Image by Nikto Shlavić

“There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.” –Annie Dillard

I started teaching again the day after Labor Day, and even almost two months later, the shock of that transition killed my writing “schedule” (my writing schedule over the summer was, “Try to write some words” once a day. I had middling success. The recommendation to pick a time and location to write every day exists for a reason). Recently I’ve had to revisit my old strategy of just writing for ten minutes at a time. It’s kind of like my meditation strategy: I can concentrate on anything, even something as boring as my own writing or my own breathing, for ten minutes. So before my second class of the day, I set my timer for ten minutes and write. While my students take a grammar quiz, I write. Later in the evening, before I Netflix and Chill with a stack of essays, I’ll try writing for ten minutes again.  At the end of the day, I will have written for thirty minutes, which is thirty minutes more than I will be writing at any other point this week.

But the last few months have been good publication months, both for my resume and my confidence. Since July I’ve been notified of four publication opportunities: the first, an essay on yoga and my divorce, was published by The Other Journal. I revised an old piece about Uganda for Topology magazine that was published this summer, and recently I got another yoga essay accepted by Windhover Journal (out later this year). Finally, my friend and fellow Indiana Wesleyan University alum Christin Taylor, who edits and oversees Annesley Writers, asked me to write a blog on being single after a divorce. This was one of the hardest pieces I’ve had to craft, at least in the beginning stages, largely because of my own doubts about my experience. While divorce was hard, the singleness felt easy after a hard marriage, and it was made easier by having wonderful friends, one of which became my husband in May of 2015. I wasn’t sure I had anything valuable to contribute to the discussion. I also wasn’t sure how honest I wanted to be. Divorce and its aftermath seldom brings out the best in us.

But my writing professor in undergrad taught us in Creative Nonfiction to “try really, really hard not to lie” and with her words in mind, I sat down to write. Over several days I wrote three different drafts, all very different, all written with the ten-minute freewrite strategy, before I came up with the final piece, which was ultimately about realizing the absence that comes with an end of a marriage, and mourning those moments even as you know the end of the relationship has to happen. Once I found the right collection of moments to write about, the piece almost wrote itself (that never happens for me, and I don’t count on it ever happening again). The piece, which I eventually titled “Orbit,” went up last month, and I got some great feedback on it. Blogging is wonderful and dangerous this way–the sensation of immediate positive feedback is a little bit of a high, a carrot to keep me writing. But what about the days when I’m writing for ten minutes between stacks of essays? What about the days I write blogs that no one reads and essays no one accepts?

Bryan Kest, one of my favorite yoga instructors, has a line he uses when teaching eka pada padangusthasanaor Extended Hand to Knee Pose: “If you can touch your big toe in this pose, don’t be happy about it. You’re no better than anyone else. And if you’re only happy when you see something you like, what happens when you see something you don’t like?” I’ve been thinking about this line a lot. All publishing runs come to an end. All periods of great success also come with periods of rejection and failure.  I’ve felt those before, especially when my more successful, more published fellow alums come back to campus for readings. I used to spend those events furious that I was grading comp essays while they were doing book tours. All I wanted to do was poke holes in their lives so that mine equaled out, and somehow, I would feel less bad about their success. That’s a miserable way to live.

Bryan also says, “And if you can’t touch your toe, don’t be sad about it. You’re no worse than anyone else.” What if, he says, your hamstrings are longer than someone else’s? What if your arms are shorter? Keep your eyes on your own mat instead.

I wish I had more Bryan Kest and Annie Dillard in my life in my early twenties and thirties to remind me to keep my eyes on my own mat and kill all those mosquitos. I wish that when I did have them, I had listened closer, and remembered my eka pada padangusthasana lessons when I got rejected from jobs, publications, relationships, and my own to-do list, and then had to sit through one more success story of someone my own age.

But now I’m remembering those lessons, and sometimes, when I experience failure, or someone else’s success, I stay calm. I remember to write, and breathe, for ten minutes. Sometimes I’m even happy for my peers’ success. And this is good. Because last week, one of my former students (Mary Nolen–read her book!) came back to campus for a reading. I did the welcome for her talk, and didn’t even have to kill any mosquitos first.


An Expanse

ohio sunset

On Ohio mornings on the farm, I can see three hundred and sixty degrees of the horizon, broken only by barns, clumps of trees, and a bulb of yellow-pink sunrise. My grandmother says she can’t live anywhere but this prairie now—if mountains or buildings close in her view of the horizon, she tenses, scanning the skyline for a way the sunrise or sunset can break through. This horizon has been the background for every morning run and bike ride at my mother’s house since I was twelve. Outside in the driveway, I pause to stretch overhead, then begin to shuffle, eventually run down the driveway. Farm trucks and tractors on their way to irrigate tomatoes or pick sweetcorn swerve aside, waving. A big silver or cream Dodge Ram indicates my grandfather is coming. “How’s my little girl?” he asks from the inside of the truck, tugging on his Santa Claus beard. Once I start teaching college, then go to grad school for a PhD, the greeting changes to “How’s my little professor?” We never talk long: grades, high school track meets, where I’ve been, when I am leaving again. The brief interlude comes to feel like a blessing, especially the more infrequent my visits home.

