I cherish the boisterous Black Angel that drives me. It’s ups and downs help protect the place where my power rises. Today, I let it rise beyond the sources of pains it’s leaves behind, sources of grief too. I let it eat, the few things that sustain me, like smoky hot party jollof rice and deep fried croaker fish. These details are not for you to be misled. They are for me to remember to keep what sustains me. To keep the memories from what passes through, the people who pass through too. This weekend, it was our bosom friend from Georgia, Tony. We met back in 2017, shortly after baby number 3 was born. He had a bad case of respiratory viral infection and he was only 2 weeks old. We met in the emergency room too. We have been tied in the hip ever since. This weekend he came all the way from Georgia to pay his condolence visit. To know him and his family, is to know love. A deep love, that is forever eternal between our families. We may not see for years, but when we connect, his love sustains, like smoky hot jollof rice and fish. These are the people that matter and this weekend I learnt once more to keep what sustains me. We are forever keeping Tony and his family in our hearts.
It’s time for new dreams, new stars to pursue, new light to seek out in this mysterious pulse we call life. I started to write a reflection piece yesterday. About auto-ethnography as lists and how it changed my life. Then I let the words speak and they spoke as they wanted too, highlighting unsuspecting dimensions, just as gentle as soothing breeze.
I did then and now still believe in the power of words, their power with pushing forward the highest in us, including all we inhibit inside our minds until they come to the surface. Starting this list of things to keep literally changed my life and for the better. It spoke to my joys and my hurdles with being a mother in academia. It also spoke to my doubts, and of course my fears, but mostly importantly circles of thoughts completed, many of which were like melodies from heaven for many unmeasured silences of being a mother, being black and being female in academia. In the end, these lists helped me to stay focused on what matters to me. The rhythms of life well lived on one’s own terms. Not the accolades, not the grants, and yes not even the papers or work. All of that is minimal in comparison to the blessings, the legacies that outlive what we do, long after we are gone. And we are all going to leave one day.
So this list is more so about that inner dialogue we all have within ourselves, I had within me, a private journey to my own truths of what matters to me, what I want to be known for, and how somethings, some people, some ideas, some hurdles, all of them combined, helped to restory my life one list at time. All of that combined helped to raise the possibilities of storytelling for me, hence why it’s time for new dreams. The talented and prolific author and poet Ben Okri is my guide and his profound and enchanting book of the same title is my inspiration. The destination, as with this lists, remains unknown. But I look forward to exquisitely crafted ideas that speak to the beauty and triumph of a being a black mom in light.
The words rise up. I note them. They come on their own, with their own nodes, own goals, that unfold one note at a time. They come with their own meaning everytime. I am obedient to the sounds that flow, the insights that grow, within minds long in need to ignite, in need of light. I am light. Like a tree that grows higher, and higher, branching out in different directions, like thick branches with lush green leaves full of water. I am green. I sit, listen, and let the words sway like trees on a windy day after hurricanes that stroke with water-like canes. Still these tree rise up and grow. For where trees grow, water flows. I am water. So to are my words. I have been discovering for the past year that where words flow, stories flow. I am stories. For one year, the stories in my mind, in spaces and boxes I once carved as private, have been flowing like a river. I am a river. A naturally flowing river, in search of an ocean, or a sea, a lake or another river. I have arrived at my destination. Words are my water, collected now in a river that flowed through a complex meandering path I called keep lists. There were no short paths. Every thing that mattered were loosened and dislodged like the rocks along the sides of river beds. I became loose with words that deepened my riverbed, eroded my hard phases, and elevated my soft places, all with grace. I am grace. An amazing grace, once blind but now open to all the spaces that make me whole. I poured myself into this space, poured my soul to the possibilities of this phase, of writing something to keep, words to keep, in a list to mold and shape as my own, in a list to own. And through this list, my words became fast-flowing. A source of energy, of life. I became soaked in the opportunities and form of each word, each list of things to keep. I am a list.
