I Promise not to Be “Too Exotic”

Years back, I was taken to “Meet the Parents”. As soon as I stepped in through the door, my “would-be mother-in-law commented, “You look too exotic!”

I did not quite understand, if she meant, as a “dancer” or because of the clothes I was wearing. I had my cute knee-high outfit made of Africa print, with a cute matching head wrap [yes, before they were “Etsy”, “Instagram” famous, they were doreen-famous:)]. IMG_1767

I wondered, for a minute, if she had never met an “African”…yes, the continental not Diaspora type. This was the South, in one of those conservative towns, where women had to struggle in the 2000s to join a fight and protest “Men’s Club”.

Then I remembered that I was not the first of his son’s “would-be” that she had met. In any case, her son had spent umpteen years with Africans in Africa. She must have seen one with “exotic clothes or features”, so I thought to myself. Needless to say, the rest is history. I consider that the beginning of the decline of my approval rantings into the clan.

So, when my friend recently said the same thing to me, I wondered, “What is so exotic about me?” She had seen me last week wearing a “whiteman”’s suit, shoes and carrying a white man’s bag. My hair is white, like the wise elders of our society. My smile is mainstream corporate/international business. Which part is “exotic”?

Is it because, I speak English with “an accent”? Americans say, it is British, the Ugandans, British and Scottish say, “It is American”, and the South Africans also say, “It is British.” Or is it because I wear long earrings, some made out of African print?  Is it because i eat, “native food”, as one of my African American relatives told me? Or because, the way I dance reminds, another one of my African American relatives, of Sarafina? [I must confess with shame, I have never [thoroughly] watched the movies; I have caught glimpse of it…but not all of it.

As I go out today, I Promise not to be “Too Exotic”. But if I appear so, please remember that, I am simply Too Exotic; they don’t make many of my type!

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Thank You Richard Branson, Philanthropy Begins at Home!

From childhood, we are told, “Charity Begins at Home”. This mantra is impressed upon us into our adulthood, and throughout our daily lives. It is a way of encouraging responsibility toward oneself, one’s family, community or country, “Before, you go off saving the world, save yourself first, and your immediate surroundings.”

So, why isn’t the same mantra applied to charities, philanthropists and philanthropies? I am thinking here of world re-known philanthropists, foundations like Ford, Mellon, Bill & Melinda Gates, Google, Soros, Nike, Rockefeller and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, who are widely known and hailed internationally.

In all fairness, Soros is well-established in supporting toward domestic non-profit constituencies, out-of-the-box projects and changemakers. So is Carnegie’s domestic support toward the development and sustainability of public libraries. You should already be aware that I am biased. I mention these, not because they are the worst culprits, but because they are the ones I am most familiar with or most highly celebrated globally for their “spirit of giving” to the world’s most vulnerable. Or perhaps, I have encountered and interacted with more beneficiaries from among these philanthropists, myself included!

Anyway, how did I concern myself with the “Charity of Philanthropies”? It all started while chatting with a parent at our neighborhood school bus stop, after getting my first grader onto the school bus. I took it upon myself to let him [the parent] know that I spoke to his daughter about the limp in her right foot, which she informed was from a fall in second grade (she is now in fourth grade!). I urged him to take her to the doctor, because “Prevention is better than Cure!” Not that he and his wife are bad parents; of course I knew that!

He told me, getting orthopedic treatment is so expensive (Yes, I knew that, too!).

“Maybe you could negotiate with the doctor for a subsidized charge, or partial payments? You may find someone with understanding and would sympathize with your situation.”

I told him that a friend did that when she did not have insurance in grad school.

“Or perhaps the government could help with medical treatment?” my next suggestion.

“Well you know, the government will not help you, unless you are making no money at all,” was his response.

Of course I knew that as well!
The government does not pity those close to the poverty line, unless you are below the poverty line. Which explains why some people who earn barely enough or nothing at all, get trapped under the poverty line. If one were to rise above the poverty line, even by a penny, s/he would be immediately excluded from much-needed public assistance toward housing, food and health care. Then, they would be left with barely any pennies to offset the cost of basic upkeep, and provide for their families. Even in situations where one is unable to afford all basic expenses with, for instance, extra $50 paycheck earning, the government will immediately cut them off public assistance.

The other day, a Tae-Kwon-Do mom, with a six month old explained to me that she chose to stay at home for the first year following her child’s birth, because it would not make any sense going back to work, and struggling to pay for daycare. In fact, her entire paycheck [with a little public subsidy] would go toward daycare. with no guarantee that her child would receive quality care and attention than if she stayed home her first year.

You might be asking, “Why doesn’t she get a job capable of providing for her a more comfortable income?” More complicated, that mere personal choices and commitment! The level of education, the professional industry and job availability are all big factors in securing a good paying job. She told me that even if she worked full-time, her best possible income, based on her qualifications would not earn her earned an income to ably support her and her family. The current job market is a world of insecurity; those who work 38 hours are hired as part-time employees, while others working the full 40 hours per week, are day-to-day [substitute teachers, for instance], casual or contract workers, without employee benefits.

