He drew a rainbow. A rainbow for me. He drew it up to show that I was a good mom. A loving one too. A rainbow, for a mom, good and loving. This is the recent image from a boy who just a month ago drew himself laying beside a pool of blood. I stood next to him in the image, crying. His teacher thought it was disturbing and we almost ended his art before it began. He is only five. These days he still draws. Not blood or me crying. But all the things he loves. Mom, rainbows and all things blue, yellow and green. No reds, except on rainbows for mom. If you let them be, their minds will do all the dreaming, with images turning from blood to rainbows to love. Blood to rainbows. Crying to loving. Life moves. The connections you will make are varied. So, keep breathing, keep being limitless, little black boy, keep letting your mind roam free, through this jungle to light.
Why do what we do? Why get in the game even if you don’t know how to play? My answer is simple. If your know your vision, nothing will ever get in your way. And my vision is bigger than me. What you think you see or know about what I do is only 30%. What you don’t see until time is another 70%. Sensible people keep quiet about what they know. I am learning that every day. I never start a journey because I expect it to be easy. I never start one unless the plans are bigger than me. If I am not dreaming, then I am not living. And even when it seems like a dream has come through, I am like a blue ocean that refuses to be still.
So what do I want out of this path I find myself in called public health, more. That’s it. The late Kobe Bryant in his commercial with Kanye West acted this best. I really want more. More grants and all that it takes to succeed or fail in them. More stories too about how you even begin to write them. Of what use is public health if you don’t master the oppressors language and use it for good. Grant writing is me doing what Lorraine Hansberry asked that those young, gifted and black do with all the gifts the have: Write to a point.
I am writing to a point with each grant I write and yea prepared to fail too. Of what use also is research or anything we do in public health without funding. Entrepreneurs never start a business without funding. Churches never go a Sunday service without asking for offerings. How much less public health? It is so much bigger than the papers we write. So much bigger than requests for papers or all the variants advertised about them these days. Which is why I am in the business of ensuring that everything I do in the field begins with the funds in mind.
My vision is to do great work that impacts lives and lasts. I am calling it an ILL (Impact Lives & Last) vision these days because it will need lots and lots of funding. That is why I always begin with grants. Begin to with the process of perfecting the art of writing one. The public deserves this. I will never underestimate the hard work it takes to write one. But when you remember your vision, you keep writing and perfecting the art to a point. Even when the public sees the 30% of the outputs of any grants I write, understand the remaining 70% you don’t and may never see is where dreams are made off.
I am dreaming in public health and doing so my way. Nearly all of academia doesn’t elevate dreams. Nearly all. But if you find yourself in a place or space where dreams are allowed, I hope you dream to a point and give people a reason to want to do more.
Yesterday, we gave an update on LIGHT to our steering committee and I can’t help but envision all the things we intend to do more off. LIGHT is leaders igniting generational healing and transformation with a vision to center the public in public health. The 30% you see of LIGHT keeps us humble. But the 70% you don’t see, is my keep for today. We don’t call ourselves LIGHT for nothing. The public in public health demands LIGHT and we will dream to a point to give it to them. So welcome to our more for LIGHT. Our goals and dreams are to give you more reasons to love poetry, stories, art, letter writing or whatever else the public deserves. Enough of the experts. No offense and yes, myself included. We want to also give more reason to include the public in writing for about their health and those of people they love or care for. More reason to increase demand about the public in public health. More reason to reorder realities in new ways. More reason to fundamentally shift perspectives. More reason to see for ourselves the times we didn’t see. More reasons to hear for ourselves all the times we didn’t hear or listen. More reason to paint pictures about health our ways too. More reason to build on our common values, however long it takes to include the public in public health. This is only our 30%. The 70% of LIGHT unknown to the public startles me. You can be part of this with our new open call below:
My daughter wrote a haiku about birdhouses, about how birds get food from inside them, and of course how birds eat the food. It was nestled towards the end of her book of poetry where anything was allowed. Roller skates made in rainbow colors. Birds and their birdhouse. Puppies playing. Even her name and all it stands for, at least to her. To go through life fixing your mind on others, birds, brothers, puppies is freedom to me. Sitting under a moonlit sky is freedom too. To go through life, under a moonlit sky, with others, my daughter, her brothers, is the ultimate freedom. Keep this freedom for you.