I have been reading a lot lately about lists, about why people use them in the first place. Most people write lists, to-do lists for example, to stay organized. Some write lists to stay in control, ticking things off when completed or moving things around to track completion. The first time I saved a list was in the middle of the pandemic. There were nothing to do with my lists. Nothing to track or even complete. My lists were focused on what to keep. A keep lists of experiences. The only objective: to write one list a day. The list was expected to make sense of life as a mother, a black working mother in academia with four children, one born in the fifth month of the pandemic. There were no organization necessary. No length was too long. Or to short. Everything was allowed in the lists. My thoughts, the news, my work, my family. Writing long lists was gratifying. So too were short ones that cut right to core. But lists about meaningfully people in my life, like my children, my students, my mentors, even the experiences of my husband on the frontlines or the last days with my sister in-law and her battle with cervical cancer were extra fulfilling. The pandemic and it’s impact were intense for all families. It was also equally frustrating, equally challenging, yet equally mesmerizing, and equally joyful. Not for the illness it brought or the deaths or sorrow it left behind, but for the discoveries, unexpected ones, like making a list, a virtual keeplists of time in a pandemic. There were no end in sight too. The pandemic held us all in a tight grip. And so the list grew and moved beyond the pandemic itself to capture life as we lived it one day at a time, all to preserve and protect all that mattered in a time where living was truly fragile.
Today marks the one year anniversary of this list. Words still do not fail me. They have become my everything, my hope, my joy, my hurdles, but yet my triumphs. I thank all of you that have read anything I wrote here. I thank you for coming on this journey with me. There is still no end in sight. Only that where my words still flow, my stories will surely flow.
I asked myself today, a question most mothers ask themselves everyday. How the hell do you do this? Today was the first time in close to three weeks I had a day to myself. Not an entire day, more like four hours for me. I have been running a nonstop marathon even with kids in school. A little after they all went back to school in mid August, they all became sick, one after the other. We thought it was Covid, took a test and it wasn’t. Just a nasty viral bug that meant sleepless nights and restless days. It all finally cleared up over the weekend and today, even my one year old went back to daycare. Just as I left his daycare, I took a deep breath and asked myself those seven letter words, that many mothers ponder everyday. My eyes immediately greeted Dahlia’s planted outside the daycare. A symbol of best wishes. It was as if it wanted to offer some to me. To wish me well at this moment I called my own. How does it swirl in this way I asked, with finely carved petals, that hang together neatly, as if painted by hand. I stopped and stared at them for a brief moment, took in the air and said a little thank you. How the hell do I do it? By his grace. His sheer grace. I am nothing on my own. I shudder to think that I can go through life on my own. We are not meant to do this thing called life alone. That’s how I do it. By his grace and it’s truly sufficient for me.
In the art of possibilities, the Zanders shared Rule #6. It’s about how two leaders where sitting in privacy, discussing affairs of state. One of the leaders, whom I’ll refer to here as leader 1, had a staff who bursts into the meeting with fury, shouting and banging fists on a desk to which leader 1 admonishes him and says ‘remember rule #6.’ The staff apologies and withdraws from the room. Shortly after this, another staff to bursts hysterically, gesticulating wildly to which the leader again states ‘remember rule #6.’ The same scene happened again and leader 1 reminds them again about the rule. After a moment leader 2 finally asks, but what is rule number 6. Leader 1 replies ‘Don’t take yourself so goddamm serious.’ The intent of the rule is to ‘lighten up’ or at least help those around you to do the same. When we do so, our central selves shine, or the part of ourselves that remarkably generative, prolific, even creative.