I am telling you all this because among these employers, paying their dedicated, hardworking employees bare minimal wages, are some receiving huge mileage as big philanthropists. Our favorite “corn popper” at the Target Café in our neighborhood told us she had to leave for a better paying job elsewhere. She was barely surviving with the wages she earned. Ironically, Target’s advertises on its “popcorn paperbags” that it “gives 5% of its profits to communities, $4 million every week”!

Target corporate pogiving

Target corporate giving

Then I wonder, “How about giving that money as an extra income to the people who enable your business accumulate such huge weekly profit margins? How about improving the lives of those who work so hard to enable you gain national fame, instead of those who might not necessarily work to make you big? I bet the company would receive the same accolades it fetches from defining itself as a “philanthropist”.

Why can’t all philanthropists be like Richard Branson, the Virgin Group mogul who is giving his employees a year-long paid paternity leave [for both sexes]! The offer extends full year paid leave to men who have been with the company for four years, or 25% for those who have worked for two years or less. While he is not inventing the wheel on paid annual leave, because the Scandinavians governments are already doing that for the mothers, it is a first in corporate employment!

As he says, If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your business.” Can we disagree that taking care of your immediate constituency improves their job security, families, personal lives, possibly disposable income? I am thinking here of what a difference Ford Foundation, for instance, would make, resuscitating Detroit City, its birthplace through Ford Motors! The philanthropic arm of big business should start with those in its midst, who make their livelihoods and the health of their companies brighter, because Charity Begins at Home!

More Birthday Celebrations – There is Only One Boston…..Marathon

On the eve of celebrating yet 21st Birthday….For-ever 21, get’t….To Boston 2015

I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude, for all the support I received toward accomplishing my dream of running the Boston Marathon!

Indeed, There is Only One Boston — Marathon!

From the start of mooting the idea of running Boston, I received love and support from friends, colleagues and family, till I finally accomplished my goal on Monday, April 20! What a feat! Do you worry, if you’re yet to declare your support for me; you can still donate to my fundraiser for Tufts Medical Center, my charity of choice for the marathon. I still have until end of May 2015 to accept your donation. Here is the link: https://www.crowdrise.com/TuftsBoston2015/fundraiser/doreenlwanga

Thank you so much, for the many people who expressed their love and support for me, verbally, monetarily, emotionally, physically and communally! Lost for words! You are truly unprecedented!

What a marathon! As I said, this is the first marathon that I went in fatter, financially challenged and socially isolated. Just look at pictures from all previous marathons I ran sleek, slender and swift.

This time, I had no income to afford a running watTufts Teamch, after the strap on my Garmin watch broke. I could not afford to pay a couple of gym hours for strength training, or pay my registration fees for Boston 2015, or a hotel in Boston during marathon weekend. I had no pace-mate/pacemaker/pacesetter/running mate, and had to train alone in the Mt. Poconos. My fundraiser did not yield much, either, in terms of financial contributions, as much as I sent out an email every week.

Yet, the volume of support, directly and indirectly, solicited and unsolicited, declared and undeclared enabled me accomplish Boston Marathon with no glitch and plenty of satisfaction. While I trained alone in my Poconos neighborhood, I had plenty of ‘unseen’ and undeclared support from the watchful eyes of motorists, pedestrians and onlookers, who saw me pounding the area main streets, back roads and sports fields. No doubt, they were cheering me on, in sleet, snow, rain and below freezing temperatures, even though they did not know my mission was Boston.Coach Megerle

It all started with Coach Don Megerle giving me a spot on the Tufts Marathon Team. Thereon, I knew I had to get to Boston and run, and run damn good! How that would happen? I would worry later. Once the registration process with BAA opened, I innocently broke the news to Coach that I was frantically trying to mobilize the US$300+ registration fees. Surprise! He asked me to give him a call, and instantaneously find it! Fully registered and paid up, I did my happy dance, as news, updates and reminders started flowing in from BAA.org. With registration finally confirmed, I upped my training and preparation for Boston 2015.

Plus, Coach Megerle sent near daily running updates, schedule, motivational articles, advice on staying physically fit and focused, eating well and staying connected with the TMT and other freebies to the team. Just connecting with us, and making me feel a part of a team, from far away was super-good!

GoMebTo keep track of my mileage and stats, my phone came in handy on my runs, with three running apps, plus two other apps for tracking daily strides and activity. Two of the running apps had pre-scheduled marathon training plans, perhaps more than necessary, but each served a purpose.

My running shoes were really wanting of immediate replacement, both pairs were not eligible to run Boston. Along came my brother with magical ideas on how to obtain new shoes. Viola! I got myself two new pairs – my first choice of Newtons Distance to run the marathon, and an additional Brooks for training. Add to that, a sweat scarf, which served as a mouth mask, face mask, and head scarf, and two good running tights. I was all set.

