Monday, June 27, 2016

The Orlando pause button.

"There's a time to laugh, a time to cry, 
a time to live and a time to die,
a time to break and a time to chill, 
to act civilized and act real ill."

~ Rapper's Delight

I broke down crying in front of my small group of medical students the other day. I didn't mean to. It just sort of happened. One moment I was talking about one thing, and the next minute I was trying to talk with my mouth hinged open and nothing coming out but mushy squeaks. 


We'd just finished up the human sexuality module and I was tasked with debriefing with my group of first year medical students. A panel of patients had just sat before them speaking of their own stories of sexuality and how it affects their lives. Things like identities and behaviors and feelings and religion and joy and pain and sunshine and rain. And all of it was super important to discuss.


So, as scheduled, we headed upstairs to our small group work room to share thoughts and talk through feelings about all that we'd heard. And I know that this group is thoughtful and transparent so I wanted to give this moment the time that it deserved. I truly did.

Only I didn't.

See, this took place on a Tuesday. To be exact, it was the Tuesday after the 49 happy, smiling, dancing and likely imbibing human beings were massacred in what had felt like a safe place. Most young. One a mother grooving at a nightclub in solidarity next to her manchild. Per the stories, she hollered out to him to run and he did. She took a bullet and lost her life. He lived. And then there were the beautiful faces of the others that I'd studied one by one on websites and in magazines. The majority of them immortalized by bold, unapologetic selfies taken at their own hands. Something about that made me feel like a kindred spirit to them all.


I am haunted by that awful event. I am and I accept that I am. I am especially drawn to and haunted by that mother--whose name was Brenda Lee Marquez-McCool. Even though I didn't know her personally, I mourn the loss of her life and count her as one of my heroes. One, she was brave. And two, she loved her boy unconditionally. Her boy was a same-gender-loving brother. And how cool is it that she not only supported her son, she also danced with him in a club on the day she died?


And so. While I had every intention of talking about human sexuality from the perspective of our curriculum, I didn't. I mean, at that time I just couldn't.


As time goes by I am recognizing the power of my influence more and more. So I needed my advisees to know that this happening trumped anything else we were supposed to discuss. I wanted them to have a space to touch and agree and feel something, anything together. Or find that feeling if somehow it had been swirled into life like a teaspoon of yucky medicine in apple sauce--there but not really.

I sat down and looked at their faces in that room. None of them older than 27 years old. All of them representing some different appendage of their own diaspora but still all belonging to this tribe now.  One of them, that I know of, same-gender-loving, too. Another of Muslim faith and observant. And especially, all of them special and amazing and people whose lives matter to me deeply.


So with all of that in my mind, I opened my mouth and tried to speak on all of this stuff. Well, I take that back. First, I tried to talk about what we were supposed to talk about. But then, I closed my laptop, then closed my eyes for a moment to hold back the tears I felt stinging in my eyes.

"I'm supposed to talk to you about what you just learned about," I finally eked out. "But instead I need us to talk about the fact that 49 human beings lost their lives Sunday morning. And, yeah. I know that these shootings are happening a lot. A whole lot. But I . . ." My voice trailed off and started crackling. I tried my best to clear it and go on. "I need to honor them. And what happened. And I need it to not get all lost into this abyss of how cruel the world can be and count as just another thing. Because even if it was that. . . it wasn't that."

They just stayed silent. One student immediately started to cry.

"I need you to know how sorry I am that this is the reality that you have in your twenties. How sad I am that this hate crime against the LGBT community is going to make somebody feel lonelier for so many reasons. And angry, too. How hurt I am that this will make even more people misunderstand my peaceful, thoughtful brothers and sisters who practice Islam. But especially that it will just leave you a little bit more afraid, you know?"

And it's weird. Nobody was really saying anything with their mouths. But they all had these expressions on their faces that spoke volumes. Then, in between being a soppy, weepy mess, I needed to be clear that this was a hate crime and that we needed to hit the pause button for a moment to say that.


Okay, so can I just unpack for two seconds on that part? I think the Orlando massacre is one of most complicated and effed up things that could possibly happen anywhere. But since it happened in America, like many, I'm guilty of needing to label it with some clear compartment of what it was. And I think it comforts us to treat those compartments as if they're mutually exclusive, you know? But I'm realizing that they aren't.

They aren't.

How people see same-gender loving people in this country (and this world) is a major problem. It has this ripple effect that makes people turn inward to hate themselves as much as one can possibly hate anyone or anything. And everyone knows that self hate always ends in hurt directed toward others. So all the subtle shit-talking that I've heard over the years that I never spoke up on? I'm trying to be braver. Like, call things out or at least not stay indifferent, you know? Because that's like watching a mugging in broad daylight and just thinking the whole time that it's really, really fucked up. But not doing anything.

