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This story was in my heart for many years–& I had written it down, but that was long before I had learned what I now know about picture book structure & pacing. I’m a late bloomer with picture books, but I keep thinking, I am so glad each book has come out when it has. Each needed to ripen in its own way.
Isaiah & the Worry Pack grew out of my years of seeking God intensely, partly because I just wanted a more experiential faith, & partly because my marriage was failing & I was in deep pain. I delved into practices of contemplative & charismatic prayer, & God drew near. Of course God had never left, but now I was learning how to listen & to see with the eyes of the heart.
I will write more about the experiences of those years in other posts; for now I just want to say that my own spiritual search nurtured my children’s spiritual lives too. One night my son, aged 10, & I had a meditative prayer experience together very like what the mom & son experience in Isaiah & the Worry Pack. It didn’t preserve him from all anxiety thereafter, but the guided-imagery prayer became a tool for him to use on his own when he was struggling to sleep.
In the story, Isaiah & his sister & mother are living far away from his father, just as we were. Kids in single-parent households are not doomed to become disconnected from God because of the trauma of separation or divorce. I feel pretty strongly about this!
I haven’t seen a picture book like Isaiah & the Worry Pack out in the world! I hope you will get copies for the young ones in your life, & I hope it deepens their own life of faith.
I was walking home from a backyard birthday party in my neighborhood—the first festive gathering I had attended in person since the covid-19 pandemic restrictions had begun sixteen months earlier.
I had been snapping pictures of beautiful trees and an inspiring front yard with rhubarb, a cloud of dillweed, and a sign with a Wendell Berry poem planted near the sidewalk. I walked under the Metro train viaduct and saw him at the Clark Street intersection.
The man was white with graying hair, wiry, and deeply bowed at the waist. He was pushing a bike and had stopped to catch his breath.
When I caught up with him, I asked if he could use some help pushing his bike. He demurred but then said yes, so I took hold. It took him a little while to release his hold—I think he wanted to make sure it wasn’t too heavy for me. I too am graying. Once he realized I was OK with the weight, he let go. A heavy bag hung from the handlebars, and another was fastened behind the seat.
As we headed north on Clark, he told me that he was heading to his girlfriend’s apartment near the Mexican bakery up ahead. She had been bedridden for eighteen months; I didn’t catch her diagnosis. Her mother had died of covid in October 2020.
He himself had been attacked and robbed on the Red Line months ago. He had undergone surgeries but was left with a wracked body. He thanked me for accompanying him. “My name’s Will,” he said.
“And I’m Ruth,” I replied.
He pointed to a gangway to enter his girlfriend’s building, on the opposite side of Clark. I suggested that we continue to the corner to cross at the light, but he veered into the street midblock. North-south traffic was stopped or slowed by red lights at the moment, so I followed him and waved to drivers who made way for us.
At the narrow gangway opening, he insisted on taking the bike. I followed him to a locked gate that held a row of mailboxes. He unlocked it and I helped steady the bike as he squeezed through, ducking under the mailboxes. He didn’t want me to enter the building with him, even though he’d be hauling the bike up three flights of stairs. So I said goodbye and continued my walk.
* * *
All my life I have struggled to respond ethically to people in need in public places. I have been urged not to give to those who panhandle, as they may be feeding a drug habit. I have been urged to give them a small amount of cash and acknowledge their humanity. Some people advise offering only food as a way to flush out those who want cash for nefarious purposes.
I haven’t figured it out. I advocate for government programs that would provide housing and meet other needs. I give to food programs. But these initiatives have not yet provided everything that’s needed, so I still meet struggling people on the street sometimes.
Given Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 25, I have realized that I must recognize Jesus in prisoners, sick folks, and others who suffer need and oppression. People don’t have to be virtuous and free of drugs to be Jesus to me. And I’m not their savior, just their sister.
Sometimes I give some money and say “God bless you.” Sometimes I have no money and can only smile at them and pray. Occasionally I stop to talk. My city is full of Jesus.
