Revisiting Uganda

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.

 

 

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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?”

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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