Listen, this is your time, you a seed, you the earth, of a woman, you got the moon of your own, listen, somebody need a binoculars, to see you, somebody need to straighten their lens, to see all of you. Listen you are not Mars, Venus or any other bright evening star, not when he got his hands on somebody as divine as you, as sterling as you, a woman of the moon.
This is what the mirror said to me today. Keeping it here in praise of Lucille Clifton, my forever muse.
I taught my first dream grant-writing course today. It’s been a long time coming. What we will be waits in us like an ache and today I saw it with my own eyes. I didn’t know where the words were coming from. They seem to come from a place carefully crafted for a moment like today. I saw myself see myself in ways I shudder to describe. My spirit led the entire session and we let it lead. Grant writing can be so much more if only we speak from our soul. I saw that today for myself and I am me and all the things I dreamed of. This course is a big thank you to everything that paved the way, including my dreams. Keep dreaming dreams that are beyond your own understanding.
I woke up today to the news that I was not selected to mentor trainees interested in writing grants. They had over 70 mentors who expressed interest and well, none of the students had similar interest as mine, so I was not needed for mentoring. At first, I was stunned. It’s not every day that people reject me with grant writing. But then I remembered maybe it was all for good.
My ways are unconventional and well, this isn’t the first time I have been counted off. So I decided to write this to myself. Mostly to showcase that until it exists, then all the dreams I have with grant writing would be dreams. To turn it to reality, I need to put it in words. I need to be deliberate about what I mean for example when I say grants are stories. I also lack time and patience. My head is still on a long break from work that the idea of teaching or mentoring may not be right for me these days.
But I can persevere. The next couple of days are my attempt at making sense of grants as stories, my attempt at explaining it, celebrating it, and bringing it to the center of my life so that folks will understand how it has helped me soar. I don’t know what the structure will look like but I will try to share tibits of what I imagine this can be. Motivated by this rejection, I wrote a lot today, as in a lot and for the first time, decided to keep it from here. Not because I don’t think there are aspects of it worthy keeping, but more so because I am learning to find myself in this process, learning to persevere courageously too, until this story I have been telling to an audience of one, makes sense.
If anything I do, in the way of writing grants or whatever I write, isn’t about lasting, or sustainability or the community or villages I belong too, then it’s a waste of time. These days I want to indulge myself in open conversations that allows the collective ‘we’ to dream, which is to say, sustainability, is like air. Everything we do must have that at it’s core.
The best grants I have ever written, those that failed and those that succeeded, have at their rim, a desire to last, a desire to remain, long after the funding ends. We begin always with the end in mind as the end is certain. But what we do from the beginning is unquestionably crucial. When you don’t plan to last, when you don’t even know why you ought to last, you ultimately keep nothing. You are also lost. Which is why I ask always, what will you keep? For me these days, every single thing.
There was a time, all I did was fail with every grant I wrote. Welcome to a new month. I woke up to an email sent to the entire university celebrating a recent success today. I am honored and grateful but I can’t help but remember the times of failure. Yes, failure. Sure the messages and all the well-wishes, have been heartfelt and words fail me. But it’s the failures that I want to dwell on today. I want you reading this to know that success comes at a major cost. For me, with every one grant you see that is successful, there were close to 7 (in my beginning days, but now 2-3) that were not successful. So when I see this beautiful write up of one success, my heart goes out to wrinkles along the way. All of them that paved the way to make this one success come through.
So with the story of STAR, what many may not know was that it was written after a major loss. I had written a grant called, I-ARISE. I love naming all my grants by the way and everyone writing a grant should always be intentional with their names.
I-ARISE was over $13 million or so. It was and still remains the most expensive NIH grant I have ever assembled. It also failed. I went into depression. I still remember seeing the news of it’s failure that faithful July month and just being in a rot for days. I didn’t eat. Just slept in my room and cried and cried and wondered why such a beautiful grant failed. When I got through the sadness, I got our team together and we immediately started taking pieces of it apart. What many may not know was that I-ARISE became LIGHT (see here:LIGHT), which was literally a sidenote on the grant. I turned one massive failure into the thing that gives me joy everyday.
With the beginning of LIGHT, came thoughts on what else to do that would literally bring more light. Enter STAR. I-ARISE is also STAR and much better. We began writing that grant in August (please I do not recommend writing an NIH grant in a month. I just have a decade of experience with plenty failures).
