Liz Norell

Musings on life, love, and yoga

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My letter to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) regarding Betsy DeVos

When Betsy DeVos was initially nominated to serve as Secretary of Education, I sent my Tennessee senators multiple postcards begging them not to confirm her. Lamar Alexander was one of her strongest supporters (in or out of Tennessee), and his letters in response to my pleas consistently emphasized how qualified she is, how much she cares about students, and how wonderful she would be as Secretary of Education. As the news of DeVos’s decisions has piled up in my news feed, I finally reached a breaking point last week and penned a letter to him. What I had to say wouldn’t come close to fitting on a postcard. I’m finally sending it off today, and I thought I’d share with you all, too:

June 29, 2017

Senator Alexander,

Although I have grave concerns about the healthcare bill recently proposed by Senate Republicans, today I’m writing today to detail the many terrible decisions the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has made since assuming office—with, it’s worth pointing out, your vocal, enthusiastic, unqualified support. It seems like I hear almost daily about another decision she has made to weaken our education system, and I want to know specifically whether she still has your support.

Below are just a few reasons that I’m horrified, angered, and deeply concerned about Secretary DeVos’s tenure, albeit brief, at the Department of Education:

  • After taking a brave stance to protect transgender children in schools by allowing them to use the bathroom of their identified gender, she caved to pressure from President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and backtracked, putting lives of our MOST vulnerable students in jeopardy. This happened after she said, in February, “I will not be deterred in my mission of helping kids in this country.” Except, it appears, when political pressure from her allies is too fierce. So much for having a strong spine, eh?
  • Her misstatements regarding Historically Black Colleges & Universities on February 27 was, at best, tone-deaf with respect to the reason our country created HBCUs to begin with. She said about HBCUs, “They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and great quality…Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.” It’s not as though students who “chose” to go to HBCUs were doing so because they had viable other options to attend college.
  • Her support of dismantling the public-service loan forgiveness program would directly impact my life in a massive and detrimental way. You see, Senator Alexander, I am one of the people who has dedicated her life to public service. I went to school and achieved a PhD while supporting myself through adjunct teaching (another matter altogether that I could go on for pages about). On average, I made about $1500 per semester-long class. Student loans were the only way I could afford to continue my education to attain my PhD. It took me nine years to finish my degree, all of which I was adjunct teaching, at times as many as TEN CLASSES PER SEMESTER. Think about that, sir. And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones; I’ve obtained a full-time, tenure-track teaching job at Chattanooga State Community College, making me eligible for the public service loan forgiveness program after I complete my required years of service. My days are now dedicated to helping our most at-risk students achieve an associate’s degree and a better future for themselves. I know that you understand and value the importance of education for economic improvement. Shouldn’t those who get down in the trenches to enable that economic improvement be rewarded, too? (For context, I left a full-time job in 2005 at which I was making more money (not adjusted—in real dollars) than I now make 12 years later teaching with a PhD and 10+ years of teaching experience.)
  • The proposed reductions to the Education Department’s budget are devastating. I don’t think I need to elaborate further on this.
  • The recent announcement that the Education department will scale back on civil rights investigations is horrifying. At a time when violence against at-risk youth continues to plague public schools, we need leadership that will take every available action to protect students. Period.
  • Another recent announcement from Ms. DeVos’s department plans to roll back protections for students against actions taken by for-profit colleges. This, again, is horrifying. Eight states and the District of Columbia have sued her department to keep the rules in place. Shouldn’t we be protecting our students against the sorts of fraud and broken promises that we saw with our president’s “Trump University” scheme, settled for millions of dollars prior to his taking office? Imagine if those sorts of for-profit “colleges” could fleece unsuspecting Americans without any punishment or recourse?

Senator Alexander, I know you have a genuine passion for education and its promise. Ms. DeVos is taking us backwards, not innovating in ways that improve student excellence and meet the promise of education in this country. We simply must do better.

Will you take a stronger oversight role on the Education department? Will you work to correct these errors? Please speak out, sir. We need your strong leadership here. If Secretary DeVos is indeed someone you know well, respect, and support, my hope is that your wisdom, insight, and direction may help stem the tide of these terribly dangerous moves on her part.

