I long to be word’s happiness in places, where happiness is instant. I long to feel word’s peace in places where peace is instant. I long to embrace word’s beauty in places were beauty is instant. I long to know word’s change in places where change is instant. Happiness, peace, beauty, change, all flow easily, when words are buried deeply in your soul.
I have been writing and deleting the start of an imaginary book yet unwritten. As if afraid to walk into my moonlight. Yet, fear is the last thing on my mind. So I keep writing. I call it ‘Black Mom Light.’ A coming-of age memoir for rising as a black mom from darkness to light. An anti-racist memoir on being a black mother in today’s America. I also call it ‘Brown Mom Listing.’ The second name is from Jacqueline Woodson ephemeral memoir in verse, ‘Brown Girl Dreaming.’ If her memoir were full of poems that were profound and moving, mine, are full of lists, a keep list, equally profound and captivating. I am obsessed with the style of her book that it inspired name number 2. I imagine my keeplists, what you read here every day as listing or the act of putting words, or stories into lists to keep. I also envision them as being focused on what truly matters and keeping that for myself, for yourself, for my people, for your people, for humanity. These lists span my days like a wide bridge, wild butterflies too, forever ready to spread their wings and fly, forever ready to move to new heights, to new places, so many wonders to see, in the words of my daughter, my forever muse.
The thought of what to keep, what to list each given day is a treasure for each passing day. They give me strength for days when none is left. They help me attend to other things too, like my other obsession, grant writing. Every lists carries my heart and my thoughts to somewhere. Maybe flowers. They are also my forever muse , forever brilliant, forever of use. Maybe trees. I have no names for all I see, but they too help me attend to all I need to do. Tall luscious trees and their graceful abundance are bound to make you dance as the make me dance. Maybe my children. My forever muse. Not a day goes by without being caught in their spell, their wants, their blissful gifts, that lift to new abyss. But hidden at the root of all I choose to keep is a desire for legacy, for light, for rising above what society says we should or must do as parents, as professors, as people. Yet for every thing I keep, there are some I still don’t share here. Some written even at the same time. Like the one written right before I shared this one. Those ones are part of what I describe as my extraordinary lists. We are all extraordinary people in the end. No one else exists as me, with thoughts like mine. I would rather I live life in extraordinary ways than ways destined to be ordinary. I wasn’t made of ordinary. So this list is my attempt at that. One keep at a time. The destination remains unknown. We are moving beyond the rigidness of your vision. If this is our first meeting. Welcome. The vision for this keeplist is extraordinary. Every list is in place of the vision society may have for women like me. A keep of sorts, of conversations we are not having, of refusals to be silent. This woman maybe black or brown. But her voice is shrouded in light and with each day, she walks out into moonlight to touch her power.
The words rise up. I note them. They come on their own, with their own nodes, own goals, that unfold one note at a time. They come with their own meaning everytime. I am obedient to the sounds that flow, the insights that grow, within minds long in need to ignite, in need of light. I am light. Like a tree that grows higher, and higher, branching out in different directions, like thick branches with lush green leaves full of water. I am green. I sit, listen, and let the words sway like trees on a windy day after hurricanes that stroke with water-like canes. Still these tree rise up and grow. For where trees grow, water flows. I am water. So to are my words. I have been discovering for the past year that where words flow, stories flow. I am stories. For one year, the stories in my mind, in spaces and boxes I once carved as private, have been flowing like a river. I am a river. A naturally flowing river, in search of an ocean, or a sea, a lake or another river. I have arrived at my destination. Words are my water, collected now in a river that flowed through a complex meandering path I called keep lists. There were no short paths. Every thing that mattered were loosened and dislodged like the rocks along the sides of river beds. I became loose with words that deepened my riverbed, eroded my hard phases, and elevated my soft places, all with grace. I am grace. An amazing grace, once blind but now open to all the spaces that make me whole. I poured myself into this space, poured my soul to the possibilities of this phase, of writing something to keep, words to keep, in a list to mold and shape as my own, in a list to own. And through this list, my words became fast-flowing. A source of energy, of life. I became soaked in the opportunities and form of each word, each list of things to keep. I am a list.