We were also writing an NIH Fogarty D-43 at the same time. I tend to write 2 grants with similar deadlines. It seems to help me see things better. The D-43 was aptly called I-RISE, and yes it was my self-care attempt at getting over the failure of I-ARISE. The name alone got me through the failure. I worked on the D-43 literally feeling like I was rising from the ashes like a Phoenix.
While writing the D-43, I came across the NIAID R-25 announcement. They were both similar in nature, only that one was for my work in Nigeria, while the other would allow me to finally give back in the US. It was no brainer. I am a Penn State McNair Scholar, a Penn State MHIRT scholar, a Penn State Bunton-Waller scholar, all of which were geared towards helping minority students succeed at Penn State. McNair in particular was my first foray to research with Dr. Cassandra Veney, a woman studies professor, as my very first mentor ever. Dr. Airhihenbuwa was my second mentor. The two of them are the foundation upon which I stand.
I wrote the D-43 and R-25 at the same time. Deadlines were very close. D-43 in August, R-25 in September. The D-43 failed. It wasn’t even discussed. In fact, reviewers said I had no business or experience writing one, my paraphrase of their summary statement. The R-25 is what we celebrate today. I share this story because behind every success, there are failures and honestly I made crucial mistakes with the D-43. I saw them while writing the R-25. I needed to write the D-43 in other to get the one that was meant for me. I am nothing without my failures and I hope they inspire you to keep yours too. They will one day inspire your success. You can read the successful story here: STAR R-25 Grant . I only want you to keep all your failures in mind.
Octavia Butler once shared the following: ‘Forget talent! If you have it fine. Use it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent.’
As I begin to slowly wrap up this year, I am making sense of all I did this year. Talent didn’t get me far. I barely have any as some may say. Inspiration was plenty. But they can only take you so far as well. Reading these lines by the great Ms Butler is the necessary reminder that habit was all I needed. When I say I am okay with not getting a grant, though I continue to write, it’s because of habit. I would rather write a grant and fail than never even attempt to write one. Years of writing and failing, with many even writing me off, meant that eventually habit became my portion and this year, the grants written so far keeps me on my knees.
I am still not talented. I am also still prepared to fail. And habit will lead me all the way. The habit of writing and writing, and learning and learning whether I succeed or fail, is the lesson for this year worth keeping. Keep your habits. For me, it’s writing grants and learning how to write them, whether win or lose. It’s my self-care routine these days, one that I am prepared to fully safe guard from whatever storms I face. As this habit is always ready to burst from its own intensity, worrying and fascinating, probing and enlightening, while casting a spell, that keeps me grounded in the path ordained for me. It’s not a gift, but a habit I treasure completely and will treasure for as long as time permits.
Lucille Clifton once noted that ‘the surest failure is the unattempted walk.’ It was part of her poem entitled ‘Questions and answers.’ I am keeping this here because I have been walking through a path that feels so difficult that all I can keep doing is walking. So many times I wanted to quit. So many times I felt like why even bother. But I kept walking remembering this quote. What must it be like to keep walking when everything seems so against you? Pain, rough, but I keep walking knowing who leads me.
I am maintaining perspective, knowing patience is no virtue, at least for me, everything tried this week, to stop the path he destined for me, forgetting too, that great is his mercy towards me, and that even what they may see, is bigger than what he imagines for me.
So I will not rage, though they came close to making me curse. Life doesn’t frighten me. I will not regret and I will only continue, knowing he is forever faithful towards me, always providing for me too, things I least expect, like how to be limitless, through barren places, in need of evergreen trees, between hills and valleys, without regret, without judgements, just remembrance of all the ways he holds me. My heart and soul says yes. Do with me what you will.
We are in the homestretch of a grant that I will honestly say is the most difficult grant I have ever written. I say this all the time but this one was gut wrenching to the point of being sick. And why write grants that only serve to make you sick. When you have a plan in mind, when you know how limitless his plans are also for you, then will you understand the true meaning of Psalm 23. I saw dark valleys this week. Walked through them too. But he was there every step of the way, holding my hands to the point where I woke up this morning and ran 4 miles. That’s what happens when he orders your steps. You will walk through deep valley but rest too in green pastures. The key is to keep all things in perspective. He is your shepherd after all. You have every single thing you need in life. I am learning that with everything I keep, with my family and of course with every grant I write. Keep all things in perspective.
