Be Like a Tree

Willow Blues on the Ohio, Oil on Canvas, 11×14, painted at Captain’s Quarters in Louisville, KY, by Susan E. Brooks

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

—Psalms 1:3 (NIV)

            Which season is this? After moving from Kentucky to Mozambique, Africa, it was sometimes difficult to tell. In Mozambique in December, my Christmas candles bent completely over like the Golden Arches in the extreme heat. When it wasn’t raining, the sun beamed into our bedroom at 4:00 a.m., and we woke up soaked in sweat.

Then in June through August, sand storms blew so hard we had to shield our eyes just to walk outside. Though the temperature rarely fell much below fifty degrees, the homes had no heat, so we felt the cold, especially after the sweltering rainy season. Our sense of seasons was off balance, but God knew exactly what season it was, not only for Mozambique, but for our lives.

Seasons of change and unrest come and go, such as the season of the pandemic or the season of civil rights movements. How can we stay rooted and productive when we may not even understand what season it is?

Psalm 1 says we need to be like a tree planted close to the water, which is our Source. Then we will bear fruit in season, even if we may not know what season it is. If we stay close to the life stream, fruit will come naturally at just the right time.

A Mother’s Hope

This oil pastel painting is based on a photo from the archives of Kentucky Refugee Ministries. In the photo, the child is sitting on a parachute, relaxed, surrounded by vibrant colors. The colorful painting communicates joy and shows an innocent, carefree childhood moment. Every mother hopes her children will be able to enjoy a happy childhood without adult-level fears, at least until they are a little older.

On the surface this is a happy painting, but as the artist, I cannot help but think that too many children do not have the worry-free life they deserve. One of the reasons for the current uprising is that the moment depicted in this painting is all too rare for BIPOC children. I hope we can all work together to make a better world where our children, including BIPOC children, can live happy and free. This is not the land of the free until we are all free.

A Mother’s Hope, Oil Pastel on Paper, 18×24 inches. Based on a photo from the archives of Kentucky Refugee Ministries

The Evolution of a Painting: Modern Day Good Samaritan and Merton’s Epiphany

In January of 2019, I had an idea for a painting. Perhaps I could illustrate the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the gospel of Luke. How would Jesus have told the story if he were living in the US in 2019?

As I thought about the painting, I wanted to emphasize the fact that in the parable, Jesus chose to identify the hero of the story as a person representing an oppressed minority, a Samaritan. Who could represent an oppressed minority in the US in 2019? I chose a Black Muslim woman as the heroine of my painting.

Stage one of Modern Day Good Samaritan and Merton’s Epiphany

With the plan in mind, I drew a white man who had been injured, and a Muslim woman who had stopped to help. I used photos from downtown Louisville as references for the streets and buildings in the background.

As I worked, I became agitated, worrying about how some might respond to this painting. Then this happened:

Stage 2: In my angst over how this might be received, I started throwing paint at the canvas.

I started hurling yellow paint, then red paint, then more yellow paint at the canvas. All the while I was thinking, “Why should this be controversial?” (Paint splat!) “Jesus was always standing up for minorities!” (Paint splat!) “How can we be so divided that I’m afraid to paint what I feel or think?” (Another paint splat.) I threw paint until I was calmed down a bit.

Stage 3: The yellow lights reminded me of Merton’s epiphany.

As I continued to work, the yellow lights made me happy. They reminded me of Merton’s epiphany in downtown Louisville when he felt a love for everyone, and saw them all as “shining like the sun.” I hoped love would always be the background for my art and all my communications. I then added the male religious figure in the distance, ignoring the problem, matching the biblical account of the leaders who walked past the injured man without helping.

Modern Day Good Samaritan and Merton’s Epiphany
Acrylic and Oil Pastel on Canvas
36 x 48 inches

This is how the painting turned out. The woman is looking straight out of the painting, confronting the viewer. Sometimes I am tempted to look away from my friends and the oppression they endure, but my God, help me not look away. I will try to see all people as Merton did, “shining like the sun,” but the heroes and heroines in the 2020 Parable of the Good Samaritan are my black sisters and brothers, the peaceful freedom fighters who link arms to protect lone policemen and sing worship songs in the middle of a downtown protest. If Jesus were walking the streets of Louisville today in the flesh, he would likely be standing with them.

The Evils of White Supremacy: The Story behind the Painting

White Supremacy, 24 x 18 inches, Acrylic and Oil Pastel on Canvas, exhibited and sold at KORE Gallery’s Black and White exhibition, September 2019.