The mere act of putting this keeplists together, writing one keep at a time, being open to words as they flow, is to live out Rule #6, to move to an endless goal, where anything is possible, one keep at a time. It has also helped me resolve this tension I have always felt since I moved deeply into the realm of academia. Looking back, I was that child that wanted to write for a living, to do so creatively, and with words strung together like poetry, even narratives. A narrative poem. One of the first narrative poem I wrote was in college. I remember this distinctively as my teenage brain was in love or so I thought. The pain of heartbreak, drove me to find comfort in words that I wrote a narrative poem about that experience using Proverbs 20:30 as a guide. It was beautiful. I signed up to read it at an open mic event at Penn State at the time and flaked out in the end. I didn’t have the guts. That decision meant that I dropped the pen and focused on what my people sent me to school to do. I remember telling myself that if I couldn’t read how pain helped me to turn my life around to a crowd of strangers, then maybe I do not have what it takes to excel in this space.
I moved on to spaces that I could quantify, and buried my soul deeply into science and research. It paid off. I have done all I can with my field of public health. If I never get another grant, I will be fine. The story of how I got the biggest grant of my life from now where can be told over and over again, until I retire even. It never gets old. Then a pandemic of a lifetime hits and I realize something was truly missing. Out of know where, we created this blog and started to write. Rule #6 restarted my writing life. My calculating self may have chosen public health research, even made a great career out of it. But my central self without any agenda, may have saved my life, emerging day by day, one keeplist at a time, in the middle of a pandemic of a lifetime. As we round the corner, I ask you all to keep remembering Rule #6 and lighten up in whatever spaces or phases you find yourself. It just may save your life.
We released butterflies in the air the Sunday before she died. Our neighbor invited us over to their home to release the butterflies they raised. It was our first Sunday without mama, our first Sunday full of despair, full of grace to bear all we knew we had to do to. Angie had woken up after-all. There was hope, though we feared the end, dared the end, even as we tried to bear the end. Her breaths were shallow. The end was near. She saw mama. She spoke when mama spoke and cried when mama cried. It was all to much to bear, to much to see, the rare sighting of the end. Cancer had the upper hand. The tumor had spread, but our God was more than any spread, even could outspread. So we stayed close, reliant on his word for what God cannot do, does not exist. We screamed it for anyone who cared to hear us. We remained confident, hoping she would defy the odds, hoping even for hope itself. It was in these desperate moments, that our neighbors pierced through and reached us in our despair, stroked us with care, as if to dare death and all it leaves behind, the tears, the sorrow, the never ending pain, we are all forced to bear.
It was in this moment that my neighbor saw me, saw us and asked if we would like to bring our kids over to release the butterflies they were raising. From the depths of our sorrow, the depths of our souls we said yes. When you release butterflies, you release fear. We learned so that afternoon. You also release love which opens its wings and spreads out to the skies.
Nothing is taking for granted. The fluttering of wings, the uneasiness, the missteps, the tensions, the fear, all of it disappears, the moment butterflies fly, the moment you choose to fly, the moment you choose love. We choose to fly that afternoon. We choose to release all that weighed us down since this ordeal began. We choose love too. We loved and desperately wanted Angie with us. We knew heaven loved and desperately wanted her too. Every butterfly stepped out in fear, but moved with easy, the moment they took their first step, moved in love. We stepped too in fear, in love. Death was knocking. Ready or not. We were blocking. Hands up in protest all summer. Death knocked louder. We kept blocking, until the week before she passed. We stepped out into the field and one by one released butterflies. One by one, each butterfly helped us release Angie, to a place of love, a place of peace, a place for us to release our fears. Keep releasing butterflies whenever you can. I was so moved by this experience that I wrote a short poem after we returned home that day. It’s called ‘When neighbors release butterflies.’ See it for the first time below.
When neighbours release butterflies,
They release love which spreads and flies.
They begin by welcoming you to their home,
To their gardens full of sunflowers which feeds their butterflies.
They show you their larvaes,
Tiny little larvae’s munching through leaves.
You will see their milky weeds,
With tiny little larvae’s still munching through leaves.
You will see their caterpillars,
Big brown caterpillars now crawling through leaves.
