Testing boundaries.


Words and coffee. Who wants some? Me, I’m ready for a second cup! And I’m hungry to lay down a few words too. Writing has a way of helping me to process. I completed Phase 1 of the moving project last night at 9pm and am hereby moved out of the cabin. It is nice and clean and ready for whoever is next in line to enjoy all the gifts that place has to offer. I’m currently sitting in the middle of a giant mess at my lake studio where I’ll be staying until I make the big and oh-so-very-real move to Uganda next month. This has been a huge undertaking. I was living and working out of 3 location and am downsizing into something that can be packed up indefinitely. Last night, as I sat down one last time in the cabin, I looked around me and noticed how very little I need to be happy. Actually, the less I have, the happier I seem to be. I sat in the almost empty cabin. There was only a couch, a table, a rug and a painting. There is very little else I would have needed. My life in Africa has taught me that. It’s not the witnessing of extreme poverty that has shown me the gifts of simplicity, but rather simplicity itself. Poverty itself is not a gift. But simplicity has a way of helping one notice the details. In an oversaturated, overstimulated, overwhelming world, that in itself is worth more than gold. 
There is no running water here at my lake studio, but I’ve spent a fourth of the past year in Africa. It’s no big deal. I’m used to it! And anyway…there’s nothing better than bathing in rainwater. The peace that these woods and lake have to offer is worth the little bit is extra work that it all entails. It forces me to slow down. For those of you who have had the opportunity of staying with me here, I know you know what I mean. 

I’m going to use this time to get close to God and also to attempt to pull off the seemingly impossible. I do believe that, thru God, anything IS possible. I wouldn’t have made it this far with out Him. I’d be lost. I wouldn’t be functioning properly. I might not be functioning at all. 

Currently, I’m sitting in the middle of a great big messy dream. I’ll be continuing the sale of artwork and donating things that I no longer need. If God asked you to GO, would you be able to? He asked me to go. And what I’m realizing is that it is the biggest commitment I will ever make. It’s a process that requires all of me. It requires perseverance, resilience and, as the Finnish like to say *sisu* (grit, determination, strength, bravery). Carl taught me that word. And after his death, the entire Bratlien family taught me how to live it out. In the past year, God has begun to personalize it. He’s taking it even further. I’ve decided to embrace it.

There is nothing about this that is easy and yet there is everything about this that is so totally worth it. 

In the morning.

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The rooster crows. When was it, exactly, that the sky full of stars slipped herself into this silky dress of daylight? The transition comes softly in the mountains of eastern Uganda. Subtle movements stir outside. All is peaceful except for the unavoidable and overly officious crowing of the rooster. I love this time of day…despite that damn rooster. Actually, I love even the rooster. Because it means I’m here. I’m in the village, held by morning and all the things I love. Held, even my dear girl, Sharon, who stays with me while I am here. We share a full size mattress, but despite the luxurious amounts of room, I find myself at the edge of the bed, held by the mosquito net on one side of me and Sharon pressed up against me with her tiny arms tangled around me on the other side. I’ve never known love like this. She can’t get close enough. She’s eight years old and so small for her age. She snuggles in closer and whispers for the hundredth time: “I love you.” I think her voice whispering those words is exactly the sound that Heaven is made of. I tell her how much I love her, too. She holds out her hand in mine so that I will run my fingers up and down her little arms. She likes the way it tickles. She doesn’t want to get up. A sadness flits somewhere deep in her eyes when I suggest it. She’s attempting to soak in half a lifetime worth of love. In all honesty, I am equally content to hide from the day just a little bit longer. With her, I become a mother. It is an empty place that I didn’t even realize how much I wanted to fill until she came into my life. It’s a strange feeling to unexpectedly become a mother to someone. We didn’t have time to grow into it and yet it feels like its always been.

The light is soft through the old curtain. It isn’t long before we hear the tap-tap-tap of little birds outside the window. It sounds like a wood-pecker tapping softly. I think of Carl, my woodsman, and smile. After a few days I realize that it isn’t a bird…but the softly tapping fingers of the children. They know they can’t knock on the door to wake me up. They’ll get in trouble from a passing adult if they make too much noise yelling my name. And so they tap…tap…tap. Persistently. Eagerly. Sweetly.

Eventually their enthusiasm to spend the day with me seeps through so thoroughly into my room that I’m reluctantly charmed out of bed. Sharon is always a few steps behind as I shuffle out of the bedroom and into the simple kitchen with crazy bed-head hair standing on end. I am greeted by this: a window full of kids, paper boats, love-notes and flowers on the sill. Someone’s smiling. Someone’s singing. Someone little is crying because she wants to be lifted up.

And I smile.

