Tuesday, December 8, 2015

I Am with You Still

"I give you this one thought to keep - I am with you still. I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on the snow, I am the sunlight on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain. When you awaken in the morning's hush, I am the swift, uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight. I am the soft stars that shine at night. Do not think of me as gone - I am with you still - in each new dawn." ~Native American Prayer

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Words in the Wind

In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on. ~ Robert Frost

I am the sum of my history. All of my experiences, people I’ve met, relationships I’ve had, emotions I’ve felt and decisions I’ve made, have brought me to today.
I’ve held on to letters – not just love letters, all of them – for sentimental reasons, or so I thought. I couldn’t throw them away. Some letters I’ve read over and over and over again throughout the years, and some I’d completely forgotten.
It’s interesting to think of the notion “someone took the time.” We easily forget this. When we are going through tough times or when we are feeling lonely, we tend to think thoughts like “no one loves me,” or “I wish someone would think of me for a change.” I’ve thought these thoughts often. In the back of my mind and in my heart, I know there are people who love me, particularly my family. I know that God loves me. But for some reason, these positive affirmations get buried beneath the negativity.
But when I look at old letters, I’m reminded of how much I am loved. And it is as simple as someone took the time to think of me. They took a moment out of their busy life to reflect on me, put pen to paper and write. And they took it several steps further by folding the letter neatly, placing it in an envelope, addressing the envelope, putting a stamp on it and mailing it.
Just think about that for a moment. 
Time is precious to us all. We’re only given so much of it.
Of course, most of my letters are from ex-lovers and friends (some of them ex-friends). And, although I am no longer a part of their lives,  I mattered to them at that moment they wrote me. To me, this is special. Special because during my interactions with them, I learned invaluable life lessons and I grew and matured from those lessons. I can’t take back anything that I have experienced with them. I can only look back and thank them for sharing those precious moments with me. For those moments make up a part of who I am today. So thank you. Thank you for thinking of me and sharing your thoughts with me.
In creating this piece, I cut up the letters. This process allowed me to not only say goodbye to the letters but to my grief of loosing a part of my life that is no longer present but still relevant. Whether people are no longer in our lives due to separation, death or just simply growing up, the feeling of loss is still experienced and should be acknowledged so we can fully move forward with what remains of our own lives. Most of my letters are from people who are no longer a part of my life but are still living. These were people whom I loved and, at the time, it hurt to loose them. But now that I've looked at their significance in my life from a different perspective, I can properly say goodbye. I can confidently shred my letters without negativity and let them go.*
However, should you want to keep old letters, I would suggest choosing your most treasured letters and have them scanned to make a book out of them. A book will keep better, will be easier to access and share, and takes up less space. If you're like me, your letters were kept in several shoe boxes scattered around the house or in a storage bin. And by all means, don't keep any hateful or negative letters. There's nothing worse than looking back on a person and being reminded of bad times.*
*Added to a previous article written on Afros365.com
Materials: Cut-up letters, construction paper, printed photo, glue stick and ink pen. I personally like MyPublisher.com for creating photo books. If you are scanning documents, they will need to be saved as a jpg. I also recommend Lulu.com if you want to submit pdfs or if you are planning to key in the the documents in a text program.

Friday, September 18, 2015


I was cleaning my office today and organizing some things when I came across a small box of letters and cards that I'd forgotten. You see I had brought the box to work in an attempt to go through the box a little at a time during my lunch breaks and eventually making a decision to dispose of them. I hadn't touch the box since.

When I looked in the box, I thought it would be a good idea to commemorate my past by creating an Afro (for my Afros365 blog) out of the used stamps from the envelopes, since the stamps are the first thing I noticed. So, I put a few of them to the side and, during my break, I began emptying the envelopes and tearing the stamps off.

One envelope in particular caught my eye because it had my grandmother's address label in the corner. I flipped it over, ready to pull the letter out when the first thing I see is a five dollar bill peeking out. I immediately dropped the letter and became overwhelmed. Not with sadness because my grandmother is no longer with me. She died November 9, 2001 (not too long after 9-11-2001). She was my other parent. My confident. My best friend. And I love her so much. No, I was overwhelmed with joy. To Mari Kondo: This envelope and its contents definitely "sparked joy."

I can't remember ever feeling this way in all my life. All of my good memories of my grandma came rushing in at me like a wave just hit me on the beach. Salty, painful but exhilarating. For a full 5 minutes or so, I cried. And I didn't want to stop it. It was immediate and urgent and I didn't want to let go of the feeling. Normally, when I am about to cry, I'm trying to, unsuccessfully, contain it and keep it from pouring out. But not this time. At any rate, it was too sudden for me to have a chance to think about it. I couldn't touch the envelope or even look at it for a few minutes.

