Liz Norell

Musings on life, love, and yoga

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What moved me this week

I spend about 10 hours a week commuting to and from work I love. That’s a lot of time in the car, but to the amazement of most who ask, I cherish it. It’s my time. It’s time I spend listening to podcasts, thinking, decompressing from all of the people-ing I do in my day job, and just generally enjoying minutes where nobody can reasonably expect me to ‘accomplish’ anything. Apart from ticking off the never-ending podcast episodes I accumulate (which, let’s be honest, represent a to-do list of tasks to accomplish assembled by me), I can just be.

This means  a lot of really interesting ideas float into my mind during my weekday drives, and I thought I’d share just a few of them with you now … and, who knows? Perhaps this will become a regular thing. Or not. I’d rather not say just yet.

Nevertheless, this week I was moved by:

Terry Gross’s interviews with two people: Kate Bowler and Finn Murphy.

Kate Bowler is a religion scholar at Duke University (Go Blue Devils!) and has written a book called Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. She has incurable stage-four colon cancer, for which she has moved from a treatment phase into a chronic illness management stage. The preface to her book reads:

Married in my 20s, a baby in my 30s, I won a job at my alma mater straight out of graduate school. I felt breathless with the possibilities. Actually, it’s getting harder to remember what it felt like, but I don’t think it was anything as simple as pride. It was certainty, plain and simple, that God had a worthy plan for my life in which every setback would also be a step forward. I wanted God to make me good and make me faithful with just a few shining accolades along the way. Anything would do if hardships were only detours on my long life’s journey. I believed that God would make a way. I don’t believe that anymore.

What moved me about Bowler’s interview with Terry Gross is just how vulnerably she showed up to talk about her unavoidable death and how she thinks about religion in this season of her life. She has an incredible sense of humor and humility, even as she shares thoughts that leave her a bit weepy in the telling. I loved this, especially:

GROSS: In the preface to your book, you write I believed God would make a way. I don’t believe that anymore. But you still believe in God. You haven’t lost your faith.

BOWLER: Yeah. I mean, I’m a big super Jesus-y (ph) heart over here.

After listening, I bought her audiobook. Whenever I can listen to an author read her own work, I do. It’s so intimate and memorable. I can’t wait. (Listen to the interview — or read a transcript — here: A Stage-4 Cancer Patient Shares the Pain and Clarity of Living ‘Scan-to-Scan’

Finn Murphy, by contrast, is a private, liberal arts college dropout who now drives an 18 wheeler cross-country for a moving company. As an over-the-road driver, he sees our country in a different way than do others. His stories about his work, and the reverent tones he uses to describe what he does? They are amusing, insightful, and meaningful. I think we often imagine the OTR drivers to be something that Murphy quickly dispels. His interview was filled with humor. More than that, though, his humanity really shone through in this conversation. I haven’t bought his book yet (The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road) but chances are good that I will. (Have you seen my living room?)

Pardon the lengthy quote, but this part of the interview, where Finn and Terry were talking about the sentimentality of stuff, really resonated with me:

GROSS: So you write that that truckers like you aren’t sentimental about objects. … You don’t own much. I could easily see it being the other way around. Watching how meaningful possessions are to people, I could see you becoming more attached, not less attached to things in your life. So why are you less attached?

MURPHY: Because we see objects or stuff in a continuum of the way people live. For example, in your 20s and 30s, most Americans are accumulating things. And then in the 40s and 50s, that sort of levels off. And then in the 60s and 70s, then they’re dis-accumulating things or eradicating things. So we get to watch the whole continuum. So we see, for example, that the kids’ kindergarten drawings that are on the refrigerator or the high school yearbook or Aunt Tilley’s (ph) antique vanity – we see that those things are going to be put into storage at some point. And then when somebody is tired of paying the storage fees, then we’re paid to take it and get rid of it.

So movers are kind of Buddhist in a way. We sort of understand the transitory nature of manmade things because we’re there at the point when it gets thrown away. So even if you can’t bring yourself to get rid of your stuff, your heirs or descendants will have no such qualms at all.