Because, as much as I crave a little more sleep or just a quiet cup of coffee, what I have instead is even better. My Africa…I love you. It is for this that I live to wake up to every morning. Dear Abba, thank you for giving me something to live for.

Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life. ~Psalm 143:8

 

Miracle thinking.

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Yesterday I went to the post office for the first time since returning home from Uganda. I’ve been home for a week and a half now. I guess you could say that I’ve been avoiding certain aspects of my life. For unknown reasons, the post office was one of them. BUT then a dear friend, Jean, told me to keep a lookout for something special she was sending. I’m glad. I like the way God answers our prayers in such clever ways. As I drove towards the post office I prayed for grace. It was late. I felt anxious and depleted. I was not yet aware of God’s cleverness in that moment. Instead, I was making a grocery list in my head, considering the idea of cookies or brownie mix, even tho I really don’t need to be eating either. I realized that I was missing sweetness in my life and I asked God to help me with that, too.

Truth be told, the only thing I was expecting to find in my post office box was bills and junk mail. I found plenty of both of those…but what I didn’t expect to find was a box filling to the point of overflowing with Christmas cards and even a few packages. Wow! Christmas…and it’s nearly February! Needless to say, the discovery made me realize just how long I had been gone. No wonder my life here in Minnesota still feels so weird. I opened one of the packages right there in the post office. The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo. I love books, but this one is special. The package didn’t have a name on it, but I knew who it was from: Jean! What an angel. After losing my Kindle on the flight home, she sent me this second copy of the book in paper form. I went home and opened up the next box, this one was from my friend Lyndsi. It was filled to the brim with love: a beautifully warm scarf, a soft hat, some delicious winter tea and, my favorite (although she didn’t even know it) pure maple sugar candies! Dear Abba, thank you. I asked for grace and sweetness…and what did I receive? Yep, you guessed it: exactly that.

This morning, I cracked open the pages of my new book for the first time. I read it while drinking my first cup of coffee. Afterwards, I went outside to feed my two hungry horses and, because the brittle winter temps have risen just enough to be considered enjoyable, I meandered slowly down the long driveway as my dogs ran through the snow and looked for things that only dogs know of. I thought about my presence here in these northern woods, in this place called winter, in this land that I once called home, but now feels so foreign and strange. I was in a pretty good mood, despite these feelings of ongoing displacement. I was making a list in my head. There were two columns. On the left was my life here in the USA and on the right was my life in Africa. This was broken down yet again into another two categories: advantages and disadvantages. My preferences were starting to weigh heavily in the direction of Africa and, it was then that Albert Einstein’s words echoed in my head.

There are two ways to live your life.
One is as though nothing is a miracle.
The other is as though everything is a miracle.
~Albert Einstein

I began working on evening out my two lists. Before I was even 10 steps further down my driveway, with refreshed eyes, I began to see my time here in the United States between now and moving to Africa as being equally advantageous in the grand scheme of things. In doing so, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. An acceptance of the now, just as it is. I heard a wood-pecker tapping on a tree just to my right and, although I couldn’t see my woodsman feathered friend, Carl’s presence filled the moment. I felt encouraged. As I walked back to the cabin, a sense of God’s orchestration settled in around me. Peace. A juxtaposition. My dog Ella ran past, kicking up white snow with cabin-fever glee, dodging the black stumps of pine trees along the way. Perfectly imperfect. It’s all up to us how we approach the details.

Gifts and hardships seem to walk hand in hand. This morning I breathed into that reality and settled into the miracle of what is. I lift my head with a new sense of willingness to be here now. God’s grace is needed in every step, no matter what side of the earth I might find myself walking.

 

Folgers.

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I woke up this morning with a migraine that seems to be settling in deeper with each passing day. The tingles of stress walk like fingers across my back with an increasing, morphing presence. It’s -22F and I have a sharp cough from lungs fried by cold air. On a phone call with a dear friend from Florida last night, she said my voice sounds “high in my throat” and accredited to my feeling of displacement in returning home. I have to agree with her. I feel faraway.

The horses were cold and hungry this morning. Their spunkiness to eat was exhilarating, even in my half-presence. I fed them grains and then moved to another area to put out their hay for the day. I had left the dogs inside because their paws couldn’t handle the cold long enough for me to tend to things. It is very unusual for me to even have a minute alone while outside…but there I was: alone. And it felt good. I stopped and took a bite of fresh snow piled weightlessly on a pine bough as I walked past it. I thought about fresh water and the lack of it in the village I yearn for. I wondered what everyone would think of this snow. I wondered how long it would take for me to get frostbite on my fingers and pulled them deeper into the sleeves of my three layers of jackets. My horse jackets…the ones that are too big and too worn out for anything else. The outer layer belonging to Carl. For some reason that comforts me, time and time again.

