Winter Medicine for Rooting Down and Healing Burn Out
There is a saying within the climate justice movement, they say “it takes roots to weather the storm”. This sentiment suggests that it is our roots, our lineages, our ancestries, and our relationship to community that will keep us grounded, centered, and connected as a network as we face climate chaos, ecological collapse, growing fascism, and the constant onslaught on our human rights and dignity.
Yet as we sing this sentiment in our movements, as we promote this new trend of self care, and as we work tirelessly to build solidarity, I do wonder, are we really supporting each other in being rooted and in taking full care of our spirit, our bodies, and our emotional states?
Recently I read an article in Broadly, titled “When Dismantling Power Dismantles You Instead”, which takes a look at the existence of “burn out” within movements and activism. “Burn out”, a term coined by Herbert J. Freudenberger is defined as a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.” My decolonized version of that is, when one has lost intimacy with that which nourishes and replenishes them. And when we have given everything into our passion, our fire, our ego, and lost touch with our gentleness, our body, our spirt, our roots, and our magic.
The antidote to burn-out is not straight forward. There is no silver bullet. Creating regenerative work environments requires open-mindedness; that we will have to change our lives, our work, our habits. It requires bravery to let go of our egos, so we can acknowledge when we are tired, sick, or bored, or apathetic, and then ask for help or find the courage to step away. It requires commitment to a long process of building emotional and physical skills and discipline so that we have stronger boundaries and self-awareness. For those working in activist or movement spaces, healing burn-out is always going to be a life long practice.
But right now, in the northern hemisphere, we are in winter, an especially potent time to rest. A time where the natural world reminds us that it is nothing but natural to hibernate and to be introspective. To go into our own caves and reflect after a year of gathering, surviving, and showing up in the world for all that we care about. It’s a time where we are given permission to slow down, sleep, and take personal accountability in evaluating the energy we have put out during spring, summer, and fall.
To better understand how we can put rooting down in practice while balancing our important work, I spoke with two sisters, Eryn Wise and Julia Bernal. Eryn Wise is the Communications Director for Seeding Sovereignty and For The Wild. She is Jicarilla Apache and Laguna Pueblo. Julia is the Co-Director and Environmental Justice manager for Pueblo Action Alliance and is also a graduate candidate for the Water Resources Program at UNM. Julia is Sandia Pueblo, Taos Pueblo and of the Yuchi-Creek Nation of Oklahoma.
Jade: So Eryn and Julia, tell me about some winter traditions that you practice that come from your lineage? What is your nation/tribe/community's outlook on the season winter?
Eryn: Right now is a time of listening for my people. Hai, or winter in Jicarilla, as it was told to me, represents a season of reflection, storytelling and prayer. It’s this very sacred time when you still yourself from the outside world and call your knowledge keepers and precious people in to share ancestral stories and traditions.
Growing up, my grandparents would have us throw cedar logs into the wood stove, and I can distinctly remember the scent of the room and the sound of a story being told over the crackling firewood. Shi’tsoyéé, my grandpa, would often stare and speak to the fire in Abaachi for a long time before sharing whatever he wanted to with us. He always asked the ancestors and spirits for permission first.
Whenever I tell a story in the winter now, I always speak and ask permission first from Shi’tsoyéé, and spending time in the dark and colder season never feels as lonely as I see people imagine it to be. For me personally, I'm forced to be introspective and it's a necessary step in my growth process. For a long time I lived in occupied Yacqui and O'odham territory, and didn't really spend time with hai like I had as a child, because the sun was always shining. Reclaiming the winter, as a Jicarilla and Laguna womxn has helped me feel closer to those that came before.
Julia: Winter time is a time for a break. For many Pueblo tribes winter is seen as a quiet period or when the sun goes in. Not only is it a time for us as human to rest but also the spirits and protectors. Everyone needs a break and we recognize that. We make sure to be extra careful during the winter.
Jade: How do you set your boundaries around rest and "hibernation", especially in the movement world? Or what boundaries would you like to set and lessons you'd like to implement? How do you dream about working with your own or the collective culture of “burn out”?
Eryn: I am deeply drained by the exhaustion of most movement spaces, and have grown tired of people showing up just for the sake of being seen. I'm horrible at boundaries centered around time management for self care, but one thing I've gotten really good at is saying no to partaking in movement work I can't meaningfully contribute to. If I can't show up and share and hold space, or give of myself in a way that's contributive and not detracting from my mental, spiritual, physical, or emotional wellbeing, I extend my solidarity and continue cocooning. So much of the movement work I see is shame-based. It feels like if you're not working, you're doing nothing, and “fuck you” for not doing anything, and if you're seen enjoying your life or holding space for your being, you're even more attacked (or isolated).
