Saturday, June 16, 2012

Writing His Final Chapter

Photo credit: Shutterhacks
When I lived in LA, I loved curling up on my sofa Sunday mornings with a cup of tea and the LA Times obituaries. It's my favorite section of the newspaper. I'm not the Morticia Adams type.  My fascination is not with how the deceased departed. I enjoyed reading about how they lived.  Authors, activists, scientists, socialites, volunteers, celebrities or everyday people loved by their family and community—they all have a story. I use many of their lives as inspiration to live mine fully.  As a writer, penning someone's obituary is an honor. I wrote a few obits at NPR and in journalism school (This one is my favorite).  Writing an obit is  a way of saluting another human being and telling the world why that person mattered while they were here. Earlier this year I had the honor of writing my granddaddy's obituary.

My granddaddy lost his battle to cancer the day before Valentine's Day. He gave the disease a heck of a fight until his final breaths. I had the honor of writing his obituary for the Oakland Tribune and designing his funeral program.  It was such a hectic and emotional time. While putting things together I thought about how he was so supportive of my pursuits for higher education. His support and encouragement was instrumental in me earning two degrees.  Much of the knowledge I took from writing and computer classes (that helped fund) were used to write his final chapter.  

My granddaddy was a big, tall, handsome man originally from Texas.  He worked as a longshoreman after moving to California and took pride in providing for his family.  My granddaddy was a wizard in the kitchen and on the grill. He made the absolute BEST barbecue and his turnip greens were delicious.  When I was a kid, his facial whiskers would scratch against my face as he gave me kisses on the cheek.  I hated the scratches but loved the affection.  I always came back to give him some "suga" the next day because I loved him. My granddady introduced me to Coltrane on our rides to school in the morning. I love jazz because of him. And as I got older, we had conversations in his den/man cave about life and work.  My manly-man granddaddy loved his truck. I don't ever recall my granddaddy's truck being dusty. He always kept his ride shiny.

Funeral programs are a big deal with black families. If the picture is unflattering, the design sucks or someone's name is missing in the obit/bio section—whew!  You will get talked about. LOL I know many people who save funeral programs and have stacks of them. The programs aren't just for those at the service. In my family, we send them to family and friends around the country.  Initially I didn't know why people make such a fuss over the programs. My grandmother (not my grandfather's widow) says it's because folks use it to trace family history. Makes sense.  Thanks to help from my aunts, we made sure my granddaddy's kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, siblings, siblings' spouses, parents and immediate relatives who preceded him were mentioned. Of course we referred to relatives and old funeral programs for inspiration and information.  I wanted my granddady's program to be classy, accurate with a punch of spice—just like he would've liked it. 

What I took from writing my grandfather's obituaries and helping with his care is to never give up. I have yet to witness anyone fight so hard for anything, like I saw him fight to live.  I remember holding his hand by his bedside. Even toward the end he had a lion's grip. His move to California from Texas reminded me to take  chances and go for your dreams.  And that there's nothing wrong with wanting better. Listing all of his relatives on that program made me value family even more.

I am sad that I'm giving out one less Father's Day card this year. My phone call list for the day is shorter  as well.  But I'm blessed and proud to have been a part of my granddaddy's story.  And I'll take the lessons I learned from him to ensure the chapters in my life are rich.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Empowerment and Vision Boards

Cocoa Fly presenting her vision/empowerment board at a party

I owe my master's degree to a few items around the house: a portrait,  poster board, scissors, glue and old magazines.

My first year of journalism school was stressful. Because I was accepted under "conditional admission" I had to earn a B average at the end of the school year to advance. I thought holding down a B average wasn't a biggie. I've been earning good grades since kindergarten and did very well in undergrad.

Well, the first year of grad school kicked my behind.  I had one instructor who gave me a C no matter what I turned in. He made Len Goodman on Dancing with the Stars look like Mr. Rogers.  I could have written a Pulitzer Prize article that exposed Bin Laden's secret hideout back in 2004 and he might have given me a C+. This hit my esteem hard. I always did well in my writing classes. What happened? What was I doing wrong?  One day we had our one-on-one meeting. He asked me what did I want to do in my career. I told him at the time I wanted to be an investigative reporter. He looked at me like I said the impossible and replied, "You want to be an investigative reporter? You?"  I knew then the problem wasn't me, but him.  Unfortunately, it was too late to switch classes.  Luckily, his class was only worth 1/3 of my grade for the entire 3-part course.

To keep my esteem and hopes up, I bought a huge poster board and taped a photo of myself right in the middle. Then I gathered old magazines and just started flipping through them. When I caught an ad, quote or image that reflected the woman I was and aspired to be -- I cut it out and pasted it on the poster. "Journalism that makes a difference." "Living Well." "Women Shaping the World." "Create your own history." "Entrepreneur." "Absolutely Fabulous!" "Pleasure." "Best seller." "Black Radiance." "I have a voice. Strong. Clear. Joyful. True. Don't miss a word." I pasted pictures of sophisticated women, happy women, travel destinations I will one day venture to, flowers, fashion and an old Essence article by Susan L. Taylor titled, "In the Spirit: Life without limits."  This is not even a third of the content on, what I call, my Empowerment Board.

Every time I felt defeated or frustrated I looked at that board to remind myself of my talents and what I planned to accomplish. Whenever my instructor TRIED to shoot me down, I looked at my empowerment board and start pasting more uplifting quotes and pictures. But the board wasn't just for hard times.  When I was in a good mood, I'd put on an India. Arie CD and start snipping. Seeing those images pushed me to work harder, love myself and keep going for my dreams.  I've read many times that visualization can be key in reaching your dreams. I hate to quote R. Kelly, but just like he sang in "I Believe I Can Fly":
"If I can see it, then I can do it."

What I took away from the empowerment board got me all the way to a walk across the˜ graduation stage   The blessing that came from dealing with that instructor was that it prepared me for the jerks I would encounter in the work world. And God is good because he also gave me amazing professors who were encouraging and enriched my education. They prepared me for my profession and the great people I would meet in media.

My board was just about complete when I moved back to the Bay Area last year. This past January, I went to a Vision Board Party. Ooooh I had fun.  Vision boards are similar to my empowerment board. It's basically a collage representing your dreams and goals. At the party, we were sipping on mimosas and sharing boards that reflected our goals and dreams for the 2012 year.  I brought my board and shared the project that took me nearly seven years to complete.

The ladies at the party brought nice boards and had great visions. One woman didn't have a vision board but a vision book. She pasted all of her images in an adorable scrapbook. Vision books are a good idea if you want to keep your dreams to yourself and away from the "Girl, how are you going do that?" kind of folks who will keep you down. I still prefer waking up in the morning and looking at my framed empowerment board. My board is the biggest thing on my wall as it should be. I have grand plans.

I've seen some things come true. I have the word "Essence" on my board and this year my photo made it to I also have the words "Shine on" pasted onto the board.  Ironically, I worked on a documentary titled Shine that debuted a few nights ago. 

I miss working on my board and am thinking about starting on another one, but smaller. Or,  I may give the vision book a try.

Have you ever made a vision board? What was it like for you?


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