I’ve always wanted to start a book club. Specifically, one which focuses on books by writers from Africa and the diaspora. There are so many amazing Black authors out there. I loved the African Writer’s Series of my high school days: writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Buchi Emecheta, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Okot p’Bitek. Literature classes were my favorite.
We devised creative code words and phrases from our literature books: When budding entrepreneurs would sneak contraband toffee into school to sell – “Three for a bob!” (a shilling) – we referred to the sweets as “kola nuts” (taken from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) in order to avoid detection and punishment. (Okonkwo and the elders always broke kola nut before a meeting). You’d hear whispers in class: “Who has kola today?” And if you wanted to boast about an achievement, you’d declare: “I’m the lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree”, borrowed again from Achebe’s delightful collection of Igbo proverbs from the same novel. The full proverb is, “The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said it would praise itself if no one else did”, which for us simply meant permission to brag.
Book club reveries
I revisited my book club idea during the COVID-19 lock down three years ago and again last year, when I put it on my to-do list for Black History Month 2022. Well, finally it’s done, thanks to my sister, who gave me the Viola Davis book Finding Me: A Memoir as a Christmas gift last month. We decided to start a book club with Davis’s book and then include writers of color in general. Our first meeting is next month, just in time for Black History Month (I’m only one year late).
The idea of a group of people sitting together to share their experience of a book delights me. As I prepare to host my first book club gathering next month, I notice that as I read a passage that moves me, I find myself in reveries about how other book club members are reacting to the same passage, where they are when they first read these words. I’m grateful that they are setting time aside from their busy lives to read before we get together. I wonder what their favorite reading spaces look like, whether they have a ritual that gets them started. I can’t wait to hear them talk about it at the meeting.
Finding Viola Davis
Remember the arctic spell we had in December? Perfect excuse to live in my pajamas by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa, immersed in Finding Me. When the sun would peek out, I’d move to my favorite sunny window to find my cat already there (she follows the sun around the house) and continue reading, enjoying a satisfying afternoon together in companionable silence.
Previously, I had watched Viola’s interview with Oprah when Finding Me had just been published (she got a Grammy Award nomination for the audio book). I was moved to learn about the enormous hardships Viola endured throughout her childhood, and was inspired by how far she’s come to be able to play the powerful roles she is known for. She describes how she was excluded from acting roles that she was qualified and had auditioned successfully for, just because she was dark skinned. I learned about the insidious word “interchangeable”, used in acting circles to describe Black actors who are deemed acceptable enough to play roles typically given to white actors.
I’m in awe of Viola’s incredible talent as an artist: from Broadway to Hollywood, from acting to producing; her exceptional range and intensity as an actor in movies like Mending Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, How to get Away with Murder, Doubt, and The Help. I have yet to watch her powerful performance as The Woman King, another thing on my to-do list. Viola Davis is the most nominated Black actress in Oscar history and the only African American to receive the Triple Crown of Acting (Oscar, Emmy and Tony) – such towering achievements.
What’s on your reading list?
We’re already lining up interesting book club picks for the year. I got curious about what’s on other peoples’ reading lists – I believe that your favorite books say a lot about you. So I decided to check out the latest reading list for one of my favorite authors, Barack Obama. He admits to being biased that his wife’s book The Light We Carry (another one for the book club) is first on his list, but who can blame him? Obama also shared his favorite music and movies for 2022, which included songs by Burna Boy and Lizzo, and movies like The Woman King starring Viola Davis, another reason why I must watch it.
Happy reading and movie watching to all bibliophiles and cinephiles everywhere.
Do you sometimes find yourself – especially now during the holidays – waking up in a strange place feeling disoriented? You look around and can’t find anything familiar. Your brain and body struggle for several moments to reorient you in time and space. It can range anywhere from confusion to discomfort to outright panic.
Holiday travel for me brings with it some weird feelings of disorientation. I wake up 30,000 feet in the air to the smell of coffee being served by flight attendants and the sound of a baby crying across the aisle. (We just had lunch, jumped two time zones, and now it’s breakfast?). Back on earth, I wake up after a jet lag induced nap on a friend’s couch to the sound of conversation and laughter. Then in the city, I find myself startled from sleep by the sound of barking dogs, fighting neighborhood cats, or the muezzin’s call for prayer at 5 am.
