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.

 

Joseph.

A white bird glides just above the surface of water so still that it reflects the sky. It’s hawk-like, but I can’t identify the species. Everything feels unfamiliar and strange to me. It’s my first full day back from the hot tropical coast of Kenya. I’m disoriented by the nakedness of the trees, stripped of their colorful leaves while I was away. A sharp reminder that I’ve returned to this northern Minnesota landscape with uncomfortable timing. In six days it will be Carl’s death date of two years. It happened just yesterday and a thousand years ago. In some ways if feels like it hasn’t happened at all…that I’m living some strange premonition that I just can’t seem to extricate myself from.

My last night in Kenya, I sat cross-legged on one of the couches in the common room of the eco-lodge where I was attending a PDC course. I was so hungry for a moment of peace and quiet. The rave/reggae/techno funk hadn’t stopped playing for two weeks straight and I was exhausted from the constant noise surrounding me. In an attempt to find my center, I would have liked to stayed planted in bed under the mosquito net of my grass thatched room, but I needed some dinner after not eating most of the day. And I needed a cup of tea. My journal sat on the coffee table in front of me with high hopes of being written in. It was what I wanted most from the day. Not a very lofty goal, but as night laid her darkness over the baobab and banana trees I saw my opportunity to make sense of the last two weeks in the form of journaling slip from reach.

My phone buzzed with a message and it was James. I read the words fast. Then read them again. I felt a wave of sickness well up inside of me.

Nandala Jane’s elder son is dead.

I hate writing this. And yet I need to write something. I hate the feeling of tears. I’m tired from two years of crying. I no longer know where to begin. I used to love writing braided essays, weaving the threads of thoughts and experience into something tidily poetic and sensical. These days, I feel as tho I more often just sit in a twisted up mess with words in my head instead of on paper.

Where does one experience end and another begin? Lunyolo, a young widow and member of The Joy Collective whose baby had just herself gotten out of the clutch of sickness, was now calling to tell us about a loss that knocked the wind from our lungs. Our sweet Mama Jane, one of the twelve widows we work closely with in the mountains of eastern Uganda, her son’s life snuffed out at the age of twenty-three. The call got cut off before Lunyolo was able to tell us more details. I knew only one thing: Jane’s son was gone. I wanted to vomit. Or cry. Or both. Jane’s loss hit me as if it were my own. I thought of Janet, Carl’s mom, and how strong she is but also how no amount of strength can save a mother from the pain she feels when she loses a child. I thought about Jane’s gardens. The ones we helped her build. At the foot of each garden is a grave. One belonging to her husband and the other to her son. And now…there will be a third grave, another son. Joseph’s.

Death, death and more death. Before I even had a minute to process this awful news, Jackson and Timothy, two of my course-mates, sat down next to me for a bit of evening small talk. I tried telling them what had happened, but it felt impossible to convey. I needed a moment alone, but I couldn’t figure out how to untangle myself. I felt bad for wanting to be alone in the first place. By that point, I had been wanting it for two weeks. Everywhere I went there was someone who wanted to talk. My plate full of pasta suddenly grew heavy in my hands. I set it down and wished I could find my way out of so much noise. My energy felt too heavy. I didn’t know where to put the shock of such sadness in a room so full of people.

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Jane had finally caught a break in life. She joined our group and, despite my initial assumptions that she might fail, she ended up surprising us all and has since become one of the most successful gardeners in the group. Jane grew so many vegetables that she began sharing with others also. That was a huge leap from the hunger that too often filled her belly in the months and years before. She figured out a way of plant care-taking and harvesting that kept her kale and spinach producing vibrant succulent greens for three seasons straight without replanting. She was doing so well that she ended up hosting and teaching the most recent workshop that was held with the other widows. On the day of the workshop she was beaming. For perhaps the first time in her life, she felt respected and empowered in a way that was changing her from the inside out. From learner to teacher, the light shone from her eyes so thoroughly that it took our breath away.

And now? Just as things were getting better…her beloved son, Joseph, dies. Just like that. He got sick; they got him to the hospital; he was gone within minutes. No definite reason. Just gone. I feel the words rising up into my throat and out of my mouth: It’s not fair. It’s just not fair.

Those words are useless. At midnight, just a few hours after receiving James’s message, I put my bags into the back of the taxi. With a heavy heart of mixed feelings I was headed to the airport so that I might return to the States one last time before moving to Uganda indefinitely. I sat at the edges of numbness until arriving in Istanbul thirteen hours later. In Istanbul, the airport terminal was busy with people, a teeming hub of movement in all directions. The chairs were filled with old turkish women and families and individuals from all reaches of the world. I found a place to sit along the raised ledge of a wall. I sat low to the ground with my head in my hands. It felt good to be low to the ground after so many hours in the air. And that’s when the tears let loose in a silent snot producing sob.

