“Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is the visionary founder and executive director of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). EJI is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, challenging racial and economic injustice, and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.

In his book, Just Mercy, Stevenson mixes commentary and reportage, against the true story of Walter McMillian, an innocent black Alabaman sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white woman.

Throughout the book, Stevenson provides historical context, as well as his own moral and philosophical reflections on the American criminal justice and penal systems. He ultimately argues that society should choose empathy and mercy over condemnation and punishment.

Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.”

Just Mercy is centered around presenting the McMillian case, including uncovering police and prosecutorial misconduct, while also weaving in stories of pertinent death-row inmates. Stevenson does this to illustrate the common infringement of victims’ rights, inflexible sentencing laws, and practices of injustice that result in too many juveniles, minorities, and mentally ill people being imprisoned in the United States.

“We will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won’t be judged by our design, we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society . . . by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.”

Throughout the book, Stevenson writes about the histories of different marginalized groups. He describes the racial history of the United States, from slavery through Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and the modern era. He argues that efforts to oppress and dominate black people have not ended, but have endured through new institutions and social practices. He argues that mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects poor people and minorities, is the latest incarnation of systemic racial and economic violence.

“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

This is an incredibly well-written and powerful book. I learned a lot by reading it and I highly recommend that you pick it up.

Watch List: “Call My Agent”

I love French culture and the French language. As a way to build my skills, I am trying to watch more French content, and Netflix has some good shows on offer.

“Call My Agent!” revolves around the personal and professional lives of a tight-knit but dysfunctional team of charismatic Parisian talent agents. Called “Dix Pour Cent” (10 percent) in France, every episode features a string of cameos from well-known actors, such as Juliette Binoche, Monica Bellucci and Sigourney Weaver. 

The series is very well-done and I am enjoying it a lot. It is an extremely witty satire of the film business. The characters are both flawed and endearing. The story-lines are fast-paced and funny. The comedic writing, timing and delivery is impeccable. It is easy to lose yourself in each well-crafted episode and I highly recommend that you check it out. Let me know if you have any shows that I should see!

Shop Local: Massy Books

As we look for ways to meaningfully support anti-racism efforts and reconciliation, choosing to spend our money in a locally-owned, independently run BIPOC-run businesses is a great place to start.

Massy Books is 100% Indigenous owned and operated bookstore located in Vancouver, British Columbia. They operate on the ancestral, unceded, and occupied territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.

The store opened its doors in June 2017, and in addition to books, it houses a performance space and art gallery. Massy Books is committed to supporting the local community, and it has partnered with non-profit organizations such as Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS), The Writer’s Exchange (WE), and Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs (RAVEN).

Independently run bookstores need us, now more than ever, to choose them over online retailers and big box stores. Shopping at a locally-owned business generates three times as much economic benefit for your community versus shopping at a chain. Buying local also means less packaging, less transportation, and a smaller carbon footprint. Lastly, it generates more income for the writers who create the books that we love to read. I would love to hear more about the local bookstore that you support!

Embracing Anxiety

Anxiety has been my constant companion since I was a young teen. It is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worry and physical changes like a racing heart. It is a feeling of being in danger, without knowing exactly why. People who experience anxiety tend to have recurring, intrusive thoughts and concerns. They may avoid certain situations or experiences. Anxiety can be debilitating: convincing you that hiding in bed is preferable to facing the outside world.

Over the years, I have learned that being a highly-sensitive person is a super-power. It allows you to see, feel and experience the world around you more deeply and in technicolour. You tend to notice details, make subtle connections, and understand complexity. You also empathize deeply. All of this goodness also lends itself to anxiety. The gift is also the curse.

In order to live at peace with my anxiety, I have cultivated some tactics, and I thought I would share them with you.

Movement

I move my body every day. Whether it be yoga, walking, or a high-intensity strength class, it is essential to regularly sweat and stretch. Movement helps to break the anxiety loop and grounds me in the moment. It connects me to my heart and breath. Whether I want to do it or not, I move every day, often several times a day. It is always worth it.

Nourishment

What you fuel your body with is really important. Over the years, I have given up caffeine, as it makes my heart race and anxiety soar. Sugar is another ingredient to be avoided. Many major diseases that plague us—including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, anxiety and Alzheimer’s—are linked to chronic inflammation. My naturopath recommends following a low-inflammation diet as a preventative measure and I have found it to be a very useful approach.

