Sunday, February 26, 2017

Six Degrees of Separation Part IV

Wind cut corners on 7th street racing us every step towards Pennsylvania.  Trash funneled into tiny tornadoes at our feet as Nani and I walked arm in arm laughing, talking and enjoying our new home...then, I felt her presence commanding me to stop.

A deeply hued, heavily robed silhouette sat on the wide side-ledge of the towering hotel on 7th Street near Gallery Place; completely undisturbed by the wind, the trash, the dark of night or, even the precarious nature of her circumstances.  Two adjacent suitcases on either side, quilts wrapped tightly around her; she sat queen-esque.  Never raising her gaze from the Black and White composition journal open on her lap.  The swirl from her cigarette punctuated her thoughtful recline.  She wrote.

Two White women walked up to the Sistuh on the ledge.  "This is my friend," introducing the Sistuh to her friend. "Can I sit down next to you?" forcing the Sistuh to scoot over.   "Aren't her journals beautiful?" one asked the other.  The Sistuh appeared baffled by their oohs and aahs.

My body moved past her but, I might as well have been on a treadmill.  I did not put any distance between us.  I stopped and looked in my wallet.  I saw a 20 dollar bill; it was all the cash I had on me.  I took it out and balled it up in my hand.

I quietly walked up to the Sistuh.  Bowing down to meet her eyes I softly asked  "Excuse me Sis, may I share this with you?" extending my hand.   I knew what I was giving her could never equal what in the speed of light, she gave me.  Without words or warning, her spirit reinforced mine.  The fearlessness she emanated reignited my courage; her undisturbed focus, emphasized my complacency.

"Thank you," she replied, surprising me with the sweet, sing-song of an endearing grandmother.  She smiled and I saw myself in the onyx of her eyes.

"No Sis, thank you," I replied.

One of the women looked away pulling on a cigarette through her thin lips; the other spoke in a slow, loud high pitch the way kindergarten teachers speak to their students.

"We are in town for the Women's march," she announced proudly wearing an "I had an abortion and I've asked forgiveness for my sin" button.  

"I just wanted to tell you that I respect you," I said squatting down to be eye-level.  The woman's chatter disappeared into the background.

"Why are you thanking me?" the Sistuh asked me.

"Because, you are not a quitter; because you are here on this street, in this cold and, you are not asking for anything. You are courageous and strong and you are living - not surviving. " I confessed.

Ms. Lorraine Sparks displaced woman, mother and artist, January 2017.

Her eyes softened.  "I have also struggled.  I have never actually slept on the street but, I was an emancipated minor in NYC.  I know what it is to be alone; not have a real home. To not have family to take care of you."  We had never physically met but, her eyes changed; she suddenly recognized me.  

"I also write.  You held me accountable to myself tonight.  And, for that, I thank you."

Slowly, she nodded her head in acknowledgement.  

Ms. Sparks beautiful Journals, Jan. 2017.
Standing so closely to her, I saw how beautiful her penmanship was; like calligraphy.

"What is your name?" I asked the Sistuh.

"Lorraine," she said.  My face lit up in a smile to hear her say such a beautiful name; it fit her perfectly.

"I'm Viviana," I said.

"Oh? You write?" asked the chatty lady sitting next to Lorraine.

"Yes, I do a blog," I said.

"Oh, what's it called?" she asked taking out a pen to write with.

"Breakin' The Afro-Boricua Yoke," I said while she tried to write it down.

Oblivious to her intrusion she stuck out her hand "I'm Mary."

"Viviana."  I replied.  Mary and I shook hands; her smile seemed genuine.  Her friend looked away in honest disinterest.

Feeling intrusive, I bidd Ms. Lorraine good night and continued down 7th Street.

Nani and I walked down 7th toward Pennsylvania, quietly.  The Street grew still as we walked back up 7th towards H Street.  The hussle and bussle of the tourist, pedestrians and even traffic subsided.

And, then I saw her again, she was still sitting on the ledge.  This time, her posture was different; sad.  I just couldn't walk past her.

"Hello again," I said softly causing her to raise her gaze.  I didn't know why but, I needed to understand why this obviously  brilliant woman was alone; on the street; with nowhere to go and no one to go home to.