So much loss. And I was moving in entirely the wrong direction, away from Africa instead of towards it. I didn’t want to be traveling back to the States. Is this even home anymore? After two weeks in Kenya, my heart was aching for Uganda more than ever. The further away I traveled, the deeper that ache grew.

After 28 hours of flights and layovers, I eventually made it to Chicago. I sat with detached indifference, apathetically watching random Americans walk by dressed in Halloween costumes. It all seemed so odd, surreal. The corridors of the O’Hare Intl Airport felt cold and dull.

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When I met Joseph, he taught me how to braid rope. It’s work meant for men, but with a laugh he said it would be ok for me to braid rope too. He was sweet and welcoming. We sat together, along with Headmaster Moses who had accompanied me to translate, while we waited for his mother, Jane, to get home so that I could meet with her. Joseph’s home was right next to hers. We sat on tiny wooden chairs and waited, talking and getting to know each other in broken English. He stayed close to his mom during my visit. I could feel his love for her. Gentle, protective and caring.

I look at these pictures of him and can’t believe he’s gone. Before the details were confirmed, we hoped it wasn’t him that this had happened to. Death happens easily in Africa, but even so…it was too much, too unexpected. It’s too big of a loss. For the community, for Jane, for all of us. That I captured these photos of him, even that feels surreal. I took them back in December and can’t help but feel that, even then…God knew.

God knew that He would take him Home and He knew that Jane would need us. Just like God knew I would need Jesus before Carl died and so Jesus came to meet me two weeks earlier at baby Anna’s funeral.

These losses make my heart cry out in agony. And yet I see the divine orchestration of details and I cry out again in awe. Agony and awe, pain and comfort. The white bird flies sharply, quickly over the reflections of still water. Two days ago I was sweating in the tropics. Today I’m shivering in the cold, naked forest. I’m here and yet I’m there.

I see beauty in these photos that captured Joseph’s existence. Beauty that brings me to tears. Beauty that crushes me and pulls me forward nonetheless. Like energy, love never disappears, it only transforms. Even after the forest burns, new life grows greener than ever before.

Quite honestly, it’s more than I know what to do with. My journey to Kenya was a head-full. I felt strangely awkward and disconnected. I don’t have it in me to wrap up this writing with a neat and tidy ending. For now, just let me lay out these broken pieces so that perhaps, someday, I might be able to make better sense of them. For now, I just want to grieve with Jane. And, even as I write those words, I know I am also grieving for myself and for Carl and for a million other losses. I’m grieving for the world I’m giving up in exchange for a precious, precarious life in Africa. A life with even fewer guarantees than the one I am leaving behind. How beautifully fragile are we.

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Rest in peace, Joseph.

 

Where in the world is Jessie?

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At the moment I am sitting crosslegged on the floor at my old wooden coffee table. This is where the good stuff happens. I have a cup of tea to my left and my bible to my right. On the rug next to me is Carl’s dog (and my eternal sidekick), Henry. These days his fur is shaggy and slightly unkept. He lays with his back pressed against my leg, slowly falling asleep as he listens to music. Ella, my other dog, rests with her head on a pillow on the couch behind me.

Although I have done a fine job of unintentionally confusing the majority of people in my life with my whereabouts, I am indeed here. It’s a quiet Sunday evening in the autumn colored woods of Northern Minnesota. I’ve moved out of my “tiny house” cabin and into my original lake studio, but only briefly. I don’t have running water, but I do have high speed internet. The view is gorgeous and so, therefore, all is well. Admittedly, my brief return to the States has been extended by circumstances of passport visas, commissioned paintings and final moving preparations. It’s been all-consuming, but quickly enough it is, indeed, coming together.

There are times in life when patience is required. This is not one of those times. As a matter of fact, I don’t feel like I am waiting on the Lord for any aspect of this move. Instead, it seems He is waiting on me! I feel God whispering with the sort of calm encouragement that only God can possess: “Hurry, hurry my dear…it’s ready for you as soon as you are.”

As I write this now, it seems silly that I’ve allowed myself to experience so much self-created anxiety over everything. Even so, I’ll cut myself some slack because, let’s face it, this life change (giving up everything, moving to Africa) does feel like a big deal. I’m being catapulted into the Whatsnext whether I’m ready or not!

I recently learned that the original Hebrew root of “be still” doesn’t mean “be quiet”; it means “LET GO.”

LET GO
and know that I am God.   ~Psalm 46:10

Since Carl died, I’ve been living my life in an ultimate sort of surrender. I’ve been learning how to be led by a current that is both watery and electrical. It is made of faith. Like water, it simply knows the way. It is calm and knowing. Like electricity, this current is energized. Alive.

