What it’s like to be robbed, plus heads-up on a two-man CTA trick

Of course it’s actually different for everybody. I grew up in Colombia from the age of six, & having our chickens stolen from the yard, or our house broken into after we moved to the city, was unpleasant but never wholly unexpected. One incident we laughed about happened on a busy market street in Medellín. My dad’s pocket was picked, but Mom saw the deed and yelled “Paul!” Without even thinking, Dad turned around & punched the thief in the face. The wallet went flying from the hapless man’s hands, & he took off running. Later Dad expressed surprise that the instinct had taken over so swiftly.

I am a Mennonite pacifist, & I am not advocating this response. 🙂 However, it’s arguably less violent than having the pickpocket arrested & sent to prison for a while, because often terrible things happen to people in prison.

I was robbed twice last month—the crimes occurred just nine days apart. The first time, I was in a dark, noisy bar where a young friend was celebrating his advanced degree. I sat at the bar with my mochila (Colombian shoulder bag) at my feet. Except for a moment or two, my toes were touching the mochila at all times. Once or twice I thought, “Maybe I should hold it in my lap instead.” But I was very intent on listening to my conversation partners in the midst of dense noise, & I ignored the thought. When I got home, my wallet was gone. I looked at my credit card & credit union accounts online, & there had been attempts at large purchases from Target. One smaller one went through at AutoZone. So though it was the middle of the night, I started calling to report the theft.

I fault the thief for a lack of imagination: Target & AutoZone, really? Well, I guess airline tickets would have required surrendering a lot of personal information.

It is SO time consuming to deal with the theft of a wallet.

About 18 hours after the robbery, I was due to fly to Boston for my favorite writers’ workshop. It proved to be even more splendid & nurturing than I had expected (I’ve attended this workshop a number of times in the past 10 years).

On July 1, on my way home, I started to board the Blue Line & was robbed again. I want to describe this so as to alert my gentle readers to the trick. When a train stopped on the platform, I headed for an open door behind a guy leaning hard on a cane. As soon as he got into the car, he stopped & started acting very wobbly, as if he was about to fall. It went on a bit too long, & I was nonplussed because I couldn’t get through to take a seat. I asked him if he was ready to let me pass, & he said nothing, just continued to weave strangely . . . until another man, behind me, supposedly waiting to board, said to him, “Hey man, let’s go.” Whereupon Cane Man miraculously recovered his footing, turned, & went back onto the platform; the two of them headed off together.

I looked down at my backpack & saw that the outer pocket was unzipped. My sunglasses & reading glasses were gone. Then I realized that my checkbook was gone too, which meant my credit-union account number was now in the hands of somebody unscrupulous.

More long periods of clearing things up—this time mostly at the credit union while a very nice lady closed my account & transferred my funds to a new one.

Tonight I paid bills, & I had to start from scratch with online bill-pay services, entering each bit of info about each payee & the new credit card or debit card. It took hours.

I’m SO grateful that fraudulent charges are the banks’ liability, not mine. There is an emotional toll, though: I’ve been finding it hard to focus on my job. All the thinking/remembering involved in reporting wipes me out. But I’m really thankful not to have been hurt physically, & I’m trying to remember to pray for the robbers.

Be kind to disabled people, friends, but watch out for cane-con duos on the CTA. And maybe swing your backpack around to your side or chest as you’re boarding, or if the train is crowded & you have to stand.

I won’t theologize about the experience, but I have felt loved & cared for by God & sympathetic friends, & several employees who took down my reports with immense patience. And I’m hoping quite a few more decades will pass before I’m robbed again.

I wish you this falling

Today a younger friend texted to tell me that he loves Los ángeles de Adriana. The other day he was reading it aloud to his family (all adults) & had to stop because he was beginning to cry.

He had come to the part where the sharp stones in Adriana’s heart fall out as she sleeps.

Adriana stones toys

Someone who is beloved to my friend has some of those sharp stones inside, & he longs for them to fall out & lose their power, displaced by Love.

