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.

Illustration by Brian Pinkey

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.

Poem by Maya Angelou.

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).

My sons depictions of a butterfly inspires me always.

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.

May you keep wonder, in the ways that butterflies sojourn through life.

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.

If I can stand and smile next to the king of the jungle, may I figure this thing called sustainability then. Leaving this here as inspiration. Watch me roar with this thing called sustainability.

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.

One example
Another example.
Another example.

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.

When a woman dies, and her cervix is to blame, catapulting her from the prime of her life, to her grave, what remains as a witness to her life, her stories, her cervix, her silenced voice? Who will resuscitate a life cut down by cervix?

Still sitting here contemplating why women die from cervical cancer? Image from Lucille Clifton.

As I watch my life story slowly change, with cervical cancer elimination, our next attempt at putting the public first in public health, so many questions remain. I look forward to all the struggles and hope ahead on this journey.

There is a part of a grant, more poignant to me these days. It’s the part that keeps me up every night. The part that keeps me restless. The part often hidden. The part that anchors me. The part too that absorbs everything and transports me to new heights. The part worthy of digging. The part that helps me convey my dreams. The part often difficult to clarify. They part that moves in multiple directions. The part that is my source of everything. It is my origin, my seed, my beginning, my once upon a time, my core, my foundation, my essence, my base, my fundamental, my most important aspect of the grant. All parts of a grant are important. But this part, like a tree, makes me cry. I am like a tree planted by water, sending out roots to the water. I am not afraid of heat. I always stay green. No rain, no worries. I keep beating fruit. I keep putting my trust in him. I am a grant writer because of the significance section. The significance section is where all my energy for a grant comes from. Find your significance, get a sense of its root, it’s foundation, and then go change the world to a point.

In a little over a year, now, our life as we knew it came tumbling down. We called her Angie or Angi and to know her was to know life. I am reminded again, that death should never have the final say. Not when those alive can continue the story of a live well lived. One that became a blessing, a symbol of persistence, and collaboration laced with empathy, though the pain of loss of her physical presence lingers. Since her death, I have been writing notes to her. I wrote other things too, like grants and stories and everything that would enable the pain to lessen. Yesterday, I submitted the 4th grant in her memory.

Cervical cancer came knocking furiously at my door in the summer of 2021 and since then I have been answering the call. Two things are clear to me: No woman should die from cervical cancer. And we must eliminate it period. It helps that there are polices for elimination. The 90-70-90 strategy for example which calls for 90% of girls vaccinated, 70% of women screened and 90% of women with positive results linked to treatment. The fact that such a policy with evidence-based tools exists infuriates me. The fact that we also know what to do about cervical cancer also makes me angry. Her death could have been prevented. I get it now. It’s the reason why I keep writing anything that would make her living more memorable.

I personally bear responsibility for her death, blame too. I could have asked more questions, checked in more often and maybe, she would have disclosed this in passing. I will never know why she kept this as a secret, not just from me but her mother. I will never know why she didn’t trust the health system long enough to truly take all the symptoms she was experiencing seriously. I only have questions, many that I know I will never have answers for now that she is gone. But for tomorrow and, beyond, I am willing to begin with trust, will to begin with listening, willing to learn and hopefully willing to work with any one to lead a concrete and path-breaking strategy focused on cervical cancer elimination. I expect the struggle to come. Many have warned us of it. But I close with this, at least generations will know we struggled, we did it our way too, so no woman would die from something so preventable. I have been dreading writing anything on the one year anniversary of your passing Angi. Dreading it because I’ll rather hear you say my name or ask about the kids or just simply chat about makeup or anything else your heart desires. So these little notes are all I have with the hope that someday, someone will asked how you died and I will be quick to say, ooh but you lived. You lived.

Note on desire:

A long desire. To see and be. Another encounter. Longer than the first. Two eyes locked. Or lips talked. These notes are for you. Though dead but living. Something tried. Your cervix, a thing. Follow its form. Learn it’s lines. Then see you. It takes a long time to see. Even longer to be.

