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  • Valerie Hope

Ep. 33 - Not Quite Strangers: Moving Through Identity, Belonging, And Becoming

Updated: Jul 2

Not Quite Strangers | Identity

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Not Quite Strangers: Moving Through Identity, Belonging, And Becoming

Let us start with Keya. Keya, what did you bring?

I brought a scarf from Ethiopia and a wrap/saree from Indonesia.

I imagine an Ethiopian one. I need to know more about that in a moment. Viola, welcome. What did you bring?

I brought what is called a shekere, which is originally a West African musical instrument.

You might have to play it or demonstrate how it is used at some point.

It is easy.

I am excited already. I want to welcome the two of you to the show. What you can expect in this show is our job is to inspire curiosity, not only for you but also with our guests, as well as build connections. There should be a bridge of connection throughout our conversation. The last thing is we might even disrupt the status quo. The fact that two people meeting on a show and having a conversation about something is disrupting the status quo already. Check. I am so thrilled.

One of the things that inspired me to invite the two of you was, Keya, I have known you for several years.  Both of us are mentors with the EAGLE Scholars College Readiness Program here in Dallas, Texas. We had an opportunity to collaborate on a couple of projects and have some great conversations about things that we were each working on. You have been a fantastic thought partner for me. You inspire me and always so validating.

We have talked a ton about your Ethiopian culture. I thought that might be interesting to hear more about what it is like for you as an Ethiopian woman here in the US. I don’t know, whatever comes out of it but then I thought, “Who else do I know that would be a good match for Keya?” From the heavens fell Viola. Viola, you and I just met. We both took a speakers writing course. We had the opportunity a couple of times to go off script and talk between the two of us. I am so grateful. You are such a live wire with huge energy. You shared with me that you are from Liberia, I believe. 

No, my husband is but I was born in Nigeria to parents who were Cameroonian.

I don’t remember that but yes, it was so interesting. I thought you were from the Caribbean with your accent.

Yes, that is how we connected. You sent a little chat and were like, “I hear a little something.” I was like, “You hear it well.”

It’s a different continent altogether. I thought you guys would be so wonderful to introduce to each other. You have wonderful energy and are super generous as an individual. Also, this idea of being from the African continent. I have spoken with a couple of people from South Africa and I thought, “It’d be nice to have other countries represented,” and have a sense of how your African culture has impacted your life here in the US and whatever else we happen to talk about. Before we get into that, is there anything you want to share about when you and I were strangers, either of you?

At the course we were part of, there were a few Black people so automatically there was a check in my mind to reach out to the sisters. It so happened that Valerie reached out to me first in one of those sessions where I got to say something but I had checked her out already and I was like, “She is fascinating. She is a brain I want to pick.” When we were strangers, I said to myself, “That is somebody I want to get to know.” Valerie reached out to me not too long after and then we got on a call to talk to each other and get to know each other better. When we were strangers, I was checking you out and I was, “I want to connect with this woman. She seems like a woman to know.”

Thank you for that.

I am going to say the same thing. Similar to how I meet most strangers, I go off of the energy and the vibe that we are going off of but the first thing that came to mind before all of that is that I remembered that you smell like wonderful essential oils. I was like, “Whatever she is wearing, I want it.” It was the first thing that came to mind because I remember that thing the most memorable. It was beautiful.

I remember we had a conversation about that. The other thing I remember is that you do a good job of finding joy in a lot of things. I heard your laugh. When I think about the time that we were strangers, I think about the essential oils and the laughter. Those two drew me in like, “This seems like my kind of person.”

I think you know all about me already. I can see that you are a very sensual person, olfactory sense. You have the auditory in there.

I want to know what the scent is. Did she ever get to tell you?

I change it up all the time but I make my blends. I don’t know why but over a few years ago, I got into natural scents. When I decided to have my hair, I went natural. That is when it started. I remember that my hairstyle is using some combination of oils and I was like, “That smells so good.” It smells clean and not like a chemical but it was expensive whatever it was.

I have to ship it from Atlanta to New York or something. I was like, “I wonder if I could make my own.” That is how it started. I started buying my essential oils. I decided to not only do the hair thing but also some perfume. I get some of the vials I buy myself. Others, I do my blends but it is awesome. Thank you for that, Keya. I appreciate it. I don’t make for other people so don’t email or inbox me saying, “Could you make me a bottle?” 

“I want to buy a carton.”

“We want the recipe.”

Thank you so much. I am so glad the two of you said yes to being on the show. I know we have had to reschedule a couple of times or some big things happening in your lives. I wanted to say thank you for making it work. I am so grateful that we have a chance to have this cool conversation. I want to know more about your culture. Speaking of that, Keya, you brought two objects because you have so much to share. Tell us why you chose those two. What do they mean to you?

I am going to start with the scarf because I had a conversation about this with my mom. This scarf is part of a dress that we were called Habesha kemis. It is where you wear traditional clothing. Lots of it has beautiful patterns. There is also a lot of Ethiopian Orthodox influence. There are a lot of crosses. I like the intricate weaving that goes into the dresses or any of the garments. It is super beautiful. I love it.

I chose that because, in my current season of life, one of the things I am trying to figure out is how to find my culture which is such an amalgamation of things. It is like, “How do I, as Keya Tollossa, claim the culture for myself and say, ‘This is what my culture is and how I understand it?’” My parents have a version. Diaspora folks probably have a version that is very different from those who live in Ethiopia.