The prairie stretches for miles in Indiana too, but where I live, I’m surrounded by fences and other houses. At the most western edge of Eastern Standard Time, our mornings are dark. When at 5:00 a.m. on May 2nd I see the text message from my mom saying, “call me,” I can see to Ohio and know what has happened. My grandfather is due to have a surgery to remove blockages in his arteries that day. He has been on oxygen for a month. The gamble with his heart stretches back to the early 1980s when, like his own father, he suffered a heart attack at age fifty. But unlike his father, he has lived for another thirty-some years. Today he has died.

I know this but don’t immediately call her back. I have been fearing his death since his open heart surgery when I was sixteen. I get up from the couch where I’d be dozing during an all-night grading session, brush my teeth and take out my contacts. I take a deep breath.

When I hang up the phone and go to bed for the first time in thirty-six hours, I don’t cry. I rehearse the details in my head—he had gotten up to go to the bathroom, had fallen, Grandma and Uncle Ben were there with him. My mother is sad; my sisters are overcome grief. But all I feel is a tight, hollow space in my chest, like the contents of rib cage had been vacuumed out and replaced with lead. My husband, sleepy from his own grading all-nighter, wraps his arms around me as I stare at the wall for a long time, wondering at the strange emptiness around my heart.

This is a story I keep trying to write in past tense—ran, lived, drove, died—and cannot. It is also a story I have tried to write all summer—first for his funeral, then for June and his strawberries, then in July for his birthday. Now it is August, the month of perpetual sky and hot blades of grass and dry riverbeds and the always-present-tense task of keeping the last things alive. All I can do in the face of oncoming September is to write like this is perpetual too.

grandpa run

One of my first memories is flying to Washington DC to watch Grandpa and my father run the Marine Corps marathon. I fly with my Raggedy Anne doll and my parents, while my toddler of a brother, Levi, drives with my grandparents in the motorhome. Throughout the flight I stare out the window, convinced I see them on a highway below us. I don’t remember the marathon, but I do remember driving up a dark lane where scarecrows flanked the car. Is this real? Does it make sense? Does it matter? Later, when I start running marathons, Grandpa tells me he hadn’t liked that marathon because a section at the end is cut off from spectators, meaning he had to run alone in the last and hardest miles. My grandfather didn’t like crowds, my uncle says at the funeral as a way of explaining Grandpa’s absence from church, but I know he didn’t like running marathons without them.

My other earliest memory is a photo of six-year-old, pink-shorted me running flower to flower in Grandma’s flowerbed, sniffing each one. She’s standing somewhere behind me, hands on her hips, her hair dark, like it still is today. My grandfather isn’t in the picture. Maybe he took it. Maybe he was sitting on his recliner in the living room, wagging his feet as he watched the news or a tennis match or painted his first watercolors. It doesn’t matter. This photo is thirty years old, and my grandparents will always be here, pulling weeds, watching TV, surveying the fields, mid-fifties and unstoppable.


I grew up a mile and a half from this house, and as soon as we could walk or ride a bike we were commuting back and forth through the fields. As soon as we could reliably use our hands, we were pushing quarts of strawberries out towards the grasping hands of customers in the market. In early June, pushing the quarts of berries, cleaning squashed fruits off the floor, and making cardboard boxes for customers to carry their purchases in was a full time job, and small children were perfect for it. We all loved strawberries in late May when the first pink berries turned scarlet. We hated them by the end of June when our fingernails and bottoms of our shoes were stained red.

Grandpa was everywhere. He coasted around the market in his truck, observing how many quarts were left. Later in corn season, he’d watch the wagons of corn from his truck, estimating when we would need another wagon. He’d yell at the stockboy to push the corn out of the middle of the wagon and empty the buckets of corn husks, and then head to the café for a chocolate ice cream cone or a shake.  When I was old enough to work in the U-Pic strawberry fields, I’d hear conversations between him and farmhands on the radio. He’d simultaneously give orders, get updates on irrigation, and yell at someone for messing up his job. Then he would drive off and say nothing for hours. He might replicate this pattern in a friendlier way at birthday parties and weddings. He could talk nimbly with strangers and old friends, then suddenly have to walk away. Words came at a cost.

No wonder, for he had so many other things to love—sports (archery, cycling, wrestling, football, basketball, running, track and field, tennis), his grandchildren, his grandchildren’s sports, Grandma (he used to enlist me or one of my sisters to help him buy her Christmas presents), painting, farming, PBS broadcasts of Riverdance (“You girls would be good at that” he told my sisters and I when we were high school ballerinas), Ohio State, traveling, and eating. An athlete through high school, he coached my brother and cousins in wrestling, growling if they showed any slack. On his afternoon nap breaks he watched whatever sport was in season. He ran two marathons and multiple half marathons. Many years he ran the Strawberry Festival 10K (a festival he helped co-found) and feasted on his own strawberries and watermelons at the finish line. On summer evenings he played tennis in the park in Tipp City or Troy.

