Mozambican Odyssey, #26: Stuck Between Two Countries

Some of us feel stuck now, waiting for the chance to get on with life. Window to the Soul, Oil Pastel on Pastel Paper, 14 x 11, by Susan E. Brooks

One of the best things about living overseas was having groups from the US come to visit. They brought excitement to our lives, and the groups were generally encouraging and generous to our family. Our kids especially loved the group visits because it meant trips to fun places we didn’t normally go. One of our favorite trips was to a game reserve just across the border in Swaziland.

This rhino used our bumper to sharpen his horn! That was a little nerve-wracking.
The elephants also came very close during the safaris in Swaziland.

I remember one such trip that turned out to be a little too exciting! Mkhaya Game Reserve boasted white rhinos, elephants, and a beautiful setting for a safari ride in close proximity to the animals. A group from Kentucky had arrived, and we loaded them onto a bus for the trip across the border into Swaziland.

At the Mozambican side of the border they checked all of the passports and sent us on across with no problems, but on the Swaziland side we ran into a snag. One of our visitors had a Mexican passport, and they said she would not be allowed to cross. We were stuck between the borders. As much as I wanted to do something to help, I could do nothing but sit and pray. Our leaders negotiated while the rest of us sat on the bus and waited—for hours. The reason they finally let us enter is a mystery to this day.

In some ways, what we are going through now feels like that time when we were forced to wait between two countries in a kind of “no man’s land.” Going back was not an option, and moving forward was not allowed. Now we sit still, mourning the past and fearing the future.

It’s a difficult place, but in these times God can do something new if we remain quiet and listen. Richard Rohr explained it this way:

The very vulnerability and openness of liminal space allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive—erased tablets waiting for new words. Liminal space is where we are most teachable, often because we are most humbled.*

Eventually, God made a way for us, and we entered the land. In time, we will be able to move into the next phase of our lives, but while in this liminal space, maybe we can look forward with expectancy, “receptive—erased tablets waiting for new words.”*

*Rohr, Richard, “Between Two Worlds,” Center for Action and Contemplation, April 26, 2020, https://cac.org/between-two-worlds-2020-04-26/.

Mozambican Odyssey, #18: Carried Out, Kicking and Screaming

We saw this young boy relaxing with his donkey as we traveled through Burkina Faso. 30 x 20 inches, Oil pastel on mat board, by Susan E. Brooks

Carried Out, Kicking and Screaming

He told us he had been threatened with a knife.

I don’t know if this has happened for anyone else, but it seemed like whenever Martin needed to travel, the craziest things would happen while he was gone.  If Martin left, one of the kids would spike a fever of 105, armed robbers would storm the compound, or some kid would say he was going to die if we didn’t let him move in with us.  I wish I were exaggerating.

I may have mentioned before a young boy who became friends with Kirk. We had been happy to have him visit in our home with thoughts of discipling a future church leader. I had studied the Bible with him and taught him a little English at his request. He seemed like a wonderful boy, but that week we found out he had some problems.

He started by telling us that his family was going to kick him out of the house.  We were skeptical, but with all of the street kids and orphans around, we knew it could happen.  We told him we would help if he got into a bind.  Kirk was all torn up, begging us to take him in.  The story became more questionable when he said we shouldn’t talk to his family, or they would beat him.  Kirk was beside himself, believing that his close friend would become a street kid if we didn’t help him.

Then one day he came and said he had been threatened with a knife.  He was in tears.  Martin had gone to Nelspruit for the day. Now what was I supposed to do?  I consulted the other missionaries on our team, and we decided that his family had to be confronted.  We found out that he had told many lies, and that his very nice family wanted him to come home.

He was at our house with Kirk, and he refused to even go outside to talk with his aunt, who had come to fetch him.  It turned out that  this boy of about 14 had to be literally carried out kicking and screaming by one of the men!  He wanted so badly to stay with us. What a scene!

It seemed that our young friend so wanted to live with us that he devised a scheme to accomplish that end.  It’s not so surprising really.  At that time, everyone wanted to go to America, and we had so much more of everything than he did.  No doubt he was hurting.  It was difficult to tell him that he had to go, but of course, I couldn’t kidnap him from his family— not that I wanted to.  It was just hard.

Kirk learned that you can’t trust everyone, a tough lesson at age 11, but his friend survived and seemed to be fine.  Later he came back to help Kirk make kites and learn the culture in many healthy ways, and nothing like that ever happened again with him.  Many Mozambicans seemed very happy with the little they had, and put me to shame, but poverty is a scourge that I have never had to suffer.  I have no room to  judge those who cannot escape the vicious cycle of poverty.  I don’t blame him for trying.

Mozambican Odyssey, #1: Culture Shock and Stress

“All the World” by Susan E. Brooks, 20 x 30 inches, oil pastel on mat board

 

Every day is filled with incredible stress, guilt, and fear.  My husband nearly died from an unidentified illness, and I fear for the health and safety of my kids almost all day, every day.  It’s easier just to stay on the compound with the other American missionaries, but that’s not why I came.  God, help me get through this.

