saramakeba

Geechee Gal Griot


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Generations

4 GenerationsI woke up with the realization that my parents won’t live forever. For years my mother has said when she looks in the mirror she expects to see me and she is regularly surprised to see a middle-aged woman. My father calls himself “old.” I have always shrugged off these remarks. She is as beautiful and peanutbuttery as I remember. He is as smooth and mahogany and bright as always. Now, though, I see the smile lines in her eyes that resemble her father’s. Now I see the softness in the strong cheekbones she got from her mother and her mother before that. I hear the slow rhythm of his mother’s voice slip out of my father’s mouth. I see Grandma’s fire and approval in his expressions.

Both of my parents have been caretakers for different elders in our family for as long as I’ve been here. I lost two of my grandparents last in 2015. My maternal great-grandmother Elizabeth Shields lived to be 99. She transitioned last February. My paternal grandmother, Kathleen Daise, lived to be 101. She passed on last August. I watched my parents, just as they did in 2009 when my Papa died, take care of all the funeral arrangements, edit the program, communicate with family members, etc. They handle these family transitions with such grace and poise—or so it always appeared to me.

It wasn’t until this new stage of my own adulthood that I started to see the miles that my parents have gone. I began seeing my parents as adults. People who were once children with their own hopes and fears. Human beings who sometimes just wish their parents could step in and make it better. With my new eyes, I can see more of the lives my parents lived etched into their faces. It’s when I saw my daddy’s body shake with grief after Grandma's Obitsinging one last song to his mother at her homegoing service. It is the sigh I can feel as my mother prepares to care for her own mother, who is now suffering from dementia. It is the uncomfortable realization that my parents won’t live forever either. (Even though I’ve been telling them for 20 years that they have to).

There’s another itchy thickness in my chest. The recognition that I am older than my mother was when she met my father. My parents are the ages my grandparents were when I was born. Now I’m the young adult with a bunch of teenage cousins whose diapers I remember changing.

I know what this means.

I’m no longer up next. I’m up now.

I’ve been feeling this urgency for a while. This knowing that it is my turn. Our turn. Now it is time to grab the torch and run as far and as hard as we can: planting seeds for the ones who got next.

In my angst there is gratitude.

Gratitude for my great cloud of witnesses. I am surrounded by the wisdom of Kathleen. The compassion of Elizabeth. The calm strength of William. The cool style of Larry. The brilliance of Mildred. The healing empathy of Simeon. The unapologetic self-exploration of Osalami.

3 GenerationsThe stay-vigilant-I-got-an-idea-and-now-it’s-complete attitude of my daddy. The problem-solving-find-joy-in-everything character of my mother.

I meditate on these gifts. I water these seeds. I pray I’ll have the beauty and stamina of the generation before me. I hope I make the ancestors proud. I hope my parents know that even though it’s kinda scary, I am running with the torch. I am beyond grateful for all the strength training.

 


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She Could Fly Ep. 2

In Loving Memory of Dr. Conseula Francis

April 3, 1973-May 9, 2016

sankofaBird

After MUCH delay, we’re back with episode 2!  My mother and I discuss our Blackest Moments, integration, healing, mothering the little girls inside of us, emulating ants and more.

Music: Wonderful by Chance the Rapper and The Social Experiment.


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Let The Culture Flourish: REVISITED

In downtown Charleston, one can witness the past and the present interwoven. The sweet, salty scent of marshlands drifts off the coast and passes the old bricks. At the Historic Charleston Market, old women, skin as smooth and dark as mahogany, in wide brimmed hats, weave swift fingers through sweetgrass, creating cables to the past. One can hear colorful voices, rich with hints of old African dialects infused with hip hop jargon. Young boys make and sell palmetto roses–and couples, young and old, hold hands while walking toward the waterfront.

Charlestondailyphoto.blogspot.comRoses

Charleston, SC is the top tourist destination in the United States. Known for its unique history, atmosphere, beautiful beaches and incredible food, it is not recognized as much for the people who made it thrive and who live there.

“It used to be all Black,” says Bill Saunders. “All this was Black owned. The epitome of Black business.” The community and Civil Rights activist and John’s Island native son gestures out of his car window as he drives downtown. In his deep voice, with a Geechee accent and grandfatherly tone, he acknowledges former black owned dry cleaners, restaurants, motels, law offices and taxicab stands. History. Culture. What was.

