Liz Norell

Musings on life, love, and yoga

Category: Politics

Synchronicity & current events

The human brain is a magnificent thing. No matter what you’re currently mulling over in your free time, there’s a good chance that it will pop up in other areas of your life in unexpected ways.

And so yesterday, when I was furiously trying to finish my latest book, A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and Putin’s War with the West, by Luke Harding (a reporter at The Guardian in London), I came across this passage:

A Very Expensive Poison coverThe Kremlin’s aim was to avoid an evidence-led inquiry … and to confuse the public mind. The numerous ‘versions’ of [one man’s] murder … were part of a sophisticated media strategy with its roots in KGB doctrine. … There were multiple explanations. How was one supposed to know which one was actually true?

In fact, the aim is to blur what is true with what is not, to the point that the truth disappears altogether. By noisily asserting something is false, you create a fake counter-reality. In time this constructed sovereign version of events becomes real — at least in the minds of those who are watching. (pp. 386-387)

It’s perhaps not entirely surprising that a book about Putin’s efforts to disrupt democratic society in the west would turn up something that was so incredibly relevant yesterday. But then, just a couple of hours later, I was listening to one of my staple podcasts, Slate’s The Gist, and the next episode included an interview with NPR’s On the Media hostess extraordinaire, Brooke Gladstone. She was there to talk about her new book, The Trouble with Reality (which I’ve now ordered). In this episode, she talks about the many ways in which the truth is obscured by the “baubles” the current political climate generates (crowd size, anyone?).

This calls to mind something I’ve found myself sharing with students with alarming frequency in recent years — a quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former US senator from New York (who, sadly, died in 2003):

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

It’s almost quaint, isn’t it? How cute. How the world has changed.

I think many of us, especially those who have — at one time or another — been drawn to journalism as a career option / opportunity / vocation, want to believe that there is The Truth out there, waiting to be discovered. But unfortunately, we increasingly live in a world where commonly agreed-upon facts are harder to find. When you have someone as cunning as Putin (or as inept as Trump) deliberately trying to obfuscate the truth, and a segment of the mass public who is willing to defend their support of that person to preserve their own cognitive sanity (which I understand — I really do), then the opportunities for mass misinformation run rampant.

And that’s the world in which we now live, I fear.

It’s the world in which I now teach, sadly.

And it makes reasoned, rational, informed discussion nearly impossible.

To wit: Last night, a former student who is (well, was) a Facebook friend sent me a message. I won’t share it with you, but suffice it to say it was (at best) marginally tethered to the truth, a lengthy rant about how Trump can solve all our economic and political problems with a few “common-sense” solutions not even remotely feasible or (in some cases) legal. I sent this person a quick message asking her to leave me off distribution lists for these sorts of messages. She immediately replied: “I tell you what I will delete you and we never have to worry again.”

The world will get no better when we cannot talk across differences; in fact, it will get worse.

When we inhabit bubbles of our own facts, we lose so, so much — compassion, common ground, any hope of resolving differences, and ultimately the very foundation of our small-D democratic (and small-R republican) form of government.

I don’t know how to end this. I do what I do because I have hope, and as an educator I must believe in the power of knowledge to make the world a better place. I keep fighting the good fight (educating my students) and hope my efforts at understanding, compassion, and kindness grease the wheels for true connection.

Carry on, friends.

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.

Namaste.

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 Amazon.com 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!

Fiction
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.

The lost art of listening

The world is noisy this week: first, the giddy anticipation of Election Day, women all around this great country joining Pantsuit Nation on Facebook and proudly donning their “I voted!” stickers; then, the unfolding surprises on election night; finally, the reality slowly seeping in that a loud and bullish man was just elected president.

The noise is deafening. On both sides of the political aisle, we are feeling our voices raise as we either celebrate or lament the outcome of the 2016 election.

I believe that we each know best how to process this election result for ourselves. For some, that means engaging in public acts of protest or celebration. For others, it feels like stupor, the sense that we can’t quite wrap our minds around what has happened in the last three months of our lives. Still others feel a deep sense of loss. Perhaps you’re feeling adrift, not sure where to devote your attention after spending so much of the year mentally engaged in a collective sense of disbelief and uproar.

Noisy, isn’t it?

This is why I believe that, once we’ve had a chance to let this election sink in and the immediate, reactive emotions fade a bit, we need to cultivate some quiet.

We need to stop yelling. We may even need to stop talking. I believe the work ahead of us, if we are to move forward in productive ways, comes in the lost art of listening.

On the left, we had a diverse coalition of people celebrating the imminent shattering of the glass ceiling. A woman who has spent her life fighting for women and children seemed destined to become our first female president. The reasons to celebrate were many. This coalition was pushing for broader access to education, healthcare, clean energy, environmental protection and preservation, and reproductive care. The intentions were noble and the argument came laced with facts, figures, and self-evident truths.

