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Courage: Facing What Frightens Us the Most


Thank you so much for your messages in response to last week’s post on my first speaking events. I was able to read a few early Sunday before embarking on Dave Koz and Friends at Sea Cruise in Scandinavia and the Baltics. On board with the greats of Smooth Jazz, including Keiko Matsui, Rick Braun, Richard Elliot, Jonathan Butler (to name a few)! Great weather, great ports and 2100 fans, new friends and family. A great week!

But no internet. So, forgive me for not responding.

In Helsinki, our guide pointed out that Finland is the northernmost European country, with the northernmost European capital, and the most resourceful people! Her proof: Helsinki has the greatest density of Art Deco buildings in Europe. Partially due to their design sensibility. But also, because in WW2, when Finns heard German bombers were coming, they imposed a total blackout, and set huge bonfires on their many uninhabited islands. 95% of the over 6000 bombs dropped hit the out islands, with only 5% hitting the capitol of Helsinki! Heritage and city preserved.

“We Finns have grit!” she said. Grit: courage and strength under adversity.

Grit. Doug Mchenrie, a college classmate with whom I recently reconnected, said, “You have courage. Grit.” Now, I’ve heard that a lot since I began sharing my story of stroke, recovery and reinvention. But Doug’s next words stunned me. “You must have come from some family.”

I’d never thought about that. As far as I knew, I’d just soldiered on. As I lived it, the journey of stroke recovery felt as if it was about humility, acceptance and attitude. Only in retrospect did I begin to recognize the role of courage. But Doug's words made me reexamine: “Where did I find the courage, the grit, the fortitude to overcome?”

Family? Certainly my boys were motivation. But family of origin?

I began to search for answers. Sadly, as with many families of African American and Native American heritage, much is unknown: not spoken of, not written down and not easily reconstructed. Separations, trauma, degradations, disenfranchisements most often are buried. Survival demands it. (Thinking also of my many NYC Hunter College High School girlfriends, many first-generation Americans, children of Holocaust survivors.)

But, what do I know?

Of my father’s family, this I know. (Thank you, cousin Leroy, for the family history!) Father’s grandfather, my great grandfather, was a slave on a Georgia plantation. Long before The Emancipation Proclamation, he had had enough. He escaped to the north, landing in Philadelphia. He married a woman whose father had purchased his family from their owners with his earnings as a skilled craftsman.

So, grit?

Ancestors who survive being captured and sold, survive the middle passage, survive slavery, then choose to self-emancipate? Marry the child of a similarly resourceful family, raise an only son who decides at an early age to become a doctor. Son studies by kerosene lamp in the upstairs flat in the ghetto, despite being teased by the neighbors for his “airs.” Son takes and implausibly aces the scholarship examination for the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. First African-American to do so. Graduates. Ditto. Wants to specialize in Ear, Nose and Throat. 1920’s America, height of Jim Crow era, no options for training in America. What to do? Teach yourself French, take a steamer to France, study with the world’s experts, return and become the first African American certified in any medical specialty, Ear, Nose and Throat 1927: William Harry Barnes, M.D. A longer article. (ATT/Bell struck a commemorative medal for him, which, thanks to Leroy, I own!) Wm Harry had 5 sons, two of whom, my father and Leroy’s father, both became physicians. (Leroy senior was a radiologist!!! )

I was the second of my father’s 3 daughters. With no sons, the mantle passed to us. (Clearly, I drank from the family well.) I wanted to be a veterinarian, but sophomore year at Stanford, when I worked for veterinarian, a requisite for admission to vet school, I was sick so often with so many allergies I realized I could not work with animals for a living. The pre-vet and pre-med coursework was the same, and other than physics, completed, so I applied to medical school.

And you know where that lead.

Guess Doug was right; I came from some kind of family!

Now the half that is my mother’s family is a whole other story. But that’s for another time.

For now, sharing this article about courage from a recent issue of Unity Magazine by Jerry Jampolsky, M.D. and Diane Circincione, PhD, founders of Attitudinal Healing. (Screen shot below, not legible, click above link.)

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