The sound of roosters crowing starts way before dawn in Nairobi. The Swahili saying “jogoo la shamba haliwiki mtaani” (the country rooster does not crow in the city) tells me that these are no country roosters. Nairobi roosters start crowing at 4:30 am every morning – I checked. In contrast to the brutal city awakening, when I am out in the country, I’m gently awoken by chirpy songbirds and sunshine filtering through my window.
Then there’s the dreaded hypnopompic state – that liminal place between sleep and waking consciousness – where you’re in bed trying to wake up but feel paralyzed. You may get a sense of a sinister presence either near your bed or sitting on your chest. You can’t move and feel helpless. You’re filled with dread and fear. While sleep scientists tell us this experience is quite common, it still feels scary and discombobulating. Luckily, the feeling goes after a few seconds (or were they several minutes?).
5-point sensory grounding
I’m taking time nowadays to notice the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and textures that orient me to my current time and space. I’m aware of how the birds and crickets in Georgia have different melodies and syllabic phrasing than those in Nairobi or Nanyuki or Sagana. I’m noticing how the local flavors of mandazis, bhajias, samosas, bitter lemon, and masala chai transport me emotionally to old memories from my childhood in Mombasa or to my college days at Kenyatta University. As I look into the familiar faces of old friends or hear songs on the local radio station (remember the Boney M Christmas album?), I’m aware of the waves of nostalgia that wash over me.
I learned this beautiful technique called 5-point grounding or the 5-4-3-2-1 technique that I practice when I feel disoriented. It is used in mindfulness practices as a way to help bring us back to the present moment through the senses. It is also used in trauma therapies like EMDR to decrease anxiety and establish a sense of calm and grounding, and is particularly helpful for trauma survivors who tend to dissociate. I like to use it when I first awaken from sleep to help reorient myself into waking consciousness, especially in unfamiliar places. Here’s how it goes:
- Five sights: When you open your eyes, what are five things you can see in the room? What colors pop out at you? If it’s dark, what shadows or silhouettes can you make out? Are there familiar pictures or furniture or people in the room?
- Four touches: Reach out with your hands. What four textures can you feel with your fingers? How does the room temperature feel like on your skin? If your head is on a pillow, take a moment to distinguish whether it feels soft or firm, fluffy or crisp, warm or cool. How does your body feel in the sheets, blanket, pajamas, chair or bed?
- Three sounds: Shift your awareness to things you can hear. Are the sounds coming from inside or outside, far or near, are they natural or human made? What about sounds from your own body? Perhaps if you listen closely you may hear your own heartbeat, your breath, your stomach growling.
- Two smells: Focus on smells around you: food, perfume, smog from the city streets, rain on the earth. Some people like to carry around their favorite fragrance (like lavender, peppermint, sandalwood) and take a whiff of it to feel calm or alert or grounded.
- One taste: What was the last thing you remember tasting? A meal, or maybe some coffee or juice you drank earlier. What did it taste like: bitter, sweet, sour, fruity, creamy?
Practicing sensory orientation while awakening from sleep can make you feel grounded by the time your feet hit the floor, especially when you’re away from home. Or it can be a simple mindfulness exercise that allows you to experience the present moment wherever your mind or your travels take you.
Do you sometimes feel so overstimulated by your environment – bright lights, strong smells, loud noises – that you have to retreat to a quiet place or wear noise canceling headphones to find relief? Does that cup of coffee leave you feeling jittery, on edge? Do you find yourself easily immersed in your inner world of fantasies and ideas? When you’re hungry, do you tend to lose focus and become easily irritable? (I love how that informal word “hangry” captures this feeling). These are some of the items psychologist Elaine Aron lists in her Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) Scale. You can take the self assessment here.
Aron, who herself identifies as a highly sensitive person or HSP, has published numerous books and papers on this topic, some with her husband, psychologist Arthur Aron. Among her popular books are The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You and The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them. She has developed scales for younger populations – from adolescents to preverbal children – that professionals and parents can use to identify highly sensitive children, and has also written about love and relationships for HSPs. Aron also has a list of therapists on her website who use HSP informed approaches in their clinical work.
In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You, Aron points to HSP research that looks into genetic and neurobiological determinants that contribute to high levels of sensitivity in individuals. What I found interesting about this research is that many species, from fruit flies and fish to deer and monkeys, have been found to have highly sensitive individuals among them (which leads me to believe I have a highly sensitive cat).