On winter evenings he would sit in his office in the two-story white farmhouse on route 202, and paint watercolors. He surrounded himself with stacks of papers, weight equipment, seed packages, a treadmill, and his watercolors. He painted photos of my sister astride a donkey, my brother in a kilt, waterfalls in Jamaica, the farm against the backdrop of summer, and me, age six, picking daisies in a field.

katie painting

In 2011 my grandfather gets weaker and in 2013 I get divorced. Our frailness begins to show. Several weeks after I leave my now-ex husband, I drive through the winter-killed Indiana-Ohio horizon to my conservative family. It is a mild January weekend and everyone is gentle with me. I sit for a long time at the kitchen table with my grandmother while she asks questions and feeds me. “Well, I knew something was wrong,” she says. “Every time you came over to see me you looked like you had been crying.” She never suggests I go back even though the faith we grew up espousing would have. Towards the end of my visit, I walk into the living room to see Grandpa in his recliner. For years I’ve been watching him; the eternally fifty year old man is now in his late seventies, and has a heart that frustrates him. He spends a lot more time in his recliner than in his silver Dodge Ram. “I’m worried about you little girl,” he says. “Should I be?”

“I think I’m OK,” I say, holding his large speckled hand in both of mine.

“You know what you’re doing?”

“I think so.”

My grandmother walks up behind us. “She’s just spreading her wings,” she says. “She’s about to do great things.”

Have I lived up to my grandmother’s fortune telling? Only if happiness equals greatness. In May 2015 I marry a man who loves farms, and running, and me. “If you want your grandparents there,” my mom says, “you’re going to have to have the wedding in Ohio.” We had the reception in the farm market where I’d pushed quarts of berries and buckets of corn stalks as a child and teenager. My grandfather stayed for the whole wedding and reception, talking to my new in-laws, grinning at all these people admiring his farm. Our wedding photos were set against a backdrop of fields and endless Ohio horizon, my grandparents’ house a blink of white in the background.

timkat walking away

The morning of his funeral, my husband and I lace up our running shoes and head down the lane for a run in the sunrise. At the end of the driveway when we turn out on to the road, I feel like something is missing. It isn’t until we are running back up the truckless driveway that I remember again, and again, what is finally gone.


Revisiting Uganda

uganda chapel

Back in March, I had the opportunity to visit Uganda for five days. I came home and wrote  a blog about it, and a month ago, I submitted it (with some revisions) to Topology Magazine.  I appreciated the opportunity to write for them, and the chance to revisit that piece and develop it.They published it today; below is an excerpt from the new section:

“Later, the students and I navigated the potholes back to the canteen for coffee and samosas. What is hard about Uganda? What will you miss? I asked. Their answers: Everything. Everything.

“Three months later, I’m trying to parse the everything while trying to remember what I loved. A place that I previously associated with homophobia and poverty now makes me think of tropical flowers, monkeys, and lively open air church services. My nostalgia is problematic. Uganda is still a place with poverty, homophobia, violence, disease, and ignorance—like America, but on the other side of the world, making it easy to picture only the flowers and monkeys. Why does the thought of a place that soaked my shirts with humidity and stained my shoes with red dirt and could have given me typhoid and malaria fill me with a powerful urge to return?”  (You can read the rest here.)

This week I’m staring down the last month of summer as well as my to-do list, and trying to figure out where to prioritize my energy and time. The flower beds that need mulch? the trim that needs painted? The online grading? The really dull but sort of necessary paperwork of the upcoming academic year? The book proposal I say I’m going to write every summer? The vacation I didn’t take? Lately I’ve been trying to write a blog about the yogic response to racial violence. I paused the writing last week because I realized I need to spend more time listening instead of assuming. The list of writing projects remains incomplete.

Usually these lists makes me panic, and I’ve felt that choking onslaught of anxiety a few times in the last week. I’ve also felt my other extreme unpleasant emotion–rage and frustration–on sweltering days when the news is unbearable. Today’s temperatures and news (the slain priest in Normandy, the entirely acquitted officers in Baltimore, the endless presidential election with its accompanying slander and buffoonery) could still take me there. I feel some peace, however, knowing that it doesn’t have to. This is not a testament to some great will power on my part, but the power of paying attention, and adjusting accordingly to what I need. Sometimes that means more vegetables. Sometimes it means eating a bowl of watermelon or drinking another glass of water. Sometimes it means going for a walk, or doing a very slow yoga practice. Usually it means taking a few minutes a day to read scripture and meditate, and taking less time to read the comments on social media. I can be upset about the injustice and cruelty around the world, and still choose a response that is not unjust or cruel itself.

The yamas and niyamas of yoga encourage this; Ayurvedic medicine and a lot of counseling give me the tools to follow through. In particular, the ideas of non-violence (ahimsa) and self-study (svadhyaya) are working on me this week. I’m trying, gradually, to not leave that snippy comment on a post, to not look away from ugliness, to not excuse my privilege or ignorance. Remembering Uganda seems to have something to do with that.

