Mozambican Odyssey, #14: Battling Monsters in Mozambique

Our son Kirk, back in 1996, being friendly with an African Giant Millipede.

Battling Monsters in Mozambique

Moving to Mozambique, Africa, with three children was difficult for many reasons, not the least of which was that the insects in Mozambique seemed prehistoric in size and structure.  As if to confirm that impression, when I looked up “chongololo,” the name for the millipedes in Mozambique, the article said, “The giant African millipede can grow up to 15 inches in length.”*

Of course!  Just my luck.  Mozambique would be the home of the “giant” millipede.  We saw dung beetles the size of a young child’s fist, crickets that looked like a prehistoric armored version that could carry off a young child—okay, not quite.  But the worst were the baboon spiders that looked every bit like huge tarantulas!  Big brown furry creatures that hung out, literally, on the ceiling of our porch just outside the door.  They were terrifying.  I do not care if they were said to be harmless; those hairy monsters were nightmare fodder.  Having so many oversized insects in Mozambique, which were impossible to keep out of the house, was the bane of my existence, not to mention the mosquitos that carried deadly malaria.

We moved to Maputo, Mozambique in August of 1996 to do mission work.  I taught at an international school, and my husband helped start a pastoral leadership training program.  Living in our newly built house was described by one of our American friends as “like living in a bath house.”  We did have screens on the doors and windows, but we had no ceilings and only a concrete floor. Picture a bath house at a campground having three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room.  The roof leaked whenever it rained, and we placed buckets under all of the leaks, not knowing how to fix the type of roofing that was used.  Though we had screens, there was no keeping the insects out of that house, nor the geckos for that matter.

One time I was sitting in the bathroom taking care of business, when something came crashing down from the ceiling toward me.  I screamed and jumped up, not able to flee because of my state of undress, but it was just a gecko.  Geckos were crawling on our walls and ceilings constantly, but since they ate malaria-carrying mosquitos, we learned to consider them our buddies.  The insects, on the other hand, I could not stomach.

In my fervor to keep bugs out of our food, I would look for any container that might be airtight.  Containers were important.  Sometimes we would buy cookies that were sealed in a metal can that had a tight fitting top, similar to the tins we sometimes use in the states to give homemade Christmas cookies as gifts.  If I found cookies in a tin, that meant maybe they were fresh and not bug infested, and then I would save the container to use for storage after the cookies were gone.

One day I could not find my cookie tin where it was supposed to be in the kitchen.  I had looked everywhere.  I went looking around the house, and I found it on my oldest son’s shelf in his room.

“What is Kirk doing with my cookie tin?” I thought.

Nonchalantly, I opened the top.  As soon as I opened the tin, big hairy spider legs crawled over the edge, and I lost it.  I screamed bloody murder and flung the tin away! Out came one of those furry, tarantula-looking baboon spiders, followed by a huge prehistoric cricket, and who knows what else was in there, as it went flying out of my hands, clanging upon the concrete floors.

Hearing my scream, my husband came running.  He had a split second to decide whether to smash the big baboon spider all over the bottom of his boot or let it escape under the water bed where our son slept.  He smashed it, fearing none of us would ever sleep again knowing that it had escaped under the waterbed.

After the screaming and the slaughter of the monster, we laughed hysterically.  I learned a lesson: never open a container on a boy’s shelf without first inquiring about the contents!

* from https://www.animalstown.com/animals/m/millipede/millipede.php

This Artist’s Life, #10: Only One You

We are each one of a kind. Stachelle, 12×16 inches, oil pastel on mat board, by Susan E. Brooks

There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.

—Martha Graham

I love this quote, and it fits as I try to encourage myself to keep going.  We are created with unique creative minds and souls that are constantly coming up with ideas that no one else in the world is having in exactly the same manner, and if we don’t free ourselves to express and create, that unique expression will be lost.

We can get blocked, however, so what can we do when that happens?

I am writing these helpful hints to remind myself, and I hope you can benefit from them as well.  From the wonderful series of books beginning with The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, these are some things we can do when the creative juices don’t seem to be flowing.