What does that look like for me to claim that, especially as a queer Ethiopian woman? What does that mean? I have been thinking a lot about that. I wore this at times that were super important to me, including my engagement with my partner, which felt like such an audacious thing. We had an engagement photo shoot.

A couple of big things happened. I don’t think we are going to do this because,

1) Keya, you came out on a podcast and I remember you saying that that wasn’t something that you would want to talk about.

2) You are engaged.

I am like, “Did she mean for it to come out or we are just comfortable?”

I feel more comfortable with it. That is part of the seasonality rate. I had a conversation with my parents and folks about it. This is going to go on Facebook so I don’t know how to do this. I am like, “We are going to say here we are.” That’s it. The next thing that I brought is from Indonesia. It is a beautiful piece. My partner is Indonesian and White. It has been such a pleasure to get to know cultures that are very different from my own.

One of the things that I say when people say, “Africa is a whole continent. Tell me the specific countries.” I have been having the same sentiment around Asia because I’m connecting with them. It is like looking at the diversity and multitude that is the continent of Asia. Learning more about that has been beautiful. I brought both as an extension of my seasonality.

What a season. It is like spring all over again. This is the sense I got as you are sharing. There are so many different layers that you have been peeling back or shedding. It sounds like we have been in such a process. Congratulations.

Thank you.

It’s so exciting. Viola, any reactions to what Keya shared and what you heard? I want to hear about your object.

I connected with what she was talking about in terms of making her lane in this big beltway with many lanes of culture. It’s the agency to interpret her culture or ancestry in a way that makes sense to her in the context in which she exists. Understand that the culture she is defining is going to be different from how her parents define it and it is going to be different from how the people who live in Ethiopia define it. I was like, “That resonates because that is putting towards my shared experience.” That resonated with me. I am going to pull that thread even more as I share my thoughts in a little bit.

Go ahead and continue to share your thoughts. This is a great start.

I brought what we call a shekere. It is like a calabash. You have some twine with beads all around it. It is like an instrument. You can do different things with it. There are different ways to make it pretty. Sometimes you have different colored beads all around it but it is a musical instrument. The purpose is to get sound out. Depending on the kind of calabash that is used, you are going to get different sounds.

It is used a lot but the way I use it and the way it is used a lot is for praise. You think about the churches that don’t get to get pianos, guitars, and all those fancy instruments. You go back a few generations and where we had to celebrate. These were some of the things that were used. It is practical and easy to carry around. It makes beautiful music. My name is Viola, which is a musical instrument.

The most unfortunate thing that could have ever happened to me is that my name is Viola and I don’t play a musical instrument but I am musical. I could hold a tune and I love music. I couldn’t live without music. I have a few of these at my home. Every time I want to connect in a way that feels very son of soil, back to my roots, this is the instrument of choice. If I wanted to sing a little praise chorus from the Psalms, this is the instrument of choice. You don’t need any lessons to learn how to play it. You could make it roll with the tune of the melody that you have in your heart.

I love music and making music. This is the kind of music I make because that is my level. This connects me to my definition of my culture, a culture that is very expressive and sings both for pain, joy, confusion, and disappointment. I found throughout my existence that there have been different songs for every season, through my night seasons and day seasons. I thought if I were to bring something to connect who I am as a person with my culture, this was going to be it. That is why I chose this.

Not Quite Strangers | Identity
Identity: There are different songs for every day or season.

Both of you have said things that I thought were interesting. Keya, it’s your sense of culture. I was born in Panama but came to the state at age nine. It is odd when people ask me where I am from because I get asked that on occasion. Not everybody picks up on anything in my accent. I have a pretty thick standard English accent. My mom calls it California English because I used to watch a lot of TV back in the day. It is hard to tell people I am Panamanian.

I will tell you a quick story. It happened on a Facebook group that I am in, which is the Panamanian Foodies Group. I join because I am like, “I have all these pictures of food that I remember growing up with and they are things that I recognize and things that I don’t.” I asked a question about a recipe for something and the guy mentioned whatever he thought I should go get. I was like, “I’m not sure. What is that?” I couldn’t tell if he was making a joke or if it was an actual item. He's like, “You must not be Panamanian.”

I came to the States when I was nine. I went back and forth until my grandparents passed and I was in college so I don't feel connected to the culture that way. I am American by passport and upbringing. It is weird. It is hard to explain. I feel like a third cultural child as they say. I don’t have a specific claim to one culture or another. It gives me an advantage because I do feel I connect so easily with people from other parts of the world.

I don’t necessarily fit into one particular label when it comes to that but it has been that way since high school, where I have always felt a little bit like, “I don’t know if I fit into a particular label, not even being Black, a woman, or in Texas for twenty years.” It is hard to give people the thing. “I am from X”. I thought it was so interesting because you also mentioned the African diaspora. I have never been to the continent of Africa and I would love to go at some point.  Which country? I don’t know. It’ll be the one I will connect with the most.

There is stuff like that that I think through. That is what came to mind. Viola, you said something about you being very musical. I have played instruments, not a viola, violin, or guitar but piano and another instrument, clarinet. I am super musical, too. I cannot live without music. I can get from the two of you that there is something in the water and blood. I can’t put my finger on it. I’m mostly curious about the two of you. What is it like living in the States? First of all, tell us at what age you come to the States. What's it been like in navigating your cultural identity?