I didn’t mean to write all this tho. I was simply going to tell you where I am and what my plans are. I laugh, even as I write those words. The Great Whateverafter awaits.

Yesterday, the Whatsnext involved purchasing a plane ticket to KENYA.
I leave in less than two weeks!!

Wha? Come again?

  • Bemidji (+ multiple quick and last minute trips to Minneapolis): now-October 14th
  • Kenya (October 14th -31st): PDC Training
  • Bemidji (+ multiple quick and last minute trips to Minneapolis): November 1st-?
  • Uganda (MOVING indefinitely, with dogs!!): mid to late November

When all is said and done, I will arrive in Uganda a little later than I had originally “planned.” Am I ok with this? Absolutely!

God’s plan is perfect and things are falling into place in some pretty amazing ways.

And so? I’ll be in Kenya for two weeks for an intensive 72 hour certification course in Permaculture Design (PDC). Let me just mention that NEVER in a million years would I have ever imagined my life going in this direction.

I am happy. I’m doing this for the widows that I’m working with in Eastern Uganda. I’m doing this so that I might be a learner as well as a teacher, because it’s a thread that’s meant to be added to the master weaving. I’m doing this because I know God wants me to. It’s a seed that He wants planted in the soil of my heart so that I might share it with others too, a seed that wants to grow…into something entirely unique and new.

This is what I’m going to learn:

• Approaches to design including: mapping, designing from patterns to details, analysis of elements, using slope & orientation, zones and sectors and analysing the needs & yields of systems.

• How to increase productivity using intensive garden design strategies including: stacking, soil-building, soil biology, mulch, nutrient cycling, pest control, green manures, worms, compost & companion planting.

• How to survey landscapes for property design using simple and sophisticated tools; mapping and map making, site analysis, and assessment.

• Climate: how to read weather patterns, create and enhance micro-climates, and create design strategies for all major global climatic zones.

• How trees and forests regulate and moderate ecosystems. How to sustainably use, propagate, harvest and manage tree systems using techniques such as coppicing, pollarding, grafting, shelter belts, orchards, guild planting & succession planning.

• Sound nursery practice, propagation, and bio-security.

• Integrated pest management.

• Homesteading and small scale farming.

• How to save money on energy bills with efficient home design, retrofitting, and renewable energy systems.

• Multiple uses for grey-water, constructed wetland design, and other techniques for treating waste water.

• Passive water hydration and infiltration, rainwater collection, storage and composting toilets.

• Dry-land strategies: using reconstructive earthworks, water harvesting and soil conditioning to recharge ground water, re-hydrate and drought-proof the landscape.

• How to bring fertility back to the land and build topsoil through a diversity of ancient and modern techniques.

• How to cycle nutrients and incorporate animals into your system using innovative techniques such as chicken tractors, pannage systems, dairy systems and beekeeping.

• Creating living ecosystems that feed and nurture us and future generations. Design through the use of nature’s rules to create a lush and resilient natural environment.

• Aquaponic systems; the combination of aquaculture (growing fish) and hydroponics (growing food without soil). Aquaculture systems and their use in Africa as well as global aquaculture.

• How to design solar-heated and solar-cooled buildings. The use of natural building materials, energy efficient house placement and design and the assurance of a healthy indoor environment.

• Strategies for creating community-wide sustainability, village development, alternative economies, local currencies, and how to organise community groups.

God has opened a new door in my life. It is a strange door. It leads to a mountain. It leads to a group of twelve women in rural, eastern Uganda. It leads to a group of kids who I love as tho they were my own. It leads to a new home on the flip side of the planet. It leads to a call on my life that I just can’t seem to shake, shimmy or live without.

This door. In the deepest places of my heart, I feel it leading somewhere good.

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Image Credit: Barefoot Soulutions 

I’ll write another post about this upcoming trip to Kenya and more about permaculture in general. But for now, I just wanted to at least share this.

The work continues. The Joy Collective is in full motion. The closing up of my old life and the details of everything to come is a current work in progress. This quickening that’s been occurring let’s me know that I am, indeed, on the right track.

I love you, Abba. Thank you for using me in this direction. I’m yours. Every
last
bit.

 

Anna.

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I want to introduce you to someone. Her name is Anna. I feel like I talk about her all the time. Sometimes tho, I think I’m mostly talking about her to myself, in my heart and in my head. Anna is phenomenal. She is the reason that The Joy Collective was even started. She is the one who God first led me to. She’s a widow and that level of loss is something we, unfortunately, share in common.

And yet.

(And yet. I love those two words. They contain entire worlds of possibilities.)