Sincerely,

(Dr.) Liz Norell

 

My new favorite people

As part of my summer job, I’ve been writing profiles of people who come to stay at the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly for our weekly newsletter, Mountain Voices. Today, I got to meet two people who charmed me beyond words. Here’s what I wrote about them. Just google Walter Sedelow and Sally Sedelow. They are freaking AMAZING. (And, as you can see in the photo below, adorable to boot.)

Meet Your Neighbors: The Eclectic Academics Next Door

“Before we married,” Sally Sedelow says, “we had one rule: We would never be restricted intellectually or geographically.” To say that Sally and her husband, Walter, have achieved that rule for living is an exercise in gross understatement. Sitting on their screened-in porch to have an afternoon chat with the Sedelows is likely to result in time disappearing as you become absorbed in conversation; these two have led fascinating, important, curious lives that are still every bit as fascinating, important, and curious today as they were when the couple were first married.

Walter and Sally Sedelow sitting on the porch of their favorite MSSA cottage, with fresh-cut roses given by a neighbor.

The Sedelows first came to the Assembly four years ago when they decided to give the Sewanee Summer Music Festival a try. They had previously been going to a music festival in Boston, but that was a three-day drive from their retirement home in Eden Isle, Arkansas. On their first trip to the Mountain, they lodged at the Edgeworth Inn—while they are not ardent sports fans, they recount that they stayed in Bear Bryant’s favorite room. Through an unexpected issue with lodging their second year, they came to the Assembly office one day to ask if there was a cottage available… right then, for nearly the entirety of the season. (Scott Parrish, general manager, says, “We don’t normally get walk-ins!”) The staff was able to accommodate them within a week or so. After a short stay at the Sewanee Inn, then, the Sedelows settled into summer life at the Assembly.

What was the draw to the Assembly? “The people are so wonderful, so welcoming,” they say. In 2016, they extended their stay to seven weeks; this summer, they are here for the entire season.

As seasoned veterans of the New York Chautauqua, they appreciate the variety and manageable nature in the MSSA platform; about New York, they say, “it can almost undo you” trying to balance how much is on the program. Along with the platform lectures and the Sewanee Summer Music Festival musical offerings, the Sedelows are now also taking advantage of the Sewanee Seminar and hope to attend some of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference readings, too. They find the collection of intellectual, musical, and cultural offerings here on the Mountain to be just the right mix.

Perhaps the most charming part of conversations with this dynamic duo is the sheer breadth of knowledge and experience they have collected. It’s not an exaggeration to say that each of them was critically involved in pioneering technologies we take for granted today. Sally—whose academic background is in English—was part of a group of people who made key advances in early attempts at natural language processing and artificial intelligence. Walter, meanwhile, has an academic background in history, but has worked in academic departments of computer science, library and information science, medical studies, and more. After he left the Air Force following the conclusion of the Korean War (he worked in areas related to electronic warfare), he worked with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara regarding what computing technology would mean in 20-30 years to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and national security more broadly. Walter and Sally were there from the beginning, orbiting within an era of academia where your intellectual interests could lead you to teach courses well outside the field you studied in graduate school. They took advantage, and then some.

Yet despite the impressive resumes and accomplishments of this power couple, they remain among the most down-to-Earth, unassuming, delightful people you’ll meet at the Assembly… or anywhere, frankly. They have a thirst for knowledge impossible to measure. “We love learning,” they say, “and that’s one of the pleasures of being here.” Sally, for example, decided to learn the cello in her mid-80s. And why not?

Scattered in the living room of their rented cottage, Peace & Plenty (#81), are books on topics ranging from black holes and the periodic table to genetics and physics. You know… just a little pleasure reading for their summer months. Honestly, it’s enough to make you wonder, rather sheepishly, what you’re doing with your summer.

If you have the chance to share a meal or an afternoon porch conversation with the Sedelows, don’t pass it up. They are a rare treat.

I love blogging

Before a college friend hooked me into Facebook, my blog was one of my most cherished outlets of expression was my blog. But then Facebook entered, and I found that keeping up with my friends and updating them on my life sort of scratched the same itch. I’ve tried many times to reignite the regular blogging, and I continue to struggle with finding a regular writing schedule… but I love it, and I really appreciate the positive feedback I get.