I came here when I was eight. I was pretty young when we got here. I made fun of my parents. We got to Dallas and I have never left so the plane landed and stuff. That is how it happened. My experience of growing up is the way that you described. I was not fitting into any specific category of personhood. The people that I most connect with are anybody who is from another country. I also connect with Americans who are very open to experiencing culture as well. I don’t want to necessarily say you have to be from another country for me to connect with you.

The people that I have the biggest shared connection with happen to be immigrants because we are like, “You did that too?” “Yes.” It’s all of us. It’s everything from growing up to how our parents acted to how strict our parents are. I am convinced that most immigrants have the same experience and I love that. I’m sure that is true. At least from the experiences that I have had, it has been pretty easy to connect with people.

My experience as a child is very different from my experience of getting into adulthood. I would probably say my experience of childhood was very much like trying to understand the language because that is part of your experience. That makes up your culture. You define, “How do I make sense of information? How do I understand culture and people?” There are a lot of assumptions I realize for myself that I build into my way of understanding things.

You don’t have to tell me every single thing. I can use the process of inference because as somebody who had to learn a new language, I had to use that a lot to make sense of information that I did not know. “How does education work? How does America work? What is this like?” I have to use a lot of inferences to understand all of that.

Finding a sense of belonging in my people was pretty much childhood. In high school and college, I struggled with being Ethiopian enough to be Ethiopian and then being American enough to be American. It was my way of understanding. We were like, “I’m not quite Black enough to be Black. I’m also not quite Ethiopian enough to be Ethiopian. Where do I fit in?” I am struggling with that. After college, it has been more like, “I do not care.”

This is my season of life, which is very much a space of, “I don't care.” This is cool to be in this very ambiguous and gray space, where I do connect with other diasporas but I’m also not like every diasporas, and that is okay. I do have that California accent. I have also heard that. I am in this space of very hippie-dippy, everything is kosher.

Viola, what about you?

I was listening to Keya and was like, “My HPS speech works right there.”

HPS stands for Heroic Public Speaking. That was the company that we took the course in. 

I don’t know that they have a page slot on this show.

I don’t care at all. It was a meaningful experience. Go for it.

One of the things that I felt during that course that I wanted to explore, and I shared a little bit about that with Valerie, is this whole idea of identity belonging and becoming, how those three different things overlap and sometimes are sequential. It’s this whole journey where you are trying to figure out who you are. Part of the speech that I was working on, one of the experiences that I was trying to develop was this whole idea of the immigrant mindset.

I was doing Communications. I had a concerned family member who pulled me to the side and asked me, “What are you going to do when you graduate?” I was like, “What do you mean? There are tons of people who get this degree.” She was like, “No, in terms of being able to work and generate revenue so that nobody needs to take care of you.” That was from a place of concern. It’s the stereotypical African parent who doesn’t want their child to do a degree in English. At least if you were going into English, make it very clear that you were serious about going into some form of Academia or you had a writing plan but they don’t want you to go to school just to go to school.

Having this conversation at my level, I pushed back so I was processing, “You think that I’m not going to be marketable because I have an immigrant background? In your mind, there are some pigeonhole industries where it doesn’t matter what you sound like, you know people, or whether or not you have a Godfather to move you through. You will be able to make it, generate revenue, and hopefully, take care of other people and all that kind of stuff.”

I had to process and pull back the layers that this conversation was not about whether or not I was capable. This conversation was born out of the fear that that generation carried about what kind of options were available. It had nothing to do with my ability or whether or not I had any strengths that needed to be found. I’m using that as one of the big signposts in my life because, in my mind, I’m like, “This has nothing to do with being an immigrant, having a big immigrant family, or any of those things. This has everything to do with who I think I am as a person and what my abilities are. Do people around me believe in my potential enough to encourage and affirm it irrespective of the constraints with mindsets?”

Understandably so, I have put them in. For me, it’s to be able to process that and think about how those things affected how I saw myself and how I saw the opportunities that are available to me. It so happens that I have a rebellious streak. That came in so I was like, “I’m going to show you.” I’m thinking through the situations that forced the identity that I embraced, belonging to the reason around why I felt like I belonged or didn’t, what I did to hide from those feelings, and then became the season I have been in for a few years.

I came to this place of it doesn’t matter where I am. I am a human being. I am the planet. I have worth and dignity. I deserve to be here because I am here. I’m embracing that mindset and understand that the only thing that qualifies me is I am here so I have worth. I’ve been able to embrace it in the spaces I find myself. Having to process all of that is something that a lot of immigrant kids and people in the diaspora have to do.

I am a human being. I am the planet. I am worthy of dignity and deserve to be here.

I have been able to put in those three big pillars and then begin to filter through those pillars. My identity, what are the experiences that shaped it? Belonging. How hard was it to belong in the different little circles? Who am I becoming as I have processed some of those things? As Keya was talking, I was like, “I am going to get offline and talk to Keya some more because this is going to work for me.”

That is exactly what I was hoping to produce, to generate this level of connection. I forgot about the speech topic. I’m so glad you brought it up. That was one of the other reasons that I was like, “This would be a great conversation to have.”

You kept it a secret. 

Even from myself. 

There is something that stood out to me as you were talking. One of the things that I have gotten to do is look back at that fear. Most of us experienced that. Look at it through the lens of grace and compassion like, “Why does that fear exist? How did that shape the experiences of my parents? What was the context that my parents were a part of that informed the wisdom that they were trying to give me?”