I spent this evening learning about wonder. It was from a philosopher at my institution. We were both attending an evening event and once we were free to mingle, she immediately approached me and we practically ended up spending the evening talking to each other. Initially I was hesitant to say anything to her. In fact what do you say to a philosopher. I had 2 philosophy friends in college. We were all doctoral students at the time, and I was struck by everything they did. One of them, Ronke Oke, has remained a dear friend and I will forever be grateful to her for the invitation to attend one of her classes where they talked about Franz Fanon and his books. I left that class buying the books and holding them for life. So anyone with a philosophy background scares me, hence why I was initially hesitant. But now, I am open to where they lead me.
Then I asked finally, what do you do. She said these words that stuck with me. ‘I study wonder.’ My ears and soul were open. Wonder, is that the same thing as curiosity, I asked? She said no. Wonder actually precedes and sets the foundation for curiosity. It’s like an engine for curiosity. She also mentioned how early philosophers spent time wondering before delving deeply into curiosity. We also display this better in childhood, with stories that seem so far fetching yet open and believable to a child’s mind. It is then no surprise that some child feel like they can fly and well actually proceed to fly never mind that they crash down to the ground.
I was struck and spent the rest of the evening listening to her. I saw myself in everything she said down to why I write grants. She concluded, you almost always begin in the realm of wonder, before curiosity leads you to ultimately write your grant. I was spell bound by this time. Wonder is truly the foundation of my work as a grant writer. I say it always that I have to visualize what I am writing first. I have to paint the full picture in my mind, before then writing it out. I am in the middle of a significance section of a new grant and I have spent close to an entire day on this section, just to have only 2 short paragraphs written. I have imagined what these sections should look like. I see them in my mind. But words are not coming together and so I keep imagining whatever will get that section written out in the way I have visualized it. So I close with the following prayer to this gift of insight called Wonder shared with grace from a philosopher at my institution (She has written it all as a book by the way and it is currently under review and I promise to be the first to purchase it once it becomes ready. I thank her too for offering to give me a copy).
I pray that wonder cracks open your mind. I pray that it forces your eyes to bulge open and once open, may you be drawn into the underside of everything that comes your way. The torture, the pain, the joy, the wonder of it all, may all of them usher you through this maze called life.
I have met the source of my curiosity. It has always been there everytime I grumbled, stumbled, mumbled, and humbled myself through silences unearthing impossible desires within. Some of them were ordinary, but insisted that they become extraordinary in my hands. I cherish the scars left behind better now. All the ways things once indescribable have become describable these days. Everything I write seems possible now that I know my soul. I am content too with failing, knowing that the journey ahead towards what belongs to me has been cleared. I go through now with ease because you call me.
I know this moment is a witness to a struggle, a metamorphosis of sorts, a period of wading through life, until one becomes the butterfly that sees life beyond ourselves and all the ways we come out of shells to become more of ourselves.
I pray that wonder continues to carry you, me through this unavoidable journey. Without withholding, without scolding, but still molding all its range and depths. Still unfolding even as we change and accept, all the things we never thought possible, like death, like anger, like madness through this journey called cancer or things that arrest me now like wonder.
By the way there was another philosopher there who has a book on human suffering. She said to send her an email and she will send it to me. I am on it. I see why I should continue to surround myself with them.
Since the pandemic began, I cut back from a lot of things and people. Cut back from conversations that were unproductive, people too. I focused on things that elevated and forced me to keep anything. Last year, I took it to another level. Death has a way of helping you find your purpose and mine was solidified once cervical cancer came to my home. I share this to say I am not a cancer researcher. I can never pretend to be one. But I value what those that call themselves one do.
I am an implementation science researcher and nothing excites me more that trying to figure out how to make research last. I could speak for hours on this. In the next couple of months and weeks, I will embark on writing the grant of my youth. If you see my failure resume, you will see that it is full of failed grants focused on sustainability. I was ahead of the game then, back in 2015, doing what key leaders said to do with naming and framing my grants as sustainability-related from the beginning.
