You of all people

Like most writers, I hate rejections–those polite “doesn’t meet our needs at this time” emails. Another one of them came yesterday. I have cultivated a thick skin, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care.

Then there are the prizes, which always seem to be won by someone else–usually somebody younger, which is objectively not surprising since I’m in my sixties. They have an edge of genius I lack. I’m mediocre.

Or sometimes: They have a spouse or partner whose income & presence allow them much more time to write & revise & learn than I have, being single.

There are also “self-rejection” moments when my struggle to make a poem find its path seems to be failing. Should I just give this up? Maybe I’ve reached the limits of my capacity.

Most of the time I manage to keep my eyes on the actual prize: making this poem or story better, trying a new subject or style, uncovering & strengthening the inherent rhythm of a piece.

But sometimes I really need encouragement from someone else. From June 2011 until her death in November 2015, Helen Degen Cohen was a poetry mentor to me, though we didn’t name the relationship in those terms.

Helen

Helen was brilliant & restless & insomniac & loving. She was a cofounder of the splendid RHINO Poetry annual, & she did win a number of distinguished prizes, residencies, & grants. She invited another poet, Susanna Lang, & me to form a critique group with her.

And one day, when I was beset by those doubts about the value of my work, Helen responded, “You of all people should not worry about that.”

Really? Of all people?

That in itself was a prize. Helen knew my work, understood what I was trying to do, & found it important.

So rejections come, but I keep writing. Our stories & poems & art can be part of something bigger than fame & recognition. And I want to be one of those “you of all people” encouragers who notice others’ work, affirm it, name what’s important in it. We really do need each other.


  • Thus far there’s one posthumous collection of Helen’s work, My Life on Film, and more are in the works. We’re going to have a big launch party for My Life on Film Sunday September 23, 3-5 p.m., at Facets Cinematheque–put it on your calendar if you’re in the Chicago area!

Helen cosmos flowersHelen adored gardening. This is one of her own photos.

African faces of Colombia

Caras lindas front cover hr

Let me introduce you to a new book, just released in June: Caras lindas de Colombia / Beautiful Faces of Colombia. It collects stunning photos by Michael Bracey, a Chicago photographer of the African Diaspora, with English-Spanish bilingual text by me.

mike photo
Mike’s work has won a number of awards; he has published numerous other books, notably Africans Within the Americas, & is a foundation member of CAAAP (Chicago Alliance of African-American Photographers).

Mike & I originally met because I have been involved in Afro-Colombian advocacy, while Mike wanted to include Colombia among the places he has visited to photograph people from the Diaspora in the Americas & the Caribbean. (See samples of that work here.) For me it was an honor to plan a trip to Afro-Colombian communities with him & his wife María. We received significant help from Luz Marina Becerra Panesso, general secretary of AFRODES, the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians. “Luzma” is a fierce advocate for her people & a dear friend.

Ruth-LuzMarina-Michael
Here we celebrate the book’s launch with Luz Marina herself!

Our 2014 trip included many adventures & many tender moments, & Mike documented them all. Caras lindas de Colombia / Beautiful Faces of Colombia is one fruit of our journey, & we’re delighted to share it with you! Yes, of course it documents poverty & marginalization–but more than anything it’s a celebration of our creative, resourceful, & doggedly courageous black sisters & brothers in Colombia.

You can read a bit from the preface by Steve Bynum here (scroll down to the book’s cover) & then purchase the book directly from us here!

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.