Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Six Degrees of Separation: Part I

"I am not my hair, I am not my skin, I am not your ex-pec-ta-tions noooo. I am not my hair, I am not my skin...I am the soul that lives within." India Irie Songwriter, Musician, Artist, Humanitarian.

I awoke with this song in my spirit this past Sunday.  As I sang this to myself I felt so much love and hope surround me.  I heard a voice say "share this; give it away...it is not yours to keep."

Naa Anyele, my 10 year old 'baby girl' who I affectionately call Nani, awoke.  We cuddled in bed for about 15 minutes.  I apologized for having over reacted about the dishes the night before.  I can be so hard on myself, my child and everyone else.  There isn't a day that goes by I don't feel the problems of the world fixed squarely on my shoulders atop my own.  The injustices I witness and experience everyday: racism, sexism, the ever expanding corporate lobby buying our government elected officials to silence them about the outsourcing of almost all our job market oversees resulting in cyclical unemployment, rising cost of living, rising homelessness, unlivable minimum wage(s), the industrial prison complex and the most detrimental of all the effects - the breakdown of the family unit.  Displaced individuals, elderly, veterans, families and youth literally living in the street is America's new middle class.  It is no wonder any of us are short tempered.  Quite often I lash out about insignificant matters: dirty dishes left in the sink, an messy room, food left out on the kitchen counter.  After unleashing a barrage of accusations and judgments, I feel like a monster, a bully.  I feel guilty, ashamed and confused about why I get so angry in the  first place.  So, for the umpteenth time, I apologized about overreacting to the person I most love on this Earth - Nani.

"I better do some yoga and exercise," I thought.  After breakfast, Nani and I lounged on the couch together while I had my cafe con leche and she her mango tea. We listened to some good music while I gave her some historical perspective on Hip Hop, the culture I grew up in.  After a relaxing hour on the couch I decided "C'mon, let's get ready and go to Northampton to hang out and get some air."  After my shower and while I was getting ready, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of frustration and anxiety again.  I kept envisioning myself at a fork.  I knew I needed to make a decision about which way to go.  One direction led me to an evening of frustration.  The second path led me to spending time with my daughter and self.  Seems like an easy choice but, have you ever been lost and faced the decision whether to turn around or continue going in the wrong direction hoping to find a gas station to ask directions?  Most people continue in the wrong direction trying to find a gas station.  That's what I'd been doing up until last Sunday when I decided to just turn around.  

There are so many things I want to do.  I have always wanted to write books but, I turned away from it for fear of failure.  Now, that I've actually written how I've felt all these years; it just sounds so ridiculous.  All these years I've been crippling myself with fear - no more.  A couple of years ago, different folks suggested I start a blog and my own radio podcast.  I decided to turn that into one of my goals.  I've been co-hosting on various community college radio broadcasts for about a year and half now.  After feeling very frustrated by the lack of freedom of speech and transparency about what is going on in our communities, I ventured into learning how to do an audio podcast.  I still do radio though.  But, the vision which frightens me the most is one I have had for over 14 years.  

Since elementary school, I knew that there was something deeply wrong with school.  I never felt encouraged to think, to question, to explore any one particular topic.  I only remember being told to listen, memorize, regurgitate and obey.  Now I know, schools are institutions of indoctrination and control.  I always felt isolated by teachers and staff; force fed content I didn't see myself in.   As I progressed through elementary, junior high and high school, I felt increasingly invisible and mute.  I have been haunted with a vision of cooperatively owning and operating a 'safe' space for 'higher learning' that empowers youth through practical, experiential-based learning of all the sciences, including artistic expression as a science.

For the last eleven years, I have felt frustrated with the immensity of this vision knowing I could not do it alone  - I prayed for the collaborative to become flesh.  Many times, I lost hope of ever meeting like-minded people who I could work with to bring this 'safe' space for higher-learning to fruition. Every time I lost hope, I would return to pursuing a nine to five cycling through dead-end jobs.  I couldn't see a way to make this big picture full screen, in my life.  Last year, I began to take small steps in words then, in deed.  Whenever people asked "what do you do?" I'd answer: "I am a youth advocate and a homelessness prevention consultant," regardless of whether I was employed or, not.  I determined I define who I am.  I began attending homelessness prevention meetings.  I went to a print shop, picked out a design and had business cards printed.  None of these efforts materialized into a well-paying, stable job nor generated the collaborative I envision.  What these efforts did do is push me in front of the mirror to ask "Who are you?"  

The fork I was envisioning was a physical manifestation asking me "Who are you?" and the reason I was feeling so frustrated. I needed to press in to my gifts, talents, strengths and purpose.  Driving North on Route five, I felt uncertainty.  I really did not know how to get to where I needed to be but, I knew I was going in the right direction.  When I pulled up to Pleasant street in Northampton, I was still in a fog-like state of conflict.  Nani excitedly hoped out the car; I was dragging.  We began to walk up towards Thorns Market when I was stopped mid-stride.  

A young 'Black' girl sat on the ground up against the tree, 'Indian' style with her legs crossed.  She looked so young; eighteen, maybe 20 years old. More than her flawless milk chocolate skin or even the "Homeless and pregnant" cardboard sign at her feet, I saw shame, confusion and fear.  I had reached my fork.

"Hello," I said softly surprised at how firmly my feet were planted.  

Out of all the countless times I've given money to a homeless person; this time I knew that wasn't enough or even what she needed.  Slowly, she nodded her head without lifting it.  

"Are you okay?" I asked her.  