Still, I had to find a place to stay during marathon weekend, and a ticket to Boston. I planned to take my son with me, so he could watch me run and cheer me on. Sadly, friends, who had hosted me the last time I was in Boston were having guests over during Marathon Weekend. So, I posted a message on FB, seeking for alternatives. Problem solved, in an instant of posting a message, and a couch readily available at the Mwosa Girls and Boys. They happily welcomed my extra-baggage aka child, giving me joyous relief!We can do this

We traveled to Boston two days before the marathon, taking two buses -The Poconos to NYC, then, from NYC to Boston. Got to Boston safe, picked up our Bibs and run package, took a couple of pictures, toured the expo, did a little bit of freebie hunting, made posters, and enjoy a coffee at Boston South Station, and shared an ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery until our host returned into town.

The entire Mwosa house was ready for us. The young boys, eagerly awaited this child of mine, and indeed enjoyed each other. For the entire four-day weekend in Boston, I do not think I saw him for a full hour. He did not care that he was sharing a room with ’new friends’, away from his mother! Nor did I have to worry about feeding him breakfast, lunch or dinner because the Mwosa parents had all that covered! They pampered me V.I.P. -style the entire visit, allowing me to rest before and after the marathon. They chauffeured me back and forth to the “T” aka “Boston Train”, when I could not find a cab, and they accepted my invitation to the Tufts pre-marathon dinner.

I gat thisOn the eve of the Sunday, Marathon, April 19, I did only 15:42 minutes of running, rested most of the day, until I went to dinner with my hosts. Typically, I don’t like eating the night before the run, for fear of shocking my stomach during the run. Since Tufts, was hosting us – the Tufts Marathon Team (TMT) and family to a pre-marathon dinner, I went with child and our hosts. I felt compelled to eat something in keeping with “carb loading” advice, even though I don’t do “carb loading”; quite frankly, I don’t know what it entails. Dinner was good in taste, time of day and duration.

Marathon Day, April 20! Of course, in my typical style, I barely slept the entire night. Once again, my body clock woke me up close to two the morning, before my alarm clock went off. Plus, the jitters I have every night before  any big event did not allow me to sleep soundly throughout the night. I was wide awake way before scheduled time to leave the house for the “T”.

After two cups of tea and warm water, I set off to catch the T downtown. The T gate would not take my ticket! Another train rider gave me a ‘nod’ to go through without paying. Heard, there was some kind of “Boston Marathoners ride Free T Ride Day”. A woman on the T asked to take my picture – my short celebrity moment. She said, she too wanted to run the Boston Marathon, and wished me good luck! I got a few more “Good Luck Today” cheers, but most of the commuters were absorbed in themselves. Surprising, since the Boston Marathon is a Big Deal on Patriots Monday. Perhaps, they have had enough with their city being swarmed by ’26.2 miles Zombies’ from the world over! Don’t blame you Boston, I still love you!

On oN to Marathon Bus Loading Zone, with no problem. First, into the “porta-potties” line. While standing in line for the bus to Athletes Village, I saw a friend from Kampala Hash House Harriers. Yeah! What a joy! We boarded the bus together, and stayed together until our marathon wave started, then planned to hook up again post-marathon.Medals with friends

Everyone was allowed to board the buses to Hopkinton, MA, regardless of the Wave number. The ride was too long; felt like going to another country! Got there, and made another dash for the porta-potties! Yes! A woman gotta empty her bowels before hitting the marathon route. I don’t believe in stopping for the porta-potties along the course, even though I drink at each water refueling station. I say, nobody will know if you pee on yourself while running. Particularly on rainy Marathon Monday; who would even care? Except for that guy with a sign, “Smile if you peed on yourself”. So naughty!

I must say, the love and support along the route was phenomenon! No way I would have finished the marathon, the crowd support. Please believe me, because I am not a quitter, never thought of being one. Yet, the hills and hills and more undulating hills along the BM course gave me lots of temptations in my head, to quit. See, I run in the Mt. Poconos, with plenty of hills and steep climbs. I run below freezing, in temperatures before what we had on BM, I run in rain, wind and everything. Yet the hills burned me so damn good! Unfathomable!

I guess even more reason to celebrate my 3:49:02 finish. I know I was aiming for more, but that was much better than any pace during my training. Remember, I am fatter in size than all other previous marathons. I was amazed by the runners, outdoing themselves, like each was a professional! Folks were running, no jokes! Sweating it nice and each staying calm. I guess that’s the true meaning of being among the crème de la crème. The best there at this game of marathons.

The crowds gave us all the love, not just water and gatorade, but also oranges, water mellow, more water…And I heard, but sadly missed, the “Beer Stop” of the Boston Hash House Harriers. That beer would have given me wings! On consolation, there was plenty of Jumbo-Love especially at Mile 9, at the water points, and different points along the route, with plenty of “Kisses from the Wesley Girls, music and more cheers all the way to the finish line.