Listening to the students in Uganda talk about the former sex slaves at the Women’s Action Network who are working to bring forgiveness and restoration to Uganda taught me the importance of responses versus reactions. So did the Mothers of the Movement who spoke last night at the Democratic National Convention. Every mother there had a child taken from her early and unjustly, and each death was its own American tragedy, in the sense that each should have been preventable. No one needs to die after a traffic stop or for playing music too loudly.

Their speeches could have been angry. That would have made sense. Instead, Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, started her speech by saying,”We did not come here tonight because God is not good. We came here tonight because he is great.” This doesn’t mean she backed off from expressing her pain, or shirked from reminding Americans that, “when a young black life is cut short, it’s not just a personal loss. It is a national loss. It is a loss that diminishes all of us.” But Reed-Veal and the other mothers on the stage bypassed anger and moved to action. They moved, notably, to speaking about the pain, particularly with those in a place of power and responsibility, so that restoration can happen. In their short speeches, their pain enabled them to give a blessing to those of us who have not felt their violent loss. Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, closed the speech by saying, “We leave you what God has given us–strength, love, and peace.”

In my original blog, I quoted South African writer Denise Ackermann, who wrote,“We must remember in order to redeem. Otherwise there will be no justice.” Sometimes justice also relies on us looking directly at the present, whether beautiful, fetid, cruel, exhausting, or sad, and giving ourselves a minute to respond differently–with strength, and love, and maybe even peace.



Surviving a Violent Summer


“The Pitta dosha controls digestion, metabolism, and energy production. The primary function of Pitta is transformation. Those with a predominance of the Pitta principle have a fiery nature that manifests in both body and mind.” The Chopra Center.

“Ahimsa isn’t simply the practice of refraining from violent words or actions, it’s also about abstaining from violent thoughts. Ahimsa is the total and complete absence of violence from one’s mind, body, and spirit. It’s not only about evading harmful deeds, but about lacking the capacity to engage in harmful thoughts whatsoever.” -Gabriella Horowitz, “What Does Ahimsa Really Mean?”

jail photo
Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin

Below are the dominant events that have been in the news (besides the presidential election and its own special horrors) since the beginning of June. I’m probably missing a few things:

June 12: Pulse Club massacre

June 23: Brexit, causing economic unrest in the the UK as well as an increase in hate crimes against minorities and immigrants.

June 28: Istanbul airport attack

July 2: Dhaka Cafe attack in Bangladesh

July 2: Baghdad car bombing

July 5: Alton Sterling shooting

July 6: Philando Castile shooting

July 7: Five Dallas police officers killed during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest

July 14: Bastille Day truck massacre

July 17: Three police officers assassinated in Baton Rouge

The world is two gladiators killing each other for eternity; Facebook, the Roman crowd. Meanwhile the midwestern heat fornicating with the thick humidity rankles up the skin. I am in Indiana in June, July, swiping my screen, pulling weeds, running hot in swampy heat, shouting “you idiot!” at the monitor because I’m voting not-Republican in a red state, in a mostly conservative Christian Republican community. I am the aforementioned Pitta that the Chopra center speaks of. The fire is everywhere at the moment. I’m still waiting on the transformation.

But in its place are a few principles that I’ve found make this steamy, aggravating, even murderous time of year more manageable. I give these with the humility that comes from not following my own suggestions very well, but knowing that when I do, my life is better. If you are lucky enough to not be a ragey person, use these suggestions to whatever extent they help you.