Many introverts would likely endorse a good number of the items on Aron’s HSP scale. After all, introverts have rich inner worlds, need to withdraw in order to recharge, and experience sensory overload when they are in loud, busy environments. Read more on introverts in my previous blog post. It is therefore easy to attribute sensitivity to introverted personalities. People generally don’t expect extraverts to score high on sensitivity; yet Aron’s research tells us that 30% of extraverts are HSPs. They are the neglected minority. Aron gives them a shout out (not too loud) in her work, encouraging us to become more aware of them and give them room to be themselves.
Introversion has been popularized by Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, whose Youtube video on introversion has over 14 million views. I think this demonstrates the changing attitudes that society is gradually developing towards introverts, which is about seeing introversion as a personality trait and not a defect.
Aron’s background and training in Jungian psychology is evident in her work. Psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory of personality as used in the Myers Briggs Trait Indicator or MBTI has been a popular entry point for people to gain a better understanding of differences in personalities, and specifically introversion as a trait. Introversion is also prominent in other personality assessments, like the Big 5 Personality Test (also known by the acronym OCEAN) and Eysenck’s Personality Inventory (EPI).
Aron describes the concepts of introversion and extraversion as they were outlined by Jung, providing information and examples to help dispel myths, negative stereotypes, and misconceptions about introverts. In the same way, she challenges the negative social judgment and cultural biases we have against HSPs and invites us to open our minds to a broader understanding of sensitivity as a trait. What I find particularly valuable in Aron’s work is that she provides scientific evidence from research studies that can help HSPs reject false labels and acknowledge their gifts.
The pathologizing of HSPs
Highly sensitive people, like introverts, are often pathologized, especially in American culture, where the average “well adjusted” individual is supposed to be outgoing, lively and gregarious. Highly sensitive children particularly tend to be misunderstood and mislabeled. Their sensitivity is trivialized, seen as an impediment, or misdiagnosed as an abnormality.
Highly sensitive children, for instance, may choose to enjoy the quiet of their rooms instead of watching TV with the family, since the noise, lights, or violent images on TV can be an assault to their senses. For this reason, they may be labeled as fearful, fussy, shy, withdrawn, or lacking confidence. They are often compared to their more outgoing siblings or peers: “Why can’t you be more like your sister who loves hanging out with us?” or “Stop making such a big deal about it, it’s just a movie.” These negative messages can follow children into their adulthood and make them think there’s something wrong with them. And precisely because they are sensitive to their surroundings, Aron tells us that HSPs learn to adapt to fit into different environments based on what is required of them, thereby disguising their sensitive nature.
In discussing mental health outcomes among HSPs, Aron distinguishes between the term “vulnerability” which indicates risk, versus “differential susceptibility”, which demonstrates a responsiveness not only to negative but also positive environments and experiences. This means that while HSPs can develop depression and anxiety if they have had difficult childhoods, negative parenting styles, or changes and unpredictability in their environment, they also tend to integrate positive experiences in their lives more readily. This is because their high level of sensory awareness and responsivity to their environment accentuates positive influences, such as natural beauty, art, music, pleasant scents and soothing textures, that can enhance their lives, all of which can have lasting positive effects on their mental health.
Aron’s research helps us see sensitivity as a trait and not a disorder, a strength and not a weakness. She differentiates between sensitivity on the one hand, and shyness, introversion, neuroticism, fearfulness, and inhibitedness on the other, which are often erroneously used to describe sensitivity. She distinguishes between Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), which is unrelated to SPS.
WebMD defines SPD as “a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses”, which could involve both under-responsive and over-responsive reactions. While SPD is not listed as an official medical diagnosis in the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) or ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision), there have been arguments in favor of making it an official diagnosis, particularly so that children can receive early clinical interventions like occupational therapy and psychotherapy. These can help children develop coping skills to better adjust to school and peer environments that can be overstimulating and disruptive for them. Proponents add that making SPD an official diagnosis would also help families pay for these interventions using their health insurance.
Aron clarifies that she didn’t discover sensitivity, she merely provided a more descriptive (and accurate) explanation of it to help people better understand and appreciate this complex trait. She created the acronym DOES to describe sensitivity as a trait.