Treading lightly, I asked "Why are you out here all alone?"  She could have snapped "None of your business".  She could have ignored me; the same way people ignore her.  But, she didn't.

"I don't want to be here.  I got sick." she said pensively looking inwards.

"I used to have a job.  I've always worked and I raised my child; I even put her through college," she reminisced with a heaviness.

Most don't bother to ask people on the street "Why?"  There is a fear of being attacked, lied to or our kindness taken for weakness. People often warn "Be careful talking to the homeless.  Some of them are mentally-ill, desperate, on drugs or diseased."

Standing there in the Sistuh's presence I did not feel any fear, of anything.  I felt her beauty, her strength of character, her wisdom, her loneliness, her sorrow and the lack of rest in her eyes.  I felt an overwhelming responsibility to an elder in the community.

"You have a child?" I asked relieved but appalled that they would allow their mother to be alone on the street.

"Yes, my daughter is married. I don't like her husband" intimating her daughter's choice was a rejection of her.  Immediately, I understood more...more than medical issues or financial instability; family brokenness was at the root.

"You know, sometimes family don't want to take you in because of substance abuse.  People who use will lie to you, steal from you and even harm or, kill you for drugs.  But, I don't use.  I just got sick and, one day my doctor told me " You can't work."

I understood her doctor's words must have sounded like a death sentence; she must have been terrified.

"So, where do you stay when it's very cold?" Sometimes I can go to the shelter but, it's not safe there.  Sometimes I sleep in the entryway of a hotel or, when I have enough I get a room.  I am working with an agency; they are helping me to get my own place."

"Oh, good which agency?" I asked.

"Pathways," she said.

"Pathways?" I asked grateful there was an organization dedicated to helping her.

"Yes, they are working with me to help me get my own place; they said it shouldn't be long now."

I felt so powerless knowing I could not be of more help.  Then as if she had read my thoughts...

"Most people don't speak; they pretend not to see us.  We are all human beings and, I try to remember that they are human just like me.  A simple smile or, "Good morning, how are you today?" makes a huge difference."

I knew that I had done so much more.  I showed Ms. Lorraine respect, concern and she shared her beautiful smile and life story with me.  I learned she is a 58 year old mother of one and, an artist.  Ms. Lorraine is a wood carver and a writer.  This seemingly vulnerable stranger helped me; Ms. Lorraine held me accountable to myself.

Lorraine's presence held me captive and, asked "I see you, do you?"

In acknowledging her I said "I see you" to her but, also to me.  Growing stronger and rooted, I understood our acquaintance was not about me helping her.

We [all] need each other regardless of our circumstances.  We all pour into each other.  


Stay tuned...

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Six Degrees of Separation Part III

We all have a calling; a purpose for which we travel this journey called life.  We keep coming back..until we reach our highest ascension.

Life is moving quickly.   Fifteen days after my last blog post, the Department of Employment Services (DOES) for The District, offered me a position as a Program Analyst in the Business Services Group (BSG).  My job is to offer regional and local employers who are either headquartered or have offices in the district a suite of incentive programs and services to significantly reduce or eliminate the associated costs of recruiting and onboarding DC residents; especially residents with significant employment barriers.

The Thursday before my first Monday, on the job, I was struck with a stinging, burning sensitivity in my right breast.  I had never felt (a) pain in my breasts - ever.  Even the soft wireless bra I wore was like a thousand needles against the soft tissue surrounding my nipple.  I called Dr. Ama, a beautiful sistuh who believes in healing the body through good nutritious food, natural herbs-based supplements and of course a healthy amount of exercise and meditation.   I left an urgent voicemail.  I was overcome with panic "Why is this happening, now?" I demanded angrily.  A high fever consumed me and I barely slept. The next day, I carefully showered trying to avoid the shards of water on my breast.  Every bump in the back of the Uber left me dazed with pain.  By the time I reached Dr. Tyus' office, I wanted to fall on her exam table and go to sleep.  I couldn't.  The cozy, dimly lit living room style waiting area was occupied by five patients; more than I had ever seen.   I sat in the only chair left.  I might have been sitting on a perfect row of sharp nails. Instinctively, my body rocked back and forth. 

