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

Here the leaves paint the skies brown, with hints of red still nestled next to all things green. Here all things are possible too, like changing seasons with temperatures unchanging for climate reasons. Either way, I am realizing you are me when I dream. These days I have been dreaming of all things possible, seeing that you can make trees bend, some all the way down, is the courage I use to stand up, bounce back up like trees. Knowing that it will all be worth it in the end, this strong purpose, you continue to teach, and I continue to learn. All I ask is that you keep stretching me beyond things that seem impossible.

So in love with these brisk Fall days.

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.

When I speak of power, I’m speaking not only of the stuff we keep to ourselves, the ones we keep from blowing up, the ones we keep from starving to death. I am speaking of the ones we ought to let go, cut like an umbilical cord, so it has a life on its own. Poetry is power. Poetry is also not a luxury. When we have a vision, it is poetry that fuels that vision, whether we write it, whether we dance it, whether we dream it. It fuels the future. It also fuels our work for the future. Keep poetry.

Audre Lorde

These words above are from Audre Lorde. I have been reading her Cancer Journals and they truly have relevance for how we disseminate evidence based information as poetry. It is keeping me motivated to with the work we are doing with LIGHT. Keep poetry.

The woman who feels everything,

knows the name of her pain,

the source of her gains

and certainly how to carry rain.

To see her too,

like the desert waiting,

or like a flower blooming,

for tomorrow praying,

but today dreaming

knowing what she feels is daring,

but grateful still for this wild blessings.

May I never forget what the moon, the stars and sun know.

From my son’s heart to mine.

The past few days, weeks and months have been full of wild blessings. Full with the knowledge too that that surest failure as Lucille Clifton, once noted, is the unattempted walk. My June and July was full of impossible journeys, one where the news of 2/3 of my attempts at walking, has landed me in space full of blessing that can only be described as wild. I still don’t know the outcomes but I wanted to take the time to thank the one who leads me. When he said that even if I pass through waters he would be with me, I believed him. Not even all the troubles I encountered overwhelmed me. Fire didn’t burn me and trials did not hurt me. It’s for this reason I say thank you for bringing me safe this far. As for tomorrow, I don’t know what it holds but for today, I agree with the moon, the stars and the sun.

Thankful for what the grass and my babies know too!

I have always loved Langston Hughes poem, ‘Dreams.’ They personify my mood these days. My story is one of dreams. I shared that during a presentation yesterday at NYU. I have this presentation where I go from dreams to ambition to dips and rising and back to dreams. It’s my take on the programmatic focus of my research.

How I sustain my work also known as dreaming, being ambitious, experiencing dips and rising through this field called global health.

I live to sustain evidence-based effective research in limited resource settings. It’s an audacious dream, many people describe as vexing or least understood outcome of research. I beg to differ. It isn’t vexing to me. Never has been. I have written multiple grants on it. They failed. The field was not ready then. They still may not be, I said during my presentation yesterday. But I can dream and when I do, I am reminded of the words of Langston Hughes:

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

While we are at it, today I did the unthinkable. I have always dreamed of being a children picture book author, so I pitched a story, inspired by dreams and gazing out to a night full of brilliant, radiant stars. It’s the annual picture book pitch fest on Twitter and I figured I have nothing to lose. I also finished the first completed draft of the most brutal grant I have every written today. Grants, stories, one thing for sure, I am holding on to my dreams.

I sat and listened as trees sighed this afternoon. It’s the end of October and we are still in a spring-time flow. The grass is no longer green but yellow, with a hint of brown. And trees have leaves falling all around, no longer green but crimson red and brown. They call this the fall season. Everything seems to be falling. Trees, leaves, grass, the earth. Everything but me. Call it grace, call it faith. My souls keeps being plucked from its secret place this fall.

We spent the day outside raking leaves with a make-believe stick. I can’t believe it’s almost the end of October and the weather is acting like the start of Spring. Either way, we are together, resting and thanking God for his grace and mercy. Happy Sunday.

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.

Some thoughts remain like shadows, creeping till sane things become insane, even as you retain, all that keeps you sane. These days some thoughts have been persistent, attacking like cancer, as if life has no hope, wanting instead to leave one helpless, as if on a downward slope to all things inferior. These days too, I choose thoughts that leave me breathless, those that keep me restless, as if life can be extraordinary, as if dreams can be revolutionary, like the momentary madness of falling leaves, or the luminary visions of orange trees, and all things superior, all things possible. I am in a place surrounded by falling leaves. Surrounded too by thoughts that keep me falling deep. Something about Fall and leaves, and visions and dreams, keeps thoughts that never leave, like ending cancer now.

The changing colors of leaves every Fall season is a sight worthy of inspiration. They agree with me.