At least that's what I think.

And here's the other thing. The gun control aspect is relevant. I mean, it is. It is relevant as hell, you know?  But I don't want that to totally overshadow the fact  that it was a hate crime. Yeah. I guess that's what I'm saying. Better yet--here's an analogy: Like, if my son was playing outside on a street that should be safe and a person comes speeding down the street hollering at the top of their lungs that they HATE-HATE-HATE black boys and that they should die. . . .and then mows down my kid with a car, crashes into a tree and dies? That would be some tragic shit, right?

And if that car was like, a hot rod, and we could all agree that no person should need a hot rod for everyday use and that it's just too damn easy to get a hot rod, that would be also worth talking about, too.

I mean, it would. But you know what would be even more tragic to me? If I turned on my television and the only conversation (that got any real airplay) was about how we need to control the speeding laws on that street and stop people from having lead feet on gas pedals or access to hot rods.  With very little mention the fact that this man went after my baby as a target with that hot rod. With every intention of eliminating him because, as he chanted out loud and even said prior to turning the key in the ignition, he HATE-HATE-HATES black boys and they should be eliminated. That would be like insult to injury, don't you think?

I do.

And let's be clear--the hot rod and speeding issue is significant and worth marching on Washington about. But it isn't the only problem in this situation, you feel me?

Oh, and if that man looked like me and also said that he represents all of the people who are just like me before doing that? And if everybody thought ill of people like me because he unfairly associated me and my people with his hateful act--when really people like me are nothing like that? Man. That would hurt, too. Especially if it happened during one of the most meaningful times of the year for my people. And especially if nobody seemed to mention how wrong it was and how hurtful that part could be to me, either.

But none of it can be put in just one box, right? My point is just that I want us to not ignore certain boxes. Or even walk around like the boxes were never there in the first place. Does that even make sense?

Sigh. I'm rambling. I know.

So, yeah. That's what happened a few weeks back and I was fine with it. I gave them space to debrief, too, and ended the whole conversation by telling them how much I love them and how much each of their precious lives deeply matters to me. And they got that. They did.

They did.

I'm working hard at being a better steward of my influence with my learners. Shooting down complacency and showing emotion when it's necessary. Because a lot of times it is necessary.


And one other thing:

That mother? That beautiful, brave mama bear Brenda Lee Marquez-McCool who dove on the sword and died in the club shielding her beautiful boy from that hateful man's gunfire? Her boy's name was Isaiah

Just like mine.


Happy Monday. And rest in paradise, Ms. Brenda. You sound like you were my kind of chick.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Life in Pictures: Ongoings.

Life is full and good. Here are a few photos of this American life. 

I look at this husband of mine and still pinch myself. He is kind and thoughtful and grows more and more into an amazing man each day. Watching him with the boys as they grow older feels like an out-of-body experience sometimes. It's like some instinct has just kicked in and shown him what to do at each stage. It's remarkable.

This photo is so Isaiah. He's silly and full of pranks. I believe there was another soda pop hidden behind his back. His Auntie Von wasn't buying his shenanigans. This was during our recent to Cleveland which was, by the way, amazing and family-filled. Lots of old school fun and laughter. It was good.

Kickball in Cleveland until the street lights came on.

The BHE and the youngest. This was on one of the very rare days that Zachary was wearing matching socks.

Our outgoing chief residents at Grady were amazing. Jen and Lucas left me forever changed with their innovative teaching, great ideas, and intelligence. This was on their last day. Of course, I cried like a baby.

When I see photos like these of my children, I feel like I'm getting something right.  This is Isaiah enjoying summertime in Atlanta.

Now that I have my minivan, I can acquire as many kids as I wish. I usually start with my two and end with two extras whenever I show up somewhere. It's the main reason I wanted that car. Moments like this one let me know that it was the right call.

Good, clean fun with no screens. Just big laughs and a barking pup. Or two.

And, of course, a swing tied to high bough.

Headed back to my alma mater to see our newest Delta Sigma Theta initiates being presented to the students on campus. All of it was beautiful, wonderful and reminiscent of my days at Tuskegee. I love that school and love any chance I get to return.

When my student advisees ask to meet with me, I make every effort to fit them into whatever I'm doing. On this day, I was running on an off day. Coffee with Wen happened after.

My students are some of the best human beings I know. The relationship is symbiotic--I feed off of them, too.

