I love how life imitates art and vice versa. Leave it to a TV series to ask the deep questions. The question of “Who are you?” has become prevalent in my life lately. It’s shown up in “The Gift” on Netflix, which is a series about an artist who sets out on a journey of self discovery and how her work ties into her ancestry. Many times in the first episode alone she was asked, “Who are you?” and as simple as the question was, it required her to question all she knew about herself and where she placed her self value. She began to pull at loose threads in the stories her parents would tell her about herself and her ancestry until her vision of herself began to crumble, and she had to find out who she was in the midst of chaos, much like this new generation of high school and college students today. They are forced to face themselves in self isolation and quarantine in the midst of a pandemic in one of the most crucial election years.

COVID-19 (C-19) has presented the ultimate Tower moment, where life as we have known it has been flipped on its head. Prior to the virus, many had plans to go to college or take a gap year and essentially live their best lives. They were probably looking forward to taking the road most traveled by: higher education, which leads to good job with benefits, meeting and marrying the love of their life, and retiring well off. Financial stability, love, and good emotional and mental health, this is the American dream. It’s also the misconception about adulting; that at some point we will have everything together. I think we’ve almost accepted that we’re not perfect and that things can fall through the cracks. If only we could extend this grace and wisdom to the youth…

I look back on most of my life, and I see that I equated who I was with what I did and was only happy when I was excelling at it, whether it be in academics or athletics. I defined myself by a summary of my accomplishments and goals not knowing who I truly was. I was a track and field athlete in pursuit of the olympics from the age of sixteen. My need to run was so engrained in me from the age of eight that I didn’t know who I was without it. I didn’t want to know who I was without it, but there came a day when I had no choice but to walk away from that piece of my identity. I was twenty two with no identity and even after acquiring a Masters degree in Film and Media, I took on the identity of “grad student filmmaker”. I was still seeing myself through the lens of my actions and valued myself according to what I was doing. It’s a common trap to fall into, and it wasn’t until everything was stripped from me that I truly saw who I was and what I brought to the table. It is my hope that the youth don’t have to lose pieces of themselves to find themselves the way I did. I hope they find themselves through joy and that they excel at everything they put their minds and hands to with support from their parents and guardians, so adults, please put yourselves in remembrance of a few things:

  • You are their first teacher. They learn how to respond to success and failures through you.
  • Tell them you love them, even when they’ve done nothing but sit on the couch watching Naruto all day. It shows that you see them, even when they haven’t necessarily done anything.
  • Validate their emotions, even when you feel they are in the wrong. Everyone is entitled to their emotions. It is our responsibility as adults to facilitate and aid them in navigating them.
  • Affirm who they are in the home before the world gets a chance to.

One of my favorite quotes is, “we are our ancestors wildest dreams”. It comforts me to know they are out there supporting my journey. How much more of an impact will your words have on your children with you present being a present force in their lives? They may or may not know who they are, but when you facilitate the journey with love, you’ll be amazed at the discoveries you make together.

Children and Board Games Go Together

These days, video games are all the rage with young people. They’re everywhere and really fun. They’re exciting because they move fast and give big rewards for achievements. They have their place in our society, and I’m sure they’re not going anywhere. Board games, on the other hand, have to prove themselves. Most aren’t portable, take longer to play, require a time commitment and multiple players. They also have something not too many video games provide: built-in skill sets that provide several forms of intelligence and offer a tactile experience that supports the development of well-rounded individuals. That’s why I’m advocating for classic-board games, and some new ones, that the entire family can play.