Anna has become a beacon of hope to me. Maybe I’m something of the same to her. I don’t pretend to know that is true, but I do believe in the way God pairs us with people. I do believe the light I see in her smile and in her eyes whenever we are reunited. I believe it because seeing her always causes the same light to radiate from me.  I believe in the way God loves us so deeply, so uniquely that, in answering one prayer, he often answers a thousand. He connects us in ways that are too simple and simultaneously too complex for us to even fathom.

Less than a year ago Anna was almost too broken to work after the devastating and traumatic loss of her husband. I was only about 6 months ahead of her in experiencing that same sort of loss. By the time I met Anna, I had taken a “first step” out of my grief and into Africa. I was feeling a sense of happiness for the first time since my beloved’s passing. But I was still just at the precarious outer edges of of that happiness. My sight, at times, had a sparkling quality to it. A diamond, shimmering sort of light that somehow promised something good to come out of that heavy mountain of loss. This new feeling touched everything, even my soul. It felt delicate, ice thin. But I walked towards it anyway. Then there was this simple invitation to sit with another widow who was struggling. The mountain somehow folding us together and, without hesitation, I said: Yes.

When it was finally time to return home, I spent the eight hour flight from Entebbe to Amsterdam in a conversation with God, asking him, “Ok God, so now that I know what you want me to do, next I need you to tell me HOW!” I laugh as I write that. It seems like such an obvious question, but it’s also one that I must never quit asking. Although my sight was sparkly in those first days, there is also the awareness that I’ve stepped into some awfully deep waters. A place where I am quite certain I will get dragged into the undertows of an ugly dark current if I do not constantly plug into God’s plan.

One hour with a woman I hadn’t previously known, without even a common language. And yet…

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Yeah…I do believe this photo says it all. My Anna. And I am her Jessie.

I have returned to Uganda twice since that first trip. We have come SO FAR. One of the most important reasons for my visit was to check on the widows we are working with and the progress of their gardens. I was fully expecting to find at least some level of failure. Not because of them…but because there had been difficulties and challenges, as there often are in Africa. Let’s just say that I was SHOCKED when this is what I saw upon coming into the village.

I saw ABUNDANCE, RESILIENCE, DEDICATION. Anna, the woman I had met less than a year ago took her newfound knowledge and variety of seeds that we had gifted her with and completely reinvented her life. Together, we’ve taken death and are turning it into life. Just as Jesus did for us. I visited the homes of widow after widow, all of our Joy Collective members, and was amazed by the tenacity of our circle of women.

Anna has been hired on as our first Joy Collective Field Manager. It shouldn’t surprise me that she has such natural leadership skills and a profound gift for gardening. It is no mistake that God led me to this woman. I love the way it feels to not be needed on a constant basis in the village–of course, I love being there(!)–but I also love seeing these women take the initiative to create success by their own efforts. As Field Manager, Anna will check in on our members to see how things are going. What is working well? What are the challenges? How can we come up with solutions? Do any members need help due to sickness? Did a member discover something helpful to teach the others? Since most of our widows do not have phones, Anna is also our point of connection in the village. Each one of our members is such a beautiful and vital piece of the puzzle. It has been amazing to watch this program grow in such a short amount of time. And Anna…she is living proof of what is possible.

We’re doing this together. This thing called living. We’ve been given a handful of seeds from the broken pieces and, you know…it pulls me forward…this curiosity to see what might grow.

