Saturday, June 27, 2020

Mercy Is Kindness: "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson


Today I freely wept as I finished the book “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. The kind of tears I cry at someone’s funeral or when I have to say goodbye to a chapter of my life I didn’t want to let go. This memoir was a beautiful tragedy that I will never forget.

In the last six weeks we have watched the world turn upside down in response to racial injustice and the deaths of many.  It’s been hard for me to process and understand what role I can play to be a voice for those who are being treated unjustly or have lost their lives because of poor choices made by others. As I’ve tried to work through my feelings I started to actively search for ways that I could educate myself as a single, white, female who has always lived a relatively sheltered, safe life in my hometown on the prairie. I worried and wondered what difference I could make both in my education and in my actions. As many of you know and who have been following my blogs over the past few years, I am a big fan of the paralympian Amy Purdy. When I had my last blog “Let it Be and Celebrate” I wrote a book review about her memoir “On My Own Two Feet” and how much it inspired me. In her book she details her struggles as her world completely changed after she contracted meningitis and had to amputate both her legs. Amy later became an Olympic medalist in the Paralympics for snowboarding and I discovered her greatness when she became the first amputee to perform on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. Since then I have followed Amy on social media and continued to be in awe of her faith, hope, advocacy and courage. Recently she made the decision to start a virtual book club to study the book “Just Mercy” by Brian Stevenson as part of her efforts to understand and advocate for justice against systemic racism while including others and bringing us together through her vast social media platform presence.

I quickly jumped at the opportunity to join her virtual book club during the struggles of a pandemic, working from home and not having a lot of other things to do but read and educate myself as I watched the horrific news coverage about numerous brutal deaths of black Americans. I had already read an amazing book by Austin Channing Brown called “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” and I knew I needed to keep going until I felt like I was more educated and could use my voice and my trains of thought in my philosophies on life in a more productive way. As soon as Amy announced the virtual book club I quickly ordered the book on Amazon and had it sent as soon as possible. When I announced on social media that I intended to read this book many of my friends chimed in and commented how pivotal the book and the film were for them in their discovery and education on how to change their points of view on systemic racism. While I thought I had an idea of what I was about to read I really did not understand the magnitude of injustice that I would learn about in this memoir.

My thoughts have been ever flowing and have moved me and forced me to think about things in a different light than I ever imagined possible. This book has strengthened my motivation to exercise my right to vote and to exercise my right to speak up. I hope that what  I have to share today will help someone in the world to better understand some of their own struggles and perhaps help them move forward in figuring out how to channel a world where there’s still so much injustice that we need to address.

As I started to read the book I quickly realized that if I didn’t read it with sticky notes and a pen I was going to miss or forget important themes that started to present themselves very early on in the book. In my day job I work very closely with those who struggle deeply with a lot of different things including mental health struggles, criminal involvement with the law, chemical dependency and abuse and neglect. Additionally I work very closely with children who have experienced a lot of adverse childhood experiences that have caused deeply seated effects and subsequent behaviors of the trauma they’ve experienced. One of the things  the author brings up quite early in the book is the effects of childhood trauma on those who find themselves in the prison system in the United States of America. He is particularly drawn to those who have found themselves on death row. As he started to talk about the people he worked with who were getting close to their execution date it became very evident that these human beings had experienced a lot of what I am aware of because of my day job. Their childhood trauma, the neglect, the lack of bonding, love and education and the overall craving to be noticed.  This was an element that made this book very real and applicable to what I work with every day and struck some raw chords. While I don’t work with children who are in the prison system on death row (yes, there were kids on death row once upon a time) like the author talked about; I have worked with children whose behaviors definitely lead me to believe that if their trauma is not appropriately addressed they could very well become a statistic much like the men and women the author worked with during his time as a civil rights attorney. Where I live we don’t see the kinds of statistics centered around black Americans like Mr. Stevenson talked about, but I do see it in other minorities that are quite similar.   I was shocked how corrupt and unjust the legal system really could be for those who were from a minority group. Furthermore I had very little comprehension of how corrupt a community could really be with its leaders making decisions that were completely outside of ethical humane practices. This was a significant reminder to me that I should appreciate the opportunity to work in a place where the letter of the law is upheld as much as possible.

