Exploring Home

I’ve always loved to travel, but over the past year, I did something I’d never done before – I lived my life traveling, backpacking through South America. I stayed in countless places, trying to stay long enough to get to know people and get a taste of the culture, but usually not staying in one place for more than a week. While that rhythm allowed me to see many different places, it meant that just as I was getting settled in and feeling at home in one place, I was packing up and moving on, which meant constantly adjusting to a new place, constantly trying to feel at home in a new place.

Having to start a home from scratch over and over again, one learns to find home within, so that you always feel at home, wherever you are. (That’s a topic for a whole book, but here’s a peek into one way I carried home with me wherever I went).

Early on, I found I could feel at home wherever I was when I would do yoga. Despite having just left all stability and familiarity, when I did those familiar yoga poses,* watching the sun rise over Lake Titicaca, I felt perfectly at home, and right where I wanted to be in that moment.

Sunrise yoga at Santuario del Pacha Tata in Island Amantani, Peru, Lake Titicaca

From then on, I tried to do yoga in every place I visited, and it never failed to make me feel centered and right at home, even if I had recently been feeling that strange, subtle sensation of being a wanderer, far from home. It wasn’t always easy to do yoga everywhere, but I always found a way.

Sometimes it elicited strange looks, but it was always worth it. It was a great way to connect with a new place – physically and socially. I have fond memories of yoga-ing in the cold of the Bolivian Andes, in the hot, humid Peruvian and Colombian jungles, the hot, dry desert in northern Chile, and the cool autumn air in Argentina.

Yoga at Guatavita, Colombia with new friends from Venezuela and Colombia

It was also something I could share with people who had shared something with me, like the Argentine rugby player, or the kind, Quechua-speaking woman who did some yoga poses with me in her traditional clothing trying not to be too embarrassed when her neighbors passed by.

Yoga at Ccotos, Peru on Lake Titicaca, with the daughter of the family that hosted me.

I am now back in the US, but in a way, I am still traveling. And my journey has taken me unexpectedly back to my childhood home, visiting my parents. I haven’t lived here during my adult life, and I have only been back for short visits as an adult. It is in the same physical location where I grew up, but it has changed, the city has changed, my parents have changed, and I have changed.

And so, despite the undertones of familiarity, I feel like I have arrived to yet another new place to adapt to and to explore.

Within a few days of arriving, my mom told me that her chair yoga class was starting up again and she invited me to go with her. My first reaction was one million questions about the preventative measures being taken due to the coronavirus. (Yes it’s outdoors, yes everyone has to wear masks, yes there’s extra spacing between people, and yes, you have to bring your own chair.) We agreed that if it didn’t seem safe we’d leave. She pointed out that the instructor is an 84-year-old woman, so she probably wouldn’t have started the class back up if she didn’t think she could do it safely.

My second reaction was: “chair yoga?” Having recently hiked through the Andes and traveled around South America with a 40-lb backpack, you can imagine my expectations for a chair yoga class taught by an 84-year-old woman. First of all, I didn’t know that “chair” and “yoga” could go together to be one thing. (I typically do yoga to get out of the chair.) And even though my mom had told me it was a cool class, I admittedly imagined a few neck stretches and thought it might be kind of boring. But then I hadn’t met Gloria Simmons.

Ms. Simmons is a gem of a person. This 84-year-old woman is way more flexible than I could ever hope to be. She is one of those fierce, gentle spirits that is a natural leader, but in a subtle way that inspires you by making you feel comfortable and appreciated.

Walking into one of her classes, the atmosphere is casual, comfortable, and respectful. One of the first things one notes is the diversity of the class. There are participants of different ages, body types, flexibilities, abilities, and different races – about half black women and half white women, and sometimes a few Latinas. A woman in a wheel chair often attends and another with a walking cane.

The magic of Gloria is that she skillfully leads this diverse group of abilities so that everyone gets a good stretch and no one feels left out. And she teaches yoga with a chair! (Even though I’ve been to many classes now, I’m still impressed by the concept of chair yoga.) She didn’t invent chair yoga, but she did modify what she learned from videos and a PBS program to make it something interesting and versatile.

Our fearless leader, Gloria Simmons
Chair Yoga – Warrior 1

Surprisingly, Gloria came to yoga by accident, wandering into a class about 20 years ago when she was teaching an aerobics class at a rec center. She had never heard of yoga and expected it to be boring, but she realized that she had already been doing some of the stretches in her aerobics class, and she found that she actually liked it!