You can listen to his interview or read the transcript here: Long Haul Trucker was ‘Completely Seduced’ by the Open Road.

My final favorite listen from the week was Roman Mars’s 18th episode in his occasional podcast series, “What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law.” In this installment, he covers the Tenth Amendment. It was a really thoughtful 23-minute discussion on how the role played in political debates over the 10th Amendment has been changing in the Trump era. We once associated states’ rights debates with conservatives resisting federal laws. In the Trump era, though, the role of federalism has become the battle cry of cities and states who would rather not become an unreimbursed deputy of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. In other words, the fight over so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ is being fought along federalism lines. Very interesting listen.

What does “too much” mean, really?

I'll look back on this and smile, because it was life and I decided to live it.It’s pretty common that someone I know — importantly, someone who knows me well — will ask me, with a laugh, “How many jobs do you have right now, Liz?”

Just this morning, Doug said to me as I was leaving for work, “I just hope you don’t say ‘yes’ to everyone this semester.”

I’ve been known to lament about my tendency to over-extend myself, to commit to more things than I probably ‘should’ … and honestly, this has felt like such a consistent narrative to my adult life that I’ve never bothered to stop and examine where that ‘should’ was coming from.

Enter Tara Mohr. Like so many things that float into my digital sphere, I’m not really sure how I first found Tara, but BOY! Am I glad that I did.

Playing big means being more loyal to your dreams than your fears.She writes about women who want to “play big” in their lives, women who want to pursue big dreams, rather than holding themselves back. Her Playing Big course is full of wisdom and insight, and her writing is equally thought-provoking. This week, she shared with us her thoughts on this notion that “I have too many interests,” and the cultural stew that tells women we should do less and focus more. Her thoughts, penned in 2012, would’ve served me well had I come across them six years ago. They serve me well now. And the resonate so fully with me.

Particularly in the academic sphere, we’re often told (implicitly or explicitly) that we need to focus, that having too many interests — especially if they’re somewhat diverse — means we cannot accomplish big things. As I was finishing my PhD., a mentor said to me, “You have all of these conference papers on your CV, and there’s no clear focus. What Do You Do, Liz?”

As a graduate student, I often lamented this consistent push on us to specialize, to find some very narrow niche of study that we’d become expert on. I don’t want to limit my intellectual curiosities, nor do I think that having a broader sense of what’s intellectually interesting necessarily means I can’t speak intelligently on the various things that interest me. To put it simply: I’m always going to want to know more, about a whole bunch of different things.

Academia, as currently constructed, fails to reward this breadth of curiosity. At its worst, academia actively punishes those who want to look through their area of expertise with the broadest lens possible.

Yet, I think it’s fair to say that my students actively benefit from my curiosities in psychology, sociology, pedagogy, yoga, coaching, and first-person narratives from far-flung places around the globe. When a student wants to know more about presidential politics, the bureaucracy, or Congress, I’ve probably got some first-hand research to share about questions in each of those areas that gave me an entry point to those subfields. When a colleague wants to talk about how to integrate active learning into their statistics classroom, I have the statistics background to speak their language.

For years, I’ve felt sheepish about this lack of focus, because I’ve so consistently been told that my unfocused approach to my work indicates a lack of discipline.

When I read Tara’s blog post, though, I felt unshackled.

If you feel like you have too many interests, if you feel like you lack focus, I urge you to rigorously ask yourself: is there *really* a problem here? A problem in my getting things done? A problem in my working myself to exhaustion? If yes, address those specific problems – don’t hack away at what you love or tell yourself you need to love more narrowly.

If the answer is no, if in fact there is no real problem, then you’ve probably just absorbed a kind of criticism often labelled at creative women: focus. But the people who were threatened by your garden of interests, don’t know you, and they don’t know your rhythms. Only you do.

I make space in my life to sleep 8 hours a night (sometimes I can’t quite pull my attention away from the TV to sleep 8 hours, but I certainly could, if I weren’t so easily convinced that I simply MUST watch, tonight, the Gilmore Girls episode where Lorelai plans her entire wedding to Luke in a single day, then freaks out about how easy it was.