Here’s what the traditional board game can do for you:

•    Literacy that translate directly to math and English skills. Many board games require reading at regular intervals. Instructions for learning a new game are dense and require analytical skills involving step-oriented processes. It’s also a great opportunity for adults to coach children with reading and following instructions.
•    Even simple games require some strategy, which is working on higher-level cognitive reasoning. Even choosing which piece to move or what play to make in a game of Sorry is a life skill. Board games require making long-term plans, or at least thinking ahead several moves.
•    These games help build emotional resilience and patience. It may not seem obvious, but learning how to lose can strengthen character. Chances are, a child who plays board games will lose once in a while. They can learn that losing is not the end of the world, and that there’s always another opportunity to win if they don’t quit. This helps with regulating emotions and keeping life in perspective.
•    Even small children can setup and clean up a game. Particularly with children around four-years, participating in the prepping and clearing stages teaches them responsibility. Sometimes asking for them to put away just four pieces can yield unexpected results like cooperation, initiative and problem-solving skills. Also, they may also like having all the pieces around the next time the game is played.
•    Maybe one of the most important reasons to play board games is to have family time. Making a ritual of sitting around the table talking, laughing and having fun can only lead to memories and deepening friendships. Conversation is built into most games. It’s an hour well spent.

Nothing prepares people for reading the “fine print” in life like board games. The more complicated a game is, the more rules; the more rules there are, the more navigational capital gets stored for when it counts, like applying for jobs and college or buying a house. If you’re new to board games, I recommend you start with these: chess, Sorry and Carcassonne. Hal’s picks are backgammon, Stratego, and Go.


Making Every Life Matter: How Gen Y Is Reinventing Mourning


I’ve often wondered what happened to the American ritual of wearing a black armband when someone in the family dies. The practice is immortalized in the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, where John Bailey’s wears one after his father passes away. In some cultures black attire is worn for a year after a death. And in others, a widow must wear black until the end of her days. It is human to mark death in a public way.


Unfortunately, today’s urban youth live with a nearly daily awareness of death, and it’s not just grandparents who are dying, either. These are violent times, and it’s youth who forfeit their lives. Young people of color in urban areas seem to have an inordinate amount of death to contend with on a regular basis. Just how do they handle the burden of so much loss? They embrace it and wear it like armor, and in the process, they bring their love and grief into the most unexpected places.


In the past seven years of teaching, I’ve seen the emergence of a new and profound display of grief from young people in my classes. More than ever, the relics of their fallen peers are captured and worn in daily vigil. Tee shirts are emblazoned with the bright face of a friend, a cousin or a sister; epitaphs on shirts, badges and decals to the dearly departed commemorate the loved ones and keep the beloved alive in the hearts and minds of their community. Decorated with the photos of the fondest memories of the deceased, family and friends wear buttons and placards on lanyards. Quite literally, the dead go to college, work and the movies with their living friends.


The result is magical. It humanizes the youth who wear these tokens of love, while at the same time revering the deceased. These tokens of love are a clear source of hope, respect and grief. Moreover, they bring awareness and compassion to the wearer, who more than ever needs the visibility and the loving gaze of others. This is essential since grief makes people do strange things; it can alter their personality or cause erratic behavior. Without a clear external sign, how can others know that errant comportment is possibly connected to a major life transition?


The death of a loved one does not easily fade from memory or dull with time. The ritual of wearing a tribute signals to others the status of the wearer: “I’m hurting.” “Handle me with care.” “Compassion needed.” “I’ve lost a dear one.” There is no way to turn away from such an outpouring, to not look with understanding at the person in pain.


As teachers, we need to know when our students are suffering so we can share their burden. It can mean not asking for what he or she may not be able to give on a particular day. As co-workers, community members and friends we can greet these youth with kindness and much-needed compassion in a fast-moving world that too often denies the harsh realities of young people of color. We can grieve with our youth, express condolences and sympathies, and be patient with them. The stress and heartache caused by death is well documented. That’s not new. What has changed is our society, which seems to have become anesthetized to the pain caused by violence and untimely death, especially that of other people’s children. That is why Generation Y has taken to demonstrating their grief in a public way. It’s a form of resistance to the status quo. It’s a loving anthem that cries out, “Every life matters.”



Here’s a picture of Giovanni, who last year almost always wore a tribute to his deceased friend to school.


Crafting a Connection


Spending time with my partner’s mother is important. We live far away from each other, and I only see her in person every few years. One way that we stay connected is via correspondence. She makes and sends us the most beautiful handmade cards. They are utterly perfect and charming and chuck full of love, so when we scheduled a visit to the Twin Cities to see Hal’s family, I made a special request that his mother teach me to how to make cards.