I have been reading a lot lately about lists, about why people use them in the first place. Most people write lists, to-do lists for example, to stay organized. Some write lists to stay in control, ticking things off when completed or moving things around to track completion. The first time I saved a list was in the middle of the pandemic. There were nothing to do with my lists. Nothing to track or even complete. My lists were focused on what to keep. A keep lists of experiences. The only objective: to write one list a day. The list was expected to make sense of life as a mother, a black working mother in academia with four children, one born in the fifth month of the pandemic. There were no organization necessary. No length was too long. Or to short. Everything was allowed in the lists. My thoughts, the news, my work, my family. Writing long lists was gratifying. So too were short ones that cut right to core. But lists about meaningfully people in my life, like my children, my students, my mentors, even the experiences of my husband on the frontlines or the last days with my sister in-law and her battle with cervical cancer were extra fulfilling. The pandemic and it’s impact were intense for all families. It was also equally frustrating, equally challenging, yet equally mesmerizing, and equally joyful. Not for the illness it brought or the deaths or sorrow it left behind, but for the discoveries, unexpected ones, like making a list, a virtual keeplists of time in a pandemic. There were no end in sight too. The pandemic held us all in a tight grip. And so the list grew and moved beyond the pandemic itself to capture life as we lived it one day at a time, all to preserve and protect all that mattered in a time where living was truly fragile.
Today marks the one year anniversary of this list. Words still do not fail me. They have become my everything, my hope, my joy, my hurdles, but yet my triumphs. I thank all of you that have read anything I wrote here. I thank you for coming on this journey with me. There is still no end in sight. Only that where my words still flow, my stories will surely flow.
I asked myself today, a question most mothers ask themselves everyday. How the hell do you do this? Today was the first time in close to three weeks I had a day to myself. Not an entire day, more like four hours for me. I have been running a nonstop marathon even with kids in school. A little after they all went back to school in mid August, they all became sick, one after the other. We thought it was Covid, took a test and it wasn’t. Just a nasty viral bug that meant sleepless nights and restless days. It all finally cleared up over the weekend and today, even my one year old went back to daycare. Just as I left his daycare, I took a deep breath and asked myself those seven letter words, that many mothers ponder everyday. My eyes immediately greeted Dahlia’s planted outside the daycare. A symbol of best wishes. It was as if it wanted to offer some to me. To wish me well at this moment I called my own. How does it swirl in this way I asked, with finely carved petals, that hang together neatly, as if painted by hand. I stopped and stared at them for a brief moment, took in the air and said a little thank you. How the hell do I do it? By his grace. His sheer grace. I am nothing on my own. I shudder to think that I can go through life on my own. We are not meant to do this thing called life alone. That’s how I do it. By his grace and it’s truly sufficient for me.
In the art of possibilities, the Zanders shared Rule #6. It’s about how two leaders where sitting in privacy, discussing affairs of state. One of the leaders, whom I’ll refer to here as leader 1, had a staff who bursts into the meeting with fury, shouting and banging fists on a desk to which leader 1 admonishes him and says ‘remember rule #6.’ The staff apologies and withdraws from the room. Shortly after this, another staff to bursts hysterically, gesticulating wildly to which the leader again states ‘remember rule #6.’ The same scene happened again and leader 1 reminds them again about the rule. After a moment leader 2 finally asks, but what is rule number 6. Leader 1 replies ‘Don’t take yourself so goddamm serious.’ The intent of the rule is to ‘lighten up’ or at least help those around you to do the same. When we do so, our central selves shine, or the part of ourselves that remarkably generative, prolific, even creative.
The mere act of putting this keeplists together, writing one keep at a time, being open to words as they flow, is to live out Rule #6, to move to an endless goal, where anything is possible, one keep at a time. It has also helped me resolve this tension I have always felt since I moved deeply into the realm of academia. Looking back, I was that child that wanted to write for a living, to do so creatively, and with words strung together like poetry, even narratives. A narrative poem. One of the first narrative poem I wrote was in college. I remember this distinctively as my teenage brain was in love or so I thought. The pain of heartbreak, drove me to find comfort in words that I wrote a narrative poem about that experience using Proverbs 20:30 as a guide. It was beautiful. I signed up to read it at an open mic event at Penn State at the time and flaked out in the end. I didn’t have the guts. That decision meant that I dropped the pen and focused on what my people sent me to school to do. I remember telling myself that if I couldn’t read how pain helped me to turn my life around to a crowd of strangers, then maybe I do not have what it takes to excel in this space.
I moved on to spaces that I could quantify, and buried my soul deeply into science and research. It paid off. I have done all I can with my field of public health. If I never get another grant, I will be fine. The story of how I got the biggest grant of my life from now where can be told over and over again, until I retire even. It never gets old. Then a pandemic of a lifetime hits and I realize something was truly missing. Out of know where, we created this blog and started to write. Rule #6 restarted my writing life. My calculating self may have chosen public health research, even made a great career out of it. But my central self without any agenda, may have saved my life, emerging day by day, one keeplist at a time, in the middle of a pandemic of a lifetime. As we round the corner, I ask you all to keep remembering Rule #6 and lighten up in whatever spaces or phases you find yourself. It just may save your life.