You will see a net filled house full of chrysalis,
Tiny green chrysalis hanging around the nets.
You will also see caterpillars on the nets,
Big brown caterpillars slowly building their chrysalis.
Then they will show you their butterflies,
Twelve brown and orange monarchs spreading their wings.
They will place the monarch on your open palms,
The monarchs spread their wings open and are ready to fly.
You’ll hold the monarchs tightly in the palm of your hands,
And watch as they discover how to fly.
So that when neighbors release butterflies,
Through you, they release love which spreads and flies.
I have been learning about the art of possibilities lately. Something about radiating possibilities seems inspiring to me these days. I was gifted the book ‘the art of possibilities’ during my program with altMba. I never really opened the book until this weekend. I can’t seem to drop it down. It all started with making preparations for my Tuesday class. We are focusing on fears with grantwriting, including my Rule number 5, or ‘remembering that failure is an option.’ I wanted to update my lecture a bit, to include contemporary prompts that would motivate my students to move beyond fear to accept failure as an opportunity.
The book Radical Candor initially came to mind. I love it’s take on caring personally and challenging directly. I am truly radical with how I approach grantwriting. It shows in the way I grade assignments. Some students like my tough love stance. I say it comes from a place of caring deeply for what they seek to do, with a heavy dose of challenging directly. You are not writing to me is also what I say. I maybe your teacher in this course, but I am also a grant reviewer for NIH. Write to that hat I wear, not your professor. Like I said, some students love it, others, well, let’s just say they get used to it in the end per the reviews I get. I care personally. I am all for bringing out the best in students, not being loved. So radical candor makes sense to me. But that was last year. This year (and not to tone down on radical candor), I wanted to inject a bit on seeing failure as an option, an opportunity, a possibility even. Enter the book by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander below.
From the beginning, we are informed that this is a how-to-book of an unsual kind. I was intrigued. The objective: to help the reader lift off from the world of struggle and sail to the vast universe of possibilities. I was sold. Can a book really do this is all I kept asking myself? Can a book help me harness failure for example as a possibility waiting to be brought to life?
Couple of things I read were truly inspiring and will be tried in my grantwriting class this fall. Like giving the entire class an A from the beginning. It’s radical indeed and the premise is that freely granted A expresses a vision of partnership, teamwork, and relationship. All of this is required for success with any grant. Looking back, merely putting a grant together is an automatic A so this makes sense. In the absence of a vision, we are each driven by our own agenda. But when we grant A in all our relationships, grant writing process for example, we align ourselves with others, because the A sustains any life-enhancing partnership.
I am learning that every day. I recently failed with a major grant I wrote. The failure was gut wrenching and it really made me depressed. The failure also happened while my sister in-law was transitioning from this world to the next, so the depression was real. But so to are the steps I am slowing taking to make sense of what I do, make sense of grant writing for example. I may have failed with that grant, but since learning about rule number 5 and giving myself an A for evening putting that grant together in the first place, the possibilities are endless. I am truly sailing to the universe of possibilities and beyond. The failure was excess stone that needed to be chipped away. Doing so slowly, one failure at a time, is revealing the graceful form within what I do. Like a diamond in a rough, I get better with grant writing with each failure. The possibilities are endless when I remember rule number 5. Only a matter of time before all of this makes sense.
In the meantime, I have shared previously that I was taught early in undergrad that research is a viable career path. So most of my junior and senior years were spent earning credits not in lecture halls but in research labs as an undergraduate researcher. All my experience were automatic A. In fact the easiest way to earn A’s in college is to become a researcher for class credits. It propelled me to a universe of possibilities with research. I was able to move for example, from a bachelors degree to a doctoral degree with no masters degree in between, but fully earned A’s as an undergraduate researcher. So I recognize the value of freely giving students an A. Will I try it out? Yes. Will keep you all posted how students react to this at the end of the semester. For now, here is to hoping it lifts my students off into the universe of possibilities with grant writing.
