Liz Norell

Musings on life, love, and yoga

Category: Body image/acceptance (page 1 of 2)

Best reads of 2017

When I realized last January that I’ve never blogged my favorite books of the year, I was horrified, and I immediately put together a few recommendations from 2016. Thankfully, this inspired me to keep much better track of what I read in 2017, and I’m happy to share my favorite reads of last year.

Although I now understand I chose colors poorly, the green dots are eBooks, the blue dots are audiobooks, and the purple dots are printed books. Those with hot pink dots encircling are the ones on this list. Each slice represents a month, starting with January in the leftmost piece of Quarter 1 (also quadrant 1) and working clockwise around.

I began the year with an ambitious goal to read 100 books in 2017. I fell far short, clocking in at just 65. These were a mix of Kindle reads (mostly bargain chick lit novels that were unremarkable except that they gave my mind something to decompress with), Audible audiobooks, and traditional printed books, both fiction and nonfiction. I began this best-of-2017 list by reviewing my Excel spreadsheet (#nerdsunite) and creating a nifty visualization of my year in reading (see picture). Clearly, I read in June, July, and December. Not so much the rest of the year. This makes some sense, no?

Without further ado, here are my favorite books I read in 2017 (not, let’s be clear, my favorite books published in 2017). There are twenty of them, so pace yourself.

Best Fiction

  • Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett, was a book club read in June, and it was the best book by Patchett that I’ve read. Others have described this novel as more autobiographical than her other work, and the characters felt so much more real to me. I really enjoyed it, and I found the story and characters lingered with me long after I put the book down.
  • Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty. Before it was made into an HBO miniseries, I purchased this book (on the Kindle, so it’s an eBook best read) because I’ve adored every Liane Moriarty novel I’ve read. When Blake, then Doug, binged on the HBO series and wanted me to watch, I knew I had to make reading the book a priority, which I did in August. Once I’d finished, I exclaimed a bit of surprise to Doug about something that happened somewhat late in the book, and he admonished me for spoiling something we don’t yet know from the TV series. Whoops. I’ve only watched one or two episodes of the TV series, but I can assure you that the book is far, far better.
  • The Fifth Letter, by Nicola Moriarty. To be honest, I probably bought this eBook originally because I thought it was a Liane Moriarty novel, but I gave it a shot even after I realized it was a different Moriarty (side note: Nicola is Liane’s younger sister). The thing I loved about The Fifth Letter was how four friends from school reconnected, with all of their baggage and drifting apart, and found a way to become closer. To be sure, it was a bumpy ride, but I really enjoyed this book and couldn’t put it down. I read it in November, on roughly day one of Thanksgiving break, when I probably should’ve been grading. (Whoops.)

Best Nonfiction, International Affairs sub-category

Many of you know that I’ve become rather immersed in thinking about the most vulnerable in the world over the last two years. Being tasked with teaching World Politics and wanting to do it in a way that keeps my interest did that to me. Here are some of the most moving books I read this year to help me teach this course better.

  • The Lonely War (Iran), by Nazila Fathi.  I loved this book so much because it gave me a new perspective on the more moderate (or even progressive) voices in Iran today, as well as how the Iranian diaspora continues to hope for political change in their home country that would allow them to remain in closer touch with the people they love still in Iran. I think this book is necessary reading for anyone who wants to understand Iran, and I assigned it to my World Politics (honors) students in the fall semester. I read it originally in early February. (See also books by Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work.)
  • A Hope More Powerful than the Sea: The Journey of Doaa Al Zamel (Syria), by Melissa Fleming. Every single person should read this book. If I could send everyone I know a copy, I would. It traces the story of a young woman terrified of the sea (she never learned to swim) as she makes her way from Syria, to Egypt, across the Mediterranean, trying to find a stable life with her husband. This story will break your heart and help you understand the very real challenges faced by those in Syria. Do you stay in a country where you have zero quality of life and risk death with every outing for food (which is scarce), or do you flee and be treated as a sub-human by a world unsympathetic to your plight? There is no good option. If you don’t want to read the book, please watch Melissa Fleming’s TED Talk about Doaa’s story.
  • A Very Expensive Poison (Russia), by Luke Harding. You may not realize you’re reading nonfiction and not a spy novel if you pick up this book by Luke Harding. It reads with the pace and intrigue of a thriller, but it’s unfortunately all true. This book tells the story of the poisoning of Russian whistleblower-turned-British informant Alexander Litvinenko in London by two unlikely assassins. I hear it’s being made into a movie, so get the real scoop now before Hollywood finds a way to distort it. (Read my blog about this book.)
  • No Good Men Among the Living (Afghanistan), by Anand Gopal. Had I read this book earlier in the year, and not in July, I would’ve made it the first narrative nonfiction book for my honors World Politics students to read. It was profound; it was infuriating; it was heartbreaking. Gopal writes with compassion, fearlessness, and gravity. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know about our involvement in Afghanistan until I read this book. This is another I think everyone — everyone — should read. I’ve spent hours and hours trying to figure out how to get Gopal to my campus to share his insights.
  • The Girl with Seven Names (North Korea), by Hyeonseo Lee. My fascinating with North Korea continues unabated, and the accounts of those who have escaped and found refuge elsewhere are both heartbreaking and hopeful. This one particularly attracted my attention when I saw it has 1,882 (and counting) Amazon reviews and fully 5 stars. That rarely happens, and the book deserves it. Lee’s courage and tenacity are the stuff of legends. As you read this book, you won’t believe what she endured. You’ll feel humbled by the so-called “challenges” of your life … but that’s really not the point. No, the point of her book is how resilient the human spirit is, how strong we can be when our lives are on the line. Ultimately, this is a profile in courage, and I loved it when I read it at the beginning of my December holiday break. (You can also watch her TED talk here… but there is a LOT more detail in the book, and I wouldn’t watch the TED talk in lieu of reading it. Just whet your appetite, then go read it.)

