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.

Endorsements! Portrait!

Picturing God has received a couple of beautiful endorsements thus far, from fellow writers for children & families. I am honored by their kind words!

“Colorful, richly textured, and wildly creative, Picturing God is a delight. Ruth Goring’s visual and literary exploration of many names and metaphors for God will open readers’ minds and hearts to that Word who is love. I love this book!”

Jennifer Grant, award-winning author of Maybe God Is Like That Too and Maybe I Can Love My Neighbor Too

“We need more books that help children envision God in ways that go beyond an old white man with a beard. Picturing God provides beautifully illustrated and poetic images that are straight out of scripture. I smiled along with every page.”

Traci Smith, author of Faithful Families and Prayers for Faithful Families

RuthGoring 2018 portrait

Last year my friend Katherine Vincent Lamb painted this portrait of me. I don’t know yet whether it will appear in the book–there’s an “about the author” blurb on the back page–but I love it, so I’m sharing it with you.

To be honest, there is a certain terror involved in releasing one’s art & writing into the world. Endorsements are gifts, calming me & saying, We are with you–your words & art are worthwhile. And what can I even say about an artist’s desire to paint me?

Orchard Keeper writing residency

In April I was privileged to spend a week in eastern Tennessee, not far from the historic Cumberland Gap. The poet Denton Loving has launched an unusual writing residency based in a small house he owns on a country lane. (That lane is literally just one lane wide—I hadn’t been on a road that narrow since my childhood in Colombia!)

road

It’s a magical part of the country.

The unusual nature of this residency is the solitude. Denton is available to answer questions & solve problems—he’s a wonderful host—but there’s no wifi, so communication with the outside world is iffy (WhatsApp worked quite well for me, though) and there are no other writers or artists to chat or share meals or work with. The quietness is wonderful for getting work done! I revised my current poetry manuscript, wrote two poems, revised one picture book manuscript, started revising another and discovered that it’s really TWO stories, made thumbnail sketches for a wordless picture book, journaled a lot, read a novel. Then there was the drive home, nearly nine hours of thinking, when my picture book ideas exploded and became a series of eight or nine books!

interior

The little house has a delightfully retro feel.

About meals: I wanted to minimize effort, so I brought ingredients to make a big pot of veggie/bean soup. I also brought granola, fruit, tortillas, cheese, & soy milk.

I was out and about for a while each day. The house is on an enticing wooded hill, and spring was much further along in Tennessee than in Illinois—everything was green, fresh, blooming.

Long walks were part of my agenda for the residency. The hill woods are actually crisscrossed with fencing, so a few days in, after I had accomplished all the writing listed above, I drove off to Cumberland National Historical Park. Having gotten a quick orientation from a nice young woman at the visitor center, I drove up to Pinnacle Point, from which you can see parts of three states: Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky.

Pinnacle Point

Then I drove down to a trailhead to go to the Gap itself. That involved a pleasant, leisurely hike of about an hour roundtrip.

Gap

If you’re a writer & your heart yearns toward mountains, as mine does, you might want to apply for this residency! You can do so here. Tell Denton I sent you!

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.

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?