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A fresh perspective on the personal and political.

Troy Davis, Getting Lost, Staying Strong September 25, 2011

Filed under: Nature,Politics,Race — mandolyn10 @ 5:56 pm

I followed the news of Troy Davis’ impending execution on Wednesday, September 21 in near-horror. Set to be murdered by the State of Georgia at 7pm, this probably innocent man was making peace with his situation as I deleted emails and met with students. As 4pm ticked closer, the effort of tamping down the rising balloon of panic in me was exhausting. I checked the news feeds every chance I had, and seeing that no stay came, I prayed quick, ever more desperate pleas for someone to intervene and stop this injustice from happening. At every turn, I felt like screaming at the nearest person making demands on my time: A man is going to be murdered unjustly in a few hours! How can we just keep going about our day? 

And I’m not being self-righteous here, all I did in this case was sign a petition, call the state probation board and a judge, and ask others on facebook to do the same. But rallying against the death penalty is not my cause; it’s not something I’ve ever donated time or money to. I’ve never gone to protest an execution. The end of the death penalty is something I hope to see in my lifetime, but I haven’t given more than ten minutes of my life to making it happen. For whatever reason, Troy was real to me and no different than me, and so I cared this time.

Around 3:30, I headed into a meeting whose aftermath kept me working until 6:15pm. Walking home, watching the pale blue sky preparing for nightfall, it occurred to me that if things had gone as scheduled, Mr. Davis had been killed while I was consummed by work. I had missed my chance to pause and pray for him and his loved ones, as I had planned to do. Shame swept over me, and I paused at home only long enough to change into workout clothes and shoes for a run.

I headed to the woods across from campus. At the point I should have turned around given the time, I had to keep going. I don’t know why, but I turned off on a path I don’t take often, one that is quite steep in places and not well traveled. I lumbered on slowly, trying to let the rhythm of my footfalls on the trail drown out my sadness, my sense of impotence. Absorbed in allowing my body time to release some of the emotion of the day, I suddenly realized it was too dark for me to be in the woods, and a bit later I admitted I was lost, night biting at my heels. I wandered around in an oval, trying to find the trail that had run out on me so I could trace my way back, but it had disappeared. I eventually found a way out: I had to slide, tumble, and fall my way down a long, steep embankment to a creek bed I could just barely see, it’s white rocks glowing in the black environ. Bruised and cut in a few places, I followed the creek bed until the trail I’d come in on came into view.

When I look back on getting lost, I suppose I had options other than endangering myself by going down a brush-covered hillside in the dark. And though at the time I didn’t consciously connect my choice to go that route to the fate of Troy Davis,* now, I think there was a part of me that felt I had to prove something, if only to myself. I even suspect that I wanted to be punished, to suffer the consequences of my foolish choice to go into the woods so close to dusk, and then to go farther on a trail I don’t know by heart. Penance for my reluctance to devote my life to fighting for the things I believe in. I wanted to feel brave, feel like I could fix a mistake and come out ok.

In the end there wasn’t anything I, or anyone else could have done to prevent Troy Davis’ murder, but out there in the woods, alone with the dangers of the dark: unseen ledges and trip-causing rocks, mountain lions, wild boar, brown recluse spiders, I could save myself by not panicking, by thinking clearly, by putting one foot in front of the other.

That’s probably all it takes to stay strong in whatever cause we find ourselves overwhelmed by: don’t panic, think clearly, keep going.

*A careful reader pointed out some time discrepancies in this piece. Upon investigation, I’ve learned that the stay on Troy Davis’ execution last Wednesday lasted about four hours, and that in fact he had not been killed while I was at work, as I had thought, but around the time I made way back to the trail I’d lost. I cannot imagine being Troy Davis in those fours hours. Having prepared for a 7pm death, what must it have been like to hear, at 7:05pm, that the Supreme Court was considering a request to stay his execution? Did he dare hope he had a chance of surviving that day? Did he get to see his family one more time? Who was with him and were they a comfort? The death penalty is arguably a cruel and unusual punishment for every death row inmate, but this pause of the inexorable capital punishment machine, which rendered no justice, must have also been excruciating for Davis’ loved ones.

This entire case has brought the issue of the inequities in the judicial system into stark relief for millions of people worldwide. I hope when we look back at the history of capital punishment in the U.S. that the execution of Troy Davis is a turning point. If you want to find out more about how to join the effort to abolish the death penalty, please visit:


An Open Letter to the People of Gaza June 16, 2011

Filed under: Friends,Friendship,Politics,Uncategorized — mandolyn10 @ 5:58 pm

To the people of Gaza,

I just got off the phone with one of the passengers that will be on the U.S. boat, the Audacity of Hope, which is part of the 2nd Freedom Flotilla that aims to break the blockade of Gaza later this month. She is one of my best friends and I am afraid for her. Israel has promised to stop the flotilla and authorized the use of all force necessary to do so, and the United States has affirmed Israel’s preparation for the flotilla. I am afraid that she will be arrested, that she will be treated badly in detainment, or worse killed. I am in on the emergency response plans and this has felt both empowering and scary. After a teary good-bye, I hung up the phone and blotted my eyes. I felt worried and grateful, proud of my friend’s bravery and courage to so publicly put her life on the line to bring attention to the illegal, abusive blockade of your home.