As you guys know, I spent five years in Cleveland, Ohio for residency and then married a man from Cleveland. Suffice it to say, we were "all in" for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals and are big fans of LeBron James.

One of my student advisees was rooting for his home team, the Golden State Warriors. We enjoyed a lot of subtle trash talking in our small group. On this day, I sent a little subliminal message via the back of my laptop.

Ryan's Run for the Central Night Shelter for men was so amazing this year. The cause was meaningful, too. It was started by my dear friend Katie Bashor (aka Coach B.) who departed this life unexpectedly in April. She wanted to start this race to bring awareness to mental illness; her son lost his life to suicide the very year before. She was brave and driven. It was heartbreaking to run it this year without her but powerful to hold on to that legacy.

My sweet boy Zachary ran three full miles in under 26 minutes. There were no kids with him, either. Just him and his own determination. I was beyond proud of him. It was amazing.

Here I am with my friend, Jennifer M. She's my sorority sister and also one of my favorite running partners. We ran Ryan's Run together last year with Katie. This year was bittersweet but I'm glad we were both there to hug and remember.

More jumps in the air? Why not?

I think developing relationships away from work and home are so important. I spend a lot of time working and serving in my local chapter of Jack and Jill of America, a mothers' organization dedicated to developing children into leaders. On this day, our group shared a fun evening of fellowship and fun. Work always feels like play when you get to know people better.

At least, that's what I think.

Look how big our puppy is getting! Willow the Wuppa, aka "Wubs" has added a lot of energy to our home. Certainly, having a puppy isn't for the faint at heart. But. . . we love him. It's been a fun ride together so far.

Figured I'd stick with the collage theme and show you this one. Zachary decided to choose Muhammad Ali as his "American Hero" for his project last May. He was really thankful for these photos upon his passing but also especially glad to know so much about his legacy.

Ali was a bold man and few have stood on their convictions at such a young age more than he did. Once you got past the bravado, you could see how brave of a man he was.

Wubs was stinky this day. Bleccch.

I love this photo of my line sister Ebony and me. She's one of my soul sisters. We get one another and always have. On this evening we were celebrating her new job. I'm so proud of her.

Last week on a rainy day with one of my favorite interns. Seeing her bright face makes my day. She's strong, smart and kind. I'm really proud to be connected to Dawn and am excited to see what her future holds.

Isaiah got his first job! Yup. He's back at his pre-school serving as a teacher's assistant. These snaps were taken on his very first pay day. He was over the moon.

And this was when he was telling the kids good bye for the weekend. It was so precious.

Life is full and good. I hope all is well with you.

Happy Tuesday.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Something I learned recently.

Disclaimer: Random ramble. Feel free to stop here. 


Several years ago, I watched this episode of the Oprah Winfrey show where this woman--a school principal--had left her baby in a locked car all day while she was at work. Well, let me clarify. It wasn't actually a baby but more of a toddler who'd fallen asleep in her booster chair on the morning drive.


So this lady is talking and Oprah is looking at her all intensely-intently-empathic-like while she explains what-had-happened. She said something about how every single day her husband took their daughter to her pre-school but how, on this day, he had a scheduling conflict. And this woman goes on to tell Ms. Winfrey all about how it was her first day as a principal at this school where she'd worked for many years already and how happy-nervous-anxious she was about this promotion. She recounted her morning speaking of how she'd first made this pitstop on the way for donuts for the teachers. Then about how mostly she was just doing every day things like listening to the radio and checking her mascara for clumps. And this was before folks were all up on their phones and such so that wasn't even a factor.


Then, I guess, she got all up in her head so much that she took the route she always takes and did the thing she always does when driving to that school. And the route she always took and the things she always did didn't include going to a pre-school on the way. So, yeah. She did all that like she always did it that day. The only difference being that she parked in a different, more high real estate parking space. Oh, and that her kid was still asleep in the back seat.

Um, yeah.

The rest is as disastrous as you might imagine. A colleague walks past her crossover SUV parked in that new fancy fangled space and moves closer just to admire the accomplishment it represents. But that person surprisingly notices something unusual inside. Yup. An unconscious toddler still strapped in a car seat. It was well into the afternoon by this point and in the heat of August. By the time they got outside and called EMS it was just too late. That baby had died.

Yeah, man.

