Fiction has the power to help us discover new things. Like the unexpected turns life can take if we follow a path not often taken. Or the extent to which stories can take us to new places and new spaces all with the power of words combined in a graceful manner. What if non-fiction did the same? What if non-fiction took us down a path not often taken. An unexpected path full of discovery and instructive of new routes to take. A good non-fiction, similar to a good fiction can tell the story it wants to tell all on its own. I’m guessing that’s the power of storytelling in the end, whether we use our imaginations or not, to tell stories with facts or fictions. All of it in the end must be accountable to you the reader with lessons or instructions that compel you to do something, remember something. All of this is important when you take the story into account.

‘I want to be everywhere where Mama is.’ These words from the book Me and Mama are the representation my children and I have always longed for. To see ourselves, our mundane activities, illustrated in a book is every bit as powerful as the words are poetic. That black children can have special days that unfolds from morning routines with brushing teeth, to bedtime routines that are full of love, are rarely seen, rarely shared, and rarely portrayed in stories. Cozbi Cabrera celebrates the bond between a black mother and her daughter beautifully with this book. And as a mother whose daughter and sons want to be everywhere I am, I am keeping the message with this book here for all times.

Reminiscing is when you indulge in an enjoyable recollection of past events. I did so today with my daughter. The event was her 4th birthday. Her smile was as dazzling then as it is today. This was a time when growing up was brilliant, when candles on a birthday cake evoked an endless happiness, when being a child was forever full of excitement. My Belle’s wide-spirited loved for her born day, didn’t start today and the celebration continues today past even the d-day. Everyday with her remains a true manifestation of God’s love, a divine encounter with love so tender, it can only be God. I see it in her everyday and on days like today where we reminisce, we do so enjoying every moment of our love, his love, perfected in each other. Keep reminiscing.

We are, some of us, loved. Not the kind you never see, nor the kind you never feel. Not even the kind you never know, or the kind you never hear. We are, some of us, blessed. Not the kind you never say, nor the kind you never shout about. Not even the kind you never jump around in joy, nor the kind you never pinch yourself about. We are, some of us, persistent. Not kind that gives up, nor the kind that quits. Not the kind that never gets up, nor the kind afraid to get on their knees. We are, some of us, light. Not the kind that hides it’s glimmer, nor the kind that forgets to glow. Not the kind afraid of the dark, nor the kind unsure of our spark. On this day and at this very moment where I brought you forth into this world nine years ago, My Belle, know that you are loved always, you are blessed always, keep persisting too, for you are light. Like a city built on a hill, your spark can never be hidden. Happy 9th Birthday.

Lotanna is 9!

The assignment was simple. The Cat in a Hat, comes to your house one rainy day and you have so much fun. Use your imagination to describe all the fun you have. My daughter let her’s fly. Mom and Dad went out, she began and left her alone with her brothers and a baby sitter. Suddenly, Cat in the Hat, came by the house. While one of her brothers were afraid, she was so eager to meet him. She watched as he played many tricks including juggling with weird items like a soccer ball, a fork, and a drum. She was afraid he would make a mess. He still continued to juggle, now with mom’s flowers and dad’s globe. And as he continued to have fun, mom and dad arrived. We too, she noted, joined in the fun which lasted until midnight. My daughter ended her story with scenes depicting the event. One showed her baby brother sleeping. Another showed, Cat in the Hat juggling all the sorts of items while she tried, though in vein, to ask him to stop. The final scene showed mom and dad arriving home from our meeting. Her imaginations with this assignment, as with so many others, are the necessary jolt I need, to wake up from my slumber.

I know I have written extensively elsewhere that to be in her world, in her imaginations, even in her illustrations is a gift I will forever cherish. She reminds me everyday of the possibilities inherent within ourselves if only we extend ourselves a little. On days where I feel overwhelmed, there is always a story, an image of hers lingering around our home, waiting for the right moment to cheer me up. It’s as if the universe knows that I will need a source of inspiration and she remains that steadfast assurance my imaginations needs to thrive in as well. Ours is a learning relationship I will also keep always. That our children can teach us things we adults need to learn is never at the top of conversations. Yet with her, I learn every day. I learn about the worldview of a child. Things I agree with and things I don’t. I learn about how they stretch their imagination, to places far and near, where anything, including a Cat in the Hat juggling flowers or a drum is possible. I learn about about her use of words. Some of the most interesting combination of words occur in the hands of children like my daughter, who are carefree in their thoughts and use their words for power. I also learn about how she does not limit herself to anyone’s depiction or discussion of how she ought to tell her story. Nothing blinds here to her imagination. Nothing tells her she to go high or go low, juggle items with a Cat in a Hat or pray he stops so he doesn’t make a mess in the house. Nothing stands in the way of her imagination. That’s the the keep for me today.