If mean words or other cutting thoughts & memories are rattling around in your own heart, may you know yourself loved fully, attentively, creatively. May the stones lose their sharp edges & their purchase. May you look up to discover that God’s world is beautiful & you belong in it.

flower in crack
At a park in Popayán, Colombia

The woods in the city

river resized

I went walking in a forest preserve today–mostly along the North Branch trail following that branch of the Chicago River. The trail basically looks like this:

bike path-bridge resized

It’s a bike path, cleanly asphalted, & the trees are mostly at a distance. I was craving being IN the trees, but some of the smaller paths were really muddy.

muddy path resized

Still, I found one veering off that was not quite so wet. Bliss.

stretching low resized

trees in water

I made the rounds of an open picnic area & picked up some trash to carry to a bin. As I dropped it in, I realized that tomorrow is Earth Day. Poor dear earth of ours. I saw a plastic bag caught in the brush & took it the rest of the way so I could pick up more trash.

I love milkweed.

milkweed 1
milkweed 2

On my way back to the parking lot, a boy & his mom were stopped on the bridge; as I passed the boy whispered, “Oh my gosh!” If he hadn’t, I might not have stopped & noticed the deer. They are the exact colors of the bark & brush in this delayed spring, so they’re kinda hard to see here.

deer 1

Today’s excursion had been decided upon during last Wednesday’s session with my spiritual director. These guides, as you probably already know, don’t actually direct but just help us recognize the movement of our souls. Cook County forest preserves aren’t quite as wild as I could wish, but my soul needs their trees & wetlands & dried pods & mud & birds & deer. I am going to get to know them all, in every season.

sky branches

Holy Saturday, bodily

in tree roots 2000.jpg

During a llama-packing overnight trek outside Portland, Oregon, 2000

Holy Saturday is an in-between time when Jesus’s body is just lying in the earth, in darkness. He had said he would fall into the soil like a seed. But how can a mutilated body become anything fruitful?

Years ago, when I was in campus ministry, Holy Saturday coincided with Earth Day. The students & I decided to join in a cleanup project at the West Branch Forest Preserve, on the outer western reaches of Chicagoland. Later I wrote a poem.

Holy Saturday
Earth Day 2000

We ride this scar of a road
to a deeper wound where limestone
was quarried from your bone–
a gouge filled now with water,
murky and teeming
with fish carrying secrets.
Today we tend your wound,
walk its perimeter like nurses
noting signs of infection;
we scoop up wrappers, cigarette
cartons, cups. We walk,
gaze, marvel like a lover
come in from a routine errand
overcome by sudden sight
of the loved one’s body in sleep,
its blurred hills, breath
entering and departing,
window light spreading
cross-shaped shadows on blankets,
skin and scars, and gratitude
rises like a shout as we pause
and take a stick to scrape
mud from our shoes.

* * *

showy sunflower

In the yard of the first home that I owned by myself, I planted flowering native plants. These are showy sunflowers, Helianthus rigidus. They grew up from thin little stems to bloom fiercely throughout late summer & most of the fall. So they’re not seasonal at this moment, but they’re signs of hope.

I think Holy Saturday is a day to be in our bodies, & in Earth’s bodiliness. For tending what seems dead–or is dead–& waiting for resurrection.

Journey to our childhood places

Last year four of my siblings & I traveled to southern Colombia to revisit the places where we grew up. We hadn’t been back to Nariño & Putumayo since we moved to Medellín when I was 12.

It was a more emotional experience than I expected. But instead of writing about it here, I’ll let you listen to the interview, recently aired, that I recorded about it with the gracious, thoughtful Jerome McDonnell of Chicago Public Radio’s Worldview program. We also talked about my daughter, Claire, & how some of my experiences with her informed my writing of Adriana’s Angels. Jerome has interviewed me about Colombia a number of times over the years; this time I was able to open my heart like never before.

