3rd year. cups, caves, ash and making space.

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Yesterday was the third anniversary of Carl’s passing. I’m afraid that if I start writing that I might not be able to stop. I don’t know where to begin. There are too many things in these past many months that have been left unsaid. Life here in Uganda is always happening. It’s often messy and includes a complex weaving of stories that are not always mine to tell, at least not publically. Writing takes time. Untangling my thoughts from the complex intertwining of miracles and disappointments often takes more than I have to give. Which is unfortunate. Because God has been woven into every single detail.

It’s nearly noon. I’ve been sitting at my desk for nearly two hours. I’m reading about different strains of amaranth, pollination and seed saving.  I’m reading about carrots and nutrient density in varied colors. I switch gears in search of an organic solution for the blight that is attacking our tomatoes and am nearly undone with excitement when, in the process, I also find a hearty handful of ideas of how we might get rid of the pests that are eating our cabbage and kale as well.

This morning, I went out to the garden in the light of the rising sun and again, later, to share my discoveries with Simon, our Joy Collective employee whom I work alongside in the garden. I was exhausted. Late to find sleep and early to rise. This place requires all of me. My fatigued state of mind made things seem more cluttered than usual. It made things shift shapes to look worse than they actually are. My walk in the garden felt discouraging. Blight, leaf eating pests and even rats stealing our vining plants in the night. The devil snickers at my tiredness and his success in causing me to notice all the threats from every angle. I always thought that northern Minnesota gardening was one of the most difficult places to grow food. Turns out I was wrong. I was so naïve. Despite being well traveled, my hands had not spent much time in dirt other than my own. Our rich glacial soils and cold winters that eradicate so much of what we struggle to keep at bay here in Uganda was a blessing that I never fully understood while racing those all-too-short growing seasons. This tropical environment gives forth a never-ending supply of challenges. The persistent heat of the tropics is just as unforgiving as any amount of snow and ice that my former environment had to offer. This place is designed to devour itself.

Whatever the case, my exhaustion was causing me to see things in ways that aren’t really true. The pest issue isn’t that bad and, honestly, most of the vining plants can still be replanted, even if for the third time. As for the blight, that story remains to play itself out, but I actually have more tomato seeds than I know what to do with and, with every challenge that arises, a massive amount of learning happens right along with it.

As for the wave of discouragement that had just washed over me, what I had on my hands was not a case of unredeemable failure, rather the strange and unpredictable run-off of grief, a backfill of emotion I had either experienced or escaped in the day before. Perspective is shifty.

I decided to go back to the house with the intention of allowing myself some rest. Since moving to Uganda, I find the benefits of rest to be both obvious and profound. I told Simon that I would return to the garden later with more encouragement. This place isn’t just teaching me about pest management in the garden, but also how to tend to what rises up within me, too. There is more than one way that this place will devour you, if you let it. My morning rest ended up taking the form of pouring over books and then getting too excited to sit still once I found myself fully footing down a rabbit trail of solutions.

At the moment, I sip tea from a fragile, but beautiful cup that I purchased yesterday. As I lift it to my lips to take a sip, it smells of smoke, the scent of a wood-fired kiln. I linger, enjoying the way the process of its creation is somehow infused into its very being. I doubt the cup will last long. It also smells of clay, a consequence of being fired at low temperatures. I don’t care. I’ll enjoy it thoroughly as long as it lasts with hopes that it holds its earthy smell no matter how many times it’s washed. The cup was a gift to myself. Something like a birthday gift, but different. The whole day was somehow a small act of quiet celebration. Three years now, Carl has been in Heaven. Three years since the day that, standing at the table in the swirling motion of Carl’s family’s kitchen, I gave my life to God. Carl and I both died that day. And then birthed into something entirely new. It has been the hardest three years of my life. But yesterday was less about my sadness than I expected. It was, instead, a tenderhearted day of quiet celebration. It was a day of beauty and friendship and fellowship. In deep ways, my day filled with gorgeous hearted people in moment after moment that I never even planned for. I made it through the day that I had so thoroughly dreaded.

As if yesterday could somehow be a birthday, I realize that this year ahead will be filled with something softer. The dark cave of grief that I’ve made my home out of for so long is asking to be tended to. God Himself has been whispering ever so gently into my very being. He tells me to carve out space and with that thought I notice the warmth of a small fire where it is darkest. It glows golden. I tend to my surroundings in a peaceful and loving way. Not hurried. Even my heart feels soft. Love fills the space, transformed. I open up my arms to allow in the prayers of those in pain. Somehow there is no end to how much can be gathered in. This soft, glowing cave, somewhere in the mountains of my heart, becomes a healing space not just for me, but for all who are drawn there.

