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

Tree of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

My daughter’s jungle.

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

My Belle turns 9.

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

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

Photo by Olusegun Fayemi

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

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

Even when words won’t make any sense, believe that they do. With words we can bring healing. With words we can fight for justice. With words we can also spread love and with words we can find peace. This is my attempt to keep reminding myself of the power inherent in the words I choose to speak. Today I choose to keep the power of words. I choose to keep their salience in my life. I am a lover of words especially, the type spoken with grace and full of wisdom like the idea of going far with people rather than alone. It’s the thing I want to tell myself to never forget, how words helped to change my life. It’s probably why I easily gravitate to grant writing. For when the right words are place together in the right way, there is truly power. Keep the power of words for yourself too. You just might become powerful.

I watched this morning as black birds flew back and forth from the roof of my home to a tree in the middle of our compound. They took turns going back and forth, back and forth for 1-2 minutes. I stood there wondering whether there was something on the tree, whether they were flying away from something or whether the birds were just keeping themselves busy. There were little birds flying around, medium-sized birds perched on top of trees together, and large birds flying around like the baby birds. In all, the most poignant lesson I learnt this morning from these birds is that we are never supposed to alone. Almost all the birds flew around with another bird, or perched on top of tree tops next to another bird. Even those who flew around solo, flew to meet up with other birds. It was as if the birds were taking the time to teach me the importance of being together.

Birds in the sky!

Simon Sinek in his book entitled “Together is better,” talked about the importance of doing something with purpose. But even that purpose will not amount to anything if you are not surrounded by the right people who give you the courage to keep going. I call this purpose with people. Like the birds, we are all supposed to fly through life in communion with people who help us live our purpose to the fullest. ‘Life’ as Simon noted ‘is difficult and dangerous and anyone who would attempt to do is alone is simply mad.’ I agree. To also quote an African proverb, which Simon also mentioned in his book ‘to go fast, go alone, to go far, go together.’ Ooh the places and things you will see and learn if only you go with people. These birds taught me that this morning. In life, and for your journey, surround yourself with people who help you live out your purpose. It may also be crazy and scary whatever you purpose is. That’s ok too.

Alone, the ideas will always be crazy. But together, in the hands of the right people, even crazy ideas become world class innovation. Together, we are unstoppable, like birds in the sky who flock together. I learnt this first hand when I submitted the most craziest grant I have ever written last week. Together, we were sterling even though only time will tell whether the reviewers thought we were or not. In the meantime, keep being together like birds in the sky.

The cabin was built in 1855. A pre-Civil war log cabin. I imagine there were no individuals or children even like my own who graced the floors of this cabin back in 1855. I imagine too that we will always be our ancestors wildest dreams. To be able to touch such a log cabin. To feel it’s structure, walk on its foundation, run our hands through the dark grey logs that line the side of the cabin, all of it seemed surreal to me today on our historic journey through Drace Park.

It’s also officially the first day of summer in our household. My plans are simple. To visit parks throughout Saint Louis. We started the day at Drace Park. I was first attracted to this park for its signage: Respect the past; Honor the present; Protect the future. What past I wondered? The one were my ancestors weren’t free. The ones where our hands probably built these cabins in scorching heat. What present, I also wondered? Honoring the ones where we are still not free to think in ways that illuminates our uniqueness. A present were we still try to make sense of what our black doesn’t matter. Finally what future? What do we protect for the future? Log cabins? people? I imagine the future will have so many questions for the past, just as I still have many questions for present. Drace Park had a lot to offer to my kids and myself. We walked through the trails, traced our hands through the walls, took pictures and celebrated the fact that we are doing our own part to respect the past that matters to us, the present with so many lessons yet to learn and a future where uncertainties abound.

We are our ancestors wildest dreams. To see such apark with it’s historic log cabins all now juxtaposed next to a playground area for kids, is the right start to summer my kids and I needed. I intend to have many more summer days like this. My children of course are happy with the playground area, which we had all to ourselves this morning. Walking along the park’s trial was a treat. A dirt digging area, a welcome joy for my little ones who spent most of their time digging and digging I anticipate that summer will be long, and with the right questions guiding every park visit we make, I expect to learn how my present matters not just for my past but for my journey ahead with my future. Keep Drace Park and their log cabins in mind.

My home is surrounded by peonies in full bloom. They were planted by the prior owners. A gift to us that I will forever treasure. It’s fragrant too. The fabulous pink and white flowers are ethereal and with a fragrant undertone that is a special treat to our home. Ants like bees also surround the peonies. They are everywhere. They visit to collect the nectars extruded on the outside of the peony bud. The nectars are a source of carbohydrates for the ants. And in-spite of these ants, peonies continue to bloom in ways so extravagant but unforgettable, so carefree, but elegant. And my home is surrounded by them.

When our peonies started to bloom!
In full bloom!
My baby next to them.

Prior to the pandemic, one of the things I gifted myself on a weekly basis were flowers. Nothing special, just a thank you to myself for being me. It was a daily ritual for self-care. One that I neglected once the pandemic began. We were all striving to be Covid-free so the last thing on my mind were flowers. Enter this spring. Something about my home being surrounded by flowers keeps me on my knees in thanksgiving to my God. And his gift, the flowers I will forever now treasure as his gift to our home, to my eyes, peonies in full bloom. For the past 3 weeks, all sorts of colorful peonies have been blooming around my home. From deep purple to luscious pink and sterling white, every specie is truly a rare fusion of fluff and majesty. And to think that this stately and dignified flower belongs to me, my family keeps me on my knees in humble adoration to my maker.

Deep pink peonies.
Luscious pink peonies.

I am living out his testimony of trust. Even the young grow weak and tired, he says. But those who trust in the lord, shall truly live out his blessings on earth. Peonies are the sublime manifestation of God’s blessings to me. It never also occurred to me that I could harvest them. For the past 3 weeks I have been watching them that it never occurred to me that I could go a bit further and bring them home, into the house, like the other flowers I buy until this week. This week, my God reminded me that he is God. You say you want blessings, look outside, he said. You are blessed. You can also bring it inside.

This week, for the first time since all my flowers started to bloom, I brought my first flowers inside. Peonies are the first flowers from my garden in my home and they take my breathe away. Another thing, peonies are characterized by their morphology. Some are single with five or more petals with a center called staminodes for stamens that are usually not pollen bearing. Others are semi-double peonies have five or more outer petals and a center with stamens that are pollen-bearing. My garden is full of double peonies. My God is having the last laugh with me. These double peonies with their five or more petals and even central stamen are transformed into petals such that all you see are rows upon rows of petals. A full flower in all sense of the word, whose beauty takes my breathe away. Peonies are as fascinating as they are brilliant to the eyes. Keep them for the blessings they are.

Harvesting my peonies for the first time!

A friend shared this quote yesterday in the middle of a crazy work schedule: “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”― Patanjali

I will share insights from my journey the past month with writing the best grant of my life. I obviously don’t know whether it will ever get funded but it was pure joy writing this one. Reading this quote shared by my friend helped me a lot during the last mile stretch of the grantwriting journey. As if the universe also knew I needed further encouragement, I was taken to the book of Isaiah this morning, chapter 41 verse 10. Not only will God call you, but when he does, he wants you to not be afraid. He is God and nothing will terrify you. He is prepared to make you strong and help you. He is also prepared to protect and save you. He is ultimately the Lord your God and when you live in his purpose for your life, nothing will terrify you. I am not afraid to live in my purpose. The past month solidified it hence why I am keeping this here. Keep living in your purpose and trust God.