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.