The term white supremacy is sometimes used to refer to extremists who openly spew hatred and violence against Black, Indigenous, and People of Color [BIPOC]. These fringe groups seem to be on the rise in recent years, and they are included in the thoughts behind this painting; but it is systemic white supremacy, the idea that whites are somehow superior, built into so many of our social systems—that is destroying our country.

In the painting above, the colors inside the map of the US represent our beautifully diverse country. The boot above, coming down to crush our nation, is the boot of white supremacy. In the painting, some white people are trying to climb up onto the boot, thinking that white supremacy will save them from destruction. The boot is oozing “whiteness.” If you look closely, you will see there is a knife coming down to the boot. The idea is that white supremacy is self-destructive.

“Mother Teresa diagnosed the world’s ills in this way: we’ve just ‘forgotten that we belong to each other.'”* Let’s find a way to change the destructive systems and remember “we belong to each other.”

*Rohr, Richard, “Being One with the Other,” Center for Action and Contemplation, June 4, 2020, https://cac.org/being-one-with-the-other-2020-06-04/.

Count Your Blessings and Bawl Your Eyes Out

Facing Grief, Oil Pastel on Paper, 18 x 24 inches, by Susan E Brooks

I wonder if I was the only one, sitting on the steps in the dark last night bawling my eyes out.

Last Thursday morning I learned that Mom had fallen during the night. I had already been worried sick about her because she’s in a nursing home in Leitchfield, KY, and we haven’t been allowed to see her for weeks.

My little 90-year-old mom is like the energizer bunny in that she just keeps going, and has fallen multiple times without breaking anything, but she has Parkinson’s, dementia, diabetes, and the list goes on.

When I got the call, it felt like a death sentence. Yes, she had broken her hip. Surgery was really the only option. Not doing surgery would mean a slow, painful death, but with surgery, she might make it, if all the stars aligned in her favor.

I am the sixth of seven children, and my younger brother moved out of state recently, so I was trying to sort out whether I could be with her at all, and where she would end up for the surgery.

Often, patients are sent to Louisville from Leitchfield for surgeries when the small regional hospital doesn’t have the surgeons or equipment that might be needed.

I called my son, the nurse practitioner, and asked his advice about how to stay safe if I were allowed to be with mom at a Louisville hospital. He said I should take some cloth face masks and wear those. I was asking whether I should quarantine myself away from Martin after leaving the hospital, when we got the call that mom would be able to have the surgery in Leitchfield.

That was the first big blessing!

The whole of Grayson County (where mom is) had only reported 2 cases of Coronavirus, and no deaths from it. I was very relieved that she would not have to come to Louisville, where the virus is spreading, people are dying, and the healthcare workers do not have the PPE that they need.

My sister, who lives in Grayson County, and normally takes care of mom’s medical decisions, was keeping me updated. She’s the strong one, who worked as a CMA in a nursing home giving out meds when she was younger. I’m the wimpy artist, who faints at the sight of blood, and is overly sensitive to, well—just about everything.

But now my sister is in her sixties and has a heart condition, so she and I agreed, along with my other siblings, that I should be the one to go be with Mom if that were allowed.

Sis heard that one person could be with Mom while she waited in the emergency room, but not after that, so I lead-footed it the 82 miles down to Leitchfield, only to find out I was too late. Mom had already been taken to her room, and I was not allowed to see her.

Dejected, I took my time driving back up to Louisville, feeling that I had failed mom and my family, because I hadn’t made it on time.

Back at home, I called the hospital, to see how Mom was doing. When I talked to the nurse in charge, and told her my story, she said that she would allow one family member to stay with mom because of her dementia.

Big Blessing number 2

I was told that I could stay with Mom in her hospital room, but I was not allowed to leave the room at all until I left for good. So I packed an overnight bag and drove back down to Leitchfield.

My heart was in my throat as I saw my mom for the first time since February. I wanted to hug and kiss her, but instead I washed my hands thoroughly, and then held her hand and told her I love her.

When the surgeon came in, he asked about my family, and we discovered that he had graduated from high school with my younger brother.

Big blessing number 3

I felt encouraged knowing that Mom was not just a stranger to him. Thank God for this surgeon who returned to his small town to serve the people he knows and loves, even when he could have made more money elsewhere. Thank God for all of our healthcare workers! They are all heroes.