Even in those fears that were passed down to us, they were passed down in terms of wisdom that they were hoping would guide us because it guided so much of their decision-making and lived experiences in the US. Their experiences are very different from the experiences that we have. One of the things that I love is I feel like every generation gets more and more audacious. I love it so much because spaces and contexts cultivate that.

For my parents, the ability to go, “I don’t care,” or your version of becoming, to reach that might have not happened, specifically for my parents. My mom was 17 when she had me so they got together when they were super young, had their first kid at 17, and then had more kids after that. They came to the US because they won a lottery ticket and were as confused as anything trying to figure out how to work, support themselves, how they were becoming while taking care of four kids, and also supporting a marriage.

Their experience was about survival. When you are in that space of survival, there is a lot of fear and constraints that dictate the way that you can have a lived experience. The way that my parents live is a very different place than when we first got here for sure. My starting place as a result of their sacrifice and hard work was different. With their sacrifice and hard work, I was able to get to this place of, “I don’t care,” or becoming at a much faster rate than they might have been able to go to. 

Not Quite Strangers | Identity
Identity: In a space of survival, there are a lot of fears and constraints that dictate how you can have a lived experience.

I agree with you. It's so much part of the experience to have those tensions and conversations that are maybe disappointing, and to find our sense of belonging either in the people that we connect with later down the life or reaching this place of, “I’m going to have to be resolute within myself and trust myself and where I am being guided even if there isn't a sense of belonging around me.” Also, to recognize that getting to that space came because of the sacrifice of the same people who are maybe disappointing, which is such tension.

I am lucky. My parents are model nonconformists. My dad joined the US military when he was 34. Living in Panama, he worked in the Canal Zone. He was a civilian and was able to join because his parents and younger siblings immigrated to the US much earlier. He was already married or on the way to getting married so he was like, “I’m here. I am not going anywhere.” It is interesting because first of all, you can’t even join the military that late anymore but he was allowed. He was the dad of 18 or 19-year-old men, and my dad in his 30s.

My mom was an educator all her life but being a military wife, although she had her certificate to teach in Panama and had been teaching for years, when she came to the US, all of her academic records were invalidated. You have to go back to school and get a particular certificate. There's all this stuff and she was like, “We are going to do it my way.” She has always been nonconformist when it came to that. She never worked in the school system like that per se.

We have been living in the States since 1983. It’s a long time. She is working in the schools but always has it in some way. She has been a rabble-rouser but working to assist other young people who are immigrants and their parents, especially those who are Spanish. My parents are like water. Water always finds a way and that is what they instilled in me. I would imagine my three brothers have their version of that. I was never stuck with having to do school or a career a certain way. That was not the conversation we had.

To your point, education was number one. The other idea is being able to choose what I did for a career. Maybe it is just me or my brother didn’t say this. They had enough faith in me that they didn’t have to have that conversation. It’s like, “She will figure it out. She will do good.” With anything I have done, they have been super supportive. There's never been a question that whatever I would do, I would do well in and find satisfaction. They are always like, “Be happy and do good work.”

If I had to boil it down, it came with much longer sentences and lengthy conversations but, “Be happy and do good work,” was essentially the message. I am curious about the two of you. You both have siblings. What is the relationship like with your siblings? Where are they on the spectrum that we were talking about like identity belonging and becoming?

I am going to preface with this disclaimer. We all own our narratives. Whether or not we admit it, that is the truth. You can have four people who have the same parents, live under the same roof, go through the same experience, process, and/or refuse to process, and then create a narrative from those experiences. Parents, your siblings, or whoever else is the bystander, you have no power over anybody's narrative. That is my philosophy. I can only talk for myself.

You have no power over anybody’s narrative.

That’s smart. I don’t want to get any comments.

I’m happy to say what I think about their perceptions but even in working through my speech, I know that I had some conversations with some of my siblings. It is interesting how things are processed differently. We are all on different journeys or hopefully, all come to different levels of self-awareness at some point. Those are the tools that make up the narratives that we embrace.

Oftentimes, unfortunately, many of us go around wearing clothes that are too small. That works for then but it doesn’t work for now with the new information you got but you are still holding on to it. That is how I see the world so I will only have the liberty to talk about my narrative, how I process, and how my processing has brought me to where I am. I’m still processing as I replay and reprocess circumstances through the lens of a more self-aware person.

Adults always say, “You become so much kinder in your mind to your mother once you become a mother,” because there's a different set of things at play. You have to sacrifice for this being or these children, you have a marriage if there's one, and then you have all these things. All of a sudden, some of the stories you were walking around with as your narrative don’t fit. There's that dynamic. The disclaimer is out and I have a background in litigation, which my disclaimer is seven pages. All of that to say, I will only address my narrative and opinion. Thank you very much.

Keya, you don’t have to answer the question either. I need to take a step, too. Keya what's your version? Is there anything about your siblings that you feel open to sharing? Where are they in the journey or where are you in the journey with them?

I love that disclaimer. That was so beautiful. You know when you are having conversations with people and you are like, “Wait, do we have the same?” I am not going to finish that sentence because that is how I feel. I am so confused and discombobulated about how they process versus how I process. There are certain things that have gone on like that for my siblings and me. I have four siblings. I have one who is very close to me. I have one who is 26 years younger than me.