The who and the what of Charleston are Gullah Geechee.

Gullah Geechee people are the descendants of enslaved West Africans brought to the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Due to the geographic isolation of the plantations, the Africans and future generations were able to hold on to much of their African culture and traditions. The people were stolen from many

West African Gullah Origins

W. African Gullah Geechee Origins

different countries in West Africa. In order to communicate with each other amidst the various African dialects present on these southern plantations, the enslaved created a creole language—a combination of hundreds of African dialects with an English base. This language is known as Gullah Geechee.

And as Saunders says, Gullah is more than a language. It is a people. It’s tradition. It is food, religion, arts, crafts, folklore and storytelling, sweetgrass baskets, fishing.

Many people are unaware of who Gullah people are—their identity, culture and significance. And Gullah people are among the uninformed. These people whose voices, features, rhythms and traditions tie them to the heart of humanity have yet to tap into all that makes them unique and memorable.

What is required to find pride in one’s culture? Can it be preserved? Or is it too late to care?

Winema Sanders, College of Charleston senior, loves history and culture. Her mother is from Turks and Caicos and her father is from South Carolina. Born in Charleston, Sanders feels much pride for her island heritage. She recalls growing up in the church and listening to the older Gullah women tell stories—how the melodies of their voices captivated Sanders and her younger sisters.

“I think a Gullah or Geechee person is someone who speaks with the Geechee dialect. You know?” she says. “They know a lot about seafood and sweetgrass baskets. We’re normal people. We just talk a little different.”

DeNyewTestament

In contrast, Saunders used to hate being called Gullah. “When I came from John’s Island in 1949 on a bus that Esau Jenkins put together for some of us to go to school, I suffered more mental and some physical stuff because of the hate that folk had for the way we talked.” Sixty-three years later, there is still a sadness in his voice.

Many older Gullah people remember a time when they were taught to be ashamed of their accents. Today, Sanders and other young people delight in the difference in their voices.

“People don’t understand their culture, their history,” says Sanders. “Their history. Embrace it. You won’t be able to know who you are or represent yourself otherwise. Maybe we should have Saturday schools to learn more [about our culture.] There are Gullah bibles and Gullah books. I think people want to be so proper. So they try to suppress the accent. The language.”

“My mother taught us about our heritage,” Sanders says. “She said, ‘You are Gullah people. This is where you’re from. This is your culture.’ She taught us about our West Indian culture, too.”

Sanders’ imitations of her mother bring to mind an older Island woman—articulate and proud. There is a faint hint of a West Indies and British in the accent.

“I mean, do you say panties or drawers?” Sanders laughs. “Me and my sisters say drawers, too! I’m like, ‘Mom, that’s how we talk.’ My mom is always like, ‘It’s panties! I tell you girls to say panties.’” Heavy emphasis on the “T”—sounds like Pawhn Tees.

WinemaGrad

Winema &  parents ’12

Sanders is preparing to spend the week in DC for the Washington Model Organization of American States. She and other students are representing the delegation of Argentina as delegates and “discussing hemispheric policies to better improve the life of citizens in the western hemisphere.”

This is not the only time Sanders travels.

“Another time I was in DC, I’d always visit with the Haitian women,” Sanders says. “They’d be making baskets. That’s another connection to the Lowcountry, except they used lemongrass not sweetgrass.”

As documented in Sweetgrass Baskets and the Gullah Tradition by Joyce V. Coakley, the art of sweetgrass basket making was brought to the Lowcountry in the 17th century by enslaved West Africans. These captive artisans originally used black rush, a marsh grass, and bound it with thin splits of white oak or stems from the saw palmetto, weaving these tough materials into baskets SWEETGRASSsimilar to those used in Africa. Once referred to as work baskets and  used to winnow rice, carry dried goods and maintain slave villages as functional art, sweetgrass baskets now sell for hundreds of dollars and can be found decorating the homes of art collectors and tourists. The craft continues to be passed down in Gullah Geechee families. The use of sweetgrass as opposed to black rush, began in the 20th century.

