Windmill in Snow, by Danna Bodenheimer
by Dr. Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW, author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way
A little more than a year ago, I took a picture of a windmill, at night, in the snow. I took the picture with my phone. It was no big deal, no real investment of time, and certainly no investment of money.
I have always struggled with the idea of self-care. It isn’t that I don’t know how to do it; it is that I often feel like I can’t afford it. It is also that I can never find the time. In some ways, the idea of self-care has felt like more work. But when I took that one picture, I noticed something. It was this tiny glow of a yellow floodlight near the bottom of the windmill. The light shined on it and on the snow. It made the snow look like this soft, pale yellow. It also made the windmill look like it was actually alive. Just a tiny moment of magic.
I decided, that night, that I would start taking pictures daily. I would not spend a lot of time on it, and I would not spend any money on a camera. I would just use what I had. These feel like powerful parts of what might make self-care possible for me. Minimal effort, maximum reward.
It has been about 415 days of taking pictures now. I tried first to take pictures of things that were meaningful and somehow significant. For instance, I was always searching for intense moments of juxtaposition and paradox, like litter next to trash bins. Then I realized that I was working too hard for it. I was bringing the same intensity to my art that I bring to my work. The beauty of art is that it requires a certain surrendering, an unthinking. The same is true of self-care. It should not require concentrated effort. Instead it should call upon more underused muscles of ours, relaxed ones that force a renunciation of exertion.
There are some days when I don’t want to take a picture. But I force myself to. It feels kind of unnatural and weird, but I still think that it is important. When we are most depleted, self-care is the hardest. This is why creating a habit out of it makes it potentially healing in a more sustainable manner. We need to try and create self-care even when we feel like we don’t need it. On the days when I don’t feel like taking a picture, I find an amazing moment of light reflecting on the river by where I live. It brings me back to my day in an essential way. When I do feel like taking a picture, I have an incredible amount of energy to spot nuance and beauty in ways that I find myself revisiting for weeks afterward.
When I take a picture, it forces an awareness of my surroundings. Instead of staring at my phone as I am walking down the street, focusing on texts or emails, I am looking at the seasons change, the flowers that are currently in bloom, the birds that are native to my region. There are things that I had never noticed before. I know so much more about the world around me than I ever did before. Beyond the local world around me, I feel more driven to travel and to create images from places that are more foreign to me.
This phenomenon of noticing has changed my relationship to my work, as all good art and self-care should. First, when my clients talk, I find that I am trying to picture their lives in more detail. I wonder what the bricks on their houses look like, the trees that they see when they walk home, the birds that chirp on their block. I wonder about sneakers hanging from the wires that are overhead. I wonder about the sunset by the train tracks, the colors of the graffiti on the concrete they pass by. Noticing more has made me want to notice everything. It has been a welcome, yet unintended, outcome of taking pictures.
This feels like the nuanced way that self-care should operate. It should accompany us throughout our days and be something that we can internalize and use to deepen our most mundane interactions. It should be something that we can integrate into our lives, rather than always removing us from our lives.
I don’t know if I am a good photographer or not. I don’t actually care. That is an incredible feeling for me. While I try hard to do excellent work daily, I embrace the mediocrity of my photography. Self-care should allow us to engage with parts of ourselves in an unpressured, unhurried, and non-competitive way. It should awaken the parts of us that don’t need to succeed, but rather need to simply breathe and be.
I bought a camera, a real one, about six months ago. Then I signed up for a photography class. This kind of messed up the whole thing for me. I started to want to get good at it and make the most of the money I had invested in both. It actually took me a while to get back to just taking pictures for fun. I say this because I think that finding self-care that sincerely nurtures is a delicate and idiosyncratic process. It doesn’t look the same for any two people and it shouldn’t. For me, taking care of myself requires a tender and delicate balance. It took some time to strike it. That’s okay.
Real self-care, real art, is always a work in imperfect progress. Just like we are.
Danna R. Bodenheimer, LCSW, is in private practice at Walnut Psychotherapy Center in Philadelphia, PA, and teaches at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. She provides more of her clinical perspective and tips for developing clinicians in her book, Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way.