They call it an eloquent flower. A flower full of eloquence. Poems have been written about it. One by Cummings who described it as love, and how it’s love moves with brightness to all places. We noticed it on a walk this week with by baby. I rarely go for walks these days, but something about the group of people I have been interacting with all week, made me seek air and the sun and light. I see a lot better when I walk. I also reflect better and say prayers of thanksgiving during long walks. I owed my maker one, hence the walk to just reflect on the journey so far, the insights so far and all the people I have met along the way so far. It shouldn’t be this easy, I kept saying. It shouldn’t be that we tell the stories of our why over and over again, almost to infinity and everyone we speak to gets it over and over again. So a walk was due. I need to check my blind spots, to stay humble, to listen and see the world once more for there are truly so many wonders to see, on long walks. Infinity stories being on my mind.
For this walk, our eyes were greeted by Crepe Myrtles. Their bright pink colors were hard to miss. They stood out amidst a row of green short and tall shrubs. I initially ignored them at first and kept walking. It has been a while since I walked and so I was focused. But the colors kept greeting my eyes, as if to say hello. Finally, I gave in and greeted the flower back. I smelt it as always and opened my app to learn a bit more. I have shared in prior posts how I have lived blindly through life not knowing one flower from the next. But since I started to walk in light, all sorts of flowers have become my friends. Crepe Myrtle is about to be my best friend.
Not only are it’s beautiful lush flowers appealing, but per my app, this flower is a symbol of eloquence, good luck too. I was in awe and grew closer to see why. In full bloom, it’s flower petals appear wrinkled but full of rich texture that produce brilliant crumbling spiral patterns. These spirals gather together like a crepe, hence the name Crepe Myrtle. But eloquence don’t stop with the flowers alone. Soon, the flowers will fall and it’s leaves will turn glorious gold, orange, red and purple in fall before falling off. Then, it’s bark completes this flower’s trifecta. The bark on many Crepe Myrtle peels in puzzle patterns to reveal smooth cinnamon or tan colors that glow during winter. All of this combined, helps to symbolize Crepe Myrtle’s eloquence. They also help to tell my never ending keeplist of stories of becoming a mom in light. An infinity story in the making.
On the surface, everything seems fine. A family that I am blessed to call my own for all the love, support and gifts of belonging they provide to me. A job that I am grateful to carve as I want, grateful for when things stay and last or fall off as with passing of time or even failed grant attempts. But when you peel my surface, when you come with me and feel my journey, even peel all my outer layers, then you will understand what rounds my trifecta. I am just coming to terms with it. I am a storyteller in all sense of the word. It’s where I get my eloquence, my reason for being, my persistence, my tenacity, my love, even my drive with life. Every single thing I do has a story connected to it.
Being a mother for example, one of my greatest stories ever told, one some of you may read here on a daily basis. The stories around how me and my greatest joy, my Zobam met and continue to journey through this life keeps me on my knees with gratitude to my maker. He truly saved me. Then there are the stories for how I have navigated pursuing a career in research. To think you can go to school to become a researcher seems unheard of but that’s how I earned my degree at the end for the day. I was literally trained to become a researcher from undergrad even, not in grad school. I owe it to Dr. Cassandra Veney, my very first mentor in undergrad who inspired me to probe deeply too during my days as a McNair scholar. Then of course there their stories from grad schools. Trip to Senegal all paid for by my department, just to get to Senegal and I don’t have a hotel room and I barely spoke French or Wolof. Yet, this trip would forever change me life and inspire me to be a a global health researcher passionate about seeing the world and working with people whether I spoke their language or not.
Then there are the malaria dissertation stories. Even the process of writing my first NIH grant to do this work under the guidance of my doctoral advisor Dr Collins Airhihenbuwa has a story worthy of praises for how he pushed me to become enamored by grantwriting. How I got my first job in Paris at UNESCO following graduation has a story. UNESCO itself has a story I have yet to tell but it shaped my resolve for sustainability. How I worked or lived in Paris for 2+ years has a story. Do you know what it’s like to navigate owning an apartment in a place where you barely speak the language or raising a new baby, my Belle with my mother in-law whom I met for the first time at CDG airport in Paris? The stories are out of this world.