  1. If you like to run, cycle, or in other ways exercise outdoors, get up in the morning before the sun bakes all your irritations up to a steamy boil. Also, give yourself an end time, and try to workout in the shade, or at least in a green space. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate too. Coconut water is a great alternative to sports drinks.
  2. Speaking of green spaces, try to spend a little more time around plants and trees. Work, exercise, or read here around as many green things as possible. Perhaps try to do some actual gardening, whether it is pulling weeds from a flower bed, working in a local garden, or planting a few seeds in a pot on your apartment’s balcony.  Dig your shovel in the earth, turning over the soil, turning up the roots you don’t want. It’s satisfying. It also keeps you off  social media (see Number 5, below). Whatever you do, attempt to do this early in the morning before the sun is baking on your shoulders and your brain cooks in a stew of wrathful juices. garden
  3.  Keep the inside of your living space as cool and uncluttered as possible. This means take regular time to tidy up, and then take a little bit of time to make the inside of your living space soothing. It might mean bringing in cut flowers, keeping a potted plant alive, or investing in an oil diffuser and some essential oils (full disclosure: doTerra might be a cult but I love them), and moisturizing with a cooling oil like coconut oil.
  1. Dive into a pool. Or a lake, or a river, preferably a clean one, and swim laps. Let the water hold you up like a cradle that is always rocking. Rock with it, rhythmic, steady. The pitta and vata doshas benefit from the steady rhythm and breathing of swimming, while Kapha doshas benefit from the movement. All of the doshas can also benefit from being outside; if you are lucky enough to have an outdoor swimming area, you can gain in two ways at once.
  2. Eat to stay cool. Instead of throwing heavy, sugary pasta, brownies, wine, and spicy food on top of an already fiery system, try adding salad, yogurt, cucumbers, mint and cilantro to your meals to cool things down. This might mean paying attention to your body and asking yourself, “what do I need now?”
  3. Shut off the news; close your laptop; ignore the social media updates on your phone; resist posting another meme or a snappy comeback. Put limits on your social media, especially when the news is terrible and the online perspectives worse. You are not cable news. You are a human who has to live in a world with other humans. Try questions instead. Try listening.
  4. Practice siesta. This might seem counterintuitive given the public campaign to get more Westerners moving, but we have to live a life in balance. If you are a person who runs in circles all day (raising guilty hand now) intentionally set aside time in the hottest part of the day to do some seated work. Write, read, type, grade online essays. Whatever it is you need to do, take a break.
  5. But also make time to move. If you are the type of person who is slumped on the couch more often than not, get up. Go for a walk outside. Walking in the morning or evening will be the most calming. If you practice yoga, consider trying Ashtanga, which while vigorous, also brings a steady breathing practice as well as seated postures, or yin yoga, which is a very gentle practice of long, deep stretches. Vinyasa flows are great for purging some of the pent-up angst that Pittas often feel, but be careful that you don’t just stoke the fire more. Take time to cool things down too with seated stretches and gentle inversions.
  6. Breathe deeper.  Nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) cools down the brain and the body as well as clearing the nostrils. Sit in a comfortable position on a chair, a cushion, or on the floor. Close your eyes. Hold your right ring finger over your left nostril, and your right thumb over your right nostril. Close one nostril and inhale through the open nostril. Close both. Open the other nostril and exhale. Close both nostrils. Inhale through the nostril you just used, and continue repeating this process for three to five minutes.
  7. Then, meditate. This is hard when your brain is on fire, which is why doing breathing exercises first can be helpful.  Sit in a quiet place in a comfortable position–usually crossed-legs works best. Set a time for a short amount of time at first–five or ten minutes is plenty. Shut your eyes and try to breathe quietly, and try to stay there for the whole time. This is how meditation starts. Admittedly, when everything is terrible, it’s hard to sit quietly and not think. Guided meditations can definitely help. So can metta meditation or gratitude meditation, largely because they ask us to take the focus away from ourselves and our frustrations and outwards to others and our blessings.

As I write this, I’m afraid to look at the news again today. The world is so self-destructive, as I am too, and I know my tendencies towards extremes, like hours of exercise and housework followed by hours on social media, with no hours left for taking care of my mind and soul. However, becoming more aware of my own tendencies has actually caused me to judge myself less for them. Understanding has led me to more patience with myself, which eventually turns into more patience with others, even on social media. Does world peace really start with ourselves? Can we actually be the change we want to see? Was Hellen Keller right when she said, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it”? I’m tentatively asking myself to believe it.

gap of dunloe

What Recovery Looks Like

dark hedges

dark hedges

Hiding in the Filthy Office

I literally blew the circuit breaker in the kitchen at work the penultimate week of the semester. The microwave, toaster, and toaster oven do not cooperate simultaneously, and my husband, who is also my colleague and was also suffering from unheated lunch, was trying to explain how circuit breakers function and how me trying to plug the device back into the socket would not work.  Because this happened during the end of the semester when I wasn’t sleeping enough, I took this lesson as an attempt to explain my stupidity. I stomped off to my office to fume; when I came back for my food, I was trying so hard not to cry that I couldn’t even acknowledge his attempts to talk me off my angry cliff. I just nodded, said yes, I know, it’s fine, I love you too. “I think you’re having some PTSD,” he said. “No one is telling you you’re stupid.” 

But I felt stupid, so I hid in my office litter of ungraded portfolios, unwashed dishes, and un-submitted conference receipts. Students were writing overdue and self-absorbed essays, and administrators were making decisions that I despised. I was on two search committees and in the throes of meetings in my busiest grading week of the year while on an adjusted (for more class time) teaching schedule. Outside, temperatures rocketed from 30 degrees to 80. My pitta dosha boiled but despite knowing better, I operated on a self-care deficit. An online yoga group I’m part of had started a yoga and meditation challenge the week before.  I’d done one of the recommended yoga practices and exactly none of the meditation challenges.

I heard a yoga instructor once say, “It’s empowering to know how to care for yourself.” It’s also infuriating. When I left my ex-husband and began the miserable work of therapy, I watched myself do the wrong thing every day. Someone would manipulate me into doing something and I’d let it go even though I knew I should stick up for myself. My dad would send me money and I’d keep it, but not answer his phone calls. Another friend would challenge me on an idea and I’d overreact. I’d also overcommit, eventually disappointing people with late or shoddy work. Sometimes the misery of what I knew and yet failed to do correctly was as demoralizing as not knowing why I was screwing up in the first place.

One of my friends is currently making hard changes to heal from an addiction. Even though she knows why she wants wine and drugs, and why these will someday kill her, it doesn’t get rid of her addiction or her sometimes reckless attempts to feed it. This infuriates her; why be given the knowledge if she can’t do something better? Why, she asks, am I so apathetic?  Why do I want to blunt my feelings?

Why do I need so much help? we ask. No one has answered.