Finally, it was my turn to be seen.  I was afraid.  I tried to ignore the question looming over my thoughts.  Dr. Tyus came out with her usual warm, bright-eyed smile "Hi, Viviana!" she began and then her eyes grasped the perse, in my lips and fear in my eyes.  She put her arm around me "come on in" and escorted me into her exam room.  I couldn't wait to take off my bra and alleviate the sting in my right breast.  I felt drained, by the pain radiating from my breast like a sonar attack on my body.

Dr. Tyus looked at me and asked the most unexpected question.  "Tell me what's been going on the last couple of days, emotionally."

While the question caught me off guard; the answer came at the speed of light.

"I start my new job on Monday," I confessed.  "Even though I am excited and extremely grateful for the job; I feel guilty."

"Why do you feel guilty?" she asked.

 "Because, I won't be able to be as involved with Nani (my 12 year old).  I will be gone the entire day; she'll have to get to and from Coop by herself and she'll spend a lot of time alone," my voice cracked.  Because we homeschool and we are new to DC, I worry Nani  is spending too much time alone - as it is.  Now, I'll be gone all day, every day of the week; she'll have to navigate the city all alone.  The more nervous I am about her navigating alone on a daily basis; the harder I am on her to do everything exactly as I instruct her.  I am being too hard on her.  I am afraid perhaps she needs to be in a school everyday with other kids her age.  Instead, she is home alone navigating curriculum three days a week.  With the exception of Tuesdays and Fridays when she is at Sligo Creek Coop and Sankofa Homeschool Collective all day, she will be all alone during the day, until I get home from work.  I am afraid I am failing, as a mother just so I can succeed as a provider."

But there was more...

"This is not my life's work.  I am a writer, a novelist, a truth-teller; a deep thinker, time-traveler.  I want to travel the world and write novels about Afro-Caribbean-descent freedom-fighters who's African Spirituality sparked and sustained independence struggles against slavery and the imperialistic premise of capitalism.  I want to work in my community and empower my people," I revealed feeling completely naked.

Fear of betraying my calling had taken over my mind and swelled deep inside me.

"But, I have to be responsible and take care of my daughter, put a roof over our heads, food on the table and clothes on our backs.  I feel like I am walking away from - me," I admitted feeling very selfish.

"Does Nani want to go back to school?" Dr. Tyus asked me.

"No, I've asked her many times," I answered.

Viviana, you have to stop being so hard on yourself.  You are a single mother and your daughter's father passed on.  You are a wonderful mother to your daughter and, you are doing what is right for your family - by homeschooling her.

Nani is strong like you...  

Take it step by step.  Make adjustments as needed.  Everything will be alright."

From the time Nani was in my womb, I read to her.  Reading books together started as a simple bedtime ritual; it helped settle her for sleep.  Nani loved my reading to her so much that she would ask me to do it in the middle of the day.  I soon learned our reading together didn't just benefit Nani.  I enjoyed it so much I became the characters in the story and created voices for them.  I was releasing my stresses and worries.  Reading Nani's books to her expanded both of our creative and physical realities.  At times, I laughed so hard tears rolled down my cheeks.

Art has always been a very important part of our lives.  I always made sure Nani had creative outlets at home.   When television went digital, I said "bye, bye" to local channels and, I developed quite the extensive library of books and DVDs.  I purchased seasons of the Cosby show, A different World, Atlantis; movies and quality series we were both entertained and educated by.  But, most of Nani's day was spent playing, reading and just being a kid.  We had crayons, coloring paper, construction paper, lots of colorful wood blocks, glue, glitter, water colors, acrylic paint and canvasses.  We would get on the floor and just have fun painting.  I taught Nani how to use the blow dryer to layer colors on her canvas.

When Nani was Nine years old, I bought her her first baby sewing  machine.  The sewing machine was fire-engine red and plastic. A simple little unit with a few moving parts.  Nani immersed herself in the folded little manual for the entire morning, that December 25th.  The machine never quite worked right so, Nani spent hour after hour trying to make it work. In discovering the different parts of the machine and how they worked together, Nani tapped into different parts of her brain; she was never the same. This is homeschooling; many of us do it without even knowing it.  The only difference is homeschoolers do it, intentionally - all the time.

