A Creative Outlook

When I was growing up a kid up one of my aunts said repeatedly, “Allah does not change the condition of a person until they change the condition of their heart.”  We were Muslims, “poor,” as in financially struggling. My aunt was raising 12 children with her husband, living in public housing in Washington, D.C. at the time.

The outside of her home looked barren.  Most front and back yards in her neighborhood were patches of dry, dusty dirt. Only two people in the entire complex had planted flowers. We played in the parking lot and climbed on the clothes line poles for fun since we had no playground nearby.

Inside my aunt’s home, however, was very peaceful and calming. She burned incense, and maintained discipline and order.  We did not always know what we would eat, but we knew that we would eat even if she had to make pancakes from scratch and water down the last two tablespoons of Kyro syrup to go around for lunch. We always knew that at certain times throughout the day everyone would stop whatever they were doing and we would come together to prayer because of our Muslim obligation.

One of her daughters described their home in the projects as if it was a mansion because that was the way she saw it.

“We have six bedrooms and two bathrooms!” she liked to brag. Before I saw the house, I expected to visit a mini-mansion.  I knew they were moving to Southeast Washington, and I could not imagine a rich palace in that area. Besides, neither of her parents had good government jobs. So, how could they afford six bedrooms and two bathrooms? My cousins, nor my aunt seemed ashamed of their circumstances. In fact, they seemed delighted that God had provided them a house, much bigger than the apartment they had been cramped in.

Rather than complain about needing public housing back then, they fully appreciated it and seized opportunities that have led to the lives they are enjoying today.

Today, twenty-five years later, that aunt is living in a mini-mansion in Atlanta, remarried to a more loving, supportive husband.  She enjoys her days providing day care to some of her grand children while their parents work and create lives more abundantly than any of us could have imagined all those years ago.

They are all living better now and I can’t help but think it had something to do with their attitudes and outlook way back then, when times were tough.

This week I called her to ask her to elaborate on this lesson I had learned from her so many years ago. She asked whether I remembered the peach tree she discovered in the community. It had become so barren no one even knew it was a peach tree. She fed it scraps from her own kitchen table, stirring leftover peelings and fruit cores at the base of the tree like compost. The tree blossomed the next year.

She asked whether I remembered the stock of clothes she kept clean and folded in an upstairs closet to give away to neighbors she discovered more in need than she.  She gave away clothes by the bags-full. I mostly remembered the fun I had with my teen-age cousins at the time, and remembered the attitude imparted on us. She had grown up in a Seventh Day Adventist Church reciting the “Beatitudes,” popularly known these days as the “Be-Attitudes.” (Blessed are the poor…the meek shall inherit the earth…)

“Living well is a state of mind,” she reminded me this week. This lesson she had learned as a child, memorizing the text from Matthew 5:3-12, had been fortified when she studied Islam as a young woman. She was reminded of the Christian and Muslim teachings recently when reading “The Courage to Create,” by Rollo May.

“Wherever I lived, I chose to create,” she said. “I took old bed sheets and made curtains and matching bed skirts,” she added. “However much money you have – or don’t have – you have to know in your heart that you are blessed. You have to have the courage to create.”


Better than Expected


Sometimes things are better than they seem. When I arrived at the checkout at my neighborhood Fresh Market recently, for instance, I was a little disappointed that there was no offering of samples to taste.

“What? I missed the samples?” I asked the two women at the register. “You always have a sample of something at check-out. I count on it,” I added.  I realized a while ago it’s the company’s way of providing a memorable, pleasant shopping experience to ensure my return.

“You have samples all over the store,” the seasoned clerk explained.

“Not today. I had the orange juice and lemonade,” I told her. “But there was nothing else out.”

Usually, around the store, tables are set with chips and dip to sample, bites of cake or something from the deli counter. But not this day.

“If you want something at one of the counters, just ask,” the clerk said.

I paid for the bags of cashews I made the special trip for, then circled back for the full shopping experience. At the snack bin I sampled a handful of Craisin-pistachio trail mix, a few chocolate-covered banana chips, some three-chocolate pecan mix, and blueberry yogurt covered pretzels.