D stands for depth of processing. HSPs tend to pause and take in their environment with a higher level of awareness and responsivity than the average person. They pay attention to details that others may not notice, for better or worse.
O is for overstimulation – attending to small details and noticing everything in one’s environment can be overstimulating and lead to sensory overload.
E refers to the high levels of empathy and emotional responsivity that come naturally to HSPs.
S describes sensitivity to subtleties. HSPs perceive and process information carefully, both information that is coming from the outer world of people, things, and situations, and their inner world of perceptions, reflections, and emotions.
Perhaps you or someone you know (maybe a child or even a pet) may be highly sensitive. Aron’s work helps us appreciate HSPs and celebrate their gifts to the world.
How much would you risk to retrieve your lost memories if they felt important to you? The movies I’ve been watching lately happen to have themes revolving around this question. They explore how past memories shape our identity and ideas about who we are, affect our relationships, and reveal information that is crucial to our sense of self.
Love, loss and risk
In The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, based on Walter Mosley’s novel, Samuel L. Jackson plays Ptolemy Grey, a 91 year old man suffering from dementia. We first meet Grey in a pitiful state, living a lonely life with no ties to the outside world, except through a caring nephew who comes to his apartment to check in on him.
As the story progresses and Grey’s condition deteriorates, we watch him endure an unconventional treatment that he opts into at enormous risk to his life in order to regain his memory. The treatment uncovers memories that bring him both pleasure and pain, revealing the deep loves, losses and betrayals in his life. Yet these recovered memories ultimately bring life back to Grey’s days. We witness his transformation as he exercises agency in his life and makes some tough choices that he can live (or die) with.
The miniseries Surface, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, immerses us into the bewildering life of Sophie, a woman who has just survived a traumatic accident. She has lost memory of everything about her life: who she is; who her friends, loved ones and acquaintances are; what matters in her life. The episodes I’ve watched so far hint that what happened to Sophie may not have been an accident; that perhaps she or someone else had a hand in it. Sophie appears to have a perfect life: financial security, a beautiful home, a loving and supportive husband, a loyal friend, a caring therapist, and a mystery man whose place in her old life she is trying to understand.
All these people appear to be helping Sophie heal and unravel the mystery of the incident. But who are they really? Doubt is cast on all the characters (including Sophie) and we find ourselves questioning everyone’s motives and wondering what they are hiding. Like Grey, Sophie finds out about an experimental treatment that could help her retrieve her lost memories. Her therapist is opposed to it because it’s too risky, but Sophie is desperate to find answers. There is a sense that underneath Sophie’s seemingly perfect life, something sinister is striving to surface.
The seductive past
Reminiscence stars Hugh Jackman as Nick Bannister, who describes himself as “a private investigator of the mind” and uses a machine he invented to help his clients relive memories. The movie is set in a dystopian future where climate change has brought Miami partially under water (scary how sci-fi is becoming more real nowadays) and temperatures are so high during the day that people live their lives by night. Things have become so bad that the only way to feel alive is to revisit a nostalgic past. The movie explores the lure of this idealized past that becomes an escape for people living in a state of individual and collective despair.
But the past is complicated. Nick’s words, “Nothing is more addictive than the past”, prove to be premonitory as he falls victim to the very addiction he cautions against. His assistant, Watts Sanders, played by Thandiwe Newton, tries to steer Nick away from his obsession with a client whom he falls in love with while working to help her uncover a memory. The client disappears and, using his memory machine on himself, Nick gets embroiled in the dangerous world of his client’s past in an effort to find her and unravel the mystery of her disappearance. Meanwhile, Watts helps Nick fight for his life and tries to keep him rooted in present day reality.
Memory – blessing or curse?
The exploration of trauma, love, risk and loss as they relate to memory in these movies makes me wonder: how much should one risk to retrieve lost memories? Since memory is a mixed bag, all of it comes back: the good, the bad and the ugly. If we could selectively pick memories that keep us comfortable and help us avoid pain, would it be worth it?
Memories are complex and confounding – they reveal and they obscure, many times offering more questions than answers. They can be both life giving and life threatening, trapping us in seductive illusions and false realities in the form of escapist fantasies or terrifying hells. We may learn truths about ourselves and others that could liberate or paralyze us. Memories show us what core values and mental programs run our lives, revealing our strengths and weaknesses, our evolution or regression. If we don’t have our memories to remind us of what has been, how do we find our place in the world? How do we know who we are, or decide who we now choose to be?
