Liz Norell

Musings on life, love, and yoga

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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

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.

A time for compassion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You be you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My system works for me

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

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

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

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

What would it mean to let that aspiration go?

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

 

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

Life is short. Eat the damned cookie.

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.

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.
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