How gratifying to catch sight of the finish line! I always say, I have very high respect for anyone who can run a marathon in five Family celebrationshours! Don’t mean to sound obnoxious or condescending, but by three hours and a half, my legs are ready to give in! But that excruciating agony, is positively boosted by the exhilaration seeing the finish line. Every minute thereon counts, you push yourself to achieve better. Especially when crowds cheer on your like a champ!

My son’s grandparents drove all the way into Boston, bless their kindest souls, to watch and support me run.The grandparents deserve a big shout-out! All those times you were in the battle alone, training in the snow, freezing rain, while all others are tucked cozily undercover, it is so gratifying witnessing the love of anyone taking off their time to support you!  They traveling at night to Boston, came out in the rain and chilly weather, stood at Mile 9, waiving the poster they made with my name up high, waiting to see me run by. Then, unexpectedly, to finish line to welcome me with flowers, though I missed them, as I dashed off. Even grandpa who stayed in the hotel room, because the weather was conducive for his health, was glued to the TV the entire time, hoping to catch a glimpse of me run amidst the crowd. Then they stayed, until I was all done with the post-marathon reception on Tuesday, to drive us back to PA! Priceless!

I am so grateful for all who contributed to my run – as financial donors, cheerleaders, hosts, and admirers. MWith grandma Anitay friends and family in Boston, who I was not able to meet in person due to a tight schedule, but gave me a call or sent me messages. My son, who does not understand why I did not win, perhaps a manifestation of his ‘grandiose’ respect and confidence of me. I love my son, very much! I love to see his glow, whenever he sees me. I love everything he says. I am so glad he’s very flexible in different circumstances and different places. I run for him.

Running the Boston Marathon is not just about being part of phenomenon history. As I ran those streets, I thought of my best friend Phina, who would have lived the streets of Boston outskirts, along the marathon route, cheered me on, and waited for me at the finish with her contagiously perfect smile. I dedicate this run to Phina. We met in Boston and last saw each other in Boston. She like me was a beneficiary of the care at Tufts Medical Center.

Please join Phina (RIP) and I in celebrating Tufts Nutrition, Fitness and Health Programs by donating to my Charity the Tufts Medical Center. It would be a great honor to me, as I celebrate another 21st Birthday, tomorrow April 28, 2015. https://www.crowdrise.com/TuftsBoston2015/fundraiser/doreenlwanga

Thank you for all your love! Thank you!IMG_7416

In the Middle of Everywhere!

Have you ever felt stuck in the Middle of Everywhere?

In the Middle of Everywhere

In the Middle of Everywhere

Imagine for a minute that you are stuck in “space”. Let’s call that space, a basement. There is limited natural light, it is really cold in the Winter, floods with melting snow when Spring comes, hot in the Summer. For most part of the year, you cannot tell day or night, except by the hourly talk of your alarm clock or when your TV announces the news. Since you are in constant fear of missing your daybreak due to lack of sunlight, you have to keep some kind of artificial light on 24-hours. You decide, the lead light will be the cheapest.

Though, none of the solutions seems to work because you still feel stuck in a basement. You are losing yourself. You are losing your creativity, your energy, your imagination and your umph! Every idea you come up with, seems to evaporate right before you put it on paper. You really don’t know where you are headed. You go to bed everyday, with a promise to wake up and accomplish at least one goal per day. Yet, the energy dwindles from you half way into your goal of the day!

Stuck in the basement, you are losing your sense of direction. You are losing your confidence. You are losing your trust in miracles. You begin feeling that  life has given up on you, and connived against your flourishing and success. Yet, you cannot get back any time, minute or second that has gone by you.

The basement is swallowing your pride, as much as it is enhancing your bitterness. The basement is stimulating your delusion and destabilization more than your boosting your determination. The basement is where dreams no longer come true, where dreams die, dreams become confused, and entangled in mourning, regret, bouts of sadness and soul searching.

You want to get out of the basement. You vow to get out of the basement. You give yourself a timeframe to quit the basement. Yet you no longer seem to know how the paths to tread. Or perhaps you know, but the basement has eaten up your courage to get out. The only time you step out of the basement is for a cup of tea upstairs, or go for a run outside or to the bus stop. Or perhaps you are embarrassed to show your face to the world that has held you up, expecting a lot of you and from you. You would rather shut your face away from the world that expects high performance from you.

You are in the middle of everywhere, yet you are alone and lonely. You do not wanna be alone, yet alone is when you feel the most relaxed and humanized. What else is there to live for? The basement reminds you of all the responsibilities you have incurred in life. The knowledge you have and continue to amass, which needs to be put to use for yourself and those in your life. The basement reminds you to show it appreciation for shielding you from the wrath of the world, and give back to the world. The basement is where it all unfolds-folds-unfolds again. Yet, you cannot fold yourself up forever.