Like any great artist, Glenda has a process. The perfection of her cards comes from her careful attention to detail. She’s not afraid to start over, either. No glue goes on a card until the design, pattern, and shapes are just as she wants them. The paper must be folded just so and a burnisher used to align the edges. After stamping, Glenda patiently cut along the edges of the ink until there was an entirely different object. Paper and ink color must be sampled and selected; cut and matched. I know she does it this way every time. Each card has suddenly become even more precious to me, now that I see how much time she puts into each one. They are an act of love.


My inclination was to rush in and make several cards, but we spent the afternoon talking, sharing and explaining, and it yielded only the one collaboration. From cutting the paper to reviewing a catalog, it was clear to me Glenda’s intention was to give me an introduction to an art form and her passion. I don’t know that I can keep up her standards, but I’m thrilled about the memory and the card we created. I know what’s important to her. It’s the little things that count.



Eight Ways to Cultivate Relationships with Youth

I’m a great believer that the job of parenting need not fall solely on parents. Parenting is full-time job; they need a vacation once in a while. That’s where aunts and uncles come into the picture, because in a community, we can all play a vital role in the outcome of our youth.

As a couple, we have lots of young people in our lives: biological and unrelated nieces and nephews, special students, godchildren and little friends who we adore. We are committed to them even if we’re not their parents. This has led me to consider my role and responsibility to them. We have to be invested, monetarily and otherwise. We have to make time for them and share their interests. I’ve also observed that when we hold young people accountable and responsible, we show them love and respect. We’re basically telling them we see them as capable and reliable people. High expectations are never bad things, especially when they are combined with love, guidance and support.

The pastor at my previous church always said that Faith is a verb, an action that we do on the spiritual path. After an amazing two weeks with my partner’s nephew, we’ve decided that “Uncle” and “Aunt” are also verbs. With the first wave of nieces, nephews and family friends graduating high school, going to college and finding out who they are, we’re uncling and aunting every chance we get. There’s another group of young people, some of whom I’ve had the great pleasure to know since birth, coming down the pipeline. I want to be there to see all the children in our community grow up and thrive. Therefore, I’ve decided, it’s time for this aunt to step up her game.


This past Christmas we had our nephew, a first-year college, visiting us from the Midwest. We got to play uncle and aunt full time to a teenager. We did some tourist activities, but mostly, we lived together as a family, cooking meals, working in the garden, making puzzles and talking. Over the years we’ve managed to expose our various young friends to our love of nature, much to the chagrin of their tender feet. This visit was no exception. For New Year’s Day the three of us walked 12 miles around beautiful Lake Chabot in Oakland, a special place for us because we had our first date there. To my surprise, our nephew had never hiked that far. And, just like that it was a major moment that we shared—a first. The long stretches in silence were opportunities to reflect on the strengths we bring into our community. Seeing him jumping from great redwood stumps and roll down the hillside gave me enormous pleasure and pride. I have little doubt that he felt some of his own gratification at having achieved these amazing feats and for beating me back to the car in a sprint born from a competitive burst of energetic youth. Well, someone had to get there last. At home, he tried exotic food, and made choices based on personal conviction. We observed Sabbath with him in order to be in community with him and respect his faith.


Whether it’s asking about successes and triumphs, scolding over a failing, or instructing in our particular areas of strengths, most young people want to know that the adults in their lives care about them enough to make a fuss. I think I’m learning to be a better communicator because I’ve found that I’ve accepted that I don’t have to be a chum to my friend’s 18-year-old son; I can be a mentor and elder, and that’s enough. It’s never too late to get better at that. They need to learn things from us and teach us what they know. We can lovingly support our youth and their parents or primary caregivers by engaging them in various ways.


First, Ask them hard questions about important things that maybe parents aren’t able to ask. Teach them some skills: share expertise and talents and create opportunities for connection. Reward and encourage them for doing those things that reflect personal growth and tenacity in the face challenges. Even acknowledging a hardship can mean a lot. Model good communication for them, and talk to them about the things that matter by engaging them in difficult conversation (you’ll both grow). Engage them in storytelling: Face time is critical; tell them about your mistakes, too! Occasionally, give unsolicited advice; what they do with it is up to them. Watch their favorite program with them, listen to their music and find out what they care about.