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~~~~~
I don’t want this blog to become a place to ask for money, but the truth is that we can’t do it alone. We need your help to get this dream off the ground. Please consider making an investment in us. I do believe that it will inspire you a million times over! Donate here.
~~~~~

 

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. 

Really we don’t need much, just strength to believe.

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The further I travel away from Africa, the more sad I become. It’s not supposed to be like this. I’m not supposed to feel this way. (but of course it does.) A few days ago I was looking forward to this brief journey back to the States. I’m moving out of my cabin and back into my lake studio for the next few weeks before wrapping up details “for good.” I was looking forward to the peace of that northern Minnesota lake, the vibrant greens and perhaps even the first touches of autumn if it comes quickly. I was looking forward to a bit of ease. The sort of ease that comes with living in a place were things happen, for the most part, as expected. Nothing happens as expected in Africa. Imagining a brief reprieve from the discomfort of constant irregularity of life felt enticing. I was looking forward to high speed internet, ice cubes, a good mattress, hot showers and snuggling my dogs. I was looking forward to using my blowdryer and using tap water to brush my teeth without worry.

But now, instead, I just feel like crying. I’m sitting in the Amsterdam airport. The construction has finally been completed and it is such a gorgeous place. Perhaps one of the nicest airports in the entire world. I’m enjoying good quality coffee with cream and sugar and even this is a luxury. It’s comfortable here. Morning sunlight fills the thoughtfully designed architecture. There is a flow of people from every corner of the planet. A convergence of cultures. I have 20 Euros to spend frivolously on food and drinks as I wait for my next flight. I have a long lay-over and am, surprisingly, grateful. I need time. I’m confused by how tight my heart feels to have left Africa, even for this short time.

Everywhere I look I see mothers with their daughters. Some of these daughters are teenagers, others quite young…all of them good travelers. They laugh sweetly with one another, in knowing ways. Their interactions with each other are simple and in-tune. Tears threaten again at the edges of my eyes. I’m tired of crying. I feel like I’ve been crying ever since Carl died. I find reprieve from those tears more often, but then they return and it feels like they never stopped. Tears have worn me out. I’ve become allergic to them.

I’m suddenly missing my Sharon so deeply that I can hardly stand it. Our time together was more challenging than I expected this time around. She waited earnestly for 6 long months for me to come back. True to my word, I returned. And then she stayed almost absolutely silent until her 9th birthday, just a few days ago. We went out for food and she sucked on the salt shaker. We went shopping for a new pair of school shoes and the store-keeper grew impatient. Then I grew impatient with him because I felt Sharon communicating everything to me, just not with words. People asked what was wrong with her. Is she mute? Can she talk? They asked this in many different languages. Yes, she can talk, I would answer. She is just very shy. She’s adjusting. She’s been through a lot. Give her time…just give her time. She’d look at people and frown. She’d look at me and frown. My heart wanted to break. She would occasionally allow for some ease by speaking in yeses (lifting her eyebrows) and no’s (shaking her head). I learned to ask questions in ways that we could yes and no our way to the necessary answers.

She was quick to let me know that she did, indeed, want to be with me. She didn’t want to go back home. She didn’t want to be any where else. But her silence…I wasn’t prepared for it to last so long. I found myself wondering if I had made a giant mistake. I no longer understood my role. Intellectually, instinctually, maternally…I knew that my job was to just keep loving her. Just keep giving her kisses. Just keep holding her when she allowed me to. Just keep trying my best to invite a smile to transform her over-serious frown. And that’s hard to do when you’re hot and tired and everything else is going seemingly wrong, too. Then I’d find a “love note” in the form of a drawing or a video she made on my phone, something she had recorded in the morning while I was in another room. In these messages, she’d tell me how much she loves me. Other times she’d sing a quiet song, just loud enough so that I could hear. She’d play with Ashraf, the four year old boy who we lived with for 3 weeks and eventually, while playing, she would forget herself and out would come that bright little voice of hers. It was the fuel I needed to carry on with her otherwise endless silence.

It was on her 9th birthday that she finally broke open into a flood of chatter and smiles. It was the gift of a doll that she had been wishing for that finally brought her into the sunshine of verbal communication. She named the doll Mary and a whole new world seemed to open up. The whole day opened her up.

And then it came time for me to leave. Again. I did my best to prepare her for this month ahead. Yet another change. More waiting.  Keep it light, I told myself. It felt wisest not to make a big deal about it. We did things that made her feel happy and loved. I hugged her big before she left for school early-early-early on Monday morning. She seemed ok. I was relieved. She’s been abandoned too many times in her little life. I didn’t want my leaving-taking to be as traumatic as the last. It’s too much for her. It’s too much for either of us. She was ok, but then the reality of the situation started to hit her once she got to her school yard. Just like the reality of the situation is starting to hit me now…here, two days later in the Amsterdam airport. I’ve assured Sharon that I will be back soon. I’ve assured her that she’ll be well taken care of while I’m away and that we can talk on the phone every day. And now it seems that it’s time to begin assuring myself that very same thing.