I stood long enough in the cold to feel my presence, even if from a third-person perspective. I cooed to the horses about their food and they purred back in thanks. Honestly, this life here is gorgeous beyond measure. This sense of displacement is a struggle, but is also a gift…even if I haven’t quite made sense of it. And so I stood in the cold and let its nothingness soak into me, allowing the landscape to reclaim me, even in some small way.

I came inside and watched the crystals of snow fall off my clothes as the the dogs, Henry and Ella, looked at me with exasperated looks of “What took you so long?!” Funny dogs. The floor of my cabin is insanely cold. For a moment I just wanted “out” of all of this. I’m fine with simplicity, but please…let it have warmth and heated floors! In my struggle to become present with my current reality, the old Folgers commercials entered my head. Ha! yeah…that’s what I want. That feeling of “home” and love and the fresh aroma of waking up. With a little bit of sarcasm and some genuine hope for that feeling, that’s what I did: I made a pot of Folgers and here I sit drinking it. Happily, I might add. The coffee snob in me is thoroughly enjoying the associations I have conjured deep in the memories of my psyche.

I even went so far as to pull up a couple of the old commercials on YouTube. I was looking for a particular one (which I never found…a shared father/daughter moment), but instead came across this one. Should I laugh that it brought tears to me eyes?!

Yeah…and so needless to say, this shitty cup of joe is tasting strangely perfect. I’m drinking it out of a cup that my niece and nephew gave me many years ago. They found it in someone’s garbage in their neighborhood after a big rummage sale and, holding it in their small and open palms, gave it to me with a goofy glee in their eyes. It’s cracked and probably going to break one of these days soon, but I love it nonetheless. A discarded cup, resurrected by an act of such simple love. As I write, I’m just noticing now that, if I turn the cup, it says “God Bless our Home.” Yes. Now I love it even more. Thanks Folgers for creating this moment! Never-mind that this stuff tastes like poor-man’s coffee to me. Sometimes there is goodness even in the low-spaces. Anyway, those commercials are filled with everything a person could dream of. Laugh if you want, but there is some semblance of truth in this. I don’t tend towards sarcasm, but yes…I am chuckling at myself. It’s all good…because, this morning, Folgers helped make it so. (for real, cheers.)

A dear friend and fellow missionary, Joe Booker, shared this bible verse with me upon my return. Admittedly, I didn’t read it until now. But now is perfect and so, with you, I want to share from Ecclesiastes 3…

A Time for Everything
1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

In all honesty, I love this life.
Thank you, Abba. I trust you.
You know what You’re doing, even when I don’t.

as the cat crows.

This morning I woke not with the crow of the rooster, but from the loud meow of my old cat hollering down from the ladder of the loft. Feed me, love me, be with me! In the village, I got used to the morning ritual of a different set of sounds: roosters crowing, cows bellowing, the soft voices of children being sent to fetch water and beginning a long day of chores.

I woke up this morning at about 6am. The meaning of time has been temporarily erased. Honestly, I’d like it to stay this way as long as possible. Preferring to give myself over to my own internal rhythms, I’m certain I would accomplish much more with a lot less stress. I’ve slept for the better part of 24 hours since returning home. I feel rested although still disoriented from what feels like a very, very long night…lasting several days ever since getting in the taxi with Moses and his two young boys, Joshua and Joel as they accompanied me to the Entebbe 4 long days ago. There were a flurry of goodbyes and hugs once we got to the airport. It all happened too quickly. Time collapsed and then stretched itself into some strange travel warp made even stranger by extreme fatigue and delayed flights. But now the day is sifting itself out of the darkness. Still no sun in this northern landscape, but the quality of sliver-blue holds its own sort of beauty. It is a color made purely of snow and tree trunks. With no visible sun, winter creates its own version of color. Dark pine, naked oaks, white papery birch…yes, I do remember now why I love this place, even in the depth of winter. It holds a certain kind of quietness that cannot be found anywhere else. I burrow deeply into this strange environment, insulating myself as thoroughly as possible while I make the internal adjustments needed to somehow become alive and present in this otherworld, so different from the one I just left behind in the hot, life-filled humidity of Eastern Africa.

I feel as tho I could go days and days without interacting with the outside world. I want time to process and pray and simply get back to work. I want to paint. I have a lot of work to do and find myself wanting to move back into my world of current responsibilities as simply as possible. I want to conserve as much energy as I can so that I might finally celebrate completion of past obligations. On the other side of all those long awaited commitments is a vast and terrifying freedom that is calling my name. In all reality, the cold crispness of winter is a perfect fit for what needs to be accomplished. This is not the time to give into distraction. There is a stark quality to my exterior world right now and, if I’m wise, I’ll use it to my advantage. The lushness of Africa awaits. For now, I have a journey of preparation ahead of me and, since it can’t be avoided, I might was well find the sweet spots of enjoyment. Delicious coffee, being in the presence of my horses, dog snuggles, good music, time spent in the studio, softly falling snow…this time of quiet can be useful if I allow it to be.