Best Nonfiction, American politics sub-category

I don’t tend to read a lot of polemic political work, but I do enjoy memoir-y books and things that make me imagine a world where people can disagree without hating one another. I long for that.

  • The Snowden Files, by Luke Harding. I read this only because I realized it was the basis for the Oliver Stone movie, Snowden, and I figured Harding’s perspective would be interesting. I was right; this book reads quickly and keeps your interest. I’ve become rather fond of Harding’s writing style. This is a reasonably fair account of Edward Snowden’s actions and the results of them. It’s less of an advocacy piece than Glenn Greenwald’s account (which I enjoyed, particularly the first couple of chapters). Regardless of whether you think Snowden did the right thing, understanding his actions, his stated motivations, and their impacts is critical if you want to have a reasoned debate on the virtues and pitfalls of privacy in a digital age.
  • Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work at the White House, by Alyssa Mastromonaco. I listened to this as an audiobook, and I would recommend doing the same. Mastromonaco narrates, and her voice conveys so much more than just the words. This tale of her work as an advance team / logistics planner for President Obama is hilarious, insightful, and just plain fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it. (Far more so, I have to say, than Reggie Love’s Power Forward in the same vein.)
  • Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, by John Nixon. Okay, this book was just plain fascinating. I loved it. Loved isn’t strong enough. I found it to be thought-provoking, utterly compelling, and well-written. Nixon is a former CIA senior analyst who was the lead on questioning Saddam Hussein after his capture by American forces. For someone (Hussein) who we thought we understood so well, Nixon reveals how two-dimensional our portrayal of the leader was. I will probably read this book several more times over the rest of my life. It was just a wonderful little reminder of how people are almost always more complex than our soundbite-infused media world typically can convey (says the recovering journalist). (Read my blog about this book.)
  • Three Languages of Politics, by Arnold Kling. You can buy this book, but you can also read it for free as an eBook from The short book sets out a theory of the three dominant themes in political discourse and how they prevent us from ever really having a useful conversation. Kling argues that conservatives emphasize Western values and moral virtues/traditions over those who are indifferent to these things; liberals/progressives emphasize the protection of the oppressed and the under-privileged; libertarians speak in terms of individual rights over government intrusion on personal choice. When we take an issue and approach it with these different ‘languages,’ we talk right past one another. It’s a great, resonant, and timely read, and one I encourage picking up.

Best Nonfiction, everything else sub-category

There was a time not that long ago when 90% of what I read was fiction, but as you can see … times have changed! Here are a few other nonfiction books I read and loved this year.

  • Shrill by Lindy West and Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls by Jes Baker. Every single woman needs to read these two books, no matter your political or personal perspective, your size, your inclination, your experiences. These books speak hard, brave truths about the lived experiences of women in the 2010s. I love Lindy and I love Jes and I think they are brilliant, hilarious, and brave. I want to be more like them.  (Read my blog about Jes’s book.)
  • In the same vein, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay is a brave telling of what it’s like to live through sexual assault and do everything in your power to make yourself as unattractive as possible to prevent future harmful male attention. It’s very difficult to hear Gay grapple with her life’s experiences, and I don’t always appreciate her pathologizing of her weight. But I was honored to read (well, listen to) her story and connect with the raw and powerful emotions she expresses. This book is hard. So, too, is being a woman in a larger body in 2017.
  • How We Learn by Benedict Carey and Teaching with Your Mouth Shut by Don Finkel. I read a number of teaching-and-learning books this year, but these were the best. Carey’s book summarizes a whole lot of the research on how people think, learn, and remember. It’s a wonderful, readable synthesis of a LOT of great information. Finkel’s book fundamentally made me reexamine the assumptions I make in teaching my classes. At several points, I had to put the book down and stare off into space to think. I put several of his suggestions into action this fall, and in the spring semester, I’ll be leading a book club of my colleagues at Chattanooga State in discussing his ideas. This book will be with me for a long, long time. Educators — read it. Seriously. (But skip all the Iliad stuff if you, like me, yawn at Homer. You won’t miss anything critical.)
  • The Magnolia Story, by Chip and Joanna Gaines. I’m not quite the huge fangirl of the Gaines family as I know many others are, but I listened to this as an audiobook and LOVED hearing Chip and Joanna banter, rather than just reading it on paper. If you can listen to this, and you have any love at all for their work on Fixer Upper (HGTV), you will love this audiobook. I’m not sure I’d recommend it in print, though.
  • The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy. I also listened to this one as an audiobook (read by Levy), and ohmygoodness itwasSOgood. It’s an incredible story. An unbelievable story. An incredibly strong and tenacious woman. And her voice just brings the whole thing to life in a visceral way. I would recommend this as an audiobook, but if you don’t listen to things, read it anyway. This one is worth the time regardless of the medium.