Dr. J. Herman J. Blake fully acknowledges the significance of his culture. “For me, being Gullah makes me the recipient of the gift of history that connects me and my children with spirits long gone who labored hard to create this society,” he says. Blake, a professor of Health Professions and Dental Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, also works tirelessly to teach others and preserve the land and livelihood of Gullah people. He sees a dis-connect in the younger generation and believes that education is necessary to spread awareness for the culture.

“There is a very superficial and extremely limited understanding in the appreciation of the culture around them,” Blake says. “It is like a fish swimming in water, and the fish doesn’t know what water is. We’ve got to develop curriculums for elementary schools, secondary schools and, ultimately, colleges so that we are constantly educating and training our young people. Then young people as a part of their education would be getting the culture.”

Gullah Geechee Cultural

Leaning forward in his leather computer chair, Blake recalls when Penn Center on St. Helena Island offered classes for standard English. “They believed people wouldn’t get jobs talking with what people called ‘broke-up English.’ I consider it very proper Gullah.”

Generations apart, both Blake and Sanders recognize a need to fill young people with excitement and pride for their heritage.

“We could have shirts, ya know?” Sanders suggests. “ Shirts that say Geechee Girl, Geechee Boy. Something hip and fashionable. I’m not into marketing or anything. But I know guys with `Geechee For Life’ tattooed across their chests.”

James Vickers is another young person aware of his culture. He and his girlfriend, Ameerah Mills are sitting in the Stern Student Center at College of Charleston. Mills has a laptop and opened notebooks scattered on the table in front of them.

AJUndergrad

Ameerah & James ’12

“I’m African American, and I’m from Charleston, South Carolina,” Vickers says. “I know I’m Geechee because of my accent—because I talk like this.” Vickers’ family originated on McLeod Plantation by the James Island Connector. McLeod Plantation is now an important educational site in Gullah culture.

mcleod-slave-quarters

McLeod Plantation

Vickers is a College of Charleston sophomore in the “Call Me MISTER” Teacher Recruitment Program. MISTER is an acronym for Men Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Modeling. The program was created to aid the critical shortage of African American male teachers, particularly in South Carolina.

“The culture itself is deteriorating,” Vickers continues. “It should be in history books because people don’t even know that they’re descendants of this culture. I think it’s an educator’s job to tell people about it. I feel like no one would listen to me. They’d take it as a joke.”

Vickers first learned about Gullah Geechee culture in middle school. “Queen Quet (Marquetta Goodwine) came to our school and spoke. I remember thinking my grandma talks just like her.” He laughs. “I was the only one in class who understood what she was saying.” His laugh is loud and infectious. His girlfriend smiles and nudges him off her shoulder.

“I think it’s so interesting,” Mills says. “I’d sign up for a class about Gullah so fast.”

Mills, a senior Sociology major at CofC, is a former summer counselor for the Upward Bound Pre College Programs at the college. She recalls bringing the high school students on a tour of Avery Research Center for African American History & Culture.

ameerah&Tremaine

Ameerah & Tremaine, UB ’11

“I really want to go back by myself sometime so I can really look around without keeping track of the kids. But when we saw the Gullah Bible (De Gullah Nyew Testament), and I heard Tremaine read it in her accent!” Mills’ face lights up. “I was like…YES!” Tremaine is an Upward Bound student from Wadmalaw Island.

Mills is completing a study guide for a test on stereotypes and racism. However, her excitement for the culture and her boyfriend’s history trumps studying for a few minutes.

“Not to be corny—but I learned a little bit about the culture from ‘Gullah Gullah Island.’ I used to think the show was about Jamaica.” She pulls her curly red hair into a ponytail. Vickers has re-positioned himself on her shoulder, phone in hand. Every few minutes he laughs at something he sees on Twitter.

gullah-gullah-feat

“Gullah Gullah Island” ’94-’98

“I don’t know,” Mills continues. “The Gullah culture is a beautiful thing. Culture in general. I don’t really know much about mine, so the closest thing is knowing y’alls.” She nods her head toward Vickers. She spent most of her childhood in Fayetteville, NC. A military brat, she graduated from high school in Charleston. Her mother is black, and her father is Puerto Rican.

“My great-great-grandma was a slave,” she explains.” My great-grandma lives in Orangeburg. She doesn’t have a birthday. We guess, you know? We celebrate it at the end of January.” Mills widens her eyes and moves both of her her hands in a circular motion as if to say, how crazy is that?

