The woman who faced the Ku Klux Klan and won

"FIRE!!" - photo by Thomas's Pics, via Flickr Creative Commons

“FIRE!!” – photo by Thomas’s Pics, via Flickr Creative Commons


Michael Donald left home the evening of 1981 and never returned. He just wanted a pack of cigarettes. What his murderers wanted was ugly and complex.

The young Donald was 19 years old, youngest son of Beulah Mae Donald. He bought his cigarettes at a convenience store, then started for home.

That same night, two young Klansmen went on the prowl, blood lust in their hearts. They were angry because a black man had not been convicted of shooting a white policeman.

Henry Hays was 26. His accomplice, James Lewellyn Knowles, was 17. They drove around looking for a victim and happened upon Michael Donald, though any black man would have been just fine. They kidnapped him, took him out to the woods, brutally beat him, slit his throat, and strangled him.

When they were sure he was dead, they brought his mangled body home and hung it from a tree across the street from their Mobile, Alabama, home. Maybe people were too slow discovering it. They called the local television station to film their victim and likely laughed when the cameras arrived before the police.

Hays’s daddy must have been proud. Bernie Hays was second in command of the Alabama Klans. Big Daddy and his Klan brothers gathered on the front porch and jeered the police.

The district attorney bought the story made up by white folks and called the murder a drug deal gone bad. Some figured Michael Donald must have been dating a white girl and deserved what he got.

Beulah Mae Donald was having none of it. She would not let her son’s murder be swept under the rug of racism. She found allies and insisted her son’s case be resolved. The FBI became involved, albeit reluctantly. So did the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The FBI were able to link Knowles and Hays to the murder. Knowles testified against Hays to avoid the death penalty. Hays was executed in 1997. Knowles was imprisoned for life, as was Benjamin Cox, who was identified as a third accomplice.

Not since 1913 had a white-on-black crime ended in conviction. But this is not a story about retribution. It is a story about the mighty power of redemption and about one woman’s taking on power and winning.

At his trial in June 1983, James Knowles was a frightened, sorrowful young man. Before the trial went to jury, he asked the jury to convict him and begged Beulah Mae Donald to forgive him. She did not hesitate to offer him the forgiveness she had, in her heart, given him much earlier.

The grieving mother’s willingness to forgive would be enough to make this a story of hope, but she did something else. She bankrupted the Alabama Klan. She filed a civil suit against them and won a judgement of $7 million dollars.

They never recovered from the blow to their finances, nor should they have. Beulah Mae Donald stood up to endemic hatred, to vicious racism, and refused to bow down. Her resolve exposed the Klan publicly for the morally bankrupt, brutally ugly organization it was.

The case did not end racism in America, as the virulent anti-Obama tirades have shown. But it did strike a blow against it…and all because one loving mother would not allow her son’s memory to be despoiled by hate.


When the music plays, he has to dance

Peyton "Peanut" dancing for all he's got; photo clip from his aunt's video below

Peyton “Peanut” dancing for all he’s got; photo clip from his aunt’s video below

Forget dancing like nobody’s watching. Young Peyton “Peanut” Henderson clearly likes being watched. When he hears dancing music, he has to move to the beat.

At a Kentucky High School Basketball Tournament, Henderson heard Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” over the sound system and began dancing in the aisle between bleachers. That boy has talent. He was totally caught up in the moment, swaying with abandon, and cutting some moves that showed both a natural style and hours of practice.

His aunt, Angie Holleran, caught it on video. She also caught some of the sheer delight on the faces of those watching the boy. He was such a hit he was invited to dance right down on the basketball floor during a time out.

Peyton “Peanut” Henderson could teach us a thing or two about mindfulness. When music fills that boy’s body, he is one hundred percent in the middle of it.


Make No Small Plans

“The Open Road” photo by Adam Meek, via Flickr Creative Commons

“The Open Road” photo by Adam Meek, via Flickr Creative Commons

The dream of saying goodbye to jobs and fixed addresses sometimes seduces adventurous people to sell their worldly goods and take to the road. Most people just talk about doing it, of course. Others take the plunge.