Honorable Mention (not on graph): Best Chick-Lit Series

There were many great contenders, but I give this to the Willoughby Close series by Kate Hewitt. There were five books in this series, and I devoured each of them over the summer at breakneck speed. Highly recommended for those who like breezy and heartwarming “women’s fiction.”

Friends — THIS.

I recently finished Kate Harding‘s and Marianne Kirby‘s phenomenal book, Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body. Not a lot of the information in this book was new to me, but their spunky writing and comprehensive take on the body and the myriad issues that arise in our relationships to our bodies was useful.

Perhaps most useful was a reference to a scholarly article that I will henceforth be sending to my team of doctors (particularly my GP), as well as taking with me to future doctor appointments. It’s not news to those of us living in larger bodies, but it’s certainly not what the mainstream messages of our culture promulgate. Here’s the abstract:

The prevalence of obesity and its associated health problems have increased sharply in the past 2 decades. New revisions to Medicare policy will allow funding for obesity treatments of proven efficacy. The authors review studies of the long-term outcomes of calorie-restricting diets to assess whether dieting is an effective treatment for obesity. These studies show that one third to two thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets, and these studies likely underestimate the extent to which dieting is counterproductive because of several methodological problems, all of which bias the studies toward showing successful weight loss maintenance. In addition, the studies do not provide consistent evidence that dieting results in significant health improvements, regardless of weight change. In sum, there is little support for the notion that diets lead to lasting weight loss or health benefits.

Here’s the article in full text

One of the authors of this paper, Traci Mann, runs a groundbreaking lab at the University of Minnesota (Traci’s lab site is here). She wrote a fantastic book that I listened to on a drive not TOO long ago, Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again.

In short, this woman (Traci Mann) does amazing work that merits more attention. Please check her out … and spread her science far and wide, my friends. So many of our sisters (and brothers) need to hear what Traci’s research has found.


I love you too much to cheer on your weight loss / diet / lifestyle change

Because I am a woman, because I live in 2017, and because I interact with other women, I run across someone on a near-daily basis who is seeking affirmation for her latest weight loss, diet, or diet-pretending-to-be-a-“lifestyle change.” Perhaps a friend posts on Facebook something about how they weren’t even trying that hard this week, yet they somehow lost another 2 pounds!! Or maybe another post on Instagram proudly shares a before-and-after shot after a juice cleanse.

Scores of people will respond with laudatory comments, things like, “What are you doing?!?! Share your secrets!!” or, “Keep it up, girl! You got this!”

But I don’t. Instead, I quickly and consciously retract my itchy fingers and sit on them, lest I drift into Sanctimoniously Unsupportive Friend (SUF) mode.

I'm tired, bossLike John Coffey in The Green Mile, I’m tired. I’m so tired.

I’m tired of living in a world where women feel they are only to be celebrated when they lose a few pounds.

I’m tired of listening to women congratulate other women for subjugating themselves to a culture that is always, forever telling women to be smaller, to take up less space, and to be quieter.

I’m so endlessly friggin’ tired of celebrating what is almost always a choice to slim down made on the recommendation of (or as the result of shaming by) medical professionals … a choice that will nevertheless leave my friends LESS healthy.

I’m tired of the world telling the people I love that they are less worthy when they have an extra pound. Or twenty. Or a hundred. Or a thousand.

Frankly, friends, I don’t care what you weigh. I see your beauty, and I celebrate it.

How many times has each of us tried to lose weight? Do you know how often diets are successful in helping individuals keep off the weight long-term? Less than 5% of the time — if we’re being really, really, REALLY generous. Is that because we all lack willpower? Is it because we don’t want it bad enough? Is it because we’re inherently lazy?

No, no, no!

If losing weight required only motivation and willpower, we’d all be successful the first or second time around and move on about our lives.

Dieting or trying to lose weight for the sake of losing weight means declaring war on your body, turning off your instincts, and forcing yourself to deny the wisdom of the ages. It’s unhealthy, it creates stress, and it rarely works.

So friends, no. I will not celebrate your weight loss. I will not cheer on your latest lifestyle change. I will not join you in making bread, sugar, dairy, or any other kind of food the enemy for the sake of losing weight.