UB2011

UB ’11

For young adults like Sanders, Vickers and Mills, there is hope for the culture. They connect and would like to join a growing circle with others who do also.

Both Saunders and Blake are commissioners on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which works to preserve and protect the Gullah culture.

However, Saunders feels that “preserve” isn’t the right term.

“When we preserved fruits and food when I was growing up, we put some of it in jar to age. The rest we threw away. We can’t preserve the culture. We have to let it live. Let it flourish. Grow.”
————————-

I wrote this in 2012 for a Feature Writing course while completing my B.S. in Communication-Media Studies. I received a minor in African American studies. Today I’m looking back in awe at this article and the amazing people I was privileged to interview.

FLASH FORWARD 4 YEARS:

Mr. Bill Saunders continues his lifetime work of activism, speaking out about Civil Rights, injustices and other issues facing our community.

Bill Saunders

Dr. J Herman Blake is now the Executive Director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission. 

Dr. Blake

Winema Sanders is the Youth Programs Manager at The Palms, a luxury resort in Turks & Caicos, and the proud, new mother of son, Kymani. 

James Vickers is a middle school Social Studies teacher in North Charleston, SC. He makes it his job to fill in the cracks about African American and Gullah Geechee history for his students. He’s also a popular SC dj (@DJSCrib).

Ameerah Mills is completing the Master of Education program in Secondary School Counseling at The Citadel. She is also preparing to study abroad in London this Summer–for the 2nd time. 

James and Ameerah are engaged 🙂 

And I am a Cultural History Interpreter at McLeod Plantation Historic Site where Vickers’ family descended from. 

Crazy how life works. Like my mama said, we been comin’ a long time. 

 

 

 


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Fleeting Feelings of Freedom

 

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Denmark Vesey Monument at Hampton Park

At work one day, my supervisor commented on the history interpretation program at another historic site in the country. The staff and literature at the site seemed to exclude the African Diaspora in their interpretation of slavery. “You can’t do that!” my supervisor said incredulously. I responded that people manage to do that quite regularly and efficiently. Exclude, rewrite, forget history. Everyone in the room laughed and he agreed as well, stating, “You’re right. It just can’t be done with any accuracy.”

I am constantly aware of my Blackness. I am constantly thinking that others are thinking about my Blackness. At work. In the world. My mama told me I am a walking contradiction to the false perceptions many have. Especially in such context. I am a free Black woman. I am free. Free to be. Free to write. Free to read. Free to sing at the top of my lungs and gather with my homegirls in a big ol’ group.

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Middle Passage Remembrance Ceremony ’15

Free to tell honest, humanizing stories about my ancestors. Free to walk in and out of ANY door of the big house and STOMP up and down the stairs if I choose. Free to drive a car and obtain a college degree and love whom I please. Free to inspire others and be inspired.

 

And yet, after viewing the resource officer throw a young, Black girl who could’ve been me across a classroom I did not feel free. Feelings of freedom weren’t invoked when I saw the flashing blue lights and heard screaming sirens only to learn hours later that nine people who could have been my mother, father, sister, brother, auntie, cousin, uncle, lover, friend were executed in a church seven minutes from my house. No liberation when the governor said she would never understand why Dylann Roof did what he did–despite him explicitly stating why he did what he did. Not when she boasted that racism in South Carolina ended with her election.

When the glutton for punishment emerges from the trunk I try to keep him in and leads me to the hellacious Comment Section. Mt. Pleasant residents penning their rage at protestors who blocked the Cooper River Bridge in response and to bring awareness to the murder of Walter Scott, the man gunned down in North Charleston as he ran for his life.  Those Twitter/FB fingers claimed, “This is stupid. People living in Mt. Pleasant have nothing to do with what happens in North Charleston!” A friend who protested on the bridge that day told me someone called her a nigger bitch to her face. I felt no freedom–something more like red, hot rage–when some of those same online commentators high fived, took selfies and held hands as they walked across the SAME BRIDGE because we’re #onecharleston and #CharlestonStrong…or something. That onecharlestonstrong seems pretty feeble as Eastside is gentrified with a vengeance and several Black-owned businesses close quickly and quietly like it’s in style.

