Desire in contested spaces

The reason we are not able to see God is the faintness of our desire.—Meister Eckhart

I’ve been thinking about desire—the different kinds of desire, what happens when we lack desire or mistrust it. I think desire is a great gift. Without it we are creatively blocked. Wanting and not (yet) having: that’s a tremendous force that lies behind all our risk-taking.

* * *

When I accompanied the Cacarica community in NW Colombia for six weeks in 2003, the army and paramilitary forces that had been harassing them chose not to make an appearance. We all remained on our guard, but there was time and space just to live—to cook, wash clothes, fish in the river, get to know one another.

Lillis for blog
It turned into a sort of artist’s retreat for me. Each day I spent at least an hour writing, recording interesting experiences and what I was learning of the community’s history. Further, I had brought along my chalk pastels and a couple of pads of drawing paper, and I let people know that I wanted to draw portraits of them. After I sought out the first couple of subjects and they saw I was serious, community members—especially children and teenage girls—flocked to the guesthouse porch every day saying, “Dibújame,” draw me. Some days I did as many as four portraits.

Jadir for blog
I had also brought a set of Prismacolor pencils and some card stock, and I used these to draw some of the plants native to that area of Chocó—one of the most biodiverse regions of the Western Hemisphere. On days when I was tense, I learned that focusing my consciousness on rendering the minute variegations of color and light on the surface of a leaf could bring me into a profound and healing silence. (Sorry, I’ll have to share one or two of those images later/elsewhere!)

Simultaneously I was giving the community protective presence and growing as an artist, feeding my hunger to capture the sheen of sunlight on dark skin or on a guinea leaf (a local name, pronounced with a hard g: gi-NEH-ah).

When I went to Jiguamiandó afterward, there was no opportunity to so much as open up my box of pencils. Paramilitaries were nearby and entering the Puerto Lleras settlement every day. We focused on survival; we listened to the community leaders’ anxious arguments about what to do; we gulped down our food and tried desperately to make satellite phone contact with a human rights office in Bogotá. It was decided that we would all evacuate.

girl with pots for blog
I didn’t draw (though some yellow plantain blooms begged to be interpreted), and I took time to scribble only a few words in my journal. I did roam Puerto Lleras with my camera, taking photos so the people would have some visual record of the thatch-roofed homes they were being forced to abandon. And on the last morning, between the paras’ unwelcome incursions, I sat with a circle of children and we taught each other favorite songs.
Puerto Lleras for blog

* * *
Sometimes—often—our deep desires conflict with each other because of circumstance. If we want well and love well, we can figure out what gift is to be given now, what must be left for another time, what can be sacrificed. We honor our deepest wants, make something holy by giving it up for love, and hope for God’s restoration, satisfying our needs in a parched land.

Incongruity

It was the weekend of Claire’s twelfth birthday, December 6. She had asked to take a few friends to an entertainment center. I was glad the girls were old enough not to need close supervision; I could give them money for tokens and let them take off to play electronic and carnival-style games while I sat in a booth and read. When they ran out of tokens they’d return and we’d order pizza.

Good books are worlds in which I happily become lost. I was on one of the final chapters of a book by Annie Dillard. I opened it up: the words took me surging, soaring, whitewater rafting.

I read the last page slowly and closed the book. My pulse was slightly elevated, breathing quickened. The air around me was warm, as if the booth had become a center of light in the large room.

I started to become aware of my surroundings. The booth was on the periphery of an open area full of tables. The noise was dense: children’s cries, adult conversations, music, distant beeps and clacks from the game area down the hall. Across the way from me was a performing combo: four or five life-sized electric bears, dressed for the holiday season, playing instruments and belting out Christmas carols.

“Deck the Halls” came to a close. The spotlight narrowed to focus on the tall bear sitting at the keyboard. In a rumbling bass voice and with a fixed, earnest grin he began performing a solo, “O Holy Night.”

Fall on your knees,
O hear the angel voices!
O night divine . . .

Bobbing over the keyboard, the bear sang, looking across the room with large, shiny eyes. The pompon on the tip of his Santa hat was firmly glued to his cheek.

I began scanning fellow guests. People were streaming into the room as if it held their heart’s desire. Parents escorted children to tables, talked to the wait staff, slid squares of steaming pizza onto plates. They neither fell on their knees nor laughed and pointed. No one even looked at the bears.

Prayer & hunger for justice

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Being a friend is being a witness. In prayer we befriend God and each other, witnessing suffering, oppression, anger and perplexity, groaning, staying near, waiting for resurrection.

In early 2003 I had the privilege of praying with Afro-Colombian women and children in an isolated community that was under daily harassment by right-wing paramilitaries. The armed men had set up a base within a short walking distance from Puerto Lleras, an outpost of the Jiguamiandó community, which had committed itself to acting with nonviolence and to avoid cooperating with any armed groups. In February the paramilitaries had shot and killed an eleven-year-old boy, Hermín, simply for spotting them across the river and calling out to his father, who was fishing. A few days before I arrived in March, a man named Aníbal  had gone out to gather plantains and firewood for his family and had disappeared; his body was never returned to the community. The government had been unresponsive to pleas for help; in fact, it was known that the paramilitaries worked closely with the army battalion deployed in that region.