You have more important things to do than lose weightInstead, I will continue to love you for who you are way, way far away from the weight-loss efforts. I will applaud your accomplishments. I will compliment your beauty as a person. I will not applaud genetic privilege, nor will I shame the lack thereof.

Our world is hurting. So many people need our help. The issues that face us as a global community matter far, far too much to waste our time and energy on something that Does Not Matter. Your ability to help others, engage in meaningful action, and love others is not even slightly dependent upon a number on a scale.

Instead, friends, please put away the diet books, motivational Instagram accounts, shakes, cleanses, and orthorexia (an unhealthy obsession with “healthy eating”) , and instead embrace your body’s inherent wisdom. A HuffPost article reads:

At its core, food freedom actually has nothing to do with food. Instead, it’s about being in a loving, accepting, and trusting relationship with your body – and with (all parts of) your self.

Think about it. If you truly loved, accepted, and trusted your body, you would listen to her. You’d honor her cravings. You’d allow her to enjoy the act of eating. You wouldn’t cause her pain by eating too little, too much, or foods that don’t make her feel good.

Instead, you’d seek to give her pleasure by choosing foods that make her feel energized, vibrant, and alive.

To sum up, friends, I love you. Right now, just as you are. I don’t need (or want) you to risk your future health by pursuing weight loss, regardless of what “lifestyle change” wrapper you put it in. No number can represent your self-worth.

Listen to your body. It is wise beyond measure.

Daring Greatly

Brene’ Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, takes its name from a speech given by Teddy Roosevelt in April 1910. He said:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worth cause;

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Does this speech leave you as breathless as it does me?

LionAs I read this, and imagine the great TR speaking at the Sorbonne in Paris in his uniquely passionate and animated fashion, I imagine a great lion staring down battle, prepared to fight as long and as hard as he must.

TR is the man who, in 1912, was shot in the chest … and went on to give a rather lengthy speech (you can read the full text — and it is FULL! — here), because, as he said, “there are just a few more things that I want to say to you.”

TR fought in many arenas in his lifetime; his battles had unmistakable national and international import (to take one minor example, he traveled a river never before fully explored in Brazil, nearly dying in the process; it now bears his name).

To be sure, Teddy Roosevelt remains my most favorite president of all time (I’m hardly alone in this), and stories of his bravery and leadership abound. His willingness to put himself in the arena, as it were, was unmatched in his time (and rarely matched since). When I think of daring greatlyI think of TR.

I won’t ever face nearly certain death at the hands of rainforest; I won’t maneuver international politics to make way for a vital canal to join two great oceans; I won’t have a timeless child’s toy named after me. But I do take my inspiration to step outside the lines of the comfortable from TR.

As I think back over the last nine years, I recognize the evolution of my willingness to dare greatly. Nine years ago, daring greatly meant spending the better part of eleven months trying to extricate myself from a poisonous relationship. In TR’s words, that effort was replete with error and shortcoming; ultimately, though, I was successful in extricating myself with minimal collateral damage. I dared to imagine a different life for myself. The intervening years have been filled with their ups and downs, but the through-line has been a steady increase in both my capacity for and willingness to engage in daring greatly.

And yet, there’s still so much more I want to do; more daring ahead, more risk-taking, more coloring outside the lines. For someone who, fundamentally, fears change and worries incessantly, embracing TR’s challenge of daring greatly does not come naturally.

I believe that our life has many seasons; I believe that we are ever-evolving and changing to meet our current season, with its unique challenges and opportunities. I have never been very good at sitting still in life and just letting the present be what it is; I’m always looking for a new growth opportunity or cool way to stretch myself. As my dear TMP so often says, “You tend to overcommit.” And yet, as he also recognizes, it is that tendency to overcommit that makes me uniquely Liz. Who would I be if I weren’t constantly going out of my way to help others? What would my life even look like? Perhaps it would be calmer, but it would almost certainly also be less fulfilling and far less interesting.

These are the twin impulses: All change is bad, but stagnation is unacceptable. The yin and yang that comprise the soundtrack of my inner voice.

For the last week, I’ve been listening to these two voices battle it out over a choice I’m weighing. I’ve been given a tremendous opportunity to explore a completely new skill set, one that has no obvious fit with my life as currently constructed and that would require significant sacrifice of time, emotional energy, and cost. A big part of me thinks that now — having JUST FINALLY gotten a tenure-track teaching job, ha! — is probably the exact wrong time to take on a new, consuming  project with no clearly obvious benefit to my life at present. Can I not just be content with a new, awesome job with completely amazing colleagues and students?

Can I even type that sentence without a snort of recognition?

Because I am Liz.

I summoned a dear friend to breakfast yesterday to talk this out. I did a brain dump with TMP at dinner last night. Ultimately, they both said similar things: There is no ‘right’ answer, and whatever choice I make will be the right one. They’re both right.

As I’ve sat with this today, though, I keep coming back to one thing, over and over … this challenge, daring greatly, ultimately comes down to taking the leap and entering the arena, even when you’re not sure how successful you’ll be in the fight.