Of course there was a growing young family at that time navigating long distance. We have stories to tell. The ones with my first job upon my return to the US are cringe worthy whenever I think about them. They tried, boy they tried to destroy me but little did they know that greater is he. Then there are the stories of how I mastered grant writing from the king himself, Dr Gbenga Ogedegbe. I owe him a lot for showing me things I never even knew existed within me. Or how I met my partner extraordinaire Dr. Joe Tucker. He is truly on another level when it comes to collaboration. Find your partner with research and you literally find heaven. This blog has been privy to stories of navigating a child on the spectrum and raising black children in America. Even cancer’s sting is now a story I intend to tell fully with all my might.
The eloquence of crepe myrtle personifies my life fully. I choose to live it out now, more brilliantly like never before, more brightly too like an infinity story. These stories are my light. Through light, I will move eloquently, one story at a time, to all places. I am a storyteller and I am inspired by the endless eloquence of Crepe Myrtles.
I had a meeting today with a very dear friend and he introduced himself to the group as a storyteller. I was taken aback. This was the first time I have ever heard anyone introduce themselves so confidently as one. Not because it’s what I really love to do, but to describe yourself as one, to showcase how one can use it as a medium to impact people’s life is an amazing feat to me. I told him I will be borrowing that line from here on out because it is who I am. I am a storyteller. I use stories to guide the work I do for a living. I connect better with stories. They help make what I do in health easy to understand.
If you call me to speak to your class about my work or global health in general, I can connect it back to a story or two. My dissertation experience for example with using malaria rapid kits at a time when the kits were $25. I use stories to illustrate the economic side of malaria and how I called the company that made the kits. I really called Binax Now and told them it was insane that a malaria test kit cost $25 when the people that need it the most barely live on $1 a day. I remember distinctively being told but it was for the people like me who travel to those places. That when we return and we become sick and present at a hospital, the hospital would have a rapid kit to see if we tested positive for malaria. The distributor went on to even say they can send me kits set to expire as many hospitals weren’t seeing many patients with malaria. They did and so the story for my dissertation research began.
Telling that story never gets old. It’s the foundation for my passion on innovations and why I think we need to partner more with companies to promote innovative tools and kits in places that need them the most. That same company today now makes COVID-19 test kits. Of course I feel tempted to call them again as this time, their kits cost $20 and most people in places I work have no access to testing of any kind. It’s stories that help me make sense of why I need to really continue what I do in public health, especially in moments where nothing makes sense and there are many moments like this.
It’s stories that keep me grounded. Stories of the youths for example with my HIV self-testing project in Nigeria, passionate about making sure that all young people they know, get to know their status. I may not be a famous or well known public health researcher. It doesn’t matter to me to become one. But a storyteller in public health, especially one dedicated to centering people in their health, takes it all to another level. I am a storyteller and I use stories to put people first. I also use stories to make health programs last. Keep being storyteller in your field. The world needs more of us.
My daughter wrote a poem about our world. A simple poem about so many wonderful things to see, whether day or night. Like birds who chirp or flowers that sway. Next to tall trees, or beneath blue skies. Day time has wonders for all to see, she notes. But night time too, with a big moon and stars that twinkle or owls that stare wisely, are just as brilliant as the day. Wolves howling to the moon or the color of the night, like day, even night she notes, has many wonders of its own. It’s simple and from her childlike mind. This simplicity, written on wide-ruled paper with blue ink, personifies the mood I’m in these days. No need for noise. No need to an audience too. Simple will do. Like day and night. Simple has wonders, if only we stop to see it. It’s my keep for today and always. Keep simple, my daughter’s gift to me and it’s many wonders to see.