The winner, & notes on a favorite spread

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.

SM_images_PicturingGod_3

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 collage 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. 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.

Rocks & drips: Colombia Chronicles 2

In July I was privileged to tour Medellín’s Moravia neighborhood, constructed over a city dump. The original residents were garbage pickers, & some of them still live there. The dump itself has been built up into a grassy park with flower plantings, a large greenhouse (for flowers only, as the soil is too toxic to grow healthy vegetables/fruits), & a historical walking route with photo markers telling the community’s story.

(a) It’s a rather strenuous climb! (b) Images of the original dump. (c) Hillside garden. (d) The neighborhood is colorfully charming nowadays, though there’s still lots of poverty.

I was taken to visit a couple of preschools where children had heard & discussed Los ángeles de Adriana, my picture book about a Colombian refugee child & the guardian angels who accompany her. The Mama Chila school, named for its founder, was an incredibly inviting space. For my session with the children, the staff decorated with rocks because many of the kids were taken with the symbol of mean words as sharp little stones that “rattle around and hurt.”

preschool stones Moravia

Slips of paper were placed over some of the rocks. They bore quotes from the kids themselves:

  • The angels always accompany the little girl, because she can’t take care of herself alone.—Jampool (try pronouncing that in Spanish, but with an English-style J; you’ll realize that he’s named for a former pope!)
  • The rocks came into her from the children who didn’t want to play with her.—Dylan
  • I didn’t like the children who were treating Adriana badly, because they weren’t respecting her and their parents didn’t teach them to be kind.—Isis
  • Adriana’s angels always stay with her and help her to sleep.—Jhostin
  • The little stones fell off her bed because . . .—Valery; because the angels took them away!—Isis

These children had found a new way to talk about the pain that our words can inflict on each other. I am so happy to know that Los ángeles de Adriana has enriched their emotional vocabulary.

I also had the privilege of meeting a remarkable community songwriter, doña Efigenia, age 80. She is often sick, and her rustic little home is constantly filled with humidity because of drips from the roof. Hear an excerpt of one of her songs here, & consider donating to help put a new roof over her head. She lives in deep poverty & really needs our help. In dollars it won’t cost much at all!

Thank you for caring!

Hot, swollen & loved: Colombia Chronicles 1

Last month in Mampuján, a village in the municipality (county) of María la Baja, Bolívar, Colombia, I met Afro-Colombian women who had suffered terrifying threats & violent displacement by paramilitaries in 2000. In exile they went through a process of art therapy, creating appliqué hangings to tell their story—the displacement, the Middle Passage endured by their ancestors, their vision for peace & healing. The women also went to the river, sang, washed & massaged each other, & wept together.

Diaspora quilt

A Middle Passage quilt they displayed for us.

They call themselves Mujeres Tejiendo Colores y Sabores de Paz (Women Weaving Colors & Flavors of Peace). They now live in Nuevo Mampuján or in their original community; sometimes they travel to other traumatized communities to teach women what they have learned about healing from trauma. In 2015 they were awarded Colombia’s National Peace Prize for the restorative justice they extended to the paramilitary fighters who had done them such grave harm.

We—photographer Michael Bracey, videographers Bobby and David Obermite, and I—spent some beautiful hours with these women, admiring their hangings, learning about their history, traveling to the regional lakes & canals, eating sancocho made over an open fire.

Then on our last afternoon we walked awhile with them in the humid heat & I began to feel faint—something that happens to me occasionally when I’m exercising in hot weather, a drop in blood pressure that leaves me dizzy. My dear friend Juana Ruiz & her companions sat me down while Kevin Coleman, who was interpreting for his friends the Obermites, hurried off to get me a salty snack. The women began fanning me, & Pastor Alexandra prayed powerfully while massaging my neck & shoulders with fragrant oil.

Juana-pastor-Mama Carmen fanning me

Photos by Michael Bracey.

I began to weep, long deep sobs. I didn’t know where they were coming from—apart from the heat I wasn’t in conscious distress. Maybe it was empathic identification with the suffering my friends had endured. Maybe it was gratitude for their lovingkindness. Maybe it was prophetic weeping for & with Colombia.

Then Pabla, a younger woman, sat down & removed the shoes from my swollen, mosquito-bitten feet. Without flinching she spread some of the fragrant oil on my feet & began massaging it in.

Pabla at my feet 3-x

Photo by Michael Bracey.

The weeping, massage & prayers ran their course, the salty snack arrived, my friend Benjamín brought our rented van close by & took me to our little air-conditioned hotel, where I rested & regained my composure. That evening we enjoyed a delicious farewell dinner & then sat out in the María la Baja plaza to enjoy the night air.

at the plaza

With Juana & Benjamín.