I haven’t totally decided to move forward, but I’m definitely leaning that way. And once I get it all sorted out, I promise, I’ll tell you all about it.


Three (really hard) things we all benefit from doing

What does it mean to be empowered?

Find your voice, shout it from the rooftops, and keep doing it until the people looking for you find you.That’s the question we began with this weekend, as we stood in our power, took up space, and connected with our tribe.

Each of those things defies the ability of mere words to communicate what is so much larger than a single thing or feeling or action.

To “stand in your power,” you must first recognize your power, feel that power, work through your issues and fears and insecurities, and embrace the gifts you offer this world in unique and necessary ways.

To “take up space,” you must first recognize and reject diet culture, which tells all of us — but especially women — that to be small, quiet, and deferential is morally superior to being large, fierce, and confident. Taking up space unapologetically is a radical political action. It cannot happen if you don’t find the courage to believe that you deserve to exist exactly as you do, without diminishment or reticence. Shunning diet culture opens the way to redirect abundantly your time, money, and energy into actions that serve to boost women (and men). It robs the world of energy, time, and resources that break spirits and kill vitality in the uniquely pernicious way of this disempowering culture. Less is not more. More is more.

And finally, to “connect with your tribe,” you must first do the work to know yourself on a deep level. A tribe that stands in its power and takes up space does not abide by hiding the self in shame. You can’t shrink in the back corner and just observe. Finding or being present in a tribe requires active engagement, true vulnerability, and warm presence. Tribes absorb the vibrations of each individual member and amplify them, creating an energy out of the whole that far, far surpasses the sum of its parts. To step into this echoing space of love requires us to shine light on the shame we feel… a process that, as Brene Brown tells us, extinguishes our shame, because shame cannot exist in the light. That release creates space for love to flow in, and it does, coursing from one person to the next, filling cups of spirit and love and light as it flows.

But when you do these things, when you stand in your power, take up space, and connect with your tribe, you are transformed.

I am transformed.

Not 48 hours ago, I walked into an unfamiliar space, knowing less than 10 percent of the people in that space. Today, I walked out of that same place, a place that, for two days, felt like the bravest space I’ve ever occupied, and my spirit felt as though it had linked both with each person there and the larger collective we formed together.

It took me 39 years to find the gorgeous, courageous women (and a few men) who would become the foundation of my tribe. As I continue to stand in my power, take up space, and do the work ahead, I know my tribe will grow, and grow, and then grow some more. To be a part of this empowered tribe means moving through the world never more than an extended hand away from support of the most soulful kind.

It took me a year to make the journey inward that created the space to find and embrace my tribe. It doesn’t happen quickly, and it certainly doesn’t happen without scaring the shit out of you as you hit those calcified layers of shame and self-doubt and fear. But as you sand-blast your way through those defensive layers, you’ll reach your inner light. It shines brightly within, and it will warm the spaces you take it.

Imagine a world where we are all in this tribe, shining our lights brightly and fiercely. What power! What love!

I don’t pretend that’s feasible. Yet, I do know that when you feel someone’s genuine light shine on you, it has the power to change you.

So this is my work. I have found my light. Being with my tribe stokes its flames and brightens its color.

The light in me truly honors the light in you, even if you haven’t found it yet. I know it’s in there, and I will devote my time on this Earth to doing what I can to help you shine your light on us all. We need you.


A time for compassion

You know how sometimes, you get the sneaking suspicion that the universe is sending you a big, bold, messy message? That the world needs or wants you to hear that message, or to learn a lesson, or to bring forth one of your strengths or gifts?

Practice compassionYeah, so that’s been my February thus far. And the through-line is just one word: compassion.

I like to think of myself as a compassionate person, generally. I do try to give people the benefit of the doubt, to act from a place of kindness and acceptance, to stay present. But, of course, I fail — we all do. I fail most often with those who mean the most to me; it’s too easy to find my attention buried in a task or digital device, to tune out the voices of those in the house when they want to engage with me. Merely being present with those around us is one of the best ways to show our compassion. Presence says, “I’m listening. You are important. How is your heart today?” (Aside: This last question comes from Omid Safi’s essay, “The Disease of Being Busy.” It’s delightful.)

So the world sends me these nudges that hammer home to me the importance of practicing compassion.

For example, the world’s sweetest, most gentle black lab puppy showed up in our neighborhood last week. He took an interest in all of us — my family, our neighbors, our dogs. Eventually, I caved and pet his sweet face, and he has been glued to my side almost constantly since. He has heartworms; he’s not microchipped; he needs a family. He just wants to be loved. And the universe says: Liz, it’s time to practice compassion.

I turn on the news in the evening and I see the carnage of the day. An executive order or action that has brought pain and suffering to those in the world, and my heart just aches. But an achy heart does no good, so I instead channel this energy into speaking out, writing letters, looking for ways to spread compassion within my bubble. Eventually, I will find a way to identify and help local refugees who desperately need a kind face and an open heart. (If you know of a way I can help, please do tell me! I can’t get anyone to return calls or emails.) With each newscast, the universe says to me: Liz, it’s time to practice compassion.