After about a month, the instructor encouraged her to become certified, so she signed up for what would become “the hardest week of her life”.  She almost didn’t make it past the second day of the certification class because her body was so sore and tired. But she recounts that her daughter made her dinner, told her to rest, and encouraged her to get through the week, so she stuck with it…and the rest is history!

Now she says she does yoga when she wakes up in the middle of the night, and later is able to go back to sleep. It’s her go-to way to relax and get centered, kind of like it has been for me during my travels.

She always reminds us to do the best we can and not to force anything since our bodies are all different. And at the end, she turns up the music and gets us out on the dance floor,** leading us in an aerobics-type dance at first, and then encouraging free style, making sure each person takes a few turns in the center of the dance circle. Even the woman in the wheelchair gets out there and shakes it!

She also does mat yoga classes each week, where she really blows us away with how flexible she is! (I definitely realized how ageist I had been with my preconceived notions of what an 84-year-old instructor would be like; she showed me!)

All of this, she does as a volunteer, sharing something that has helped her, something that she enjoys, with others.

Here in Texas, we are all dealing with the stress of the uptick in COVID-19 cases, and we have leaders that openly stated their concern for the economy over people’s lives. Then the death of George Floyd. And the subsequent protests and racism – anti-racism clashes. We are all living in challenging times, and Ms. Simmons creates this safe and healthy space, where we can escape from all of that for an hour, do something good for our bodies, and feel at peace for an hour or so, two times a week.

And that safe space, where everyone is welcome and accepted – all body types, all ages, all abilities, all races – is just what we all need right now during these turbulent and strange times.

Once again, thanks to yoga, (and to Ms. Simmons) I have been able to feel a little more at home along my journey.



Famous Footnotes

* Around 10 years ago I started doing yoga-like stretches every day as part of my routine to help manage back problems, and I’ve kept it up ever since. During my Peace Corps service, I held yoga classes for the over-worked elementary school teachers, and we all enjoyed a few moments of de-stressing at the end of the day. So, when I really think about it, it’s not surprising that doing something that has been part of my daily routine for 10 years would help me feel at home in a new place.

**We dance in a huge circle, all with the appropriate physical distancing, especially since most people are in a high-risk group for complications from COVID-19.

Most of the photos are credited to Majic, Gloria’s god-son.

Perspectives: How bad is it?

Remember that big question raised at the beginning of the pandemic – How bad is COVID-19 anyway?

This question is really fun because it’s like an optical illusion. The answer greatly depends on perspective, and the final outcome greatly depends on what we believed at the beginning. This time it’s not one of those inspirational “if you believe it, it will be!”, but rather the opposite.

Ironically, if we had believed it was bad when we saw the first cases in the US, we would have done everything possible to contain it and it wouldn’t have “been so bad”.

But because of the outbreak and the tragically lost lives in the northeast, the rest of the nation decided that it was something to take seriously and took preventative measures…which then kept it from being tragic in other parts of the country…(leading to protests to open things back up because “it wasn’t so bad after all).”

What a clever trick. By believing it isn’t such a big deal, it becomes a big deal. Believing it is a big deal, we keep it from being a big deal.

While we’re talking about the importance of perspective, let’s look at the question of the magnitude of COVID-19, first from a birds-eye view and then a more personal perspective, using hard data. (What did you expect from an engineer?)

During its first five months,1 the coronavirus has already killed more people in the US than the flu AND pneumonia did over the course of the entire year in previous years, having killed 34.52 people for every 100,000 people. That means it is already more deadly than the flu, diabetes, and Alzheimer disease, and it continues to climb. If you calculate the rate of deaths per month, COVID-19 is the third deadliest threat in the US this year, after heart disease and cancers.

* The first reported case in the US was January 21, 2020. I took data publicly available from the CDC, which has published the leading causes of death in the US in 2017 and 2018. Data from 2017 and 2018 are averaged because they show similar rates between the two years and the top 10 causes do not vary between the years nor does the order. Monthly death rate assumes that death rates from previous years were equal across all years, and assuming that the current deaths were evenly distributed across the number of months since the first COVID-19 case in the US. Source: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db355_tables-508.pdf#page=2

Here is the trend worldwide instead of just in the US, and a much cooler infographic than I can do in Excel. (Here’s the link in case it doesn’t show up for  you.)



So there you have a bird’s-eye-view perspective. Now let’s look at the perspective of personal experience – how individuals might be experiencing the mortality rate of COVID-19.