The women here are so strong and persevering.  They work incredibly hard everyday, many with absent husbands, caring for children in addition to working a job if they can find one.  Most prepare their food over a fire and carry water some distance from a pump.  Their lives seem like constant struggle and pain to me, and yet they sing and smile and are so beautiful in their laughter.

I am a pampered child who cannot handle much stress, apparently.  Many days I wonder what it would be like to have a nervous breakdown.  How can you tell if you’re about to lose it?  What are the signs?  I can’t talk to anyone about this because they’re all stressed too, and I’m supposed to be a hero to the people back home.  What a crock!  I’m a wreck.  The kids are the only ones who seem to be okay, most of the time.  I try to hold it together for them.  I keep my  inner turmoil  hidden.  God does help me and carry me through, but I wonder if He will keep us safe.  I wonder if all 5 of us will make it back home to Kentucky.

I know that God is good.  I see it in nature and in the beauty of children and in the Mozambican people all around me.  How can the creator of such beauty not be good?  But I also see the suffering around me.  Children are dying from cholera all around.  I saw my 20 year old brother suffer and die of cancer within a few months.  My dad died at age 63, just before retirement, as a result of a car wreck.  Life is suffering, beauty, and glory, all mixed together.  Sometimes I could hide from that back in Kentucky, but not here in Mozambique.  Extreme poverty slaps you in the face as children beg for bread every day; but at night, the stars crowding the sky seem so close you could throw a rock at one and send it crashing down to earth.   This beauty is also undeniable.

Looking back in 2019, I did survive 3 years in Mozambique, but one of my teammates did not.  He was shot and killed by armed robbers that entered our compound one night.  I did not feel free to write about how difficult it was for me back then, but now I am free of the pedestal and the expectations that were put upon me at the time.  I don’t know why I am safely back home, and my friend is not.  God allows suffering, and He is is good.  These truths I have to hold in tension, and probably always will.  I hope I can live in such a way as to celebrate the beauty and goodness, and at the same time, maybe I can alleviate a little of the suffering, or at least, stand in solidarity with those who suffer, as Jesus does.

Sacred Places

Sacred Places,  Oil pastel on paper, 18×24 inches, by Susan E. Brooks

Sometimes–no, all the time–I want be aware of the sacred all around me.  We tend to separate life into categories: sacred versus secular, art versus life, one category or discipline versus another, and we seldom connect things in our minds.  Yet, in reality, it is all connected.  Academic disciplines overlap, art influences life, and all of creation is sacred.

My art grows out of special times when my eyes are opened to beauty, which for me is a gift from God.  The above pastel painting was inspired by a time when the sacred danced into my ordinary day, and demanded my attention.

It was one of many summer days that I kept my granddaughters, who, though they look like little angels, do not always behave like angels.  We went out into the backyard to play, and the sun was streaming long yellow-green stripes of light across the grass, and these tiny yellow flowers were shooting up straight and thin, up to the blue-violet sky, and the tulip tree was spreading its delicate, pale pink blossoms.

The invitation to bask in the glory of the moment was not lost on the girls, who  ran to gather the tiny yellow flowers for their mommy.   It struck me that this was a sacred, beautiful moment, and though I was tired, this time I noticed, and I started taking photos.

How many times have I not noticed and just kept pushing through my day?  Too many, I’m afraid.  This year, open my eyes, God, to more and more of the beautiful and sacred around me, and help me listen and see You at work in all of this painful, yet glorious existence.

Solo Show of Oil Pastel Portraits in July, 2018

Tanzanian Chidren, 16 x 20, oil pastel on paper, by Susan E. Brooks

A Celebration of Color: Oil Pastel Portraits by Susan E. Brooks will be on display at the Open Community Arts Center from July 2 – July 27, with the closing reception on July 27 from 6-9pm.  The show is comprised of 16 oil pastel portraits completed within the past two years, including the very recent works created for the “KRM We Create” events for the World Refugee week Festival in June.  Ten of the 16 artworks are available for purchase.  Come out and  see the work, and if you would like to meet me there, let me know!

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KRM We Create Art Events during the World Refugee Festival

“Not Wretched, Not Refuse, but Welcome,” was created for the KRM We Create Events in honor of World Refugee Week, The title is based on the poem that hangs on the Statue of Liberty, and the words in the trees are also taken from that poem, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.

I am excited to be a part of the World Refugee Festival in Louisville  beginning June 16 – 24!  Kentucky Refugee ministries has organized a series of art events in celebration of World Refugee Week.  The purpose of the events is to celebrate the refugees that have come to Louisville and the blessings they bring to us as a community.  The piece pictured above is fairly large, and it is one thing to view art online, but quite another to stand in front of an original  work of art.  Online you cannot experience the intensity of colors or the interplay of the various textures and strokes in a drawing or painting as you can seeing it “face to face.”  So I hope you come out tomorrow to the Better Block Festival and to the Brown Theatre next Saturday, June 23.  See you there!

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Finished my Children’s Book

This story was inspired by a story told to me by my grandson Eleazar.

