What makes me rich

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A backyard in my neighborhood. These folks are ready to welcome visitors!

It was one of my richest days. I went to church, where we shared Communion & our Unity Choir sang us into joy.

Unity Choir for blog

I could have stayed for our monthly potluck, which is always deliciously international. But I needed to talk to my dear Guatemalan friend about something personal, so I asked her to come to lunch with me. We had Thai–& the conversation was just what I needed.

Later I went to the home of a Colombian friend who arrived in Chicago a few years ago as a refugee. Last December she traveled to Ecuador & married an old friend, & their baby was recently born! The little one is beautiful & healthy–no pictures for reasons of privacy. I’m also being vague in other ways for reasons of privacy, but this is an interracial family even though they’re all from Latin America.

Intermittently throughout the day I was texting with people in Colombia–two friends & my daughter (she’s a missionary working with needy children). Raise a toast to WhatsApp!

RP sunflowers blog

In early evening I walked to an African American friend’s housewarming; the sunflowers above are blooming about halfway between our homes. After congratulating her, I walked into the kitchen, & a man who proved to be originally from Zimbabwe immediately remarked on my necklace.

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He said it looks like it might have come from southern Africa. I told him no, it was made by indigenous people (probably Embera) in Colombia. He immediately rattled off the names of four or five Colombian cities–he has never been, but he wants to visit.

We learned that we live just a few buildings away from each other! His mother arrived last year to live with him & was present at the party, so I went over & introduced myself. She told me she often feels isolated during the day while he’s at work, so we exchanged phone numbers. I hope we can have lunch on one of my upcoming work-from-home days.

After I took a peek around my friend’s beautiful new home–the occasion of the party–she & I agreed to get together soon. She’s thoughtful & wildly creative; I am so looking forward to some one-on-one catch-up time.

As I walked home, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of wealth. I realized that some people I know might think cultivating relationships like these with people of other cultures & races shows how generous I am. But that is just not so. These friends nurture me & meet so many of my needs–today, for joy in worship; support in a situation where I want to act with integrity; baby cuddling, which always raises my endorphins; new connections with close-by neighbors; fascinating conversations & photo sharing (this is the WhatsApp part); the promise of more deep conversation in the next week or two. These friends make me incredibly rich.

Desire in contested spaces

The reason we are not able to see God is the faintness of our desire.—Meister Eckhart

I’ve been thinking about desire—the different kinds of desire, what happens when we lack desire or mistrust it. I think desire is a great gift. Without it we are creatively blocked. Wanting and not (yet) having: that’s a tremendous force that lies behind all our risk-taking.

* * *

When I accompanied the Cacarica community in NW Colombia for six weeks in 2003, the army and paramilitary forces that had been harassing them chose not to make an appearance. We all remained on our guard, but there was time and space just to live—to cook, wash clothes, fish in the river, get to know one another.

Lillis for blog
It turned into a sort of artist’s retreat for me. Each day I spent at least an hour writing, recording interesting experiences and what I was learning of the community’s history. Further, I had brought along my chalk pastels and a couple of pads of drawing paper, and I let people know that I wanted to draw portraits of them. After I sought out the first couple of subjects and they saw I was serious, community members—especially children and teenage girls—flocked to the guesthouse porch every day saying, “Dibújame,” draw me. Some days I did as many as four portraits.

Jadir for blog
I had also brought a set of Prismacolor pencils and some card stock, and I used these to draw some of the plants native to that area of Chocó—one of the most biodiverse regions of the Western Hemisphere. On days when I was tense, I learned that focusing my consciousness on rendering the minute variegations of color and light on the surface of a leaf could bring me into a profound and healing silence. (Sorry, I’ll have to share one or two of those images later/elsewhere!)

Simultaneously I was giving the community protective presence and growing as an artist, feeding my hunger to capture the sheen of sunlight on dark skin or on a guinea leaf (a local name, pronounced with a hard g: gi-NEH-ah).

When I went to Jiguamiandó afterward, there was no opportunity to so much as open up my box of pencils. Paramilitaries were nearby and entering the Puerto Lleras settlement every day. We focused on survival; we listened to the community leaders’ anxious arguments about what to do; we gulped down our food and tried desperately to make satellite phone contact with a human rights office in Bogotá. It was decided that we would all evacuate.

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I didn’t draw (though some yellow plantain blooms begged to be interpreted), and I took time to scribble only a few words in my journal. I did roam Puerto Lleras with my camera, taking photos so the people would have some visual record of the thatch-roofed homes they were being forced to abandon. And on the last morning, between the paras’ unwelcome incursions, I sat with a circle of children and we taught each other favorite songs.
Puerto Lleras for blog

* * *
Sometimes—often—our deep desires conflict with each other because of circumstance. If we want well and love well, we can figure out what gift is to be given now, what must be left for another time, what can be sacrificed. We honor our deepest wants, make something holy by giving it up for love, and hope for God’s restoration, satisfying our needs in a parched land.

Love

“All living is meeting.”–Martin Buber

Putumayo River

Love is the river I swim in.

I think this is an appropriate metaphor, because I’m not a very good swimmer. I learned to swim when I was eight years old, in the Putumayo River in southern Colombia.

The river beach where I was baptized was covered with rocks.

As the Putumayo passes the town of Puerto Asís, it courses fiercely toward its eventual joining with the Amazon. I was baptized in the Putumayo, along with two of my sisters. When my turn came, I waded out to where my dad stood with another man from our church. The water was just over my waist. They grasped my elbows and shoulders tightly as they leaned me back into the hungry brown current. When my feet left the ground, my body was immediately and comically pulled to the surface, my toes pointing downstream.

The river beach where I was baptized was covered with rocks, and so was the bed of the Putumayo at that point. We had to keep our tennis shoes on for baptism as we did for swimming, tied firmly so the water would not pull them off.

Swimming in a river with a powerful current doesn’t lend itself to the refining of stroke techniques. It does lend itself to floating, if you are content to go downstream. And swimming across or against the current develops your strength. On our family’s river-beach excursions, my sisters and I found it amusing to start from some distance out and try to swim back to the beach in a straight perpendicular line. The river inevitably forced its own geometry on us, pulling us downstream so we came ashore east of our intended destination.

Once in college I swam in a pool with a friend who gave swim lessons to children. She tried to help me with pointers about breathing and how to move my arms efficiently. I realized that to retrain myself for pool swimming I would need to start over in a course for beginners. It’s something I’ve never pursued.

But I swim in love’s river every day. I can’t see how it holds me, but it does. It imposes its own geometry and physics on my life, inevitably thwarting my sentimental intentions. It is deep and brown like the Putumayo, and its fierce current is taking me somewhere.


 

Note: the photo is a 2017 view of the Putumayo, downriver (east) of the city of Puerto Asís.