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Black Lives Matter march at the Charleston Market in remembrance of the 9 people murdered in Mother Emmanuel AME and in solidarity with the 3 people who survived.

No feelings of freedom when “Michael Brown was a thug who deserved to die.” When a 12-yr-old child is shot down in seconds because we’re all seen as dangerous, intimidating, superhuman monsters. When the families of Aiyana Jones and Renisha McBride are told by the state that their daughters/sisters didn’t matter. When the state told Marissa Alexander she should have let her ex-husband kill her because they certainly didn’t deem her life worth saving. When South Carolina ranks #1 in deadly violence against women. When women can’t/won’t call the police on the men abusing them because the police might shoot first and lie later. No freedom when George Zimmerman is found not guilty, allowed to roam and be as violent and ignorant as he pleases. Shackled when 21+ transgender women of color are murdered in cold blood and the hashtags become more and more frequent and familiar. When arguments and decisions about women’s agency occurr in rooms with no women present. When over 200 girls are snatched from their homes and loved ones. When armed white men take over a federal government building to protest the government, vocal in their preparation to use violence against law enforcement if “necessary”–and law enforcement “waits them out”. When we still don’t know what happened to Sandra Bland. When citizens in the “greatest nation in the world” are drinking poisoned water. When Donald Trump says disgusting, dangerous things about brown people and the racism, violence and ignorance of others is validated. When Black and brown people across the ocean and around the globe and up the block spend every day trying to escape violence, rape, poverty and oppression.

And all these thoughts and feelings and more like them swirl around in a wispy spiral of smoke, weaving themselves around the words of slave narratives, oral histories, Freedmen’s Bureau records and the questions and statements I hear at work:

“No. I haven’t met any other GullahGeechee people, but my daughter teaches Special Ed.”

“Now, how much do you know about the slave owner? Was he good to his slaves? Was he nice? Did he treat them well?”

“Well, I think a plantation could have been operated better this way. The perfect mix of niceness and meanness—then there would be less running away.”

“People actually ran away? I’m just not understanding why they would run if they had food and shelter here.”

“Yea, the master could have had any woman he wanted so it was still probably better to work in the house, right?”

“That is NOT why the Civil War was fought! I don’t care what the signers of Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession said. My granddaddy fought in that war!”

“I’m Irish. WE were slaves!”

“You are so ARTICULATE.”

“You’d go through the back door, right? Ha. Ha. I couldn’t resist.”

“It’s pretty ironic that you’re working here, huh? They should make it so only Black people can work here and are paid by the government, of course.” (Cue sparkly eyes and sneaky grin.)

Freedom means he doesn’t have to learn how to say what he meant any better. Freedom means I have to learn to know how to take it. Freedom means practicing African dance movements in the parlor room mirror of the big house or across the floor of the White House.

The big house. The same big house where, one month after being open to the public, a white man walked in, so intent on letting me know he would not/could not see me, he ignored both of my greetings and promptly turned

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Liberation School at Avery Research Center

his back to me, choosing to only acknowledge my white colleague. Freedom is restraint and control so I can pay my bills. Freedom is remembering.

Nina Simone said in an interview featured on her documentary, “I know what freedom means to me. No Fear.” So rarely do I feel this way. Fearless. I am free, though. I suppose…

…Free to think. Free to wonder. Free to write it out.

LIBERATIONfawo_lg

FAWOHODIE – adinkra symbol meaning Freedom & Liberation… and baby I want it 😉


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Bringing the Gifts: Maya and Me

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” – Dr. Maya Angelou

Maya-Angelou

Losing a loved one is never easy. Dr. Maya Angelou’s calm demeanor, matter-of-fact statements, and the ability to wield her truth in painfully beautiful ways always gave me courage to tell my own. I’ve shed so many tears since I learned of her passing. Not because I’m unable to join in the celebration of her inspiring life. I’m missing her. And hoping I can make her proud. Hoping I can push through this thick cloud and come out wielding a truth that gives brown girls wings to fly and legs to stand on and a confidence that’s so deeply ingrained that walking away from that which doesn’t recognize their divinity is second- and first-nature.

Maya was so many things to me. In all honesty, I’ve always felt her love for me. Her acknowledgement of my beauty and her gentle but blatant call for me to see it, too.

