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?”

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

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.

Welcoming

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.

Moving

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.

Breathing

“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 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.

Ashes to Ashes

I am a reluctant woman of rituals. In the morning I run. Afterwards, I squeeze a lemon into a cup of hot water. In the evening, I spread out my yoga mat. After savasana and dinner, I pour two drops of essential oil into my tap water. And in the snowy, damp space of February and March, I give up sugar for Lent.

I was twenty three, in graduate school at St Andrews, Scotland, when I decided to observe Lent for the first time. Maybe it was because I was attending a Catholic church on Sunday evenings with my Catholic classmate Shawn, or maybe because I  was surrounded by reminders that even in the secular community of St Andrews, ancient church rituals rarified the air. They were as old as the stone castle and cathedral ruins, the waves lapping at the beach, the wind shaping West Sands and the golf courses beyond. The boundaries had been set and the air moving through them told us to repent.

I decided to give up two things: sugary lattes, and music purchases. This was mostly connected to my bank account but also the knowledge that I had enough. My new drink became an Americano with milk and honey, then eventually just milk. I sometimes wondered why I made this decision to forego new albums and mochas when I hadn’t been raised on Lent, or on a theology of giving up daily privileges. If something wasn’t a sin, it was fair game. My family never talked about our indulgences, because we worked too hard, us farming people, to deprive ourselves of anything we had time for.

Three years later, when the daffodils and tulips were sprouting in lawns and grocery stores in Northern England, I returned to Lent, this time deciding to give up all sugar and most wheat and bread. My roommate from Oxford, Sarai, had told me once that giving up gluten was like being on crack, but in reverse. You feel amazing while you’re off it and you feel terrible when you go back on. I remembered this when I ran my fastest half marathon during my Lenten half marathon season, then threw up sugar, bruschetta and strawberry daiquiris the day after Easter.

For some reason that cycle of purging continues every spring, usually with less vomit and more Easter restraint. I wake on Ash Wednesday, push the cookie butter and Andes mints to the back of the cupboard, and kneel in front of a priest who marks me with ashes, saved. I come home and avoid stopping in front of the cupboard, or the freezer. I feel the absence in my tired heart and I hate it. And the next day I feel the absence, and still hate it, but feel something hovering in that space I used to fill with cookies and wine. Perhaps the Holy Spirit flutters when we aren’t covering her in sugar.

On Sundays, Lenten fasting doesn’t count though. It is a feast day, and this first feast days was also Valentine’s Day. My husband and I drove to Indy, eating chocolate chip cookies and almond croissants, sharing a package of Valentine’s M&M’s, then retiring to Bucca di Beppo for a feast. Over giant bowls of salad and pasta, I told him about traveling to Austria and Bulgaria. He told me about the marble floors in his first grad school apartment. Over Italian Cream Cake we toasted our goals for the year.

On Monday I scraped the ama of the feast off my tongue, slogged through my Insanity workout, slunk in my desk after class. Sugar, like alcohol, and most other vices, is no gentle mistress. She gives, and takes, everything. I am taking myself away for another week, so I go back to my rituals. I run in the morning and drink my lemon water. In the evening, when the emptiness groans at me, I spread out my yoga mat, drink tea, and pour another drop of oil in my water glass, because I have enough. I sit down, and in the space where the Holy Ghost flutters her wings, I wait for something to stir.

 

 

 

Arise and Fail

On Monday morning at 6:00 the world was very, very dark. Most days I’d stay put for a while, but somehow I rolled out of bed and found my pre-selected shorts and tank top, and staggered to the living room. Briefly, I considered if I’d regret just never starting this new workout regime. Then I remembered I paid for it. I also remembered my skinny jeans, and Christmas chocolate. I hit play on the DVD player and took a deep breath. “Remember, it’s OK to fail, it’s OK to max out,” Shaun T tells me in the introduction video. It’s OK to fail, it’s OK to max out, I repeat.

For those of you who don’t know, Insanity Max30 is an exercise program designed by the beautiful and sadistic Shaun T. Speed and “maxing out” is the priority. When during the course of the video I reach the point where I can’t keep going, I’m supposed to take a break and write down my time, then jump back in. The workout is designed to make me fail. I hate failing.

But I was also so excited to begin this workout, in some part for the fitness benefits (Christmas and January are rough on the body, no matter how mindful you think you are in the face of cheese), but also for the challenge. I ran a marathon in just-under Boston qualifying time in November, but have been in a goal-less slump since then. I wanted a fitness change as well as a challenge.  Since I live in a midwestern Rust Belt city that doesn’t believe in plowing roads, much less sidewalks, now is a great time for that break.

Insanity, and marathon training, imposes a schedule that I’ll never make happen on my own. Marathon training is brutal but it brings a soothing regularity. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I do speedwork. On Monday I do an easy-ish run. On Saturdays I do long runs. I get to do nothing on Sunday. This kind of rhythm is good for me, even though I’m terrible at enacting it on my own. I’ve been on no workout schedule since November, which means I still work out, but without a plan or a goal. Usually I do too little or too much, ricocheting between the two extremes. Give me a printed schedule, however, like the one that comes with Insanity, and I’ll stick to it religiously. Vatas can always use a good schedule.

The Max30 workout is five minutes of warm up, twenty-five minutes of plyometric cardio or body-weight strength exercises, and two minutes of cool down. I didn’t max out on Monday until 26:40, when the double-jab, double tuck jump combo became way too much (the sound of my feet hitting the floor made me fear for my shins too). Given that a number of the cast members maxxed out around the half way mark, it makes me think I probably could have kicked it up a little had I known the exercises well enough to not look up at the TV during a pike-in-wide-legged plank jump.

Today I should have stopped (along with half of the cast members) or modified the plyometric side-to-side pushups (it’s worse than anything you’re imagining), because that whole side-to-side jumping thing–from a pushup– wasn’t happening. It might never. I’m really OK with that.

Here’s a few things I like about the workout: it was a hard workout but didn’t trash my body. My muscles are still tingling but I don’t feel like a cattle truck hit me. What I loved the most is how successful I feel at life afterwards. I’m not raging with heady success or bitter failure because of when I had to stop–I just feel successful for having done the exercise. My workout was done by 7:15, and though I felt thoroughly worked over, I also felt energetic. Not falling into the couch. Not like limping through my Monday and eating a crate of donuts.

Rather, I felt like getting some fresh air. I threw on some sweats, grabbed the leashes, and took the dogs on a short walk. None of my beloved canines tried to bite each other, lurch towards traffic, or eat a stray piece of litter, not even when the German Shepherds down the street started their barking duet. The sun was rising pink over the athletic fields as we walked. They say red sky is warning, but on Monday it looked more like a promise. I sometimes forget what I love about January, but this week I smelled earth under the frosty hard ground. It smelled like spring was taking on a challenge. It felt something like happiness.