There is no noise in the basement, except for the occasional rotation of the extra fan, turned on when it is really cold, or the TV or clock at the top of the hour. The basement offers a huge place to breath ideas, recapture them before they disappear from your imagination, escaping your little fingers. Put them on paper, transport them into virtual reality, into other people’s spaces.

In the Middle of Everywhere is where your creativity should come back to life. Move out of the basement, hit the streets and never look back into the basement. You will be a giant, again, In the Middle of Everywhere….Everywhere but the basement!

Is It True There is a Place For Everyone?

While visiting New York City recently, a thought crossed my mind, “Is It True That There is a Place For Everyone?”
The City for [not] Everyone

The City for [not] Everyone

Apparently, everyone who moves to New York becomes a New Yorker instantaneously! New arrivals to the city attest to that, as do former New York City residents, ask me about the latter. I moved to NYC from Boston, MA in 2005. Interestingly, I never felt a belonging to Boston, perhaps because I lived there as a student and within the Boston students “inner enclave”, shut off from the locals! No doubt, Boston is the epicenter for high intellectual learning in America, offering abundant students opportunities: to hangout with fellow students, enjoy student events and student life. Though, migrant students into Boston live largely oblivious to the presence of real “natives” or “locals” in the neighborhood, whose claim to belonging is not a two-year, four-year, or seven-year stint in pursuit of an academic hood and cap!
So, when I moved to NYC, it did not take too long before I felt a sense of belonging. I caught on so quickly like a wild fire, assumed my entitlement on the first day I stepped out to start my job in Manhattan. Every morning and evening when I took the train Brooklyn-Manhattan-Brooklyn, I felt as much a part of the subway ride, the street experience, the music and rats on the illustrious subway. NYC brought back memories of Kampala, my city of birth in Uganda. Similar hustle and bustle, and “everyone got an attitude and knows it” style.  Like NYC, Kampala has something for everyone, street fanfare – art, food or accessories vendors, bike or food service delivery, lost souls and homelessness, plus abundant space to make, break or re-make anyone. In 50c lingua, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.
But there is a price to pay for that “Free society” kind of Kampala or New York mindset. Certainly true in NYC! You will meet a lover for a minute or day, an admirer of your art, an ear to listen, a dance partner, entertainment, or free exhibition, gallery or museum opening with free cocktails!  None of these ‘freebies’ promise to stay for-ever, especially when you are living it out solo in The City! In that sea of people, it is 10!% possible to feel lonely. Single life is abundant in NYC, finding love is water in the desert, tougher for women who out-ratio men in the city. Out at a bar or dance lounge, you will mingle and easily make ‘friends’ for the night. But they will quickly become strangers as you exit; don’t try to claim you know them on the streets!
My recent trip to NYC brought back all those memories, images  and mixed emotions, looking at lonely people, homeless, robotic pedestrians, wannabes, freestylers, hustlers, friends and lovers. The city looked calm; even Chinatown looked too cool and clean for my liking, sadly! Not to suggest that I did not see happy people, street performers, beautiful boutiques, trendy stores, global brands or juicy splashdown sales. Or the corporate careerists, bubbly college students, colorful fashion, minimalist eateries.
Truth is, I did not feel the Joni “Squeal’ Ernst, “The Greatest Country on Earth” vibe! I didn’t feel as much bustle and energy that tourists feel and bring crowding NYC streets, or the colorfulness that fills NYC streets on Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Rockefeller Christmas Tree or the Caribbean Labor Day Carnival. It was a cloud of loneliness that typically engulfs NYC residents whose lives do not allow them a joyride on the the cities  Citi Bikes, to look up in the skies and count the clouds, a walk in Central park, a minute break to enjoy the street performers on 14th street, the gifted artists on the subway platform, or the “bright city lights” of Times Square. I saw many more lost far from the magnificence of the Big Apple, for whom sinking $4.99 into a street meal would mean a lifetime of bad investment .
Yes, NYC reminded me that there is a place for everyone! From dog walkers, street artists, natural foodies, executives, academics, fashionistas, bus drivers, tourists, smokers, little schoolers, corporate junkies and hourly workers. They wore their “I am a New Yorker” attitude, but the streets also told another side of their stories. There was a lot of emptiness! From Canal, through Chelsea to 14th street, it was not the “Brand NY” anymore, per me. Even parents walking home from school with their children along Broadway and 14th street, or mom and daughter seated in a pizza joint in The Village did not stimulate my duct bile for “My New York”.
The young woman, who spent over thirty minutes in a restroom at Dunkin Donuts, turned the clouds grab! After waiting [im]patiently to use the bathroom, for what could have been thirty minutes, she came out looking timid, reminding me of the ‘hard-knock’ living it out in The City.  She was carrying many bags in her hands, looked a little ‘freshened-up’, put on her ‘fresh jacket and scarf, and headed headed out for the day. Thankfully, DD provides the opportunity to use a restroom sink and sitting area, for those without a permanent home or waiting area.
Lest we forget, NYers come together in time of great need, to share stories of inspiration, pain, achievement, accomplishments, sacrifices and life events. Indeed, no better platform captures the sprit and convergence of the New York sprit than Humans of New York (HONY)! In true American Spirit, no better non-institutionalized non-conscious establishment can replace HONY, providing a platform for NYers to be the random strangers becoming friends, they are good at, reach out for one another in words, skill or process, and share concern, courage and encouragement with each other.
With all its variety of global cuisines, the breathtaking architecture, the ‘walking’ Zombies, the burbly or mechanical lifestyles one encounters on NYC streets, plenty are prancing up and about the streets in desperate search for “the next rent gig”, for love, security and stability. “The Place for Everyone” is also a scary place for plenty of others looking for more than a cosmopolitan affair or wild city dream. True, NY eats natural, organic and minimalist, except when worshiping at the altar of Haute Couture, splashing off Runway, or committing to remain Forever 21. Public spaces are abundantly curved out with seats in the middle of the street for a coffee, bite or to bask in the lunch-time sun at Herald Square, illustrious runways at Bryant Park and dog play park at Washington Square. New York City wants to be that artistic piece that never fades of anyone’s imagination and longing, a lover entrapping one into a lifetime relationship. Yet with all its welcome and host to feet from all walks of life, its spirit does not belong to everyone, its soul ages with time, and its culture is a mixed bag of post-realism, hullabaloo and a lot of emptiness!