I go back to the garden. With bare hands, I spread ash around the leafy plants, a circle of protection. The ash feels like death, but added to the garden it creates life. I enter into a new time and space, one which God has had waiting for me all along. Even this, right now. I give myself to it fully.

Seed Commitment.

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I’ve been slowly bringing seeds to Africa for just over a year now. I’ve been stock-piling, preparing, and mostly looking toward the great potential that awaits us. They are incredible seeds that can’t be found here, at least not easily. They are mostly heirlooms, including some unusual varieties. I brought with me seeds from all over the world: Guatemala, India, Thailand, France, Italy, Mexico, America and beyond. For the most part, they are seeds that will hopefully survive and thrive in a tropical environment, but some of our plantings will be purely experimental. Some seeds were purchased from specialty seed companies in the United States. Others were gifted to me by farmers, friends and family. I have several goals with these seeds, the most important being to MULTIPLY that which we’ve started with. My old farmer friend, Wild Bill, once told me, “If you don’t multiply, eventually you’ll die.”

Wild Bill comes from a time and place when, in order for your family to survive, you had to know how to raise your own food. If the cows or chickens or goats got eaten up or died before they had calves or chicks, well…eventually you were left with a whole lot of nothing. The same was true for the vegetable seeds. Neglect to save seeds and you’d be empty handed when it came time to plant the next season. These days, especially in the developed world, we don’t need to multiply anything except hopefully the numbers in our bank accounts. Or so we think.

In some ways, Africa is as old as time itself. Definitely older and, in a lot of ways, less sophisticated than even Wild Bill’s earlier twentieth century American experiences. In rural (and even urban) Uganda, the old ways of doing things still hold true when it comes to surviving in an economy that’s been left shattered by so much corruption, war and disease. Mix these ingredients with over-population and a serious lack of resources, education and social services and, in a very real way, you’ve got an empty-handed mess on your hands.

And so, these seeds aren’t just seeds. They are the potential for life, health, and income. They are food for a lot of people I know and love. Some of whom are dangerously close to a precipice of, literally, starving to death. These seeds aren’t hybrid or GMO. Their ability to multiply isn’t reliant on whether or not a person has the money or ability to buy more from a company whose greed has found a way to control one of the earth’s most precious gifts. In a sea of monocrops, the seeds I’ve carried with me to Africa hold a millennium of diversity.

These seeds play a role in the bigger picture of our survival as a planet, but even more specific to my role in this new journey is that they are the tiny pod-shaped coins that will hopefully make a difference in the lives of people whose names I know and whose children I love. To me, this is personal.

A little over a week ago, we planted our first seeds. It was a deep act of faith. There have been a lot of uncertainties in so many aspects of this work and especially in building a new life here in Uganda. The potential impermanence of it all has, at times, been staggering. One day I realized that God was giving me the opportunity to decide for myself what I want. Did I want to stay and invest myself in this particular property and at this time? He told me that, if I wanted to remain, I had to show Him by planting those precious seeds. Admittedly, I had been holding off. I was afraid that if I planted the seeds, something might go wrong and I wouldn’t see them grow into maturity. If that happened, all that seed collecting, dreaming and planning would somehow become a huge loss. There were a lot of reasons to hold off on planting. And yet, in God’s straightforward invitation to decide for myself, I knew with my whole being that my future was being decided by this one small act of faith. Of course, God knew all along what I would choose. But for the first time since Carl died, I felt myself making a decision from my own personal preference. It was a powerful moment. The sky became brighter when I realized from this new vantage point that what I wanted and what God was doing, were one in the same thing. A seamless, brilliant match. When I surrendered my life to God, I did so fully, completely. And now, here I was standing at the edge of a future in which God was giving me my freedom in the deepest possible ways.

I planted those seeds. And when I did so, I planted my faith firmly in a future that God Himself planned for me before I was even born. Perhaps a million times over, grief will be turned into life. May life be multiplied. May despair be continuously turned into joy. The day I made the decision to plant those seeds is the day that God gave me a freedom like I have never before known. It’s funny how the decision to root myself to this place is exactly the thing that has given me wings.

Thank you, Abba, for letting me find my way by first setting me free. You know my heart. Since the beginning of time…you’ve known. You’ve always, always known.

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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Not alone. 

You 
are 
not  
alone. 

These are the four words I want to speak into Jane’s heart in every language possible. This past week, Jane, one of the widows who I work closely with in eastern Uganda, got deathly sick with complications from asthma made worse by severe pneumonia. We got word that she was in the Bududa hospital and went there immediately to check on her. I’m so grateful for Kevin’s presence, as he has been taking care of everything while I’ve been away. When he got to the hospital he found her “bad off” and immediately transported her to a much better hospital in Mbale. She was horribly sick and starving (there is no food or basic necessities provided in the hospital and so if there is no one to bring you the things you need, then you are left wanting). My heart breaks a million times over. 