Routine

Creating a daily routine is a way to keep small promises to yourself. When you consistently show up, and follow through on your commitments, you provide yourself with a steady and reliable source of internal support. For some strange reason, I often experience resistance to doing the things that I love the most (exercise, meditation, writing, practising French) but if I scheduled time for the activity, and I follow through, I never ever regret it. Even if it is only for five minutes, it still counts, and it fills me up. The important thing is to be consistent.

Acceptance

Anxiety wants to be in charge. It tries to protect you by imagining every possible scenario: often the most negative and scary. This is futile. The reality is no one knows what is going to happen and it almost never unfolds in the way we think it will. It is important, instead, to sit with the discomfort caused by the unknown and create space for it to just be. Anxiety needs to be thanked for its service and offered appreciation for what it is trying to do, which is keep you safe; but it also needs to be taken out of the driver’s seat, and moved into the back of the bus, where it can relax, look out the window, and enjoy the view.

Support

Aside from all of the personal practices that I have put into place, I am fortunate enough to have a counsellor to support me. The amount of time that I spend with her varies, depending on what is going on in my life, but I am grateful to have her there as a resource. Having a someone to talk to about my anxiety, and a place to access supportive tools, is incredibly helpful.

Privilege

This discussion would not be complete without acknowledging the privilege that I possess to make these choices for myself, and access these resources, as a white middle-class woman. I do not face the trauma, systemic racism and abuse that Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) do each and every day. The anxiety that they face is not even comparable.

Resources

Here are a few resources that I came across and thought worth sharing. The first is a short Instagram video from Mel Robbins. The second is a podcast from Rob Bell, with his wife Kristen, who experiences anxiety. Both women share a thoughtful perspective and some tangible tactics.

Holding Pattern

Photo by Leonardo Yip on Unsplash

Life these days reminds me of the film, Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character becomes stuck in a time-loop, and he is forced to live the same day over and over again. There is so little variance in daily life under COVID; it all feels the same. Our social circles are tiny, if not non-existent; we meet with colleagues via Zoom or Teams and rarely see people in person. Many of our activities occur within the walls of our own homes. I sometimes feel like a passenger gazing out of the window of a plane, circling above the airport, waiting for permission to land: waiting for “life” to start again.

We recently marked one year of living under COVID restrictions, and despite the many challenges, I have been reflecting upon the unexpected benefits. I can take my daughter to school in the morning and I am here when she arrives home. I no longer make the commute twice a day; and it is an easy transition from ending work to beginning our evening routine. My workplace has fully adapted to online collaboration, something which normally would have taken another decade, or more, to come to fruition. Our lives generally move at a slower pace. Less driving. Less commitment. Less rushing.

My main source of joy at the moment is spending time outside with friends and family in nature. We cannot currently do any of the things that we would normally do, such as travel, gather for dinner, or attend events, so the outdoors has become our playground. There is something so nourishing about being outside together. We hike and explore in sun, rain and snow. All it requires is a pair of waterproof hiking boots, a warm jacket and a trail app. My daughter has also become quite the little walker, so it is something we now look forward to doing together. There is so much beauty to discover in our local area, surrounded by trees, water and sky.

I have also discovered the joy of cold swimming. This global phenomenon gained traction at the start of the pandemic when people sought new ways to connect and combat depression. Coldwater therapy is known to support a range of health benefits, such as promoting good mental health, boosting the immune system, enhancing circulation, reducing stress and inflammation. I am hooked. I regularly meet with my friend for a weekly plunge in the ocean and it is always a fun and memorable experience. Not only is it a wonderful opportunity to catch up but my body feels electric all day after a swim.

Although “regular life” currently feels like it is on hold, I am grateful for the opportunity to discover new ways of spending time with loved ones, despite the restrictions. Nature is a remarkable phenomenon that should not be taken for grated. This pandemic has taught me to appreciate each and every day and to seek joy in unexpected places. I have also been reminded of how precious our natural surroundings are and how we all need to work together to actively protect these gifts: both for ourselves and for generations to come.

TED Talks: My Stroke of Insight

On December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a thirty-seven- year-old Harvard-trained brain scientist experienced a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. As she observed her mind deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. Taylor alternated between the euphoria of the intuitive and kinesthetic right brain, in which she felt a sense of complete well-being and peace, and the logical, sequential left brain, which recognized she was having a stroke and enabled her to seek help before she was completely lost. It would take her eight years to fully recover.

