We just finished our latest read-aloud, the young adult adaptation of Just Mercy: A True Story of the Fight for Justice by Bryan Stevenson.
I read Just Mercy years ago and it is the most powerful book I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a whole heckuva lot of books.
This is one of those books that will bring you to your knees, leaving you forever changed.
There are countless passages from Just Mercy that have stuck with me for years. There is one I’d like to share with you today because I think it is more important now than ever. It’s a conversation between author Bryan Stevenson and an older woman, who he’d just met. The conversation took place in a New Orleans courthouse following two big back-to-back wins:
“All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they’re not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don’t care. I don’t know, it’s a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here [at the court] to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.”
I chuckled when she said it. During the McMillian hearings, a local minister had held a regional church meeting about the case and had asked me to come speak. There were a few people in the African American community whose support of Walter was muted, not because they thought he was guilty but because he had had an extramarital affair and wasn’t active in the church. At the church meeting, I spoke mostly about Walter’s case, but I also reminded people that when the woman accused of adultery was brought to Jesus, he told the accusers who wanted to stone her to death, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The woman’s accusers retreated, and Jesus forgave her and urged her to sin no more. But today, our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused even the Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion. I told the congregation that we can’t simply watch that happen. I told them we have to be stonecatchers.
When I chuckled at the older woman’s invocation of the parable, she laughed, too. “I heard you in that courtroom today. I’ve even seen you here a couple of times before. I know you’s a stonecatcher, too.”
What I am about to say started as an Instagram post but it snowballed, as happens when you share your heart. Just as one person’s life cannot be authentically captured in nine cropped squares, one’s heart cannot be limited to 2200 characters and 30 hashtags.
So here it is. I can guarantee you it won’t be perfectly worded. Because the truth is, life is messy and riddled with missteps. Every morning, we wake up and strive to do better. We are all works in progress. As Bryan Stevenson wrote in Just Mercy:
We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.
I am broken, too, but I am learning every single day. And I’m trying my damndest to break cycles and to raise stonecatchers in a world that now, more than ever, feels shattered.
Times they are a-changing and it is long overdue
This year has been a butt-kicker, you guys. Everyone is going through something, and most people are going through multiple somethings. Meanwhile, we are living through history. Never have I been so aware that the world is changing beneath our feet on an almost minute-to-minute basis.
Some of these changes we never saw coming. They popped up and smacked us in the face. Remember New Year’s Eve? Woo-hoo! It’s 2020! We didn’t have a clue about the public health and economic changes coming our way and fast.
Other changes are long overdue. Systemic injustice. Race. Poverty. Violence. I was 12-years-old in 1991 when Rodney King was brutally beaten and the L.A. riots began. Here I am, in 2020, with a 12-year-old and we’re talking about lives lost in 2020.
I hate that this is still happening. It’s concurrently heartbreaking and mind-boggling. The world feels like it has lost its way. Again.
We should be doing better than this.
Before I became a homeschool mom, I was a school psychologist. I worked in Chelsea, Lowell, and Boston, Massachusetts. I know that what we are seeing in the news happens daily because I saw it happen with my students. When I read Just Mercy for the first time years ago, I thought of children I have worked with over the years. I thought of the children that I worked with in juvenile correction facilities in Massachusetts.
What I’m trying to say, is that I am acutely aware of my privilege. It has always bothered me deeply- even when I was a little kid. I could list lots of examples, but I’ll give you one. I grew up in a town with an excellent school district and plenty of cash. That town bordered a city with a failing school system and a high rate of poverty, violence, and crime. I remember thinking of an invisible, unfair line between the two towns. It didn’t make sense why the kids ten minutes from my door didn’t have as much as the kids in my town did. When we’d cross that line to go to the movie theater, it was clear to me that there was more on one side and less on the other and it seemed heartbreakingly unfair. This is one of many reasons why I pursued a degree in education and why I chose to work in urban districts.
So, on the one hand, I am – and have been – aware of my privilege. And yet- on the other hand- I know my understanding of my privilege is limited and imperfect. There are a bajillion parts of my privilege I don’t fully comprehend- things I can’t see because I’m not walking in another person’s shoes. And that’s why it’s so important to listen and learn from each other, rather than cast stones in anger or fear.
I have always tried to share the concept of privilege with my children and to talk about difficult topics at their developmental level. We have had difficult conversations about racism and poverty and violence and systemic injustice and love and human rights and many other issues that weigh on my heart. I have worked hard – even before I had children- to create a diverse children’s book library. If you’ve tried to do this yourself, you know how hard it is. There’s systemic injustice in children’s book publishing, too.