The tiny fire-engine red sewing machine is a testament to Nani's growth and mine - as a mother.

Dr. Tyus examined my right breast; it was feverish, red and my nipple was hard like a dried up prune.  I was terrified.

"Okay, you can dress," she said.

"Viviana, by nature, our left side is the side we nurture from and the right side is where we do most of our authoritative actions.  Because you are a single mother and Nani's father has passed on, you bear all of the responsibilities, all of the time.  Understandably, you feel you always have to be in authoritative mode. But, being responsible (making decisions) does not mean we are in control of the results.  Always being in control or, authoritative mode has caused an imbalance and is being reflected in your right breast.  We all make mistakes so, please give yourself grace and you won't worry so much or, be so hard on yourself and Nani."

Dr.Tyus' words lingered in my head...everything would work out somehow - it always has.

On nights when I stayed in the office til 7:00 PM Sitar Arts Center stepped in and met our greatest family needs; they have been my co-parent fleshing out my vision for what I knew she needed and deserved to have.  Every night, Nani took (and is still taking) a different art class during the afternoon to evening: Fashion Drawing, Pottery, Jewelry Design, Stage Makeup Design and a teen leadership class called S.E.A.L.   Because Ms. Lorraine Robinson Senior Director of Programs and Ms. Loretta Thompson, Senior Director of Operations walk in their calling and purpose, my daughter and I are walking in ours.  Every staff member from custodial to senior leadership, has enriched our lives in seen and unseen ways.  The Sitar family has helped our family grow bigger and stronger.

In the first week of December, Sitar, parents were invited to attend an student art exhibit/showcase.  I was able to meet all the wonderful instructors who volunteer their time and talents to teach the students.  The theatre students RaSeph and Sia Flood-Wright performed a play; both fellow Sankofa homeschoolers and friends of Nani.  After the play, there was an impromptu award ceremony (I don't think parents were informed about it).  I heard my daughter's name being called from the stage.

"We would like to give the Outstanding Leadership award to Naa Anyele Sowah-de Jesus."

My daughter was asked to step up to the stage and was given a trophy for leadership (I still get choked up about it).

Dr. Tyus' words, "Nani is strong like you. Everything will be okay," prophetically footnoted the evening of December 5th 2016.

As Program Analyst in the DOES our work to service employers in the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland (DMV) aligns with the District's Unified State Plan and the Workforce Investment Council's proposed five high-demand sectors: Construction, Hospitality, IT, Business Administration and Health Care.  At the outset of my job, I was being groomed for the construction sector.  After three months, leadership 'shuffled the deck' again, and there were sector realignments.  I was assigned to the healthcare sector.  As a homeschooler, I am anti-vaccinations, anti-drug prescriptions (unless there is a justifiable reason) and anti-quick fix.  Needless to say, I was worried.  My work, requires me to become somewhat of a subject matter expert on my assigned sector(s).  As a result, I am learning a lot about what is wrong with our healthcare system on the workforce development side and the work stakeholders are doing to push for major improvements.  Clearly, the healthcare industry is doing some things right. I have an wonderful primary care physician who is an African-American woman not yet in her late 40's who runs her own practice however I have been actively searching for a doctor like her for over 10 years and, she is a needle in a haystack.

According to the Greater Washington Workforce Collaborative, healthcare professionals report the healthcare landscape is difficult for career seekers to navigate and that they would have benefited from career coaching to better understand the range of job opportunities, training options, and career pathways available to them.  So, if it is difficult for healthcare career seekers to navigate the healthcare landscape how difficult then, is it for the general public, patients?

