A Marathon, Not a Sprint
Engaging the Erotic to Make Mutual Aid a Sustainable Part of Your Life
In my last piece, I wrote about how we can prepare, as a collective, to better support the ever-growing number of people who are suffering persistent symptoms of long COVID, also known as PASC (or post-acute sequelae disease). I spoke with a friend of mine, who has lived with a chronic illness for years and who is involved in online disability justice communities. They offered helpful tips that we can all incorporate into our lives in order to reorient ourselves toward a more collectivist mindset, both in our interpersonal relationships, and also in how we understand ourselves and what shifts we need to make in order to truly live our values.
As a therapist, I work with a lot of folks who are similarly committed to mutual aid, either as part of their own cultural practice and political beliefs, or who are newly involved in mutual aid efforts as a result of the pandemic itself. Some have found participating in mutual aid a valuable and indeed indispensable adaptation to the stress brought on by the pandemic, helping them form social connections and mitigate the chronic stress response we all feel during this unprecedented and ongoing crisis.
Regardless of whether mutual aid is something you’ve been raised doing, have long committed to out of necessity, or is something you’re new to, the most important aspect of our mutual aid efforts is that we are able to engage consistently and sustainably. As such, I’ve been thinking of what has helped me make participate in mutual aid something I’m able to do regularly. Here’s what has come to mind.
What Work Are You Already Doing?
As a therapist, the work that I do is, obviously, emotionally intense. When I started to become involved in local mutual aid efforts, I noted immediately the call for mental health first aid and support, particularly for elders in my neighborhood. Organizers were trying to get people in contact with older folks in the neighborhood who were isolating alone and needed someone to call to check in on them weekly or a couple of times a week. And while my training and years as a therapist might have made me perfect for this role, I knew that to take on additional hours of emotional care work would not have been sustainable for me.
There are so many different types of tasks that go into making a strong, sustainable mutual aid effort. While additional mental health support isn’t something that I have the capacity to take on, there were many other tasks that needed doing: Driving on the weekends to deliver boxes of food to neighbors; cooking hearty and filling meals for the community fridges; collecting books for the rolling libraries in my area; donating to the free store; volunteering a few hours a week from home to support dispatch by taking calls from community members and matching them with resources within the network; supporting fundraising efforts. What are the tasks you spend most of your week engaged in? Do you have the capacity to do more of the same as part of a volunteer or mutual aid effort? If not, can you think of ways that spending your energy outside of work hours that might feel generative, rather than depleting? Can those activities be matched with the needs of your local mutual aid collective?
What Work Feels Good to Do
One of the texts that I return to again and again in my work as a sex educator and therapist is “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” by Audre Lorde. In it, Lorde writes:
“…the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we feel in the doing…my work becomes a conscious decision — a longed-for bed which I enter gratefully and from which I rise up empowered.”
I think about this quote when it comes to how I experience participating in mutual aid. My mutual aid efforts, thus far, have been around food justice. Cooking for me has always been meditative and embodied: My mom told me that I move like my grandmother (who I never knew well) in the kitchen, dancing as I chop garlic, seasoning by intuition rather than following a recipe. It is a sensual process, one that connects me to my ancestry. It is also an erotic one, if we consider alternate, or more expansive, definitions of the word. Lorde writes,
“The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects — born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”
One of the fridges I support is in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, and the organizer of the fridge is Peruvian — like me, my mother, my grandmother. Finding this out was a moment of crystalline synchronicity, a bright spot in an otherwise chaotic and heavy pandemic year. I had made carapulcra for the fridge, and posted the process to Instagram, tagging the fridge’s account and checking with the organizer to make sure there would be room for the meals. She responded in excitement that there was, and later told me their father had taken a small sample of the meal I provided after I dropped it off. “He gives it an A+,” she told me, a poignant moment of connection that filled me with pleasure and delight, helping me feel connected not just to community, generally, but to my heritage in particular. These moments of pleasure and contentment abound in mutual aid work, and it’s okay to be present to them and seek them out.
Get Real About Your Resources
Some weeks are heavier than others, and I don’t always have the energy to make a meal for 10+ people and drive it over to the fridge locations. It’s okay to get real with yourself about your resources and capacity — in fact, I’d argue that this self-awareness is integral to sustainable and consistent community mutual aid work. None of us is here to singlehandedly save the world, and we were not meant to be martyrs. In fact, that mindset is what it is our responsibility to unlearn, as it keeps it trapped in what indigenous doctoral candidate Mylan Tootoosis calls “the hamster wheel of neo-colonialism.”
Part of getting real about your resources is that it includes not just emotional or energetic resources, but also money. This can be hard, especially for those of us who grew up in households where money was a persistent stressor. On the weeks that I don’t cook, I donate what I would have spent on ingredients to the various community fridges in Queens. It’s not always a huge amount of money, but is an amount that I can offer consistently, which in some ways, matters more. As a facilitator for the Sex Worker Giving Circle once told our cohort, “Five dollars a month may not seem like much — but five dollars a month over the course of five years is three hundred dollars!” Nothing to sneeze at, certainly.
Offering money can feel more impersonal than cooking a full meal and pouring energy and presence into the process. But it doesn’t have to be. How often do we take the opportunity to be mindful with our spending, especially in our consumer-driven culture, motivated by anxieties over scarcity, lack, and competition? When I donate to the fridges, I take a moment to feel gratitude for their existence, for the ways they demonstrate to my community, physically and in an embodied and relational way, that love and desire for change — two emotions overwhelmingly connected to the erotic — exist among us, freely, profoundly, and sustaining.