My son has begun to leave traces of his drawings and coloring everywhere. He loves drawing these days because Mo Whilems taught him how to draw a pigeon trying to drive a bus. He also loves coloring because alpha blocks are zesty and full of colors. They taught him how to color within alphabet known as blocks. It’s as if he has begun an endless hunger for art. But it’s his art assignment at school that has me mesmerized this morning. Coloring or drawing didn’t come naturally or easy to him. Here is a boy for whom coloring between the lines or within spaces was a chore. There were assignments full of coloring that he never really completed, never really understood, and saw as a waste of time, if as things to assign. The colors he placed rather haphazardly disturbed nothing, moved nothing too. From then on, coloring became a chore, another thing to do, another thing, often described as boring, this thing that we bore into him.
Until this summer, our summer of light, our summer full of discoveries. It was this summer, one with no therapy, that my son discerned for himself, the intimate sustained surrender to art for art’s sake. In the absence of demands, through frames that are separate, yet particular, a pigeon, alphablocks, and now the Virgin Mary, this thing that was once boring, complements his minds’s many dazzling ways, deepening an enduring desire to do more, be more, involved yes, but consumed more with what he creates with his own hands. A pigeon, alpha blocks, even the Virgin Mary all pry open the pages of his intriguing mind. His art, has become now, more important, than his silence, more important than days where his mind frays or melts down. This is a keep worth reliving over and over again, one where his art is becoming life, one frame at a time.
I asked him, why he even painted Virgin Mary brown. Most depictions are of a fair lady, fairer than the white of snow. His is only 7 years and I am fascinated with how he depicts humanity. His response as clear as a sunny day: because she is supposed to be brown. I don’t take this response lightly. His mind is a puzzling masterpiece to all of us that know him intimately. To see this journey, to watch as he follows his path, through art, through colors, through people, is to see possibilities with minds on a spectrum. All of us that are typical have so much to learn from children on the spectrum, whether from their thoughts on pigeons, or alpha blocks or Virgin Mary. Don’t wait for society to tell us how they should act or speak or even react to ways that are untypical to a typical mind. Each of us are destined to use the skills we have to meet minds that dream of days were dreaming is life’s streaming, this beaming in need of more esteeming. I am learning each day that those of us with the privilege to see how the brain works differently are the lucky ones. How each coloring, each drawing becomes a thing worth keeping is my prayer for you, for me, a desire for what to come when we all keep coloring. Keep it, because it’s what you, we, are all supposed to do.
My son has been learning about baby chicks. His school has a small brood of 10 chicks. It’s a new experience for him. I have always found animals in school to be refreshing. What better way to learn than from living things themselves. Everyday, his class gets to watch as the baby chicks prance around their small coop. Learning and helping to care for new life has numerous rewards. For starters it helps my son develop his sense of empathy and compassion. They are not only learning about what temperature matters for these chicks, but how to keep them warm, and what they need to eat to grow. There is true love between the kids and the chick. It’s generally believed that animals can have a positive influence on children’s learning. I see this with my son. Two other learning concepts I have observed animals teach. The notion of change and the concept of time. For starters, change occurs constantly. Baby chicks are prime examples of this change. To go from being eggs to a chick is a significant change. One my son observed from the beginning. Then there is also the concept of time. Growth cannot be rushed, even for baby chicks. He told me their baby chicks sit in incubators for 21 days before they hatch. He made art to illustrate this. I smiled. I see the importance of critically engaging little kids in constructive discussions about animals, including baby chicks. Not only do they learn to care for others, but they see firsthand why change matters and the significance of time. It’s for this reason I say keep baby chicks and little kids together. They help each other learn about the world as it ought to be. With love and love and love.