First, there are those that have lost their lives or lost loved ones due to the disease, like my friend who lost her grandmother. My heart goes out to you. These numbers that I’m analyzing will seem really cold and useless to you. But they might help explain why there are many people out there that are apathetic and ignoring or even denying the pandemic.

In the US, people are currently (as of June 11) dying from COVID-19 at approximately the same rate (actually a bit higher) as people died from accidents in previous years, making it the third most prominent cause of death after heart disease and cancer. Did you know someone who died in an accident last year? Odds are that if 1,200 people read this, only one person will answer “yes”.

Another way to look at it: How many people do you know (think Facebook friends and real friends.) If you know 1,200 people, the odds are good that you will know one person who died from COVID-19. But actually, even that’s not completely accurate because nearly 42% of deaths have been in New York state, New Jersey, and Connecticut.1 So if you don’t live there or don’t know many of people there, the odds of knowing someone who has died from COVID-19 go down to one in about 1,700 people. If you don’t know 1,700 people and you don’t know someone in an outbreak area, odds are good that you don’t know someone who died from COVID-19.

So to summarize:

Is COVID-19 killing more people than the flu?

  • Yes – at more than five times the rate of flu deaths.

Is COVID-19 is a major cause of death for people in the US this year?

  • Yes – it’s the third leading cause of death this year so far.

Are you likely to know someone who has died from COVID-19?

  • Depends on where you live and who you know, but the majority of Americans likely won’t personally know someone who died from it.

From a birds-eye-view and for those who have lost loved ones, it is obvious that COVID-19 is a deadly disease. That said, the majority of the US population has not been directly affected by a COVID-19 death, and that might help explain why some people are more upset about the shut-downs than the sickness itself.

Speaking of those shut-downs, let’s not forget that they are the reason that the death rate isn’t higher than it is. Closing things slowed the spread, buying us time for at least three important preparations:

  1. Public health education. Closing things drew attention to the problem – it forced people to pay attention, creating an environment and time to disseminate information so that people could protect themselves and others. Even after opening, the virus will not spread as quickly as if we hadn’t shut down, simply because many people are now taking precautions.2
  2. Hospital preparation. The closures slowed the spread, gaining the majority of the US time to reinforce hospitals, acquire supplies, and train staff.
  3. Improved treatment. The closures bought us time to learn how to more effectively treat patients. Every day we learn something new about treating the virus (like patient positioning, monitoring blood oxygen levels, and the use of oxygen and ventilators). Additionally, every day researchers are working towards a vaccine.

So closing down and slowing the spread means that thousands of people didn’t get sick in April. Now that they know how to protect themselves, thousands might not even contract the virus. As things are opening up in many places, many people will get sick in June and July, but by then, doctors and hospitals will be better prepared to treat them, which will mean the difference between life and death for many.

But we are not through this yet. We still control our destiny. Remember the paradox: COVID-19 was deadly at first because we didn’t believe it was so deadly. Once we believed it to be deadly, it became less deadly because precautions were taken.

So as things begin to open up, and we continue with our daily lives, remember that while we bought ourselves time and our hospitals and doctors are now more prepared, if we take it too lightly, that tricky paradox could get the best of us.

What a clever trick. By believing it isn’t such a big deal, it becomes a big deal. Believing it is a big deal, we keep it from being a big deal.

Famous Footnotes:

This article was an interesting survey of how epidemiologists are managing risk in their personal lives to find that right balance between taking care of their mental and physical health while protecting themselves and others from the virus. It reinforced my decision to engage in outdoor activities, maintaining 6-9 feet from people outside my safe circle, to wear a mask in public, and to avoid indoor spaces with people outside of my safe circle altogether.

  1. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/03/16/816707182/map-tracking-the-spread-of-the-coronavirus-in-the-u-s

I calculated the current monthly death rate in the US to be 7.3/100,000 people, and 5.0/100,000 excluding NY, NJ, and CN, compared to accidents at 4.1/100,000 people.

  1. There is still a great deal of misinformation out there and some people not taking the necessary precautions, but the fact that many are really help control the spread. We will see in the following months if it is enough to keep things under control.

**Here’s a good table from the CDC breaking down deaths from COVID and pneumonia and the flu, if you like that level of detail: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid19/index.htm


We Need to Talk

The tension in the air in the US right now is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Fear is rampant, but not everyone is afraid of the same thing. We are afraid of each other.

The phrase “divide and conquer” comes to my mind as I feel Americans become more and more divided, and I fear how we might be conquered.

