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).

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Mamá Carmen is Juana’s mother. Photo by Michael Bracey.

Cover Reveal: Picturing God!

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

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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.

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At a park in Popayán, Colombia

The woods in the city

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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

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?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Prayer & hunger for justice

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Being a friend is being a witness. In prayer we befriend God and each other, witnessing suffering, oppression, anger and perplexity, groaning, staying near, waiting for resurrection.

In early 2003 I had the privilege of praying with Afro-Colombian women and children in an isolated community that was under daily harassment by right-wing paramilitaries. The armed men had set up a base within a short walking distance from Puerto Lleras, an outpost of the Jiguamiandó community, which had committed itself to acting with nonviolence and to avoid cooperating with any armed groups. In February the paramilitaries had shot and killed an eleven-year-old boy, Hermín, simply for spotting them across the river and calling out to his father, who was fishing. A few days before I arrived in March, a man named Aníbal  had gone out to gather plantains and firewood for his family and had disappeared; his body was never returned to the community. The government had been unresponsive to pleas for help; in fact, it was known that the paramilitaries worked closely with the army battalion deployed in that region.

I had been invited to come to Puerto Lleras as an acompañante, an international witness. During my three days there, the “paras” entered three times. Each time they were spotted, the adults and children scurried to gather in the caseta, a roofed structure without walls that served as the community school. My role was simply to stand in front of them and ask the armed men to leave.

Our enemies were flesh-and-blood men carrying weapons and making threats. . . . “Whenever I am afraid I will trust in you.”

At the time of the second incursion, I had been reading my Spanish Bible. Once the paras walked off, some of the community adults went back to their homes, but others lingered. I asked them if they would like me to read some Scripture aloud; eagerly they said yes. A couple of the women suggested specific psalms. We prayed the words as we heard them:

O Lord, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying to me,
There is no help for you in God.
But you, O Lord, are a shield around me,
my glory, and the one who lifts up my head. . . .

I am not afraid of ten thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.

There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!” . . .
I will both lie down and sleep in peace,
for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.

My reading of the Psalms was transformed that day. Until then I had generally spiritualized them—the enemies besieging me were my own failures, idolatry, lack of love, or great social forces such as consumerism and imperialism. Now, as in the experience of the biblical writers, the enemies were flesh-and-blood men carrying weapons and making threats.

Eventually our prayerful reading and singing was interrupted. Someone hissed, “They’re coming back!” The community members quickly, grimly, returned to the caseta.

A little girl with big eyes was wandering in the open area near me. I asked if her mother was in the caseta, and she shook her head. I picked her up.

And because there was nothing else to do I began to sing, first quietly and then louder, in English, a song based on Psalm 32:7:

You are my hiding place,
You always fill my heart with songs of deliverance.
Whenever I am afraid I will trust in you,
I will trust in you.
Let the weak say, “I am strong in the strength of the Lord.”
I will trust in you.

The armed men, seven of them this time, stared at me as they passed on the river path. They looked confused. The people behind me and the child in my arms fell utterly silent. The song took on force, rose into the trees, looped, and repeated several times, carrying us all.

Finally it stopped, and we waited. Having made their circuit through the settlement, the paras returned. They were young men, and the psalms we’d read had reminded me to love them. The leader made a stab at conversing with the community members, but after a woman burst out with an eloquent plea to be left in peace, the men walked off toward their base, obviously at a loss.

Within an hour, a few human rights workers arrived with large canoes poled by men from a sister settlement downriver. The people of Puerto Lleras hastily gathered essential belongings and loaded them into the boats—folded mattresses, pots and pans, bags of rice, clothes, potted herbs, chickens. The elderly and the little children found perches on top or in between, while the rest waded the shallow river and came together to pull the boats over sandbars.

The paramilitaries undoubtedly knew of our exodus, but they chose not to challenge us. After three and a half hours, we reached Pueblo Nuevo and unloaded. Our hosts promised to share food and living space until the people of Puerto Lleras had had time to set up their own dwellings.

Ever since that day, reading psalms has driven me to remember and to stay in prayer for the people of Jiguamiandó. Be a shield around us; lift up our heads; do not let our enemies have their way with us. You are our hiding place.