I make an effort to stop this heavy train from moving in the wrong direction. I’m tired of being sad. I don’t want to be sad anymore. I’m ready for something different. In every moment, things are being reconstructed. A new life is being formed. There is a massive amount of planning and preparing to do before I return to Uganda indefinitely. It’s exciting if I allow it to be. There was one big challenge after another during this past month in Uganda…and with each challenge, I felt the presence of God. Strongly. Tweaking details in all the right days, preparing me. Each time bringing us to bigger, brighter and better outcomes. I have a million things to write about. And, oh God, I so very much want to do just that.

There’s nothing easy about Africa. And yet…
my heart doesn’t seem to care.
There’s nothing easy about any of this. And yet…
somehow it is enough. There will always be enough.

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Enough :: by Sara Groves

Late nights, long hours
Questions are drawn like a thin red line
No comfort left over
No safe harbor in sight

Really we don’t need much
Just strength to believe
There’s honey in the rock,
There’s more than we see
In these patches of joy
These stretches of sorrow
There’s enough for today
There will be enough tomorrow

Upstairs a child is sleeping

What a light in our strain and stress
We pray without speaking
Lord help us wait in kindness

Really we don’t need much
Just strength to believe
There’s honey in the rock,
There’s more than we see
In these patches of joy
These stretches of sorrow
There’s enough for today
There will be enough tomorrow

We are sisters. We are overcomers.

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A little over a month ago, The Joy Collective hosted our SECOND workshop with the widows we are currently working with in the Bududa District of Eastern Uganda. Soon we will be hosting our third. It’s exciting to see things literally coming to life, despite the uphill battle it’s taken to make things happen. And yet…of course things are happening. We are overcomers. That is, after all, what has brought all of us women together. We are survivors in the face of tragedy. We’ve experienced the worst heartbreaks and devastations that one might imagine and yet, even when we wanted to, we didn’t lay down to die. We didn’t give up. Not then. Not now. And not ever.

Several weeks ago, I went to my beloveds grave. I cried and prayed and was swept away by deep, dark, difficult emotions. I was simultaneously buoyed by the presence of God, a remarkable and unexplainable peace. Many times, it is God himself who offers the hand up. I was lost in my own difficulties and sadness, driving to the cemetery when, through the words of Psalm 105:1-4, I heard the Holy Spirit speak clearly, lovingly into my heart. “That’s enough now, dear heart. You can feel low forever, but you can also choose to sing praises  if you want. Watch how it changes everything.” Admittedly, I am adding words where I was given a knowing made of something that transcends language. In that moment, I saw and felt a lightness of spirit, sunlight and color. I saw and felt all of us widows in the mountains of eastern Uganda smiling and laughing and building something great together. I knew in that moment what choice I was going to make. Praises.

I’m generally reading about 20 books at the same time. I like being guided to the book that is most beneficial to me at that particular time. Lately, I’ve been drawn to a book by Margaret J. Wheatley, So Far From Home: Lost and Found In Our Brave New World. She digs deep and gets real in her acknowledgement of both the despair and joy that often accompanies the brave work of mapmaking through the landscapes of troubled times. She writes about being a warrior for the human spirit.

I look at the photos from our most recent workshop and am overcome by the beauty of these women. This isn’t a romanticized version of beauty tho. Quite the opposite really. It’s a beauty that’s hard won. It’s a beauty born of ashes. I find it nothing short of amazing that these women have somehow, so thoroughly, become a part of my life. I’ve been observing what has brought us together and how that togetherness is being formed, shifted and formed again. I feel so strongly that God has something specific in mind and He is taking care to sort out every last detail. We’ve been put through a pruning and strengthening process. I’ve never before had such strong faith in something so tenuous.

Wheatley writes in depth about a notion that she calls emergence. According to Wheatley,

“Emergence is how life changes, never from just a single cause, but from a complexity of many causes and parts interacting.”

In other words, nothing changes just one thing at a time because eventually, “as separate elements start to connect with one another, emergence begins. Individual actions that were insignificant start to have new consequences because they are interconnected.” Emergence is the opposite of reductionism. Western culture loves reductionism. It’s easy to measure. You can create a straightforward plan of action and then measure the results. But people aren’t math equations. People are complicated. We’re complicated and life is messy.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the notion of emergence.

Working with Emergence
“As strange as this may seem to our reductionist minds, emergence is an everyday experience. Anytime we cook or bake something using more than a single ingredient, we are relying on emergence for flavor. The separate ingredients of eggs, flour, butter, and chocolate never predict the deliciousness of a chocolate chip cookie. And anyone who’s been in a choir or band knows the reliable thrill of emergence. Separate voices and instruments come together create something that didn’t, that couldn’t, exist had people not joined together.” ~M. Wheatley

Oh my gosh…sink your teeth into that one. And then let’s take it a little further…

“Emergence demands a different relationship with life, where we’re curious, open, alert. The only thing we can predict is that life will surprise us. We can’t see what is coming until it arrives, and once something has emerged, we have to work with what is. We have to be flexible and willing to adapt–we can’t keep pushing ahead, blustering on with our now outdated plans and dreams. And it doesn’t help to deny what has emerged. We need to be present and willing to accept this new reality. This is what it truly means to work with emergence.” ~M. Wheatley