Joei Carlton Hossack is one of the latter. She and her husband Paul were living in Toronto when the travel bug bit them so badly they sold their home, furniture, boat and vehicles. He left behind a high-profile job with Merrill Lynch. She closed her wool shop. In 1989 they traveled to England, bought a motorhome and traveled for the next two and a half years.

Anyone who makes such a dramatic shift can expect both skepticism and envy on the part of friends. A couple not yet in their fifties will likely be suspected of having completely given up all pretense of rational thought.

The Hossacks never looked back. From the U.K. they went on to Europe, Africa and North America. They were in northern Germany when, in 1992, Paul was out jogging. The 52-year-old had a heart attack and died. Joei kept on traveling.

Now 71, she is still traveling and has a condo in Surrey, B.C., for her at-home months. She is a prolific writer, whose books include memoirs, travel adventures, and what she calls “Mini Reads”. She publishes articles about her adventures and is frequently the subject of media stories. She is a popular speaker and workshop leader, teaching classes in memoir and travel writing.

It takes a lot of gumption to travel solo for more than 20 years and to build a life and a living out of a spirit of adventure. Joei Carlton Hossack has done it.

OK, take a deep breath and think about that dream you shelved because you had too many responsibilities, were afraid to jeopardize your pension, thought you would fail, or believed you were too old to start. Maybe you set it aside until some magical date when all the stars would align. Hossack is one of those strong lamps who light the dark path between dream and reality. Read her books. Be inspired. Follow your dream.


Edward Monkton’s ‘The Pig of Happiness’

"Miss Piggy"; photo by Maurice, via Flickr Creative Commons

“Miss Piggy”; photo by Maurice, via Flickr Creative Commons

The pigs in this barnyard are a whiny lot until one of them decides to become The Pig of Happiness. Before long he has spread so much happiness it catches on with the other pigs, then the sheep and chickens. You get the idea.

What Monkton has created in the video version of his delightful book, The Pig of Happiness, is a recipe for spreading joy like an unstoppable virus. This joyous pig will trot right into your heart and set you to thinking about how you can be a joy spreader.

If you need more laughter and inspiration, go to his website and try out his Monktonator, which hands out free advice, alongside a Random Thought of the Day.

Detour ahead. Take it and let the road lead you to happiness.



Trees, cities, air – seriously, a good combo?

Pia Luciano's green apartments in Turin, Italy

Pia Luciano’s green apartments in Turin, Italy

My partner is always telling me, “You know how much I love trees.” Blah, blah, blah…yes, I know how much you love trees, Robin.

But it turns out his love of trees is more than just a personal preference. It is life enhancing in our urban areas.

One good example can be found in Turin, Italy. Luciano Pia figured out that planting a lot of trees could make a difference to air quality (not to mention quality of life) in an urban setting. The architect designed an apartment complex with units at quirky odds to each other. That left spaces for trees that gave residents a sense of living in joyously erratic tree houses.

In summer, the trees shaded apartments. In winter, the deciduous trees invited light. Instead of the straight-walled, oh-so-usual and oh-so-boring patterns of “ordinary” high-density dwellings, these curved-wall, irregular units acknowledged the irregularity of the natural world.

The angularity of urban, high-density housing is anathema to many. Still, if we are to preserve natural areas and good farmland in a high-population world, we do need to live in closer quarters than are comfortable to many (particularly in North America).

Pia’s urban treehouses may be an answer. Without succumbing to the boring, straight-sided pattern of urban development that is common in urban centers, he envisions (and, in Turin, brings into existence) urban density that is softened by the natural world. The trees scrub the air. They shade harsh sun, then open to winter’s need for light.

Our boring, angular, urban neighbourhoods are not the only way to live in heavily populated centers. We can create beauty and healthy environments as Pia shows us, and in ways we have not yet envisioned.