I genuinely love (!!) the things I fill up my days with.

You might look at my Google calendar (which I don’t recommend) and feel like you need a stiff drink and a long nap, but I look at my Google calendar and get a bit twitchy with excitement that I freaking GET TO DO THESE THINGS.

My garden of interests, to borrow Tara’s phrase, is messy and not always filled with expected blossoms, but I love its eclectic collection of blooms.

Oprah’s awesome. But she shouldn’t be president.

Like many of my friends, and a whole stinking lot of the world who watched Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech at last night’s 75th Golden Globes extravaganza, I felt moved by her words. Feel free to watch if you haven’t yet (somehow):

But as a political scientist, as a teacher of government, and as a citizen, I find the calls for Oprah to run for president in 2020 to be exactly the wrong solution to what ails us.

Don’t get me wrong; I think Oprah has done more than most women in promoting strong voices, open hearts, and true connection. I wish she’d drop her relationship with Weight Watchers, which I feel pretty strongly promotes pathologizing the body in a way that is more than just unhealthy, but is actively harmful. But nobody’s perfect, including Oprah, and she’s done a whole, WHOLE lot of good in her life and in her career.

Oprah is not Donald Trump, but neither Oprah Winfrey nor Donald Trump has any experience whatsoever dealing with the sort of large-scale distribution of responsibility and critical services that the United States government oversees. No matter how you feel about the size or scope of the federal government, we can all agree (I think?) that we’d like to have — to name just three quick examples — clean water, safe food, and competent diplomacy that avoids nuclear winter (and the near-extinction of our species; if the use of nuclear weapons doesn’t terrify you to your bones, please listen to Fresh Air‘s interview with Daniel Ellsberg for a quick injection of horrifying reality).

As a country, we have got to get past this notion that celebrity equals executive competence. You might love Oprah as much as you hate Trump; people who love Trump probably hate Oprah in equal measure, too. Feelings about a person willing to live in the public eye isn’t qualifying in a race to be the head of the federal government and the face of our country. Period.

If we want to be intellectually consistent and fair, we must stop talking about Oprah (or Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, or Kidd Rock, or fill-in-the-blank-with-your-fav-celebrity) as a viable candidate for office and start looking at the hard-working, thankless people who are actually Doing the Work of running governments at all levels.

Oprah may inspire us all to be the best version of ourselves, but that’s not what we need in a president (it would be a nice start, but that alone is not enough). Let’s let Oprah be Oprah, and turn to our system of progressive government work / responsibility to bring us viable, competent, steady leaders for our government.

Questions my students have

NOTE: This page is a repository for some of the more interesting, insightful, and applaudable comments and questions from my students. It will be updated frequently.

At the end of each class meeting this semester (fall 2017), I’m asking students to reflect on what they learned that day that was important or interesting, then to jot down any questions or curiosities they have. What continues to strike me about this exercise is how insightful, piercing, and straightforward some of these questions are. They suggest that those unfamiliar with the government can be enticed to care, if their curiosities are allowed to marinate.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • I don’t know where the actual power in government comes from.
  • Why was nothing done to Andrew Jackson when he went against the Supreme Court?
  • Why is our government still so spineless and unimpactful about issues that don’t matter to the majority?
  • Not a question, necessarily, but I’m interested in reading the Constitution. What does it say? It seems like something most people should know.
  • How can the Constitution change laws?
  • Why were the Federalist Papers written ONLY to the people of New York?
  • What would be a good way for a president to get Congress to cooperate?
  • Why do people always hate the president?
  • Why are there no term limits with Supreme Court justices?
  • How can the president choose to enforce or not enforce federal laws?

Last updated: Sept. 10, 2017

What does a full heart make you do?