Just for the record, I’m not interested in over-intellectualizing the human experience. Life is the ultimate creative experience and so it seems wise to leave room to be led by something more amazing than our minds are able to plan for.


“You think because two and two are four that you understand. But you must also understand and.”


Somehow all of this began with the most devastating subtraction: death.  The role of despair has played itself out in our lives. And. We have now somehow created, together, this option of moving forward in praises over the additions. In this sisterhood of widows, a new design has already begun to emerge. It’s made of hope and happiness, even under a hot African sun. We are in the middle of the greatest alchemic experiment we might ever step into: emergence from the dark night. And. Stronger and more confident (to paraphrase Wheatley), having passed through the refiner’s fire, we can trust ourselves to deal with whatever life challenges us with next.

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I AM
the daughter
of a king who
is not moved
by the world
for my God
is with me &
goes before me
I do not fear
because I am
HIS.

Photo credit: Harriet Nakabaale of Camp Green Uganda

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.

Absolute uncertainty. Absolute faith.

img_5296Just when I didn’t think I could handle yet another unknown on my own, my world started filling with connections and conversations. Luckily, I have a special person in my life who always tells me that God hears my tears. And it’s true. It seems like those tears have been working their way to the surface a lot lately. I have many different types of tears, but the kind I’m referring to right now come from a deep and anguished place. They come from a place of needing God. Maybe that’s a good thing. The need be close to the Abba I met when Carl died is just as serious now as it was in the beginning.

“The beginning.” What a weird way to refer to Carl’s death. But that’s when everything changed. That’s when I truly found out who God is. I feel like I should be shifting the conversation away from talking about Carl so much. In some ways, I feel as tho I’ve “legitimately” entered some sort of “next chapter” of this story, but my self-made constructs simply aren’t holding water. My theories leak, a lot like my eyes. I’m still making sense of all of this (whatever “this” is) and, quite honestly, there’s a lot to make sense of. My world is being turned upside down…and I’m actively participating in it. Pardon me, but what am I doing?

It’s one thing to give your life to God, have him personally hand you a job several months later, and then be told that you’re supposed to pick up an move to Africa. I think that’s the part that is most inspiring and/or shocking to people. But, honestly…that’s the easy part.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” ~Isaiah 6:8

The difficulties that I never anticipated are the sheer amount of COMPLICATIONS, WORRIES, UNKNOWNS and HARD WORK that go along with the LOGISTICS and LEGALITIES of making such a move! Sorry for all the capital letters, but I need to breathe.

So far, in down-sizing and preparing to move, I’ve managed to turn my studio into a giant, unusable mess; I’ve begun the courage-requiring leap of shutting down my business (and therefore my income!); I’ve decide that I’m going to subject my pets to all the same uncertainties of health, safety and well-being (or lack of) that I’m throwing myself into; annnnd I’ve done a fine job of upheaving the life of a little 8 year old Ugandan girl who has been through more abuse and difficulty than I even want to spell out. She now calls me mum and I take that seriously. The potential to fail is mind-boggling real.

This doesn’t even address the actual issue of my original intention in moving to the other side of the world: which is to work with widows and gaggle of impoverished kids.

Oh my word…WHAT AM I DOING?!!!!!!

And that’s precisely the problem these days: I don’t know how to do this!! I’ve never run a non-profit before! I’ve traveled a lot, but I’ve never attempted to live overseas for the long haul. I’ve never taken a dog on a plane or figured out the logistics of extended visas. I don’t even know how, exactly, I’m going to fund this crazy vision!

As I write, I stop to put my face in my hands and simply laugh. Mind you, at any moment, my laughter could turn to tears and then back to laughter again. Tears, laughter, sleep, tears, laughter, sleep…it’s a fairly constant cycle these days. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much I suck at all of this. <sigh/chuckle/sigh>. But God is good and I can only hope that He made me this stubborn for a good reason.

Today I cried out to God. And then I spent the majority of the rest of the day generally weeping or recovering from it. My tears came partly in grief, partly in feeling utterly alone, partly in a state of total overwhelm.

I’m moving to one of the most corrupt places in the world and, the closer I get to my leave-taking, the more I feel as tho I’m walking straight into the belly of the beast. Mind you, my eyes are wide open. I can’t even feign surprise.

“In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and he answered by setting me free.” ~Psalm 118:5

Needless to say, I’m beginning to feel that I might have been crying for nothing. God’s got this. He’s handling it. He’s opened a door for me that no man can close. (Rev. 3:8) Even now, as I write, He is showering me in a path of verses that have a powerful effect in leading the way.

Before I gave my life to God, the bible didn’t do much for me except make me feel annoyed and argumentative. But things have changed. I’ve changed. The closer I get to the reality of moving, the more turbulent and unsettled I become. You know the old adage: change = stress. Yeah, it’s feeling pretty dang true.

I love change.
I’m hungry for adventure.
I’m in deep need of new challenges.

AND YET…oh, dear Lord, HOLD ME.

I want nothing more right now than for someone to hold me close and tell me that everything is going to be ok. Not only that, I want them to show me what I need to do. Then I want them to hold my hand and help me do it! Am I asking too much??!!