Last, show that you care by making time for them; hug them even if it’s awkward the first ten times—we all need physical connection; and don’t forget to tell them that you love them whenever you can. You might find they love you, too!

Making Room for Mom

Most of my panic has subsided into resignation. I’m nervous about my mother coming into to my home and finding fault with everything from my hair to my home furnishings. I’m not sure why I’m doing this. Is it for her or for me? Maybe it’s really a win-win situation. My mother gets to have a relationship with one of her daughters; I get to have a little peace about my mother’s emotional state and allow more acceptance into my life.

For a few years, three decades actually, I was the peacemaker in our family. I was constantly running from one faction to the other, trying to keep the lines of communications open; I worked hard to sidestep difficult situations and avoid unintentional betrayals of confidence. I never felt at ease. I had too many secrets to keep and not enough real connection. Then one day, I simply gave it up. I decided I couldn’t be the fixer any more. I no longer had it in me to put aside my needs and feelings so that I could hold the emotions of my family members. It was the most selfish thing I had ever done. It goes without saying that it stirred the anger of my entire family.

The rigid roles in my family meant that I was breaking tradition and being selfish. As the youngest daughter, I was expected to obey my elders—all of them—and defer to them in all things great and small. The instant feedback resulting from drawing boundaries with my family was that I was punished in cruel and cold ways. Both my sisters, each in her turn, put my possessions out on the street; one giving me a day’s notice to retrieve them; the other sister simply left them out during a move without notice. Did I mention that we didn’t live in the same states at the time? Choosing to live my own life has had huge consequences. It was like pulling a thread out of an old hand-knit sweater. The object has been altered forever. Yet, I don’t regret my choice to live my own self-defined reality.

It’s been about ten years since I first asserted my personhood and drawn that lines that I haven’t cared to cross again. My family is fragmented and dysfunctional; on occasion we circle in at the each other’s lives and draw back from the defenses erected. There is a dissatisfying taste in my mouth, almost bitter, when I remember harsh words and thoughtless deeds. I think I need to let go and practice forgiveness, which is a daily ritual, one that fortifies against pettiness and indifference.

Letting go and forgiveness have a complicated standing in my life. I find it easier to forgive my mother in some ways because she comes from an alien planet, an island in the Caribbean where a dictator and an abusive husband made her life a ruin. Still it does not dampen the anger in me when she alternates between haughty justifications and outright revisions as she denies the brutality she reigned down on us as children. I’m unwilling to let go of my truth. It keeps me sane. Opening my home to her, therefore, is a psycho-emotional journey into the historical trauma and violence of our family and a battle to maintain boundaries with an old woman who still feels that she owns me and is entitled to control my destiny.

This new element, that my mother is undoubtedly seventy-years old, adds a new dimension to dealing with this erstwhile queen of all. She brides, manipulates, scolds, cajoles, dominates and competes. She never asks for or says what she needs or wants. She is always a victim, one who must control everything but that which she actually can. I have learned to step away from the emotional landmines while not denying myself the opportunity to walk in the fields of compassion. During her visit, I had to withdraw from all else to be present for her. I concentrate on the small blessings in each moment. She is smiling despite herself. She is resting and engaging with me in garden work. She is feeding us delicious food from a deep place of wisdom, focus and attention. Paying attention, I know, is a small act, but one that has brought us some peace.

We managed to survive my mother’s visit. Our nerves our frayed; we are battle-worn; we relish in the silence and simplicity of our everyday lives. I am grateful to have had the courage and fortitude to invite her in to our home and to express my love in the ways I find nurturing and healing. I was never able to embrace my mother and connect with her in the manner that my heart knows is authentic; she would never allow it. However, I was able to make room in my life and enjoy the cooking that she is so proud of and that has given us all joy. After all, I’m not trying to change her. I simply want to love her the best way I can.