To answer your question, there are certain things about our journey that I feel we have a lot of similarities, particularly going to school and what that experience was like. There are some negative things like bullying. We resonated like, “We experience that.” Humor translates into that as well. There are certain things we don’t necessarily see eye to eye on but we have gotten to this place where we all respect each other for how we process information and don’t necessarily feel the need to persuade.

That is super interesting. Where we were a couple of years ago was we would try to debate our experiences and then try to come to a consensus. It dawned on us after a while. We don’t necessarily have to agree on the experience that we both had. We can say, “This is my experience and what I learned from it. This is how it is still shaping my life.” It could be a different narrative than what mine is, and it’s okay. We don’t need to debate it. We can accept it for what it is. We have come to that.

Not Quite Strangers | Identity
Identity: We do not have to agree on your experiences. Instead of debating on them, share what you have learned from them.

The most interesting about that is I left the faith background that I grew up in and my siblings are still in that. We have reached that space where we come from very different religions, sometimes political, and lots of different other things. There is a divide but for us to be able to respect each other and have a good relationship, which is where we are at, has been amazing. I don’t want to cry but that is how I feel whenever I describe it. It is so surreal that we could have gotten to this point I could have imagined a couple of years ago.

That’s got to be tough. It sounds like you have a pretty broad span in the age of your siblings. I can imagine. I’m in a similar experience. I have three brothers. All of us have a different narrative to your point. We all come from a different perspective, personalities, and needs at different times in life but all of us are in the becoming bucket.

We have these conversations maybe once a month. We will get on Zoom and talk about our childhood. We will watch a YouTube video and laugh. Laughter is something that we share. Also, religious approaches. There's a divide between the older and the younger. I am in the older bucket and a little different. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to share experiences and learn about each other. We are at that point in life. We are not out to convince anybody of feeling or experiencing something that we didn’t.

It’s funny because even as we are talking about culture, my twin younger brothers were four years old when we immigrated to the US. They don’t speak Spanish or remember speaking Spanish, although we have recordings of them speaking Spanish. They are like, “What did I just say?” Their education has been in English but culturally, we get each other.

Although there's a different age range and our experiences are a little bit maybe more shocking coming here already having some education in Panama, my older brother and me, it’s the idea of us still trying to figure out where we belong and how we belong. It's been the four of us. We are very united. Maybe the military thing had a lot to do with it too moving around. We’re our playmates. We are the play date. I am the only girl but they are amazing.  I have awesome brothers. Maybe I will do an episode with all three of my brothers. We’ll see. I don’t know if they will be down for it. Two of them have already done it. The third one is a little bit harder nut to crack.

I want to shift gears a little bit because we started having a conversation right before we went live that I would like to bring back up. Keya, it is specifically around the passing of your grandmother. You shared some things that I was like, “That would be a cool thing to talk about.” I know you already told Viola and me but for the audience, whatever you like to share. I would love for you to talk a little bit about the experience when you lost your grandmother. What would you like to say about her?

My grandma had cancer. We found it out very unexpectedly. From diagnosis to her passing away was about two months. Talk about a whirlwind of hospital visits and all of those things that were going on. It was such a strange thing to see her walking into the hospital, getting that diagnosis, and within a matter of a couple of days, being in bed and not having the strength. It happened so fast truly.

I am going to pull in the faith aspect here. There was a lot of faith from multiple sides, even me. There's a different religious affiliation. There was a lot of faith that she was going to come through this. In the end, it was more about not necessarily our faith and even just our belief in the higher being and what that higher being can do but more about what she needs and wants to do. What is the conversation that she is having with her higher being? Can we respect that?

All of us got to that at different points for sure. Towards the end, before she starts to do chemo, the conversation that she is having with her higher being is more like, “I’m ready to go. I don’t want to do this chemo thing. It is not for me.” Sure enough, there was an honoring of her request, which I’m super grateful for. She felt like that agreement was more like, “If I am going to go, I’m going to do it on my terms so you got to let that happen.”

On the last day, not only she was going through cancer but she ended up having a heart attack. She was getting heated and couldn’t breathe. We finally took her to the ER. The doctor sits down with us and we have that conversation that we know is heading towards like she is not going to make it. We call the rest of the family members. We have family members that are coming. We are in Rowlett and it is about an hour's drive from Dallas to Rowlett. We have family members who take an hour to get there and even farther than that.

We called as many people as we could to say, “Get here. She is on her last breath. She is about to go.” The only one that was the farthest was my sister. We FaceTime her so she has the chance to say goodbye but most everybody ended up getting there. We all gather together and have a prayer. At this point, she is having a heart attack. It means her heart rate is going from 0 to 142 to 160. It was going all over the place. I have never seen a heart dance like that. It was everywhere.

She prays with us and is there through the entire thing. As soon as we said, “Amen,” Grandma said, “Goodbye. I am leaving now,” and then left. I remember a bunch of us in the hospital room crying after that. I also remember crying but in the back of my head, I was also like, “She’s such a thug.” She said, “I’m going to go on my own accord on my own time,” and then she did it.

What’s her name?


What did you call her? We call our mother's side Abuela and Abuelo. That is it, although that is the name for grandparents.

We call her Grandma. That is why I keep saying, “Grandma.” They made her request known, had her request honored, and she got to say goodbye in the best way. It was good.

Viola, do you still have your grandparents with you?

My dad's parents were gone before I got here. My mother's parents weren’t but my grandpa is dead. We call our grandmother Grandmaline but we call her Greah.

