that summer, I fell in love with the island. It was so different from anything I’d ever experienced back home in Texas, from the pine trees and rocky coast and seaweed to the jars of raspberry jam we made after foraging from the wild bushes on the island. The people were quirky, resilient, and hardworking.

I’ve been returning to the same island ever since. My husband, Kirk, and I came here for our much-delayed honeymoon, once we finished organizing a nursing-home workers’ strike in Beaumont, Texas. We stayed in the same farmhouse I had as a teenager. And once we had kids, we kept bringing them back, renting the odd house or staying at someone’s place while they were out of town.

Now that our kids are grown, they come and bring their friends. One unforgettable summer, we built a wooden dory with my mother and named it the Red Rocket.

Maine is home to some of our most indelible family traditions: fresh fish from the mainland, homemade salsa verde, pasta with clams, beans and rice suppers where we invite the other islanders to join in. Some of my happiest moments have been jumping off the dock into the coldest water I’ve ever experienced — either on a dare, or because a loved one is leaving and that’s our ritual for wishing them a safe return to the island next time.

Having a place that in our vagabond organizing lives we can call “home” has mattered more than I ever could have imagined that first summer when I was sixteen. Today my son, Daniel, comes from Washington; his twin sister, Hannah, from Colorado; and Lily, our oldest, from whatever campaign spot she happens to be living in at the time. And though I’m not a romantic, I do imagine that one day in the not-too-distant future, they too might bring their families, raising their children to love a foggy day on a tiny island off the coast of Maine — a place that’s invigorating and restorative.

When I first set foot on the island all those years ago, I had no idea then that I had found more than a great place to spend a summer. Going to Maine has taught me the importance of having something outside of my job that brings me joy. In all the times when I can’t pack up and run off to Maine at a moment’s notice (which is most of the time), playing with my dachshund, Ollie, trying to master a new pasta recipe, or even scrolling through my favorite Instagram accounts (shout out to Harlow and Sage!) will do the trick. Having those happy distractions provides a much-needed sense of perspective and reminds me that there’s a whole world outside of the constant battles and soul-crushing political news. Even in the toughest moments, that can make all the difference.

Cecile Richards is the former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the author of Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead.