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.
I am drawn to duality. The prolific Igbo author Chinua Achebe once described its importance in this way ‘where something stands something else will stand beside it. Nothing is absolute.’ Seeking a second point of view is essential for life. The intricate and deep structures that inform us are rarely examined when you take a first look. But when you examine anything closely, when you give it a second glance, a second read, a second look, it’s true meaning will be illuminated. It for this reasons I am forever drawn to nature. Every plant we encounter is full of dualities. They produce multiple meanings when you take a closer look, a closer smell, a closer feel. There are no permanent answers with any plant too. No permanent questions. No permanent solutions as everything is subject to change quite literally, season after season. It’s for this reason that I ask that you keep fragrant plantain lilies in mind. They are prime examples.
Not only are they a thing of beauty, but their apple green leaves with creamy white edges personifies the world duality for me. On one hand these plants are just that, plants like many you will see now during the Spring season. These fragrant plantain lilies are scattered all over the front of my house now. The prior owners of our home took gardening to another level. I remain grateful as I am clueless when it comes to plants. But this fragrant plantain lily is one to watch. I was hooked from the name personally as I absolutely adore edible plantains. To know this word as lilies and in my garden makes me smile. In terms of make up, it is also an ornamental plant whose plants deliver fragrance when they bloom sometime in July or August. Apparently come July, these plants will begin to display huge white trumpets that are essentially lilies with a sweet fragrance. Their Japanese name is ‘Yu-Lei’ which means white fairy. For now, even looking at the plants brings a smile to my face. But it’s duality as both plants and flowers is what I choose to keep as it bears many semblance to my dual roles as a mother and a professor.
On one hand my days are full of diapers and tears. These days erupting tooth and growing pains of transitions from infants are the norm. That and the gift of watching my son transition from crawling to walking. This duality makes me smile as he keeps making great strides everyday with perfecting the art of walking as with this video below.
By day and night I am also a researcher, one passionate about research that lasts. It’s why I remain drawn to writing grants as it helps me address one fundamental reason why research never lasts and it’s the lack for funds. But what if we have funds and then draft our research in ways that ensure that they remain. Another duality, subtle but there when you begin with the end in mind even for research grants or interventions you carry out. I adore this new focus on duality. One that I am grateful to plants like fragrant plantain lilies for teaching me this Spring season. Keep them in mind as well babies crawling and walking and mothers working as researchers.
I am compelled to write. Not often for myself, but for others. The mistakes I have made with life in academia, life as a mother, can be avoided. The lessons I have learned as a black woman in academia, a black mother, including mothering a child society labels as not being neurotypical, can be shared. For what is typical anymore? That a child would rather paint in pictures than regurgitate the same mundane lesson plans over and over. That a woman, myself, can have children and still be in academia. That I can love my job, love that it helps me interact with students, love that it forces me to keep learning, love that it enables me to continue to question the questions. The roads we all must take through life are ours to take. My journey has not been smooth. But it’s mine. And so I am compelled to write about it so you know that I am human. With flaws and imperfections, hopes and impediments. I am also a storyteller. My vehicle through life was never really about the spaces I occupy, but the stories I tell. I am learning that now. It has taken a pandemic for me to wake up to my potentials. It has taken a pandemic for me to wake up and start telling the stories that matter. Our best weapon for future pandemics is not to marshall facts but stories. Stories can be our hope and strength. A very present help for future pandemics, without which we are blind.
So I am compelled now, in this phase of my life, to write stories so we never forget people like Jazz Dixon, the first person to die from COVID in Saint Louis City where I live. She was only 31 years old and loved to bake. I am compelled to write about Jacob Plange-Rhule, my mentor and principal investigator on our ongoing research in Ghana. Covid may have robbed us of his gentle warm smile, but I am compelled to write so we never forget him. I am compelled to write about the times we forgot, 1918 to be precise. I am compelled to write about this picture below of a man and his two children. By the time Red Cross stopped by his home with food, their mother had just died. They lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. I am compelled to write about them because our history books did not even think to include their names.
