Regardless of your background or circumstance, chances are you know the music of Aretha Franklin. Learning of her passing caused me to reflect over an assignment I completed in my undergraduate program. It was a reflective assignment that required me to imagine I submitted a book proposal of my life story. The assignment required writing five chapters with a paragraph introducing the highlights of each chapter. I have since adapted this assignment and use it with my clients to stoke the reflective flame to relate learning to life experiences.
Below are excerpts from my assignment, and how the songs of Queen Aretha Franklin provided the soundtrack to my life.
Ch. 1 – Chain of Fools
Born in the 70’s, this chapter describes my life growing up in rural Kentucky and discusses the impact of being raised by my great-grandparents. I resented the abandonment of my birth mother (she moved to North Caroline when I was a toddler) and I never knew my father, who gave me his name. He was a “good” man (as my biological mother described him) but he was also a man of the street with a hustle mentality (as I would overhear others talk about him). Some would even use the term "gangsta" to describe him. This type of lifestyle resulted in my father being murdered when I was a baby. I have an older brother (we share the same father) but I don’t know him either as he has been serving time in prison since 1977.
Ch. 2 – Still Waters Run Deep
This chapter discusses my childhood living in a small 5 room house with one bathroom (no shower) and 15 extended family members under the same roof. I did not know where I fit in this multigenerational setting. I really struggled with the idea of becoming a big sister to a baby girl that I didn’t know – from a mother I knew even less about. I was six-years old and remember piling into our Chevy Impala and driving from Kentucky to North Carolina to pick up my baby sister. My great-grandparents decided that since we were sisters, we needed to be raised together, so we brought back to KY an infant baby who cried a lot!
Ch. 3 –Think
This chapter reviews my years as a teenager and still not feeling like I belonged anywhere – especially not small-town, Kentucky. I was bullied a lot and wanted to escape by any means necessary. College was not in the plans for me. I was eighteen, ‘grown’ and ready to start my life. The day after I graduated high school, I piled into another car (this time it was a Yugo…remember those) with cousins and drove from Kentucky to Texas. I was determined to start a new life! Boy, was I in for a surprise and HARD life lessons. With only a high school diploma, I could not have the life I wanted or dreamed about. After a few hard knocks upside the head (literally), I moved back to KY to re-think some things, but I had no idea what my next move would be.
Ch. 4 – Rock Steady
I return home without a clue. This chapter describes how I had no direction of what to do after my failed attempt in TX. I bounced around from relationship to relationship. It also covers how the encouragement of a childhood friend motivated me to apply and enroll in Western Kentucky University where I would earn my Associates Degree – but not after two years of partying, drinking, academic probation, judicial probation, student loans, and meeting lifelong friends. In addition it will review the death of my great-grandfather and other significant people, finding love in my backyard (my husband and I are both from KY, our families knew each other, but we had never met, because he had already served 10 years in the Marine Corps when our paths crossed), losing love (he was stationed in London and Egypt the first two years we were together and the distance wore us out), finding love again, taking the leap into marriage and moving far, far away – to Hawaii. In the meantime, highlights of the culture shock and life transition moving from KY to HI had on me and how every day I would look at the majestic pacific mountain range and pray that God would give me the strength to climb.
Ch. 5 – Climbing Higher Mountains
This chapter will encompass a lot..from military life, military moves, great job, no job, death (my brother-in-law and great-grandmother in same year), grief overload, professional counseling, life (discovering I was pregnant the week after I buried my great-grandmother), relocating, school, life again (discovering I was pregnant again just after starting classes to earn my BA), ovarian cancer, surgery, recovery, school, graduation (BA), depression, graduate school, husband’s retirement, graduation again (M.Ed), relocate BACK home to KY (after 10 years away), readjustment, kids in school, husband back at work, settling down, tackling school again (going for the doctorate), and divorce.
Ch. 6 – Oh Happy Day
Divorce is painful and expensive. But despite my brokenness, I could not put a price on my peace of mind. The first night in my little rental home, me and the kids made a pallet on the floor. We played Uno to pass the time because I did not have a television. I did not have much, but I was at a place of peace and happiness that I had never experienced before. As a result of the pain from the divorce I started running in an effort to clear my mind and get fresh air. Over the past 6 years, I completed six half-marathons. Running allowed me to push past my pain and to regain the power that was always been there!
Ch. 7 Natural Woman
Self-love is the best love. For the first time in my life I began to love and appreciate myself for simply being me. I received the professional counseling and support I knew I would need to get to a place of healing for myself and for my children. My mind and body became stronger. And just as I was on this pathway to full restoration, I met Craig. As life would have it, we were both going through a divorce at the exact same time. We both discovered that what we needed more than ever was a friend. I made my goals clear and set explicit boundaries. He respected and appreciated everything about me. He encouraged me to simply be ME.
Ch. 8 Dr. Feel Good
Despite every obstacle in my way, I completed my doctoral degree. My family was right there with me to celebrate this momentous occasion. Craig was right there too. Our friendship deepened and certainly withstood its own obstacles: from homelessness, IRS, alimony, mediation, child support and slumlords; and this was all in the first year. Nevertheless, Craig remained consistent in his love, protection and encouragement for me even when I was rolling off the rails on the crazy train. I finally opened me heart and mind to receive all the goodness that came my way. We both decided to give love a second chance and after 5 years of love, fruit, water and friendship, we got married. My life became better than I ever imagined it could be.
My soul looks back and wonder, how I got over.
So, as the songs of Aretha Franklin play in many hearts and minds today, I would simply like to say Thank You. Thank you Ms. Aretha for the gift you gave the Universe. Thank you for providing the soundtrack to my life. May you rest in eternal peace.
Dr. James-Etta is Founder & CEO of Dr. James-Etta's Consulting Group, LLC. Her agency helps schools, districts & organizations examine implicit and explicit bias in order to go from being blissfully unaware about cultural differences to being sensitive, authentic and fully engaged to support every student/parent and every client/consumer, regardless of background or circumstance.
Dr. James-Etta specializes in qualitative data collection through self-examination, reflective writing and deep discussion to gain insight from multiple perspectives.
Visit website to learn more: www.drjamesetta.com