And I do realize that, at best, my friend will return to her life, changed by the experience, I am sure, but alive. She will able to come back to a life free of the hardships you face daily. I know that each day, the rights we enjoy as Americans are things most Gazans only dream of. I know that you are subjected to being arrested, treated harshly, and are at risk of being killed, whether by a direct IDF action or by slower murderous weapons like malnutrition and the denial of adequate health care. I know that in so many ways, your lives are always on the line. I know this is why my friend is going on the boat. Because whatever sacrifices she has made so far, and the sacrifices that may be demanded of her as a result of boarding that boat, they are no less significant than the sacrifices Gazans have made for decades.

There will be about 300 people from 22 countries in the Flotilla that departs later this month. Behind every person on the boats, there are entire home communities behind them, supporting them, who believe that the way you have been imprisoned on your own land is illegal, immoral, and indefensible. We, in these home communities pray for your human rights to be honored and protected, we pray for ingenuity, creativity and perseverance for those who will lead the conflict to it’s peaceful resolution, and we even pray for you to experience joy, fellowship, and love, which are things that get any people through harrowing times.

Each and every one of you there in Gaza, are a part of my family. I especially send my love to the children of Gaza, my younger siblings, who I pray will live to see a time when playgrounds are in parks and not amongst rubble, when high quality schooling is available to all, and when their families experience lifetimes of peace and prosperity. My love goes out to the mothers, who care for and nurture future leaders who will help to heal Palestine on it’s journey to independence. To the young adults who are pushing political leaders to unify and engage seriously in peace negotiations, I love you! March on! Stay strong! You WILL affect lasting positive change!

I also see as brothers, those individuals who engage in violent actions (behavior I will always condemn). I think that they are so desperately hopeless about their situation that they cannot conceive of a different, violence-free way. Though I do not support attacks on Israel or the murder of Israelis, I do love these Gazans, too. Such desperation can be healed by allowing civil society in Gaza to have access to healthy food, good health care, and economic opportunities currently denied to them.

I will do all I can to support you, my Gazan family.

I pray for your rights, I pray for a swift and peaceful resolution to the conflict that holds you in it’s grip, I pray for your healing and your happiness. And, I do pray these same things for your Israeli neighbors, too. In the end, I cannot have love for you that I deny to others; I cannot want for you things I do not want for all.

Insha’Allah, למען השם, may peace fall upon the earth.

All my love,

Mandie Stout

Santa Cruz, California


My Notebook May 4, 2011

Filed under: Beauty,Family,LGBTIQQA,Mental Illness,Politics,Writing — mandolyn10 @ 6:14 am

I’m doing my best to write something each day. I may miss a day or two or more, but the point is to do it as often as I can. I will only publish my notebook once a week. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The sun, as it dipped below the horizon, pushed long shadows eastward across the hills, and as those darkening fingers stretched to cover the land in shade, I longed for more daylight. More hours to write as though I actually plan to make career out of writing, more time to unpack from the trip I got back from three days ago (and to hang the laundry I did before I left). Just enough more sunny moments to go for a hike or a run or meditate on my porch. I only needed a bit more bright, promising time to not feel so penned in by all I haven’t done before bedtime. I was asked yesterday, “How do my expectations limit my sense of freedom?” A part of me expects I will always be this occupied, this stressed out, that I forget I can at least, pretend I have a sense of freedom. So today, instead of rushing from work to work out to grocery shopping to dinner and then writing, I walked slowly to my car after work, drove the speed limit to the Farmer’s Market, and meandered from stall to stall. I tasted, for the very first time in my life, the grassy, sweet-fresh taste of fava leaves. I lifted small, creamy spoonfuls of Vanilla Macadamia Nut sorbet to my mouth, which I bought to eat before dinner. I stood in the sun for a few minutes, listening to a string band and watching the hippies dance. The loosening feeling didn’t last, not even until sunset, but it was a good, free-feeling, unexpected hour.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

On my run, I was listening to an episode of This American Life. The last story was about a 67 year old widow, Emily, and her 39 year son, Scott, who has autism. Though perfectly healthy, this mother knows she won’t always be around, so, with the help of a low-interest government loan for people with disabilities, she bought her high-functioning son a house across the street from hers. She wanted to provide him a trial “live-alone” experience before she dies. There were certainly some bumps to getting him independent, but she had already taught him to cook, to do his own chores, to drive, and buy his own groceries. He seemed to be managing day to day tasks well after a while.