I am compelled to write because we have been here before with pandemics and the shockingly sparse data on what black populations did to mobile resources, to engage in activism, to survive the pandemic. I am compelled write because unlike today, we knew back then that masks worked, social distancing too. I am compelled to write about what went wrong then with the pandemic we find ourselves in. I am compelled to write because over 500,000 deaths in the US alone, over 2 million globally, demand that we never forget that they lived. For them, I am compelled to write so we never fall into amnesia, another forgotten pandemic, another forgotten experience of racism, or inequities and their contributions to pandemics or silence, or survival with being black and female in academia. I am compelled to write so we never forget. Keep writing.
I call myself a grant writer. It’s written all over my professional bio. It has also given me two essentials truth to living: humility and humanity. By humility, I think of grantwriting as a journey into becoming fearless with failing. If today’s questions like how might we end a global pandemic or persistent public health issues with equally devastating disparities is burrow deeply in your mind, then a viable alternative is how can we become the vehicles through which we bring change. And in the course of change, how do we become fearless with failure. Grant writers have a monumental responsibility to bring healing , while also becoming prepared to fail. Many say there is an art to grant writing. I agree. But almost all roads lead to one or two or in my case more than 24 unfunded grants.
Yet still, I have learnt to value each failure as they occur. It’s the deep sighting necessary for the journey to becoming a grant writer, one where humility is key. I am not afraid to fail. I realize that the ideas I have may be ambitious, but I am willing to tell the story again. In fact I am compelled to write a new version of the story because humanity desperately needs ideas that last. By humanity, I think of grantwriting as a journey in service of others. If I am lucky, to create programs that last, lucky to tell the story of why sustainability matters, lucky to give the best of my ideas to the world, lucky to bring healing to people, many I may never meet, then I will forever be committed to ensuring that they attain their highest rights to health. Grant writing cuts in both directions for me, one that I will always remain patient as my story continues to unfold. Do I have all the answers? No. But humanity deserves those that committed to telling the story for however long it takes. I am prepared for the journey.
Perhaps the greatest gift grant writing has given to me is a never ending desire to learn. I am always in awe of the depth of learning that occurs with each grant I write. I come out of the process with each grant, changed even though the journey was emotional. I trust the tensions they allow, something I recently learnt as part of altMBA. The failures are uncomfortable and can be disheartening given all the agony and effort that goes into a grant. But it’s journey of going again, writing another grant, learning once more why this story matters, for whom and how it will unfold, whether I succeed or fail, that keeps me alert. The serenity I get once the story starts to unfold cannot be fully put to words. And it’s the mystery of that story, the way it would be framed, with nothing to hide, that makes this process a joyful one for me. The true destination of grants and their writing of them is life. I live my best life whenever I write new grants. They have changed my life and continue to transform it into higher possibilities.
I’m on the journey again with humility and humanity as my guide. I am preparing to also take wings and soar with this one. It really feels good, the writing of it. I have spent over a month many sense of one page, the most critical aims page, something I call a purple cow. I have draft version one. My colleagues pushed me. I drafted version 2 and shared with them yesterday. They will review on Monday. What they don’t know is yet is that I’m on version 3. I already see the problems with version 2 that they haven’t even reviewed and I have moved on. The journey continues to unfold. I woke up this morning ready to blog hear but the story for the grant kept haunting me. So I spent my morning trying to make sense of my Why for this grant. I almost missed church but I get it know. I can see things clearly now. Hence version 3. Will I fail? Yes. But I also realize these days that each grant chooses me so that I can serve humanity even if I fail. I have been chosen for the journey. I am prepared to move in whatever direction it takes. I am also keeping this one here because I can’t wait to share how grants continue to help me rewrite my life story. Until then, keep humility and humanity with grantwriting.