Mom came through the surgery without any major problems!

Big Blessing number 4

Sunday afternoon, they sent Mom back to the nursing home. As of last night, she was doing well, and God has been so good to me. So why was I bawling my eyes out in the dark on the steps last night? Maybe I just needed to let it out. Maybe you do too. Go ahead. Count your blessings and bawl your eyes out.

Mozambican Odyssey, #22: When Our Son was attacked

When I write it like that, it sounds so terrible, and it was, but it could have been a lot worse.

Our son Kirk was 12 when he was attacked in Maputo, Mozambique.

Over our Thanksgiving holiday we had traveled to Nelspruit, South Africa, for our Christmas shopping because there was very little in Mozambique that was suitable or affordable at that time. We all chose some items that seemed special to us; and Kirk, our 12-year-old, had picked out a nice wrist watch.

When we returned to Maputo, Mozambique, Kirk was wearing his watch and enjoying it. After school one day, he and a friend were jogging around the school, just running around the block for fun and exercise.

Our kids attended an international school located in downtown Maputo, run by a mission agency from the states. We all loved the small school, and the staff became some of our closest friends for life.

As the boys were running, a local boy ran after Kirk and grabbed his arm. Kirk’s friend ran on to the school for help. The boy pulled at Kirk’s necklace and burned his hand with a cigarette, as he stole our son’s new watch. His main Christmas present was stolen, and worse, he was traumatized by being grabbed and burned.

He rushed into the school to tell us all about it, breathless and teary-eyed. I was glad he wasn’t hurt worse, “and he seems to be okay,” I wrote in my diary back in 1997.

I guess he was okay, but traumatic experiences can have a profound effect, and I still wonder if we should have done something more for him.

As I think about it, I wonder about so many children in the world who have had traumatic experiences so much worse than what happened to Kirk. Not to minimize what happened to him, but the fact is that countless refugees around the world have overcome incredible trauma, and a few of these courageous, beautiful overcomers have come to our city, Louisville, KY, to find a safe home.

Kentucky Refugee Ministries is an organization that helps resettle refugees that arrive in our home town. How can you help? Come to the opening reception to my solo show at KORE Gallery on April 11 from 6 – 8:30pm to learn more about Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM). You will have opportunity to donate to KRM, and a percentage of all artwork sold that night will be donated to KRM. KORE Gallery is located at 942 East Kentucky St., Hope Mills Building, Louisville, KY 40204. Hope to see you there!

Mozambican Odyssey, #21: A fever Of unknown Origin

This is my husband Martin, reading to our granddaughter Dorothy. Oil pastel on paper, 24 x 18″ by Susan E. Brooks

Realizing that your husband, your high school sweetheart, father of your children, and best friend for life, could die at any moment, has a clarifying effect. All of the unimportant pressures you were concerned about—job, money, paperwork, laundry piled up, appointments, and deadlines— disappear from your consciousness and you are focused on one thing: Is he going to be all right?

Missionary friends brought us food and took care of our children, while I just sat in the small clinic beside my husband’s bed, praying that he would be okay.

After a trip to the villages in the north of Mozambique, Martin became very ill. It came on suddenly. He could barely get out of bed. We took him into town to see a Nigerian friend who was a doctor. The doctor immediately put him on an IV and did blood tests which showed a raging infection.

We still don’t know, but we think it was from something he had eaten while spending a week out in the villages. There he was, all hooked up to an IV in this clinic that seemed to have very little besides beds for the sick, IV equipment, and a metal chair for me. The doctor didn’t have the medicine he needed on hand, so I sat with Martin, and waited.

We spent two nights in the clinic. Cecil Byrd, our friend and teammate, drove all over town to different pharmacies asking for the medicine that was needed. He eventually found the drug the doctor wanted. That drug seemed to do the trick, and we were back to our compound with the kids and the team after a couple of days.

When we returned home, we called our doctor back in Kentucky to discuss the illness, which had been diagnosed as “a fever of unknown origin.” When we told him the name of the medicine given to Martin, he said that it was no longer used in the US because it kills too many people!

Nevertheless, Martin was better. God kept him from dying from the illness and from the sometimes lethal drug that was administered. We didn’t know exactly how he got sick or how he got better—still don’t, but God healed my husband.