Sizing Up, or, Not Putting Your Elbows on the Floor

In yoga philosophy, twin limbs of this miserable self-awareness are a yama (a moral restraint) called satya, meaning truthfulness, and a niyama (a moral code) called svadhyaya, or self-study. Satya says I must resolve to be unflinchingly honest. Svadhyaya says I have to look closely at the situation. Then afterwards, I can choose to do something different. Something different can feel like a rocky path not yet hacked out of the mountain. It can even feel wrong, like re-learning how to swim or throw a ball or move into a yoga pose I perfected years ago (note: you never really perfect a yoga pose).

It can feel like swallowing pride. Addie Zierman, author of one of my current favorite books When We Were on Fire (and also a very lovely human in person) wrote a blog titled “Size Up”, about finally making herself buy a bigger size of jeans. I got anxious on her behalf as soon as I saw the title. Like Addie, I grew up conservative and Midwestern and evangelical and woman in the 1990s, which meant I spent a number of those years terrified of sizes.

Sizes are one kind of unhelpful performance marker; yoga poses can be another if I’m not careful. In a class I streamed recently, the instructor told us to settle into lizard pose, a hip-opening runner’s lunge that can be made more intense by  putting the elbows on the floor. As I creaked into the pose, she mentioned that after twenty-five years of yoga, she still couldn’t put her elbows on the floor. “I couldn’t do it in my twenties and I sure as hell can’t do it now,” she said. “And it took me that long to be OK with it.” I gasped a little in the middle of my ujjayi  breath and felt tears creep up.

Addie writes, “It’s about letting go of what doesn’t fit anymore, of who you used to be, of who you  thought you might turn into. (You are too old and too awesome for all that nonsense.) . . . In the mirror, the reflection you see is not one of failure but of courage as you expand, expand, expand more fully into yourself.”

Focusing on My Nose

But sometimes letting go of that nonsense is awfully hard. I realized that as I fumed through a gorgeous hike in Ireland last week. What was I so angry about? Initially, some dirty dishes; eventually, the fact that I was pissed off over something so stupid my last days in a beautiful place. The old anger that made me want to hide, snap at people, and hit myself continues to lurk, though less frequently than it used to. While I now know why it happens and how to help myself through it, the fact that I succumb to it at all continues to frustrate me.

Yoga teachers suggest finding a focal point in yoga poses–over the fingertips of an outstretched hand in Warrior II, a spot on the wall in balancing poses, the tip of the nose in Pyramid pose. In some guided meditations, instructors advise students to focus just on the breath coming in and out of the nostrils.

Thinking no farther than my nose helps me get through yoga classes and meditations when my mind is distracted; it’s also a good physical reminder of how to get through a day or a moment. Just keep breathing, I sometimes tell myself when I notice I’m angry powerwalking through another moment. Focus on the end of your nose.

Recovery is simple steps that feel like they might kill us. But sometimes we survive one simple step–just keep breathing— and then take another. My friend is walking her way towards sobriety; I’m no longer an angry doormat who compensates by hitting herself. Knowing how to recover is not the same as being recovered, but it takes one to get to the other.  My friend writes, “I’ve come to find freedom in the 24 hours I have. I find freedom, crazy as it sounds, in the idea of taking simple steps in the right direction. Staying sober is only the beginning. My journey out of wreckage and into a group of like-minded people is about finding myself and my will to live again.” Three years on, I’m still recovering, but when I look back–not too long, focus on your nose– I barely see the wreckage.

“Breathe Ya’ll”: A Review of Glow Yoga Studio


At the beginning of March, my husband and I drove away from the watery light of Indiana and headed south to Orange Beach, Alabama. Since I live in a small Rust-Belt town with few options for yoga besides my own classes, our vacations tend to include some yoga tourism, and this trip would be no different. I spend most of my yoga practice alone, just me, the yoga classes I stream, and sometimes my husband, sometimes a dog or two. When I practice at home I get set in my ways. I cheat in balance poses and find moments to think about the dust bunnies on the floor. I get irritated every time I have to reach my hands up around the ceiling fan when I stand in extended Mountain pose.

As we drove, I rubbed the knot in my shoulder and the cramp in my hip and wondered where Glow Yoga, the one studio I’d found in Gulf Shores, was in relation to the outlet malls and surfwear shops. Raving reviews from visitors described Glow Yoga as genuine, happy, and an excellent workout.

None of them were lying.

We didn’t make it to GlowYoga on Monday, when we decided to go dolphin-watching (good choice) on the windy lagoon and then eat seafood (potentially bad choice), or Tuesday, when we were recovering from the previous night’s gumbo. But on Wednesday we drove the short distance to Gulf Shores and found the yoga studio nestled by a small lagoon. Wednesday night’s class was GlowFlow–a one-hour, heated yoga class upstairs in “the hot box.” Seven or eight of us arranged our mats and yoga towels in the small room so as to not hit the ceiling or each other. The temperature climbed to 90. “Child’s pose,” Jennifer, tonight’s instructor commanded, and we were off.