An upcoming lecture on the shadow of technology by Jungian analyst Doug Tyler, PhD, reminds me of a recent experience:
One morning on my drive to work, I noticed my phone wasn’t in its regular position on my dashboard. A dreadful panic gripped me. Heart racing, I fumbled through my purse, work bag, pockets, passenger seat, frantically looking for it. At the lights just before the ramp onto the highway, as I was plotting an illegal turn to head back home, I found the culprit lying calmly on the floor near my feet. A gush of tearful relief and gratitude overwhelmed me: My phone is with me. All will be well today.
It’s hard not to notice how increasingly dependent on our technology we have become today. We hear people swear they never leave home without their phones, laptops or tablets. Our electronic devices connect us to our work/school and social lives, literally open doors (and garages) for us, guide us to our destinations, keep our homes safe, monitor our heart rates, confirm or reschedule our appointments, store our codes and passwords, track our to-do lists, update us on world events and stock market trends, store our random notes and ideas. They facilitate connection with our family, friends, and clients. They hold our documents, photos, treasured memories, and secrets.
Connection through technology
When I first came to the US about twenty years ago, I had to buy a “calling card” from a gas station and enter a long series of numbers over again from a landline phone in order to reach my parents in Kenya. Often the lines were busy and it took ages to get connected. When we finally did, the line was full of static. Sometimes, after we got the greetings out of the way, my $10 would be up and the line would go dead. That was then. Now I have apps on my phone that will connect me instantly on a free and clear line to friends and family around the world. Sometimes my dad will say, “You sound like you’re just next door.” The wonders of technology.
Technology serves us in so many ways. Yet in other ways, it can hold us hostage to crazy demands, data storage panic, social media stress, and overstuffed schedules.
Jung Society of Atlanta hybrid lecture Saturday August 27, 2022
Join us in person or online at a Jung Society of Atlanta event, where Jungian Analyst Doug Tyler, PhD, will explore the unconscious shadow elements of our modern technology in his lecture The Blinding Shadow: Technology, Social Media and Soul Loss. How can we engage more consciously with our technology in ways that serve us both individually and collectively? Come explore with us. Two CEUs available. (Make sure your electronic device is charged and updated for a better online experience.)
Around me lately, the talk has been about winding down the summer fun and getting students ready for a new school year (can you believe that August is already upon us?) Although I taught for almost two decades and found teaching to be a deeply satisfying career, I’m so relieved that I’m not one of those educators now scrambling to review the curriculum, prepare syllabi, check class lists, read course texts, post material online, beat crazy deadlines, and brace themselves for another busy semester. Not to mention the testing and grading nightmares that happen later. It’s only when I left teaching a couple of years ago, right after that first grueling COVID-19 lockdown semester, that I realized just how much preparation goes into it, how exhausting it all is (and how much free time I have now).
Supporting students with mental disorders
A report I recently heard on NPR Marketplace brought me back to those days, this time from the student perspective, and specifically, students with mental health challenges. If trained educators are overwhelmed by the sheer workload, imagine what students with mental disorders (such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, PTSD, OCD, eating disorders) have to go through to prepare for college and successfully graduate years later. It’s not just about enrolling in the right courses, navigating financial aid, budgeting and saving, buying (super expensive) text books, meeting the registration deadlines, finding a place to stay, managing time and social activities, maintaining healthy relationships, coordinating work schedules, all of which are daunting. For students with mental health diagnoses and learning differences, it’s also about finding a disability coordinator (if the college has one), applying for disability accommodations and disability testing (if applicable and available), ensuring your instructors are aware of (and comply with) your classroom accommodations, finding affordable medical and mental health services that can meet your needs (if you’re lucky enough to access them, they will most likely be with a new provider), monitoring and adjusting your medication carefully for a new schedule and lifestyle, keeping stress levels manageable.
In an ideal school environment with adequate funding and resources – which of course many schools don’t have – the needs of children with learning differences are addressed through IEPs (Individualized Educational Plans) and other accommodations that are supposed to provide academic, socio-emotional, and behavioral support to these students during their school years. (I used to be a Special Educational Needs Coordinator or SENCO in my early teaching career in Kenya, and I remember how challenging this work was). However, when these students graduate from high school and are suddenly adults, they enter a scary and chaotic world where they have to navigate their personal and professional lives on their own. They are supposed to know what they need to be successful, find the internal and external resources to meet these needs, and be their own advocates. We are asking too much of them.
