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.

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.

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

054.JPG

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.

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.