For Taylor, her stroke was a blessing and a revelation. It taught her that by “stepping to the right” of our left brains, we can uncover feelings of well-being that are often sidelined by “brain chatter.” Reaching wide audiences through her talk at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference and her appearance on Oprah’s online Soul Series, Taylor provides a valuable recovery guide for those touched by brain injury and an inspiring testimony that inner peace is accessible to anyone.

Returning Home

When I was eight years old, I fell off of a jungle gym backwards. I was resting against a rope, at the top of a ten-foot gangplank, and it suddenly gave way. I dropped to the ground, like a rag doll, and I hit the back of my head on the concrete below. After the initial shock of impact, I caught my breath, and I stood up in a daze. There was no one around. I was completely alone. I stumbled four or five feet forward and then I dropped to the ground.

I was surrounded by a warm, all encompassing bright, white light. I was the light and the light was me. I had no body. I was fully immersed in a gentle and loving embrace and filled with an overwhelming sense of peace and joy. It felt like returning home. I was exactly where I needed to be; and I never wanted to leave. There was no sense of “I”, or a life before, just an indescribable happiness. After a period of time, an awareness grew that I could not stay, and I had to go back. I was then jolted into my body. Everything went black and I was filled with pain. I woke up on the ground and I crawled towards the house for help. It took many years for me to realize that I had not fainted that day. I had experienced a brush with death.

As described in this Scientific American article, near-death experiences, or NDEs, are triggered during singular life-threatening episodes when the body is injured by blunt trauma, a heart attack, asphyxia or shock. Approximately one in ten patients with cardiac arrest in a hospital setting undergoes such an episode. Thousands of survivors of these harrowing touch-and-go situations report of leaving their bodies, and experiencing a realm beyond everyday existence, unconstrained by the usual boundaries of space and time.

NDEs share broad commonalities: becoming pain-free; seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel and other visual phenomena; detaching from one’s body and floating above it; or even flying off into space (out-of-body experiences). They might include meeting loved ones, living or dead, or spiritual beings. A jarring disconnect separates the massive trauma to the body and the peacefulness and feeling of oneness with the universe. 

Death requires irreversible loss of brain function. When the brain is starved of blood flow and oxygen, the patient faints in a fraction of a minute and the electroencephalogram, or EEG, becomes isoelectric, or flat. This implies that large-scale, spatially distributed electrical activity within the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, has broken down. Like a town that loses power one neighbourhood at a time, local regions of the brain go offline, one after another.

Given these power outages, this experience produces the rather strange and idiosyncratic stories that make up the majority of NDE reports. To the person undergoing it, the NDE is as real as anything the mind produces during normal waking. When the entire brain has shut down because of complete power loss, the mind is extinguished, along with consciousness. When oxygen and blood flow are restored, and the brain boots up, the narrative flow of experience resumes.

Until this point in my life. I have not shared my NDE story with many people; and from those I have told to date, I have generally received one of two responses, open and curious or utterly dismissive. In the end, I share my experience in the hope that it will be of service to others. I know what took place that day and it was real. I can clearly remember it now, even thirty-seven years later. It is beyond logical explanation. It was an expansive, spiritual encounter: not a simple trick of a traumatized brain. Having recently lost a friend to cancer, and facing the imminent death of two family members, this conviction provides me with a lot of comfort. “Life” continues on after a physical death occurs.

I recently watched the Surviving Death series on Netflix. The first episode explores NDEs and I think that they did an excellent job investigating the concept. If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend that you check it out.

“Indian Horse” by Richard Wagamese

Indian Horse is a stark, yet incredibly beautifully written novel by Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese. As one of Canada’s foremost Indigenous authors and storytellers, Wagamese’s body of work includes six novels, a book of poetry (Runaway Dreams), and five non-fiction titles, including two memoirs and an anthology of his newspaper columns.

Indian Horse tells the story of Saul Indian Horse. It is set in northern Ontario in the 1950’s and 60’s. It begins with Saul, a former minor league hockey star, recovering in a treatment centre for alcoholism; he is chronicling his life experience as a means of facing his addiction. Although a deeply personal tale, it is also reflective of the wider intergenerational trauma experienced by thousands of Indigenous residential school survivors across Canada.