Blue skies on a clear day. Trees, confident ones too, standing tall next to the sun. All glorious, all majestic, is the sun, blazing, on a glorious day where the blues skies are clear. I imagine these words whenever I see this picture painted by my daughter. It was from her girls scout meeting this past weekend with her troop. The last time our family met in person with her troop was over a year ago and today seeing this painting personifies the hope for me. Hope for a future free from a pandemic like the assurance that there will always be days where the skies are blue. I also imagine there will come a day where mask wearing isn’t the norm and social distancing is no longer in vogue. The CDC began to usher in such a day this week with their latest mandate that folks who are fully vaccinated can meet without masks with other folks that are equally vaccinated. It’s the kind of relief we have all been waiting for, hoping for, like blues skies on a clear day.
Amidst the pain and toils of such a pandemic that spared no one, hoping for a day when the skies are blue, and the sun blazing, with trees standing confident and tall, is like my hope for a pandemic free life. One that I’m praying will come to fruition but just in the US but in India and Brazil and every where where the virus continues to tighten its grip. Such a day is possible. One can only hope it would arrive soon with every one doing their part to ensure that everyone they know is vaccinated. We all need to be vaccinated as it’s for the public’s good. I imagine that a day too will come when the vaccines are not just for those in high income countries but for people anywhere for one one is free unless we are all free. Where the skies are truly blue and trees truly confident may seem impossible even for a pandemic. But we can only dream and for today, I pray this too comes to pass. Keep blue skies and confident trees in mind for a post-pandemic phase where all of us are vaccinated and the pain and suffering and deaths end.
My daughter once told me a story. Of her and her friends and their plans to save the world from goblins, or little monsters with green skins and two horns on their head. One friend was a wizard ninja, the other a pixie fairy and my daughter a purple fizzle, also known as bubble girl with a magic bubble wand and a skateboard. Together, they were unstoppable and will do whatever they could to protect the universe. She shared the picture below to illustrate this vividly.
In listening to my daughter recount this story, I became transfixed and transported into the realm of possibilities with stories. For my daughter and her imagination, there are no limits. Even a ninja with a staff can be a wizard. A pixie can be a fairy and fly around with her human friends. A bubble girl can not only possess a magic bubble wand that erupts magical bubbles, but she can also use her skateboard and run around a rainbow colored universe with her friends. Together they work to protect the universe from goblins and their their evil plans. Her story was not only engaging, but illuminating. My daughter took me on a journey to stories endless possibilities, one where openness is the destination for abilities that are limitless. Not only did she construct a narrative to describe how anyone can become anything, her narrative is also an illustration of an important lesson that she learned about own herself, something in fact expressed in the story itself. That she too can be anything she wanted to be. An endless possibility.
Stories like what my daughter shared, illustrate how they powerfully give meaning to one’s life. But authoring your own story for yourself, recounting ever act and action, every event and expression, is the greatest gift. One that takes you on a journey towards knowing and telling, reflecting and learning. Listening and learning about each character in my daughter’s story, how they feel and what they do, opened her eyes to their see their abilities, all full of endless possibilities. The reflection, inherent in the stories we tell, is the learning about ourselves that I gleaned from my daughter and her story. As her eyes opened to their possibilities, so to did her mind open to become aware of the power of her thoughts, her feelings, her actions, all infused in her story.
That to me is the power of stories, the power of authoring your thoughts and feeling as only you know how to do best. The power to resist and overcome all forms of oppression, the power of your voice with its gifts for suppression, repression, everything wanting to cause depression. With stories, the possibilities are endless. Stories are a function of our society, an opportunity to make and remake, to form and reform, to define and redefine, how we all become one. Powerful and liberating, stories help you author aspects of you that only you know best. Stories even those as unthinkable as a wizard ninja helps you claim authority over you. The world will try to define you. The world will speak ill of you to and use words meant to destroy rather than build you. But it’s in your story that you lay claim over how the world should see you. Not from the mouth of others, but from you, your acts, your actions, one after another. Such an authority over yourself is inspiring, divine, a sterling gift to oneself.