When I got my composure (with the help of a friend who read one of the letters out loud and made me laugh), I read the letter and two others that were just like it and also had $5 in them. Mary Alice Lewis Buster was an amazing woman. Not only did she take the time to write her granddaughter over seas, but she placed money in them. Money that she didn't have to give. I don't know why I never spent the money. Maybe because I knew she was retired and living on a fixed income. Maybe I wanted to treasure something that she so willingly gave me.  Or maybe because it reminded me of her giving heart and I wanted to hold on to that part of her.

My grandma has always been that way towards me. No matter what she had, she shared with me. She was always there for me. Even when I made unsound decisions, she supported those decisions. When I came home from Italy, my grandma surprised me (and other family members) with a t-shirt she had specially made for me. It said "Been there, done that." And it had a list of all of the cities I'd visited while abroad. (I wore that shirt so much, it became tattered and ragged.) My aunts and uncles shirts' had the words "my niece" at the top and my mom's had "my daughter." And, of course, she had one that said "my granddaughter." She was so proud of me. I had gotten her a tote bag with the word Rome on it and a t-shirt and I took a picture of her with that bag. She had the biggest brightest smile. It was one of my favorite Christmases.

Legacy isn't about the things, although things sometimes help trigger memories. But it's the memories themselves that we hold so dear. I have touched or come across items that belonged to my grandma over the years and none have caused the passionate reaction I just had with that letter. Those other items were not about an interaction between she and I. Her jewelry came from other people or her personal purchases. Her scarves, though lovely, were things she wore for her pleasure. Pictures, blankets, clothing, photo books and picture frames are all nice and I held on to them because they were hers, but not because they spark joy in me. However, the letters were her personal thoughts to me. They were her responses to conversations we'd shared over the phone and via other letters. They represent the interactions that we'd shared during the time I had with her.

I love my grandma from this day till the next and the next thereafter. And I don't have to feel guilty for letting go of some of her material things. After all, she did. I have all of my fond memories. And I have a few items, like these three letters, that I will always treasure. Thank you, thank you, thank you for being in my life grandma. I love you.


In our present world of emails, social media, instant messaging, etc., what would be more special than to write someone you love a handwritten, snail-mailed letter. I don't recommend sending things with monetary value through the mail but there are many ways to make it special like decorating the borders of the paper or sending a few photos that relate to you and the receiver. You never know what someone will treasure after you've passed along.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What's My Legacy?

I picked up the book "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing" by Marie Kondo as a gift for my aunt and ended up reading it. (Divine intervention possibly?) It has changed my mindset about decluttering my home, my work space and, ultimately, my life. This is not a review of her work, but I mention it because reading the book led to several questions about myself and my legacy.

I was following (and still am) her process for going through my things and deciding what brings me joy. Upon going through my paper clutter, I rediscovered poems I'd written in junior high school, old love letters, creative writing lessons from high school and other things that all of a sudden, I couldn't throw away. I asked myself the question that Ms. Kondo proposes: Does this spark joy? My answer was repeatedly no.
Old school papers and drawings from middle school - almost 3 decades old!

So, why was I holding on? It dawned on me that I could save the memory and get rid of the paper. I would consolidate my memories. I began the process of typing in old writings and scanning cards and letters with the hopes of getting one book printed of all of those papers that would be much smaller and more concise. In fact, why not do this with all of my items I couldn't let go but didn't spark joy? I began photographing dolls and stuffed animals and other items that I quickly sold at a yard sale for next to nothing - yeah, it must have been very dear to me. In reality, I was looking for a way out.

I hit a road block in my consolidating. I was getting nowhere fast. Something didn't feel right about how I was decluttering. And I was veering way off-course.
Current status. I unpacked several boxes that had been stored for more than a decade. I was, needless to say, overwhelmed.

Last week, I stopped my consolidation process and asked myself, "why am I doing this?" Is it because I think my son or family will treasure my old things in book format? Did I want to chronicle every facet of my life from childhood to adulthood? At what point will I stop consolidating before it gets to be too much?  I had several reasons why I should continue the process. I, myself, would love a book of memories to glance through, even if only I enjoyed it.

In her book, Ms. Kondo mentions making things more prominent by paring down a collection. For example, instead of having a unicorn collection of 100 displayed all over the place, a few special pieces - like five - would stand out more and draw more attention. In other words, less is more. She also warned that going through memorabilia should be last on the list. I never thought going through paper that I would run into items that fall into the memorabilia category.