Bridging the mental health gap
That is why it was so inspiring to hear the radio report of two businesses in the US that were created to bridge this gap for students with mental illnesses and learning differences. One of them is EdRedefined, started by a father whose son is on the autism spectrum and needed support in navigating college life. When the father, Scot Marken – who describes himself as a social entrepreneur with a lived experience in the field of mental health – realized that these supports were not available for his son, he decided to create a company that provides them. The other is The Dorm, a company with locations in NY and DC that provides mental health support for students to build community, independence and well being during their college years.
Years ago, I worked with a local US company in the field of supported employment. I had never heard of the term, but got to learn and appreciate this line of work.The business was started by a former teacher who noticed that the needs of students with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities often go unaddressed, particularly after they graduate from school and “age out” of the supports that are provided mainly to children under 18. This teacher founded her company with the goal of filling this gap and helping these adults find meaningful employment in their communities and thrive in life. And while I remember those days fondly, I recall how challenging it was to encounter the negative attitudes, stereotypes, and misconceptions that many companies have about individuals with mental disorders.
I love the idea of businesses centered around providing services and resources for community mental health. Hopefully, more can be done to help such social entrepreneurs thrive and make their services more accessible to people in underrepresented communities who need them most.
Have you ever awakened from a dream and wondered what it all meant? Was it just random brain activity, or could there be a valuable nugget to take away and use in real life? And then there’s recurring dreams and nightmares. You may notice similar images, motifs, and characters showing up in your dreams and nightmares month after month, even year after year. What is the unconscious psyche trying to tell you?
Dreams can be downright weird and unfathomable. But with an expert guide, they can be insightful and affirming, revealing important information about our complexes, our shadow, our Self, and how we relate to our inner and outer worlds.
Dream Event at the Jung Society of Atlanta: April 22 and 23, 2022
Join us at the Jung Society of Atlanta for a lively hybrid lecture and workshop (both in person and on Zoom) titled: Another Whom We Do Not Know: Dreams as the Voice of the Inner Companion. The events will be on Friday April 22nd (lecture) and Saturday April 23rd (workshop) with Lisa Marchiano, LCSW, Jungian analyst and co-host of the superb podcast This Jungian Life. If you’re interested in dream interpretation (and all things Jungian), this podcast will satisfy. The three Jungian analysts and co-hosts interpret a dream from a listener of the podcast in each episode.
This is our first in-person program since the pandemic, and it feels auspicious that Lisa is facilitating this event as we mark our exit from this strange dream-like/nightmarish pandemic. Lisa will be sharing with us the Jungian method of understanding dreams and using them for our personal growth and individuation process. Come listen to what messages Psyche has for you.
Two CEUs available for the Friday lecture; 5 CEUs for the Saturday workshop.
February 2021 was a blur. We had just witnessed the swearing in of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harrison, and the beautiful poetry of Amanda Gordon. All this while hunkering down in pandemic mode and reeling from the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection. It was a weird mixed bag. Black History Month was over before I realized that I’d done nothing to celebrate it.
Not so this time! Here are ten things we can do to celebrate Black Love, Black Pride, and Black Power this year.
- Watch movies, documentaries, and shows that feature Black artists, Black voices, and Black talent. I’m currently enjoying Amazon’s free selection of Black History Month shows, including Phat Tuesdays – The Era of Hip Hop Comedy, which describes how Guy Torry created a space where Black humor and Black talent could thrive. His efforts resulted in the discovery of Black artists who inevitably reached and transformed mainstream entertainment in America and across the world. Another favorite is Black History, Black Freedom, Black Love, a masterclass featuring outstanding thinkers like Cornel West, Jelani Cobb, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and John McWhorter, who discuss the evolution of Black thought and ideas in America.
- Check out some Black History Month events in your community. Currently in Atlanta, we have the Obama Portraits at the High Museum. Last weekend I watched a spectacular musical performance by Orchestra Noir, an Atlanta-based all-Black orchestra which “aims to celebrate the cultural achievements of African-American music pioneers across all genres of music”. And it was only $30 (with some tickets selling for less). Take advantage of free and affordable events that work for all ages, pocket books, and tastes.