I send emails and letters (I should call but once an introvert, always an introvert), and I donate to causes that I believe in. And I talk about these actions with my children. This isn’t the first time I’ve donated to anti-racist efforts and my heart hurts to think it won’t be the last. And I know as I sit here, that even the fact I can donate is a privilege.
My point here is- I am listening and learning every single day, as I think we all should.
If you’ve been here for a while, you already know that I freaking love Maya Angelou. Her words gave me so much comfort as a teen. I have read her books countless times over the years. I quote her all the time, so much so that my kids will often beat me to the quote.
I have so many favorites from Maya Angelou, but I love this one:
I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.
How simple and true is that? We are all learning. We are all breaking cycles. We are all works in progress, striving to do better.
Life beyond those pretty little squares
Here’s the thing you might not know about me when you check out my nine little Instagram squares- I fell into homeschooling and blogging and I never- in a million years– thought anyone other than my family and education buddies would actually read this thing. And yet here you are, and here I am. I’ve somehow been deemed an “influencer” with a “platform” – these things are and have always been uncomfortable for me in a way that is hard to explain.
I’m an introverted empath. When life feels heavy, when the news is nonstop heart-breaking, I withdraw and focus on what I can do here, in this small patch of the earth. I turn off some of the noise and take action here, in the form of conversations, donations, emails, and more.
I know it is a privilege that I can turn off the news and my world is safe and calm and green. This bothers me, too. It bothers me more than I can express here.
(Psst! If you are an extrovert and don’t get this, please read THIS book about the power of introverts. We can make big changes, too.)
Life was feeling heavy in March and April. I’ve gone back and forth about sharing this next bit, but I want to be transparent. I have a kiddo who has been terrified of global pandemics. He’s brilliant, with cognitive abilities years above his chronological age, and yet he’s still a little boy. Last year, we were in counseling due to this fear. He knows too much about past pandemics and zoonotic spillover. The fact that his father is a pulmonologist working in the ICU only compounds this fear. I can remember him telling the counselor last year, “It’s just a matter of time. The next pandemic will happen and it will likely be a respiratory virus and my dad will have to treat it.”
You seriously can’t make this stuff up.
I’m happy to report he’s done amazingly well, considering his worst fear was realized within a calendar year. He told me that the anticipation is over and so now it feels easier to navigate. That makes sense to me- because little kids with BIG worries have parents who used to be little kids with BIG worries!
Be the helper
Early in the pandemic, my husband volunteered in a hard-hit area of Queens, NY before things got bad here in New Hampshire.
Friends and neighbors would tell the kids that their dad is a hero, that they were praying for him, that he was battling on the frontlines. This made the kids both super proud and super-duper worried. I kept reminding them of this quote from Mister Rogers:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
And would emphasize that we are so lucky to live with a helper.
In April, the kids and I decided we needed to up our helping game, so we switched our homeschool routine. We started tackling “mental health must-dos” daily and made sure to help someone every single day. My mantra was “hearts over heads.”
In late April/early May, I started cutting back on my use of social media because it was all just too much. (If you’re feeling the same, read THIS.) Rather than spend time on Facebook or Instagram, I used a blogging app called MeetEdgar to schedule posts. So it seemed like I was there but they were scheduled weeks before. I’d occasionally post to stories with a book recommendation or a silly photo of Linda, but I was mostly off the ‘gram.
And that brings me to the murder of George Floyd. No words. And on the heels of so many other heartbreaking losses that were making the news.
It’s been over a month and I still don’t have words.
I struggled to explain these horrific events to my children, but I did it anyway. I explained it in more detail than I have for past news events. They are older. It was time. These conversations have been imperfect and they are evolving. We’ve had deeper discussions over the last two months than we ever have in our homeschool, and yet I feel the work has only just begun.
It is challenging to explain systemic injustice, race, poverty, and violence to young white kids who live in a farm town in New Hampshire. I needed something more than conversation. More than donations. More than emails.
That’s when I decided we would read the adapted edition of Just Mercy.
On principle, I don’t read super emotional books aloud to my kids. For heavy books, we listen on Audible. That way, I can cry as I need to and no one is groaning, “Oh, mum! C’mon! Are you crying again?!”
I knew Just Mercy would be the heaviest book we have ever read together, but it felt important to read Bryan Stevenson’s words in my voice. If the moms of my former students had to tell their kids at age 7, 8, and 9-years old that they shouldn’t wear certain colors, use their hoods, or put their hands in their pockets, and that they should speak a certain way to certain people, the very least I could do is read something so awful and true and violent with my 8, 10, and 12-year-olds.