This is why I keep returning to Colombia. I’m no kind of savior for its pain. I’m just a grubby human who loves sharing stories & learning from people who have survived immense challenges, & who can comfort me with the comfort they have received in their own distress (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

embracing Mama Carmen=x

Mamá Carmen is Juana’s mother. Photo by Michael Bracey.

I am a strange adventurer

Last night I stayed up late gazing at my Colombia itinerary & gloating. I’ll be traveling in Colombia most of the month of July.

I mostly live such a quiet life, editing & reading & making art in solitude. But I grew up sleeping under mosquito nets & using an outhouse & shoveling our mostly organic trash into pits my dad dug in the backyard, & feeding the chickens & trying to identify rocks from the river beach & helping to push our rattly old jeep out of muddy ditches. And playing under downspouts & in the rain barrel during wild tropical thunderstorms! And listening to the bats fly around under our roof at night, & sweeping up their pellets every morning (don’t worry, bat droppings are small & dry). And . . . doing my school assignments & reading & writing & making art. (Re the art: I sometimes paged through a couple of books of crafts for children, brought or sent from the United States; there were fascinating things to make, but many of them called for exotic objects like egg cartons, which weren’t a part of our life in remote southern Colombia. So often I just went back to pencil drawing. Sometimes it was making clothes for paper dolls.)

Consequently, my adult adventuring is a little eccentric. I actually feel at home in places with only outhouses, with no electricity, with mice & cockroaches running around. I hate the latter if they ever venture into my Chicago condo, but in a little house in the rainforest they are just normal! I’m not any kind of athlete, so the physical challenges I deal with are on the level of surviving uncomfortable bus or canoe rides. (Fortunately my body bounces right back from those.) But I love being in remote places & admiring the skill & ingenuity with which people harvest or hunt their food & then prepare it, or navigate rivers, or build a dwelling in just a few hours. And of course the little towns where I lived as a child are much larger now, & there are wise inhabitants who are helping their neighbors heal from violence, or plan to improve the hospital, or who have established distance learning programs so that people can earn college degrees.

on Rio PacuritaGrinning absurdly because I felt so happy to be on a Colombian river again! Pacurita River, Chocó, Colombia, February 2014. Photo by Michael Bracey, who more recently did the photography for Picturing God.

During this trip I’ll be on a river in Caquetá Department, where I’ve never been before. I’ll be visiting dear friends from childhood there & in Huila, Putumayo, & Nariño Departments. A couple of us will be taking a long bus trip on an impossibly narrow mountain road with switchbacks & sheer dropoffs. My family took that trip many times in my childhood, but it’s very dangerous–we hope to help call attention to its poor condition as part of pressure to gain funding for a new, safer route.

After this I go north along the Andes. I will be reading my picture book Los ángeles de Adriana to preschoolers in a low-income Medellín neighborhood & giving copies away, & I’ll be interviewed at a community radio station there. This is all part of the work of a wonderful grassroots organization promoting literacy & culture. I’ll also visit friends from my teenage years in this city.

AAngels_COV_Case.indd

Then it’s off to Mampuján, Córdoba, where my photographer friend Mike Bracey & a couple of videographers will join me. We’ll get to witness firsthand the witness art of a group of Afro-Colombian women who won Colombia’s Peace Prize in 2015. Then, as if that weren’t enough, we’ll trek to La Guajira Department to visit a Wayúu indigenous community that suffered a terrible massacre & displacement some years ago but has been able to return to their land, now a national park, & serve as its guardians. Maybe we’ll get to see the flamingos too!

There are no words for how privileged I feel to embark on these adventures! And afterward I’ll come home & resume my life of editing & reading & writing & doing laundry, making soup & making art. But the memories will be little fires that I can return to again & again, & some of these experiences will branch into new adventures in the years to come.

Books, children & donkeys

Have you watched videos or read about schoolteacher Luis Soriano’s biblioburro mobile library–books he mounts on his two donkeys & takes to children in remote regions of Magdalena Department (province) in Colombia? He named his donkeys Alfa & Beto, the two halves of the word alphabet in Spanish. (Fun bonus: the word literacy in Spanish is alfabetización. The biblioburros are definitely a literacy project!) See a delightful interview with him (with subtitles) at the link above.

Biblioburro

Photo from Wikipedia.

A two-year-old cousin of mine is currently entranced with the bilingual picture-book story of Soriano & his donkeys, Waiting for the Biblioburro by Monica Brown. I highly recommend it!

The work of literacy, of getting adults & children equipped & inspired to read, is work for social justice. Books open up our life possibilities, stimulate us to become better people & to respond to injustice, wake us up to the world’s beauty & pain. Sometime I’ll try making a list of books that have changed me. Today I just celebrate Luis & Alfa & Beto & all the children whose lives they are touching.

 

 

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!

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.