Last night, we were at a small dinner party with friends I see lamentably rarely, and one of them mentioned my blog and how much he enjoys reading it. (His terrific blog, by the way, is here: https://uncomelyandbroken.wordpress.com/.) This jogged my memory about my long-abandoned blog of yore, which I thought I’d share with you in case you are bored one day and want to peruse the archival experiences. There are nearly 1,000 published posts on this one, though, so just know you’re not going to get through it all … and if you do, my goodness, I weep for you!

Beware the sock gap! (a reference to Coupling, a wonderful British TV show): http://avoidthesockgap.blogspot.com

Celebrating my 14,610th day on Earth

Today, I turned 40 years old. Forty. Wowzers.

Common life experience: When I was a teenager and my dad turned 40, I felt like that was basically half-a-foot in death’s doorway. At the very least, it marked a passage into being “old.” And now, that “old” person is … me! What?!

As I so often say, my mother isn’t old enough to have a 40-year-old daughter! Seriously! (She happens to agree!)

When I was a kid, teenager, and even in my 20s, I would lament how young I looked. People didn’t take me seriously, I felt, because I’ve always looked younger than I am. I distinctly remember my (most favorite) Aunt Dalis saying, “Sweetie, just wait ’til you’re older. You’ll be grateful then.”

And to be honest, I’m not sure that moment has yet come. Because if you want to know the truth, blog readers, I don’t care a bit that I’m 40 now. I mean, sure, it does sound different than “I’m in my 30s.” Just as 30 came and went without more than a shrug from me, though, I’ve felt underwhelmed by the sensation of having moved into my fourth decade today.

What I have felt is serenity, though. In those 14,610 days I’ve lived thus far, I’ve had some truly amazing experiences. Allow me to share some of my most favorite moments.

The day I graduated high school — May 1995 — I was milling around outside MHHS preparing for the ceremony, and the man who directed the gifted & talented program (he took it over from its initial director) came up to me, beaming. “It’s so great to see our G&T alums going on to such great colleges!” And I got to say, triumphantly, “Actually, I wasn’t good enough for your program. I never did get off the wait list.” Smug smile, eight years in the making.

In college, I felt overwhelmed by the mass of humanity swirling around me in DC. I was a small-town girl and missed home. I felt out of place. I was prepared to transfer back to a school nearer to home, and then March arrived and I went down to the Tidal Basin with a Descartes reading for my Honors Symposium class and read it on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. As I walked around and marveled at the cherry blossoms in full, explosive bloom, I knew I could never give up the opportunity to live and study in the rich environment of our nation’s capital city. I could so easily flash forward to a day when C-SPAN was covering an event at GW, and there I’d be, watching from hundreds of miles away. I resolved that day to stay. I’ve never regretted that decision.

I remember the moment — the very day! — that I knew I was born to teach. It was (oddly enough) my birthday in 2000. I was at a one-day seminar organized and produced by the marketing firm where I was working. I had put together a skit with my colleague and good friend Tim. We performed the skit, with Tim performing so exaggeratedly that I damn near broke character several times. I then gave a hurried 15-minute talk to the assembled dozens about what I’d learned from my college internship (which just happened to be the very topic of the seminar). I felt a rush of adrenaline and satisfaction as I talked. And I knew. I just knew. I was going to teach, and I was going to love it.

In high school, my senior yearbook quote was one from Joseph Campbell that spoke to me in mysterious ways, even as a teen: “Follow your bliss, and doors will open where there were no doors before.” I couldn’t have possibly known that that quote would come to define my life, at least up ’til now. I have consistently followed the breadcrumbs left for me by my passions and the universe, and I have always landed into whatever job, academic program, or personal enrichment opportunity that was exactly right for me in that moment. At times, I have marveled at how effortlessly my life’s major inflection points have appeared … but I have come to understand that my 17-year-old self was wiser in her bones than I could’ve possibly realized at the time.