Is she in the US or Nigeria?

She is in Cameroon.

When Keya told her story, we both had a reaction. I was like, ”I should have saved it for the episode. That would have been cool.” I didn’t know where I was going to go though so I was like, “I want to make sure we are good.” I remember your reaction Violet to that and a reflection on life. I don’t know if you remember what you said.

I don’t remember exactly what I said but I remember the sentiment, which was that she had the strength of spirit to, 1) Say, “I don’t want this chemo,” and then 2) Hang around until everybody got the chance to say goodbye. Your time to go is your time to go. We are going to go different ways. Some are more seemingly peaceful than others and some entail a lot more suffering seemingly than others but we are all going to have to get out the same way we come in some way. Some people come in painless. I was reading a story about a woman. She had four naturally painless labor deliveries. That needs to be studied. I was like, “There are so many different ways we could come in.”

You don’t know what happens when you come in. Some people pass away when they are bringing another being into the world. Some people have to have a C-section. Some people are knocked out. Some people are preemies. There are different ways we can come in and different ways we go out like prolonged sickness or the sickness with the wink to say, “I am going to be out of here soon.” It’s all these different ways. I was struck by the way Keya shared it. I don’t know how her siblings share it. It sounded to me the finality of she said amen and then she was gone. I was like, “Amen is so be it.” She said, “It’s so be it. I’m out.” I thought, “What’s strength of spirit.” It was a beautiful bow to her life story.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. I think about death often but not in a more subtle sense. It’s the sentiment that you express, “We all leave at different times in a different way.” I can’t remember the context of the conversation. It wasn’t necessarily about that but it was something like I shared. Even if I were to die tomorrow, which I don’t want to, let us be clear, nothing I’m planning, and I know somebody else is planning it but I am not, one thing I was so comfortable with is being able to say, “If I did die tomorrow, I have lived a good life.”

I feel complete in so many ways. There's still more. The thing about becoming is there’s no finality to it. Becoming is a constant way of being. It sounds weird but I’m excited about death in a way because it is a celebration of who I have become. That will be the moment where I am like, “This is who I have become and I wonder who that person will be.” At a point in time, that will be determined. If it were to happen now, that is one of the reasons that my parents were like, “Be happy and do good work.”

Being able to live that way has helped me to always be fulfilled and satisfied. That doesn’t mean that I have always been that way about stuff. There are things like, “Why didn't I get this? Why didn’t he call me back?” I have been through all those things but in my mature age, which I am in my pre-menopausal year, I am like, “That is pretty good.”

We don’t always have to reduce it to those hormones. Thank you very much.

I am becoming.

I love that so much. This is the thing that I thought about once Grandma passed away. We thought so much about the story of how she lived her life. That was the thing that made me cry the hardest. I was like, “I didn’t ask her to tell me.” What is it about the end of life that makes you reflect on how somebody lives their life? There was that missing piece of constantly being able to do that within the day-to-day while they were still here, which is the thing that’s missing.

The thing about becoming so much of it lies in reflections. There was this quote that said, “You can’t write a story looking forward. You have to write it looking backward. That is when you can connect the dots.” You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You have to connect it when you are backward. Much of that is how you live in the present. It’s finding that tricky balance of living presently and then also being able to reflect to look at your journey and story, being like, “I’m also going to tell myself these stories and narratives because that is also part of who I am,” and then living in that fullness of narrative plus present. “I’m okay. If anything happens, I’m good.”

You cannot connect the dots looking forward. You have to connect it while looking backward.

It also helps you to stop living in fear and these constant boundaries. If you had to reduce it, it is about death and the fear of not existing anymore. Many cultures do a good job of focusing on death and even bringing it up in conversation being dismal. It brings that to the forefront of, “I am most afraid of death but what if I made it a little less fearful that I can’t live by it and not be so constrained by it?” It makes a lot of sense the fact that you think about it and you are like, “I am good.”

When you are thinking about it, you can do a lot of things like tell the narrative to yourself, not be afraid of fear, and even prioritize what is most important. “If I was to go tomorrow, what do I want to be known for? Do I want to be known for finishing a deadline in this way or do we want to be known for loving and belonging to this group of people? I am going to shoot this choice. It helps.”

If it happens after this episode, I hope somebody publishes it. That is my final request. Publish it. Let them know what I thought.

It is so interesting coming from a different point of view. Many people die in the state with zero written requests about what they want to do with what is theirs, even if it is just a pillow or a wish for which they might have no power or control like, “I want you to go to Spelman.” When you engage people on the legal side like, “You are 50. Do you have a will,” the answer often is no.

I am a person of faith. I always say that I found God late in life. I didn’t grow up as a Christian so my faith means everything to me. People are not trying to die but are looking forward to the afterlife. Even in those communities, what I find that is interesting to me is that on a natural level, there is not as much “preparation” to not be here. Anytime I get a chance, and I hear people may embrace the fact that they are not going to be here, it doesn’t matter what you think. You are not going to be here forever.

In 100 years, it’s very probable that nobody will remember who you are. Even the people who are here to celebrate your passing will not be here in 100 years. That is the reality of life. Even with people who are comfortable talking about it, what I find is not scientific research. This is Viola’s observation. Those people don’t take the extra step of arranging their affairs in such a way that might be beneficial to the people that they love, tax-wise and asset-wise.  Most people don’t have their “affairs” in order.