They all failed, with the exception of my R03 grant on sustainability and I sort of moved on to do what reviewers felt were not so ambitious. Why does all this matter today. Well, my journey seems to be coming full circle and I am back to where I started, with me proposing to sustain our ongoing work in Nigeria. I except this one will be tough. I also expect reviewers may not get it or may frame it still as ambitious. But I will dream. This one will truly be the one to really show the why and how sustainability matters. I am writing this here to mentally prepare for what is ahead, knowing that the journey ahead will be raw, also rough. But I look forward to the journey knowing the following too:
Who will believe that grey skies will not be grey forever.
Or daring daunting dreams of our future will not be dreams forever.
Who will believe that some berries may shine in the morning rain and some may not.
Some gifts are profound. So their grace is the Lord.
Other gifts are a release. Freedom, liberating.
The point is to know the difference.
These days and for this next grant I embark on, win or lose, I do. Sustainability will not be vexing soon, not when I lead the way.
I tell my grant writing class to draw toast today. No be small thing ooh. I tell dem say to draw am with no words. Only pictures. I think say dem no go understand, think say dem go dey wonder, wetin cause toast and grant writing. Wetin toast sef fit do for any grant wey dem wan write. I take dem by surprise. Dem take me by surprise too. All of dem draw like say dem neva draw before and in the end, how you draw toast go matter for how you write your grant, just like how water matter for how you soak garri.
Ok what was the purpose of this exercise. Honestly, joy, pure joy. Grant writing can be joyful and I find activities like drawing toast help to loosen the experience of writing grants a bit. It doesn’t have to be all curriculum focused content all the time. Laughter matters. Drawing too. Many of us have not drawn anything since we were kids. I find that this exercise takes us back to a time when drawing was all we did. It helps to keep us at ease too. I use it to teach my approach section because I want students to love grant writing as much as I do and if drawing toast paves the way, well so help me God. Any one that takes my grant writing course will draw toast and love what they are doing with whatever grants they write.
I said I wasn’t going to cry. Said I would be strong as we still have miles to go. I have typed and retyped what I would say when a day like today arrives and honestly I stand in awe. To think that the news of our victory came on 9-22-22 keeps me numb. Thank you Angie for fighting in heaven for this one. Thank you for letting it be known that death does not have to have the final say. To be in this work is rough. Tough too. There has been days and nights in which all is given and nothing is received in return. But then I remember Chinua Achebe’s word, his reminder that until the lions have their own historians, the story of the hunt will only glorify hunter. So then I set out to be a lion. Set out because your death was overpowering. Your living too. But your death continues to haunt me.
I have been haunted by how it all transpired, haunted by the fact that we had no idea until it was too late. Years of figuring out the public’s health meant that I couldn’t even use all my knowledge to save my loved one’s life. So I have been trying to figure out how we lost our way. When did it become all about health and not enough about the public. I first discovered what was killing you when it was too late. You were not able to walk. Not able to talk in the last days and nights of your life. We couldn’t even get you on the plane to travel from Jos to Lagos as your condition was to dire to take chances. We still did. Living, we figured, was far better than dying. Everyone pitched in where they could. Bathed you and fed you. Prayed over you and anointed you when the end seemed so close. We all kept wondering and asking why and how and why and how only to end up with a grave that now belongs to us. We have been having a very hard time adjusting to your death. An equally hard time with the absence of your being. Your voice still echoes in my minds. All the things you called me, like Osodieme. We still vividly recall mama screaming and crying as she watched her only daughter die while she lived. Still hear her questions and wondering if we had any idea that you were dying. We did and we tried everything was all we could mutter. Afraid she would die too, we kept all this from her until the last week you both had together. Here was a woman who brought you to this world. Now she watched you die, wishing she was the one dying and not you.
These are all the things that have played in our head and minds since cervical cancer came to our door. You have taken us back to ourselves, back to all we know, just so we stand fierce and ready to do the battle necessary. I expect us to struggle. We are lions and the history of the hunt has never been in our favor. But we will tell our story one day, share of all the ways we struggled and all the ways we triumphed, just so no other woman dies from cervical cancer. We have kept moments of silence, done due diligence to your sunset, just so your sunrise will remain sterling again. This is the start of your sunrise and from today, may your story, like you, be fierce and ferocious as we bear witness to voices silenced, yet triumphant, those prepared to live and begin again, beyond their cervix, beyond the thing that tried to silence them forever. It failed. We are living proof. Beyond our fury, for girls and women by girls and women are all the ways your light shines past your death. We stand in awe.