At the cheese counter I considered requesting a sample of blueberry cheese or cranberry cheese. (Growing up, gub’ment cheese had made the best grilled cheese sandwiches. But my tastes have evolved.) I looked over at the deli counter, then the bakery behind me, and was delighted just thinking about all that was available to sample just for the asking. I sampled apple pie and blueberry coffee, and left the store with my appetites sufficiently satisfied. I thought I had missed the usual sample at the check-out counter, but was instead invited to a mini-feast of sorts.

Later I considered: What if God was showing me something through this experience? What if life has more than a small taste of something sweet at the end? What if it’s o.k. to sample what life has to offer in all departments?

When Criticizing Doesn’t Count

As part of my career exploration these days, I sometimes ask individuals about their job, why they do it, how long they’ve been doing it, whether they like it. I was speaking with a library clerk, who mentioned that she is retired from a career in management analysis and enjoying working part-time at a library because she had always wanted to work around books, when I realized I have cheated myself.

I asked her what did she do as a management analyst. She said she had been assigned to go into companies or departments within companies, analyze what they were doing wrong and offer suggestions for how to fix it.

“How did you end up in that job?” I had asked, a moment in time standing still between us.

“I always had a knack for being able to look at something and see exactly what was wrong. I could look at a process and tell you how to make it better.”

I left thinking that if I had gotten paid for all the bosses and companies I worked for and criticized, paid for all my suggestions to improve processes, I could be working part-time, enjoying a retirement pension for all that hard work. I gave it away for free! Never again. My criticism will have to be earned, paid for. Otherwise I’m keeping it to myself.

Much to Do – Or Not Do – at the Beach


I headed to the beach one Sunday morning to enjoy group yoga, planning to meditate then do some journaling. Turns out I had mis-read the sign. It was scheduled for 10 a.m., not 11, and it was held at a school near the beach, not actually on the beach. So, I ended up alone on my yoga mat at the beach. Perfect for deep reflection and uninterrupted observation.

On my knees in a yoga pose, I realized there were dents and pockets in the ground.  What, from a standing position, had looked like a smooth, welcoming carpet of grass, was not so smooth when I got right down to it.  I also noticed that the water looked particularly muddy this morning with sheets of film, twigs and other plant parts floating on it. Yuck.

I was enjoying my little observations when the excited squeals of a small boy running toward the water startled me.  The boy splashed and laughed, bobbing up and down in pure bliss of the liquid playground.  He found unadulterated delight in the same river I had just condemned. I did not bother to tell the little boy’s father about the snakes in the water because I have warned people about snakes and jelly fish in this river before but they went in anyway.  Beside, I looked up water snakes on the internet and found that they are harmless. They avoid human contact.

The little boy ran up and down the sand bank, in and out of the water. He called his little sister to join him and she did for a while, squealing, running behind him.  He waded into the water up to his waist then waded further, up to his neck.

“Hey Dad, com eon in!” he yelled to his father.

“No! It’s uh, too wet!” his dad yelled back.

The little boy’s sister didn’t stay in the muddy water long, but he had himself a good time.  He ran to the area where I was sitting, discovering something in the sand.

“Don’t disturb the lady,” his dad told him.

“He’s inspiring me,” I said, smiling at the boy. “How old is he?” I asked.

Little Henry was six. He ran back in the water and played until his mother joined his Dad a few minutes later and it was time to go. He left the water, obviously refreshed.  As he bounced away with his family, a couple of birds flying low near the water caught my attention.  I got up and went to where I had tossed a portion of my breakfast – pieces of fresh star fruit I had bought for the first time, thinking I would try something exotic, and pieces of my blueberry muffin offered to keep me from consuming all the calories.  I was delighted to find that the birds had eaten it all.  Now, I was feeling as joyful as Little Henry.

I looked further down the stretch and noticed three women friends sunbathing.  I figured they probably would not be getting in the water either, but they would be refreshed by the sun and each other’s companionship.

I looked out to the water again and noticed a snake in the area where Little Henry had just been. I thought, “God’s protection is amazing.”

I looked around and noticed a man reclining on his sun deck, reading a newspaper. I thought, “It must be nice to live right here at the beach.” It would be nice, I guess, until the tide rises, too high.  But what if I could have a beach house, and a condo in a high-rise someplace where I could retreat at the first warning of a high tide.  A range of possibilities flowed.

I enjoyed journaling, observing nature and the people who soon filled the beach and park all around me. I did not get in the water, but left feeling refreshed none-the-less.