Dear Parents, Your Kids Celebrations Are Not About You…!

I typically do not write about family affairs. I have a self-censored rule that “I shall NOT wash my family dirty linen in public. Even with all my multiple identities: as a humanist, a Pan African, a Black person, a woman, a cosmopolitan, an internationalist, I still believe in the “private-public dichotomy. Yes, in my world, there is still a “public” and a “private”, and the private should be spared and jealously safe-guarded from public eyes and ears, and scrutiny. The more I have come of age, the more I realize that I do not have to say everything I feel or think. I am grateful that the heart is hidden inside our bodies; nobody can claim to know my feelings. Although, those who seek to find fault, will always claim knowledge of your sentiments, feelings and intentions. Nor, do I need to offer an opinion on everything that I read, observe or hear of. I am grateful that my fingers, mouth and head allow me to excuse myself from uncomfortable situations, until such a time when I am ready to resurface. As my mother always told me, who can claim that you hurt them when you did not say a thing? [Apparently some still take it personal, mommy].
N’way, allow me a minute to break my Code of Silence about “The Private”, and say,
“Dear Parents, your child or your children’s celebrations are not about you. Nor are their intrigues, their excitements, or their dreams. It is their moment. Please do not feel offended if they would like to play with their toys, friends or cousins instead of sitting around chatting with you. If you are on a phone call with them, please do not expect them to maintain a long attention span, unless of course they are talking to you about something that excites them, like their favorite fictional characters. When you give them presents, please let them enjoy the occasion for receiving your gifts: perhaps it is their birthday, they lost a tooth, Easter Bunny visited, it is Halloween or Santa came into town. That is what kids talk about; please allow them to enjoy their childhood. Sometimes they might offend you by saying that they wished for “Pokémon” instead of the “Spiderman” you got them. Please find a constructive way of reminding them the importance of being grateful, and hopefully they will receive what they had wished for next time. Although, as we all know, our children’s interests change as quickly as their attention span. The next time you think of gifting them, or another celebrations comes around, they might wish for snow or white sand from the forest!”
Why I am saying all of this? I presume that if you are a parent, you probably already know all these facts about your children. Though, I have learned that not all absentee parents have these facts at their finger tips. Some want their children’s excitements, beliefs, celebrations and interests to be centered around them. They want their children to follow their own trajectories, as scripted from their childhood, even when they have never spent an equivalent of a month per year, since their children were born! When the kids do not respond per their expectations, the custodial parent is to blame!
Perhaps the same is true that custodial parents also want our children to ‘be like us’. I must say though, I have learned to “let my son be”, allow him to dream as wildly, explore as wide, and seek as far and beyond. I have put on hold my needs and comfort for the sake of my son until that time when he comes of age, or says he does not desire me anymore. I have opened up my son to venture into territories I had abandoned long ago or had excluded from my lifestyle. For instance, I was never a cheese-easter, but I started eating cheese regularly while pregnant with my son, because my OB/GYN said I needed to eat more protein, particular cheese and eggs. I had vowed myself as a cosmo girl, who would never fit or be caught living in suburbia away from the bright city lights, until that all changed in pursuit of “the school district”. I abandoned my geographical place of comfort, in the name of “raising my child around his family”. I have even learned to make, and sometimes taste pancakes, pizza, muffins and donuts, for the sake of my son, although I ensure to make them as healthy as it comes. If you had told me six years ago, that I would be spending my Xmas morning googling, discovering and reading about action figures/fictional characters: Sonic the Hedgehog, Ninja Turtles, Pokémon, Spider-Man, …. Thank You Santa! Or that I would be consciously celebrating Christmas, again!