That is a level of preparation that we need to encourage, especially in our communities. You see this in the Black community at large. The numbers are even bigger in African immigrant communities.  I can’t speak about any other communities because I have no research but I know in my church, 43 nations are represented. I can tell you that if you strike up a conversation about, “Do you have a will,” the answer is no.

It’s an encouragement, to people reading this show and all of us here who are comfortable talking about death and who have witnessed people transition, to say, “What are you doing? What’s your process of becoming to put your house in order?” For somebody else who’s not in your head and knows nothing about where you are stashing your cash if you have any cash, and doesn’t know anything about your liabilities and debts, talk to a few people. There are things that you can do that will make it easy for them and/or set them up for success that you could never have.

Not Quite Strangers | Identity
Identity: If you do not know anything about your liabilities and debts, talk to a few people. There are things you can do to set them up for success that you could never have.

You are calling me out. That’s what I think that was.

Did you feel uncomfortable, Valerie?

I’m like, “Game on.” I do have a will but you are right. I haven’t updated it since I started my business. This would mean I need to go back and make sure that this episode gets released.

This does a loop. It ties everything together in this process that you are talking about identity belonging and becoming. The idea of what happens after is also part of that narrative because it is like, “What happens when I stop becoming?” Valerie, you talked about this infinite loop of becoming. What is super interesting is to stop and think about what happens after you stop becoming changes a few things in your becoming.

It makes you think, “What can I do at this moment? What do I need to do? What are some of the things that I need to change?” What is super interesting even thinking about that is ironically, it does something to make you more present. I felt the most present after my grandmother died because it was like those moments I had to think even more about. It’s those narratives and stories that she was unable to tell me. I had to be much more intentional about the people that were in front of me to ask those questions.

Even that exercise from a legal perspective needs to be done. From a diaspora perspective, it’s going back and finding narratives, not just of things that we want to tell about ourselves but narratives about our parents and loved ones who we don’t have. We’re going back and getting that. “What happens after I stop becoming? What happens after the people that I love stop becoming? What are the things that I know? What are the things that I am missing? What are the things that I want to get?”

That goes full circle in what narrative is about. The narrative is beginning, middle, and end.

The cool thing about it is preparing makes the end a little cumbersome, maybe a little less, or maybe fewer missing chapters too if you are trying to get a story about somebody. It makes your thoughts known from a legal perspective like, “This is what I want. These are the things that I want to have happen.”

As you were talking, I was thinking about legacy. Not in the sense of the very defined processes. Having a hospital wing named after you. Not in that sense but even understanding that there is a bookend that forces the structure. You go project all those years forward and then you could backtrack to where you are. Sometimes for a grandmother, that might be as simple as, “I want to make sure to tell all my granddaughters X, Y, and Z. They are strong. They come from this stock of people who are giant slayers. They have it within them. I want to plant that seed whenever I’m not going to be here but it is going to bloom.”

It’s something as simple as that, which has nothing to do with leaving a will but is also very deliberate about how we get poured out as people knowing that we are here. Every generation is here as the foundation for the next. It’s what Keya said early on. Each generation gets fiercer in audacity but the way we get to maximize our lives is understanding that there are lives that are going to come after hours.

The most valuable lives are the lives that are going to be contributing the most to the lives that are going to come after. It could be a mother in a family situation but very deliberate and conscious like, “These four children, I might never be known but I’m going to give everything into these four children,” whatever the situation may be. The more we think about the fact that there is going to be a time when we are no longer here and there is going to be life after us. How do we want to impact the life after us? The more potent and meaningful our lives get to be, and the thicker the oil that our lives get to be, it is poured out for the next generation. I am taking that with me. That is a different way to think about legacy.

The most valuable lives are those that contribute the most to the lives that come after them.

From what you said, two words came to mind, legacy of spirit. It is not just a legacy of the tangible things that one leaves behind the objects, stories, emotions, and memories. All of that is a legacy of spirit. That is what carries on beyond generations. Somebody is going to change the wing of that hospital as soon as the dollar is coming.  That is not going to last necessarily as long. We can talk all day but as we are wrapping up our conversation, we’re tying all this stuff together. First of all, I’m so thankful that two of you said yes to having a random conversation among strangers. What are you taking away from this conversation? What stood out to you? What have you learned? What is the legacy of spirit that you are leaving with?

I’m taking away two things.

1) When curiosity is sparked, there is so much more that is ignited. One thing I am taking away is to find opportunities to spark curiosity because there is an ignition that is going to come after that spark. I’m going to take it into my circles. Maybe this is going to be a season of being a little more curious about what each of us carries within us. That is one.

2) On a personal note, I’m taking away the reminder that I need to carve out time to process my thoughts on some of these issues to develop them a little more. As I listen to Valerie and Keya, I am reminded that there is so much conversation that could be had around these ideas. A conversation is sweetest when you have taken time to think about what it is that you are bringing to the table. This conversation that I am taking away with me is a reminder that I need to sit down on some of these ideas and process some of these ideas even more.

Thank you for this.

Dare I say, noodle on them. Keya, what about you? What is the legacy of spirit are you taking with you?

It’s the spirit of connection. There is so much of this time that was born out of the intentionality of bringing two people together who might have a threat of connection. You have similarity and so you connected. I love that. I feel like it heightens a little bit of some of the stuff that I have been thinking about and I want to even dive deeper into it. The world around me feels so loud with so many of the differences that exist between us that feel like a chasm that we can’t bridge. That is the narrative that has been such a tension point for me like, “Do we always have to bridge or connect those? Do they have to exist?”