Perpetually mysterious, weird, and profound is motherhood to me. As a mother to four children, there are times when I feel like I know what I am doing. Times when I say stop, they actually listen and stop. Times when I try again, and it falls on deaf ears. That the role is constantly defined and undefined is part of the mystery. Nothing ever seems as it should. One minute a child might be crying for his drums or music instrument that you took away from him. The next minute he is perfectly serene playing with a party hat for example, while the drum and music instrument he just cried profusely for, sits quietly next to him. It’s this mystery that I want to keep like a third eye. Not to resolve it, but to stay vigilant to its gifts, to unravel its ways. It’s weirdness too is freedom especially when transformed to higher realities. For what is motherhood without an awakening of its many weird ways, an awakening of its wonder, even an awakening to the tyranny of descriptions that has plagued for centuries what it truly means to be good or bad. Like a third eye now, being a mother is forever mysterious, forever changing too, forever patient, forever being misunderstood, but forever full of possibilities.
Even in the middle of chaos, the patience through which we make sense of the chaos cannot be completely unraveled. What keeps this aspect of our lives interesting is that some of us, myself included, expect the chaos, as weird as it may seem. We widen out due to it, like a ripple in a river. We even learn to thrive with noise in the background. And the noise of a crying toddler can be huge. Life changing even when they attempt to cry and talk at the same time. But because life as a mother is fluid, I have no choice but to expect chaos whether from a 3 year old whose only recourse is to cry when things seem impossible or from a new baby whose happy place is to be tucked in your arms for all eternity. How then are we expected to work? Yet we do and do it to the best of our abilities. This is why the mystery of this phase continues to slowly occupy my reality. Slowly keep me vigilant to all its possibilities, it’s richness, it’s fullness, even what lies hidden, between, underneath, along the margins of life as a mother and life as an academic researcher.
I can be in the middle of a crazy crying spell that may last for one hour, trying to appease or please, or trying to be stern and unyielding. By the next hour, I am writing a near stellar specific aims page for a new grant. I maybe making plans for movie night, even spending an hour and 30 minutes watching Lorax for example with my children. The next hour, I am reviewing grants, exceptionally beautiful ones, for example, from impressive scholars focused on using geospatial science and machine learning to construct predictive models for disease outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa. This mystery, it’s possibilities, it’s richness and hidden dimensions are profound to me.
Enter, freedom. One thing that keeps this mystery going these days is freedom, both with my imaginations and my dreams and this blog full of what to keep. I am free to go anywhere and everywhere, and keep anything from my experience because of my children. They help set in motion my time for example, its limits and abundance. For when there is silence, time is abundant and I am free to do as I please. They also help frame my destiny. All the spectrum of chaos I encounter with them, helps me set in motion what matters, including how I hope to shape the world for them. For it is always about them, whether from the beginning or in the end. They are the touchbears of my legacy. The ones to tell the stories of who I was to the next generations and beyond. The ones to sustain the stories of my silence, my survival. And for that story to thrive, for the next generation to hear of it’s beginning, it’s resolution, it’s connections, it’s essence and become defined or not defined by it, keeps me alert.
The continents inside of mothers, the possibilities that resonate, even the chaos that abound along the endless journeys we take remains a weird mystery to me. Though we may have fixed perceptions of what this experience entails, even my life story is more mysterious to me with each passing day. My goal with each keep is to widen this mystery and embrace its weirdness. Not so you understand it as it can never be fully understood like with multiplications or divisions. Though many have outlined what they know in their heart motherhood entails, and I have no doubt that many resonate to their ideas. My goal with this keeplist is to push the boundary a bit more. To redraw the outlines, to probe a bit, or create tensions, all along the spectrum of weird. For isn’t this mystery with motherhood weird afterall, especially for us working mothers. That there might be good aspects to being weird mothers who work or even negative ones along a spectrum, is compelling to me. The steps I take along this journey, with all its mysterious weird ways, is freedom to me. So keep this mysterious and weird journey of working mothers in mind.