So, me, being a person without kids at that point but a still a person, saw this and felt what a lot of people feel. Horrified. Sad. Shocked. Slightly nauseated. And just wishing-wishing-wishing that on just this one time that she could get a do over. That someone somewhere would have forgotten to bring a lunch box or some milk money or something. A chance to turn back time so that somebody, anybody could have just peeked in there and saw her child right after she'd parked. Or perhaps that even she would have reached back for something that rolled under her seat, noticed and then said, "HOLY SHIT!" Realizing she'd actually left her human child strapped in the car. Then, she could have just sat on the back seat clinging to her child, just weeping and weeping about what could have happened instead of what had happened.


Years have passed since then and here and there I've seen similar stories pop up like this in the news. Even a friend of mine had a friend experience this exact same nightmare with their child. But by the time I heard it those other times, I was somebody's mother. My thoughts about it all were slightly different but that same sinking feeling I felt inside was the same.

I recall one of the more recent ones a few summers back right here in Atlanta:

"Granddad leaves kid in car for an entire day. Story at 11."

"Who does that?" I heard someone say in the hair salon that day. "Like who in the hell gets so busy that they leave their own child in a car and walks into work for the whole damn day? That sounds completely crazy to me." The amen choir chimed in from under dryers or under the snip-snip of scissors and clink-clink of curling irons. "I know folks get busy, but damn!" A few chuckles followed and then just this weird silence.

And me, I mostly kept quiet that day because I thought about my own answer to that rhetorical question. "Who does that? Anyone could do that."

Like even me.

Wait. Let me be clear. Nothing is wrong. The kids are alright and no one has been shut up in a hot car without a way to get out. Nor has this almost happened to me so far.

Oh. I take that back. I did once drive toward interstate 20 to head to work and almost forgot to take Isaiah to day care when he was a baby. Harry usually dropped off so it was a routine change--and Isaiah had fallen fast asleep. I noticed well before I got to the interstate but I had passed the daycare already. Which tells me that my quiet answer inside was right. When routines get shaken up or we get distracted or in our own heads too much? Things can happen. And most of those things are near misses but sometimes, like the instance with that lady on Oprah, they are real, true irreversible catastrophes.


So I guess I'm all rambly-rambly about this because I'm trying to process a near miss that I had fairly recently. And for a lot of reasons I can't explain the exact details of what happened but what I can say is that it not becoming catastrophic is one of those things that is equivalent to someone yelling out to that principal-lady right after she got out of her car: "Hey! Ma'am! I think you left your baby in there!"


But. That's not even the striking part of this. Something else is. So stay with me, okay? I'm going somewhere, I promise.

Okay, so imagine the stakes being high like that. Like a baby being left in a hot car on accident. The kind of thing that could be perceived as somewhat negligent even though theoretically it's the kind of eff up that could happen to anyone. Yeah. That. Those things that happen when people get super distracted and are doing to much in their heads so allow some part of whatever else they're supposed to be tending to go into autopilot.

Yeah. Kind of like that.

So picture me as the person doing all of those things and some other completely innocent person minding their business. Hmmm. I think I need a metaphor. Uhhh, okay let's do this--let's imagine that completely innocent person is standing right on the tippy-tip edge of a giant cliff. But like a giant cliff that is usually safe when people are watching where they are going.

So yeah. A giant, giant cliff. That is usually safe.

Okay, so check it. Let's just say that what had happened was that I stepped left instead of right because I wasn't looking. And I wasn't looking because I was distracted. Not by something über-negligent (yet common) like texting on a cell phone or putting on mascara but still. Regardless of what I was doing, I own the fact that I wasn't paying attention. And shit happens when you don't pay attention.

And so as the story goes, my inadvertent step very, very nearly knocks this innocent person off of the usually safe giant, giant cliff. Yet somehow, someway that person manages to cling to a jagged rock instead of falling and is mostly okay.

So me, I look down the cliff and back at the person. Then back down the cliff and back at the person. My heart is pounding with relief and panic. It feels like my heart is like a banging gong for all to hear.

"Oh-my-god-oh-my-god-oh-my-GOD!" That's what I shriek when I see that poor person holding on for their life. And people are running over to the edge to help or look or just be nosey. . .  because something like a person falling off of a giant, giant cliff in front of a whole bunch of people is the kind of thing that causes people to do such a thing.


So people are freaking out. Like really, really freaking out. Including the better half of the cliff hanger person who comes tearing over in a frenzy. I mean, that better half thought that their love had fallen to the very bottom into the deep abyss of a valley so who could blame them? Not me. And see all of it was really messed up because everyone there was traumatized. Me included. So I just kept screaming, "Oh my GOD! Oh my GOD! Oh my GOD!" and "I am SO SORRY."

Because I was sorry. Very. 