So, although my idea of consolidating seems like a good idea and I still plan to do it, it will make a better book if it contain just a few of each of the collections with a short paragraph of what those collections meant to me. And it would serve me better to save for last.

I will be better able to pick through each of the items — by asking myself does it spark joy — when I know that I am looking for the few special ones to add to my book. Therefore my book will be that much more meaningful.

Ms. Kondo also explains a process in which you say goodbye to an object/thing that does not spark joy — even if it once did — by telling it thank you for bringing me joy and for serving (whatever purpose it served) in my life. It gives me peace of mind when I do this and, therefore, makes it easier for me to let it go.

This entire process is helping me to not only declutter and purge but also to stop living in the past and worrying about the future. It's teaching me to live in the present - now. I am allowing myself the freedom to let go while remembering and maintaining the things that made me who I am today. This is something I can teach my son and it will be something he will appreciate when this body dies. Part of my legacy will be making it easier for him to say goodbye when my time comes.

Project Idea:
Photograph, scan or key-in a favorite collection of yours or a loved-one's to make into a photo book. Maybe you have a collection of stamps, movie tickets, toys from your childhood, jewelry, comic books, artwork, love letters, greeting cards, etc. The key is to choose the best ones to include in the book with a very short paragraph about each collection. And then toss/sell/give away the collection. You save your loved-ones the burden of having to go through hundreds of items upon your death and trying to make those tough decisions of letting it go. And let's face it, usually people avoid having to go through a loved-one's items for years after their death.

Great sites for making photo books: MyPublisher, Flickr, iPhoto, Blurb, Shutterfly, Snapfish, Walgreens and Walmart. My personal favorites are MyPublisher and iPhoto.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Case Study - Too Sick To Attend Her Funeral

Creating “legacies” can be as unique as the individual who has left us. 

I received a referral for a patient who was depressed because he could not attend his great-grandmother's funeral. He was stuck in the hospital for health reasons for almost 2 months. His grief was manifesting as anger and frustration and he was taking it out on, mostly, himself.

At our initial meeting, he shared his love for his "grandma" as he called her and his frustration at the crumpled up funeral program his mother brought back. He wanted desperately to get a better picture of her and was searching through Facebook photos of friends and family who attended the funeral. 

I suggested borrowing the funeral program to scan (having a scanner in my office) and bringing him back a nice glossy print. This soon led to him emailing several pictures of her and people from the funeral service for me to print out for creating a scrapbook of an important moment he had missed. 

It became his mission during his time at the hospital. It also was a craft project he shared with his mother, who was caring for him. His disposition, and hers, brightened and he had something to look forward to each day which helped him get back to the process of healing physically and spiritually by releasing some of his anger and frustration.

Years later, when he looks back on his time spent in a hospital for more than 50 days, he can remember creating a momento of his grandmother's passing.

Case Study - 32 Tattoos

Creating “legacies” can be as unique as the individual who is leaving or has left us. Earlier in 2014, I visited with a patient who was dying of renal medullary carcinoma, a rare cancer associated with the sickle cell trait. After being told of his diagnosis, he knew he would die within 3 months and was planning to transition to palliative care. The then-34-year-old became very depressed and felt his life was being cut short, at a time when he was just starting to live. He was referred to me and it was suggested that I do a hand print or thumbprint craft with him to leave for his two young children. Because he was a young African-American man, I held off on the activity. Sometimes, in our culture, fingerprinting may be perceived or related to a negative experience. And not knowing his history, I wanted to speak with him first.

At our initial meeting, he revealed his fascination with tattoos and expressed an interest in getting a new tattoo. He showed me 32 tattoos he already had and asked if I could help design a new one for him. I had learned that he was refusing to see his children, so I suggested that he make a scrapbook of photos of his tattoos for his children. Whether he was going to be cremated or buried, the tattoos are a part of him that they wouldn’t be able to keep. He agreed and allowed me to photograph each one. 

During this process, he enthusiastically told me about each tattoo, including tattoos of his children’s names and a tattoo of a representation of Jesus Christ, of whom we talked about things Jesus had done before his early death. I got the prints and scrapbook supplies to him the next day, which happened to be his 35th birthday. Although his children were not present, several other family members were able to participate in helping him put the book together and celebrate his birthday. With his direction, the book was completed. He had placed the tattoo photos in chronological order, wrote short messages about the tattoos and included quotes and scriptures for his children to read. He died two days later.

