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.

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.

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.