Confession: I LOVE Jen Louden. She’s a writer, a writing coach, and just a phenomenal woman who does phenomenal work that I wish I had more time to fully embrace. She recently sent out this quick 3-minute video called, “Writing made me do it,” in which she talks about taking a few moments to journal about the things writing made her do. She then suggests doing the same and seeing what it sparks in you …

… and while I’d really love to tell you that my love of writing has made me do so many wonderful things in my life, things big and bold and important like Jen, in truth, writing has just given me a conduit to explore my world with curiosity and openness, the better to write about it. That’s not nothing, but this line of thought has got me thinking on something else entirely.

Let’s back up a second.

A week ago, I was on Amelia Island in Florida, staying at a beautiful, unexpectedly quiet beach condo with four of my dearest friends, soaking up the energy that being with people who know you well uniquely provides. I left that space on Monday with a full heart (and a body that desperately needed sleep, ha!).

In the week since, I have taken decisive action forward on a plan my heart has wanted to pursue for going on a year now, but I just hadn’t found the courage to leap towards.

A full heart made me leap.
A full heart made me trust my instincts.
A full heart made me believe in myself and my vision.
A full heart made me comfortable going outside my comfort zone.
A full heart made me want to be bold.
A full heart made me desire spreading my happiness to others.
A full heart made me feel more comfortable with my body.
A full heart made me less anxious about the judgment of others.
A full heart made me embrace the fact that I don’t have to be 100% unique in order to be impactful.
A full heart made me love more fully and with less hesitation.
A full heart made me giddy with excitement.
A full heart made me grateful to have the friends I do, the sisterhood that knits us together and holds us tight, even when we’re apart.
A full heart made me feel a stillness inside myself that I haven’t ever felt before.
A full heart made me ready to act.
A full heart made me do it.

Liz Norell Yoga

These women and this place fill my heart. Photo credit: Boston Photography

Jes Baker is my hero(ine)!

It’s the beginning of a new semester AND a new year, so I’m reading slowly this month … but I am slowly reading Jes Baker’s unflinching book, Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls, and it’s the sort of stuff that makes me want to put down the book after each paragraph and find someone to read it aloud to.

Stuff like this:

I’m painfully aware of the fact that I have apologized for my body for over two decades. Verbally–excusing myself for taking up so much space. Making jokes about what I was eating. Turning down compliments because I didn’t feel deserving. And physically–wearing black, long-sleeved shirts in the Arizona summer. Shying away from anything loud, flashy, or sparkly. Basically doing anything I could to minimize the presence of my body. What a way to live, huh?

And sadly, I think we can all relate on some level. I look back on those years of my life now and shake my head. It’s as if I thought I was keeping the fact that I was fat a secret by attempting to disguise it. As if those who saw me in black would then see me in bright colors and gasp, “HOLY SHIT! UNTIL NOW, I HAD NO IDEA SHE WAS FAT!” Illogical. Our bodies cannot truly be hidden, no many how many black outfits we wear.  (page 22, emphasis mine)

Mind. Blown.

Do you do this? I do this. I try to hide my body by evaluating every article of clothing by how obviously it reveals my true contours underneath the clothing. If I find material that drapes just so, will it obscure the reality lurking beneath?

Is anyone really fooled by this?

Or this:

Happy people don’t try to purposely hurt other people. (page 52, emphasis in original)

This statement stood out to me … and not just because of the bold typeface. Jes was talking about the episode of This American Life wherein she reveals how she confronted an internet troll (listen here). This feels incredibly relevant here at the beginning of a new presidential administration, where internet trolling is rampant. When you let yourself read the comments, you must keep this simple truth in mind: Happy people don’t troll others.

Happiness is more fun, and remaining happy means staying away from those who are purposefully trying to hurt other people.