A week ago, I had just one lone student come to my Saturday yoga class. She had every expectation that I’d call the whole thing off, but I saw no reason for us both to just leave without doing anything. So we had a quiet, peaceful Saturday morning yoga practice. At several points, she just couldn’t stop herself from saying, “I’m so grateful you’re doing this for me.” But she needed a yoga practice, and I could clearly see that. The universe was saying to me: Liz, it’s time to practice compassion.

An endless wave of students email me with messages about how they’ve caught the flu, have to get a car repaired, or have any number of other issues that preclude their best performance in class right now. It would be too easy to dismiss these students; instead, the universe compels me: Liz, it’s time to practice compassion.

One thing I’ve noticed, though, is how compassion with others, almost by design, requires compassion with self. Kristin Neff is the expert on self-compassion (you can see her work here). Ultimately, compassion is about recognizing pain or grief, putting aside any judgment or critique, and doing what you can to nurture and support someone who is feeling pain or grief. Without compassion towards yourself, it’s much harder to truly remain present for and supportive of the pain others feel. But how to find that compassion for self in a world that is chock full to bursting with shoulds? Kristin Neff writes, beautifully:

Self-compassion is a practice of goodwill, not good feelings. In other words, even though the friendly, supportive stance of self-compassion is aimed at the alleviation of suffering, we can’t always control the way things are. If we use self-compassion practice to try to make our pain go away by suppressing it or fighting against it, things will likely just get worse. With self-compassion we mindfully accept that the moment is painful, and embrace ourselves with kindness and care in response, remembering that imperfection is part of the shared human experience. This allows us to hold ourselves in love and connection, giving ourselves the support and comfort needed to bear the pain. (Read more here.)

I just love this. At its root, compassion is about acceptance, kindness, and care. It’s support. It’s comfort. It’s presence, recognition, and kindness.

Over and over and over again, compassion just keeps springing to mind. The world needs so much more of it right now, and I hope you, too, will listen to the universe asking you to spare what compassion you can… both towards yourself, and towards others.

You be you

Be you. The world will adjust.Last weekend, I was with my — and I cannot stress this enough — absolutely AMAZING Cultivating Kindness group. These brave women show up each week to explore a yoga practice (many of them having never practiced at all, or never having done yoga in front of other people) and have a heartfelt conversation about what it’s like to be a woman in this world. We talk about the stuff that’s just hard: our bodies, our worries, our fears, our insecurities. It takes tremendous courage for these women to jump into a conversation considered taboo by society writ large, but they do it with grace, kindness, and love. It inspires me weekly. It is my happy place.

But this post isn’t about me; it’s about something one of them said last time we got together. We were talking about the short reading I’d sent them for the week, called “The Disease of Being Busy,” by the director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center, Omid Safi. This essay first came into my bubble via a Facebook share by a friend, but it has stuck with me for a long time. He poses the essential question we should be asking people when we see them: “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?”

And one of the women in our group said that she feels like she’s forever busy, but that she rarely actually finishes anything. She says she’s really good at starting, but then something else needs done, then something else, then something else … and so she spends her days feeling ever-so-busy, but at the end of the day, she’s not sure what she accomplished. She expressed a desire to be better about this.

I was so moved by this confession, because what I heard was: “I’ve been doing this thing for my whole life, and I feel like I’m wrong.”

How often do we feel this way? I’d wager you feel this way, like, ALL the time. It’s as though we’ve absorbed this litany of rules about how we’re supposed to be, and when we don’t measure up, we internalize this as failure.

Obviously, this goes deep. And I mean, DEEP. We struggle against our biologically rooted desire to eat the damned cookie, because we’re not “supposed” to. We fight our desire to sleep longer, because we’ve gotta get that day started! We yearn for quiet, but when we get very quiet, we have no idea what to do with it because society values productivity, not quiet.

And so my message to this brave woman was something like: “You are successful. You have a wonderful daughter, a husband who loves you, and a job where you get to help people all day. What about your life tells you that you’re failing?”

The response? The quiet we all need, as the room contemplated whether it might be OK to just accept ourselves as we are, rather than fighting our very nature.

Obviously, we all want to strive to be the best version of ourselves. And if you feel like your inability to see a project through to completion on a regular basis is affecting the quality of your life, by all means strive.

But as I told my group, I spent about, oh, fifteen years agitating about the fact that I never started writing a paper until the Very Last Moment before it was due… in high school, undergrad, and through multiple graduate programs. And then, somewhere just a few years before I finally finished the blasted PhD, I had an epiphany:

My system works for me

Just because procrastination is often described as a plague or a battle to fight, it was clearly not impeding my academic performance or progress. So why was I so convinced I had to change?

What other things do I falsely believe are character flaws or personal failings that are actually working quite well for me?

This shift in thinking for me was profound, and I like to think that sharing this can make your life a little better, too. What if we stopped criticizing ourselves for being who we are, and instead directed all that energy towards doing the things that make our lives sparkle with the happy? Whoa, y’all. That could be a whole lot more happy.