- Grab a blanket and a book (or join/start a book club) and read Black authors from the diaspora: African-American, British, African, Cuban, West Indian, South American: Black writers are everywhere! Read a Black author you have never heard of, and reread some the well-known Black classics. In the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I am, poet Sonia Sanchez says that we should read Toni Morrison every ten years “to reimagine ourselves on the American landscape”. I’m rereading Chinua Achebe’s African Trilogy which I first encountered in high school.
- Read to a Black child (or have them read to you). Some excellent books that I’m enjoying with young readers are: Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o, Amanda Gorman’s Change Sings, I’m Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James, Wangari’s Trees of Peace by Jeanette Winter, In the Spirit of a Dream by Alina Chau and Aida Salazar, and – how could I resist – Nyambura Waits for the Bus by Cath Alexander.
- Tell that hard working, inspiring Black parent, professional, front line worker, community member you know that you appreciate and admire their skills and presence. Mail a card, send an email, or call and thank them for their service and contributions.
- Support mental health for Black communities: Make a donation to organizations like the Loveland Foundation Therapy Fund, established in 2018 by Rachel Cargle to provide financial assistance to Black women and girls to receive therapy from licensed professionals. Also check out Therapy for Black Girls, which Atlanta psychologist Dr Joy Harden Bradford founded in 2014 “to make mental health accessible and relevant to Black women and girls”. Positive Growth, Inc, a nonprofit organization in Clarkston, GA, is doing amazing work providing mental health services to minority and refugee communities (full disclosure: I’ve worked with them for almost 10 years now and I’m proud of the work we do). You can also donate your time, money, or expertise to a nonprofit organization that supports Black communities in the areas of racial and social justice, LGBTQ rights, legal assistance, nutrition, education, etc.
- Listen to podcasts by Black hosts. My current favorites are NPR’s It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders, Glynn Washington’s Snap Judgment, and Code Switch.
- Support Black-owned businesses in your community. And when you go shopping in stores like Target, look for aisles that highlight Black products. When we support our Black businesses, we inspire more Black entrepreneurs and help our communities thrive.
- If you’re old school like me and still enjoy sending people cards and packages via snail mail, buy forever stamps from the Black Heritage series. Right now I have Gwen Ifill and August Wilson and would love to get my hands on Harriet Tubman and Ma Rainey stamps.
- Spend time with a Black Elder. Bring them flowers and a home-cooked meal. Sit or walk with them. Put your phone away. Listen.
Today our human family grieves as we reflect with deep gratitude on the extraordinary life, legacy, and gifts of beloved Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh (known affectionately as Thay or teacher), who died at age 95. Through his simple and elegant life, his healing poetry, and his dedication to the principles of engaged Buddhism, he gracefully demonstrated how the practice of mindfulness can transform us and our world.
I encountered Thay’s teachings about fifteen years ago when Al Lingo, a dharma teacher in Thay’s Order of Interbeing, invited me to join the mindfulness meditations at the Breathing Heart Sangha in Atlanta, GA. The sangha, which is at the heart of Thay’s Zen tradition, is a mindfulness community “that lives in harmony and awareness” (Nhat Hanh, 2007). At the Breathing Heart Sangha, we had sitting and walking meditations, dharma talks, delicious vegetarian potluck dinners, and mindfulness retreats. I learned about mindfulness practices such as Touching the Earth, the Five Remembrances, the Five Mindfulness Practices, and the Five Contemplations.
One of my most memorable sangha events was in 2011 at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi, where I joined hundreds of people in a mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh titled “Cultivating the Mind of Love”. It was also at Magnolia Grove that I attended a New Year’s Mindfulness Retreat in 2010/2011 with my partner, now husband, where we both received the transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings and our dharma names. At our wedding ceremony a year later, we recited the Five Awarenesses, from Thay’s book Chanting from the Heart (p. 170), which we were instructed to recite together at each full moon:
The Five Awarenesses
We are aware that all generations of our ancestors and all future generations are present in us.
We are aware of the expectations that our ancestors, our children, and their children have of us.
We are aware that our joy, peace, freedom, and harmony are the joy, peace, freedom and harmony of our ancestors, our children, and their children.
We are aware that understanding is the very foundation of love.
We are aware that blaming and arguing can never help us and only create a wider gap between us; that only understanding, trust, and love can help us change and grow.