Or one more:

For those of you facing any kind of body hate, do me a favor: Ignore those people who tell you loving yourself is not okay. Have empathy for the people who hate you for being happy; we all know what that kind of self-loathing feels like. … Acknowledge that people spreading the animosity are simply regurgitating deception that’s been fed to our culture for decades; they just don’t know anything different. … In the words of Tess, don’t forget to “surround yourself with positive, like-minded people who support you. It’s crucial to your happiness and well-being. Never compare yourself to others and celebrate what makes you, YOU.” (page 59)

Jes Baker book coverIn that paragraph, Jes (and Tess Holliday, a plus-size model and body-acceptance role model) perfectly describes why I’m enamored of my Cultivating Kindness yoga series in Sewanee. I am trying, four weeks at a time, to create a community where women can be around positive, like-minded women who support one another and understand, deeply, what it’s like to feel less-than in this world. This is why I do what I do, and why I will keep on doin’ it.

So what I’m saying is: If any of this resonated with you, you should absolutely read Jes Baker’s book. You can buy it here from Amazon.

The gift of crisis

Thirty-four days ago, my life was shaken by an earthquake of the metaphorical sort. A relationship I thought to be rock-solid showed significant signs of deterioration, perhaps beyond the point of saving. An email arrived in the late afternoon of August 1, 2016 that threatened my understanding of my place in this world. It threatened to take away those parts of my life I love most, and I never saw it coming.

I felt hopeless.
I felt out of control.
I felt panic rise up in my chest.
I reacted from that place of panic.
I yelled at the world, to anyone who would listen, a sharp and defiant: “NO!”

It’s in moments of crisis that we find out what really matters to us. Most days, we’re just bopping along in this world, keeping our head down and trying to muddle through as best we can. Well — maybe you don’t, but I certainly do. I focus on the thing or the person who’s yelling me right now. What student emails need answering? What classes need a teacher? What do I need to make for dinner? Again and again, echoing over and over, the question in my mind is simple: What do other people need from me?

What I lost sight of is the need for balance. Put your own oxygen mask on first, then help others. It’s so commonplace it’s very nearly trite: You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. Dismiss this fact, and you’re headed for a place that’s replete with burnout, hurt feelings, and … well, crisis.

I hit the crisis at full speed forward. It was the first day of my fall semester; I was on campus for my HR orientation, and I had spent the 30 days prior lamenting long and hard and loudly that my summer had gone by too quickly, that I’d accomplished too little, that I wasn’t ready for school to start. I worked too much over the summer… which is really easy to do when you live a life, as I do, where you’re always working too much.

I have a very hard time saying no, you see. I don’t like to feel like I’m letting others down. I crave their approval, their gratitude, their praise. I say yes in the hopes that I will become the most dependable person they know.

In the process, I lose myself. (I’ve talked about this before, specifically in the most terrifying thing I’ve ever written.) I become unmoored, drifting from one person’s needs to the next, one fire alarm to another.

Who gets left out? I do, of course. More importantly, though, the ones who get most left out are those who need me, but who don’t consistently raise their voices to ask for my time and energy. They stand by, silently appreciating my commitment to others, perhaps not even recognizing that my lack of energy and engagement is gnawing away at the cartilage making our relationship joints move more smoothly. And then, something happens — and snap! The whole thing breaks.

It broke.
I broke.
I nearly lost everything that matters.

It was a humbling week, that first week of August. I had to own up to my lack of presence. I had to admit that I was prioritizing things that, in retrospect, aren’t actually all that important to me.

I decided to declutter my life. I gave up two classes. I cut back to almost zero my hours at my longest-running job (10+ years now!). I promised to make time and space for those things that matter. I spoke out from a place of love, from a place made possible by demanding free time for myself and others. I cleared away some mental clutter. I reduced the emotional demands. And I felt … renewed. Free. At peace.

This passage from Glennon Doyle Melton’s insanely good book, Carry On, Warrior, resonates with what happened to me last month:

You have been offered the gift of crisis. As Kathleen Norris reminds us, the Greek root of the word crisis is “to sift,” as in to shake out the excesses and leave only what’s important. That’s what crises do. They shake things up until we are forced to hold on to only what matters most. The rest falls away.

The rest fell away, and I’m left with a renewed appreciation for the most important things in my life. I am so filled with love, with gratitude, with peace.

Sometimes, we need a little crisis to let the rest fall away. I was offered the gift of crisis, and I snatched it up … cautiously at first, with gusto eventually.

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