How does the water inspire you? Some of my friends like to jog around a lake, read on a pool deck, meditate on a beach. What do you like?

Preview of “Scandal” The TV Hit

Previously published in The Washington Post. 

Well, did you sleep with the President or not? I did not ask the obvious question, the question burning on so many minds, bubbling up in conversations around the room as we previewed two episodes of “Scandal,” the new TV series. Created by Shonda Rhimes, the provocative brain behind “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Practice,” “Scandal,” is a series based on a African-American-woman-owned public relations crisis management firm in Washington.  It is insightful and riveting. It is penetrating. The disclaimer offered at the opening of the screening did little to squash the realism perceived by so many Washington workers in the audience.  “This is Hollywood,” we were told. “Everything’s taken up a few notches.”

But, people who work in Washington – in Congress, at City Hall, formerly in The White House – laughed knowingly at some of the dialogue. It is authentic.  The ruggedness of Washington work hit home. “There’s no crying – in politics!” somebody said, looking up at a scene of a young woman crying in the bathroom.  “Scandal” promises to be as entertaining and stimulating as TV gets. It’s as much about relationships as it is about how Washington really works.

There were ten “Scandal” screenings in the Washington area and the star of the series, Judy Smith, portrayed by Kerry Washington, has done many interviews with local media. At the Wednesday night screening at Lima Restaurant she was greeted with hugs.  One young woman introduced herself to Smith as a lifelong fan.

“I have admired you since I was a little girl watching the Monica Lewinski case,” gushed the young woman, who is now a communications director for one of the few Washington politicians NOT in the midst of a scandal. “I was eight years old watching the news with my mother, and I would ask, ‘Mommy, who’s that brown lady in the background?’ I have watched your work over the years,” she said. Smith was the fixer for Clinton, Marion Barry, Michael Vick, Clarence Thomas, and BP Oil – slick guys and what?

Watching “Scandal”, I was delighted at another depiction of a tough, smart, strategic, successful African American woman on TV.  I thought about Donna Brazile and Gwen Ifill.  “Why do we always have to be portrayed as bitchy?” someone in the audience asked. “It’s a necessary toughness,” I said. I was reminded of real-life tough Black women in the Washington area, too. They are tough, yes, but equally compassionate and, above all else, deeply faithful.

Theses are Washington area tough Black women, who held their own and helped their communities from powerful positions in media and government. I’m thinking of former Prince George’s County Councilwoman Dorothy Bailey, WRC’s long-time executive Aisha Karimah, former D.C. Council woman Sandy Allen to name a few. They are powerful, empowering, and deeply faithful. Their faith has yet to be depicted in a TV series.

On TV we see struggling Black women praying, but never powerful ones.  We see Black women in conflict with men.  We don’t see their connection to their spiritual beliefs. It’s easier to throw in sexual twists than spiritual ones.  I remember my favorite TV character, Claire Huxtable, enjoying romantic evenings with her husband. But I don’t recall any memorable scenes about her faith in a God or her religious practices.

Most of the women I know are faithful.  Even if they are not church-connected, they have strong spiritual beliefs or rich philosophies they draw on in tough times. We are redefining Black women in the media, thank goodness. Books like the one by Sophia Nelson; newspaper series, like the one by The Washington Post help.  The First Lady attending church with her husband and children drive home the image, as well.

When I worked on The Hill, I joined a group of Black women on weekly conference calls where we held “corporate prayer.”  We prayed for our bosses, prayed for leaders in both chambers of Congress. We were of different religions, but we all believed in the power of prayer. We reserved a room for prayer service during the healthcare reform.  Congressional chiefs of staff, communications directors, and administrative aides prayed collectively on occasion. I hope at least one episode of “Scandal” will depict Washington workers with faith.

At the end of the screening I did not ask Smith the extent of her relationship with The President – nor did I ask her about her faith. I was not there as a reporter.  A friend, a fellow former journalist, invited me.  Tough questions aside, I did what the other guests did. I enjoyed the evening and sided up for pictures with the star afterwards. I later found the answer to the burning question answered in a Washington Post feature on Smith (http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/tv/dc-insider-judy-smith-is-basis-for-abc-drama-scandal/2012/03/29/gIQAbT8JlS_story.html). She absolutely did not kiss The President..