WBEZ interview about Colombia trip & Adriana’s Angels

I’m grateful to producer & friend Steve Bynum, who edited the interview with great care & wove in the snippets of music so artfully.

The friend I speak of, who told her story of betrayal & pain as her husband, another friend, & I sat around her table weeping with her, keeps a beautiful garden. I am sure that cultivating this beauty has been part of her healing. So I close with two images from that holy place–one at twilight, one in full sun.

To my loneliness

My spiritual director asked what colors I would use to paint you.

Indigo, brightening in places to cobalt. The deep poignant blue of a summer sky at twilight, what I used to call Maxfield Parrish blue.

Variegated with rich greens for life and fruitfulness. And pricked with reds and oranges, sharp but beautiful cuts.

Mostly I live in solitude, not loneliness. But the painful moments of aloneness come, and they no longer frighten me. You have become a kind of friend.

You are a hollow place inside me, and I meet God in that very emptiness. You are sorrow and loss, you are longing, hunger.

Without you, what art would I make, and who would I be?

I do not forget you

A year ago, a group of artists & I created a 34×34″ mosaic/collage as a kind of physical prayer for the city & people of Eastern Aleppo, Syria.

Aleppo

For years I had been agonizing over the news emerging from Syria’s war–which as far as I could tell was mostly a war of the regime against some of its people, the ones who wanted to see change in their country. Taking a mosaic workshop (my second–it’s a medium that fascinates me) inspired me to launch this project. Jason Brown laid out a sketch, based on an online photo that haunted me.

Aleppo war.jpg

It’s a tragic image of a city laid waste, but we didn’t want to communicate only despair. So as we began to fill out the sketch with tiles and broken ceramic pieces & fabric, we regularly included small bright objects: a beaded ring, earrings, a small red heart, unexpected bits of color. For some these symbolized precious lost things, but for me they stood for the spirited people of Aleppo & those who took great risks to help others: the doctors in underground hospitals, the White Helmets who hurried out to rescue those buried under rubble after a bombing raid.

I had learned a lot from Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a Chicago-based doctor who made multiple trips to Aleppo with the Syrian American Medical Society. So we decided to use the mosaic to raise funds for SAMS, along with the Syrian Community Network, founded by Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, which serves Syrian refugees in the Chicago area. A good friend offered his beautiful home for a gathering in March 2017; there we contemplated the mosaic, the Sahlouls talked to us about Syria, & we collected donations.

By then Eastern Aleppo had been evacuated for a few months: as the regime took over that sector, those wishing to leave had been bused to Idlib. There are other besieged & blockaded communities in Syria today, places where food, clean water & medical supplies are scarce. As I write, the Syrian regime’s army is advancing into Idlib Governate.

Our mosaic is called Aleppo Is My Breath Prayer, because sometimes the only prayer I could muster was “Aleppo, Aleppo,” whispered on rising & falling breath. In the Christian mystical tradition, a breath prayer is a word or phrase that you repeat quietly in the ordinary rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. Our work is an expression of our prayers for peace, justice, and restoration in the beautiful country of Syria. The piece hangs in the sanctuary of Living Water Community Church, to remind us to keep praying. A photo of it also appears on the back cover of the just-published anthology Carrying the Branch: Poets in Search of Peace (Glass Lyre Press).

I do not forget you, Syria.

***

Aleppo Is My Breath Prayer, 2017

Artists: Ruth Goring, Jason Brown, Emily Klein, Ainsley Fleetwood, Katherine Lamb, Rebecca Larsen, Olga Mest, Jamie Daniel, Emily Bynum
Mounting: Ronald Frantz

Materials: ceramics (both tiles and broken dishes), abalone tile, rocks from Lake Michigan, bones, gold, old jewelry, cotton fabric, shells, clear glass, smalti and other glass tiles, copper, other metals, alcohol-based paint, acrylic paint, adhesives, permanent marker, and grout on composition board