I've tried to really be conscious about the places I ground in, especially during winter, because I don't want to renew in rotten soil. I really believe that I have a duty to myself, and to the movement to take time to reset, slow down, and distill the teachings of the year. Without that rumination and "hibernation", as you say, I feel like I work going through the motions vs. being the motions that make the movement come to life.
Julia: I believe you're only good to the movement if you, yourself, are in good mental and physical health. On various occasions I've felt burnt out and it makes me wonder if what I'm doing is good enough. The boundaries I set for myself are simple: If I'm feeling tired then I take that extra hour of sleep. I get in that yoga session and meditate. I practice gratitude for the sun rising and setting everyday. Self-care is everything, drinking water and taking care of my skin always resets me.
Jade: What makes you feel rooted in the winter?
Eryn: Building a fire in a wood stove, candlelight, the smell of biscochitos cooking inside adobe, endless stories and remembering, nature hikes and being with non-human relatives outdoors, and singing along at least one time to Christina Aguilera's "My Kind of Christmas" at the top of my lungs while chopping firewood.
Julia: Winter can be rough. It’s cold. It sends a shock to the body. But winter is also about hunting and gathering. For my people winter is the deer season because the meat won't spoil and their coats are ridded of fleas and ticks. In Taos, winter makes you tough and strong because you have to endure the weather. Days are shorter so less activity is only natural. I stay rooted during the winter knowing how my ancestor survived and made it through this season.
Jade: What issue(s) are you currently working on? What is the current call to action?
Eryn: Right now my current call to action is capacity building. I've witnessed and experienced a lot of gatekeeping and lateral violence in various movement spaces in the last year and really see a lot young folx shying away from engaging in resistance work because they feel they lack what they need to belong.
My personal investments will always be in our youth, and defense and protection of the land and its abundance. At home, my traditional territories are being auctioned illegally by the Bureau of Land Management on behalf of extractive industries. Up north in Dakota and Anishinaabe territory where I grew up, Line 3 was given the green light for construction. In occupied Tongva territory where I now live, families are being separated at an ever-increasing rate. I'm just a big sister and nomad, wading between these reprehensible land grabs, threats of harm against the earth, and willful acts of destruction trying to do my best to help where and when I can.
The overarching call to action for me is always a reclamation of humanity, and I do my part to help in this by uplifting young folx with love and solidarity, and using my body in a meaningful way to preserve what's left of this precious planet.
Julia: Protecting greater chaco and ending extractive capitalism on ancestral lands. This work doesn't end and there are more and more acres of land at risk. We won't stop until it ends and we won't stop until they give us our lands back.
Jade: Do you have any suggestions or what to share any practices you’ve been using to root down?
EW: I have an auntie who shares a mutual love of touching the water with me. Wherever we go, we always find ourselves seeking the water. Since I'm on Tongva land in LA, I'm lucky enough to have access to the ocean, and most recently, experienced several days of much needed rain. I like to touch the water knowing that I'll never touch the same waters twice. The impermanence is so profound and the water is such a healer in that it washes clean whatever ails me, and also rekindles my fervor for life. Even when I can't be with the water, I'm always with my plants. Surrounding myself with little sweeties helps me give space for something other than myself and what I see as priorities in the world. In terms of food, I eat mad blue corn atole in the winter time. It keeps me warm, helps me stay full, and reminds me of the morning time when my grandma was still alive. I fervently believed as a child, and I guess still believe that there's nothing a bowl of atole and oven bread can't fix.
Julia: Lots of teas - Indian tea and cata are perfect for the winter. I also love stews and posole during the this time. I'd say, be loving to your body, gain that “winter coat” or “extra layer” because it's only natural. And try to challenge yourself to appreciate the cold - it’ll make you stronger.
In my eyes, activists, Water Protectors, Land Defenders, Climate Warriors, Indigenous Feminists, are all futurists. We work for a vision of the future, where we are safe. Safe from toxins, climate change, extraction of the land and our bodies, patriarchy, white supremacy, and so on. But how can we enjoy and savor that future we are all working towards, if by the time we get there, we are sick and exhausted?
I know it’s hard to take time for ourselves. Because of internalized oppression, because of “scarcity mindsets” and intergenerational trauma, we think we are abandoning our people if we take a break. We feel guilty. We feel that we become the burden by stepping away. Sometimes, we even believe we don’t deserve time off, or that self care is somehow “selfish”.
But the reality is, we can no longer afford to push our needs to the side. We need to stand in the affirmation that denying our selves love, and gentleness and pleasure, end here. Our ancestors fought so we could be happy. Yes, there is deep work to do to address the patterns I mentioned above but to even begin that process to dismantle our internalized oppression and uphold or acknowledge our self worth, is not only going to support our own longevity, but the longevity of the movement itself.