Okay. I know this all sounds like some crazy, cryptic parable. And I'll stop torturing you with it, I promise. But I need you to hear it because I got some powerful lessons and I'm trying my best to process them. What happened next is the most shocking part of all.

Once the cliff hanger person got safely back on the ground, he let it be known that he was okay. And people sort of calmed down for two seconds but then they peered down that jagged peninsula again and realized how really, really bad this could have been. And, honestly, I do the same thing. Because near misses make you do that macabre instant replay thing, you know?


So here's the crazy part--I kept freaking out but the cliff hanger person remained unusually calm. And somewhere around my seven hundred and forty sixth apology, the cliff hanger person simply looked at me and said:

"It was an accident. I forgive you."

Now. I can't say it was bizarrely warm and fuzzy apology acceptance but just more . . I don't know. . .real. Like, when the cliff hanger person told me he forgave me, I believed him immediately. "I am okay," the cliff hanger said. "I am okay and I will be okay. It was an accident."

And yeah, there were a few more words exchanged but that was mostly it.

And that? That messed me up a hundred times more than the near miss. I mean, there's a lot of things that I do that some might think are special. But what the cliff hanger person did in this instance? Staying this calm after a potentially near-death experience? Man. Had that been me? Had a distracted and quasi-negligent person nearly catapulted me to my untimely demise from the side of a usually-safe cliff? I can't say that I would have been so gracious. As a matter of fact, I know I wouldn't have. My curt response would have sounded something like this:

"I'm fine. Now, please. Please. Just get away from me. As far away as you can."

That's probably what I would have done. Something exactly like that more than likely. But nothing like what the cliff hanger did.

And you know? Up until then, I would have been okay with that. As a matter of fact, I would have been proud of myself for not completely snapping and cursing the person out. I probably would have called some girlfriend to share my testimony of "staying cool" even though everyone knows that sharp indifference can cut deeper than the knife of full on anger.


And so. In the midst of my near miss, my attention was grabbed for an altogether different reason--grace and human kindness. This person chose to extend me grace when I didn't deserve it. Or maybe I did deserve it, right? And maybe that person knew that and all of this was for me to learn that lesson. Either way, it was remarkable. Like super remarkable.

Man, it was.

Perhaps I'm not doing a great job articulating what happened to me and how deeply moved I was by this interaction. If I'm not, please just know that something super pivotal took place and it's not something I will soon forget. A person had a chance to be angry and venomous. But chose to be gracious instead.

Yes. That.

My kids witnessed it all. Me being distracted and nearly pushing a person off of a cliff. And they saw that person choosing kindness over spite. Even though anger or icy indifference would have totally been justified. Or at least socially acceptable.

There was once this renowned medical educator who often spoke of what he called "equanimity under duress." Up until that moment, that always sounded like just a cool-sounding concept and  thing to say. But on that day--the day someone met me with grace during a potential catastrophe--I saw it up close and personal. I sure did.

Merriam Webster defines equanimity as mental calmness and composure especially during difficult situations. And duress is. . . well, exactly what you are in when someone nearly knocks your ass off of a usually-safe cliff on accident.

You feel me?

And look. I won't even try to unpack the spiritual aspects of all of this for me. I mean, not here I won't. But because many of you have read my words and know me through them, you know that those parts are swirling in my head, too.

I guess what I'm realizing as I get older is that whether a person believes in God or a higher power or any such thing at all. . . grace and mercy are things we all need. And just like that lady needed mercy from the world and grace from herself to forgive herself for that awful mistake, all of us need the same every day. We sure do. Sometimes in the form of just cutting someone a little slack. And other times in those big and sweeping ways that part the entire red sea of chaos around you. A piece of me knows that we are all just one sliding door away from some earth-shattering catastrophe nearly every moment of every day. There are the near misses that we see and the others that we never even notice at all. But all of them are there.

Yeah, they are. And I am thankful for every near miss that I get the chance to recognize and from which I subsequently learn.

Yeah, man.

I still think of that lady from the Oprah Winfrey Show from time to time. I remember her tired eyes and wonder how she's doing or if her world was just too broken to ever smile again. I think about her husband, sitting on that front row with his antalgic smile, and wonder if their marriage was able to endure that loss. But mostly, I just hope that somebody somewhere extended her grace and mercy. Especially enough to help her believe she is worthy of giving the same to herself.

Sigh. I know that was a lot. Thanks for reading it all.

So what did I learn? Pretty simple. Life happens fast. Like super fast. So slow down. And be kinder than necessary. And if you can? Exercise equanimity under duress.


Happy Friday.