Certainly my life has had its challenges — most of them having to do with Campbell’s poetic walls never turning into the doors I so desperately wanted them to become — and I mourn the loss of too many friends and family members who have fallen out of my circle or who have passed on too soon. But what I have taken from those challenges and losses is a deep-seeded appreciation for the now, the today, the moment unfolding Right Now. I am grateful to have learned those lessons. I am grateful that I’ve been able to turn loss into appreciation for all that I do have. That, too, is a gift, and I know those who were taken from us too soon would be proud to know they have served me so well, even if it meant having to say goodbye too soon.

So truly, I would not go back in time and change a thing. I don’t wish I were younger. I’m proud of what I’ve done, and I’m proud to be here today, stronger, happier, living more authentically and more fully than I’ve ever done before. It took those challenges and those inflection points for me to become the 40-year-old woman I am today. As it turns out, I kind of like her.

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.

Find solace where you can

Paul Norell

“Do the best you can. That’s all anyone can ask of you.” 

— Paul Norell (my wise father)

Have you ever known a relationship was over — at least, in its present form — but you just weren’t quite ready to let go? You know it’s no longer healthy, and that you’re being obstinate by not just walking away. You know that staying around is really just inviting more punishment; your sense of self-worth takes a beating, because you’re really saying, “Your need to be emotionally safe is less important than hoping someone else will change.”

I found myself in that place for a very large portion of my former marriage. A week after we returned from our destination wedding (ish), my ex-husband first threw an inanimate object at me with the intention of inflicting physical hurt. I darted out of the way. And so began a 2+-year process of convincing myself that the relationship could not be saved. I stayed. I hoped. I gave second, third, fourth, fifth chances. All the while, I knew that if I left before I was certain that our marriage couldn’t be saved, I’d forever wonder if I gave up too soon. I stayed through thinly veiled death threats and an increasingly good aim. But ultimately, I extricated myself fully certain that it was beyond redeemable. I had to leave. I did. My spirit lifted, my sense of security and self-worth returned, and I moved on stronger and much, much safer.

That was the most extreme case of finding solace where I could; I took tremendous comfort in knowing I had done all I could, exerted tremendous patience and compassion, and genuinely tried to make the relationship work. I have no regrets. I really, truly tried.

Not even a week ago, my parents and I went on a mission to Mission, Kansas, hoping to reconcile a challenging relationship — challenging, because it’s marked by a kind of emotional pain that I’m not sure will ever fade — with my younger brother, about whom I’ve written before (“Grief, all spread out,” Sept. 28, 2016).

Grandma OllieIt all started innocently enough. My mom sent me a text message or email during tax season (relevant because she’s an H&R Block franchisee, so taking the time to communicate during the first 3.5 months of the year is a Big Freaking Deal) suggesting we take my grandma to visit Robert in May. (Aside: Grandma Ollie turns 80 in December, and the fact that she hasn’t seen Robert in at least three years (?) absolutely breaks her heart. She said to me recently, “You know, not a single day goes by that I don’t think about him and miss him.” Did I mention? She. Is. Almost. 80.)

I looked at my May calendar and identified a weekend that looked ideal. I cleared my schedule, packed my bags, and drove to Arkansas.

Between tax season and last week, my mom asked me whether we should give him a head’s up that we were coming. The conversation went something like:

Me: “If we tell him, he may disappear.”

Mom: “If we don’t tell him, he will feel ambushed when we all show up.”

Me: “If we make it a breezy text, like, ‘Oh, we’re coming through KC! Dinner?’ maybe he won’t get spooked. We just won’t tell him Grandma’s coming. No big deal!”

Mom: “I don’t want to drag Grandma all the way to KC and then not see him. That would be worse. Do you think telling him she’s coming would make him more likely to see us?”

Me: “There is no right answer here.”

Mom: “You’re right. There is no right answer.”

Ultimately, because Grandma doesn’t do just great in the car for long periods, my parents and I loaded up the minivan and headed north on Saturday morning. We didn’t tell Grandma we were leaving. I’m not honestly sure my parents and I have ever taken a road trip that was just the three of us. We got hotel rooms in KC. We programmed the GPS to Robert’s last known location. We took deep breaths. And off we went.

Saturday night, we went to his apartment. No RobertMobile, no answer at his door.

We went to his friend’s house. Nobody home.

We went to dinner. It was delicious.

We went back to his apartment. No RobertMobile, no answer at his door.

We slept. We ate breakfast.