Kevin cooked for her and has made sure she’s had all the medical care and treatment she’s needed. Another one of our fellow Joy Collective widows has given up her time and energy to stay by her bedside, tirelessly taking care of her, bathing her, being there for her. This is, after all, what family does for one another. And family is what we have become. 

Jane is one of our most gifted gardeners and, even after the tragic loss of her 23 year old son just a few months ago, she has continued to put her whole heart into our work together. She has hung onto an invisible thread of hope with a grace and beauty that I have never before witnessed. Even after her first gardens were plucked dry by the visitors of her son’s funeral, she replanted and, despite the hot breath of death, she never gave up. Health was restored to her gardens in miraculous ways, even thru the broken heart of loss. Her son was her everything. He was kind and loving and took good care of her. The struggle since his passing has been very real. Already widowed, she then lost not only her son, but her most reliable help mate. The second adult child to leave her too soon. She cares for more grandchildren than I’ve ever quite been able to count. She surprises me over and over again in her fastidious and faithful approach to all she does. She is immensely humble, loving and has a spark that even the devil can’t snuff out, even tho he has tried and come close. 

Getting to know her has caused me to love her in ways that words will never describe. I love her like I love Carl’s mom, my mom and my own grandmother. And yet, somehow, she is like a sister to me, too. 

The thing that strikes me the deepest these past few days is the realization that this illness could have easily taken her life by now. If Kevin wouldn’t have been able to show up and help her get the care she needed, she might have simply died. But she hasn’t. And we won’t let her slip out of this world unnoticed. Because we love her. And because the support we receive allows us to be there for her when she needs it most. 

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And, while I don’t particularily want my personal blog to become a space for fundraising, quite frankly, we need you more than ever. If you’ve been considering becoming part of our Joy Collective family by becoming a monthly sponsor of our Widow’s Program, there isn’t a better time to do it. For $100 a month, your reoccurring donation can change the lives of 12 widows and their families in some very serious ways. We work closely with them to educate and stand alongside them for lasting and much needed change. 

Help us to stand alongside Jane and other women like her to say YOU ARE NOT ALONE in ways that mean something even in the darkest hours. 

To become a Widow’s Program sponsor, click the $100 option (or more) here

The process is quick and easy. The output of love and support is more appreciated than you might ever know. Learn more about The Joy Collective here

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A boy and his horse.

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Last weekend we moved the horses to their new home. It’s one of the biggest decisions I’ve ever made and, quite honestly, I expected it to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And yet…every step of the way, an extraordinary sense of God’s love has been present. Colorado and Dakota have made themselves easily at home with Taevon, a 9 year old boy who is the reason I feel good about all that is to come. I’ve never seen the horses love anybody as easily as they love that little boy. They loved Carl, too. They melted into his arms the moment they met him. But this boy, Taevon…he brings out their gentleness and curiosity in a way that I’ve never before seen. It’s strange and downright breathtaking to watch. His mom and dad and extended family are pretty fantastic too. My heart still lives inside of these horses and I will miss them more than anything or anyone else on this side of the planet. In a way, I get to pretend that they’re still mine. But…this heart of mine knows…they’ve found happiness. They are ready for this next stage in their lives. And, truth be told, maybe I am too. They changed me forever. They healed me and are the reason I stayed around long enough to reconnect and fall in love with Carl. They’ve breathed life into me since the moment I met them. After Carl’s passing, they were the only thing that got me out of bed each day. I grew close to them in a way that I’ve never experienced with other animals. Colorado especially. I’m certain that he is the most special horse I will ever know. They will always, always be a part of me. I don’t know what it is about this little boy…but I trust his love for these horses with everything in me.

God knew that Africa was going to swallow me whole. But He also knew how much I love these horses. With an uncertain and anxious heart, I pleaded, “God, please protect my heart, especially when it comes to my animals.” I begged Him not to break me. I knew I couldn’t handle the loss of anything more.

And so God sent Taevon and his family into my life. Thank you Drew and Samantha. I’ve never felt better about anything. I know this isn’t a goodbye…but rather a hello. May God bless your new life with Colorado and Dakota. May they teach you more than you ever thought possible. May they change your lives as much as they changed mine.  ❤

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” ~1 Corinthians 13:13

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{originally posted on Facebook Dec 3, 2016}

Things found.