An hour, multiple sun salutations, long holds in Warrior II and, thank God, no ab exercises later, we were sinking into our sweat-soaked yoga towels, blissed out and so grateful to not be moving anymore. As we lay on floor with our eyes closed, Jennifer moved around the room. I assumed she might adjust our hands or massage a little oil into our temples. Instead, she laid a chilled, eucalyptus-soaked handtowel on our foreheads and pressed her fingers into our temples. Nothing in the universe could have felt better.

The heavenly eucalyptus handtowel was a feature in all but one class I attended–at least seventy people crammed into the Skybox for Candlelight Yoga on Friday night, making it impossible to deliver that many towels in a five minute savasana. Sweat was also a feature in every class, even the Restorative class, where we did various “wall yoga” poses, like Half Moon, Extended Hand to Toe pose, Half Handstand, and Staff pose; and the Slow Flow class (see an example here) which was  a slower, non-heated (but no less challenging) version of a vinyasa class.

When we were signing in for the Wednesday night class, we decided to buy the unlimited week pass for $40. It was the best decision I made that spring break. We came back for Power Hour and Restorative on Thursday morning, Slow Flow on Friday morning and then Heated Candlelight yoga on Friday evening, and PowerHour Saturday morning before we left for the long drive home. Different teachers instructed us each time, in styles that varied, but still felt cohesive and in line with the ethos of the studio. That ethos seems to come down to three things: welcoming,  moving, and breathing.


Glow is a studio that attracts all kinds of people. There is no cult of the beautiful and young at this studio; the shirtless middle aged men are as welcome as the college students in cheap leggings and the stay-at-home-moms in LuLu and the middle-aged women nonchalantly wearing crop tops. People with various levels of physical disabilities and abilities sweated together, and the instructors constantly walked the room, ready to assist and encourage as needed.

A studio’s emphasis on hospitality benefits the advanced students as much as the beginners. As a yoga instructor, the hardest part about going to another yoga class is the people in the room, because my first impulse is either to adjust them or compare myself with them. Some studios, regardless of how spiritual they say they are, inadvertently encourage comparison and thus competition. But at Glow, I wasn’t competing for anything, not even space, despite it being pretty limited sometimes.

The studio building itself was also very welcoming–I didn’t feel like I had walked into an exclusive club/cult. They sell some clothing, jewelry, and yoga mats in the lobby, but I wouldn’t be a second-rate yoga student if I didn’t own those items.  Bathrooms and storage cubicles are available next to each of the three studio classrooms.  If I had one complaint, it’s that there are no showers, but I heard a rumor they’re in the process of installing some over the summer.


In one review I read, the owner of Glow describes the studio’s type of yoga as “workout yoga,” which often gets translated as “Americanized yoga” or even “not real yoga” in some  circles. However, while the classes are challenging and leave participants soaked and (maybe) sore, the movement does not come at the expense of mindfulness. In fact, it seems to encourage it. It’s hard to think about where I will go for brunch or what I will wear when I’m transitioning from Crescent lunge to Eagle pose then back to Crescent lunge AND trying to breathe deeply. In a good physical yoga class, the movement should encourage us to stay in the body and focused on each movement.

The pace in the heated classes at Glow is quick; instructors  usually call out the pose in English as opposed to Sanskrit, but with limited instructions for how to get into the posture. A typical list of instructions might sound like, “Warrior I. Turn to Warrior II. Breathe. Triangle. Back to plank and flow.” Classes like Restorative or Slow Flow might be better options for the beginning yoga students who doesn’t know the postures or how to smoothly transition between them. However, should a newbie end up in a heated flow class, the instructors do an excellent job of helping and encouraging, and their emphasis on the breath helps.


“We’re all about the breathing,” Breeze, our Thursday morning instructor, told me at the end of class. Rather than telling students how to do a pose, instructors keep commanding their students to come back to the breath. “Inhale!” they say, crouching between mats and expanding their arms like a bellows. “Exhale it out!” and the class takes a collective sigh. My favorite command, however, was Breeze’s simple, earnest, “Breathe ya’ll,” that became my mantra of the week. This breath emphasis is key to a strong yoga practice, and as the instructors remind us to take a break if needs be, but always keep breathing, I was reminded that I wasn’t there to develop strong leg muscles or tight abs or fluid balance and open shoulders. I was here to do something unnatural and essential–to breathe deep and let that breath and mindfulness heal my body. I’ve been practicing for over ten years, yet I always need someone, or in this case, lots of someones, to remind me of that.

On Saturday, we found the last clean yoga clothes in our suitcase and drove to Glow for the Saturday morning Power Hour class. 8:00 a.m. turned out to be a popular time in the Hot Box–we were packed in, inches between us. I had to adjust my mat during class to avoid the sloping ceiling. When we stood up and reached our hands to the ceiling in Mountain pose, I kept mine in prayer mudra at my heart, first out of necessity, eventually out of gratitude. Sometimes space to reach isn’t as important as the people filling the space around us.

Holy Week in Uganda

uganda sunrise

uganda sunriseSunrises in Uganda happen suddenly. Here on the equator, dawn is dark, turning pink at the eastern corners at the sky at 6:00, 6:30. Then morning wakes up in a flash of pink light  at 6:45. With it comes Ugandan life. The monkeys climb trees back down the hill to campus and the campus cat meows and stretches at my window. The palm trees are a silhouette of morning promise, and one woman at a time, the campus fills with people.