Thay’s soothing words from Chanting from the Heart (p. 238), provide comfort during this time of reflection and loss:
Contemplations on No-Coming, No-Going
This body is not me.
I am not limited by this body.
I am life without boundaries.
I have never been born,
and I have never died.
Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars,
manifestations from my wondrous True Mind.
Since before time, I have been free.
Birth and death are only doors through which we pass,
sacred thresholds on our journey.
Birth and death are a game of hide-and-seek.
So laugh with me,
hold my hand,
let us say good-bye,
say good-bye to meet again soon.
We meet today.
We will meet again tomorrow.
We will meet at the source every moment.
We meet each other in all forms of life.
Nhat Hanh, T. (2003). No death, no fear: Comforting wisdom for life. Penguin Random House: New York, NY.
Nhat Hanh, T. (2007). Chanting from the heart: Buddhist ceremonies and daily practices. Parallax Press: Berkeley, CA.
Image is of Thay’s own calligraphy, taken from the cover of his book No Death no Fear. Learn more about his calligraphy collection here.
A strange feeling overcomes me as I write this from my childhood bedroom in Kenya in the home I grew up in. I’ve been sorting through my old stuff and getting rid of things like old college notes, books, postcards, and aerogramme letters (remember those)? It’s a mixed bag of nostalgia and enormous gratitude for my life experiences, my parents, my country. As I grow older, I’m developing a deeper appreciation for the trajectory that has been my life – how circumstances and events have moved me from one thing to another, leading me to where I am now. Coming home is revisiting this past.
Our languages express this nostalgia in different ways. The word nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos which means “to return home”, and algos meaning “pain” or “ache”. I’m contemplating how both being away from home and coming back home can bring us pain. In English, words like homecoming, homesick, and home base capture some of the sentiments that we associate with home. The Germans have Heimweh, literally “home pain”, which describes an aching for home.
When I arrive in Kenya, I’m often greeted with the Swahili words, “Karibu nyumbani” – welcome home – which evoke in me feelings of belonging and pride. In conversation with my father the other day, he shared with me the Kikuyu proverb: “Mîciî nî ndogo” which translates literally as “homes are smoke”. He explained that you know that a hut is a home when you see smoke coming from it, signifying the warmth, comfort, and sustenance that indicate that this place is inhabited by people and life.
Sometimes home is the place where we remember some of our earliest feelings of love, safety, friendship, and belonging; a foundation upon which our lives and personalities are built. At other times, home is where our psychological complexes are triggered, where we re-experience old childhood insecurities that shake our confidence, expose our vulnerabilities, and fill us with shame, fear, and regret. For many, it’s a combination of both.
During this trip home, it was interesting to hear from my college friends from over two decades ago how I’ve changed and how I’ve remained the same. Through their recollections, it was fun to remember the younger, more carefree and expressive me. My sister was also home from abroad, and we talked about how during sleep, our dreams become more vivid and memorable in Kenya. It is as if our psyches recognize their source – those first impressions of what it means to be human and conscious – and are stimulated by this recognition. It was also on this trip home that I found clarity on some decisions I needed to make in my life – what to move forward with, and what to leave behind.
Feeling at home
Earlier this summer I took a trip with my family to a game reserve in Kenya, where we stayed for several days in the middle of the savanna, surrounded by flora and fauna that have existed there for eons. On a safari drive, we emerged from the bushes to see a solitary reticulated giraffe outlined against a clear expansive sky, munching leaves from the tallest branches of an acacia tree. It was breathtaking. Our driver immediately stopped the vehicle and turned off the engine. The giraffe paused its chewing and peered at us through long, thick eyelashes. Our eyes locked as we gazed at each other in complete silence for what seemed like ages before it started chewing again and went on with its life.
Numinous moments like these move me. What a gift to witness this magnificent creature in its natural habitat. Here is a place where an ancient wisdom is in charge, where living things do not have to justify their existence, are not besieged by insecurities. They just live their lives simply and elegantly in this perfect (or imperfect) moment. I felt that sense of acceptance and knowing envelope me.
This is what coming home means to me: being at ease with life, nature, and myself. Not having to explain myself to anyone. Fitting in without having to try. Perhaps that’s why I love coming home – because each time I do, more and more of this feeling accompanies me back to the other spaces I inhabit and infuses them with value and meaning.