Retreat.

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“Silence of the heart is necessary so you can hear God everywhere–in the closing of a door, in the person who needs you, in the birds that sing, in the flowers, in the animals.” ~Mother Teresa

I’m on retreat. A working retreat with the intention of accomplishing the impossible and drawing close to God in the process. I’ve temporarily planted myself somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Stateside. Much too far from Africa and a bit too close to the Dakota prairies for my liking (too close because that is the place that took Carl’s life). In this landscape where the sky feels so big, at the edge of this endless expanse, the silence found here is what I need more than anything. Distractions and the immense disparities in culture have, at times, made my time away from Uganda nearly unbearable. I came here (to this cabin) because I couldn’t find my footing. I was holding a tension in my body as if trying to hold my skin and all its contents in place. I had been carrying myself thru this strange time, as tho none of this belongs to me. And, in truth, it no longer does. Not really. The psychological transformation took place with exquisite subtlety. It happened quickly, easily. In the laughter and naturalness of raising two girls, being in constant companionship, and being so deeply immersed in the intense situations of Ugandan life, I changed. Willingly and wanting to. I gave myself to it completely.

I am only a few days into my retreat time. I’m sure it sounds quite luxurious to be “on retreat,” but the truth is that I’m a seasoned soldier in the art of solitude. Art itself is an extreme discipline. Especially if it’s also been your livelihood for most of your adult life. I’ve gotten good at separating myself from the noisy world so that I might accomplish the often huge amount of tasks at hand. I enjoyed it at first. There are great freedoms in creating your own schedule. But eventually I started to notice that the work never ended, even when I wasn’t working. Seclusion eventually eroded my sense of wellness. After Carl died, I think it’s safe to say that the isolation required of my art making tore my already worn nerves to shreds. Anxiety, mixed with the deep depression of loss, was a mean dog that I couldn’t seem to shake.

In Uganda, my life is filled with the work and presence of being with others. It’s woven into my days effortlessly, intimately, and with easy familiarity. My life there allows me moments to go into the gardens to sit by myself, in the company of only God, to look at the mountains and shifting sky. In many ways, it’s the best of both worlds: offering both solitude and companionship. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not perfect. The days can be exhausting. It’s often so hot that it is hard to think. There are times that I’m left at the perimeter of things, unable to talk or listen freely because of language barriers, sometimes even at my own dinner table. But even these struggles are a welcome relief from the incessant chewing of my own inward turned thoughts with too much time spent alone.

Here in the States, there have been many times when my work has caused these extreme and long-winded bouts of solitude to feel like punishment. And there are other days when I need that solitude more than anything. After all, half a life-time’s work done mostly in seclusion, will change a person. I’ve always been very comfortable spending time alone. But the circumstances of life have created a need for alterations. I’m grateful for my life in Uganda. It’s a fabric that, although complex, fits me well. Coming home has been a lot like putting on old clothes that I no longer know how to wear well. I make due, but it’s awkward and, strangely, a lot of goodness is coming out of it.

With each walk I take with the dogs, the wind hollows me out a little bit more and, in returning to the cabin, I walk past my easel and see God in what is revealing itself on the canvas. In seeing this I realize that, even as the threads of longing pull at me continuously towards my truer home, it is a choice to enjoy this time.

A flock of 20 or 30 redwing blackbirds are picked up in a shift of wind and, from this lakeside perch, I realize that I am, indeed, happy.

I didn’t think things thru before renting this cabin. It’s proximity to the North Dakota plains has both startled and surprised me. Carl’s presence feels as true as the sun and wind. It’s evoked a tender pain and yet also another level of healing that I wasn’t seeking or even expecting. Maybe even…a level of healing that I might have been avoiding. But something is happening here. I’ve even started to let music, a language shared between Carl and me, come alive again in ways that I have not been able to before now. Just a little at a time, like these strong winds, is all I can handle. But, as a good friend of Carl’s recently reminded me, “life isn’t a race.” This can take as long as it needs to.

What I know in my heart is that, this time on retreat has been precious and powerful. It’s been gentle and love-filled. In my solitude, God has saturated every moment. From the vantage point of this place I’m able to look back over the past month and see the ways in which returning Stateside made all the raw places of my soul to come jumbling to the surface. It came too loudly and all at once. I needed reprieve. And so…here I am. Met by the sky and the restful comforts of this quiet cabin where God himself is tending to me. He draws me out from the places where I was hiding from so much pain and, in the doing, I see that He is preparing me to walk places I could have never before imagined.

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Saturated.

At 3am I get out of bed and begin writing. One dog is snoring. There is a cup of strong black coffee to my left. After a long flight and a mid-night arrival home just yesterday, I feel rested. Very rested. I don’t feel jet-lagged in the usual sense, but apparently my heart and body still think I’m in Africa. I’m ok with that. I’m going to continue pretending that is so as long as possible. I accomplished a vast amount in the past month and I want to continue bringing out the goodness I’m finding in those accomplishments. It feels like a flower, unfurling. I don’t want to stunt this great revealing of what is to come. I attempt to get out of my own way and let the energy of this project and life-building take on its own rhythms. I’ve begun to see the world in terms of growing things. In vivid detail, we too are among this ongoing, miraculous cultivation of being. Being. Yes, I like that term. It includes a lot.