Nothing could have prepared me for so many unknowns all at once. It seems that every move I make, I’m confronted by yet another layer of challenge..and they are starting to pile up. So far, I’ve managed to find myself at the foot of a mountain that only God will be able to move. No one said Africa would be easy. In my old life, I’m pretty sure I would have questioned my sanity in choosing to paddle so hard upstream.

But this isn’t my old life. It’s my new life.

And God sees. He hears.
He really does.

Amen.

the middle distance.

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I’m enthralled. I’ve only made it to the xviii page of the introduction of this book and I’m afraid my highlighting pen is going to run out of florescent yellow juice in its trail of interest.

Oh my God, where do I even begin? It feels like it’s been a hundred years since I’ve truly written something here. I’ve been so hungry to untangle the words from my experiences and place them on the page where I might see them better. But life keeps coming at me and, quite frankly, sometimes its messiness and confusion is not meant for public consumption. Other times, the days are simply ticking off more quickly than I can get my fingers to the keyboard. Ahh, but today? I’ve taken the day off, or at least mostly. Something I have only done a couple times since I returned home from Africa back in January. As to be expected, the quiet of today has been good for me.

I’ve been feeling a multitude of emotions lately, but one that seems to be the most consistent is anticipation.

[an-tis-uh-pey-shuh n]

1. the act of anticipating or the state of being anticipated.
2. realization in advance; foretaste.
3. expectation or hope.
4. intuition, foreknowledge, or prescience.

Oh, but my very most favorite definition of anticipation is musical.

5. a tone introduced in advance of its harmony so that it sounds against the preceding chord.

As I consider the nuances of that last definition, I can practically hear the notes rolling off of Carl’s guitar. I miss him like crazy and am also grateful beyond measure to have him as my Best Angel, always at my side–with me, watching over me, working in my behalf–a connection allowed by God alone.

That “tone introduced in advance of its harmony so that it sounds against the preceding chord” has been causing a certain amount of pressure, as if walking into the wind. It’s a feeling of “tipping into.” It requires a strange stamina to hold such deeply gorgeous, tenuous notes as my life moves into the cusp of this very tangible transition. An unfolding. It’s a stamina built of complete surrender. Were there ever two more opposite states of being? And yet it seems to be what this song is made of. I seek some sort of harmonization in the balance between being effective in my forward motion and malleable in God’s grace. Often, lately, there seems to be some sort of pressing: between action and stillness, confusion and certainty, inspiration and doubt, clear vision and mystery, strength and softness.

I’ve been referring to this time in my life as the middle distance. Thankfully, it’s no longer that horrible valley I found myself in all those months after Carl’s death. No, that place was a low, dry, dead, anxiety-ridden place.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. ~Psalm 23:4

This middle distance is made of higher ground. And yet it is neither here nor there. There are greener things awaiting growth in this space. There is hope and possibility. There is also a fair share of impatience and discomfort. There is disorder.

As I prepare to wrap up my life here in the States and move to Africa, I find a whole mess of emotions to sort through. A couple weeks ago, I managed to go through most of my possessions. I sold much of them and, believe me, it was no small endeavor. Memories of Carl are written into so much of it. Going through my things is much more difficult than a simple move. There’s not a whole lot about moving to another continent that is exactly simple, but doing so after you’ve unexpectedly lost the love of your life, well…it comes with its own sort of exaggerated doses of both freedom and pain.

Carl is woven into all of this; I can’t undo him, nor would I want to. That in itself leads me to a place of both sadness and comfort. Ah, but then there is Sharon, waiting for me on the other side of all that needs to be done. I have never in my whole life felt so motivated by another human being to accomplish so much. My dear Sharon…oh, that girl. She has changed me forever. What a beautiful song this would be if I could just hear it played out loud with these earthly ears.

This desire to live out God’s call on my life is strong. I find myself willing to walk any landscape to do what I feel is being asked of me. There’s a part of me that would like to think that, on the other side of this middle distance, there is some sort of Ugandan tropical paradise just waiting to wrap its arms around me and tell me I’ve finally come home. But I know better than that. For the first time in my life, I understand why people are willing to lose their lives or go to prison for their believe in God. I’ve become one of those people. I find myself willing to traverse those places, if it were asked of me. I’ve come up against a hard reality: and that is in realizing that not everyone wants to see this work succeed.

And yet…

I know God is protecting me. He has been putting me through the rigors of some deep pruning, even now. Already. I feel the adventure hasn’t even TRULY began and, wow. Perhaps I’ve underestimated what this next chapter might entail.

God continues to draw me forward with incredible amounts of learning. He’s planted within me an excitement to see things grow. Really grow. Plots of land abundant in food and resources. As I begin working on permaculture projects with a group of Ugandan woman, I find myself stepping into a whole new world. The vision of this draws me forward. My work with Harriet and our sisterhood of widows awaits. Building a home and a family with my little Sharon awaits. Mentoring women and children to step into their fullest, God-given potential awaits and is already being knit into being. Even from the middle distance: I can see something worth walking towards on the horizon.

God has asked me to be a part of something extraordinary. And, still, I say YES.