Rest Is Resistance for Bodies Like Mine
ART BY CHEYANNE ATOLE
Throughout my childhood, I was never alone. No matter what space I was in, there was always another body in close proximity to mine. Another being to ground and anchor myself in when I felt myself disconnecting from reality. My grandmother is the person with whom I spent the most time, observing and internalizing how a Cuban woman should inhabit a body. Her body was always whirring around, never resting in one spot for too long. She was always tending to the constant influx of friends and family at my house, and when there weren’t any guests to tend to, she would fuss over my younger brother and me. Rest was a concept as foreign to her as she was to this land.
My body replicated the rhythm of hers. It was the only way I knew how to be; she and I were always in “go” mode, and being around others helped us stay “on.” I felt that whenever I was alone, I’d fall into a state of relaxation that would disrupt my productivity permanently, which was a thought that coming to college exacerbated.
I had grown up with the belief that being in community and with others was the way to replenish myself. After all, my grandmother had managed to sustain all 84 years of her life tending for those around her. Following her example, I internalized the idea that taking time away from community to rest was a betrayal of what I stood for and who I wanted to center in my life. Hard work, perseverance, and endurance were the traits I learned to prioritize through my grandmother’s example. Success was tied directly to these characteristics, and I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders when reflecting on the expectations from my community to embody them—everyone was rooting for me, as my success was directly tied up in theirs. There was no time for rest in the masterplan outlined for my life.
Relaxation—as a byproduct of solitude—felt like the enemy, like an indulgence that I could not afford to give myself. It felt wrong to rest in solitude given the context I come from, where so many of my family and community members break their backs to provide for themselves, yet barely have enough to make ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck.
In an effort to overcome the guilt I associated with rest and solitude, I surrounded myself with people at all times. Starting in early adolescence, I began to use the presence of others as a way of hiding from myself. Rest was a luxury many around me could not afford, so I thought, How could I, living the cushy American lifestyle, stop to take a moment for myself? I was always surrounding myself with a multitude of friends, seeking out my family when friends weren’t available, and resorting to existing in busy public spaces to distract myself when even family wasn’t available. The lengths I went—and occasionally still go—to avoid being alone were at best mildly concerning and at worst extremely self-destructive. When I arrived at Tufts, there was no way I would have made it through freshman year on my own, as being around other people helped soothe my anxiety and distracted me from the guilt.
The guilt consumed me in the brief moments that I was alone and engaging in self-care throughout freshman year. This was the life that my parents sacrificed so much for, the life they dreamed of giving their children, yet I felt so much shame about living it out. It wasn’t fair that in their twenties my parents were planning their escape to America, while the hardest thing I had to plan was what classes to take each semester. So I coped with the guilt in the only way I knew how, which was by throwing my body into constant motion with activities, schoolwork, classes, and other commitments to avoid being alone with it.
I was successful at this game of avoidance up until the fall semester of my sophomore year. It became unsustainable for me, when life’s rhythm made it impossible for me to be with others at all times. I found myself sitting alone in dining halls, in my dorm, in crowds at parties. It hurt at first. Every second spent in solitude felt like a thousand paper cuts to the soul. But eventually, like a healing papercut, the sting of solitude faded.
It wasn’t by choice, but I finally learned how to be alone simply because the people I used to rely on moved on from me, busier than before with classes and other obligations. My body, forced to slow down once it was left alone, finally came out of its productivity trance. It seems silly to think that one would have to learn how to be alone; I can’t pinpoint exactly when or how the shift happened, but I learned to love myself as my own best company, as a person inhabiting a body that was worthy of rest.
She picks out an outfit at night for me to put on the next morning. She washes her hair for me because she knows I feel the best with freshly washed curls. She makes sure to do her nails every two weeks because she knows long acrylics have become an essential part of me. She calls her parents everyday to make sure I stay grounded. She advocates for what she wants to read, learn, and experience for her younger self who was denied those opportunities. She knows what to say to me when no one else does. She cares for me better than anyone else in my life. She does so much for me, even when I don’t recognize it. I never thought I would learn to love her like I do now, but I am so glad that she and I are finally getting along. It has made being alone easier.
Beyond that though, the more important lesson that I am still learning is that rest is a revolutionary act and one that I should not feel guilty for. In the words of Audre Lorde, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” This is especially true for people who occupy bodies like mine, that of an Afro-Latina. My grandmother’s body, my mother’s body, and my body were never meant to be able to afford the luxury of rest in a capitalist society that constantly pushes the narrative of the American Dream being tied to the grind. By taking time for myself and encouraging my community to rest, I am actively pushing back against these harmful narratives we’ve been fed as immigrants and children of immigrants. The ways that we—as people of color, as immigrants, as part of the working class—perceive productivity as more important than self-preservation are remnants of settler colonialism and capitalism ingrained within us. It is only by sitting in solitude and caring for my body that I can begin to chip away at this part of our collective consciousness.
As people who are actively working to restructure a world that seeks to marginalize us, our constant need for stimuli and our collective exhaustion is counter-productive to our organizing. How are we to tend to the needs of our community if we do not tend to our own needs first? I’ve been reframing my own solitude as fulfilling rather than isolating, as an opportunity for recharging rather than a reflection of laziness, and as a chance to slow down and reconnect with the life around me rather than as a severance from the rest of the world. It’s easier said than done, but it is necessary for sustaining myself so that I may care for the needs of those around me. So yes, my rest is political, and yours should be, too.