God works in mysterious ways. Once upon a time, perhaps 10 years ago, I left my beloved garden in the country and moved to the middle of the city. I was just finishing a master’s degree while simultaneously starting up an art business. I was obsessive and driven in my hard work, but there was a quiet side of myself that it seems was whispering prayers into a future I could have never planned for. In a little more than a month, I will finally be living in Uganda where I’ll be building, growing and living amidst model gardens. A garden that will provide my little family and our community with a whole lot of nourishment, education and encouragement. All because I was forced to walk in the footsteps of a widow…I’ve been delivered to so much more. And a quiet dream that I had all but given up on is being fulfilled in more meaningful ways than I could have ever anticipated. I love you, Abba. Thank you for taking care of me the way you do.

What has God been teaching you most?

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A dear friend sent me a message asking this question…

What has God been teaching you most?

Our friendship has never been shallow and I like that about her. It’s been two weeks and I’ve yet to respond because I can’t seem to come to any easy answer. I hope she understands the gift in this delay. At least…there has been a gift in it for me. I don’t mean to be selfish in holding back in the timing of my response, but you see…this question keeps rolling around in my mind and heart. As if tasting something for the first time. Something that holds complexity and richness. Something that tastes interesting and leaves you wanting more so that you might figure out what its made of. You roll its flavors over the surface of your tongue trying to taste and make sense of more of it more fully.

In my imagination, I am sitting on the mountain’s edge, at the home of one of the widows I work with, a slope of land covered in growing things. Look to the photo above. What you can’t see is that behind me and a bit to the left is the grave of Aidah’s husband. He died in a vehicle accident. Aidah and I are the same age. We lost both of our beloveds in a similar way and have been widowed for about the same length of time. In my imagination Aidah is sitting next to me. Both of us quietly considering the bigger picture, listening for what God has to say.

I like imagining Aidah sitting next to me because it’s tiring to always feel so alone. But surely God wants me to write something more uplifting than this? I wear weakness like skin and am almost always hurting. I imagine that Aidah is made of something stronger than me. Perhaps she thinks the opposite. I keep remembering the tiny tomato seedlings she had growing in a row along side a patch of newly sprouted cabbage plants awaiting the rains so that they could be transplanted. The tomatoes were spaced as evenly as my steps of which I was only a quarter of an inch from tromping them all until they were pointed out to me. I was horrified by how oblivious I had been of their presence. To me, tomato plants hold a special kind of promise. I’m not sure why.  Perhaps it is because I know that, when eaten, they fortify our blood and make us stronger. Perhaps it is because I’ve seen their potential for plentitude. On the side of that mountain, their small and sturdy leaves were made of a green that I found admirable. Rigorous and certain. But their stems, although healthy, were also immensely fragile. And isn’t that true of all of us?

Luckily, those little tomato plants survived my heavy footed, oblivious steps and I became at least a little more observant because of it. Aidah continued to show me her hard work and I began to see a pattern of immense planning and foresight in her endeavors. I saw possibility and faith in her newly dug garden plots. Things weren’t just growing, they were expanding upwards and outwards also. Her sloping plot of land was being turned into something much, much more than the three sack gardens we had started her out with in the months before.

Although I wish that I could be seated next to Aidah right now, I am instead sitting in solitude in my sister’s kitchen. An early morning thunderstorm has now turned into our first blizzard of the season. These days, one of the things I’m learning is patience in God’s timing…but also His patience in me.

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Photo credit: Safi Kitsao

This morning my friend, Safi, sent me a photo of an avocado tree that he planted earlier today. I met Safi last month, when both of us attended a PDC course in Kenya. Safi amazes me. He’s seventeen years old with a smile made of pure gold and resiliency. His brightness of mind and spirit is magnetic and, although often quiet, he is simply impossible to ignore. It doesn’t feel fair or polite to talk about another person’s burdens, but I will say that I like the way he planted this tree. I imagine he added compost at the roots, just like we learned to do in our permaculture course. I like the way he added mulch on top and even left a small depression of soil to better soak up water. The leaves are vibrant and strong. Even so, they need protection. Branches and brush. To me, this photo reads like a prayer.

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness…because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” ~Romans 8:26-27

God has been teaching me most about surrender and faith, humility, trust and patience. More than anything, God has been teaching me about the protection found in Him and that, when it comes down to it, He will use even this, this and, yes, even this. He’s been teaching me that when He answers one prayer, He often answers many. We are a complex web of cries that beg for some sign of hope and comfort and, as I stand within that web, I never imagined the need for so much protection. I’ve stepped somewhere deep. The ground is fertile with God’s love and the devil knows it. I feel the tension, even as I write these words. But God can’t and won’t be compromised. I lean into that promise knowing with my whole being that things are growing in the right direction. Upwards, towards Him and Him alone.