Being Mindful: A blog for Annesley Writers Forum

In December, I was asked to write a blog for Annesley Writers Forum by picking a found word or phrase, then using it in the blog itself. I had recently seen a message on a sidewalk using the phrase “Be mindful” in a way that was extremely negative, and I decided to go with that. The resulting essay is dedicated to my brave students, male and female, who are mindfully overcoming the effects of sexual assault.

“All over the campus sidewalks, students involved in the sexual assault awareness week had written “It’s On Us” in white chalk. I barely read the messages as I marched from the student center to my office. But my friend had slowed down long enough to take a photo and send it to me. Someone had crossed out the “On” and below it wrote “Be Mindful of Who You Blame” in a hard, threatening blue script. The M’s and B’s curved like the lines of a ransom note or a death threat. I was alone in my office when I first saw the photo, but still I caught myself looking over my shoulder for the invisible voice that still whispers watch it.”

Read the rest at https://www.annesleywriters.com/single-post/2018/12/28/Being-Mindful

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On Not Stealing Struggle: A look at Asteya

 

 

uganda chapel

Asteya translates to “non-stealing” and reminds us that we have all that we need; that we should act from a place of abundance instead of scarcity.” Coral Brown, Yoga Journal

I would have been very content in Uganda had it not been for the women. I would be wondering at the colorful roadside shops and the overpacked taxi buses, and then I’d see them walking along the margins of the  busy red-rutted roads, lugging a yellow tank of water. I would be laughing at the monkeys in the trees, and then notice women peeling potatoes behind the student cafeteria, a charcoal fire burning beside them where they would cook hundreds of meals for the students. Even when I was in their homes, listening to the husbands and male visitors chat, the women’s absence pestered me as I ate the watermelon they had diced and the curry they cooked. When we left the homess, the women waved goodbye, then hurried back inside to wash dishes with the water they had fetched earlier in the day.

In March 2016, after enduring three flights and a twelve hour layover in two days of travel, I settled down for a week at Uganda Christian University. I was there on a research grant to interview and observe the American students studying abroad there, and while I had never thought of Uganda as a place where I could happily live, within a few days I was smitten with the relaxed beauty of the country. Sure, the main highway through the country was a two-lane road clogged with potholes, but on the campus where I was staying, the red dirt paths were fine for walking. The water never got warm in my guest room, but it was so hot outside that I didn’t care. I swallowed pills to prevent malaria, wore light skirts to the sweltering classes and practicums, and ate inexpensive, tasty meals every day. The Ugandans on campus smiled at me as I asked questions, and the Americans grinned as they shared their Ugandan culture shock. Monkeys played in the trees, and some of the American families at the campus invited me over for dinner to their cool, clean houses. The internet was inconsistent, but it worked, and I enjoyed every visit I made to practicum sites and classrooms. I could have lived there pretty comfortably, if I could have forgotten that most of the population was not living comfortably at all.

I watched the women from the inside of the van where I was being driven to or from the airport, to or from an NGO serving abandoned children, and their struggle irritated me, similar to the irritation I feel when I see a homeless person, or kids walking to school through rough neighborhoods. These people made bad choices, the industrious American inside of me says, trying to ignore the Holy Spirit whispering there but for the grace of God go I. Uganda magnified this feeling, because being comfortable, at least in my sense of the word, meant either being very rich, or white. I was both.

The more the women bothered me, the more I caught myself trying to believe that they probably liked walking to get water, or that they were so used to it they wouldn’t want to live differently. Or maybe they had done something to get in this situation and they could choose to escape it. My logic was ridiculous. I won’t pretend to understand infrastructure in developing countries, but Uganda (as also Flint, Michigan) is a clear reminder that hard work and industry will not route a water pipe or a paved road to a family’s home, even if that family owns their own business and puts all their children through college. Usually the job of fetching water also goes to the women and female children, as does the job of building fires, selling snacks, washing clothes by hand, and raising children. Their discomfort reflected back my privilege. I didn’t like how that felt, so I simply minimized their struggle. It felt like stealing.