We went back to his apartment. Bingo! RobertMobile in the parking lot. We were all giddy with anticipation. We found him! We were going to see him! I was fidgety with excitement. I MISS MY BROTHER. He was just a front door away.

Robert's apartment.

He was inside the whole time; the top floor’s two windows are his apartment.

We walked up to the third floor and knocked. No sound. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, as it was somewhat early (like, 10am, maybe? the middle of the night, basically, if you’re Robert). We knocked again. We took turns knocking. We pounded that damn door. We were obnoxious. A dog downstairs started barking.

He. Did. Not. Answer.

I sat down outside his door. My mom sat on the stairs on the other side of his door. My father paced.

His neighbor from across the hall came by and showed us tremendous hospitality, offering to let us hang out in his living room, regaling us with stories about what a terrific person my brother is. All we could do was nod and fake half-smiles.

We waited some more.

We waited two hours. TWO HOURS, y’all.

He never answered.

And like that, the solace came, at least for me. We tried. We legitimately did everything in our power. We drove. We showed up. We knocked. We TRIED. I feel like I can’t say that word enough. There’s nothing more I could’ve done, no missed opportunity, communication method, or intervention strategy I haven’t tried with this young man. He has made it abundantly clear that having a relationship with me, with his family, is not a priority.

The solace isn’t exactly peace, but it is something of a comfort. Although he continues to break my heart daily, my lack of a relationship with my brother has nothing to do with my lack of trying. This one’s on him.

Grandma was so sad when we got back home Sunday night and took her out to dinner, relaying news of our weekend. But she, too, knows we’ve tried. We’ve done what we can. And while none of us is happy about it, we have to let it go.

I slid a note under his door expressing my grief, my disappointment, my hope that someday he will reach out and we can mend this giant hole that has engulfed our once oh-so-close, extremely precious to me relationship. I genuinely hope that day comes, and soon. I miss him.

But here’s one more bit of solace, this one both peaceful and comforting: For the first time in what feels like forever, I had my parents all to myself for a solid 30ish hours. What a precious gift. I just adore them, and nobody can ever take away that time together. Sometimes you have to lose something to realize how lucky you are to have what you do.

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.

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.

 

Letting go

Sage used for smudging ceremony

For the better part of this academic year (at least since September or so), I’ve been struggling with the twin impulses calling me to to let go of something … and how completely terrified I am of doing so. I’ve been talking about this to friends, to family members, to dogs, to myself in the car, to coaches, and just about anyone or anything that crosses my path. Although I’ve never felt that someone else will be able to tell me what the right action is, or give me permission sufficient to let go of the fear, I’ve known that letting go of this thing is inevitable … when I’m ready.

This thing is a safety net. It’s a job I’ve held for more than a decade (I’m approaching my 11-year anniversary, in fact). It was there waiting for me when I got back from my wedding in July 2006, and it’s carried me through a difficult marriage, an isolating divorce, years of genuinely not knowing if I’d be able to scrape together enough money to feed myself this month (for several months in there, Totino’s $1 frozen pizzas were my nightly dinners), and a new era cobbling together a sustainable income through a massive variety of part-time teaching jobs. Had it not been for this little job, I would not have made it as easily as I did. I wouldn’t have had a network of smart, wickedly funny, kind, generous people there to keep me intellectual company when I left my marriage. I owe so much to this job, and letting go of it now, when I neither need it nor find quite the same joy in it that I once did, feels like betraying a longtime friend.

Yet, like so many things that hold us for a decade or more, this safety net is tattered at the edges. It’s losing its structural integrity. And by that, I mean simply that I don’t need to be held in this way anymore. I’m so much stronger, clearer, and purpose-driven today than I was eleven years ago. I promised myself I’d hold onto this net until I knew about my long-term, full-time career aspects in my current role. Now armed with the knowledge that I’ve got a more permanent home, I’m not searching out ways to find a tenuous hold on financial security.

Honestly, the only reason I haven’t let it go yet is the deep — and I do mean DEEP — and abiding affection I have for my colleagues. We’re spread out all over the country — the world, even — and I’ve come to know, respect, and love them through many, many hours of collaboration and support. They are truly bright lights in my world, and the thought of leaving our often magical collaborations fills me with the sad.