Sometimes nothing else seems to happen in Uganda quickly. When I order smoothies and coffee with the students at the Uganda Studies Program, a study abroad branch of Uganda Christian University, it takes thirty minutes to get our drinks, no matter how busy the canteen. Ugandan students, plumed in pencil skirts and ties, might wander into class twenty minutes after it starts. Hellos and goodbyes, handshakes and bows extend to everyone in the room. We have to drive slowly in Mokono, the city where UCU is based, because so many potholes and ridges and gulleys fracture the road, and so many taxis, Kenyan fuel trucks and boda-boda’s (motorbikes) compete for space. Were I a Ugandan woman, I would navigate all this traffic as I walked from my house with no indoor plumbing to a well, carrying a yellow jug for water. Then I’d wash my clothes by hand, scrubbing one piece at time.

But I am not a Ugandan woman. I’m an American woman, learning how American college students experience Africa over a semester. What I learn is Uganda, and Ugandan people are beautiful, hospitable, and kind. What I learn is that terrible things can happen suddenly in Uganda, and take thirty years to fix. In the American students’ cross cultural practicum class, they debrief the trip they took to Gulu, northern Uganda, the previous weekend. Joseph Kony (remember Kony 2012, and Invisible Children?) warlord of the LRA and self-described messiah, abducted thousands of women and children in this region to be his sex slaves and soldiers. Now those women and children struggle to exist in communities that don’t really want “Kony’s children” or “Kony’s wives” living among them. Helping them exist are organizations like Amani, where women come in to sew Fairtrade products. As they sew, they tell their stories of being abducted at age eight or nine, enduring tortured lives as wives and concubines to to the soldiers, and eventually bearing giving birth to their captors’ children. As the women sew and the students listen, the women create an economic future, and release the demons.

The students also visited organizations like the Recreation Project, created by a Colorado man who had worked in a displacement camp as a psychologist. While there he found his American response and training–“just tell your story”–wasn’t helping the kids get better. So he created a program that would allow kids to experience childhood for the first time. They can ride a zip line, participate in a ropes course, and learn agricultural training. The last is something 80% of Ugandans need to financially survive, but a generation of children were living in the bush as LRA child soldiers when they should have been learning how to farm. The Recreation project tries to teach this to them. The organization also created a parent-child group, where mothers and their child soldiers can learn to talk to each other.

“What about the Women’s Advocacy Network?” the professor asks.

“I was afraid you were going to ask that,” one of the students says with a pained face.

“You mean it gets worse?” I say.

“Oh,” they sigh again.

The Women’s Advocacy Network advocates for women who have been victims of war crimes, and it is made up of some of the most prominent, abused women the LRA abducted and tortured since 1986. When they escape or are set free, their hard lives are not over. They struggle to find work and financial support, often leading them into bad relationships and further abuse.  Most would agree with one woman who said, “I’ve endured the worst.” The students can barely speak of the torture these women shared with them.

“All explanations [of suffering] must proceed from a sense of failure,” Denise Ackermann, South African feminist theologian writes in After the Locusts: Letters from a Landscape of Faith. The American students cannot explain LRA violence in Gulu or the suffering they continue to witness in Mokono. One student visits her Compassion child, learning the little girl has sickle cell, and is always sick. Another writes about visiting a child with cerebral palsy, whose father abandoned the mother and three children after the disabled child was born. The boy lies alone on a blanket most of the day while the mother goes looking for food, and hard knot sits in his stomach where the food doesn’t digest. Another student works at an NGO designed to protect street kids. During the election, a local toddler is a victim of child sacrifice, allegedly for peace during the elections.

The students share these stories, perhaps remembering the American lives and supermarkets they are returning to at the end of April, perhaps thinking of their own suffering. “Do you feel more at peace or are your hearts heavier?” the professor asks the students towards the end of class. “Heavier,” one student says. “Kony is still alive, cutting off elephant tusks and selling them.”

“We must remember in order to redeem. Otherwise there will be no justice,” Ackerman writes of her childhood in apartheid South Africa. The American students remember the looks on women’s faces as they recall the terrorism on their bodies; they think of children abandoned by relatives or maimed by disease. I think of Joseph Kony slaughtering elephants to sell to smugglers, and remember photos of white CEOs posing with dead rhinos and lions. Destruction come for us all, but it can feel like it lingers in Africa.

That I traveled to Uganda during Holy Week, a week of so much promise mixed with horror, is not lost on me. I would always prefer to skim over the gospel descriptions of Jesus’ torture and look away from the women lugging their burdens of water and children. If I don’t look, I don’t have to imagine myself under those burdens, that whip, flail, cross, and I don’t have to struggle with the failure of words.

Looking away, however, is how I abandon redemption and justice.

Looking away, however, is how I miss the monkeys tumbling in a tree and the lizard scurrying across my TV cable. The cat’s invitation to scratch her ears. A stranger’s beautiful smile. The whole sky flashing a sudden resurrection pink.