While the stories in this book made my skin crawl at times, I was also deeply moved by the passion and courage the author and his team showed as they defended people who found themselves on death row for unjust reasons. Prior to reading this book I really didn’t know what to think about capital punishment and as I finished the book today with an epilogue that was SO moving and sad, I wept for a system where the law had given power to a select group of humans to make decisions that includes killing. While the majority of the book is centered around one particular individual that the author was able to have released from prison and death row he also talks about so many who weren’t successful. Those are the stories that made my heart hurt. My heart hurt for the families and the communities, the mothers, the fathers and the children who had to suffer when they lost a loved one to wrongful execution. My stomach turned as he described the sights, the sounds and the smell when an execution was conducted.

But, here is the part that really brought me to tears today.  The aftermath.  The aftermath Walter McMillan experienced after the joyous day of his release occurred.  Because he had been wrongly convicted and set for execution he experienced such an intense level of trauma that it ruined his life as a free man.  While he lived a few happy years advocating and speaking to a lot of people sharing his story of hope and courage, eventually his brain trauma caught up with him and he was once again confined to the death row of his mind. The struggle Walter McMillan overcame to focus on livin’ while he was set to be dyin’ ultimately cut his life short anyway.  How does that resonate with you?  What trauma do you have in your story that has caused so much focus on livin’ so you didn’t want to die?

The author shared the analogy about the pain caused by the person who stops the stones being cast at another person.  There is a really powerful story toward the end of the book about a woman the author meets who made it her mission to come to the courthouse and watch for those to comfort when a criminal trial, many times including a capital punishment,  was coming to a close.  She was a nameless angel and her story reminded me of so many days when I’ve been the stone catcher. I’ve been the person to exercise compassion to someone who in the eyes of the law and the eyes of many in society doesn’t deserve a damn chance at making any of it right.  But, from my perspective they do.  I’m in their life because they’re a parent.  I’m in their life because they have babies who need them and I want to give them every imaginable opportunity to dodge the stones being cast so they can be reunited with their babies.  Does everyone see it that way?  Nope.  But we keep doing it because it matters. The very best solution for those broken among us is mercy. Mercy and the benefit of the doubt that somewhere in there is a human being who deserves compassion and a chance.  Doesn’t mean the mercy will erase their mistakes or cause them to change, but it does mean our part will not be in vain while we extend love as God would expect from us.

As we move forward in these turbulent times, I hope we can find more of our common ground. What unites us is what defines us.  I’m so grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to be uncomfortable and angry as I educated myself about the bold, unacceptable, unjust ways toward minorities.  No matter what, we HAVE to use our voice for justice because the voiceless need us.  Please do your part.  Please educate yourself.  Please vote.  Please have mercy.

The Moral of the Story: mercy is kindness and kindness always matters.

Until next time, my lovelies.

-R

Missed my last blog post? CLICK HERE to catch up!!

Monday, June 1, 2020

The Buzz of Equality: "The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd


Last year I did a lot of traveling for my day job.  I was consistently on the road for at least 2 hours each week and I chose to spend my time listening to self-help audio books.  One of the books addressed a topic that I have struggled with and have worked really hard to educate myself and become far more aware. That topic is racial equality.  This particular book was a memoir of a Caucasian woman who grew up in the Deep South and her battle to overcome the notion of “white privilege.” It was an intense listen for me because I picked up on my own imperfections in how I think about individuals of other racial and ethnic backgrounds.  The weight of these two words -- racial equality -- continues to be heavy on my heart and it especially weighs heavy as the United States of America quite literally has erupted over the recent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN.  In the days leading up to his murder, I happened to be reading a fabulous fiction book about racial equality and togetherness and this book was a game changer for my soul and my continued quest to advocate for social justice and racial equality.  Furthermore, it was such a game-changer, that it brought me out of my blog sabbatical because my thoughts are my way of having a voice in such a tough time for America.  So, without further adieu, I present my musings on the book “The Secret Life of Bees' ' by Sue Monk Kidd. 

With the recent social distancing and stay-in-place orders due to COVID-19 (curse you, Rona) I’ve had a plethora of opportunities to get creative in spending my free time.  I am prone to getting some pretty gnarly depression when my brain is still for too long so I have to work really diligently to keep my brain moving in productive ways.  One day I was looking through the podcast library on my iPhone and noticed that the author and sociologist Brene Brown had started her own podcast! Cue the cheering!!  One of her early guests was a lovely lady named Sue Monk Kidd who had apparently written this book called “The Secret Life of Bees” that talked about bees (obviously), a black Mother Mary statue and the coexistence of a young white girl and a group of black female beekeepers.  The conversation between Brene and Sue was POWERFUL. They talked about the importance of understanding hardship and being present when life is really, really hard.  They talked about recognizing the higher power in our lives and how that can change the course forever. They talked about so many things and honestly I can’t remember most of them, but I DO remember how the episode made me FEEL.  I was moved. 

