The New Normal: Somewhere Between Kabul and Smelling the Flowers

During this time of uncertainty, whether you are caged or free depends entirely on you. We are all facing stress, financial burdens, inconvenience, and upheaval. But we are all presented with a choice to be made, about how to use our time during this slow-down.

What will you do with your beautiful life?

What is your new normal?

It is your choice.

Looking back in time, I can say that I’ve been here before.

It was 2010 and I had been in Kabul, Afghanistan, for a week or two. No, I wasn’t military. I was a teaching Fellow with the U.S. Department of State on an assignment to train Afghan teachers at Kabul Education University. I was living in Shar-e-now (the new city) in Kabul, gazing out my window towards TV Hill, the small mountain where the television stations parked their antennas. I dreamt of the days when I could have run out my front door alone and sprinted to the top of that mountain, breathing in the fresh air and soaring on the thermals of my personal freedoms. Instead, I sat in my dank apartment, counting the dust grains dancing in the breeze of my partially cracked 4th floor window. Freedom of movement escapes all women in Afghanistan; it doesn’t discriminate.


I had moved to Kabul just as I was settling into a competitive CrossFit career. I had competed in Southwest regionals during the CrossFit Games season in 2010, and was confident that I could make the Games in 2011 from the Asia regional. As I made plans for training that season, I had to take into account that I had limited access to weights (and anyone to train with). Because of cultural norms, I was not allowed to wander the city on my own, or even go for a short walk in my neighborhood. Though it may be obvious, I could not go to a gym, go outside for a run, go to the grocery store, or leave my house on the weekends unless I had an Afghan friend by my side, and my travel was approved by my host, The Asia Foundation. Fortunately, in the basement of my apartment building, I had a rower, a bicep curl bar, iron weight plates, dumbbells, a treadmill, and a pull-up bar.

I had a choice. 

I could have complained and given up my opportunity to excel at competitive exercise, but I refused to let my living situation dictate my reality. I formally requested that I’d be allowed to travel to Camp Eggers, the military base, every Friday to coach and work out. I had my driver scour the city for weights, and we eventually found an entire street lined with body building equipment. We loaded up the truck and brought bumper plates and barbells to my basement; I had a gym!

The story plays out like this: I set goals and strived to achieve them. I learned about Afghan culture, spoke Dari, made friends…I trained. I met my future husband. I wrote stories for the New York Times. I made CrossFit Regionals and travelled to Japan to compete that year. I kept an open, positive mindset.


Now we all face a similar fate. We can waste time staring at the flecks of dust dancing in the wind, or we can excel and  become better humans. We can presume that we are caged, or we can choose to be free.

Today, my new normal harkens back to those days in Kabul. I was able to succeed during that “quarantine” because I set goals for myself and made a plan to meet those goals. I sought out local friends and tried to learn new things.

Here is a look at what guides me during this unique time:

Quarantine Goals

  1. Do what you can with what you have.

Because gyms are closed, we must use the things we have to continue exercising. I’m a professional CrossFit coach, so it is easy for me to think of a workout and do it well. I’m motivated and like to work out alone, so I have no trouble with getting this done daily. However, if you need help, look online! GORUCK is offering 30 days of at-home ruck workouts in partnership with NCFIT (CrossFit superstar and entrepreneur Jason Khalipa’s business); use this resource. Another easy way to stay fit is to ruck. Put weight in a backpack and go walk outside. Be positive and thankful for what you do have, not what is lacking.

I recommend the Rucker for Ruck PT and a ruck plate (or use heavy objects on hand like canned goods). Sandbag if you can too! It doesn’t take much to make a quick #goruckhomegym!

  1. Support local businesses and donate to nonprofits that are helping with the crisis.

Though many businesses are closed, there are still businesses open and ready for you to patronize them. Even if they have shuttered their doors, buy a gift card for someone that can use it later. It is my goal to seek out local business and restaurants and buy what I need from them. This goes for online purchases too. I’m trying to buy from businesses who are taking care of their employees and are true to their roots. 

  1. Go analog.

For me, this means slowing down and being more deliberate with who and what I am thinking about. Instead of emailing friends, I’m writing more letters. I hand-write notes and send them in the actual mail, because this act allows me to slow down and really appreciate who I am writing to, and the message I’d like to convey to them. When I write, I can’t just delete what I’ve said (and white-out looks messy), so I think about what I’m writing more deeply. 

I do this with reading as well. I read books that I can hold in my hands, smell, and feel. I do this because I don’t want to spend an entire day looking at a screen (I can, trust me!). Feeling the weight of a book brings me to another place, a different time. Reading takes me away from where I am, without having to go anywhere. How beautiful and true to quarantine measures is that? Read.

  1. Spend an hour a day on professional development.

I’m re-reading all of my CrossFit manuals and working on coaching skills. I’ll review all of the online certifications CrossFit has to offer. In addition to coaching skill work, I take time to explore Google’s digital garage and Google Teacher so that I can expand my skills as an educator.

  1. Smell the flowers.

My dog Carmen always, always smells the flowers and leaves (and dirt and pee) when we are out walking. Usually, I wait two seconds and pull her along. I don’t really slow down and let her be, I just rush her to keep going. But now, whenever I am outside walking or running with her, I let her smell those flowers! I wait as long as it takes, and sometimes crouch down and smell the flowers too. I’m trying to slow down and appreciate where I am at this point in time, and understand that I won’t always be here; I should appreciate it for what it is.

It is time for a new normal. 

We can mourn all of the things that we don’t have anymore, or establish new, healthy routines that are helpful in this time of uncertainty. Let’s be kind to each other and ourselves; let’s slow down and smell the flowers.

“A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind   

and floats downstream   

till the current ends

and dips his wing

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and   

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing…”

Excerpt from “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou

About the Author

Jaala Shaw has served as an English Language Fellow through the U.S. Department of State in Afghanistan and Jordan and as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China and Micronesia. She is a member of the CrossFit Kids Seminar staff, writer of @fliesonawall, and lover of the outdoors and any physical challenge. You can follow her @jaalashaw. 

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  1. Mariam says:

    I read and remembered you ❤ my unversity memories, despite of all those limitations and difficult situations i still miss those days and my old friends.

  2. Adylerach says:

    Thank you for the encouragement. I am finding that I am battling my mind, and some energy losses on the daily. I still make myself get out and ruck, and use resistance bands and kettle bells. I am doing all I can to not worry but to be proactive at this time. Your words are a wonderful help.

  3. Jaala Shaw says:

    Thank you! Just take one day at a time and do the best you can. You have a huge community of GRTs and a lot of free access to workouts. You are not alone.

  4. MItch says:

    Your story took me back with the references to TV Hill and Camp Eggers! Thank you for an amazing and inspirational story!

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