But I also see so many uniting, which gives me incredible hope. I have been a part of some conversations where people are really listening to each other’s differing perspectives and experiences and trying to learn from each other. I see people struggling through the discomfort of hearing a different opinion that scares them and being patient and trying to understand it.

But I also have been in many spaces where different opinions and perspectives are not something that people can discuss civilly. Where conversations aren’t seen as a way to better understand each other and the world; rather they lead to defensiveness and cause people to shut down and/or to start slinging insults. And I see a lot of people only having conversations within groups with similar opinions and not branching out to try to understand the opinions of people outside their comfort zone.

It’s as if we never learned those basic lessons of dialogue. We are all Americans, we are all humans that want to live in a safer America, and yet somehow we lost the ability to listen to each other about what a safer world for everyone would look like.

I’m hoping this can be a bridging tool to help us take a step closer to having some productive difficult conversations.

Original source of image unclear

Simplifying the complex issues brought up by the recent protests, I see two predominate perspectives – contradictory, though equally valid and true to those who hold them.

Perspective 1: The police keep our communities safe. If we feel threatened, we can call the police. Only guilty people have reason to be afraid of the police. Defunding the police would be a disaster in public safety.

For people whose experience with the police has mostly been positive, (other than traffic tickets or mild offenses,) this perspective will probably resonate. The recent protests often make these people feel threatened because it seems like the institution that keeps them safe – the police and the criminal justice system – is being threatened, by the protests and by calls for defunding the police.

Perspective 2: Many police officers abuse their power, and the string of police brutality incidents against black people are blatant indicators that racism is still very alive in America, especially in the criminal justice system. Police officers and the entire criminal justice system need to be held accountable, reformed, even defunded, and structural racism must be addressed.

For people of color who have experienced racism by police officers or in other areas of their life, this statement will ring true, and the sight of a police officer will often incite fear rather than a sense of security. For them, the George Floyd-inspired protests give them hope for a safer, more just America, despite the fear they feel as unarmed citizens when they see the armed officers policing the protests and the white men with guns, counter-protesting.

Both of these perspectives are real and valid and varied (as I said, I simplified a complex issue into a binary issue to be able to take a first step in talking about it.) Though they seem contradictory, many people are starting to be able to hold both perspectives in their mind at one time. And this, to me is the first step forward.

To be clear, I’m not saying that each perspective deserves equal weight.

The majority of people who identify with Perspective 1 are white, and the majority of black people identify Perspective 2. Yes, there are exceptions, but speaking in terms of majorities, there is a clear race line between these perspectives.

Yep, I brought up race and made a generalization about different experiences based on the color of our skin. I’m such a racist, some will say.

“Equality means we’re all equal and so we shouldn’t even see black and white, and we should have equal standards for everyone; the best way to achieve equality is to be colorblind.” I used to believe that.

And then I spoke to people of color and learned about their personal experiences of racism that I had never in my life experienced or witnessed outside of books and movies; I wasn’t aware of how prevalent the experience of discrimination still is today for many people of color.

If racism didn’t exist, sure we could all be colorblind. But since racism DOES still exist, saying we are colorblind is turning a blind eye to an injustice that we are living with, here in the nation where we strive for Justice and Liberty For All. Turning a blind eye to racism is turning a blind eye to our American principles.

So if people actually have different experiences based on the color of their skin, we need to talk about these differences to understand each other. And one important question would be why does race have anything to do with whether someone feels threatened or hopeful by the current protests? Why does race have anything to do with whether cops make us feel safe or not?

Understanding the difference between these two perspectives is crucial to finding a solution that will help people of the both perspectives feel safe and secure.

As we have known for decades (but it seems to only recently be getting a lot of attention and hasn’t made it into basic education), there is plenty of proof 1 that racism is alive and well in the criminal justice system, keeping alive the Jim Crow laws, but in a more subtle way. It’s often not that blacks are more likely to commit crimes, it’s that they are more likely to get caught and punished, indicating an underlying racism in both law enforcement personnel and the criminal justice system.

People of color are disproportionately stopped without cause by police officers, and they are also searched at a much higher rate than whites. Despite the fact that blacks were searched more often than whites, contraband was more often found on whites.2

Studies also showed blacks being spoken to in a more degrading manner than whites by the same officers.1

And despite the fact that rates of drug use are equal among races, blacks are charged for drug offenses at much higher rates than whites.3

While more whites are killed by police officers annually, blacks are killed at a disproportionate rate – nearly 3 times as often, compared to their share of the population – and those blacks killed were more likely to be unarmed than the whites killed.4

I have been afraid of getting a ticket or getting a fine when I’m pulled over by a cop, but I have never feared for my life, like my black friend, who is an upstanding citizen and serves in the military. I also have never been pulled over for no reason, whereas it has happened to him twice.