We first met 25 years ago. My parents are performers and educators of African American heritage and culture. I am told that it was the last day of February 1990, a busy month for people like my parents. Dr. Maya Angelou was speaking at Columbia College in Columbia, SC. I was newborn at the time and traveled with my parents everywhere. My mother says Maya entered the stage singing, “I Open My Mouth Unto the Lord.”

“She was wonderful,” my mother tells me.  After she spoke, the audience flocked to the reception where they believed Maya would be. My parents, being performers, thought that maybe the poet laureate would be tired and remain backstage. Much to their delight (I don’t know how they got backstage), she was. “She was so gracious,” Mom continues. “She was tired. But she said, ‘What a beautiful baby!’ and asked to hold you.” (‘You’ being Me, the 4-month-old.)  I’m told Maya held me in her arms, and I threw up all over her copper sequined gown. She said, “Awwwww…” — not “Ewwww!” — and handed me back to my father.

Of course I don’t remember this exchange.  But, yep, I threw up on Maya Angelou. THE Phenomenal Woman. Ever since I was first introduced to her writings, a phenomenal woman is exactly who and what I’ve wanted to be. Not even fully able to grasp the concept of my own phenomenal self (still struggling with that), I’ve known that Maya had laid out a simple blueprint. She’d epitomized self-love. Not conceit. Pure confidence in your divinity… In what makes you a woman… Why your presence makes eyes widen and minds wander. The light inside that you must claim and radiate. It’s undeniable. I heard her steady, loving cadence as a soundtrack throughout my adolescence. Read her words. Admired her poise. Her wisdom. Blushing, chest swelling, faced with her raw poetic honesty. I visited the Unity Church after hearing her speak of the strong love she realized in that community.

I was told this pic looks like someone I love died. Fitting. I was actually just enjoying the sunshine.

My boyfriend said this pic looks like someone I love died. Fitting. I was actually just enjoying the sunshine.

Unlike Maya, I’ve struggled with telling my truth. I’ve had trouble wearing my crown. Seeing myself. Getting out of my bed. For years I’ve navigated through a thick darkness I can’t really name but am all too familiar with.

Those who love me–who see me–keep encouraging me to write. That’s all I hear.

Perhaps I’m afraid of what liberation feels like. So I haven’t written. I just observe. Terrified to truly feel and even more scared no one will validate my feelings.

When I first called my mother on a break at work, all teary-eyed and snotty-nosed after hearing the news that Maya was gone–it was her response that called me back:

Maya as Miss Calypso. I had this picture as a screensaver at a job I detested. It brought me peace.

Maya as Miss Calypso. I had this picture as a screensaver at a job I detested. It brought me peace.

“What we love about Maya was her fearlessness to tell her truth,” my mother expressed.  “A young woman. Talking about diamonds at the meeting of her thighs. Such confidence.”

Telling her truth. Those words stuck out. She told her truth and lived 86 years. She didn’t melt or crumble under perceived weight of her honesty. Through terror and abuse, abandonment, a whore house, Maya rose and wielded her truth.

I’m mourning her. I have to. I’ve always considered her a member of my Great Cloud of Witnesses. And I’m calling on her courage. I’m looking through her eyes. I’m following her light through this dark cloud.

As a Gullah woman—the descendent of enslaved West Africans brought to the southeastern coasts–I’m trying to hold on to Maya’s words: “I am the dream and the hope of the slave…”

Me giving fruit offerings for the ancestors at the Middle Passage Remembrance Ceremony in 2014. I can't wait to take part in this again in a few weeks.

Me giving fruit offerings for the ancestors at the Middle Passage Remembrance Ceremony in 2014. I can’t wait to take part in this again in a few weeks.

I have a responsibility to rise. And to keep rising. For Maya. And for all of those who fought before me… Each and everyone who kept getting up in hopes my life would be better. All of those who didn’t survive.

I have a responsibility to tell my truth and act as legs for the next generation.

Upon completion of this piece, I’d hoped to experience the wondrously clear daybreak Maya describes at the end of I RISE. I don’t. Not yet.

I wanted to write:  Something Strong. Something Convicting. Something Inspiring.  Honoring Maya, I have written.

I don’t know if my words have reached my goal.  I just know I miss her.