Yet, staying connected — even when I work almost never — exacts a price. The mental and emotional energy invested into staying current, being ready to work, and occasionally picking up a project to stay plugged in, deviates energy from the things that are truly calling my heart these days. I only have so much energetic bandwidth to engage with other people and activities. The time required to stay even minimally plugged into this world depletes what’s available for things like designing fun yoga classes or writing or practicing yoga myself or going on retreats or planning retreats or …. well, SO Many Things that I want to do right now.

This past weekend, I participated in a smudging ceremony. This ritual involves a clearing out of things that no longer serve. It involves taking dried sage, set alight then reduced to smoking embers, which are then waved around you to help draw out the things that need to go. They rise to the heavens with the smoke. As our retreat leaders Shari and Mandy moved the group of women assembled through this ritual, I called to mind this job, this safety net, this life force that has meant so very much to me. And, as the smoke of the sage rose around me, I let it go. I let it rise.

I don’t mean to wax melodramatic about what, essentially, is a business enterprise. I do work; they pay me. Yet, as Rachel Cole pointed out to me, this job has embodied safety for me. Until she said that, I wasn’t thinking about safety as the reason I was holding on … but she was So Right.

It’s scary to let go of the known and jump into the wide world of the unknown. And yet, I feel filled with hope, inspiration, and optimism. I feel lighter, knowing that my heart now has a little more space to explore and experiment and grow.

What in your life needs to be set free? What can you free within yourself by doing so?

Rags writes his first and only email

Rags at the river

Rags at the river

In 2004, I had a first date. It went okay, but the guy’s intensity freaked me out and we never went out again. However, intense people rarely go quitely, and in trying to convince me we should go out again, his dog, Erwin, wrote my dog, Rags, an email.

Why am I telling you this story? To be honest, I hadn’t thought of this in years… but then yesterday he wrote me to inquire: “So, what ever became of your life?”

Rather than respond, I went back and read the email of which I may still be most proud of writing. Here it is:

—–Original Message—–
From: Norell, Elizabeth
Sent: Friday, March 12, 2004 4:03 PM
To: ‘Erwin’
Subject: RE: For Rags

Dear Erwin,

When my male two-legger provided me with your e-mail, which my foodslave and personal assistant Liz apparently forwarded to him earlier today, I was a bit taken aback. I have always made it clear to my two-leggers that they are to handle all administrative matters for me — that is, after all, why I have assistants. However, they insisted I reply myself — apparently, their attempts to stymie this situation have failed, and only my heavy-pawed correspondence will suffice. Very well then. I must keep this short as my paws are too delicate for typing.

I don’t know who these people are that you call “mommy” and “daddy” — my canine parents, while noble in descent, are hardly known to me. If you mean to imply that I, Rags O’ Muffin, am in some way indebted to or owned by these imbecilic two-leggers, I suggest you consult the Daily Drool for affirmation that I, in fact, am in charge here. A hound of my stature demands a certain respect and humility from those surrounding him and would never refer to his staff in such a familial manner.

Frankly, I don’t give a damn what your foodsla… er, “daddy” wants with my personal assistant. The only thing I care about is her uninterrupted, undistracted attention to my every wish. I’ll admit she did slip up on her duties a week ago, which I was quick to punish with a certain “surprise” on the floor she’s responsible for cleaning. I’m sure you understand her neglectful behavior had to be nipped in the bud forcefully and immediately.

As for your suggestion of a future rendezvous, I have always believed that a dog’s home should be his castle, and my staff operates under strict guidelines to let no beast — man, child, or dog — into my castle without my prior approval. As I am a very cantankerous ruler, this approval is rarely given. I don’t wish to sound inhospitable, but we have all accepted that I require much more sleep, playtime and attention than I get, and as a result I am rarely in a welcoming mood. Furthermore, a hound as noble as I hardly sees it necessary to make travel a habit, as my assistants cater to my every whim here in the comfort of my own home. When my entourage does travel, the two-leggers tend to get distracted, which you will understand is hardly acceptable behavior.

In the future, please direct correspondence through my assistants, as I do not believe in attending to these matters myself. Now you must excuse me, as it is time for my 4 p.m. nap.

Rags O’Muffin

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