From the Shelf: Current Events

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The first book I read this year was Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. A friend had sent it to me after Christmas, because the author lives and practices law in Alabama. In fact, one of his cases involved an accidental bombing in Dothan, 1977.

The main thread of this book explains the ultimate release of Walter McMillian, a man on death row for a murder he didn’t commit. As Bryan Stevenson works on this case, he uncovers many examples of a dysfunctional justice system. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and Alabama one of the highest in the country. This book outlines through many examples, some of the reasons why.

It was sobering to read the ways in which a zealous system misfires. Stevenson explains the role that politics play in election of judges, or even community pressure to lock someone, anybody, up for a crime. His stories talk about sloppy lawyers, unconcerned in defending the people who cannot pay and the resulting incarceration of innocent people. Stevenson tells stories of children prosecuted as adults receiving life sentences without parole, or those with severe mental disabilities who are imprisoned for life. He talks about all white juries in racially divided communities, perhaps not intentional but certainly unwise in the pursuit of justice. Prisons operating for profit, futile drug laws, the death penalty, the list goes on.

The question for me personally, is not so much if I should care, but how. I love my new home and state, but that doesn’t mean I have to blindly believe it’s the best at everything. Or that I can just assume every person on death row deserves to die. Loving is caring enough when things are terribly wrong and we should care when justice isn’t served. Or even when we should consider meeting justice with mercy.

I’m no opposer of the death penalty and those who pose a risk to society should certainly be restrained. Depravity is real and consequences of sin surround us. However, this book has made me think more deeply at least about my Christian response to the incarcerated, or those at risk to be. I want to be slower in talking about “those” people, the riff-raff, poor people, the ones who don’t look like me or make poor decisions. If I truly believe in the sanctity of life then there are no lines I can draw in the sand and I should certainly care about extending what Christ gives to me, ironically something like the title – just mercy.

*Bonus Read: Hillbilly Elegy*

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I added this to my list on the basis of its title alone.  It’s the memoir and opinion of J.D. Vance. Now a successful lawyer and author, Vance tells his story of growing up in Appalachian dysfunction. He writes in a deeply personal voice that explores the ‘why’ of white, working class poverty. The attitudes, the cycle of abuse and many other factors that contribute to generations of disadvantage.

This was the perfect book to read as counter point to Just Mercy. No one group has the market cornered on sad stories. Together these books have broadened my horizons and compassion for the mission field at home. I think the best way to sum things up is found in Hillbilly Elegy (pg.255). In writing about a boy named Brian who Vance mentors, he says;

“Any chance he has lies with the people around him – his family, me, my kin, the people like us and the broad community of hillbillies. And if that chance is to materialize, we must wake the hell up…I believe we hillbillies are the toughest g*%@ people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hid of those who insult our mother…But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us…These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.”

If nothing else, food for thought.

 

 

 

 

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Let it Snow

We woke up at 6:00 and looked out the front door. The cars were covered in a skim of snow and Wesley also claimed he could feel the flakes hitting his hand.

Our news feeds were filled with cautions and slippery road warnings. There were pictures of children, grumpy from bed and standing by nearly invisible piles. Other people bemoaning the lack of more.

And I love it. No matter how old, the promise of snow is so exciting. A snow day, the very best kind of day off from work.

I used to love the first snow fall in New Brunswick, and in Alabama it’s not different.

Snow means a clean slate, a new promise, a reason to smile. I’ll take what I can get.

A Little Slice of Life

I have a weekly Wednesday date with a friend to chat via Gmail while we work on writing projects.

All this to say – I should be writing something inspirational, when really I just want to stew about a name change.

You think it would be something simple like a trip to some friendly government branch. There’s a grandmother behind the counter with glasses and a national flag hanging behind her. You exchange pleasantries, recipes for peach pie, perhaps… sign your name and that’s it.

Instead, for the last 8 months I’ve been playing the adult version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. One thing effects another, which effects another, until I finally realize that for the next two years – the only thing that acknowledges me a Howell will be my library card.

And so tomorrow I head to the Social Security office for my fourth visit (not counting the times they weren’t open) and perhaps after that, a little jaunt to the DMV.

Until then, perhaps I’ll simply write my name as it suits my fancy. Mind your own business government offices!

Signed,

Olivia Grace Flewelling Howell Pearl Natalia McDonnelly III

 

 

October

Now that the weather is turning to finally match pictures of Thanksgiving pies, I find myself pulled outdoors again.

The sun becomes my friend and I pull up the blinds to welcome her.

We’ve unpacked our camp chairs from their summer hibernation in the car and they rotate from place to place on the patio. All our tramping to and fro introduces a nest of pine straw on the door mat, but we are content with the trade off.

For the first time in months, it feels like the wind can be friendly again. I ask, “Are you quite finished knocking your falling branches about?” The boughs nod and it’s in me to believe them.

I feel the urge to pot and repot my plants – one last hurrah before we close the doors. The peppers may not survive the weekend, Wesley says.

Some squirrels scold us in their hiding.

A southern weather apologist, I am not. The pros and cons would smother me in 90 degree Julys – a muggy mockery.

The only thing I’m learning to say with certainty, in fact, is the thing I’m learning to say in all things.

That this day is enough to be content. That this little joy is enough to be grateful for. And that His strength, is enough to carry me through.

 

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Things That Go Bump in the Night

I’ve been spending more time alone recently, thanks to night shift and grown up obligations like…work.

The struggle, after months of bedtime company, is quite real. I’ve reverted to the wolf-dreaming child who lay awake with nervous cramps – fearing, dreading, imagining the worse.

I haven’t been this way for years, but in His goodness, the Lord has brought sunset as a way to teach faith. To teach that reason is not always the antidote to fear.

My cynical mind can’t be convinced of innocence anymore and as result, I find worry can’t be swept into the back of my mind. The unknowns put on convincing masks that no strategy of mine can untie.

So when night comes, my wisest course, the strongest choice; is to challenge them into the open and introduce a Protector like no other. The one who knows the End, the Truth, the Reason.

To admit fear out loud and give it up, is the only way to grow an inch. The only way to step outside and breath the dark in deeply. The only way to close your eyes.

So goodnight – I’m taking the gifts of busy hands and brave heart – and just hunkering down in the wings of Providence.

 

 

 

A Little Remembering

I’ve purposefully forgotten what it’s like to stare at the map and miss another.

What it’s like to fall asleep in bed by yourself.

Most days we pretend it didn’t happen.

But then the other day I found myself sorting through the pictures and letters as I rearranged boxes in the spare room.

The pictures bring back the anticipations of being together again. The letters…how little we knew each other and how completely in love! Some screenshots of messages that he sent me after parcels were delivered…a few birthday cards and a whole book of wish-dreams written in black ink.

There was an anxious and awkward sweetness to that year and a half, but on the other side I find I’m not mourning the beauty left there.

Instead, the beauty is in coming through. Through the first kiss and missing-you blues, the wedding planning and honeymoon squabbles. And that time you came to your parent’s, just so we could spend Christmas Eve together.

It’s in coming through it all and every day learning the other person a little bit better.

When I think on not so long ago – those long-distance-days…I’m filled with nostalgia. and then with gratitude that they even were. They are what they should be and where they belong.

And count the blessings of these days you’re in now. They’ll be the good old days sometime soon.