Talking about Christmas, I ceased celebrations when I parted ways with Christianity umpteen years ago. In my entire stay in America, I had never celebrated Halloween until after my child was born, and I partook in Thanksgiving fetes because friends or family invited me to share with their families. Generally, my personal politics and convictions determined my response to many celebrations and traditions, even though I respect the choices of those who follow these traditions. Halloween to me was a “ghostly blood sucking ‘orgy”, which I always skipped because I hate blood and was fear dead people. Thanksgiving robbed Native Americans of their lands and culture by invading colonialists, whom I did not wish to honor. Christmas and Easter were channels of institutionalized control, miseducation and European colonization of the black mind and erosion and denigrating African culture and traditions. I could say the same about Eid, but since I was not born into Islam [like Christianity], I embraced it, whenever it welcomed me to partake, until my recent departure from consciously seeking to enjoy it or any other inklings of organized religion. [Did I say that I was once engaged to be married to a Muslim African man? Uhm! Story for another day!] I believe the stronger basis for our existence is the fact that we are all humans first born onto this planet in human flesh, with one life to live, before we vanish, or perhaps re-incarnate or hang around our loved ones as spirits.
So, I have learned to let my son live his dream. I do not force him to adopt my own beliefs or confine him to my desires. Well, there are a few exceptions; to protect him or encourage him to learn, or teach him to be a strong and respectful man. I often tell my son that it is important to be polite, respectful and appreciative, than to have high academic grades. As a member of society, there are certain requirements I am gonna impose on him, to learn, to live and excel in human society. As a single mother raising a man, when I have never been a man, moreover a young American man, I am gonna go beyond his wishes to ensure that he becomes a man he, myself and well-wishers will be proud of.
I emphasize to him the importance of “Please”, “Sorry” and “Thank You”, drinking water with his meals, at least between meals, eating vegetables and fruits, getting his homework done and doing his weekly chores of cleaning the bathroom sink, toilet and wiping dressing mirror. I offer no apologies for that!
Still, I let my son dream his dreams. To him, Christmas is about “Santa coming down the Chimney to bring presents to kids who behave well.”  Who I am to tell him otherwise? The “Tooth Fairy” rewards kids who lose their teeth, Halloween is a “Trick-Or-Treat” moment for little kids, the only passport to going out very late at night, on Thanksgiving, it is time to eat turkey, even when mom would rather we ate “Tofurky”, and a Birthday is a very special day to eat cake and receive as many presents. It does not matter that I do not celebrate Christmas, which according to me it is a Christian holiday, my son will celebrate it for as long as he wants, and because I have plenty of family who are Christians. The same way I let him celebrate Eid with his muslim paternal family, [I too have muslim family and friends].
I am not gonna bombard him with the religious symbolism of Christianity or Eid; I parted ways and have no interest in exploring that with my son at this age. In fact, I tried to let him share his paternal families Islamic culture, until grandma gave us the ultimatum, “If he cannot attend Sunday School regularly, he should not come at all.” My intention was to give her an opportunity to spend some quality time with her grandson, since she did not see him a lot in his five years, and she does not ask to spend one-on-one time or take him out, until her other grandkids are visiting.
For as long as I am expected to be the sole parent for this child, I will continue allowing him to believe as he imagines, that Santa came down the chimney and dropped off all the presents, including any entrusted with me to ‘secretly’ give to him. I remain protective of my child’s excitements and wildest dreams, from unnecessary scrutiny and criticism, especially coming from anyone who offers no help or support in parenting him. I know and believe it takes a village to raise a child, but let the village not only come in to condemn.
Hopefully, we as parents will learn to support our children’s dreams and fantasies in their imagination, rather than stifling or suffocating them with our mystical convictions derived from religious dogmas that do not unite but divide us as humans. After all, I am learning that most of what my child is fascinated and get hysterical about is from interacting with age mates, exposure through reading, visual and digital images, his classroom teacher interaction, and lastly from myself as a parent [I know some might disagree]. Perhaps our children’s excitements will enable us to look back eighteen or twenty-one years later and say, “Job Well Done!”

Learning about Veterans Day from my sixth grader

I cannot recall the last time I went to church, so the order of events at my neighborhood celebration of Veterans Day 2014 caught me off guard. Not because I was unaware we were meeting on religious ground – Our Lady of Victoria Roman Catholic Church; I assumed our event would be independent of any church business. I thought we were only using the church grounds out of convenience, and because this year, the Cub Scout Pack, to which my son belongs was running a food drive benefiting the church pantry. Which reminds me of something that I recently learned at our Cub Scout meeting; the Boy Scouts of America is a Christian Organization. Yes! Our little Cubs promise all …”For GOD..” What does this non-religious mom do….?