Given the writing on the cardboard I was asking a really stupid question except something told me I wasn't.  Typically, folks don't ask a person sitting on the ground holding a "homeless and pregnant" sign "how are you?" No, typically, we assume the worst; that the individual is miserable, destitute and without hope.  But, that is not what I saw.  I saw shame, confusion and fear; all three are a form of discord with your present state of being.  In other words, these feelings are a heightened sense of awareness which only reflects wellness.  

Although I was there; I was not in control.  I felt completely driven by something other than my physical being.  The questions came out of my mouth before I could stop them.

"Why are you here?  Where is your family?" I asked deeply concerned.  She looked up at me but, looked away when our eyes met. 

"My family is in Springfield," she murmured looking down.  

Her voice was sweet with a child-like innocence; there was no bitterness in it. 

"Where are you staying?  Are you on the street?" I asked.

"No, I'm in a shelter," she assured me.  

"In Northampton?" I asked.

"No, in Easthampton," she confirmed. 

My mind raced, something didn't add up.  

Squatting down to eye level I asked "How did you get here, do you have a car?"

"No, but I didn't take the bus today; someone gave me a ride."  She answered and I saw she was wearing green contacts.  

"Do they treat you okay at the shelter?"  I asked.  

"I'm with DMH," she offered.  

"How old are you?" trying to ascertain if she was getting the services she needed.

DMH is the department of mental health but, that still didn't confirm she was being serviced properly as a youth.  

"I'm 22," she smiled revealing two beautiful dimples.  

"What happened to school?" I asked.  

"I went to Putnam but, I didn't complete my trade." revealing a British accent.  

"Are you American," lowering my voice to a whisper.  

"Yes," looking up at me.

My confused facial expression must have prompted her to reassure me "Really, I am.  I just read a lot of books from the 1800's." smiling.

I was not convinced but, it didn't matter.  She was slowly opening up even if it was about her pretend reality. The more she spoke, the clearer her British accent became. 

Suddenly, it dawned on me that she might not be pregnant and, the question came right out the way a mother softens her voice to encourage her child to tell the truth.

"Are you really pregnant," without breaking my eye contact.  

Looking down in shame, she shook her head "No."

I was not upset, instead, I was relieved.  Without the slightest clue as to who I was she couldn't lie to me; it was a victory.  

"What is your name?" I asked softly.

"Talina," she smiled shyly.

"Hi Talina, my name is Viviana," extending my hand to her.  

"What do you need Talina; how can I help you right now." I said.  

Talina, did not respond; she didn't know what to say.  Better yet, she didn't know what she needed.  

"What is your last name?" I asked.  "Hugubug," she answered.  

At first, I thought she might be making up a name.  Talina Hugabug is an uncommon name for an African American girl from Springfield, MA but, not for an African-British Islander.  

"Talina, you are so beautiful...Why are you out here on the street all alone?"  Her verbal responses were incoherent and of no consequence.  More important, were her nonverbal responses; they were honest and revealing.  I was amazed at our exchange; the way she responded honestly to my holding her accountable.  

"Are you Hispanic?" she asked smiling so bright it was easy to forget the circumstances that brought us together.  

"I don't call myself that," I asserted.  "I am Afro-Caribbean; I am an Afro-Latina." I explained. 

"You are Black?" she asked with a child-like curiosity. 

"Don't I look Black?" I smiled.  Talina nodded her head, yes. 

"Are you hungry?" I asked again.  

Watching Talina and I transform from random strangers to trusting acquaintance was equal to nothing I've ever experienced.  Certainly nothing a degree in clinical psychology or sociology could teach me.  

I could almost see Talina's thoughts as she looked inwardly and nodded "Yes."  

"Okay, let's go get something to eat." I offered.  

"Talina, You need to begin telling yourself 'I am not homeless; I am home'.  Start envisioning yourself being home.  Please stop telling yourself you are homeless and pregnant.  Rip up that sign and throw it in the trash; that is not who you are."  Looking into the distance, Talina ripped up the sign.  

"Now, let's go eat," I smiled.  

Stay tuned to Six Degrees of Separation Part II....


  1. "I determined, I define who I am."
    Powerful - thanks for writing. It's a vulnerable action that brings strength.

    I met this girl too - I hope she is well.

  2. yes, I love this post. I found myself lean in closer (as if I wan't able to see it so clearly, though I was)

    I agree with zchcho. I feel I was really attracted to this piece because of the honesty/humanity from beginning to end and the vulnerability. I admire your interaction with her, your courage and what you did from the beginning on defining yourself and being aware of who you are.

    I think that people are often scared to be too human, too honest, too vulnerable, too simple so I really liked this.
    Please continue to do what feeds your spirit. I also find that about the dreams that I have. I have to really push myself to do things sometimes through fear, so I resolved to do something "scary" every day. I think it is doing those things that are so different or not so easy that will force us to change our lives and grow differently. It will also make the next big push easier. Thank you again for sharing.

  3. I tryed to leave a reply but it seems it did not post so it's ment for me to do it again ...

    I can't really leave to reply or ask the question that first come to my thoughts do to this being a public space ...first I want to commend you for starting your day by making peace with your daughter, in today's fast pace many a parent forget to do such a thing even when they wanted to or need to do such a thing. By starting your day in such a way you set the pace of not your day but that of your daughters, and as you realized your own internal conflicts while you transversed down life's road ways I can't help but wonder if that young woman's whole purpose for being alive that day maybe the only reason the creator gave her life at all was so you would steep out of your owen unknown to you self imposed boundaries so you would grow as a person as a mother as a woman and become a new creation, kind of like when a caterpillar first spreads it wings