On the right, we had a somewhat less-diverse coalition of people frustrated to the point of outright anger over a system that seemed to have left them behind. They pushed for a clean sweep of the wealthy government officials who don’t understand what life is like for a factory worker laid off when a company moved production overseas, or who resent the seeming aura of superiority and disdain adopted by the well-educated and progressive. These were and are legitimate feelings of being left behind by a world that increasingly demands sophisticated technological skills and deep education. Politics is inherently rooted in emotion, and these voters were by far the most expressive of those underlying emotions.

[Aside: Speaking from experience, no matter what you say or do, when you have more education than those around you, basically everything you do is interpreted through the lens of someone who just expects and believes you think you’re superior. This is a reasonable thing when you consider that every human being is wired to want to fit in and be accepted as they are. The sense that the well-educated assume themselves superior becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when the left makes arguments with these aforementioned facts, figures, and self-evident truths. If the left is to become less despised by the right, they must learn to speak the language of emotion, not reason. See Haidt.]

Not everyone on the left was capable of seeing the legitimate concerns of those on the right; not everyone on the right was willing to see the problems as endemic of a developed economy and not as the result of demographic change.

And here we are: Absolutely nobody is happy. The left is miserable with loss of hope and fear of the future; the right is miserable with the present and fearful the new president won’t be able to do enough to shake up the status quo.

Our solutions, though, lie not in trying to find a single leader who will occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and shake things up. In fact, when it comes to our deepest misunderstandings, the president is only ever going to divide public opinion into supporters and opponents; at best, the president is a net neutral. Electing either of these candidates was going to fracture the country further.

My friends, the only solution I can give you is this: Listen. Really, really listen. Don’t sit quietly while you wait until it’s your turn to talk. LISTEN.

I’m not suggesting you should abide by outright hatred, racism, bigotry, misogyny, etc. However, we know from our experiences of the last few decades, particularly with the LGBTQ community, that the best defense against ignorance and fear of the other is knowledge of the other. Twenty years ago, most Americans felt the LGBTQ community was populated by a bunch of immoral and dangerous people; today, most Americans not only accept this community, but say our LGBTQ friends should be able to marry the person of their choosing and form families. This shift happened because our gay friends came out and said, “Here I am!”

When you know someone who’s gay, it’s much harder to demonize the entire category of people.

When you know someone who voted for Trump and you actually listen to them, you understand how they got there.

When you know someone who voted for Clinton and you actually listen to them, you understand how they got there.

When you know someone who’s a Muslim, you see their humanity.

When you know someone who came here as an unaccompanied minor to escape violence of Central America, you see their humanity.

When you know someone who is afraid to be pulled over by the police because they might get deported for having a tail light out, you see their humanity.

We have stopped knowing people who aren’t like us, and it’s the single most dangerous thing in our country, I believe.

I’m not saying we can change minds or hearts overnight. We cannot. I’m not saying we should condone hatred and bigotry. We must not. I’m not saying you have to do this tomorrow. You need not.

But as we move forward and try to find ways to calm the hatred surrounding us, this is the only viable path. One person at a time, one conversation at a time, we must listen, understand, and let others know us.

I remain convinced that most people, most of the time, are mostly good. Nobody is good all the time, and very few people are irredeemably bad. You can find some commonality with almost anyone you meet. I mean, almost everyone likes pizza, right? Set aside the good fight for a moment and find the common ground. Eat some pizza. Smile. Show compassion for the troubles we all — every single one of us — face.

Listen, friends. Just listen.

Why yoga makes sense for a political scientist

For a lot of 2016, I’ve thought about how divergent my life’s two biggest current passions are — political science and yoga. American politics this year have been — dare I say it? — unusually nasty, and yoga is the very opposite. What is the common thread?

At first, my impulse was to think of yoga as the yin to the yang of my professional life. Political science involves studying how a whole lot of tough decisions get made about (as Harold Lasswell famously said) who gets what, when, and how. Understanding how those decisions get made is at the heart of what I explore intellectually and teach to my students. Inherently, then, political science contains a strong undercurrent of competition, of sorting out the winners and losers.

Yoga couldn’t be more different. Yoga challenges us to embrace now, just as it is. Meeting yourself where you are, as you are, is one of yoga’s greatest gifts. We set aside the striving for a few stolen moments of the yoga practice, and we tune into the quiet voice inside us that knows what we need. Yoga is about wholeness, about love, about presence. It is the very opposite of the practice of politics.

And yet, for me, these two things have increasingly come into harmony for me. It’ll take me a little bit to get you there, but bear with me.