Marsh wrens are little songbirds that build multiple nests in their territories. Often described as dummy nests, males build these nests for three reasons. First as a courting center, male wrens use dummy nests to attract, sing and display their male fitness to females. And it’s a battle for desirable sites, desirable mates. For to attract a prospective mate requires displaying nests that not only impress, but also remove other males from their territories. Second as a decoy, dummy nests are used to confuse predators, thereby reducing predation around breeding nests. So the more dummy nests around 1 active breeding nest, the greater the odds that a predator would find an empty nest and leave the area before discovering the breeding nest. Third, as a cover or site for survival, dummy nests are used to shelter new nestlings. Court, confuse, cover, these three C’s, perfectly illustrate how I have silently survived mothering and work during this pandemic of a lifetime.
As a mom to three children under the age of 8, I did my best to become friends with the complexities of homeschooling. A desirable harmony with homeschooling was the goal when school began in the Fall. The Spring version of homeschooling at the start of the pandemic was a disaster. I wanted joy in the Fall. So, we began for example with a family newsletter to chronicle our daily experiences through homeschooling. We took pictures, shared little stories, even encouraged ourselves to love school now effectively at home. It lasted for six weeks. Homeschooling was at times harsh, was at times vigorous, at times rattling and at times weary and I did my best to court it fully even with joy in mind.
As if that wasn’t enough, the pandemic ushered in a new age of confusion alongside the madness of reality. In fact, we’re were all mad. We learnt to smile with our eyes and laugh with our mouths all invisible due to mask wearing. We learnt to accept and cringe with school at home and home at school. Even with assignments from homeschooling that required our children to imagine animals were mask, a bee for example wearing a mask. Like, I said, madness became a new normal. That and hiding. We learnt to hide in bathrooms for work, hide in closets for sleep, hide in cars to free ourselves from the chaos of running, energetic children during the day and night, in the morning or in the evening. They were everywhere hence the age of confusion for mothers like myself. All that work life balance we said we had, with home helping to strike the balance became a lie. In fact, as a global health researcher, there was no balance not with work or with my life as a mother to three children and a new infant, born at the height of the pandemic.
Yet through it all, the pandemic became the cover I never knew I needed for my survival. Not only did it awaken my eyes to the multiple dimensions of my life, it also helped me realize how much for example, I love to ask questions too. Questions that keep me alert to my potential. Questions that continue to awaken a desire for more. The sense of unfinished questions, unfinished goals, unfinished ideas, became a cover during the pandemic and it kept me motivated. I also taught my children the significance of their own questions, and how it can usher a confidence about yourself or what you are grateful for as with the drawings from my daughter below.
In the past few months, I not only courted the pandemic, but I watched as it ushered an age of confusion with my role as an academic scholar and a mother. Ultimately, the pandemic became a cover or a shelter for survival and self-discovery. One that provided the time necessary to discover what I am called to do in this world. That I long to make explicit our stories, long to shed light on the unthinkable, long to disassemble every myth, and long to recognize the brilliance of Black women who mother and work moves me enormously.
The time also has come to turn light on all the unexpected corners we court in life, all the spaces that confuse, and all the things that act as covers so we soar. My world as a Black woman scholar with four your children is vastly different from how other people see me. I know this fully well. And by courting the pandemic, allowing its confusion to wet my soul, while also basking in its cover, I know my way forward. Keep marsh wrens and their 3 c’s in mind and court, confuse, cover your life story.
Are grey wolves really grey? Do they have sharp eyes? What do grey wolves eat? For science, these questions were asked by my daughter as part of her designing a habitat assignment. At first glance, I smiled. My daughter is beginning to know the possibilities of questions. Not for their answers alone. That would be too easy. But for their value, their purpose, their overwhelming significance. This is what lies in the margins for me as a mother and a grant writer. I am drawn to questions, never ending ones too, even from my children. They always open doors for me.
