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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
“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 padangusthasana, or 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.