Will was not panhandling; he was pushing his bike along without asking for help. I got to be his sister for a few minutes, marveling at his determination, his willingness to walk bent over, struggling for breath, to reach his sick girlfriend. And then I had to respect his boundaries as he insisted that I go on my way while he somehow pulled his bike up the stairs alone.
* * *
One way that I process my grief at news of catastrophic floods and fires, intensifying effects of climate change, is to walk in my neighborhood as often as possible. I take many pictures of flowers, trees, the lake, the sky. Earth is sick “through our own grievous fault,” as the Book of Common Prayer confession says, so taking walks is a way of fulfilling Jesus’s parable of instruction: “I was sick and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).
The whole earth is filled with God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3 and many other biblical passages). Given extreme economic inequities, pervasive effects of racism, and an oppressive criminal “justice” system, it is also filled with God’s suffering.
I want to be a friend who stays awake with Jesus in Touhy Park or crossing Clark Street. I want to keep my eyes open to Jesus’s presence in my neighbor’s riotous butterfly garden—cup plant and bee balm pushing toward the sun. And in the labored steps of a man named Will.
A few years ago my mom and dad, my two older brothers, and I moved from a refugee camp in Tanzania to Chicago.
Now I’m eleven years old. My name is Happiness.
One Sunday night I sat down on my usual pillow on the couch between Mama’s legs so she could fix my hair. She divided it into skinny braids and then pulled them into an elastic band on top of my head.
“OK, I’m done,” she said. (Sometimes she does talk to me in English instead of Kirundi.)
I ran to the bathroom and checked in the mirror. I felt sad . . .
by Happiness Neema
In winter 2020, a couple of months before the pandemic restrictions began, I got together a couple of times with my young friend Happiness to work through & write down a story she wanted to tell. The wonderful Stone Soup magazine, with writing & art for & by children & youth, was pulling together submissions from kids who were living in refugee camps or had done so in the past. We sent her story off & hoped for the best!
Now the magazine’s Refugee Project page has gone live with a few initial posts–including Happiness’s story! Click here to read the personal narrative in its entirety.
If you know creative kids/teens who have life experience as refugees, the project’s main page has links for submissions. Their voices are important!
So many of us have walked & walked to keep anxiety & grief moving through our bodies & try to maintain sanity.
After George Floyd was murdered, one protest action called for by BLM Chicago was chalking sidewalks. So that weekend my walk involved scurrying around with a box of chunky chalk.
Lake Michigan was, & still is, a place to bring everything I’ve felt.
Now that I’m fully vaccinated, the rhythms of life are gradually changing. Next month my poetry critique group will meet at my home! There will be less solitude. But those “antiviral walks” will not go away. They allow my body to think & grieve & rejoice.
During this period of working fully from home, I call my neighborhood walks & hikes “antiviral walks”–they keep me healthy & combat the anxiety & sadness that surge often as I live in physical isolation & read/hear news about the covid19 pandemic’s ravages around the world.
In late afternoon today I bundled up & went on an antiviral walk. Here are some observations of the day & my emotional innards.
When I feel an ache in my chest, it’s a sign that for both physical & emotional reasons, I am overdue for exercise. Movement is my best cure for sadness.
I am staying with friends in a western suburb while work is being done on my new-to-me condo in the city. Here I have access to the Great Western Trail, which used to be a railway line. It is not a beautiful trail, but it is a great place to walk, jog & bike. Some people ride horses along it–there was fresh evidence of one. And a bunny crossed my path.
Masks are comfortable in fall & winter weather–when I don’t need mine over nose & mouth, it serves as a neck warmer. I’m happy about the news that covid vaccines are on their way, & I intend to get one as soon as possible–but I’m going to keep wearing masks in public. They should help protect me from cold & flu & other viruses! And it’s fun to coordinate them with my other clothing.
I decided to walk about a mile to a Goodwill store to look for a winter cap & some gloves. Almost all my clothes are in storage right now.
I didn’t find gloves at Goodwill, but I found a cap big enough for my Goring watermelon head. And a purple scarf I can wear on Sundays during Zoom Advent services. I like wearing the colors of the liturgical season.