They call it an eloquent flower. A flower full of eloquence. Poems have been written about it. One by Cummings who described it as love, and how it’s love moves with brightness to all places. We noticed it on a walk this week with by baby. I rarely go for walks these days, but something about the group of people I have been interacting with all week, made me seek air and the sun and light. I see a lot better when I walk. I also reflect better and say prayers of thanksgiving during long walks. I owed my maker one, hence the walk to just reflect on the journey so far, the insights so far and all the people I have met along the way so far. It shouldn’t be this easy, I kept saying. It shouldn’t be that we tell the stories of our why over and over again, almost to infinity and everyone we speak to gets it over and over again. So a walk was due. I need to check my blind spots, to stay humble, to listen and see the world once more for there are truly so many wonders to see, on long walks. Infinity stories being on my mind.
For this walk, our eyes were greeted by Crepe Myrtles. Their bright pink colors were hard to miss. They stood out amidst a row of green short and tall shrubs. I initially ignored them at first and kept walking. It has been a while since I walked and so I was focused. But the colors kept greeting my eyes, as if to say hello. Finally, I gave in and greeted the flower back. I smelt it as always and opened my app to learn a bit more. I have shared in prior posts how I have lived blindly through life not knowing one flower from the next. But since I started to walk in light, all sorts of flowers have become my friends. Crepe Myrtle is about to be my best friend.
Not only are it’s beautiful lush flowers appealing, but per my app, this flower is a symbol of eloquence, good luck too. I was in awe and grew closer to see why. In full bloom, it’s flower petals appear wrinkled but full of rich texture that produce brilliant crumbling spiral patterns. These spirals gather together like a crepe, hence the name Crepe Myrtle. But eloquence don’t stop with the flowers alone. Soon, the flowers will fall and it’s leaves will turn glorious gold, orange, red and purple in fall before falling off. Then, it’s bark completes this flower’s trifecta. The bark on many Crepe Myrtle peels in puzzle patterns to reveal smooth cinnamon or tan colors that glow during winter. All of this combined, helps to symbolize Crepe Myrtle’s eloquence. They also help to tell my never ending keeplist of stories of becoming a mom in light. An infinity story in the making.
On the surface, everything seems fine. A family that I am blessed to call my own for all the love, support and gifts of belonging they provide to me. A job that I am grateful to carve as I want, grateful for when things stay and last or fall off as with passing of time or even failed grant attempts. But when you peel my surface, when you come with me and feel my journey, even peel all my outer layers, then you will understand what rounds my trifecta. I am just coming to terms with it. I am a storyteller in all sense of the word. It’s where I get my eloquence, my reason for being, my persistence, my tenacity, my love, even my drive with life. Every single thing I do has a story connected to it.
Being a mother for example, one of my greatest stories ever told, one some of you may read here on a daily basis. The stories around how me and my greatest joy, my Zobam met and continue to journey through this life keeps me on my knees with gratitude to my maker. He truly saved me. Then there are the stories for how I have navigated pursuing a career in research. To think you can go to school to become a researcher seems unheard of but that’s how I earned my degree at the end for the day. I was literally trained to become a researcher from undergrad even, not in grad school. I owe it to Dr. Cassandra Veney, my very first mentor in undergrad who inspired me to probe deeply too during my days as a McNair scholar. Then of course there their stories from grad schools. Trip to Senegal all paid for by my department, just to get to Senegal and I don’t have a hotel room and I barely spoke French or Wolof. Yet, this trip would forever change me life and inspire me to be a a global health researcher passionate about seeing the world and working with people whether I spoke their language or not.
Then there are the malaria dissertation stories. Even the process of writing my first NIH grant to do this work under the guidance of my doctoral advisor Dr Collins Airhihenbuwa has a story worthy of praises for how he pushed me to become enamored by grantwriting. How I got my first job in Paris at UNESCO following graduation has a story. UNESCO itself has a story I have yet to tell but it shaped my resolve for sustainability. How I worked or lived in Paris for 2+ years has a story. Do you know what it’s like to navigate owning an apartment in a place where you barely speak the language or raising a new baby, my Belle with my mother in-law whom I met for the first time at CDG airport in Paris? The stories are out of this world.
Of course there was a growing young family at that time navigating long distance. We have stories to tell. The ones with my first job upon my return to the US are cringe worthy whenever I think about them. They tried, boy they tried to destroy me but little did they know that greater is he. Then there are the stories of how I mastered grant writing from the king himself, Dr Gbenga Ogedegbe. I owe him a lot for showing me things I never even knew existed within me. Or how I met my partner extraordinaire Dr. Joe Tucker. He is truly on another level when it comes to collaboration. Find your partner with research and you literally find heaven. This blog has been privy to stories of navigating a child on the spectrum and raising black children in America. Even cancer’s sting is now a story I intend to tell fully with all my might.