I don’t want to go through that ever again, but there is something about the clarity that comes in the face of death that can help us savor life. Life is a glorious gift. Yes, it is filled with suffering, but also with joy. Some days I have no choice but to grieve, but most days, I can embrace life and choose joy. Today, I choose joy because my best friend still lives, and God is with us, even if we are diagnosed with “a fever of unknown origin.”

Mozambican Odyssey, #19: Baptism in Mozambique

Joseph was baptized while we were in Mozambique. Baptism in Mozambique, 24×18, Oil pastel, by Susan E. Brooks

Baptism in Mozambique 

On March 23, 1997, my husband Martin was very happy to baptize my son Joseph in the baptistry on the mission property in Maputo, Mozambique.  The baptistry was a concrete box that we filled with water just outside the church.  Joseph was seven, but quite intelligent and mature for his age.  He was also small for his age, so in some ways he reminded me of a little drowned rat when Martin held him up, dripping with the baptismal waters, but he was a lot cuter than a rat.

He is the only one of our three who was baptized in Mozambique, Africa, and it was so different from any baptism I’ve ever seen in the US.  We were outdoors, and local children and were pressing in around all sides, so excited to watch the event.  There was no stage, and no safe distance between the spectators and the baptism.  There we were, all smashed together, a vibrating mass of humanity, with a man and his son in the middle, and the little boy saying I want to follow God and have a new beginning.  In his seven years he probably had not done much to be forgiven of, having always been a kind, sensitive child who looked after his little sister and adored his older brother, and never complained, even when his mom accidentally gave him chili powder toast instead of cinnamon toast.

Whether he was too young or not, whether we did everything right or not as we tried to raise our kids, I don’t know—I doubt it.  But I do believe God’s mercy is great and that He will honor our trying.  I think He will honor your trying too, because His grace is big enough to cover us all, and He knows we are made out of dirt.

Just a bunch of dirtbags trying to get by, and yet there is also something divine about humanity.  We are made in the image of the divine at least, and I saw that day, dripping with water, sparkling in the African sun, one of God’s kids declaring his love for his Creator, and all of the glorious God-made people pressing in close enough to touch him, and I think that’s as it should be.  We need to press in close at times, and open our eyes to the glory of God in each other, and celebrate the sacred moments when we get a chance.

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, #17: Kids Are Terrifying

Judith loves life and loves everyone she meets! She looks a lot like her mother did as a child in Mozambique.

Kids are Terrifying 

Little children have always terrified me.  Yes, I have 3 grown children and 9 grandchildren, and I know that sounds crazy, but this is why I never taught elementary or younger children if I could help it.  You never know when they might do something crazy and die.  They might drink bleach or fall out of a tree, or run in front of a passing truck, or pick up a poisonous snake.  One negative aspect of having an artist’s imagination is that I can imagine all kinds of terrible things happening.  Add that to losing my 20-year-old brother to a rare form of lung cancer, and later losing my dad because of a car wreck, and well, I am terrified of a lot of things. When each of my children reached 18, I was relieved that at least they had lived to adulthood under my watch, and now it was up to them to keep themselves alive.

As I continued reading my journal from Mozambique, I realized that something else scary happened on the same trip out of town when we lost the tire on the car, and the Hulsey family had to drive us around. (You can read that story here.)

After losing the tire, we stayed at a hotel in Nelspruit, South Africa, for a couple of days while the men tried to get the car repaired.  The hotels in Nelspruit are clean and comfortable, and I was enjoying having carpet, a bathtub, and tiled floors—things I had taken for granted in the US, but did not have in my house in Maputo, Mozambique.

One morning at the hotel, Aleta Hulsey and I thought we would let the little ones, her nearly 4-year-old Zach and my barely 3-year-old Hannah, play in the little swimming pool in the hotel lobby.  It was such a small pool that we thought the kids could play around the edges and be fine, so we didn’t plan to get in with them.  We ladies were talking, and then Aleta stopped short and motioned toward the pool.  Hannah was floating in the deep end of the pool!  I dived in, fully clothed, and rescued her, of course, but good grief!  Little kids are really scary, always trying to get themselves killed or drowned or something stressful like that!

I went dripping back to my hotel room, kind of embarrassed, and yes, thankful that I didn’t lose a child in addition to losing a tire off the car on that first trip to Nelspruit.

God rescues us and our children from disaster so often, and I tend to take it for granted.  Just the other night I lost track of my one-year-old granddaughter for a minute, but we soon found her sitting in the bathroom, holding my toothbrush in one hand and my razor in the other.  Kids are terrifying—and so precious.