Fans support cheerleader with Down syndrome

One of the "Myths of the World" murals at Lincoln Middle School in Kenosha, Wisconsin; photo by Jim Trottier, via Flickr Creative Commons

One of the “Myths of the World” murals at Lincoln Middle School in Kenosha, Wisconsin; photo by Jim Trottier, via Flickr Creative Commons

Some people don’t get it. They think bullying someone just because she seems “different” to them gives them status.

Kenosha, Wisconsin’s Lincoln Middle School taught the hecklers an inspiring lesson.

Desiree Andrews is a beloved member of the cheerleading squad who just happens to have Down syndrome. During a basketball game, some of the lesser lights in the audience began making fun of her.

That did not sit right with the team. Three of the basketball players walked off the court and let the bullies know they would not stand for that kind of bad behavior.

They did more than that. They began walking Desiree to class, as kind of a trio of body guards. And they started calling the gym “D’s House”. The name is sticking.

Desiree feels like the star she deserves to be. Her parents are grateful to the school. Students are proud to be in a school where something like this happens. And a handful of bullies have learned an important lesson.

It appears the school’s annual Kindness Week (the 19th in 2015) is paying off.



Crows bearing gifts

Crow; photo by Jans Canon, via Flickr Creative Commons

Crow; photo by Jans Canon, via Flickr Creative Commons


In a Seattle backyard, young Gabi Mann feeds the crows. She feeds them every day at the same time. They repay her kindness in a most extraordinary way. They bring gifts.

That might sounds like a child’s fantasy, but Gabi keeps every gift in a small plastic bag or container. Bits of plastic, beads, water-smoothed stones, earrings, and pieces of coloured glass are all in the collection. Gabi knows the day each gift was left. Between the bird cam that photographs the back yard and her mother Lisa’s photographs, the family has documented everything. One day Lisa lost a lens cap. A crow brought it back and even rinsed it in the bird bath.

Gabi was four when she first dropped a chicken nugget and was enchanted when a crow picked it up. That was 2011. For a long time afterward she shared her lunch with the birds. Her mother was happy to see how much Gabi loved animals so never chided her for giving them food.

By 2013 they had learned what foods were best for the crows and that it was best to feed and water them at a consistent time each day. The birds began rewarding them with gifts. Those small bits of stone, glass and plastic are young Gabi’s most prized possessions. She sees them as gifts of love.

Scientists have long consider crows to be highly intelligent. They are tool-using creatures, as anyone who has watched them use passing cars to crack their nuts knows. They know how to get to the water in a pitcher by dropping pebbles to bring the level higher. They can identify faces and remember good, and bad, treatment by humans. Recently, researchers discovered they can be adept at analogical thinking.

What scientists are discovering through research, the Manns discovered through daily observation. What sets young Gabi apart is the special connection she has formed with the crows in her back yard. She learned early what some never grasp, that our wild relatives are sentient creatures, deserving our love and respect. What the crows learned was that Gabi was a human to be trusted. The gifts are her reward for a big heart.

[Katy Sewall posted pictures of Gabi, Lisa and the crows’ gifts along with the piece she wrote for BBC News Magazine.]



Khonoma, where the environment is sacred

Khonoma village; photo by rajkumar1220, via Flickr Creative Commons

Khonoma village; photo by rajkumar1220, via Flickr Creative Commons

Built on impossibly hilly land, the village of Khonoma is a model of environmental conservation and community spirit. The village lies in the northeastern state of Nagaland in India and is an example of tradition in service of humanity.

We hear so much about selfish interests and environmental recklessness, but in Khonoma villagers have built an irrigation system based on making sure everyone benefits. For more than 600 years they have farmed paddies carved in tiers along their steep hills. Everyone’s paddy receives an equal amount of water, thanks to a heritage of cooperation and mutual concern.

They plant alder trees to conserve water and feed the soil. They ban hunting, in spite of its place in the traditions of the Naga people. Their insistence on working communally to preserve the environment that nurtures them has made them a destination for ecotourism. Whether that success will erode what they value remains to be seen, but for the past decade they have been a model of sustainability and social equity.