All of us, whether as young as my 8 year old daughter or as old her grandmother, have stories to tell, have point of views and values to share that many would be willing to hear. How we author our lives through stories is the thing I never knew I had in me, the thing I never knew I would also see in others until this keeplist began a little over 9 months ago. Finding stories, keeping and nurturing them, has opened my eyes to their power and freedom. They also helped me see the endless possibilities in all my life’s abilities. So for today and always, keep stories, even from a child’s lens. Find your story too. Author it. It will help you think, act, feel, the best in you that you may not even know exists. It has helped me find my way, through a life where nothing weighs me down. I am a master of my journey because stories showed all I needed. My daughter’s story by the way is called ‘The Rainbow Universe Society.’ Like I said with stories, the possibilities are endless.
When the gates of new possibilities are opened for children, they go through. My daughter is a prime example. For her, reading is life. I have watched over the years, how it continues to transform her consciousness. I see it’s power through her lens. I see it’s push to higher spaces through her commitment. What I didn’t expect was the ways it would keep her responsive and alert to her own unique possibilities. Often we don’t see this transformation. Often we truly do now know that exact moment when a child becomes an author, when a child picks up a pen and starts telling their own story, when a child awakens to their own possibilities. I am living in that moment.
I have had the privilege of being a witness to this transformation with my daughter. Writing for her started passively, something to keep her busy with during the unprecedented summer of a lifetime with the start of the pandemic. In a pre-pandemic era, we read to oblivion. She earned her way through reading. I have no problem admiting that it all started when she was 6 and I promised to give $100 dollars for reading 100 books. She did and I paid. I have tried this same tactic with her brothers to no avail. So I pressed on with her. The following summer, the same charge, 200 books for $200. She did it again. And so our summer reading behaviors solidified and I of course was happy. Until the pandemic. One way to make up for all the books we needed was to go the library. The pandemic closed her abilities to use her library card. In a rather feeble attempt to keep her busy, I casually stated, why don’t you start telling stories then. What I didn’t realize at the time was the power of the word. That parents can birth new dreams in their children with words is astounding to me. I gave her the gift of possibilities.
She went away to that special place that writers tap into for inspiration and wrote her first short piece, illustrated by her and published by me. I have written about it in an old post focused on writing like a child (here) In fact the first lengthy piece that stretched my own writing when my keeplist began was my reflection of her first storybook Kaylin and Little Foot. I was stunned that she would take my request on and work on a story she would like to read. Since then, she has been writing and journaling non stop. I have pressed on too with my writing. She reads this keeplist. She also awakened me to my own possibilities with writing. When I recently asked why she continues to write, she said is because I do the same. She has made me more responsive and alert to the power of my words and action. Often we don’t hear this direct stuff as to when writing begins in childhood so pardon my focus on it.
But my keeplist today isn’t even about my daughter’s writing from the past. Rather, I want to talk about the future and how she represents what I know would be great ahead. A little over a week ago, I gave her a little blue book to keep her busy again. Her school was beginning Spring break for the week and she wanted things to do. I said let’s read. She mentioned she has read all her books and needed new ones. While we were talking, I was busy cleaning the house. As if on cue (the universe and it weird ways), I found a little blue book full of empty pages while rifling through materials I was cleaning. I tore away the used portion and said, why don’t you go write stories again. Be open and take us on an adventure. I left her to decide how to approach this assignment. I expected it to keep her busy. Little did I know that it would awaken the possibilities in her.
Enter, ‘The Golden Sapphire.’ How she comes up with her titles and table of contents is mesmerizing to me. How my words take her to a place where anything is possible is sterling to me. How she chooses to be open in this manner is what I intend to keep, for it is beautiful to me. I don’t know what the future holds, but the possibilities of it are there, if only she continues to do her part to see the richness of her ways. And she is stupendously rich. The unexpected dimensions of her ways keeps me alert to her future, one that personifies that word Nkiruka, what is ahead is great. I am keeping this here because I have no idea what I have done to awaken this in her. Like I said earlier I have tried and failed with her brothers, though the verdict is still out and I know they look up to her. Speaking visions of possibilities to our children is the most generous investment we can make. One that I intend to keep for myself and gift to her always.
