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

home & no home

My friend Jason Brown puts out an occasional gathering of writing & art, Home::Keep. The second installment, RE::DIS//MIS, was launched December 16. I am so grateful to be honored with a folio page for some of my Colombia poems & photos! Jason’s theme is home–our experience of it, our lack of it, our longing for it. Because about 7 million Colombians have been internally displaced by violence, the loss of home comes up again & again in my writing.

Folio :: Excavation // R Goring

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Just one of the photos in the folio: my friend gazes at a galleon, replica of those on which her ancestors were forced to make the Middle Passage.

You can never say it all! In which I am interviewed

Darcel Rockett interviewed me for the Chicago Tribune.

The conversation was long and lively, and of course half of what I said is left out of this interview, which is nevertheless generous and so so encouraging.

So let me add a bit here. I’m part of the SCBWI-IL Diversity Community, and it’s important to us not just to populate the pages of kids’ books with more children of color, but also to boost and encourage authors and artists of color! Agents and editors of color too, for that matter–the publishing world in the USA, which I’ve worked in for most of my adult life, is still disproportionately white. We white folks should not be the only gatekeepers. And we need the voices of people of color (POC, called #ownvoices in current lingo) to inform and enrich the lives of our kids.

Also, diversity includes not just variety in skin color but also varieties of abilities and orientations.

It’s a privilege to see the many creative projects that are blooming among my fellow writers and artists! I feel so lucky to be part of the Diversity Community.

And I’m STOKED to have this introduction to Adriana’s Angels in the Tribune!

In which I battle fear, carry a chicken upside down, & revel in a prize

First the prize (if I’m not mistaken, the chicken story is the “dessert” of this post). Last week we learned that Los ángeles de Adriana took a silver Moonbeam Award in the Spanish Book category! I am overjoyed.

silver_moonbeam_medal

Here’s info about these awards:

Presented by Jenkins Group and IndependentPublisher.com, the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards are designed to bring increased recognition to exemplary children’s books and their creators, and to support childhood literacy and life-long reading. Awards are given in 42 print book and five e-book categories covering the full range of subjects, styles and age groups that children’s books are written and published in today.

As our society has gotten more complex and growing up has become more complicated, children’s book authors and publishers have risen to the occasion, creating books that not only celebrate the joys of childhood, but also help kids and families deal with its challenges. The Moonbeam Awards will recognize and reward the best of these books and bring them to the attention of booksellers, librarians, parents and children.

Now for the chicken.

* * *

Sometimes our creative companions are not writers, musicians, or painters but those who struggle alongside us for justice. Their acts and words, and even the conflicts we have with them, press us to see more truly, to shed the facile.

That last night in Puerto Lleras, Jiguamiandó, we wandered dazed in the darkness. Paramilitaries had invaded the settlement a few hours earlier, haranguing the community about its supposed support of left-wing guerrillas and feigning a firefight in the adjacent rainforest. After they took their leave, Alba,* a human rights worker, conferred with the community leaders; it was decided that evacuation would be necessary the next day.

As the adults began packing and continued their anxious deliberations, a few children wandered to the guesthouse porch where I was sitting. I had noticed that tempers were flaring; amid the tension few parents had energy for reassuring their children or even explaining the situation. I couldn’t help much with the looming practical questions, what to take and what to leave behind, but I could offer warmth. So the children and I talked a bit about feeling afraid.

“When things are scary like this, we need to hold each other,” I remarked and invited them to come closer. Two immediately climbed onto my lap, others leaned against us, one girl sat on the floor and wrapped her arms around one of my legs. We stayed that way for an hour or two.

A commotion broke out by the schoolhouse; adults and teens gathered around a young man who had fallen in a seizure, flailing and crying out as he hallucinated the paramilitaries’ return. As soon as he calmed down, a girl succumbed to hysteria and began shrieking. The children and I stayed on the porch, huddling close, throughout it all. Finally their parents retrieved them for bed.

for blog 10-11a

The next morning, more holding.

The next morning Alba and I arose early; she got ready to go downriver and muster boats from the extended community to aid the evacuation. Soon the bobbing light of a candle approached me, and Amparo* asked for my help. Her hens and rooster were in a chicken house on the outer edge of the settlement, closer to the paramilitary base. Would I accompany her and her two sons to retrieve some of the chickens? Now, in the dark, they could be caught, but if we waited till daybreak they would lose their drowsy compliance.