Anyway,  the blessed Father of Our Lady of Victory, our host, spoke at the opening ceremony of our Veterans Day celebration. Thereon, the activity was a Scout-Veterans affair. I attended, as a chaperone to my son, the Tiger Cub Scout. Once we got to venue, we waited for about twenty minutes before start. Most in attendance were members of the Catholic Church, and from within our local community, who appeared n-synch with the whole nine yard of church-dos. It took me back to my early days of elementary school attending Catholic school, where we started every morning with mass at the area Catholic Church, performing routine stand up, sit down, stand, then sit, then stand and sit…

That is not the gist of my writing, dedicated to how celebrating Veterans Day through my son took me to another place of personal revelation. For the first time in my life, I am increasingly proud of belong to a country [oops! did I Michelle O-that😜]. I feel a sense of belonging to a people, a community and a country more than all the years of my life living in my country of origin – Uganda and coming of age in America! Particularly since having my son, I have engaged in more Americansque activities here and abroad, as an American. I recall being in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup [Soccer/Football], and waving the American Flag at the opening of the games, supporting Team US throughout the tournament, even when they were playing another African team, to the [un]pleasant surprise of fellow African spectators!

Back in Uganda, I had an overdose of love, care and attention from my Ugandan people. I felt a higher sense of family more than all my years growing up. Not that I did not know or like my family already, but living with my family together with my son gave me a profound understanding, love and appreciation for my family. They cared for my son like he was their own, and loved him with the same zeal as I love him. They made me comfortable recalling the famous African saying, It takes a village to raise a child.” I thank you family! Yet,  I felt that “I am an American” feeling, sometimes, especially perpetuated by my own family and friends, and anyone who met my or my son.

Since coming back to the US, after a short sojourner abroad, I have new-found love and appreciation for this country, discovering more America than the many years I lived here before having my child. I am increasingly “living the American dream”, enhanced through my son born in the Peach-state, and a product of two Africans continental and ‘old diaspora’.  I am allowing myself to experience plenty of mainstreamed American holidays and cultural celebrations: My first Halloween experience was when I took my fifteen-month old son on “Trick-or-Treat” in the neighborhood in GA. We did it again last year in our current neighborhood, and twice this year “Trunk-or-Treat” with our Cub Scout Pack, and our with neighborhood family friends. Yes! I buy my son these exorbitantly priced Halloween costumes I would never have thought of before, and dress myself up too, as a superhero or ninja, depending on the theme my child gives me!

I have breached self-set taboos against engaging in religious festivities, becoming “Santa” at Christmas. I do this to allow my son to dream and imagine wild and free, of ‘hardworking mysterious fairies, one who rides deers with elves, and descends down the chimney on brings presents to “kids with good behavior during the year”, and another who rewards kids with $$ for dispensing out their tooth. I tell him not to bother himself that his non-magic-believing muslim cousins say santa and tooth fairy aint real! Yes, I now support Hollywood, taking him to movie theaters.

Participating in Veterans Day celebrations with my son this year gave me a more intrinsic appreciation and a feeling of belonging to a community and a country. I grew up in a country where the patriotism is owned by the generals, the self-avowed ’liberators of the nation’ from previous autocratic regimes. The same generals are still running the country, twenty-eight years and counting! They hold everyone in the country at ransom, to accept their form of national patriotism as sacrosanct, non-derogable and non-contestable. The country is theirs, independence day celebrations are ‘dispensed’ only to those who agree with them, heroes are decided by them, and rewarded on their terms, and national resources are managed and appropriated on their terms.

Our Veterans Day celebration was a community affair, conducted by men and women not identified in overt display of military regalia, except a few that wore their uniforms for the prestige of having served the nation, decorated with lapels of awards/accomplishment. The Catholic Father, retired military and the scouts and girl guides were in charge, with equal participation of ordinary citizens. We were not intimidated into thanking the men and women in military uniform who served our nation. We were not obliged to kiss the feet of generals or shut up to their pronouncements.

Instead, we Pledged Allegiance to the Flag with pride, sang Star-Spangled Banner and America The Beautiful in joy and celebration, and deeply thanked whose people who put themselves in harms way to liberate the nation, protect and uphold the spaces that we enjoy. Beautiful memories filled me about the men and women who bore arms to protect their countries, like my younger brother, who might never get real recognition for daring to put himself in harms way. On my son’s side is Grandpa Mendez and Great Grandpa Samuel Arnold (RIP), and grand-uncle [is that the American word?] Sam, all who served in the US military.

Our Veterans deserve more appreciation and protection. They deserve to return safely and admirably, and never have to lack food, shelter, clothing or paid employment, because they put their lives on the line, believing it is their duty and calling to protect the lives of all Americans!