Remarkably, the catalyst for this unexpected marriage of philosophy has come from my work this semester teaching World Politics offline for the first time. To be honest, I dreaded teaching this class: I’m not an international relations scholar, I don’t know much about IR theory (other than what I learned in my one required seminar in grad school), and I’m pretty ignorant about events happening in most of the world. That’s not because I don’t see the value in being informed; rather, it’s because when I have taken the time to learn about world events, I find myself somewhere between despairing and disappointed with the incredible persecution that happens out there in the world. I’ll gladly take the (relatively) petty differences of American politics over the genocide, war crimes, and intractable problems out there in the world.

As a political scientist, though, this avoidance of the tough questions couldn’t last forever, of course. When I was told I’d be teaching World Politics to actual, real students, my first impulse was to hope the class wouldn’t attract enough enrollment to run. We ended up with 12 students, which is a bit low, but the Powers That Be decided it was enough for us to run the class. Faced with 15 weeks of class time to fill, I had to come up with something to say or do with these inquisitive students.

It all started with a whim, really: What if we dove deeply into the Syrian conflict, trying to see the situation from the variety of perspectives involved, then see if we could brainstorm possible actions to move the conflict forward?

I bought an eBook on the history of Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, and assigned my students to research one of the major perspectives. I devoured the book about Assad, told in narrative fashion by a scholar who had visited Assad many times. Staying just a couple of steps ahead of my students, I led us through a “simulation” of Syria. One of my students said, “Is this problem even fixable?” It was the right question. None of us could answer. But in the process, I came to see the humanity of each person or organization involved. Assad isn’t making humane choices, but it’s not that big of a leap to understand why he would fight back against his own people.

Next, we tackled North Korea. I think it’s human nature to be intrigued by North Korea. Reading two personal narratives of Americans who went to North Korea — one for vacation, one posing as a missionary English teacher — deeply affected me. My heart aches for those living in North Korea. They don’t have the benefit of the ignorance I’d been choosing for 39 years: They can’t find out what’s happening in the rest of the world, and if they try, they can be sentenced to life in a work camp or, worse yet, wind up dead. And yet, as we simulated the North Korea situation, my students and I came to understand why the various actors, including Kim Jong-un, behave as they do.

Today, I finished a moving book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict called The Lemon Tree. I was profoundly affected by this story. The story (again, narrative nonfiction) weaves the story of two people — one Palestinian, one Israeli — connected by one house, behind which stood a lemon tree.

It was in finishing this book that I have come to understand how political science and yoga fit together: They each teach us about how to relate our own experience to the broader human experience. When you try to understand how and why others make the choices they do, you challenge yourself to find the common humanity. The Jewish woman in The Lemon Tree embodies this in a way most of us will never have the courage or conviction to do; Dalia understood that if we do not reach out to our enemy, to The Other, we will never stop fighting. We will never have peace.

This reminds me of Jonathan Haidt’s incredibly important work on understanding the moral foundations of liberals and conservatives. Haidt challenges us in his TED Talk to step outside of the fight of good against evil at least occasionally. Instead, he says, we must learn to cultivate a certain moral humility and try to understand one another. When we stop engaging in the mindset of teams (e.g., Democrats and Republicans), we can approach the world with a more open mind and open heart.

And ultimately, isn’t that what yoga is all about? I think it is. Yoga encourages humility; it demands we accept the world as is. People new to yoga often feel invited to compare themselves to the others practicing in the class with them. Yoga invites us instead to turn our focus inward, to listen to our own wisdom.

How much better this world might be if we could invite that same acceptance and humility into our lives more broadly. When we seek out the humanity in others, rather than demonizing or comparing or engaging in Us against Them thinking, we find common ground. We can be present. We can love.

So there you go — my brand of political science is quickly becoming an extension of my yoga practice. It’s been heading in that direction for years, but it’s only thanks to my experiences struggling with my lack of knowledge in World Politics that I’ve really made the connection.

In August 1994, I was entering my senior year of high school after having spent the summer in France as an exchange student, then at a stay-away six-week summer camp for rising high school seniors called Governor’s School. That summer shifted the way I thought about myself and my future. I chose to apply to colleges thinking I’d major in French and international relations, then join the foreign service. It took me approximately 48 hours of homesickness at GW to realize that I wasn’t cut out for that kind of life. I never even took an IR class as an undergrad. I barely even took any political science classes at GW. I’m struck today, as I’ve been struck at many times in my life, how everything has once again come full circle: Twenty-two years later, I’ve fallen in love with a class about international relations and the lessons it has taught — and continues to teach — me.

Each of the books I linked above is a great read. If you find yourself curious about the most difficult problems facing our world, check one (or more!) out.

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