Last weekend I went back to Wellesley College for Alumnae Leadership Council and it was beautiful, wonderful and intense, full of incredibly smart women; it was lovely and it was classically Wellesley both as I experienced it and as I remember it. (And no, that’s not always the same thing, nostalgia can be deceitful!) But the weekend was also bittersweet. I met, fell in love with, agreed to marry and planned a life with CMadison at Wellesley. So as I walked around campus my heart was full of joy and thanksgiving as well as grief and sadness; and those are difficult and complex emotions to process or even organize over the course of a weekend. Thank God I’d already planned to spend Sunday night with Liana and Jabari. I didn’t realize I’d have so much to process, yet by the time Jabari picked me up I was just a tad concerned about myself. But when I walked into Liana’s kitchen and visited with her mother while Liana and two of their sons cooked, and as each of their other children arrived and the grandbaby toddled underfoot and two friends of their eldest arrived with pictures from their trip to Africa, I knew I was in the right place at just the right time. At first I thought it was luck, but then I remembered how CMadison (adamantly!) did not believe in luck. He walked in the idea that his going out and his coming in was ordained by God. He didn’t even understand why I continued to marvel at his marriage proposal before our first date, so he certainly didn’t understand why I marveled at our meeting Liana and Jabari. But I did. I marveled about the perfect timing of that. I continue to marvel at the perfect symmetry.
We met Liana and Jabari on September 23, 2003 at Vertigo Books in College Park, Maryland and but for CMadison it wouldn’t have happened at all. We were on the end of the East Coast leg of our self-financed book tour promoting Morning by Morning: How We Home-Schooled Our African-American Sons to the Ivy League. Another new and dear friend, Pier Penic, somehow got her hands on a galley draft, called, introduced herself and asked to promote it. Of course I said “Yes, thank you!” and she had me booked everywhere before I could whisper “Look at God!” But we’d just finished driving back from California for the West Coast segment of the book tour at the end of August and dropped Evan back at Amherst and I was just not feeling it. CMadison finally asked “Would you like some cheese with that whine? Either way we are scheduled, we committed and we will be at Vertigo Books tonight. I will buy you ice cream afterwards. Okay?” I really wasn’t whining but praise God, the promise of ice cream worked because within minutes, it became clear we were meant to meet Liana and Jabari. And over the years our friendship blossomed as if the four of us had been seeded together in the very same garden bed.
Now this is odd because CMadison and I were an odd couple. CMadison never accepted that assessment, but my mother used to say “If a thousand French men tell you you’re drunk, sit down.” Plus “odd” didn’t especially disturb or concern me; I was used to it. We intentionally built our lives together with the expressed biblical goal of two becoming one. I could see how that might seem odd. We had our admittedly rather odd children in the midst of that growing, creative intersection and established an odd alternate universe of independence, a sort of bulkhead, for our family. Most people didn’t get us. We were accustomed to criticism for being “too close” and spending too much time together. And of course there was the consistent and virulent critique that CMadison was both “too involved” and “too easy” on our sons-he never spanked them because “There will be no domestic violence in my home. Period.” And black people home-schooling their children in the ‘90s using exclusively black grad students as tutors evoked it’s own level of critique. So I accepted the descriptor “odd”. And then we met Liana and Jabari and I got to see odd from a whole different perspective. She is brilliant. He is brilliant. They prefer one another’s company to anyone else’s. They have five brilliant children. They adore them, delight in their company and home-schooled several of them. Their children are very close and dear friends to one another. They actively support one another’s goals and ambitions, yet each is involved in the arduous process of his or her own “becoming”. They are a functional family, a working cooperative, the idea of physical discipline seems a non-starter, the love and affection is tangible rather than theoretical and all of it together forms a vibrant, illuminatingly beautiful thing to behold. It may be odd, but it is definitely good.