In yoga philosophy, the third yama or restraint is Asteyaor non-stealing. This past month in my yoga teacher training we were to meditate on this yama and think about what it means to our lives. I thought about how my use of time steals sleep and energy from myself. How my schedule steals time from my husband. How my propensity for running late steals time from other people.  I had lots of personal conviction about Asteya, but nothing stuck like the images of African women carrying those yellow jugs, Michigan families holding signs reading FLINT STILL DOESN’T HAVE WATER,  African-American families in New Orleans pointing to their abandoned home, and African-American parents everywhere mourning the deaths of their children–and the dismissive comments we can find under each photo:

“Well, if they worked a little harder . . .”

“Well, if they hadn’t broken the law . . .”

“Well, why don’t they move somewhere else?”

As if industry can make clean water materialize in your neighborhood.  As if not using a turn signal or listening to loud music means you should die. As if hard work can hold back a hurricane.

We do this all the time, even to people we love. One of my students lost a close friend in a mass shooting. Three months after the event, her father asked her why she wasn’t “over it” yet.  A woman in my community was brutally raped in her home a few years ago; shortly after the fact some people in the community began trying to frame the assault as somehow “consensual.”  When I was going through my divorce, I heard a family member say that I probably left my husband because I couldn’t handle getting yelled at occasionally. This logic comes at the expense of other people’s dignity. When we try to minimize the suffering of others, or even blame them for their suffering, we are robbing them of their sorrow and struggle so that our abundance makes us feel less bad.

And we do this the most to people who already have a difficult life. I was riding in a taxi back to Entebbe airport when I looked at a woman on the side of the road and caught myself minimizing her hardships in order to feel less bad about my indoor plumbing. I tried looking away, and realized that approach was doing the same thing. No one in Uganda was asking me to carry water, but just to realize the miles are long, the water is heavy, and the jug will be empty again tomorrow.

 

Only Time for Satya

guiness-fish
Self Portrait 

My husband’s one pet peeve of my driving is that when I follow a too-slow driver that I cannot pass, I unconsciously pulse my foot on and off the accelerator as I creep closer and closer to the bumper. I guess I think I can will the car in front of me to move faster with my own gas pedal. It never works, and only leaves my husband seasick, and me irritable that I cannot make the Lincoln in front of me drive my speed.

I often treat my husband like that poky Lincoln when we are running late. At 5:45 in the morning, when I am trying to get us out the door for my 6:00 a.m. yoga class, he is putting on his pants and checking the weather app on his phone. I am reluctant to order him around (because I do not want to be Bossy Wife ever again) so I hover, dropping comments (are you ready yet? Can I do anything to help you? I really don’t want to be late) because I hate being late. But yet, I often am. It is easy to blame him when we show up late together, but I know the truth: I would still be rushing in at the last minute even if it was just me.

My mother says I have always tried to pack every day full. On my seventh or eighth birthday, my family managed to throw me a birthday party, went shopping, and saw the Christmas tree lighting on the square in my hometown. She said I still cried afterwards because there was one more thing I wanted to do. As a young adult in college, I always tried to make one more thing happen. I see my college self in my current students who run from workouts to class, breathless and sweaty, dripping coffee on their sleeves. I see it in my student who, at the last minute, signs up for twenty-one credit hours, then flustered and overworked, drops them, one by one, until she is down to thirteen credits and has to take extra courses in the summer to make it up. I see this, because these are all still things I do. The only difference is that in 2017, I have a smart phone that lets me contact students, colleagues, and friends when I am running late for meetings and coffee dates. Which is often.

This semester I began with a goal to be at least ten minutes early to my morning classes. I failed at that immediately. The first day I told myself I had time for a five-mile run because I could get ready in twenty minutes. And I did—but had to skip coffee and a real breakfast. What I sometimes forget to tell myself is that my husband is the one who keeps me fed and caffeinated; I also sometimes forget to tell myself I need these things.

When we studied satya during my two-hundred hour teacher training, we talked about being so honest with our time and commitments that we never had to apologize for not making our deadlines. The idea of being able to live this way blew me away. I had been saying “I’m sorry, I’m running late” so long that I had almost gotten used to it. In faculty meetings, I often hear a colleague talk about margin—leaving enough time between events to get from one place to another. I used to think of margin as time to spend, as I used to think of food and sleep as something to skip. Maybe I could get away with my ignorance then, but the more I learn about holistic health, and the more I honestly observe my own body, the more I know see my unhappiness and stress when I shortchange my sleep and my time. Just because I can get ready in twenty minutes, or go to work on four hours of sleep, doesn’t mean that I should. I know that now, and ignoring this satya will be detrimental to me as well as the people in my life.