We muddled through together, slowly. Our daily read-aloud was peppered with long pauses to wipe tears and catch a breath. We took detours to have utterly heart-breaking but incredibly important conversations. It remains the most powerful book I’ve ever read and I am glad to have shared it with my kids.
Reading Just Mercy helped my children to better understand systemic injustice, race, poverty, and violence. It helped them see how events like the murder of George Floyd happen, how the system allows them to happen. It was a tough read, but an important one.
The week George Floyd was murdered was also a rough one for my kids, in their little world. My husband was covering the COVID ICU that week and weekend. He was gone from very early in the morning until the wee hours of the morning. We didn’t see him for days. And our beloved Norbert the Bearded Dragon got super sick super fast with a neuroendocrine tumor. We ultimately had to put him down during a socially distanced drive-through visit.
Norbs had helped my kids navigate the loss of two dogs back-to-back and losing him in the midst of all of this came with some BIG feelings.
Norbert was a wonderful pet and a part of our family, but I suspect they were mourning a lot more.
As I mentioned, I was mostly off the ‘gram during this period but I went on to post a little update about losing our sweet Norbs.
And that’s when I realized Instagram had become a very ugly little world.
As I scrolled through my Instagram feed, I noticed a trend. Suddenly, there was a gush of vitriol in the homeschool community, of white women attacking other white women. It seemed like such an ineffective use of energy and it added so much social media “noise” at a time when other voices should have the floor. I felt like we’d be better off listening, learning, conversing, and taking action in our small patch of this earth than casting stones. I spoke with blogger friends who had noticed and experienced the same vitriol and it made my heart hurt more.
Over Memorial Day weekend, I struggled with what- if anything- to say on my one little square. As I said, it’s been over a month and I still don’t know how to confine my heart to 2200 characters and 30 hashtags.
Early the next week, people started posting the black squares. I read a little bit about the movement, learned that using hashtags was detrimental to its purpose, and so I posted a black square sans-hashtags to show my solidarity, and I added that I didn’t have the words.
And oh boy my DMs, you guys. I had messages from white women- IG accounts I had never seen before, people who didn’t know me from a hole in the wall. These people were angry and they were questioning my heart and my character, telling me I was an influencer and that I was silent on my platform.
It seemed like people were confusing Instagram with real life. That if you didn’t tout all of the actions you were taking on Instagram, they weren’t real or authentic.
They were casting stones when our world needs stonecatchers.
I left Instagram for another month. And now I’m back and it isn’t perfect, but I finally have something to say.
Let’s be stonecatchers
Running a homeschool blog and podcast is a super small part of my life where I manage to share a teeny bit of our homeschool. Ninety-nine point nine nine nine nine percent of my life is lived off those Instagram squares. On Instagram, you see a smidge of our homeschool, a pinch of Linda, and a dash of Kenny Chesney. I promise you my life includes far more than that.
Am I perfect? Hell, no. I am broken, just like Bryan Stevenson said. But every single day I wake up and work to do better, to break cycles. Some days I feel successful and other days I crash in a blaze of glory and then I drown my sorrows in a bag of Cape Cod potato chips, go to bed early, and wake up to try again.
I am just trying to do right, just as Dr. Maya Angelou told us to. And I honestly believe most of us are doing the best we can. So, let’s quit throwing stones and extend some grace. The world needs more stonecatchers right now.
I believe we should be kind to others. That we should treat everyone around us as we wish to be treated. Not just the people who look like us, live like us, think like us, love like us, pray like us, or vote like us. Everyone.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
The world needs more stonecatchers, you guys. While others cast stones in anger and fear, we need to stand up- with love and mercy- and catch them.
We need to wake up daily, in our brokenness, and work to break cycles.
And we need to work like hell to raise stonecatchers. Our kids are going to change this world.
Either way, lovely.
And those are my imperfect thoughts, from the heart. Heart things are challenging to put into words. And they definitely can’t be captured in a tiny little square. That square only captures a perfectly cropped snapshot, a blink of this life.
We are so much more than squares. Our real lives are messy, broken, uncropped. And I can tell you that our little square is filled with love.
I know, the way the ‘gram has been lately, these words will likely cause stones to be thrown my way. These stones will come by way of email, DM, unsubscribes, and public “unfollowing!” proclamations.
You know what? That’s okay. You can throw those stones and my crew will still be here, working like hell, to catch ’em.
As Glennon Doyle says:
Those who disapprove will either come around or stop coming around. Either way, lovely.
Take care, you guys. I’m sending love to all.