Keep a child’s imagination for yourself whether with Cat in a Hat or anything else. She knows herself well, conveys her story for herself well even to the delight of her teacher who shared this quote while grading the assignment: “what an imagination and way with words.” Her own contributions to my world and work will forever be sterling. She continues to give her imaginations a place to stand, to use it as a potent device to tell her story, her way and that is enough for me to join her teacher and say well done.

She called it the tree of life. In the middle stood a Tiger. It was surrounded by symbols that personify life. Like green palm fronds and an orange pumpkin. Green jumping frogs and a colorful butterfly. A green turtle stood at the bottom of the picture. A purple snake encircled the tiger’s head. The imagery was as vibrant as it was perplexing. Why would all these animals huddle together in an image called the Tree of life? We forget how easily we are all connected she said. All of us are connected to each other. We forget how we need each other too. How this need can become a powerful lure, helping us to endure, all that life offers made sense to my thoughts. That my daughter’s Tree of Life can become a powerful metaphor for life is my keep for today. That and the fact that we need each other.

Tree of Life

The animals get it. Even plants understand this. To hear this desire from a nine year old too is powerful. What is there possibly left for us to do except to embrace all that life has to offer, including our connections to others. Once we accept our connection, maybe then we can start living, knowing that nothing, can have power over us, if connected to us. So from now on, I am meeting people as they are, figuring the connections we have, so that as we bid our time together, we will both equally thrive magnificently like my daughter’s Tree of life.

I watched as she accepted her brothers ways. As she knew he was different, knew he had meltdowns, even knew we called it autism. I vividly remember the day a parent from her school sent an email to me because of what she shared in class. She told her classmates that her brother had an illness, one that makes him different from most children. The parent reached out, to console us. I thanked them and explained his type of difference, his being on the specturm. They understood. I wondered if she did. If she too bore the weight of his difference as she would say. The many times we canceled one activity or the other, one event or the other, was never really about her but him. I wondered if she knew.

Over the years I have seen the toll being a sibling to a brother on the spectrum can take. I have tried my best to shield her from it, from his meltdowns, from his difference. There are days when we struggle and nothing seems to make sense to his brain. On those days, everyone wishes for this difference as she calls it to go away. But then there are days, when his essence is like a ray of sunshine, when his smile is like the perfect poetry, long on words that vividly make the soul leap with joy, like a new born in their mom’s womb. On those days, I wonder what she is also thinking. I wonder if the weight of this difference is a bit lighter on her too.

It’s hard to comprehend what the past 7 years maybe for her. But I still vividly remember the day she first met him at the hospital. Her hair was tied in knots we call thread hair style, a feat accomplished by mama. She wore pink overalls, with a pink turtle neck sweater underneath and pink tights. She was so happy to see us at the hospital. Her joy leaped up some more the moment she laid eyes on her baby brother. All she muttered over and over again while holding him close to her heart was he is mine, mine, mine. He has always remained hers over the years and he knows to. Always seeking her attention, her approval for things as mundane as what to read or how to play. She has become the fearless leader of men, not afraid to walk the earth because she boldly leads the way. I love her leadership and I know only time will tell but for today keep the many wonderful ways of being a sibling in mind. Especially to one on the spectrum. They are beyond resilient in every single fiber of their being because they first loved and saw love differently.

Her art teacher told her to draw a jungle. The instructions: Draw a jungle and put whatever you want in it. She listened. She wanted to draw extraordinary things or things not typically seen in a jungle. At least to her. So she drew a penguin. You wouldn’t find a penguin in a jungle. They prefer cold climates and not those typically seen in a jungle. She drew a dog. You would not find a dog in a jungle. And if you do, they won’t be typical. It is not normal to find dogs in a jungle. But far off to the corner, she drew an elephant trunk. You would not notice it unless you look closely. She didn’t want to draw the whole thing as it would take up the entire space. So she drew an elephant trunk as it tried to spray the top of the dog’s head. Finally she drew the sun. That’s typical and an extraordinary necessary condition for any forest. That and all sorts of vegetation suitable for jungles. That her imagination propels her to new height is an understatement. For whom is she drawing? In what mindset does she draw? And to what end?

These questions stay with me everytime I see something my daughter took the time to draw. An inescapable feeling arises too, waking whatever dormant spirit I possess to new heights where anything is possible. So I ask questions. What provoked this art form? Always eager to learn, my daughter proceeded to narrate the opening sentences of this keep. Seeing life and it’s many ways through her lens is pure delight. She dwells in a perpetual abyss of imagination and creation, of silence and glistening sound, of thoughts provoked by feelings full of new ways of seeing and being. She is her own masterpiece. To her mind there is no limit, no lines drawn or boundaries marked, not with dreaming or imagining, with her creation or her narration. To her mind, even a jungle can be filled with penguins or blue birds with elephants spraying water of the heads of dogs. To her mind anything is possible. This is my keep to her today. That as she turns nine, there was a time when anything was possible. And may she never forget that she is the jungle of her dreams, a den full of possibilities, full of passion, full of love, today, for tomorrow and always.