It took a while, but I finally finished writing and illustrating my third children’s book.  If you’d like to order one, comment here, message me on Facebook, or email me .  I’d like to find a way to publish that would make it more affordable for me and for you, so if you have any leads, let me know.  The story includes chickens, wolves, kittens, and a bear!  I think it’s my best one yet!

A Boy and His Donkey: the Story behind the Painting

We saw this young boy relaxing with his donkey as we traveled through Burkina Faso. Oil pastel on mat board, by Susan E. Brooks
We saw this young boy relaxing with his donkey as we traveled through Burkina Faso. Oil pastel on mat board, by Susan E. Brooks

 

It was one of the most difficult trips I’ve ever taken.  We were traveling through Burkina Faso during our missionary days, and the poverty was overwhelming.  I found myself, once again, the spoiled, picky, American girl who had trouble eating what the locals would have been thrilled to have.  One time at a restaurant, flies were swarming so thickly upon our plates of chicken and french fries that the only way we could  eat was to cover our plates completely with napkins,  pulling a fry or a piece of chicken out from under it the best we could.  I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

Speaking of flies, the donkey that I painted above had flies crawling all over his eyes that were swollen shut.  They looked like two slits– they must have been infected.  I had to use my artistic skills to open his eyes and make him look healthy and happy.  The boy also was not as healthy and glowing as I painted him to be.  The truth is that I had to change the sad realities of this boy’s life in order to create a beautiful painting that people would want to see.  I’m not sure what to do with that, and I am ashamed to complain about flies on my fries when so many in that country had so  little to eat.

How do we respond to the stark contrasts and overwhelming misery that exist in our world?  How can we help?  Guilt and shame are not the answer.  The answer is probably different for each one of us.  If only painting away the infections and the hunger would make them disappear.  I don’t know how to fix our broken world, but I do see people helping, one person at a time.  Thank you, all of you who are loving, serving, and helping, one person at a time. God sees you.

 

 

 

Why I Love Oil Pastels

 

Oil pastel on paper, by Susan E. Brooks
Oil pastel on paper, by Susan E. Brooks

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I discovered oil pastels while studying art in college.  I don’t know why I picked them up in the first place, and I remember being frustrated with them in the beginning.  One of my early attempts was a ballerina whose face looked like that of an ape, sending my professors into spasms of laughter.  It’s a painful memory I’ve probably never shared publicly until now.

In spite of that failure, I kept at it, and I found that if I used a textured board and kept my work large, strikingly colorful portraits began to emerge from the background.  The pastels were so intense that I had to mix the colors on the surface of the painting.  I’ve found that not having the exact skin colors of pastels forced me to used a mixture of colors that became magic for me, and I developed my own style of portraits using oil pastels.  I thought you might enjoy seeing an earlier stage of the work, along with the finished piece.

Celebrating a First

This is the cover art for my book, Ariel, Princess of the Forest, Oil Pastel on paper
This is the cover art for my book, Ariel, Princess of the Forest, Oil Pastel on paper

In recent years especially, I have felt almost a burning desire to write–about my life, about my thoughts, about funny and interesting things that happen at my job, about the goodness of God, about experiences with internationals–stories slap me in the face nearly everyday and demand to be written!  Writing for me is a wonderful way to really savor your life, to be able to live the fun parts over and over again, and even to invent some fun in your mind if you’re running a little short.

In the summer of 2014, I was inspired to write and illustrate a children’s book for my granddaughter.  That was way more work than I ever imagined, but I also found that something intuitive or imaginative happened when I started to write: the story took a direction I never thought of in the beginning, ideas sprang out of nowhere, and the creative process, a mystery to me, made writing that book,  Ariel, Princess of the Forest, an adventure. 

I figured out how to publish it with an online company called lulu.com.  Presenting the book to my granddaughter and her parents and seeing her giggle about the illustrations of her favorite stuffed animal going wild,  was about as good as life gets for a grandmother.

Once I started for one grandchild, I was committed.  Apparently my children think I need to keep busy, because they’ve since added two more grandchildren to the count, for a grand total of six children’s books due so far!

The next summer I created a book for my grandson, Joshua’s Journey: The Secret of the Chameleon, loosely based on an experience our family had in Mozambique.  After going through the grueling work of self-publishing again, I decided that it would be nice to find a publisher.

One thing led to another, and thanks to a sweet friend pushing me to go to a writer’s meeting, I made some connections with a local publisher.  The publisher wasn’t ready to republish my books, but she was impressed with them, and decided to hire me to write for her children’s book series!

I have just completed my first book for Baxter’s Corner publishing company!  Baxter’s Corner’s goal is to create books that will teach  healthy values.  They hired me to write about one of their characters, Ellema the elephant.  Ellema and the Big Rig will be published early next year.  Baxter’s Corner already has an established illustrator for the series, Mary Ellen Stottmann, so I was hired only for the writing.  I appreciated working with the “Chief Pencil,” author and editor Linda Baker.  By the time my third and final draft was accepted, I was relieved, happy, and ready to do my victory dance!  I was paid to write!  A dream come true!  God is so good!