Fast forward a couple weeks and I was out thrifting (Hallelujah, I could be in public) and there was “The Secret Life of Bees” staring right at me from the shelf of paperback books.  I snatched it up and made a promise to myself that I would get back on my comfort bus of reading fiction to curb my crazy.  What an amazing journey I was about to embark. 

The book takes place in South Carolina in the heart of the era of racial segregation in the year 1964.  Times are tough and Lily Owens exists in a realm of poverty, grief and abuse by her father.  One day she makes the decision to follow a prompting to run away and search for the better life.  She, along with her nanny Rosaleen, set off on an adventure to find a place that sells honey with a label with a black Mother Mary on it.  Lily is convinced that if she can find this bee farm who believes in a black Mother Mary she might find some answers about her own mother.  Seems easy enough from a child’s standpoint, but Lily is met with challenge after challenge because she is a white child traveling with a black woman.  Lily doens’t understand why everyone is so worked up about Rosaleen traveling with her because she’s always been there for Lily and loved her when her biological mother couldn’t.  Finally Lily and Rosaleen show up at the bright pink residence of the “calendar sisters” August, May and June Boatwright.  Lily conjures up a big fat lie about who she is and where they’ve come from and where they’re headed and before long she’s being shown to a cot in the bee house with Rosaleen and is allowed to stay. 

Here is where I started marking the book and drawing hearts in the margins.  Lily experiences some powerful inner monologues about these “calendar sisters” who are believing her story, giving her a safe place to stay and aren’t letting on that they might know what’s up.  The first quote is referring to her father T. Ray and what he’s taught her to think about “colored women.”  Lily thinks, “T. Ray did not think colored women were smart.  Since I want to tell the whole truth, which means the worst parts, I thought they could be smart, but not as smart as me, me being white.  Lying on the cot in the honey house, though, all I could think was August is so intelligent, so cultured and I was surprised by this.  That’s what let me know I had some prejudice buried inside me.”  SPOT ON.  Somewhere along the way there has been some kind of notion that the color of a person’s skin translates to their ability to use their brain.  I’m here to tell ya, this is RIDICULOUS.  We all have brains in our head and we all have the right to use them. What the reader soon discovers is August is the epitome of kind, strong and wise and the last thing Lily worries about is her race. 

A few pages later the conversation switches sides and Lily overhears August and her sister June talking about Lily’s obvious skin tone color.  June says, “Why don’t you just ask her point blank what kind of trouble she’s in?” August says, “Everything in time. The last thing I want is to scare her off with a lot of questions. She’ll tell us when she is ready. Let’s be patient.” June says, “But, she’s white, August.” Lily continues in her thoughts by saying, “This was a great revelation -- not that I was white but that it seemed like June might not want me here because of my skin tone.  I hadn’t known this was possible -- to reject people for being white.” I love both of these quotes because it shows the converse struggle that all the characters experienced while they tried to sort out their emotions about their differences.  On one hand there was this expectation of superiority, but then on the other hand there was this dire need for safety. How many times so we wrestle with a similar battle?  Who to trust, how to trust and the ever-looming “what ifs.” I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that I struggle with this deeply at times. 

The next group of paragraphs had A LOT of hearts and underlining.  Lily begins to work alongside August as an apprentice beekeeper and this allows for a lot of question and answer conversations. Lily is an inquisitive, blunt child and one day she asks her what is up with the bright pink paint on the front of the main house.  August explains to Lily the decision for “Carribean Pink” was an effort to cheer their sister May’s heart.  Lily replies, “all this time I just figured you liked pink.” She [August] laughed again. “You know, some things don’t matter that much, Lily.  LIke the color of the house. How big is that in the overall scheme of life? But lifting a person’s heart -- now that matters. The whole problem with people is….they know what matters, but they don’t CHOOSE it. You know how hard that is Lily? I love May, but it was still so hard to choose Caribbean Pink. The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.” Phew.  I’ll pause for you to read that again.  My figurative flood gates opened with this one.  What matters? What if the thing or person that matters most is a damn difficult choice to make and might not be the most popular opinion with our peers?  Will we decide to do it or will we succumb to the crowd and go the other way risking the sadness of someone important to us?  Depending on the day, that answer isn’t always the right answer in my world and I’m working on it. 