Towards the end of last year, I began to focus on my journey through questions. It’s has helped me make a career in public health. Not for answers too. Otherwise there would no focus on the public’s health. But for their critical importance. Questions, I shared, are all I know these days. It’s also the reason I am drawn to grantwriting. Whether successful or not, ambitious or not, every grant I write, is my attempt at making public health more lasting, more meaningful, more crucial, more rooted in the lived experiences of humanity. We need questions. Not for their answers alone. I understand that we have all been trained to have an answer for every single question we asked. I too value the question-answer format. But what if, our questions only lead to more questions and more questions then lead to more questions with those questions still leading to more questions and you get the drift. What if we are surrounded by endless questions, never ending ones too? Would we then maybe get the valuable solutions the public needs? Not solutions were the spotlight is on us. Not solutions that only boost our career. Also not because we were focused on solutions in the first place, but because the questions led to more questions and maybe solutions but that was never the intent. We were drawn first to the questions being asked.
Are grey wolves really grey? My daughter wants to know. Not because you may give her an answer. That would be too easy? But what if she went on to ask as she did, whether grey wolves have sharp eyes or what do they even eat? The world of never ending questions would add: where do grey wolves even come from and are all of them grey? Those sharp eyes, do you think they are sharp because of their grey color? And when they eat, do they only eat other animals? We could keep going and going and going even including why questions that help to make full sense of the ecology of grey wolves. That to me is the true significance of questions, the ones that never end. There is something very special about fostering the possibilities of endless questions in children my daughter’s age. Not for them to think only about the answers. But to help them make connections with their learning, with their lives. It’s a journey after all. An effortless one, where they will never miss their way, if only we share and tell them about the possibilities and value of endless questions. Watching my daughter go on her path is important and to see her own it, is equally satisfying. Keep questions still with children. Not for the answers. That would be too easy. But for them to value and prepare for the journey ahead.
One of my favorite pictures from homeschooling last year is of my daughter and her brother walking together. My daughter, the artist, describes it as walking their own way, like when we go for walks along Forest Park. I especially love the picture because I see myself in my children, walking my own path, even on this daily blog on parenting and academic productivity. It isn’t ‘or’ for me, but ‘and’. My productivity in academia is very much tied to my role as a mother. And following my path with asking and listening to good questions, make the connection sterling.
In the past 15 years I have known my mentor Dr Collins Airhihenbuwa, he has always shared the importance of not only asking good questions but actually questioning the questions asked. To him, we all need to learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable especially when asking tough questions. I started grant writing and studying the sustainability of evidence based research, because, like a true mentee, I wanted to become comfortable asking uncomfortable good questions. Like, why, after decades of spending millions on research in resource limited settings, after decades of collecting data, even decades of collaboration with key stakeholders, do most evidence-based interventions, particularly does deemed effective never, ever last? We the researchers collect our data, publish our findings in the most prestigious journals, present our findings in top conferences, maybe even return to present it to key stakeholders and then we move on to the next problem, the next grant even, maybe on the same topic, but with another group of unsuspecting community eager for our expertise without understanding the cost.
Personally, and if there is anything that I have learnt from the pandemic, the time has come for such research to end. Of course we may never be able to solve every problem, of course we may not have the courage to ask the uncomfortable but good questions necessary, of course when we even ask them, we may fail, but I am committed to following my own path to ask them anyway. I am interested in implementing sustainable evidence based research because they are rare, because the communities I work with deserve them, the participants themselves desperately need them and because it is time we actually plan from the beginning for them. Planing for sustainable research is necessary if lasting is going to be more than just technical, more than another data collection exercise. Do I have the answer on how to implement them? The truth is, that is the beauty of following your path. When you look at the possibilities or even the opportunities we have squandered when we don’t think about sustainability, when we don’t put ourselves in the shoes of those we serve, then it should not come as a surprise why we are still in the middle of this pandemic.
