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.
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.
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.
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.