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.

Cover Reveal: Picturing God!

Tiles, fabric, handmade paper, metal pieces . . . to inspire children to contemplate God’s tenderness and power.

picturing-god-final-cover

My new book will be released September 24, 2019, by Beaming Books. Picturing God is a milestone for me: the first book for which I’ve made the art as well as the text!

Of course there’s no way to create a faithful and complete visual representation of God. We have the stern “no graven image” commandment to protect us from that illusion. But the Bible is full of symbols and metaphors to help us picture and experience God in the depths of ourselves, via our imagination connected to our senses.

In my late twenties, a time of great pain and struggle, I began learning to access these biblical symbols in contemplative prayer and open myself to the healing they can bring—and I’m still learning. God as my Rock. God as an eagle sheltering her chicks under her wings. Jesus as my Shepherd. The Spirit as God’s cleansing breath, filling my lungs. Scriptures and prayers based on these symbols have drawn me into intimacy with God, into awe and wonder at the Love that holds me.

We human beings live by symbols. Strong, beautiful symbols stir us and change us.

Picturing God uses mosaic and collage—tiles, fabric, handmade paper, glass, metal pieces, twine, embroidery floss, paint, and other media—to inspire children and parents to contemplate God’s tenderness and power. Living Water, Bread of Life, Light of the World, Good Shepherd, Father and Mother: these and other biblically rooted metaphors are explored through art and poetic text. The book’s final page is a list of scriptures for each metaphor, so that families can look up and perhaps even memorize some of the related verses.

Making this book has been the most joyful work of my life! Every time I gathered materials and started laying them out on a canvas or square of plywood, I was drawn into a meditative awareness of God’s presence. I hope paging through the book will serve readers in a similar way. This winter I’m making final tweaks to the interior art—and eagerly looking forward to sharing the book far and wide in September!

I wish you this falling

Today a younger friend texted to tell me that he loves Los ángeles de Adriana. The other day he was reading it aloud to his family (all adults) & had to stop because he was beginning to cry.

He had come to the part where the sharp stones in Adriana’s heart fall out as she sleeps.

Adriana stones toys

Someone who is beloved to my friend has some of those sharp stones inside, & he longs for them to fall out & lose their power, displaced by Love.

If mean words or other cutting thoughts & memories are rattling around in your own heart, may you know yourself loved fully, attentively, creatively. May the stones lose their sharp edges & their purchase. May you look up to discover that God’s world is beautiful & you belong in it.

flower in crack
At a park in Popayán, Colombia

The woods in the city

river resized

I went walking in a forest preserve today–mostly along the North Branch trail following that branch of the Chicago River. The trail basically looks like this:

bike path-bridge resized

It’s a bike path, cleanly asphalted, & the trees are mostly at a distance. I was craving being IN the trees, but some of the smaller paths were really muddy.

muddy path resized

Still, I found one veering off that was not quite so wet. Bliss.

stretching low resized

trees in water

I made the rounds of an open picnic area & picked up some trash to carry to a bin. As I dropped it in, I realized that tomorrow is Earth Day. Poor dear earth of ours. I saw a plastic bag caught in the brush & took it the rest of the way so I could pick up more trash.

I love milkweed.

milkweed 1
milkweed 2

On my way back to the parking lot, a boy & his mom were stopped on the bridge; as I passed the boy whispered, “Oh my gosh!” If he hadn’t, I might not have stopped & noticed the deer. They are the exact colors of the bark & brush in this delayed spring, so they’re kinda hard to see here.

deer 1

Today’s excursion had been decided upon during last Wednesday’s session with my spiritual director. These guides, as you probably already know, don’t actually direct but just help us recognize the movement of our souls. Cook County forest preserves aren’t quite as wild as I could wish, but my soul needs their trees & wetlands & dried pods & mud & birds & deer. I am going to get to know them all, in every season.

sky branches