Even as I share the images above, I am only using them here for emphasis as it’s the current story she is busy working on. Kaylin and Little Foot went on to become a chapter series, about 12 of them. Then there was The tiny, tiny team below, a short story collection illustrated by her, and a host of other collections. What I have learnt through this experience is that the ultimate gift we can offer our children is possibilities. The richness of it all is there, if only we help them discover it’s unexpected dimensions for themselves. Of course they must go through the door themselves. But the thought of bursting open, the gate of possibilities, the thought of awakening her to her potential, the thought of empowering her creativity, is a keep worth celebrating. It also a reminder to keep seeing the possibilities in children.
Defining art from a child’s lens can be a mystery. Sometimes good art may seem bad and bad art, seem good. I realize from learning from my children that it all depends on how the art moves you. Take for instance 2 depiction of birds my children shared with me this week. One is a typical bird, in typical form my little boy was proud he colored. The other was a Thunderbird, in a motif of colors from red, the color of fire used for it’s head to blue, the color for protection used around it’s shoulder, it’s arm and it’s tail. Both depiction of birds from my children’s lens are as useful as they are good.
Naturally, I was drawn a bit more to the Thunderbird. I listened as my daughter explain about its power. I also did a bit of digging myself and found that one of the powerful images of Native American art is a Thunderbird. Powerful and sacred and in the likeness of a giant eagle, Thunderbirds not only shoot lightning with a flash of their eyes, but can also cause thunder with a beat of its wings, and blow wind with a rapid flight across the skies. All that in a bird. I was amazed.
But my son’s story of his bird, how it can spread it’s wings and fly up to the sky was just as moving as the Thunderbird. Both birds are useful. But it’s the feeling of accomplishment, feelings of pride in making their depiction of a bird that made smile. What I want to always do for my children is get them to this position where they will always do their best work, whether in the form or a simple typical bird or in the power of a Thunderbird. Part of the beauty is seeing art from children’s lens is this sense of joy, sense of pleasure in something they worked hard to put together. It’s from this point of view that I say, keep children’s art in mind whether as simple as a bird or as sacred and powerful as a Thunderbird.
For art yesterday, my son’s homeschooling teacher noted that the destination was their imagination. She said they were free to draw whatever they liked, however they liked and proceeded to play Florence Price’s Juba Dance from her Symphony 1 to help spark the children’s imagination. For my son, the first thing that came to his mind as he listened to the Symphony was space, a spinning solar space system, with all the planets in orbit. I have always known that he loved space and all the planets and stars and the galaxy. For Halloween last year, he was an astronaut. I have a video of him explaining how he wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. This assignment though was eye opening. Granted, the destination was one’s imagination, but to think that space and all it’s inhabitants occupies his mind consistently is astounding to me.
So I asked him why space? His response, why not space? Why not a place with giant planets orbiting close to the sun? After making his planets, hand drawn and cut by him, I expected him to line them up one after the other, in similar fashion most pictures depict the planets. Not my son. He placed them one by one instead, orbiting around the sun. The picture may seem messy, but take a closer look and you will find every detail you can think of worth knowing about planets, from their names, to their position next to the sun, even the stars next to the planets were all illustrated in his piece of art. The essential feature of his art as I observed him intently, was that he was drawing from memory with many, many details, as if he has indeed gone to space before. He was drawing what he knew about space. All this truly got me thinking, what really is the purpose of education and at what age do you start letting kids explore what matters to them, what fills their mind with rapt attention? These questions became more important when we moved to the next class on Zoom. Granted it was reading, but my son and his mind were still on the planets, his attention so fixed, so attuned to it’s specifics, that the idea of reading was frowned upon the moment I mentioned it to him. Luckily he had already completed the materials requested so he got more time to focus on that which truly sparked his curiosity, his creativity.
