2020: All the clichés, all the heart

Happy new year, happy new decade! The symmetry of “2020” seems to be inspiring many people in my circles. I think many of us in the USA are also hopeful—& trepidatious—about the possibilities of changing directions as a nation, culture, & society via national elections & all the conversations that surround them.

It will be a year of personal transitions for me: I hope to sell my home & move in early spring—staying in my current neighborhood but downsizing. Later I expect to make some changes in my work life, moving toward more time for writing & art. There are some travel dreams too, but I’m aiming to “be like Greta”—avoiding carbon-heavy air travel whenever possible—which will involve living in a different rhythm.

Picturing God continues to get warm reviews, which you can read over here. I am treasuring a little mental list of words/phrases from them: “dazzling,” “highly inventive,” “intriguing,” “incredible,” & the one that makes me catch my breath, “sacramental and mystical.” And of course I’m working on new projects, dreaming of new, funky ways to illustrate, & ordering new art supplies (can’t wait to meet you, chalk pastel pencils!).

Shepherd in storm
“When we journey into places / that are slippery and scary, / our Shepherd stays close / and never lets us go.”

An ongoing task that began in the fall has been mounting the original Picturing God art pieces as gifts for family members & dear friends/collaborators. Sometimes I tweak them, as here, to fill in spaces I’d left open for text, or to make edges less ragged.

Lately I have often felt like this lamb in the Shepherd’s arms. I’m in my seventh decade of life, but sometimes being an adult is still overwhelming! I’m grateful for the Love that lets me be a resting child, that calls me ever so gently into my real self, that holds me close in every storm.

Interview: Book Publishing from Beginning to End

I was interviewed recently by Eve Odum, student at the University of St. Francis, & her professor the poet Beth McDermott for a podcast they’ve been putting together. Book Publishing from Beginning to End focuses on the varying paths to publication for kidlit writers. I had a lovely time talking to these two smart, thoughtful women! It’s a great project. The podcast episode has been up for a couple of weeks, but only today did I have a chance to listen. We focused mainly on my picture book Adriana’s Angels, but along the way we also talked about writing & publishing poetry, the sting of rejection, the perils of social media for writers, how to cope with publication envy, the value of being rooted in a supportive community, & more. So make a big mug of tea or coffee, as the discussion runs for about 50 minutes. Then sit down & have a listen!

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In the meantime, some short but very warm reviews have been coming in for Picturing God. I’ve linked to them on the Press page of this website (see tab above right). I’ve added Eve’s interview there too, so it’ll remain easy to find.

The winner, & notes on a favorite spread

Carol Gordon Ekster, a fellow writer of children’s books, was among those who shared my Picturing God book-birthday post on social media, & having drawn her name from those who did so, I’m about to send her a copy of the book. Hurray! Check out her website by clicking on her name above; she has some delightful picture books specifically for bedtime, which for most kids is the best time for reading with parents or other caregivers. At the foot of the page are links to a blog & to her other social media pages. Carol is definitely a kidlit writer worth watching. Warm thanks to you, Carol!

Now I want to give you some background on one of the images from Picturing God.

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The art here is directly from Picturing God; the text is also a direct quote, but the designer made the letters larger for use online. It’s the right-hand page of the “God as clothing” spread, which wasn’t in the original plan for the book.

After reading my first or second draft, my editor turned out to be better at counting than I am (no great surprise there): she told me that my plan came to just 38 pages, not 40 as my contract stated. How exciting! I could further develop one of the God-metaphors I was already using, or I could add another.

I quickly decided on the latter, & Google led me to an excerpt from the splendid book Wearing God by Lauren Winner. I hadn’t thought of using the “put on Christ” encouragement from the New Testament, but it’s perfect for young children, for whom self-dressing involves numerous developmental milestones. Each mastery–pulling a shirt over one’s head, poking a button through the hole, getting shoes on the right feet, tying shoestrings–helps little ones to feel capable. So this would be another way they could picture God in everyday activities.

This was the spread where I figured out that good old corrugated cardboard would work fine for illustrating children closer up (those at some distance are done with ceramic pieces). The border at the foot of the page is also cardboard–the inner corrugations, painted gold by a good friend who is a splendid collagist. To make the boy’s hair (not shown here) I wrapped black twine lengths around a couple of metal mosaic tools, soaked them in runny flour paste, & let them dry. Curly hair! And the girl’s hair is special to me; it’s part of the fringe from a scarf I received as a gift, woven by a Wayúu woman from the Bahía Portete community in northeastern Colombia. I think of these people & their remarkable story every time I look at this page. (It’s a very sad story, but in more recent years they have returned & are working hard to create a new viable community in their native territory.)

I myself am like a little kid, only learning, watching how the big kids do it & trying to copy them, when it comes to putting on Christ.

By my editor!

Today I want to share someone else’s writing. My editor for both Adriana’s Angels & Picturing God has blogged about our process with the Picturing God art, which departed from the usual because this art is so concrete & textured. And what she says about how reading/contemplating the book affects her, & how her two-&-a-half-year-old toddler has responded to it, makes me cry: this is how I myself often felt as I was cutting, nipping, stitching, arranging, gluing. As if it was all drawing me into the beautiful mysteries of God. Here, read her lovely words.

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Picturing God’s book birthday & giveaway!

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It’s the fruition of a desire from early childhood to write & illustrate my own children’s books–& of the past couple of years of painstaking but joyful work, late nights, problem solving, do-overs, & gifts from others. For example, here the child’s hair is the fringe of a scarf woven by a Wayúu woman from the Alta Guajira region of Colombia.