Without a doubt, my life in Africa awaits. God has already gifted me with a clear vision of where I’m headed and my trust in that is implicit.  Absolute, complete, total, wholehearted. Faith is a powerful thing. It has, it is, and it will carry us far.

Yes, I cried yesterday with sadness and pain over my return. But I’m not going to allow myself to remain in that dark place longer than what was useful. I have love and aliveness filling my life both here in Northern Minnesota and in Eastern Africa. I choose not to take these things for granted.

The snow has started falling and my horses, Dakota and Colorado, weave their large, magic-like dark bodies through the trees. They are snow-covered, like their landscape…yet their eyes shine with intensity and invitation. They are silently calling me to them. I feel myself respond and it seems that God uses the same technique. God is in those horses, in this snow, and in all the opposites I’m carrying within me from Africa, too.

I let myself become a basket, a skeleton of vines being woven into a better story.

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The work of a basket weaver in the mountains of rural eastern Uganda. The view from his home was breath taking. I came upon him while hiking the mountains from a visit with a widow I’m working with. The view from this man’s chair under the tree outside his simple home is forever embedded into my soul. So is his smile and welcoming warmth. Dear Abba, thank you.

Dear Abba, thank you for the view. Thank you for the past 24 hours of deep sleep, for your undeniable presence in both my dreams and waking thoughts. Thank you for the healing that comes so easily when I allow for it. Thank you even for the starkness of this re-entry. I feel clear and calm, ready to move forward with You from this space. I feel Your freedom, even in the details of now.

 

Black and White and the Goodness Found In Between.

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God keeps reminding me, over and over and over again, to look to Him and trust. And I do, over and over and over again. It makes all the difference in the world. Throughout every single day, through Him, there is never (not ever) the absence of hope.

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” ~Romans 8:28

~

Oh Abba, You are the steadiness of my heart.
Lead me on.
I know you will. You are. You have been all along.

5 months.

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Super-saturating the sky above my studio is always an option, especially when my heart feels saturated too.

It’s been 5 months.

I never imagined myself being the sort of person that kept track of these sorts of things. Then again, I never imagined I would be riding shotgun with such significant loss.

Not too long after Carl’s passing, a woman named Stacy reached out to me. She was about my age and also recently widowed. She was 5 months into her grief and, at the time, I remember pondering what a great mystery that distance felt like to me.

I assumed that Stacy was a friend of Carl’s since, after his death, I was getting a lot of messages from his friends. They shared condolences and stories and, quite honestly, those connections helped (and continue to help) in about a million ways. However, in a sea of new names and faces, my connection with Stacy stood out for some reason. Not only because she was in the middle of a brutal loss all too similar to mine, but…I don’t know. We simply found it easy to lean on each other.

It wasn’t until finally meeting Stacy in person that I realized she didn’t even know Carl. With stupefied wonder, we thanked Facebook’s strange algorithms for our chance meeting.  The men we had planned to marry had died just 3 months apart and were now buried in the same tiny cemetery tucked far-far-away in the woods, a peaceful place that only locals seem to know how to find. How unlikely. How strange. This new friendship, how perfectly God-sent.

My friendship with Stacy has taken on a life and goodness of its own. I am still in awe of the way the right people have come into my life at just the right time. Stacy…and others, too. Along the way, five months turned into some sort of mental bench-marker. Without rhyme or reason, it lodged itself into my head and there it stuck. I wasn’t consciously waiting for it, but I did know that one day it would just happen. And that’s exactly what happened. I woke up (late)…and half way into my first cup of coffee, I realized it was here.


I started writing the post above on April 8th. I wish I could have written more, but God said: “go to bed.” And, from there, it seems He is doing the rest of the work in my heart, at least until it comes time to write again. Five months didn’t come with ease and very little grace. And yet…there was grace. And a renewed wave of grief, complete with snot and tears and deep gratitude and more tears. There is so much depth and intricacy to all of this, and yet there are times when the human mind simply cannot construct the complexities in any manageable version of expression.

And so here I am. Showing up with undeveloped thoughts and a life that’s still sifting through.

What I will say is this: God is good. Even in the worst of it all, He has given me everything I need, every step of the way. I publish this here, now, only to remind myself that I am merely a work in progress. I am willing, dear God. To do this work, I am willing.