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.

 

 

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.