In this conversation, I thought that the answer was no. We can all have different perspectives and things but the connection doesn’t have to necessarily be that we found a similarity that we can connect on. A connection can be a conversation and us finding humor, joy, and any other thing that we have our experience of and then bringing that into the same room.

There is a lot of magic and the intention of togetherness that in itself breathes connection without having to be forced through bridges. I’m not a bridge builder. I don’t have to be. I can bring intentionality because at least I know how to do that. That was what made this whole thing feel super lovely.

Connection does not have to be about similarities. We can connect through conversations and humor - anything that would bring us into the same room.

Two of the intentions that I had were inspiring curiosity and building connections. The two of you spoke to that so beautifully. What I also got here is that connection comes from authenticity. It’s not like commonality. Sometimes we conflate the two and are like, “If we have something in common, then we are connecting.” No. I have had meaningful connections with people that I have nothing in common with. Our sharing was so authentic that it sparked curiosity and helped us go deeper and deeper in the conversation. That is what I am getting out of this conversation from the two of you reflecting on this. Any final words to each other, me, or any of the audience about this experience?

Viola, I wanted to give you affirmation in a way that is not far-reaching because I have just met you. One thing that I have seen is the way that you grouped identity, belonging, and becoming. I saw a little bit of the way that your mind works. One is taking the time to process information, release that information, and come up with a way to disseminate information in a way that is intelligible to another person and very sticky. You said it once and I remember it throughout the entire conversation, and that is a talent. That is so beautiful and I want to affirm that.

Thank you so much. That is so affirming. When you were like, “I want to affirm you,” I blushed.

You talked a little bit about going into the communication field. That makes a lot of sense to me in the short conversation that we had about the way you were able to communicate information and connect those stops.

Thank you so much. It was so nice meeting you. I wondered so much why is Valerie keeping it a secret. I might go in there and disappoint her.

Did you think that?

Absolutely. I’m an advanced retype person so I was like, “No bios? What's going on?” It's fun that it is virtual but I could see how this would be so nice over some in Jetta and food. This was awesome. I was saying to myself, “Really Dallas? No Texas accent?”

It comes out.

Where are you?

I’m in Virginia. I didn’t hear from either of you. I was very intrigued but I was so happy to meet you. I was like, “I want to know more of her story.” I got your number. I’m not going to be asking permission.

There is no need for that.

We’re connected. My best friend was in law school and then med school. She is an Ethiopian. She was born here. My parents are Ethiopian and you know how it goes. She is married to an Ethiopian man and raising kids. We are best buddies. We were in Seattle to spend a day together. Ethiopian culture is interesting to me. It is different from West African and East African cultures. I would not have known that you had Etsy heritage from your names at all.

It’s so nice to meet you. I’m happy to have you in my corner. I will reach out to you offline. Valerie, this was awesome. This is masterful. You have a good thing going. When she told me she was going to have me on the show, I was trying to suggest names to her for other people and she was like, “No. I’m not taking recommendations. I will do the connecting and invite who I want. it is my show. Thank you for your help.”

This is what you aspire towards, honestly speaking. It is hilarious. Also, the commitment. Anytime Viola tells you that she is going to do something, you best believe she is going to get it done and then she is on when she invites you.

This is the third try.

We rescheduled a couple of times. I’m not attached to it going a certain way but we meet strangers all the time. Think about how you met your best friend. That person was a stranger.

I met her when she was crying, walking up the street, and talking to herself. I said, “Are you okay?” She was just crying so I said, “No, you’re not okay. I’m going to walk with you.” We started walking. I was like, “Is it a boy? Don’t let anybody do this to you. What is going on?”

I walked her straight into my apartment and made some mint tea. We had a conversation for two hours. I was like, “You’re going to tell me everything and I’m going to tell you every reason why it is going to be okay.” That is how we became friends.

Authentic connection. How are you not most authentic when we’re in tears?

Ugly crying too over some boy.

She is married to somebody else. She has beautiful kids.

Before we step into too much another territory, I want to, first of all, say thank you to both of you for saying yes and for being so adaptable and flexible, trying to find a time that works for both of you in spite of all the life events that were happening, for being so wonderful and generous in this conversation. You’re generous with each other, me, and everyone. It's been fun. The time has flown by.

I knew there was one little topic we would talk about and then we will see what happens. I’m talking about death, legacy, identity belonging, and becoming. There are so many things that came out of this conversation but that was because you guys came to play. The thing that I take away is how fun it is to be present with a group of people who care. It’s not all it was but it's what carried it through. Thank you again.

I want to thank all the audience. You all know that if you want to get this notification every time we release a new episode, you want to go to and subscribe. You will get an email every time we have a new one, as well as going to the YouTube channel because if you subscribe there, you get notified. Other than that, it has been such a treat to have these amazing women, Keya and Viola. African queens, dare I say. It is so cliché but so much fun. I wish the two of you and everyone a wonderful rest of the day. Thanks for everything, everyone. Bye.



Important Links

Strangers: Meet Keya Tollosa & Viola Brumskine

From: Ethiopia/Texas, USA & Nigeria/Cameroon/Virginia, USA

Connect on: Moving through identity, belonging, and becoming


Connect With:

•         Keya Tollosa

•         Viola Brumskine


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