When Liana and I first became friends I told her I prayed daily to be the best possible wife and helpmeet for CMadison. I told her I prayed to be able to anticipate, understand and exceed his expectations. I told her I prayed to be the best mother for each of our sons because Charles, Damon and Evan might all be odd, but each one’s oddities were unique. I told her I prayed for the wisdom and discipline to create a space of excellence for my family to stretch and grow. And wonder of wonders-she was not surprised, impressed, condemning or patronizing. She didn’t question my sense of or commitment to self-actualization, self-awareness, self-consciousness, self-identity, self-fulfillment, self-worth or self-care. She didn’t ask me why I cooked or gardened or knew all the favorite foods and clothing sizes of everyone in my family. None of that was odd to her. She never cautioned me about doing too much or the hazards of the cult of respectability or the myth of the strong, black woman. Liana and I were both raised in the old school Apostolic, Pentecostal tradition. Her mother who lives with them, and my mother who hosts her children for Sunday dinner, are cut from the same cloth and grew up at a time when, as my great-grandmother Hattie Edwards would say, “being in Holiness meant something!” It’s not surprising that Liana and I don’t just accept one another we really understand one another. Our spiritual, intellectual and political world views are almost perfectly aligned; for someone like me, deemed perennially odd, that ease of engagement was an immediate comfort. And over the years as I watched CMadison, who grew up Baptist, and Jabari who’s Buddhist, talk for hours-not about themselves, their athletic or academic achievements, their careers, their real estate holdings or their bank accounts but about their wives, their children and their families into the 2nd and 3rd generations, about Buddhism, faith and Holiness I felt awash with waves of thanksgiving. It’s a blessing to see men so completely enthralled and conscious of the amazing joy and responsibility inherent in the experience of being (not talking about, not writing about, not lecturing about, and not preaching about but actually being) strong black men, strong black husbands and strong black fathers.
Jabari’s an author, poet, playwright and an associate professor of writing, literature and publishing at Emerson College as well as Editor-in-Chief of The Crisis magazine. Liana is an incredibly insightful and gifted helpmeet, mother, grandmother, cook, baker, educator, marketing guru, seamstress, set designer and writer. Her play “Intimate Contradictions” was named a semifinalist in MTWorks’ 2014 Festival. I love that when she and I get a chance to connect she’s always excited about her life with all its complexities and challenges. Maybe because we both come from a long line of powerful, fully grown, brown-skinned and strong black women who were loved deeply and fiercely we’re comfortable and not disquieted at seeing ourselves in that vein. Our conversations rarely drift much less linger in the “Look at me, I’m doing so much I’m overwhelmed” range. We don’t talk about our families, our work, our dreams and then sigh and complain that it’s just too much or beg “pray my strength in the Lord” over every little thing. I love that. I have loved it from our very first conversation.
On Saturday, May 25, 2013, when I walked into the church for CMadison’s homegoing, Liana was the first person I saw. She left Jabari and the children and drove from Boston to be there for me. I deeply appreciated everyone who took time out on a Saturday morning to celebrate CMadison and everyone who sent cards and flowers and emails and texts of support and love. But Liana really understood in a way very few people could what CMadison and I worked to create in our 36+ years together; because she and Jabari are very consciously involved in the same quest. I love them because they are brave enough and conscious enough to eschew fragmentation. They aren’t building their lives around fragments of the feminine or fragments of the masculine, fragments of intellect, fragments of academia, fragments of art, fragments of religion, fragments of church denomination or dogma, fragments of career, fragments of marriage or fragments of parenting. Their connectedness is diunital, “both/and”. It is ancient in its beauty like yin and yang, opposite yet inextricable from nature and proudly interdependent. They know balance is critical; yin and yang can fluctuate as they are neither yin nor yang alone, yin holds part of yang and yang holds part of yin. The concept of yin and yang exists in everything, it is the opposite of fragmentation. Having been steeped in the Holiness tradition for generations, I’m a sucker for every manifestation of “Oneness”; I love the idea of yin and yang.
And I love Liana Asim and Jabari Asim. I love the fierceness of who they are individually and the power of who they are together. I thank Liana for sharing her grandbaby with me while helping me process yet another layer of grief in the warmth of her kitchen last weekend. I thank Liana and Jabari for who they are and who they have been and who they will be in my life. I pray for Liana Asim and Jabari Asim and all the genius Asim children, the Asim grandchild and all the Asim grandchildren to come. It is a selfish prayer. As a fellow traveler, a mother of fellow travelers and prayerfully one day a grandmother of fellow travelers on this “ardjus jurney”, I know the world needs more loving genius, more genius that adheres to the adage “Don’t talk about it, Be about it!” The world needs more genius that opens itself to others without incessantly thirsting for reciprocity, recognition or recompense. I pray grace and mercy, peace and blessings over the Asims. In the matchless name of Jesus, Amen and Amen, world without end.