I had been invited to come to Puerto Lleras as an acompañante, an international witness. During my three days there, the “paras” entered three times. Each time they were spotted, the adults and children scurried to gather in the caseta, a roofed structure without walls that served as the community school. My role was simply to stand in front of them and ask the armed men to leave.

Our enemies were flesh-and-blood men carrying weapons and making threats. . . . “Whenever I am afraid I will trust in you.”

At the time of the second incursion, I had been reading my Spanish Bible. Once the paras walked off, some of the community adults went back to their homes, but others lingered. I asked them if they would like me to read some Scripture aloud; eagerly they said yes. A couple of the women suggested specific psalms. We prayed the words as we heard them:

O Lord, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying to me,
There is no help for you in God.
But you, O Lord, are a shield around me,
my glory, and the one who lifts up my head. . . .

I am not afraid of ten thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.

There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!” . . .
I will both lie down and sleep in peace,
for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.

My reading of the Psalms was transformed that day. Until then I had generally spiritualized them—the enemies besieging me were my own failures, idolatry, lack of love, or great social forces such as consumerism and imperialism. Now, as in the experience of the biblical writers, the enemies were flesh-and-blood men carrying weapons and making threats.

Eventually our prayerful reading and singing was interrupted. Someone hissed, “They’re coming back!” The community members quickly, grimly, returned to the caseta.

A little girl with big eyes was wandering in the open area near me. I asked if her mother was in the caseta, and she shook her head. I picked her up.

And because there was nothing else to do I began to sing, first quietly and then louder, in English, a song based on Psalm 32:7:

You are my hiding place,
You always fill my heart with songs of deliverance.
Whenever I am afraid I will trust in you,
I will trust in you.
Let the weak say, “I am strong in the strength of the Lord.”
I will trust in you.

The armed men, seven of them this time, stared at me as they passed on the river path. They looked confused. The people behind me and the child in my arms fell utterly silent. The song took on force, rose into the trees, looped, and repeated several times, carrying us all.

Finally it stopped, and we waited. Having made their circuit through the settlement, the paras returned. They were young men, and the psalms we’d read had reminded me to love them. The leader made a stab at conversing with the community members, but after a woman burst out with an eloquent plea to be left in peace, the men walked off toward their base, obviously at a loss.

Within an hour, a few human rights workers arrived with large canoes poled by men from a sister settlement downriver. The people of Puerto Lleras hastily gathered essential belongings and loaded them into the boats—folded mattresses, pots and pans, bags of rice, clothes, potted herbs, chickens. The elderly and the little children found perches on top or in between, while the rest waded the shallow river and came together to pull the boats over sandbars.

The paramilitaries undoubtedly knew of our exodus, but they chose not to challenge us. After three and a half hours, we reached Pueblo Nuevo and unloaded. Our hosts promised to share food and living space until the people of Puerto Lleras had had time to set up their own dwellings.

Ever since that day, reading psalms has driven me to remember and to stay in prayer for the people of Jiguamiandó. Be a shield around us; lift up our heads; do not let our enemies have their way with us. You are our hiding place.

Love

“All living is meeting.”–Martin Buber

Putumayo River

Love is the river I swim in.

I think this is an appropriate metaphor, because I’m not a very good swimmer. I learned to swim when I was eight years old, in the Putumayo River in southern Colombia.

The river beach where I was baptized was covered with rocks.

As the Putumayo passes the town of Puerto Asís, it courses fiercely toward its eventual joining with the Amazon. I was baptized in the Putumayo, along with two of my sisters. When my turn came, I waded out to where my dad stood with another man from our church. The water was just over my waist. They grasped my elbows and shoulders tightly as they leaned me back into the hungry brown current. When my feet left the ground, my body was immediately and comically pulled to the surface, my toes pointing downstream.

The river beach where I was baptized was covered with rocks, and so was the bed of the Putumayo at that point. We had to keep our tennis shoes on for baptism as we did for swimming, tied firmly so the water would not pull them off.

Swimming in a river with a powerful current doesn’t lend itself to the refining of stroke techniques. It does lend itself to floating, if you are content to go downstream. And swimming across or against the current develops your strength. On our family’s river-beach excursions, my sisters and I found it amusing to start from some distance out and try to swim back to the beach in a straight perpendicular line. The river inevitably forced its own geometry on us, pulling us downstream so we came ashore east of our intended destination.

Once in college I swam in a pool with a friend who gave swim lessons to children. She tried to help me with pointers about breathing and how to move my arms efficiently. I realized that to retrain myself for pool swimming I would need to start over in a course for beginners. It’s something I’ve never pursued.

But I swim in love’s river every day. I can’t see how it holds me, but it does. It imposes its own geometry and physics on my life, inevitably thwarting my sentimental intentions. It is deep and brown like the Putumayo, and its fierce current is taking me somewhere.


 

Note: the photo is a 2017 view of the Putumayo, downriver (east) of the city of Puerto Asís.