At 4am I chef up a delicious stir-fry. Purple cabbage, broccoli, mushrooms, spring onions and dark greens. I’m obsessing over an idea that came to me yesterday: a beautiful way of treating our guests that might also transfer over into all we do locally, too. I’m excited about the way things are going, in directions that I would have never previously imagined or created on my own. I feel this story being orchestrated by God. I like it that way. He’s a much more talented artist and author than me. I like the way His mind thinks. I like the way His heart feels. I like the way His eyes see things. I also like the way He surprises me. He saturates me in colors and visions that are too beautiful to contain. It’s the overabundance of  sight that forces me to live it out loud. Sometimes putting things into motion before I fully understand where it’s all leading. He’s never led me astray. There is a certain knowing and I give myself to it completely.

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The bougainvillea tree bursts with color in The Joy Collective’s gardens. Home Sweet Home. Africa, I love you. 

Honestly, I don’t know how to do this.

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Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always.
~Psalm 105:1-4

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It’s a beautiful drive to the place where Carl rests. Curving roads lined in a million shades of green. It’s a landscape of poplar and pine trees, soft-needled tamaracks and trails that wind deep into forests that go for a long, long time. I drove past low-land swamps and deep, deep lakes. Past the place I used to live, the house I built with my very own hands. The house with the bright red roof, it’s back turned to the world, overlooking a wilder beauty. The place where I first met Carl when a friend called to ask if he could lend a hand with the construction. Later, Carl returned many times to sit on the porch, along with friends. We made music, lots of music. But it wouldn’t be until another 15 years later that life would do enough work on both of us to cause us to fall into a love that, before then, I didn’t even have the capacity to experience. It’s possible that our love was never simply our love. Perhaps it was God’s love, all along. A love from God, belonging to God.

Yesterday, as I drove to the cemetery, the words of Psalm 105 were spoken over the radio. I knew those words were meant as a gift to me. To remember. Things have gotten hard again. After a brief reprieve, the wave of grief has raised itself over me, long and hard. But it’s time now to begin shifting into a brighter place…

Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced ~Psalm 105:5

For a moment tho, I need to just sit here. To gather my energy, to allow my earthly self to disintegrate in the salty pain of all these tears. Sitting in that place where even the dogs gave themselves to grief. They know, as I do, this is no easy road.

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I lost much to gain much. I lost Carl to gain God. And here I stand, at my beloved’s resting place. The place where I first met Jesus. The place that I also tend to avoid for fear of coming unravelled all over again. But then I finally get there and what I instead find is a most profound peace.

I’m moving to Africa in just over a month and it is so difficult to imagine being so far away from this beautiful place that holds the body of the man I love.

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.

 

The Heart of Home.

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Lillian, Sharon and Aullelia.

My tears froze before ever hitting the ground as I stepped off the stairs descending from our little small town plane and onto the ice-encrusted tarmac of the Bemidji airport this morning. At 3am we flew over the stiffly frozen tundra of northern Minnesota. Last leg of a long journey and everything felt painfully barren. Lifeless. Cold. In that moment of avian first sight, the stark contrast from the colorful equatorial landscape I left behind was almost too much to bear. The temps are well below zero, a different world than I traveled away from 5 weeks ago when I left for Uganda. The disharmony in weather feels impossible. So does the discomfort of my heart. It’s fibers are stretched too far. I struggle to find the love I once held for this place. Everything here reminds me of Carl, a cruel imitation of a life that no longer exists. I wasn’t expecting that. I never seem to be prepared for the grief that rises so unexpectedly to the surface. I don’t plan for these things because, quite honestly, at this stage I prefer to avoid the anguish of grief altogether. Ok, so it happens. In retrospect, I always remember that I’m better off if I just allow myself to flow through it.

Flying over the inky, frigid landscape of home made me realize that perhaps one reason I’ve so thoroughly fallen in love with Africa is because it offers me a new beginning in all it’s differences. When I’m in Africa, everything is new. I often think of Carl, even while I’m there, but usually those thoughts are about how much he would enjoy it. I am comforted because, in those moments, I can feel him smiling down on me, happy to see me so happy. But coming home? That’s a different matter entirely. For the first time in my life, as I walked from the the door to the baggage claim, I heard my lips utter the words: I hate this place.

As I write this, the first light of dawn is just barely starting to sift itself out of the darkness. Everything is taking on a silvery blue quality…the trees, the snow, the sky. The animals were beyond crazy with happiness over my homecoming. I was flooded with kisses and whimpers and snuggles. I whimpered and kissed and snuggled with happiness right back. The house was cozy warm and so beautifully clean and cared for. I took a hot shower and am cleaner than I’ve been since I left 5 weeks ago. I called a friend in Africa because it is still only mid-afternoon there. I made a cup of instant (African) coffee, just like I would if I were still there.

And bit-by-bit…the gratitude starts filling up the sharp, cold edges of things. I feel love even in the richly patterned red rug under my feet.

I’ve been home for approximately 4 hours. After many, many years of looking, I’ve finally found my home and, mostly, it is not here. It’s in a place filled with banana trees, mountains, red soil, malaria and a million stars. But there is that other part of home…the one that is and will always be Minnesota. In this northern landscape I remember the Jessie who loves winter. That version of myself feels like a different lifetime ago, but I know she still exists somewhere inside of me and, for that, I am grateful because she’s the one who is going to get me through this time of in-between. That resilient side of myself…the one that got me to Africa in the first place. Yeah…she’s the one I will need to call on…over and over and over again. My life got filled even fuller with even more love and purpose than I thought possible. It’s not even about me anymore. My heart beats a different rhythm now…but I’m sure I can find that rhythm even here among stiffly frozen trees. Inside the depth of winter is always the urgency towards renewed life.

Dear Abba, thank you for the map you’ve made for me. I’m happy with where we’re going. XO