Sidewalks are good–I wish all streets had them. The road I walked on after turning off the trail doesn’t. On my way home I stepped into a hollow, invisible as the day darkened, & fell down. As I fell I called out a cheerful “Woooo!” as if letting a companion know that I wasn’t in danger, just playing. I wasn’t hurt. The grass was soft.
I kinda like falling occasionally because it reminds me that my body is still resilient.
Twilight is beautiful everywhere & in every season.
The friends who host me have gone all out on Christmas decorations–rather early, like many of my friends & relatives. This year we need abundant reminders of joy.
Postscript: This afternoon (day after the walk) I wanted to check my driver’s license in order to fill out a form. I became increasingly anxious as I searched everywhere, including the pockets of the coat I had worn on yesterday’s walk. Finally I realized that my wallet might have fallen out of one of said pockets when I fell on the way home.
GOOD thing about no sidewalks on that busy four-lane road: others were not likely to have walked there & picked up the wallet. Also I had received no bank alerts about suspicious credit-card use. I reminded myself of these & other consoling facts as I retraced yesterday’s route–on foot again, as there are few places to pull a car off the road & parking on it isn’t allowed.
Wow. Scientific American has just published a piece by Daisy Grewal summarizing a research review by psychologist Steven O. Roberts & colleagues. Various researchers have investigated how people’s (including children’s) internal image of God relates to their internal image of an ideal boss or leader. A summary of their conclusions reads almost like an academic-style recommendation for Picturing God!
Our assumptions about who should rule in heaven strongly affect our preconceptions about who should do so on earth. Historians have argued that a white view of God has been prevalent in the U.S. since the 1830s and was actively embraced and promoted by white people in order to assert and justify their greater social power. Manipulating individuals’ conceptions of the deity appears to be an effective way to reinforce beliefs about who belongs at the top of the social hierarchy. And as shown by the study with children, these views develop at an early age and are deeply ingrained in our psychology. While troubling, this observation also offers hope that by exposing children to more diverse representations of God, such as through books or other media, we can reduce racial prejudice.
Our picture of God affects our racial attitudes, friends. Let’s be actively antiracist in choosing the books we share with our children.
If you haven’t yet gotten your copy of Picturing God, or if you need to give it to some of the children in your life, you can purchase it here!
Today The Well, an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship publication for women in the academy & professions, published a poetry essay they’d solicited from me. The editors plan to feature poems by women throughout the summer, as an invitation to slow down & be nourished, & I had the privilege of orienting readers to a process of entering poems contemplatively–that is, approaching them with the same quiet openness they might bring to scripture reading.
My title, “A Quiet Fire,” was inspired by a poem by Luci Shaw that I link at the end of the essay. I also excerpt from poems by Lucille Clifton, Renny Golden, Mary Oliver, & Raúl Zurita to model a simple, openhearted way of approaching poetry.
I guess fire & well together make a very mixed metaphor. But I’ll just go with it. May you find refreshment in poetry & other art this summer, & may it fill you & fuel you.
The world & its plagues have me down right now. But a few minutes ago I stumbled upon this charming non sequitur of a reading of my own picture book (see previous post) in a goat pen, with 8-day-old little goats, & bigger goats climbing around & bumping the recorder, & it has me shaking my head & laughing, & crying just a little. Short video posted by a young woman named Lianna–no surname given. Enjoy! (See below, too, for reveal of full name & more details.)
Edit Sunday March 29, 2020: Lianna Cornally introduced herself to me on Facebook! She is director of kids’ ministry at Sanctuary Community Church in the Iowa City / Cedar Rapids area, & this blog for families has been launched to help people stay connected despite social distancing. Here’s the post in which the Picturing God reading appears. With or without the children in your life, you may want to try the simple gratitude practices it suggests!
Some of my nieces & many of my younger friends are now working from home with young children also out of school because of the COVID19 pandemic. Fun & nurturing activities for the young’uns are much needed in these dire times, so I’ve collected a few nurturing & informative videos that parents & grandparents can use when their own voices have gotten hoarse from so much reading aloud. Enjoy, order these books from local independent bookstores if they offer delivery–& stay safe.
If you have more to recommend or share, feel free to post in comments!
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!).
“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.