  1. Free write for at least three pages daily, in the morning if possible.
  2. Get out for at least an hour a week, and go somewhere different just for fun, such as a fabric store, museum, pet store, art gallery–somewhere that feeds your imagination and makes you smile.
  3. Go for a walk weekly, if not daily.  Walking gives a fresh perspective and helps you process your thoughts.

There you go.  Three easy steps to jumpstart your creativity and mine.  Thank you, Julia Cameron.

This coming weekend our city offers Open Studio Weekend, and for one small price you can visit lots of art studios in town.  One stop on the map is KORE Gallery, where you can see my work and the work of many other talented artists.  I plan to spend part of my time there, and also tour other artists’ studios.  This is a great opportunity to experience new ideas and get inspired for your own work.  Hope to see you around the studios this weekend.

This Artist’s Life, #9: “Art Is for Life”

 

I keep adding layers, scraping and sealing, painting and adding layers of pastel again to see what I can come up with on this experimental landscape.

“Art is for life, not the other way around.”  –Austin Kleon*

How does an artist keep going when life gets busy and hard, and everything seems to be pulling at us from every direction?  How does one find time to stay fresh and experiment when so many opportunities and obligations are filling the calendar?

Using oil pastel on a surface of textured acrylic paint is giving the foliage a unique visual effect.

With new shows opening every month at KORE Gallery, fall art fairs, and an opening in December at the Plein Air Gallery, nine grandchildren that need “Ony,” church work, and holiday activities, time management is a big challenge for me.  I know it is for all of us at this time of the year.

I have decided that at least for now, it is okay to not to apply for every art opportunity, and allow myself to focus on the art commitments I already have, and maybe even experiment a little, so that I can keep growing as an artist.  If I am so exhausted from going nonstop, my creative juices are drained, and the work suffers.

There are different seasons in life for all of us, and decisions have to be made daily that can make life richer in the things that matter, or make life more stressful than necessary for the sake of things that are not as important.

Art is important, but so are family, church, rest, health, and so many other things.  For too many years I put art on the back burner, and I’m not going to do that again–but I need to find a balance.  Sometimes, I can be overly dramatic:

“There will never be enough time or money to create the masterpieces that I have in mind.  One thing after another will keep falling apart until I am dead, and I will never accomplish my dreams, so I might as well quit all together!”

“Oh, get over yourself!” I have to say to myself at times.  “You can work for a few minutes today, and then again tomorrow, and maybe a few hours later in the week, and over time, you will have a body of work, and you will grow as an artist.  You do not have to do every art fair and every show this year.  ‘Art is for life, not the other way around.'”*

I know it’s a little scary that I not only talk to myself, but I also answer myself.  Weirdness aside though, I hope you can avoid running yourself ragged too.  Don’t take yourself too seriously, and slow down enough to enjoy the coming holidays.  I intend to do just that.

*from the book Keep Going by Austin Kleon, p. 127.

Mozambican Odyssey, #13: Sharing One Cup

Tanzanian Queen, 24×18, Oil pastel on pastel paper, by Susan E. Brooks

Sharing One Cup 

One of our early church experiences in Maputo, Mozambique was a stretching one for me.  Having grown up in the protestant churches, we always had lots of individual little cups for the communion service, and those were filled with grape juice and passed around for church members to take, along with the wafers or crackers that represented the body of Christ.

We had not been in Mozambique long when one Sunday we traveled out to the village, out from town a bit, to attend church with other missionaries and locals.  We were honored as special guests and seated on the front rows, which did not thrill introverted me at all, but we did as we were instructed to do.

There was energetic singing, dancing, and preaching which I enjoyed, but when it came time for communion, I started to squirm.  They were passing around one cup of wine, and everyone was watching us on the front row, so we had to take our turn, drinking after a bunch of strangers.

My mind spun with all of the different diseases in Africa that we had never been exposed to before, and one of my greatest fears about going had been one or more of us dying of some exotic illness.  All kinds of tragic scenarios ran through my mind as I sipped, fearing that we would catch something horrible.  I could imagine the headlines:

“Missionary family dies from ebola after drinking communion wine.”

I don’t even know how one gets ebola or if they have ever had it in Mozambique, but you get the idea.  It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, especially since we didn’t get sick, but back then, it was frightening for me.  I sipped and prayed that we would not become ill, and we didn’t.