This is an example of personalizing the memory-making activity. Going that extra step will leave something even more meaningful for a family. Years later, this book will tell his story about things in life that were important to him through one of his favorite pastimes. His family also will have those last shared memories of creating together that they can reflect on during their grieving process.

Treasure Box of Photo Cards by Unicia Buster

For Valentine's Day, 2015, I wanted to make something for my son that was a bit more memorable than candy (which he would devour in seconds). I am a huge fan of photos and thought of photo collages, a photo album or a photo book as a gift. I've done things like this before but wanted it to be more special.

Then I thought, there is something special about things that come in small packages: easy to carry with you, doesn't take up much storage space and easy to share. My son loves his Pokemon cards and playing cards. A set of photo cards would be perfect.

I realized that it didn't need to be something he treasured now, because, eventually, he would outgrow his toys, games and books. However, photos are forever. So, I picked specific photos of people he treasure, made them all the same size in Adobe Photoshop and printed them to put into a hand painted and decorated small treasure box.

Started with a store bought heart box. (AC Moore)
I painted it with metallic gold paint at the bottom and black paint at the top. I cut out heart shapes from scrapbook paper and stroked on red glitter glue with a brush over the top, including the hearts, and inside the hearts on the side of the box.

I printed a bunch of pictures about 2 inches squared of my son and family and friends of his sharing special moments like the day he was baptized, drinking homemade smoothies, attending a harvest festival, doing crafts, hanging out at Water Country USA, at his school when he won a bicycle and even a visit to the doctors when he wasn't feeling well.
Hand wrote two notes in 2 inch squares and cut them out.

I chose one picture to glue in the inside top and stacked the remaining photos in the box along with the handwritten notes. There's plenty of space for future photos.

They fit perfectly inside the closed box.

I added a topper and left it on the kitchen table for him to find.

For money saving alternatives, any box can be used (jewelry boxes, shoe boxes, gift boxes, Dollar Store boxes, etc.). It doesn't have to be a wooden box. To make it special to your recipient, glue fabric or paper onto the box to cover it using your favorite print or/and color. Better yet, use fabric from something you no longer wear like an old pair of jeans.

Personalizing it is the key to memory making. My son will treasure this long after I'm gone. He will remember how much I love him and how much I love photos. So think of ways to create memorable things that combine the things you love most.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Portrait Pillow by Unicia R. Buster

Photos have been long seen as a way to document life so that we may remember what has transpired. In the twenty-first century, photos are the cheapest and most easily accessible way of documenting our lives. People have captured these moments directly on websites like Flickr, Facebook, YouTube and DropBox; in ordered print books from Shutterfly, Snapfish, iPhoto, MyPublisher and Blurb; on items like blankets, coffee mugs, mouse pads, t-shirts and canvas from Walmart, Walgreens, VistaPrint, Zazzle and CafePress; and in craft projects like scrapbooking, photo collages, decoupage and photo quilts. With photos, the possibilities are endless.

Over the next several months, I will post examples of different ways to present favorite photos of loved ones (living or deceased) beyond a traditional photo album or in a frame. Reason: It is a unique way to showcase a special person in your life, to not only reflect on a favorite shared moment, but to promote story telling and conversation about that special someone when others enter your life.

Portrait Pillow
Below are portrait pillows I made for others.

This photo was taken from a Facebook photo of a young boy who died early in life.

This photo sent to me electronically via email and was taken using a cell phone camera. The people are still living.

These photos were sent to me electronically via email and were taken using a cell phone camera. The people (and pets) are still living. These were done as a set.

  1. 1 sheet of Printable Fabric
  2. Computer/Inkjet Printer
  3. Digital Image
  4. 100% Cotton Fabric in 2-4 colors
  5. Thread
  6. Needle or Sewing Machine
  7. Scissors
  8. Pillow form size 14”sq.
  9. Iron
Majority of my supplies were purchased from Joann Fabric and Craft Stores. You also may purchase these items from AC Moore, Michaels and Walmart Supercenter.
I like to use 100% cotton fabric
because it's easy to sew, comes
in a multitude of colors and it's durable.
Choose colors that compliment the
photo used keeping in mind the
person's favorite color(s).
Price ranges from $2-$12 per yard
Basic 14'sq. pillow firm.
Price $5.39 at Joann's on line
Colorfast Printable Fabric. Once
treated, the color lasts for several
washes. Price is about $20 for
10 8.5"x11"sheets. Also comes
in packs of 3, 6 and 20.