Every day I ride two buses to commute from the North West side of the District to the North East.  My halfway point is Chinatown.  Chinatown is a bittersweet place to visit.  Steel wool blankets line the entry ways and alleys of H and 7th Streets.  No matter how busy (in my head) I am, I can never be undisturbed by the homelessness, mental illness and economic disparity evidenced by the many older and, young African American men and women who are seemingly holding on by a thin, splintering thread - it is dehumanizing.  When I first arrived to The District last March (2016) I was approached by young, able-bodied Brothers for money to get on the Metro.  For a few months, I gave of whatever little I had.  Then, as time passed, I was not so inclined to give because I felt there was a sense of entitlement, a demand more than a request.  I also registered a giving up on their own ability to help themselves however there are many who are living on the streets or, under the federal poverty line who have not given up; they are fighting for their lives.

One evening I got off the X9 on H and 7th Streets feeling completely drained by my day. I was mentally reviewing my list of "If only I could...I would be..."  I was feeling sorry for myself; maybe even disappointed in myself because I am not writing as prolifically as I want to.  Then, I got off the bus and was snapped into another reality. I heard a beautiful, melodious, voice singing.

"Is there a free concert going on?" I asked.  The voice I heard reverberated over a microphone and sound system echoing throughout the entire H and 7th Street intersection and its perimeter.  I crossed H Street over to the 7th Street side.  There was a crowd gathered; some were recording on their phones and others were just swaying to the song being sung by a young Sistuh.  The 20 something year old African American female sat on a stool while she played her acoustic guitar; she had a professional sound system: headset microphone, amplifier and speaker.  The young girl wore a winter skully with the dangling strings, sweatshirt, sweatpants and sneakers; she was a beautiful dark mocha complexion and her focus was not on the crowd; she was soaring way above the crowd like a kite in the wind.  I was overtaken. I was standing in the presence of pure joy and it was infectious.  I couldn't stop smiling and feeling a sense of pride.  Yes, I proud to be in the presence of this fearless spirit.  To (my) left on the ground was a sign; it read: Vanny's Music. Vanessa held the crowd in the palm of her hand; everyone was mesmerized. Vanessa sparked a flame of pride, of hope, of purpose; she held me accountable to my dreams.  I dropped five dollars in her bucket; she poured life in mine.  If you would like to see a video of her please cut and paste the link below into your browser. In this video Vanny is joined by a friend; they sing beautifully together.

That evening as I stood at the intersection of H & 7th Street; truth spoke to me in a melodious voice: "What's your excuse? Why aren't you writing?  What are you waiting for?"  When you are in the presence of fearlessness; you either receive it or, lie to yourself.  I received it; that's why I felt so much joy.  I knew if that young lady could pour her heart out in front of a mass of strangers; I could too.  H and 7th Street is truly an intersection of truths for many.  Some chose to lie to themselves while others, hold themselves accountable - like Vanessa.

Two Saturdays ago, I woke up to a laundry list of tasks to accomplish: pick up an application for an apartment, handle some banking and finally, register my daughter for  summer camp.  We finished all of our errands.  Nani and I were starving.  I took her to an Ethiopian spot in Columbia Heights off of 14th Street - Letena.  We had a meat sampler of spicy, curried meats, lentils, cabbage n carrots and Ngera (an East African 100% gluten-free sourdough risen flat bread).  I knew Nani had been wanting to hang out in Chinatown; I decided that is what we would do for the rest of the evening.  We made one more quick stop at Five n Below for some ear buds she wanted and then hopped on the Georgia Avenue bus downtown to Gallery Place/China Town.  Knowing what was awaiting us, I was really excited to share the experience with my daughter.

Nani wanted to go into the retail stores and check out the clothes, shoes; regular girl stuff.  I wanted to people watch. We did both.  What I love about Chinatown is that like New York City it still has street front boutiques and stores, right on the ave.  I hate malls.  But, the Chinatown mall plaza is quite small and maintains its original retro architecture with a wide, royal red carpeted stairwell accented with brass that brings you to the second floor with two restaurants and lead up to the third floor where the Regal Cinema is.  Once back out on the 7th street Nani wanted to go further down 7th towards Pennsylvania Avenue. We talked, laughed and enjoyed looking at the different restaurants, stores, hotels and people.  It was cold so, we were walking arm in arm.  Then something caught my eye; my third eye.

Stay tuned for Part IV of Six Degrees of Separation...