God protected us so many times, and he still does.  How often are we exposed to deadly germs?  How many near wrecks do we have?  How many times do we nearly fall, but we are caught just in time as children, or even adults?  How many illnesses do we recover from if we do become ill?

We take countless mercies for granted every day.  God has rescued us from so many terrible fates that might have befallen us.  When I am discouraged, I need to look back at all of the fears that God has delivered us from, and then I can hope and expect that He will do it again.

This Artist’s Life, #8: My First Plein Air Paint Out

Morning Sunlight on Beargrass Creek, 12×12, Oil on Canvas, By Susan E. Brooks

Creativity takes courage.”      —Henri Matisse

I was so nervous about my first plein air paint out.  I wasn’t going to do it, and when I mentioned it to one of my artist friends, she said,

“I never do competitions!  I tried once and I froze up.  It was awful and I’ll never do it again!”

That kind of spooked me.  A plein air paint out means a bunch of artists go outside and paint something in the landscape, and then the work is publicly displayed, judged, and prizes are given.  This paint out was part of a celebration at the Regeneration Fair for the opening of the new Botanical Gardens at the corner of Frankfort and River Road, here in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

I have been going out weekly since last June, to paint with the Plein Air Painters of Kentucky.  I enjoy that, but it is understood among us that some  days it turns out well, and some days it doesn’t.  A paint out is something different.  What if I froze up or just had a bad day?

Not for me, I decided. But then as I ran into friends in the local arts community, I was urged to participate.  After some consideration, I said to myself,

“This is not about you.  It’s about celebrating the new botanical gardens and raising money for the Children’s Free Art Classes offered by the Louisville Visual Art Association.”

Some of my students have benefitted from those classes in the past, and I even taught one of those classes a long time ago.  Kids who would not normally be able to afford special art classes can take them through this program.

The night before the paint out, I was exhausted from the week and whining about the fact that it was going to be only 40 degrees or so for the 8am paint out arrival time in the morning.

“Why did I sign up for this?” I groaned.

As is often the case after I get so worked up about something, the event was anticlimactic and fun.  I did have to jog a little bit and jump up and down to keep myself warm as I painted.  But as the sun rose over Beargrass Creek, it lit up the trees from behind into a yellow-green glow.  I loved it!  I was able to enjoy myself and to paint something that I liked, so I didn’t mind much whether the judges would like it or not.  I didn’t freeze up, although I almost did just from the cold!

When I put my painting down among all of the others, I was happy.  There were so many beautiful paintings spread out, and I was just happy that mine didn’t stick out like a sore thumb.  I survived–not only survived– enjoyed my first plein air paint out.

Congratulations to my fellow member artist at KORE Gallery, Anil Vinayakan, for winning first place!  You can see more of his work and mine at KORE Gallery at 942 East Kentucky St. in Louisville, Kentucky.  My plein air work will be on display at the Jane Morgan Gallery at 4838 Brownsboro Center, with the next show opening December 4.

Mozambican Odyssey, #12: “The Thousand Natural Shocks”

“An African Madonna” by Susan E. Brooks, 20 x 30 inches, oil pastel on mat board

I love that line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet for some reason.  Whenever I struggle, I think of the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”  We all struggle with a thousand things, but in the beginning of our time in Mozambique, there were so many shocks, literal,  emotional, and intellectual.

The electricity in Mozambique is 220, compared to our 110 in the US.  I don’t really know what that means, but I know that getting shocked is more serious with 220!  For some reason, we would get shocked if we touched the faucet in our newly built home when we tried to wash the dishes.  We had to wear shoes if we were to be in contact with the water, whether in the kitchen or in the shower.  It’s a wonder we are all fairly normal after getting shocked so many times.  It became a joke among the missionaries on the compound.  Maybe that’s what’s wrong with us!

In addition to the literal shocks in our house, there were the daily shocks of seeing how a different world operated.  My son saw a lady at the market selling roasted rats and bats.  I don’t know about the bats, but the rats were common.  They say it’s a vegetarian rat.  What exactly does that mean?  Is the rat picky?  He won’t eat his mashed potatoes with beef gravy? Or is the rat somehow how okay for vegetarians to eat? Does rat meat not count as real meat?  I have no clue, but I didn’t want any, vegetarian rat or not.