These experiences of discrimination are not only different from the majority of white experiences, they are negative, frustrating, dehumanizing, even life-threatening, and unfair.

The history of this country has been dominated by white people talking and a vast majority of black people having to be submissive, deferring to the white voice, having to be more patient and humble because they could be killed or jailed or lose their job if they didn’t.

And it still happens today. I have had multiple black friends tell me stories of how they are held to a higher standard than their white counterparts in their jobs; they have witnessed harsh repercussions for black people who lose their cool, compared to white people that don’t even get reprimanded for the same or worse responses to stress or unjust personal attacks.

So, it’s time for whites to switch the centuries-old race role and defer to black voices. It’s white people’s turns to be held to the higher standard of being more patient, empathetic, and understanding, as our fellow Americans tell us about their experiences being people of color.4

White people (including me!) are not the experts on racism because we haven’t had the same experiences due to the color of our skin. (Maybe we’ve had similar experiences for other reasons – for our gender or sexual orientation, etc, and that can help us be more empathetic, but it is still a different experience with a different history.)

So I would argue that even if you identify with Perspective 1, we as a nation and as individuals need to invest more of our time listening to and trying to understand Perspective 2.

For example, someone with Perspective 1 will be incredibly scared of the idea “defund the police force” because it will be seen as taking critical resources away from a fundamental part of one’s safety. But if we can actually converse on a deeper level about this hot-button topic, the validity of both sides can be seen. For example, imagine 911 calls related to a person experiencing homeless being routed to professionals in organizations that are funded and prepared to work specifically with the homeless community instead of being routed to the police. It could be a burden taken off of police and instead given to experts in that area.

Source: Instagram @auntsarahdraws

As we are having important conversations about the protests, about police, and about racism in the US, let’s remember that we all want to feel safe and secure in our communities, and we want all our children to grow up in an America that is safe for them. To do that, we need to listen especially hard to those that currently don’t feel safe and have a history of not having their voices heard.

There are obviously many issues underlying the protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, but let’s take them one at a time and give them the response they deserve. When the reality of racism that still exists is highlighted by those affected by it, don’t change the subject to the other issues faced by our nation. Listen. Empathize. Learn. Recognize the problem and think of ways that we can make real changes.

It is a long and difficult road, but we need to have those hard conversations with those with differing perspectives. This is how we create a more perfect union, a free world, where there is truly liberty and justice for all.

Listen: 1619 Podcast
Watch a video: Systemic Racism
Watch a series: 13th (Netflix)
Look (Instagram): An Explanation “Defunding Police” in 10 Photos
Read articles: Reflections from a Token Black Friend
Read books: Anti-racist reading list
Do: From donating to volunteering to activism


Famous Footnotes

(1) This article is a compilation of studies demonstrating that racism in policing is not confined to certain isolated incidents that make the news, but rather it is the predominant trend in the instituation. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/opinions/wp/2018/09/18/theres-overwhelming-evidence-that-the-criminal-justice-system-is-racist-heres-the-proof/

(2) https://arxiv.org/pdf/1607.05376.pdf, https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf

(3) https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/

(4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6080222/

(5) If the majority of your conversations about race are with other white people or the handful of black people that are against the protests, are you really getting enough information to really be able to understand both sides of the issue? Are you truly trying to understand racism on a deeper level?

In the ideal world, a white person that truly wants to understand racism would be listening to many voices of the black protesters and trying to understand their perspective. They would seek out multiple perspectives and read as much as possible about black history – how Reconstruction after the Civil War was interrupted by a political deal over an election contest, sending millions of recently freed slaves to be subjected to a century more of injustice. How the civil rights movement of the 1960’s stalled out when it tried to address the problems of systemic racism that still persist today.

That is not to say that white people conversing with white people is not also a valuable conversation. In fact, many of my black friends have expressed how incredibly tired they are trying to explain their experiences, only to have their experiences invalidated, to have them fall on deaf ears, to hear unfounded excuses for the racism they have experienced, or tell them that they are playing the victim and that white people experience those things too. That is why it is also time to step out of our comfort zones and be advocates (without pretending to be experts) in white-white conversations.