What a contrast Khonoma is to the Snake River Valley of my childhood. When I was in high school, we used to say, “Flush the toilet. Jerome [or whatever community we were poking fun at] needs the water.”

Beneath the joking lay a grim reality. Water was a scarce commodity in dry southern Idaho. Fights over irrigation rights were an accepted fact of life.

Now NASA is saying California may be bone dry in as little as a year. And still the only real plan they have for safeguarding and sharing water is a hope and a prayer. A February poll showed that only 34% of the state’s voters were open to water rationing.

It is time for all of us who share the planet to look to the Khonomas of the world for models. We can do this. We humans are cleverer and more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for. We can decide John Donne was right, “No man is an island…We need one another so I will defend each man as my brother, each man as my friend.”

Today the poet would use language that clearly included women among the friends on a common island, but the sentiment is still apt. We need each other. We are interconnected. We share the planet. We can all live joyously, without destroying our common heritage.



The 90-year-old primary school student

Priscilla Sitienei in class; photo clip from Kenya CitizenTV video below

Priscilla Sitienei in class; photo clip from Kenya CitizenTV video below

Priscilla Sitienei has brought babies into the world for 65 years. Now she wants to do something more for them. The Kenyan woman, who is in her 90s, wants to inspire them.

To do so she has become the oldest primary school student in the world. Six of her own great-great-grandchildren are in class with her.

By modeling how important education is to her, the great-great-grandmother believes she can encourage children to go to school. When the woman her classmates call “Gogo” (grandmother) sees children who are not in school, she asks them why. If they tell her they are too old, she points to her own example.

Priscilla Sitienei joins in the children’s activities. She helps them with their school work. She passes on the stories and traditions of her people.

When she first approached the school and asked to enroll, she was met with skepticism. She was determined to learn to read so she could read the Bible. She also wanted to be able to pass on mastery of midwifery and traditional medicines.

Her persistence paid off. While she learns, the elderly scholar inspires her young classmates, school staff, and anyone else who hears her story. School is a better place for everyone, with Priscilla Sitienei’s wise influence.

So…what was it you said you were too old to start?

Sam Gituku interviewed her for Kenya CitizenTV


Awe is the best medicine (beats anti-inflammatories)


Awe is exactly what I was feeling when I spotted this egg on Knox Mountain, near my home. It looks like a chicken egg in this photograph, but it was closer to the size of the business end of a teaspoon. Small and perfect, it was momentarily vulnerable, while the chick’s mother went off to feed. I quickly shot a photograph and left, not wanting to worry the mother bird.

The whole day broke open, just from having witnessed the miracle of this small egg. So I am not surprised that a new study has identified awe as a tonic that leads to better health. Jennifer Stellar was the lead author. She did the study at UC Berkeley and was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto when it was published.

The investigators asked more than 200 young adults to report on their day. They were particularly interested in the level of positive emotions they had experienced that day. Then they sampled gum and cheek tissue and tested it for cytokine, particularly IL-6 (interleukin-6). Cytokines are important to cell-to-cell communication. They help the body respond to inflammation. Unfortunately, when the good and bad (i.e., anti- and pro-inflammatory) cytokines get out of balance, things can go awry.

IL-6 is one of the pro’s. Too much of that one or one of the other baddies can lead to allergy, atherosclerosis, cancer, depression Alzheimer’s and other nasty assaults on the body. That’s why the team was interested in seeing what impact experiencing happiness, fun, kindness or awe might have on the bad cytokines.

What they discovered was that students who had experienced the most positive emotions had the lowest levels of IL-6. Students who had experienced awe had the lowest levels of all.

As usual, correlation is not necessary causation. Maybe those with the lowest levels of IL-6 were naturally more open to curiosity and joy and less likely to have their pro-inflammatories run away with their health. Or maybe they just had fewer cytokines to begin with. It will take more studies to figure that out.

But whatever further research shows, this study fits well with others that have already shown that a positive outlook has a strong link with better health. So go for a walk and be amazed. Listen to music and be transported with joy. Do more of whatever lifts your heart. It can’t hurt, and it just might give you a longer, healthier life.