My daughter’s jungle.

Everyone needs a sense of connection. A sense of relation. A sense of belonging. A sense of knowing that you matter to a particular group, a particular family, or a circle of friends. To belong, is to have life and live it out fully. Irrespective of how you find yourself, to belong, is to have joy and have it more abundantly. Even in this moment, to belong is to become part of an infinite story, one told for years to come, about how your people framed who you are, framed your identity, framed your possibilities. I am enjoying belonging to my people. They are my national treasure, my soul’s desire, my inner peace, my place of joy, my guilty pleasure, my lover’s rock, my shield and protector, my endless possibilities, my heart content. I am nothing without my people. They make every single thing I do worth it. To find you people, to love and treasure them is to find peace for the world and its ways. To celebrate your people too, to let them know how much you treasure and value every single fiber of their being is to know love for yourself. This week, after a gruesome couple of months of working, I am on a journey to celebrate that which makes my heart leap everything. My Belle.

My Belle turns 9.

I became a mother because my Belle gave me this once is a lifetime opportunity. I also remember the day vividly this week nine years ago. Of how I walked into labor at 41 weeks. Of how nothing seemed to make her want to come into the world until she was forced out. Of the pain of child birth, my first, with the unfortunately tear that occurred when she passed through the ring of fire and it it was fire. Of how she came still, with an angel’s kiss on her forehead. Of how tiny she way in my arms. Of how she became mine to protect and nurture and love. The past nine years of being surrounded by her love has been divine. To know you belong to her and she belongs to you makes my heart content. She pierces my air with bubbles full of joy, full of laugher, full of excitement and full of possibilities. I keep repeating the word ‘possibilities’ and it’s because she demonstrates it powerfully to me every single day. I am a mother because she became my first child this week nine years. I am a mother because I learnt how to become one through her. I am a mother willing to change the rules on mothering, including writing about it because of her ways, full of hope, full of sheer determination to live out her God’s given destiny. If you see all the stories she has written, all the art she has drawn and all the life lessons she continues to teach me, then you will change too. So from this week and till forever, I am on a mission to nurture what matters to her. Every single aspect of her souls desire is mine to fulfill because she belongs to a people who love her unconditionally. She belongs to me. Find your people, learn from them, adapt to as your learn, but ultimately nurture them endlessly. That’s the plan for this week and beyond with Belle. Keep belonging to those that matter.

In 2007, my doctoral advisor wrote a paper entitled ‘on being comfortable with being uncomfortable; centering an Africanist vision as a gateway for global health.’ In the paper, he had an image of a child neither romanticized nor diseased, representations that are typically the norm in discussions in anything concerning Africa.

Photo by Olusegun Fayemi

The paper goes on to discuss the misrepresentation of African identity and how part of that framing lies with researchers who would rather interpret Africa as disease-ridden and crisis plagued rather than humanity that populated the region. It was for this reason that the paper asked the question ‘can you define who you are without referencing what you do?’ Most researchers are very comfortable speaking about their identity based on their profession and incapable of defining who they are outside what they do. The paper goes on to discuss how African identity should be at the center to research on African health and development. Also how we need to deconstruct conventional assumptions and theories used to frame public health and solutions for Africans. I share all this to say that this paper helped me define the gate through which I enter research. I value research where knowledge production, including the acquisition and distribution of it is affirmed by those who own the knowledge, including those traditionally underrepresented in research.

This paper also remains one of my favorite papers and a source for daily inspiration whenever I need the assurance that I am fulfilling my destiny in academia. See the past three months have been brutal. Not only did I work as a homeschool teacher as as mother to 4 children under 8 years of age, I took on the Herculean task of submitting 2 NIH grant proposals back to back with me as a lead. I have been here before. The work isn’t a problem for me. If you know my history with NIH grants, then you would know that I am most comfortable being uncomfortable with submitting 2 grants at the same time. The reason I went to my advisor’s article today after submitting the second one (the first one was submitted last week) was because I needed to read these words to myself and I’m paraphrasing “continue to propel yourself to new levels possibilities are endless.’ My advisor pushed the need to not conduct research from a deficit model, but from one where people are represented just as they are. Not diseases or romanticized beings, but people with possibilities that are endless. The two grants that I submitted are a reflection of these possibilities. Of course lord only knows the outcome, but I am satisfied with myself and my never ending quest for possibilities that remain endless. Keep this for yourself.