So this is my challenge to you: What about your life or your fundamental nature do you wish you could change? Could it be that this aspect of your life is actually working quite well for you, thank you very much?

What would it mean to let that aspiration go?

What would it mean to accept yourself — nay, LOVE yourself — as you are, rather than as the thing society tells you that you should be?


Eating is not a moral activityPS: Not to get off on an entirely different rant here, but … for heaven’s sake, eat the cookie. Maybe not all the cookies (not that I will judge you even a teeny little bit if you do), but if you want to eat a cookie and you feel like eating a cookie, then eat the damned cookie. Forget what people say you’re supposed to do. Food fuels our body. Fuel is good. But food also brings us joy, and joy is GOOD. Food choices don’t make you a good person or a bad person. Food choices aren’t moral choices. It’s just food.

Life is short. Eat the damned cookie.

Books I read and loved in 2016

I was listening to Anna Guest-Jelley‘s podcast, Love, Curvy Yoga, this morning, and I heard her talk about her favorite books of 2016. And I thought — why haven’t I ever written such a list? It’s appalling, really. For someone whose first or second favorite hobby is buying books by the dozens (if you think that’s hyperbole, check in with my postal delivery professional), why haven’t I been doing best-of roundups for DECADES?!

So, without further fanfare, here are my favorite books that I read in 2016 (not necessarily ones that were published in 2016, it’s important to note). There is no rhyme or reason to the order — it’s too hard to choose just a few, much less rank them!

Incidentally, the links below go to with my affiliate ID. If you would like to support my writing and/or yoga teaching, much of which I do without much or any compensation, please use these links to show your support. Thanks!

While much of the fiction I read is pretty terrible (I tend towards the 99-cent Kindle “women’s fiction” genre), a couple of the novels I read this year really stood out. Specifically:

  • Dietland, by Sarai Walker
    This book fictionalizes the growing movement of backlash against the diet culture. Plum finds herself on a bizarre mission to earn money for weight loss surgery, only … well. You’ll have to read this gem of a novel to see where she ends up.
  • In Twenty Years, by Allison Winn Scotch
    I absolutely love this woman’s novels, and this book was no exception. The characters and their adventures have stayed with me FAR longer than does the typical novel. It tells the story of a group of college friends who reunite somewhat unexpectedly twenty years after graduation. I strongly recommend this book.
  • Me After You, by Jojo Moyes
    I absolutely love this woman’s novels, too. They are always well-written and heartfelt, but in a way that lingers with you long after you finish reading. This sequel to her runaway bestseller Me Before You had me ugly-crying quickly and repeatedly. Nevertheless, it was WONDERFUL.
  • All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
    Alternating between the perspectives of a young French girl and a young German soldier during World War II, this book is eloquent and capitivating. I wish I could re-read it for the first time. It just captured my imagination in a way few novels do.

World Politics
This year, in an effort to become a competent instructor of world politics, I significantly expanded my knowledge of hot spots around the world… largely through reading narrative nonfiction accounts of these places. Here are my absolute favorites, books I think everyone should read:

Social Science
Y’know … the day job. I read a few books in 2016 that generally sharpened my thinking about politics and American government:

Yoga, Intuitive Eating, Being You, & Body Image/Acceptance
The biggest passion of my year has been this inward quest to understand, accept, and be present in my body. These books have resonated with me at a deep level:

  • Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting & Got a Life, by Kelsey Miller
    Holy moly, this book seriously changed my life! It was my first exposure to this thing called “intuitive eating,” and while it’s memoir (not manual), Kelsey’s refreshingly honest voice captivated me from the moment I began reading. And yet, I forced myself to spread this book out, because I found my mind so thoroughly exploded as I read that I needed breaks to process. I will never be the same person I was before I read this amazing book.
  • Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, by Linda Bacon
    This book also changed my life in extreme ways. It was so powerful and paradigm-altering that I bought nearly a dozen copies to give to women I knew would find its message similarly empowering. If you’ve ever struggled with thinking your body was the enemy, you simply MUST read this book.
  • Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, by Glennon Doyle Melton
    Every woman should read this book. It’s an incredibly honest accounting of what it’s like to be a woman in today’s world, beautiful and brutal (or brutiful) as it is. Glennon Doyle Melton is a force to be reckoned with, and I loved this book so much I went to see her speak live… my only life author event of the year.
  • The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, by Brene Brown
    Everything Brene Brown writes, speaks, or does deserves our attention, but this is the book of hers I fully read in 2016. Her message of self-acceptance and the need to be vulnerable is one we can all benefit from hearing. I will reread this book many times before I fully appreciate its nuances and wisdom.
  • Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life, by Judith Hanson Lasater
    This book was the first required reading for my yoga teacher training program, but its lessons have far broader resonance. The message of Lasater’s book really grounds our yoga practice in the simple acts of everyday that keep us present in our lives. I think everyone can get something humbling and profound out of this little gem.