Note on Something so small:

They need to know your name. Not the way you died. Not the cervix that caused you to die. Not the pain we fail to hide. Not the tears we still shed inside. About how something so small, can kill an Angel with all its might.

Note on Seed:

I will find you again. Not like a stalk , but a seed. Death is undeserving of you. Life resembles a birds foot. Only that we chose to soar, choose to fly above the pain your cervix caused. We know pain. But we also know life. And return to you not with fury, but with force, not when your death planted this seed.

Note on She lived:

I imagine someone will ask one day, how did Angi die? I will remind them again, of how she lived. How in life, she personified all our hopes and vision. For a better recognition of what the public envisions. For their health, like their life. We will neither reject nor denounce her cervix. Not when it reminds us to be careful. Reminds us to remember the power of endless beginnings. Reminds us to bear a responsibility to something. Or one day someone will ask the same question, wanting to know too, how we died or lived.

Some many fists are clenched and coming after cervical cancer (imagery from bell hooks). Thank you to a formidable and diverse team that got me through this last year. Our story keeps unfolding in ways only grace personifies.

The news of the Queens death came to me yesterday in the middle of work. I paused to immediately reflect on the number 70 and the age 25. Here was a woman who ruled her land for over 70 years, a land she inherited at the age of 25. Legacies are built this way, young and over a long period of time. Like many though, I also tried to imagine all the things that legacy carries, the good, the bad, the unspoken, the hidden, the hurdles, the joy, the pain, and whatever may personify love. Such a legacy, one built over 70 years includes all of this and more, many in full view for all to see and many we will never know. Independence also immediately came to mind as images of what happened when African countries, like Ghana, Nigeria asked for their independence under her watch. I imagine those conversations were not easy, probably disturbing and ultimately met with agreement. To also rule over that legacy kept me both numb and uneasy about her passing. Places we call home have a history that includes the Queen’s legacy, a history that is often told from one point of view to the detriment of other points of view.

So yesterday all the unknown stories about this 70 year legacy came into my mind like a flood. They say when an old person dies, a library dies with them and truly I felt like a trillion libraries died with the Queen yesterday. I still have questions, some I know the answers will not be easy, some I know will never be known. But for all her legacy, how she kept all this intact is my keep for today. That and what is your legacy and what are you doing to keep it whether 2 years or 70 years later. Are you also speaking things unspeakable to your situation, reveling in the joys and hurdles of life, or will your story, like your legacy die the moment you depart? These questions are among the reasons why I ask anyone I know to try to keep something about themselves, their way, so their libraries remain, long after they are gone. The full picture of your life will never truly be known, but at least you will have a say is what is to be told about you, when words fail you.

For me, I have been writing for two years, the only way I can. I call it my ‘What’ll keep.’ Part reflections, part poetry, part notes, some little, some long, but all worthy of being kept. I began this list as a form of detour from the trauma of homeschooling a child on the spectrum during a global pandemic. I wanted to give a sense of the beauty, the hurdles, the joy, the truth about life as a mother and life as being black and female in academia. I wanted to also reclaim my essence beyond the narrow confines of academic world view.

See, I am more than whatever academic paper you will read about me. I have always know this. I also know my role within academia, what to do and not do, all in the name of survival. I wanted to take all the pieces of me, those known and unknown, those I am discovering and uncovering, every single thing complicated and uncomplicated about my world and give them a space to breathe, all on their own. My one mission was to give attention to all aspects of my life that are often hidden, but yet central to what I do as a parent and professor. I also called it finding my light.