In learning the truth about how to care for my body, I’ve also been confronted with my own tendency to not speak the truth about my relationships. In my last marriage to an irresponsible person, I often found myself resentfully cleaning up messes and trying to “mother” him out the door so that we wouldn’t be late. In public, I put on a smile and came up with excuses for why he didn’t have a job or why we were in debt. Instead of saying what I wanted (please clean up your messes; please respect my time) I would internalize the words—because they would lead to a fight I couldn’t win—and express, passive-aggressively, my annoyance. That didn’t work. In this marriage, I sometimes still fall into my old habit of trying to make him do what I want instead of honestly expressing what frustrates me, and what I need. Giving myself margin means I have time to realize I have a safe relationship, and can be truthful even if it means an uncomfortable conversation. Satya, it turns out, is not only about not lying but actively telling the truth.

Because I’m being honest, I know I still have a problem with time (I wrote the original draft of this with twenty minutes to spare until my deadline), and a problem with tailgating. I would still prefer it if everyone operated at the same pace as me. But the thing about honesty is that once you see it, it’s hard to go backward. Now, rushing from one thing to the next makes me feel almost sick to my stomach, giving me some empathy for my seasick husband sitting next to me in the car.

 

Donald Trump Teaches Me Ahimsa

gun-knot

Ahimsa: the Buddhist and Hindu tradition of nonviolence towards all living things.

The week before I started my 300-hour yoga teacher training, a portion of America picked Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States. Fifteen months of ugly public discourse ended not with the sane, flawed candidate I hoped would be elected, but with a man who has used words as violence towards women, minorities, immigrants, veterans, disabled people, his opposition, and the press. I thought after the election our nation would reset to the more passive-aggressive, shrouded language of public decency I was used to. Even if everyone wasn’t happy with Madame Clinton, I thought the more outspoken racists would retreat to the shadows. I could stop arguing with so many people on Facebook, and quit worrying about the what-ifs that came with Mr. Trump’s daily Tweets. I was, clearly, very wrong.

The day after the election I re-posted an article to Facebook that a family member found offensive, so this person called me a bigot. To say I felt hurt was an understatement;  I cried in the bathroom at work when I should have been supervising my students workshop their essays. I spent the rest of the day either crying with distraught students, or trying to talk about the election like a mature grown-up in my classes; anything to avoid obsessing over this rift with my family member. But by the time I got to yoga class that night, it was all I could think about. Teardrops fell on my mat during every downward dog. During my 200-hour teacher training we had discussed ahimsa, the yoga idea of nonviolence. In the book The Yamas and Niyamas  by Deborah Adele, she points out that one way we are often violent towards ourselves and others is by worrying.  We don’t trust ourselves or them to handle the situation, so we hurt ourselves by obsessing over it. I knew this as I cried through each chakra, but I couldn’t figure out how to let go of my worries.

The next day it became clear that no one was going to figure out nonviolence for me. The next night when I posted a statement asking the president-elect to denounced racism, my phone lit up with objections: why wasn’t I talking about all the Trump supporters getting beaten up? What about the people hating Donald Trump?  I started to feel the shaky feeling that comes from this kind of confrontation, and then instead of replying, I muttered, “Not today Satan,” and deleted the Facebook app off my phone. I grew up learning that “A soft answer turns away wrath,” but I seldom saw people model it, or the biblical idea of heaping coals of kindness on an enemy’s head. So three hours later, I went for as much kindness and burning coals as I could manage in my response, and ended my response by wishing the most belligerent respondent a blessed day. The comments stopped. I stopped feeling sick and angry. As I meditated on ahimsa over the last month, I found I could give myself a few extra minutes, and a little more charity, before I responded. This has worked in my internet life, as well as in my real life, where I work, worship, and spend family holidays with people who believe and vote very differently from me.