What I learned from Feast

Rachel Cole’s online, 12-week course Feast aims to guide women along the path to becoming “well-fed” — by food, by careers, by movement, by LIFE. I am celebrating the end of this program this weekend.

The program focuses on grounding into intuitive eating principles, showcased in the fabulous book, Intuitive Eating, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. But that’s really only the foundation, because once you make peace with food and with feeding yourself, the door really opens to feed yourself in other ways as well.

As I reflect back on the last 12 weeks, thinking about what this journey has meant to me (particularly in concert with my yoga teacher training), I’m left with the feeling of full-ness. By this, I mean that I have the strong sense of being well-fed by my life, in a way that I haven’t ever quite experienced before.

One of the more important lessons I gleaned from Feast is the importance of recognizing your own sensitivities, then allowing yourself a life that accommodates them. This was perhaps most keenly visible in my experience going to see the Dixie Chicks in mid-August, right around the time we were talking about what it means to be a highly sensitive person. Through my reflections and work around my sensitivities, I became acutely aware of how large crowds completely overwhelm my system. This wasn’t, of course, a ground-breaking revelation on my part; I’ve always know that large crowds exhaust me in a uniquely draining way, but I didn’t have a structure for understanding how or why. Armed with this new knowledge, I was able to set some parameters for the concert that supported my needs — namely, leaving after about 90 minutes, because I just couldn’t take any more sensory input.

Another lesson learned: Stop and listen. Each of us has such tremendous inner wisdom about what we need and want from our lives, but we’ve been too often pressured to ignore that wisdom and instead chase the shoulds — what should I be doing, what should I be eating, what should I fill up my time with? When I pause to listen to my inner wisdom, I recognize that the shoulds are crowding out my deeply felt desires: to connect with others in a deeper way; to hold space for thinking, reading, and resting; to pause and take in the beauty and joy of my life; to see and appreciate all that others do for me. I had so many shoulds that I had no space at day’s end for the things that really matter.

Should is one of our mind’s greatest diseases. I don’t mean to imply that life is all about shirking responsibility or forsaking work for a life of sloth and leisure. Yet, I’ve learned that it’s all too easy to convince ourselves that the world’s demands are ceaseless and uncompromising. The group of women gathered in Feast this season almost all spoke of doing so much for others that no energy or time was left for themselves. This feels nearly universal among women — at least, women I come into contact with. There’s more to life, though. Feast gave me a structure, a language, and the space to find my own, fuller life.

As I begin to take baby steps from student to teacher in this realm, I feel tremendous gratitude for the space created by Rachel in this program. Each of us needs such a space, a place to be still, tune into our inner wisdom, and find ways to let that wisdom shine.

The journey to becoming a well-fed woman never ends, but there’s no question I’m much further along the path than I’ve ever been before.

What I learned from yoga teacher training

BREAKING NEWS! Today was graduation day from Yoga Teacher Training. I’m now officially certified to teach yoga classes, after completing my RYT-200 program through Curvy Yoga in Nashville.

I’m feeling alllll of the feels today: excitement at teaching yoga (anyone want to come over for a quick practice, like, right now??); overwhelming love for the other eight newly minted yoga teachers and our two fearless leaders; gratitude for the body — my body — that supported me through this process; and, perhaps most acutely, tremendous sadness that the journey has come to a close.

I never said this out loud to the group of women assembled for the first time back in March, but when I walked into this training seven months ago, I crossed the threshold already sad that our training was going to end in mid-October. Walking into that training in March, I knew in my heart that I was about to find my tribe, to feel completely seen and accepted by a group of women for, quite literally, the first time in my life. I journaled about my incredible excitement to meet them before I left for our first training module. I knew we were destined to cultivate and grow something genuinely life-changing. And I was right: This experience has changed my life.

Going in, I expected this training would allow me to guide other women along the path towards body acceptance and self-care. I wanted to learn more about yoga and how to make various poses work in my body. I thought our focus would be on building strength, flexibility, and knowledge. In this respect, I was dead wrong.

Yoga teacher training instead turned out to be a journey within, a process of speaking my truth — first, to the tribe assembled at our four training modules; slowly, over the last seven months, to the world at large. It turns out, yoga poses are a teeny tiny portion of what it means to “do yoga.” I just … I seriously never understood this until I began this journey, and I don’t know that it fully hit me until just a few weeks ago.

I was on a coaching call for Feast (check it out here) a few days ago, and when it came time for my weekly check-in, I started by saying, “I am … great. I feel so good.” In those moments, the leader of Feast (the incomparably empathic Rachel Cole) said, “You are so full right now. I can hear it in your voice.” So true. So true.

Yoga teacher training, and all the work it has brought into my life — in subtle and not-so-subtle ways — has filled my bucket to bursting. I think my heart has doubled in size. I know my awareness has.

So, yes. If you’re reading this, I’m ready to teach you yoga poses. But more than anything, I hope the light in me honors the light in you, always, regardless of whether or not we’re on yoga mats at the moment.


Older posts

© 2018 Liz Norell

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