I understand the work ahead. I am prepared to try and even fail on this journey. And it’s my path. Every researcher, every research, every good question asked in the service of people, especially in settings constrained with resources, should have an obligation to last. And when you know that she who ask these questions, however difficult or even different they maybe, however uncomfortable they may be perceived, never misses their way, then why not ask them. Keep following your path.
I have been thinking lately about good questions. What are they and why do we need to nurture and teach good questioning skills? By day, I am a global health researcher passionate and committed to asking questions, enduring ones focused on creating sustainable health interventions. I often begin with a grant. For to conduct research in a setting already limited with resources, access to funding is crucial. So to are questions, not just any questions, but good ones that lead to funding.
Good questions have helped to test the limits of my grant writing abilities. They pushed me to try everything, all the way, until I get the outcome I want, including the grants that allow me to address pressing public health issues. And when you find a good question to ask, questions that are enduring, it just so tremendous. And so I do feel a responsibility to ask these good questions. I have always felt and continue to feel that no one is really asking those tough but good questions. I remember after collecting my data for my dissertation on child malaria diagnosis, I told my participants, some mothers of children under 5, that my research has ended. Some asked why? It’s not like their child’s malaria has ended. They were right.
I am aware of the fact that it was rare and still rare to ask good questions overtime. Aware that though some may state they are interested in asking these questions, such as how might they last, they are never really prepared to go the distance. So I assumed two things: 1) good questions focused on lasting, focused on sustaining my global health work matters; and 2) if I ask these good questions, if I continue to hone in on what they entail, planning for it from the beginning, with the right people, learning what it takes, adapting where necessary but nurturing the questions overtime, then it will become universal. Good questions focused on lasting will become the norm.
I am hoping to train the next generation of scholars committed from the beginning to plan to ask good questions. My goal is to help them become prepared to roar if they choose to, with asking more enduring lasting questions. I call this PLAN or how people learn to adapt or nurture whatever good questions they may have. I finally wrote a research paper on it that I intend to submit this year. My goal with the paper is to a start the dialogue necessary to train a generation of scholars committed to making the necessary plan to become enduring questionologists.
The choice in the end is always up to us. We may choose to ask the typical questions that allow us to get by for the next 1-5 years, or we may go the distance and plan to become comfortable even with questioning the questions asked. When your goal is to remain, when your mission is to last, then asking all sorts of good questions becomes a necessity. We all have the power to think long and deep about how our questions can and should be good. We should all be willing to explore limits of the questions we ask for as long as the issues remain. For to be good, to hone in and polish the questions, to a gleaming finish is illuminating, exceptionally powerful to me. Keep asking good questions. Plan for them too as the world desperately needs them.
Yesterday, my husband, a frontline healthcare worker got his covid19 vaccination. I was elated, emotional and happy for him and all healthcare workers who risked their lives throughout the pandemic to save lives often at the expense of their own life.
Just this fall, on two separate occasions, we had to go into quarantine due to my husband’s exposure to covid19. Every experience was debilitating as it was also occurring in the middle of homeschooling, in the middle of me teaching a class this fall, and yes in the middle of my maternity leave. Seeing him receive his shot was emotional and hopeful. Hopeful because we can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s still a long way to go, wearing masks of course, but the light is there. Hopeful, because although more than 300,000 lives paid the ultimate sacrifice, for them, and because of them, we get to live. Hopeful, because as family members of frontline health workers, we can begin to breathe easy now and not be afraid of another experience of exposure, even another bout of testing and waiting for result. The wait were so unbearable. Hopeful because this is science at it’s best. We are at our best when we work hard together and for that I am thankful to all those who worked tirelessly to bring these vaccines to life. I am also hopeful for a post pandemic future. But we have so much work to do if we are going to get to the bottom of why covid19 happened in the first place. I am hopeful for more beautiful questions that are sustainable and focused on predicting and preventing the next pandemics or even addressing all the systemic issues that were neglected during this pandemic, issues such as equity, and access, racism, identity, and poverty. For now, I’ll keep hope, even with this pandemic.