Amparo’s candle, her sons’ large flashlight, and my miniature light threw shifting, uncertain shadows around us as we followed a narrow path through the abandoned outer area of the settlement. At the chicken house, Amparo and the boys went about catching the fowl amid protesting squawks and confused flapping. Expertly Amparo crossed the wings of each across its back, then laid it on the ground.

There was nothing to do but accept the proffered hen, taking hold of its feet gingerly as it hung upside down.

When she had trussed seven chickens, each boy picked up two of them. She looked at me appraisingly, then asked, “Will you carry one?”

There was nothing to do but accept the proffered hen, taking hold of its feet gingerly as it hung upside down. Amparo hefted the last two, and we retraced our steps, the hanging chickens disoriented and silent, shadows sliding ominously around us, fears of the paras’ reappearance pressing at our minds.

My chicken was heavy; her ankles were firm and ribbed horizontally. When we got back to the guesthouse, I was glad to release her.

for blog 10-11b

A different way to chicken-carry.

Amparo would have snorted in derision if I had suggested that together she, her boys, the chickens, and I made up a creative group. We were in survival mode; this was not a gathering for leisurely contemplation. But it was a group convened by love. In that hurried predawn walk Amparo’s chickens were rescued, and with them her dignity and some ability to provide for her sons. We found our way together in the dark. And so had the children and I the night before, huddling for reassuring touch amid the chaos, the frantic cries, memories of gunshots and threatening words.

Artists, like other human beings, need community to survive. The otherness of our communities keeps us grounded in reality: the hard facts of incompleteness, sin, terrible injustice, wrenching failure. But deeply real too is the flashlight beam showing us where to walk, our thin voices singing “Cristo me ama” (Jesus loves me), the weight of dangling chickens, books, or art supplies we carry awkwardly, the skin-on-skin comfort of human nearness.

———
*Names changed.

What makes me rich

RP backyard for blog.jpg
A backyard in my neighborhood. These folks are ready to welcome visitors!

It was one of my richest days. I went to church, where we shared Communion & our Unity Choir sang us into joy.

Unity Choir for blog

I could have stayed for our monthly potluck, which is always deliciously international. But I needed to talk to my dear Guatemalan friend about something personal, so I asked her to come to lunch with me. We had Thai–& the conversation was just what I needed.

Later I went to the home of a Colombian friend who arrived in Chicago a few years ago as a refugee. Last December she traveled to Ecuador & married an old friend, & their baby was recently born! The little one is beautiful & healthy–no pictures for reasons of privacy. I’m also being vague in other ways for reasons of privacy, but this is an interracial family even though they’re all from Latin America.

Intermittently throughout the day I was texting with people in Colombia–two friends & my daughter (she’s a missionary working with needy children). Raise a toast to WhatsApp!

RP sunflowers blog

In early evening I walked to an African American friend’s housewarming; the sunflowers above are blooming about halfway between our homes. After congratulating her, I walked into the kitchen, & a man who proved to be originally from Zimbabwe immediately remarked on my necklace.

necklack for blog.jpg

He said it looks like it might have come from southern Africa. I told him no, it was made by indigenous people (probably Embera) in Colombia. He immediately rattled off the names of four or five Colombian cities–he has never been, but he wants to visit.

We learned that we live just a few buildings away from each other! His mother arrived last year to live with him & was present at the party, so I went over & introduced myself. She told me she often feels isolated during the day while he’s at work, so we exchanged phone numbers. I hope we can have lunch on one of my upcoming work-from-home days.

After I took a peek around my friend’s beautiful new home–the occasion of the party–she & I agreed to get together soon. She’s thoughtful & wildly creative; I am so looking forward to some one-on-one catch-up time.

As I walked home, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of wealth. I realized that some people I know might think cultivating relationships like these with people of other cultures & races shows how generous I am. But that is just not so. These friends nurture me & meet so many of my needs–today, for joy in worship; support in a situation where I want to act with integrity; baby cuddling, which always raises my endorphins; new connections with close-by neighbors; fascinating conversations & photo sharing (this is the WhatsApp part); the promise of more deep conversation in the next week or two. These friends make me incredibly rich.