It begins in the northern Ontario where Saul lives off the land with his parents, grandmother and older brother Ben. Saul is happiest when learning traditional skills and family lore from his grandmother. Both of his parents are residential school survivors. They desperately hope that living in the wilderness, away from their community, will save their boys from being taken away to from them; but despite the family’s best efforts, the boys are eventually found, and taken against their will.

Once Saul arrives at St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School, his experience is harrowing: the students are subjected to beatings, sexual abuse and ritualized humiliation. The school is not designed to teach them to thrive in a new world but to break their spirits and erase their traditional ways of life. Although exceptionally difficult to read, Wagamese truthfully reflects the dire reality experienced by thousands of children across Canada: chronicling a dark chapter in history that should never be forgotten.

A form of hope arrives for Saul when an idealistic young priest introduces the older boys to ice hockey. The priest takes Saul under his wing, and allows him to play, even though he is younger than the other players on the team. The reader observes eight-year-old Saul exuberantly clearing the snow off the ice for the school team and practicing stick handling in the pre-dawn hours using frozen horse turds for pucks. Saul has a natural talent for the game and, like all great players, he visualizes complex plays before they unfold on the ice. He is soon outplaying the older boys, and he is eventually given permission to board with a family in Manitouwadge, so he can join the Native Tournament Circuit.

Saul finds love and acceptance in his new home: both with the Kelly family and his team, “The Moose”. He enjoys camaraderie with his fellow players both on an off the ice. But as Saul’s opportunities increase, so does his exposure to the overt racism and discrimination of the 1960s hockey world, and Canadian society. Saul’s rise up through the ranks of the minor-league is swift but it is also fleeting. He is stripped of his passion for the game and he ultimately walks away from his dream: adopting the nomadic life of a drifter. After many lost years, he hits rock bottom. With some support, he eventually finds his way home, rediscovering his connection to the land, his people, and himself.

Wagamese’s use of language throughout this novel is masterful. He is an incredibly skilled storyteller, with an uncanny descriptive power. I especially appreciated the visceral way that he captured Saul’s experience playing hockey; it helped me to understand the joy of the game. Throughout the book, I found myself stopping and rereading sections, just to take in its richness. Indian Horse is one of the most heart breaking and heart opening books that I have ever read. It is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and a stunningly beautiful piece of literature that everyone should experience.

New Year’s Nourishment

My thoughtful friend Elise gifted me a five-day, self-led virtual retreat for Christmas. It is offered by Jennifer Doheney of Welloga. I am already on day three of the course and I am enjoying it a lot. It includes a range of high quality videos and educational handouts on topics such as meditation, healthy cooking, mindfulness and yoga. Each day of the retreat is broken into small learning units, with a total time commitment of approximately 1.5 hrs, so it is very manageable.

As many of us are stuck inside at the moment, due to the pandemic, it is a great opportunity to do something nourishing for yourself. The retreat is also currently on sale, so it is financially accessible. Jennifer is offering it a very affordable price of $37 (USD). Please note: I am not affiliated with Welloga or receiving any financial benefit from this post. I am just loving the experience and I want to share it with you, as I think it is a valuable resource. I hope that you enjoy it!

Click here for more info: https://offers.welloga.space/finding-your-middle-ground-offer

Messy Mindfulness

“It is like this now.” ~ Ajahn Chah

I practice and study Buddhist Insight (Vipassana) meditation with a small local group of practitioners once a week. I discovered this form of Buddhism when my daughter was three years old and it has become an important anchor in my life. Vipassana can be translated as “insight,” a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens. It is a direct and gradual cultivation of mindfulness or awareness. 

Through the process of mindfulness, you slowly becomes aware of what exists below the ego image. Vipassana is a form of mental training that teaches you to experience the world in an entirely new way. It is a process of self-discovery, an investigation in which you observe your own experiences, while participating in them as they occur.

Most of the members of my sangha are seasoned meditators, who have developed a committed and consistent daily practice over many years: sitting for lengthy periods of time, several times a day. They are all older than me, and they are either retired, single, or have grown children, so they are at a different stage and place in their lives. As an independent parent, working full-time, and caring for my aging parents, it can be challenging to fit in a formal sitting period once a day, let alone multiple times. It is easy to beat myself up about it and feel like a failure; or it is an invitation to recognize that this is the place I am at currently in my life. Mindfulness still provides me with refuge. It just shows up in a different form.