The famed Lev Vygotsky once shared the ‘all else being equal, the more a child sees, hears, and experiences, the more he knows and assimilates, the more elements of reality he will have in his experience, and the more productive will be the operation of his imagination.’ This to me is the fearsome power of a child’s imagination, their ability to trace impressions of things different, things distant, with accurate precision, accurate specification, for minutes or even hours, purposeful and so powerful. Through my son’s lenses I am beginning to understand and appreciate the power of imagination, the creative reworking of one’s impressions whether big or small, natural or acquired. It’s all worth it, especially when combined together in a precise fashion. Keep imagination, keep creativity.
For art this week, my third grader made a unique, ravishingly beautiful but simple depiction in celebration of the Day of the Dead. The instructions were simple. Watch the Festival of the Bones book on YouTube, then draw skeletons in white in an interesting background highlighted with a bit of accent color and gel pens. The cute, funny book, Festival of Bones by Luis San Vincente is a delightful read, apt for her assignment and this weekend’s celebration about the Day of the Dead. But it’s my daughters drawing, her focus on rethinking the architecture of skeletons, to mark out a space where even skeletons can flourish via the possibilities of her imagination, that I keep today.
My daughter drew 2 skeletons having a picnic in a snowy night. I asked why a picnic and a snowy night. She simply said it is her drawing, as a result, anything is possible. Why not render skeletons in another light? Not as scary creatures but as delightful beings, doing delightful things even at a time or during a weather vastly different from how people imagine skeletons to act, to be, to live. I was stunned by her description, and her vivid and confident illustrations of the 2 skeletons having a picnic in a snowy night. This same vivid and confident portrayal of skeletons is possible even with motherhood, especially for working mothers.
My daughter’s artwork helped me to rethink the subtle yet pervasive attachments we may all have to the fabric of motherhood. The need to think about what it means and what it takes to do both, work and motherhood, effortlessly, defiantly, with struggle in many cases and but a rugged ease in some instances. Just today, I not only reviewed four NIH grants in need for funding as a peer-reviewer, but I managed to put on a home-based Halloween party, albeit for four children, while also watching a movie that celebrated my daughter’s art assignment.
Rethinking motherhood, for working mothers is a necessity. What I am determined to do is take what is sidelined, the sheer strength, fortitude in all our roles, and elevate it, concretize what it is, outside of fiction, whether rendered or thought as impossible for working mothers like me, who do both work and our roles as mothers effortlessly sometimes or with impediments other times. For us, anything is possible. My daughter’s imagination is a reminder for me continue to work to rethink the piecemeal notion people may have about work for mothers and mothers who work, to lay it bare down to its bones, because every successful advancement, every failure, every hope or every struggle, requires that we all learn and know firsthand that being a working mother, is both possible and meaningful like 2 skeletons having a picnic in a snowy night.
Doors open when we let our minds wander. This is a precious gift worth nurturing and protecting at all costs. Imagination is a precious gift. To be able to dream about places far and wide, to focus on what is within our control, our own recollection of what matters most is a gift. Imagination is a sacred gift. To be able to hold hands, one ours, the other our mind, together we invent, together we dream, together we are appalled, together we are amused. Imagination is a sterling gift. Our own freely given to us to make use or take part in, however we see fit. Imagination is our gift. Becoming the highest version of our selves even if in our dreams, is a gift. And it starts with our imagination, or in today’s post, being scary monsters.
Yesterday and thanks to an empty Amazon box, my kids used their imagination to make the head of a scary monster. The monster had big red eyes, with black eyebrows, blue teeth and green ears. Every detail with this monster head design was specific. Their perception of a scary monster, informed by their imagination was enchanting. It’s wasn’t something they did, but what informed their sensibilities. In their mind, scary monsters could be playful, but still scary, could be colorful, but still scary, could be amusing but still scary, could be made out of boxes, and still scary.
This sweet, intimate connection with the mind is full of intelligence, full of grace. The grace to see scary monsters in all their vivid humanity. It is a total communal experience with the mind. There is something so marvelous about an unblinking mind that wanders, and their effect, their gaze whether through art or the written word is something really divine. We can all go there, to that side of our humanity, that requires, no demands that our minds wander, if only we keep being scary monsters.