On the way to town one day we passed a pet baboon.  I don’t know what else to say about that.  Then we were again shocked at the high prices at the supermarket for anything that my kids might have eaten, such as boxed cereal.  The local people ate a lot of corn meal mush, but my kids wouldn’t have anything to do with it, and to be honest, I didn’t care much for it either.  So I was spending a lot of time in the kitchen, trying not to get shocked at the sink, and learning how to make chicken nuggets and fries from scratch.

Looking back on all of those shocks, I think perhaps I should have lowered my expectations of myself and others.  I now know that culture shock is difficult and demanding, and though I did enjoy some aspects of the newness of everything, I wish I had rejoiced in it more, and learned to go with the flow.  Instead, I often felt guilty about all of the things I wasn’t getting done, wasn’t eating, wasn’t enjoying, etc.

Isn’t it ironic that we can feel guilty for not enjoying something enough?  It kind of kills the joy when I’m always critiquing myself on how I am handling life.  “Never good enough” is a refrain that keeps coming back for me.

But when I listen to the right voice, I know I am enough because I am loved by my good God.  He knows I am human and loves me still.  That is enough.

This Artist’s Life, #7: Capture the Moment

Sycamores on the Ohio, en Plein Air, Oil on Canvas Panel, 11×14, by Susan E. Brooks.

Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.  — Claude Monet

The sky was so blue, the sun was dancing on the water and dappling the sycamore trunks with light and shadow, and I was so lucky to be out there, just soaking it all in, loving the moment, trying to capture it in paint.

The idea of plein air painting, a French term meaning to paint outside, is to capture the moment, the fleeting light and shadow, and to express in paint the feeling or mood of a outdoor scene as experienced by the artist at the time.

Some days it doesn’t go so well for me, and I stress about the painting, or about other things in life, and I’m not able to inhabit the moment.  At the restaurant where we were painting last week, they were blaring loud, throbbing rap music, which is not what I would choose for a peaceful painting atmosphere, and it bothered me at first.  But after a few minutes, I was able to just enjoy the beauty of the day, the river,  the trees, and the sunlight, loving the colors and the process of painting out of doors, and the blaring music faded out of my consciousness.

What I am learning from plein air painting might be relevant for other areas of my life as well.  I  need to forget about the distractions that could annoy me and  just look for the beauty in each moment, focus on the gift that is this day, this task, this few minutes with a loved one or friend, enjoy the time, and love.

(My plein air work will be available at Jane Morgan Gallery, 4838 Brownsboro Road – Arcade, Louisville, KY 40207.  Exhibition dates are Dec. 4, 2019 – April 30, 2020.)

Monet quote is from https://www.azquotes.com/author/10263-Claude_Monet

 

Mozambican Odyssey, #11: The Witch Doctor’s Drums

Coming into the Light, Oil pastel on paper, 24 x 18 inches by Susan E. Brooks. Available at KORE Art Gallery, Louisville, KY

The Witch Doctor’s Drums

It may not have been the very first night.  I suspect the first night in Maputo we were so exhausted that we didn’t hear a thing after traveling from Chicago to London to Johannesburg, South Africa, to Maputo, Mozambique, with 3 children, 14 tubs, 6 carryons, and countless goodbyes.

But I remember the first night that we heard the drums.  We were told that these were the drums of the witchdoctor.  As I sat on the porch, and listened to the sound in the distance, it felt as though we had traveled back in time or even to another world–which, in a sense, we had done.

I wondered what the drums meant.  What exactly did a witchdoctor do in Maputo, Mozambique in 1996?  Were the drums sending a message?  Was it about us?  Were they beating out,

“Let’s meet to go slaughter the new missionaries at 2am”?

I had no idea, but at the time I was not afraid.  It felt like a mysterious adventure, and I felt that God was with us.

Looking back sometimes I wonder at myself.  I am not a brave person.  I am a shy person afraid of many things. I can only explain going to Mozambique as God’s giving me peace and strength for what I was supposed to do at the time.  I know we made many mistakes, but I would not trade the experience for anything.

Maybe I need to take a lesson from my old self.  If I could survive moving to Mozambique and living there for 3 years, which was both wonderful and extremely difficult, maybe I can face today’s challenges.  I just need to trust.  Maybe you can too.