Toward the end of the book, Lily has a powerful awakening in finding herself, recognizing her roots and accepting what she can’t change. Lily’s ability to love has been tarnished with guilt, abuse and sadness and at this point in the book she finally gets it.  August says to Lily, “whatever it is that keeps widening your heart, that’s Mary, too, not only the power inside you but the love. And when you get down to it, Lily, that’s the only purpose grand enough for a human life.  Not just to love -- but to PERSIST in love.”

We HAVE to persist in love. Humanity needs us to be kind. The vulnerable need us to SPEAK UP and defend when they can’t do it.  We are well past the time to argue and far beyond the time to sit down. 

The moral of the story: You have brains in your head, a beating heart in your body and so does everyone else. They deserve your persistence in love just as much as you deserve theirs. 

Happy reading, my amazing, geeky lovelies!

-R

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Flowers Who Flourish in Evil: "The Alice Network" by Kate Quinn


Not long ago I had a conversation with some friends about our preferred genres when reading books.  I shared that I really enjoy reading books set during wartime.  I love reading about characters who have overcome immense destruction in their life, both physically and emotionally, with an element and faith and hope.  I especially gravitate towards stories about Jewish families because their faith and courage was so stalwart.  They escaped death, looked death in the face and mourned for those who had died at the hand of Hitler and his regime.  Those who flourished in trials inspire me, thus I am drawn to these kinds of stories.  It's no surprise that "The Alice Network" by Kate Quinn sucked me in from the first page and I couldn't put it down until I knew what happened next. An incredible story inspired by the lives of actual women who flourished in the midst of evil and lived to talk about it. This book is up there with "The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah" in its descriptions and accuracy about the sacrifices made in both world wars.

The book has my favorite writing style and that is alternating point-of-view (POV) that switches between World War I London and post World War II London.  The majority of the details in regards to spy work is during World War I.  We soon discover that in spite of two very different women being showcased, their lives are going to connect at some point and it is pretty incredible when they do.

Character one is Charlie St. Clair, a young American with French ties.  She struggles with the expectations of her family to fit in a neat and tidy box that was so common in the late 40s.  In her quest to blaze her own trails, she ends up pregnant. The beginning of the story talks about the details on this baby or "little problem" as she calls it and a clinic in Switzerland where these "little problems" can be taken care of in a timely manner.  Charlie is very torn about what she should do in life and deeply mourns the loss of her cousin Rose.  Rose was lost in the war and the family has presumed she is dead after all this time, but Charlie is never convinced. She starts to do her own research and figures out there is a woman, living in London, who she can talk to who might have some information regarding Rose.  In steps character two....Eve Gardiner.  Eve is now an old woman with deformed hands and tries to intimidate people away by being grouchy, drunk and a recluse.  But, Eve has a story and a long list of reasons why she is grouchy, drunk all the time and a recluse.  Two words: the war. The first one.

Where do I even begin on Eve Gardiner? Her tale is one that can't be adequately described in a short blog without giving the book away.  Eve is a trailblazer of her own when the first world war breaks out in Europe.  She wants to do her part to serve her country and against her family's wishes she joins the Alice Network, a network of female spies in Europe.  These women are some of the fairest of them all, those who can lure the evilest leaders to their bedrooms and coax them to share war secrets.  The sacrifices each of these women make for each other and their country is beyond humbling.  I can honestly say this book drew me in and hooked me emotionally because these women were fiercely loyal to each other and didn't give up. While we are learning about Charlie and her interactions with old lady Eve, we are also learning about Eve's heroic efforts as a spy. It took awhile for me to realize how they would ultimately connect with the cousin Rose, but they do.  When it's all said and done you will feel like you've been through it with them.  It is straight-up intense.

The stories that are shared in this book are based on factual women and events.  That being said, it's gnarly. There is a lot of sex for secrets, lots of drinking and plenty of violence.  If that's not your cup of tea, this book is not for you.  It's INTENSE. But, it is SO good and very humbling.  As I said before, I enjoy reading books set in wartime because it reminds me that my life is pretty damn good because of my freedom and the ability to make choices about my body.  I struggle with any plot lines that include rape culture and this one came pretty close to me calling it at one point.  However, it was real and I knew this piece of world history was something I needed to continue reading about so I could get to the end.  So, just be forewarned.

My recommended reading group is definitely 18 or over.  It's a solid Rated R for the reasons I listed above. 

The moral of the story: Even the daintiest of flowers can do what is right, face their fears and overcome evil.

Happy reading, my amazing, geeky lovelies!
-R

Missed last week's book review? Click here to read it!