Her biggest worry was that his fear of social interaction would lead to isolation, and that if he spent long stretches alone, he would sink into depression, which had happened before. So she embarked on a campaign to recruit volunteers to check in on him once she dies. For weeks she listed on craigslist, posted fliers at local restaurants, cafes, schools, community centers, senior centers, event he mayor’s office. Her efforts were fruitless, and her panic about leaving her son alone grew. It seemed that the story would end on this hopeless note, and just when my heart was aching for this woman and her son, and for my 69 year old mother and my 36 year old mentally ill brother, who has only ever lived in her house. But then, like rain breaking across dry, thirsty, land, the story ended like this:

(His fear of being social) is another roadblock, but for now, maybe it doesn’t matter. Scott’s been doing more and more on his own. He’s actually reaching out to his neighbors for help, all without Emily. Just having the house has changed him, made him more confident, and even more sociable. A few weeks ago when he was out raking leaves, he knocked on the door of his 84 year old neighbor, and offered to rake her yard, too. He asked another neighbor, a guy he barely knew, to help him haul a table, and the guy said, “Sure.” He started to really rely on a man across the street. A bunch a times, Scott’s even sat on the guy’s front steps late at night, chatting with him about real stuff, like Scott’s frustrations. And the other day, when the guy heard Emily was going away for a few days, he offered to look in on Scott. Emily didn’t even need to ask. 

I started crying around the raking his neighbor’s fornt yard part. My mom can’t afford to buy a house for my brother, but he could afford to move to an apartment somewhere before my mom dies. What made me so hopeful that I burst into tears was that just being independent from his mother helped this man be more self-sufficient, more sociable. Living with his mother had kept him from developing the skills to live on his own. My mom worries like crazy about what will happen to my brother when she dies or if he lived on his own, but I’m not sure she yet believes that he could make it, that it could well be the best thing for him to do.

But tonight, as I listened to this story, I wanted to call her and play the story for her, to show that when given the opportunity, even people with significant challenges can rise way above our fear-lowered expectations. But we’ll never know if my brother can live on his own successfully if we, as a family, don’t encourage him to try.

Friday, April 29, 2011

I suppose any inexperienced non-fiction writer/personal essayist thinks she has too few interesting life experiences to write a whole book about, but it occurred to me tonight that perhaps the problem is perspective.

I went to see a movie tonight, called Rejoice & Shout, about the history of Gospel music. I was totally riveted and absorbed. I loved, loved, loved learning about the roots of the music I sing as a part of my choir.  At one point, they showed a program that featured a smiling picture of the robust, incomparable Mahalia Jackson, a program from a performance she gave at Carnegie Hall. I thought, “Hey! In less than a year, I’m going to sing on the same stage as Mahalia Jackson! Holy Shit!” It hit me how absurd and unlikely it is that I was so into this movie. Ten years ago, if anyone had told my sometimes atheist, sometimes agnostic self that within a decade, I would believe in something more than just me or human nature; that I’d be singing in a church choir, preparing for a performance of Negro Spirituals at Carnegie Hall, I would have laughed mockingly at them until I peed my pants.

If I can look at my life from the outside, as if I am not the one living it, it’s a fair bit less tedious than it can feel, and certainly provides enough material for good writing.

Monday, May 2, 2011

I have just deleted an hour’s worth of writing on the disgust with which I learned about the raucous, frat-party like celebrations that followed the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death last night. Yes, I am disheartened, disappointed once again to be represented by shallow thinking Americans who grab the media’s attention, but it’s not worth writing about anymore.

What touched me much more deeply this weekend than the killing of the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the event which made me feel proud to be American, the thing that deepened my engagement with making this world a better place, was . It was a student production I attended on Saturday night called Queer Fashion Show.

Part fashion show, part social commentary, part dance performance, this show was funny and heart wrenching, edgy and sweet. The student performers were not just putting on a show, they were sharing what it’s like to live outside of society’s expected roles, warts and all. They did it with bravery, commitment, passion, vulnerability, resolve, and a zest for life. One of those students was Zack, a senior who I supervised last year. He was one of the directors of QFS this year and there is little else comparable to seeing students you have worked so closely with excel, educate others, and have a blast doing it.

So although the very next night, college students in DC poured into Lafayette Park to cheer the murder of a fellow human being (I know, an evil one, but still human), I am heartened that it is not only them who are inheriting this society. The sixty or so students who took to the stage at QFS this past weekend represent legions of other young people who have a vision of a more inclusive, peaceful world.  They give me reason to hope that all is not lost.

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Spring is here in full swing, with wildflowers screaming from the roadsides and paths I jog and walk, the sun falls warmly on my skin as I walk deliberately slow to work, the breeze comes in off the bay alternately cool and warm, in a way that I think of as uniquely Santa Cruz. It was so pretty my chest felt heavy with relief that winter is over and summer is around the corner.

Perhaps it’s the promise of summer that triggered a startling longing in me. Summer, with it’s break from Monday night meetings and Tuesday night choir rehearsals feels like a much too distant haven where I have time to things like dishes and watering the plants.

Six weeks left, more or less, but as I look down my nose toward the middle of June, it feels like six months.


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