I was going to ask my editor if we could include a list of the media I used on the copyright page–but it would have taken up too much space! One of these days I’ll make a comprehensive list here.

Celebrate with me! You can buy the book at Beaming Books or Amazon or Target or almost any online book retailer. And if you share this post elsewhere on social media & provide the link in comments, you may win a free copy! On Thursday evening September 26 at 9:00 p.m. Central Daylight Time I’ll throw names in a hat & pick a winner. You must live in the United States to be eligible (sorry to all my international friends!).

Scripture is dizzingly rich in God-metaphors. Let’s revel in them & share them with our children!

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Rocks & drips: Colombia Chronicles 2

In July I was privileged to tour Medellín’s Moravia neighborhood, constructed over a city dump. The original residents were garbage pickers, & some of them still live there. The dump itself has been built up into a grassy park with flower plantings, a large greenhouse (for flowers only, as the soil is too toxic to grow healthy vegetables/fruits), & a historical walking route with photo markers telling the community’s story.

(a) It’s a rather strenuous climb! (b) Images of the original dump. (c) Hillside garden. (d) The neighborhood is colorfully charming nowadays, though there’s still lots of poverty.

I was taken to visit a couple of preschools where children had heard & discussed Los ángeles de Adriana, my picture book about a Colombian refugee child & the guardian angels who accompany her. The Mama Chila school, named for its founder, was an incredibly inviting space. For my session with the children, the staff decorated with rocks because many of the kids were taken with the symbol of mean words as sharp little stones that “rattle around and hurt.”

preschool stones Moravia

Slips of paper were placed over some of the rocks. They bore quotes from the kids themselves:

  • The angels always accompany the little girl, because she can’t take care of herself alone.—Jampool (try pronouncing that in Spanish, but with an English-style J; you’ll realize that he’s named for a former pope!)
  • The rocks came into her from the children who didn’t want to play with her.—Dylan
  • I didn’t like the children who were treating Adriana badly, because they weren’t respecting her and their parents didn’t teach them to be kind.—Isis
  • Adriana’s angels always stay with her and help her to sleep.—Jhostin
  • The little stones fell off her bed because . . .—Valery; because the angels took them away!—Isis

These children had found a new way to talk about the pain that our words can inflict on each other. I am so happy to know that Los ángeles de Adriana has enriched their emotional vocabulary.

I also had the privilege of meeting a remarkable community songwriter, doña Efigenia, age 80. She is often sick, and her rustic little home is constantly filled with humidity because of drips from the roof. Hear an excerpt of one of her songs here, & consider donating to help put a new roof over her head. She lives in deep poverty & really needs our help. In dollars it won’t cost much at all!

Thank you for caring!

Hot, swollen & loved: Colombia Chronicles 1

Last month in Mampuján, a village in the municipality (county) of María la Baja, Bolívar, Colombia, I met Afro-Colombian women who had suffered terrifying threats & violent displacement by paramilitaries in 2000. In exile they went through a process of art therapy, creating appliqué hangings to tell their story—the displacement, the Middle Passage endured by their ancestors, their vision for peace & healing. The women also went to the river, sang, washed & massaged each other, & wept together.

Diaspora quilt

A Middle Passage quilt they displayed for us.

They call themselves Mujeres Tejiendo Colores y Sabores de Paz (Women Weaving Colors & Flavors of Peace). They now live in Nuevo Mampuján or in their original community; sometimes they travel to other traumatized communities to teach women what they have learned about healing from trauma. In 2015 they were awarded Colombia’s National Peace Prize for the restorative justice they extended to the paramilitary fighters who had done them such grave harm.

We—photographer Michael Bracey, videographers Bobby and David Obermite, and I—spent some beautiful hours with these women, admiring their hangings, learning about their history, traveling to the regional lakes & canals, eating sancocho made over an open fire.

Then on our last afternoon we walked awhile with them in the humid heat & I began to feel faint—something that happens to me occasionally when I’m exercising in hot weather, a drop in blood pressure that leaves me dizzy. My dear friend Juana Ruiz & her companions sat me down while Kevin Coleman, who was interpreting for his friends the Obermites, hurried off to get me a salty snack. The women began fanning me, & Pastor Alexandra prayed powerfully while massaging my neck & shoulders with fragrant oil.

Juana-pastor-Mama Carmen fanning me

Photos by Michael Bracey.

I began to weep, long deep sobs. I didn’t know where they were coming from—apart from the heat I wasn’t in conscious distress. Maybe it was empathic identification with the suffering my friends had endured. Maybe it was gratitude for their lovingkindness. Maybe it was prophetic weeping for & with Colombia.

Then Pabla, a younger woman, sat down & removed the shoes from my swollen, mosquito-bitten feet. Without flinching she spread some of the fragrant oil on my feet & began massaging it in.

Pabla at my feet 3-x

Photo by Michael Bracey.

The weeping, massage & prayers ran their course, the salty snack arrived, my friend Benjamín brought our rented van close by & took me to our little air-conditioned hotel, where I rested & regained my composure. That evening we enjoyed a delicious farewell dinner & then sat out in the María la Baja plaza to enjoy the night air.

at the plaza

With Juana & Benjamín.

This is why I keep returning to Colombia. I’m no kind of savior for its pain. I’m just a grubby human who loves sharing stories & learning from people who have survived immense challenges, & who can comfort me with the comfort they have received in their own distress (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

embracing Mama Carmen=x

Mamá Carmen is Juana’s mother. Photo by Michael Bracey.