I got some news that helped to crystallize why I do what I do. They say never write grants that keep you so passionate to do extraordinary work. But passion is all I have and these days I am in a space where I only want to do work that keeps me advocating for people. I also know the road ahead is daunting. Cancer is a very tough task to take on. But I’m all in for all things and the moonshot goals to end it as we know it. I am also ready to do the impossible, do things sustainable and equitable so that we prevent unnecessary illness and death. Every Fall season, I am amazed by the changing colors of leaves. They do the impossible in a necessary way and keep me motivated to do so to. I am in a phase where Fall and the changing colors of leaves agree with me. They keep me inspired.

I will not be afraid of no. I will not be afraid of how far it may go. Even if it leads to me screaming no. I will yell it whether or not, time is slow. To say yes is to die. I’m learning each day, why. So I will not be afraid of dead ends, be it loose ends or rear ends. Any ends I meet on this journey to no, I will reprimand, until it dies there. I will not be afraid to be involved, will be brave even if any no remains unresolved. The journey to yes these days may take awhile. I’ll keep walking and smiling meanwhile. Like a wild moon and sun. I’ll keep loving this profile. And all the ways saying no leaves me fertile. Seeing that the rhythm of any drum depends on the beating, whether hard or gentle, odd, or monumental. Saying no these days is life.

Penn State days circa 2010. Days when saying no was expected. Saving this here as a reminder.

Gwendolyn Brooks had a poem entitled ‘do not be afraid to say no.’ I read it and the words above came to my spirit. Keep being unafraid to say no.

A swarm of insects stroll in perfect stride,

one after the other,

all heading somewhere,

any where, no where.

The skies above them,

stretch out like curtains,

something reduces them to nothing,

something leaves them light as dust.

Something in the wind.

Lord, it’s coming for us.

Finding my voice is the best feeling. I’m alert to those coming for it too.

I see dust coming from the sky. A cloud full of dust. Coming towards me. In it, there is an army with no cowards. They surround me, ready to do battle for me. They will destroy all that ails me in a single night. Destroy them so I feel no pain. Only peace and joy and whatever else my heart desires. I heard once to watch out for people in a flow. Watch out and do not stand in the way. Or their flow may consume you, choke you too if you dare try to get in their way.

Yesterday, someone tried and they failed. Yesterday some one tried to empty my brook, forgetting that a cloud surrounds me. Even my grass cannot be withered. I am always green. My feet is planted by a stream of water. And I have patiently waited for this moment. The time to rise up on wings is here. I rise too, like a eagle. I leave heads spinning and trembling with fear. Some of them saying who is this woman? Who is she with all this shelter from storms?

Tell them, I come from a people rooted like a tree. Tell them, a people with rich harvest and livestocks with plenty of pasture. Tell them they are like birds, hovering over their nests. Tell them only water flows from our sides. Tell them streams of water flow from all the mountains and hills that surround us. Tell them we are like flowers that bloom in the wilderness. Tell them we are strong and never afraid. Tell them how our moons are as bright as the sun and our sun brighter than usual, seven times brighter. Tell them a cloud of dust surrounds us, and in it, our people are prepared always for battle. Tell them we are legions.

As strong as the woman/girl/legacy next to me!

If we must survive. If we must do it with our head held up, and our feet planted firmly to the ground, then we must never forget what happened. We must never forget how it made us feel too when it was happening. Achebe once noted that there is danger not in remembering but in forgetting. I am in a phase of my life, where forgetting is not an option. Not when we still have chapters to write. What all this reminds me is that I cannot write all my story in one chapter, one book too. I do not see the story as one story, but a group of stories, like a pile of things to keep, all of them, the sum total, a definition of me. I get that many still tend to see me as a doctoral student. Some even think I am just a mother who somehow works in an academic settings. Of course if you look at all doctoral students, all of them, like me, are alike. I have a never ending desire to write. Treat every subject too like one long dissertation. Still, in reality, it’s been 11 years since my doctoral experience. My journey is beyond that of a student, never mind my age or posture in life. Women like me in academia, often do not reflect on our day to day happenings. Or we may do so, behind closed doors and with plenty of resentment. Not me. I refuse to let silence choke me these days.

I choose instead to offer a glimpse of my life experiences, to use this medium too, to open up all that keeps me going, all that ails me too. I have been in conversations for example with a doctoral student, who went as far as to question my work with storytelling and health, as if she alone had monopoly on using stories for healing. I have also been in a meeting, where I was told to partner with a doctoral student to accomplish my goals. The price a woman, black like me, must be prepared to pay in academia, is submission to all these forms of questioning. I will yield to their ways in so far as I never forget my own. Never forget to fashion out an experience, my own, my way, whether with help or none at all. These days, I choose no help. Not because I don’t value or appreciate help, but because I know what drives me.

I am also looking for an animal whose blood can match the power of my offering. And what I offer, all the things I offer to anyone prepared to let me flow, is truly beyond me. And I have no choice. I have been given a gift and I intend to use it with it or without help. I hope though that there will always be people, prepared to help, always be people unafraid of how the water spreads on the floor, like ant, filling up the floor. There is still much work ahead, still so many lives to save, and my only request is that academia becomes prepared to carry the weight of my story. It will be told one day, my way, in full communion with all the legions that got me this far.