The eloquence of crepe myrtle personifies my life fully. I choose to live it out now, more brilliantly like never before, more brightly too like an infinity story. These stories are my light. Through light, I will move eloquently, one story at a time, to all places. I am a storyteller and I am inspired by the endless eloquence of Crepe Myrtles.
My daughter wrote a poem about our world. A simple poem about so many wonderful things to see, whether day or night. Like birds who chirp or flowers that sway. Next to tall trees, or beneath blue skies. Day time has wonders for all to see, she notes. But night time too, with a big moon and stars that twinkle or owls that stare wisely, are just as brilliant as the day. Wolves howling to the moon or the color of the night, like day, even night she notes, has many wonders of its own. It’s simple and from her childlike mind. This simplicity, written on wide-ruled paper with blue ink, personifies the mood I’m in these days. No need for noise. No need to an audience too. Simple will do. Like day and night. Simple has wonders, if only we stop to see it. It’s my keep for today and always. Keep simple, my daughter’s gift to me and it’s many wonders to see.
They were on the floor. All three brothers, head to head. Sister was in the room with her piano teacher Ms. Neva mastering the twinkling star, wondering what it was. I looked at the boys wondering why the floor. They rolled around and around, laughing and smiling away. Shining brightly too like rare diamonds on the ground. They twisted and turned, and twisted some more, oblivious to the dirt all around them, oblivious to the sounds of my pleas too. The ground was all they wanted. Getting up from it was all I wanted.
So I tried to pull them up from the ground, one by one. They all went back to the ground after each successful attempt. I kept pulling them away, trying not to lose my temper or my mind. I was afraid of the ground, afraid they would hurt themselves, afraid that they too would hurt the ground. The carpet was light brown. They are children, boys too. I hate dirt on carpets, on lightly colored ones, or any colorless one. They love dirt, big or bright, dark or small. Any that will make you curse under your breath. It’s the reason why we have no carpets in our home. We just removed the beige ones that came with the home we bought. The carpet lasted 20 years or so prior to our ownership. With us, my boys and their love for red volcanic experiments or any colorful merriment, it lasted 2 days.
Carpets aside, we are still in a pandemic. If you believe the virus is airborne, then chances are that no child should lay on the ground. Yet, my boys adored the ground. Laid on it too, like it was the finest of cottons. After my pleas to get up fell on deaf ears, I paused and looked at them, looked at the ground too with intent. I took in the moment, took in the laughter, took in the love fully on display. No wonder they were oblivious to my pleas. In life, we will pass through dirt, we may be on the ground too with dirt. Diamonds are all the time. But still, we can shine brightly even in the middle of all the dirt around us.
My boys taught me that, rolling and laughing on the ground. They call it black boy joy. I call it love. To see it on full display among boys oblivious to the dirt around them, oblivious to the ground, oblivious to the world, is breathtakingly magical. We need more love. Here, they are oblivious to the world. Here, they have defeated the world. Here, they have rolled away the ground. Here, they choose to listen to their laughter, listen to joyful sound. Here, they returned back to dirt, return back to earth. Here, they uncovered the beginning of knowledge. Here they use it to teach the power of love, the power of being loved. Here, they love, love and love, loves them too. Here, they love being together, laughing together too, even on the ground with dirt all around. Here, they love those around them, each other and that is all that matters. I will cherish this keep.
What’s your story? I have been struggling with this lately. A friend called me out too. Said I call myself a storyteller but struggle with each story I tell. There was some truth to it. I write and stop writing. I tell stories and stop telling them. Not because I don’t want to write or tell my story but because of distractions. There have been a lot this year. Broken pipes, cancer, death. It’s only August. What my story? It’s still unfolding, not sure if the world deserves it yet too. But I’ll keep trying to tell whatever story I can. It’s a beautiful struggle too.
We talked about you today. It’s been a week so we talked about you. Distance may have been the amount of space between us. But forever we are close, almost inseparable now through time. So we talked about you today. Each day helps. Something about morning dew, makes each day easy to bear. So we talked about your strength and tenacity to live. We talked about how you made each one of us stand tall, brightly too despite everything, your pain too. We talked about your gratitude and grace in the end. You were never afraid to say thank you, despite the end looming. We wanted you to fight. You wanted to rest, gracious for our fight. Your voice will forever stay etched in my mind. You were never afraid to run your length of race called life. Never unrelenting. Never detached. Never separated. Never even removed from the pain you were going through, for you wanted us to stay strong. Now we sit here wishing we could draw closer, tighter too, like the tight arms of a new baby around their mothers. Distance may have been what separated use. But forever and time, we will draw closer to you, our angel.