At the moment, I am allowed to visit my mom once a week in her assisted living facility. In addition her late stage Alzheimer’s Disease, we are also facing COVID-19 restrictions, so the visiting conditions are very limited. Our allotted half an hour is spent together in a small, boardroom with a large wooden table at its centre. I wear a surgical mask and I cannot hug my mom. We are allowed to hold hands, and as she needs to constantly move her body, we walk in circles around the perimeter of the table. My mom has lost her ability to use language. She talks with a nervous, non-stop energy, and the words tumbling out her mouth are mostly unrecognizable. We cannot carry on a conversation. She stoops and she cannot look me in the eyes. I listen and nod along to her monologue. I rub her back and I provide her with comforting responses and assurances when I think she needs them.

What I am noticing about our time together is that we are firmly rooted in the moment. There is no ability to escape and wander away from where we are with small talk or distractions. We are in this moment together, and then the next one, and the next, until the time in our proverbial hourglass elapses. It is a walking meditation, one which demands that I pay attention to my surroundings, and the subtle changes in my mother’s tone and demeanour. I notice the rhythm of my own breath and the pattern of our steps. We are learning relate to relate to one another in a new and unfamiliar way. There are no recognizable protocols. We make it up as we go. All that is constant is the love that connects us together.

As the parent of a young adolescent, I bear witness on a daily basis to the rapid physical and emotional changes taking place within my child. She is often flailing in deep waters of intense emotions and it is hard not to get pulled under with her. My daughter knows just what to say to evoke a response from me; she is smart and she never misses her target. It is easy to get caught up in an automatic response: a knee-jerk reaction, where I lose my temper and perspective, along with her. It is in these moments that I am being provided with an invitation to take a step back and pause for just a beat: to bear witness to the intense triggering that is occurring. To feel the anger and agitation that arises from deep inside and let it wash over me. To choose not to respond and instead take a moment to breathe in deeply and seek ways to regulate my own body. Once I find my centre, I can then try to locate my child, and pull her into shore. This is my practice in motion.

During a busy day, it is easy to feel like there is no time for meditation, and so rather than doing a little bit, I do nothing. One of the members of my group, who used to be an emergency room nurse, provided me with some good advice, which has helped me to find a path forward. She shared that when she was working full-time she would fit in her daily practice in five minute increments. Much like getting up from your desk and stretching, or taking a short walk, a five-minute meditation is a mental break which can be easily fit in almost anywhere. I do not need a cushion or a quiet space: I only need awareness, the ability to scan my body, and my breath. This can be done while driving, walking or washing dishes. It can be achieved through generating thoughts of love and gratitude. These moments of conscious reflection are like mini-calisthenics for the brain: every little one helps to make it stronger and more receptive. Slowly but surely my capacity for holding this mental space increases over time.

Although I still enjoy the idea of going on a ten-day silent meditation retreat, or finding a way to cultivate a solid daily practice, I also accept that this is where I am in my life at the moment. It is messy and unpredictable and I need to be flexible and adaptive in my approach. Mindfulness provides value in all of its many forms and holding on to a set idea of what it needs to look like, in order to be successful, is unhelpful. Providing myself with love and acceptance is part of my work, because without the ability to extend this to myself, I will not be able to offer it to others.

A season for giving and receiving

For the past ten years or so, instead of purchasing gifts for the adult members of my family, I have chosen to donate to charities over the holidays. I also love to pick out special books for everyone, from a locally owned independent bookstore, but the main gift remains the donation.

This year, I am targeting funds to support a family in my community through the Giving of Good Food holiday fundraiser. It provides them with a fresh fruit and vegetable box, on a bi-weekly basis, for a year. Food security is a chronic issue, but it is particularly difficult during a global pandemic, and especially challenging for children.

For me, this act of giving is in keeping with the spirit of the season; it promotes connection and love. It chooses to consciously step away from consumerism and towards gratitude. It is bigger than me and you. It is about us.

If you are able to give this year, please consider donating to a cause that is meaningful to you, or shop locally to help keep businesses open. If you do not have money to give, but you are emotionally available, take a moment to open the door for a stranger, offer up a smile, listen to a friend, or provide words of encouragement. These small and consistent gestures of kindness can be equally as powerful.

“The most treasured gifts in the world are kind words, spontaneously given.” Dean Fred Hargadon

If you are in a place of needing support over the holidays, please allow yourself to ask for it, and to receive what is offered. I hope that your community wraps around you like a warm blanket and keeps you close in its embrace. It is important to remember that we belong to one another.