I have been in darkness for too long. You will, if all you use is the master’s language. So I sought other styles, created this space, just so all of me could flourish as I wanted. This blog will always be the best gift I gave to myself and my career, two years ago. That I continue to celebrate this recalibration of my career is no small feat. It may all seem like a long list of things to keep. It’s intentional. It may seem disjointed, not connected as finely as any introduction, methods, result or discussion section would suggest. It’s intentional. It may also seem like I’m unproductive from an academic standpoint when all my energy is spent on few words or long essays that I can’t even cite on my CV. That too is intentional. It was never for my CV. Never too for academia even though it has so many academic undertones.

The truth is that it was for that divergent part of my brain, the part that knows our worth and refuses for us to be boxed in one corner or described as such as such, the part that loves writing, grant writing in particularly, the part to that would rather write and fail than never ever write a grant again. For that part to flourish, then it would need a break every now and then and this list of things to keep have been the perfect gift to me. I am in awe of all I have written down in 2 years. In awe too of how writing in this way keeps giving and giving to my intellectual life.

It’s been 2 years of relentless pursuit of something to keep and this fearless unearthing of all I choose to keep, my way, is the clarity with life, that I never knew my soul needed. I truly appreciate the grace each keep offers. They are my legacy, my words, my way. Here is to two years down and many more to go. Happy Anniversary.

My son drew a picture of himself at school today. He was dressed in a blue cape and black pants. I asked if he was inspired by Sonic the Hedgehog given similarities in the shade of blue. He shared that it wasn’t but rather it was a picture of him with a cape full of precious jewels. There were nine of them scattered all over his cape and in all shades of colors from green to blue, brown to black and pink. I asked why jewels and not something else. He noted because jewels are his favorite rocks and he wanted to draw something he loved that was close to his heart. He is only five. This image is my keep for today as it’s a reminder to keep what you love, close to your heart.

For my son it’s jewels. They come in all shapes and colors but they are nevertheless precious to him and worth keeping close to his heart even if in the form of a cape. For me, these days it’s anything that allows me to serve, like my love for grant writing. Commitment to writing grants is a commitment to service. I rarely write grants for the glory. Sure the accolades are nice when they come. But more than anything, this idea of a grant being in service to others is what’s close to my heart. I don’t do it for the reward. The sleep at the end of sleepless nights are much better. I’m also not interested in whether it becomes an icing on the cake for my academic career or not, none of that is important. What moves me instead, is whether any of the grants I write can be of service to others.

I also expect them to fail and the failed ones are just as significant for the insights they add that in my opinion are often not ready to be judged by reviewers, but yet powerful. Imagine a sustainable marketplace for HIV prevention or defining what implementation success entails or even a sustainability scale for resource limited settings. Yes, those are some title of ideas in service of others that may never come to life but they continue to inspire me even though they failed.

My grants then for me are a site of service. It’s my most innovative, my most pioneering and often my most audacious work and to think that I do it for others, keeps me grounded. It’s that notion that allows me to juggle one grant at least every other month. The irony is that I may seem like I’m not busy. Kids will take up all my time, but wait till I get a vision for a grant in service to others with a deadline, and we’ll it will be written in a week or two. It won’t be perfect as then the editing begins, but they will have something close that will make editing either seamless or painful. Commitment to writing grants in this way is often not successful. It’s a competition after all and may the best grants win. Plus even if it fails, there is always another deadline and a commitment to make the grant better all because of the people it’s originally in service for.

I expect my grants to always be at odds with what mainstream folks want and well when you subscribe first to service, expect your grants to seek first to challenge and change anything the dominant ideology suggests should be the norm. It won’t be easy, but writing in this ways helps me to remain accountable to those that matter. It also opens my heart and mind to conditions that allow us to last beyond one or 5 years, conditions that honor what matters to you, conditions I keep close to my heart always, just like my son and his jewel covered cape. I will never dominate whether the grants succeed or fail. It was never the intent. Rather, with each success or failure, I look forward to asking the question over and over again; how can a grant be of service to you? These are the things I keep close to my heart with grant writing, like a set of jewel covered cape.