But the violence I’ve encountered since the election has been nothing compared to that of people of color. Two weeks before Christmas, an African-American student at my university woke up to find a note on his car saying that “people” at our college campus were tired of his presence and if he came back “action would be taken.” He live off campus, so the person who did this figured out where he lived or knew he was a student. No one knows yet who this individual is, and when my students asked me what they could do, I told them it wasn’t their job to go hunt down suspected racists on campus (some of them looked disappointed). Instead, I gave them notecards and told them they could write an encouraging note to the student. When I gave him the notes a few days later, his face lit up with a surprise and a “Thank you!” Sometimes ahimsa means silence. Sometimes, however, it means a very intentional choice of words.

I felt an echo of this student’s surprise myself when three friends sent me messages to say they valued what I have been posting and writing since the election. One specifically referenced how “gracious and warm” I have been. I have seldom felt gracious and warm on Facebook, but if my attempts at it are making a difference, then I will continue down this path. I am still negotiating how to speak against injustice while maintaining ahimsa in my responses; I especially still struggle how to stay calm and non-violent inside myself when I see one of Mr Trump’s tweets or hear a clip from one of his speeches on the radio. But what I have learned is that intentional words of kindness, and more often than not, intentional silence, has been the first step in bringing a little more peace and justice in my world.

New Essay!

I woke up in a rather foul mood today, but some of that was alleviated when I saw an email from Topology Magazine letting me know they would be publishing an essay I submitted last month. The essay is called “How the Light Gets In” which is a short essay made up of short segments centered around light. Topology’s call for submissions was on the theme of Sabbath, and each section of the essay is about finding brief respites of light in dark and cold places. I hope you enjoy it.

http://www.topologymagazine.org/essay/how-the-light-gets-in/vermont-lake

What I’ll Say When I Stop Crying

trees-in-yellow-wood

Today was hard. I’m still working on articulating my grief, which is complicated as well as painfully simple, but in the meantime, I tried to articulate my sadness to my students, many of whom are black, Hispanic, immigrant, and Asian. Statistically, some of them may also know, or someday realize, that they are a sexual minority. For these students, it did not take them long to realize they did not quite fit in at our campus, which means today quickly became extra difficult for them.

So , I give you two things. The first is the email I sent my freshmen classes tonight. I extend this message to any reader and friend feeling isolated or hurt.

 

Dear Students,

As some of you might have gathered, today was a difficult day for me, not because “my” candidate lost, but because of what President-elect Trump came to stand for and endorse over the last 15 months. I hope his presidency will be a different story, but right now, I am very troubled by vitriol from this election, as well as the lack of civility that now exists between me and people that I love. I’m working through that now, but it all came to a head this morning during our class. I’m sorry I was not very present for many of you today. For those of you who saw me ugly-crying at the end of class, thank you for your hugs and kind words. It meant a great deal.

After class, I met with a student of color who was terrified by this election. We had a long, sad conversation about fear and faith. The hardest part was when she looked at me and asked, “Do minority lives matter?”

I want you all to know that the fact she had to ask me that question made me cry a lot harder, and the answer is yes, a thousand times over. If you are someone considered a minority at this university because of your race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, I want you to know that your life matters. You are a child of God and you are loved, and I am on your team. Please tell me what you need. If you do not fall into that “other” category above–if you have always known that your life matters– know this: your life also matters to me. You are a child of God, and you are loved, and I am on your team too. You also have a responsibility to your classmates who are suffering today. Please be kind to them. Please speak out if you see or hear of injustice. Please listen if they tell you why they are struggling right now; this week is not the time for platitudes or cliches. Listening and praying will go much further than anything else.

This Friday, we are going to have a discussion of the election and how to move forward in a way that respects the most vulnerable people in our community. This will not be a time of argument, but a time of careful listening and lamenting that an election can hurt so many people so much.  I hope by then I am done crying so that I can talk coherently. But I wanted you all to know my thoughts tonight, and know that I want to be a safe person for you. That honor has to be earned, and not just given, but I hope this email can be a way to begin earning your trust.

Thank you all for being in my class. Much love and peace to you tonight. 

***

Secondly. Today in my Creative Nonfiction Class we talked about where to go from here. Part of that journey will involve  reading more poetry, for, as JFK says, “Power corrupts. Poetry cleanses.” The poem I selected, which I could not manage to read but my Canadian student read beautifully for us, is Langston Hughes’s “I,  Too, Sing America.” For whoever needs this–here. Laugh, eat well, grow strong.

I, Too, Sing America

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

Besides, 
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.