  1. Prewash fabrics so the colors will not bleed into your picture when washed. Iron flat.
  2. Size the photo in a photo editing program to your desired size. (Note: the larger the image, the less fabric you will have around the image. Keep size smaller than 8.5” x 11” [size of printable fabric]. Square size works best for easy measuring). I used Photoshop but any photo editing software will work.
  3. Print the image on the printable fabric. Printer must be inkjet. There are many types of printable fabrics. Make sure to follow instructions. You also, if you're adventurous, make your own.
  4. Follow the directions on the printable fabric package to make colorfast.
  5. Cut out your image leaving a quarter inch seam allowance.
  6. Decide how many colors you want to use and make measurements for each strip. (For example: for a 6.5” sq. picture, you will need two 6.5” x 2.5” pieces, four 10.5” x 2.5” pieces, two 14.5” x 2.5” pieces and two 14.5” x 10” pieces for the back.)
  7. Stitch the two smaller pieces, one to the top of the photo and one to the bottom of the photo, right sides together. Unfold and iron seams flat.
  8. Stitch two of the next size pieces to both sides of the photo, right sides together. Unfold and iron seams flat.
  9. Stitch the remaining two next size pieces, one to the top of your square and one to the bottom, right sides together. Unfold and iron seams flat.
  10. Stitch the remaining two (largest) strips to the sides of your piece, rights sides together. Unfold and iron seams flat.
  11. Make a hem on the 14.5” side of both of the 14.5” x 10” pieces. 
  12. With right sides together, pin the two pieces to the square piece. The edges will overlap in the center.
  13. Stitch around all four sides
  14. Clip the corners.
  15. Turn inside out and insert the pillow form through the back opening.
  16. You may embellish using fabric markers and/or fabric paints to add name, birth and death date, beads, buttons, etc.


"I Was Here: Legacy and Memory Making" by Unicia Buster

“When I leave this world, I’ll leave no regrets. Leave something to remember, so they won’t forget I was here. I lived. I loved. I was here. ... The hearts I have touched will be the proof that I leave. That I made a difference and this world will see I was here.” 

This quote is from a song written by Diane Warren and recorded by BeyoncĂ© on her fourth album. Ms. Warren was influenced by the September 11th attacks on America in which 2,977 people lost their lives. 2,958 people were not expecting to die that day. In an article in “The New Republic” written by Andrew Butterfield on Monuments and Memories, he said, “Monuments are…the products of primary human needs; and they serve these needs in a way that nothing else can serve them. People build monuments ... because there are wounds so deep that only monuments will serve to honor them.” We want to not only remember our loved ones and keep their memories alive, but also to memorialize them so that others know how much they meant to us.

So how do we do this? Legacy and memory making are the breath of our loved ones. These items tell a story, whisper shared moments, ignite laughter and inspire life. They speak the words that we are unable to express or articulate. In her book “The Art Therapy Sourcebook,” Dr. Cathy Malchiodi talks about a young teenager who fell into a deep depression after the loss of her grandfather. After attending an art therapy group, where she was able to visually express her loss, the young girl was able to put aside much of her grief. For some people, “the act of making art is a way of remaking the self after a loss through exploring, expressing, and transforming feelings into visual images.”

Creating these “legacies” can be just as unique as the person who is leaving or has left us. I visited with a patient who knew he would die within 3 months. He was very depressed about his condition and he felt as though his life was being taken away from him. After speaking with him, he revealed his fascination with tattoos and how each one of his 32 tattoos had a story behind them. I suggested that he make a scrapbook of his tattoos for his two  young children. We photographed each tattoo and printed photos of each. I got the prints and scrapbooking supplies to him the next day, which was his 35th birthday. I returned the day after and saw that completed the scrapbook and included quotes and scriptures for his children to read. He died two days later. The book is his story; his legacy. It represents the things in life that were important to him,  and it would leave his children a big part of him that they were not able to keep. 

Almost any arts and crafts project can be made into a legacy piece including a memory quilt, a shadow box, a memory box, a photo collage which can be made into any number of things from a photo book to a blanket, and a t-shirt quilt. Other art forms are useful as well like recording your loved one’s voice, writing a poem, creating a song together, having your loved one write a letter to family members, vlogging and/or blogging. The possibilities are endless. 

Creating a legacy or memory project can be done with anyone, whether your loved-one died unexpectedly or expectedly, early or late in life. There is life before death and you can create memories from that life. What matters most is that they lived and they touched someone’s heart while here on earth.

~ Unicia R. Buster, Art Specialist at the VCU Medical Center (excerpt from Good Grief Conference speech)