4th Heaven Day.

IMG_4760cropped

“Peace I leave with you,
My peace I give to you;
Not as the world gives do I give to you.
Let not your heart be troubled,
Neither let it be afraid.” ~John 14:27 NKJV

I woke up feeling hopeful. I had taken the day off and so it felt a little bit like a holiday or a birthday. And, in truth, it is a birthday. It’s Carl​’s Heaven Day. For me, it’s an equally special day because it’s the day I gave my life to God. Four years ago. Carl died and so did I. God took my life and, in the taking, gave me His. It wasn’t a decision, just as it wasn’t a decision for Carl either. It wasn’t anything that either one of us could stop. Rather, it is something we were both chosen for. In one moment, our old lives snuffed out. And we became brutally, completely, new. The day that Carl died, my life went out from me and was replaced by a glowing force that, even in my darkest moments has held me and kept my heart beating in a song beyond myself.

I’ve dreaded this day for weeks, planning every aspect of my life around it, giving this day space to be whatever it needs to be. Grief is a funny thing. It never guarantees you anything.

Even so, today started out with genuine peace and calmness of heart. Unexpected, but so very welcome. It felt like New Year’s to me. As if it could be January 1st with a whole new fresh year ahead of me. Except this “new year” is bittersweet in a way that splays my thoughts before I even make sense of them. The road behind me seems short, while the one ahead of me feels excruciatingly long. Over the course of the day, optimism gave way to sadness and sadness to the heaviness of melancholy. But, somehow, the feeling of peace remained.

I allowed myself a nap. I rested deeply. I ate a late lunch. And then took another nap. Again, resting deeply. I was soothed by dreams and memories of so many moments, like clips on a movie reel, coming alive in my heart and mind. Moments of joy and goodness, poignancy and purpose, all that have happened in this after-life since Carl’s passing. Maybe I should have left the house today. But something in me needed to, instead, spend time in this inner landscape.

All day long I keep going back to one thought.
Just last week.
Holding the hand of a dying woman.

Feeling so much love flow from her.
The warmth of her feverish hand as she softly squeezed mine. The gauntness of her young body and face ravaged, most likely, by the last stages of AIDS. The look of tenderness in her mother’s expression. Simply holding space because it was the only common language we had.

The feeling of Jesus saying, “this one,” and somehow that including all of us. The warmth and acutely tangible current of love so unexpected, so profoundly nourishing. The line between life and death, a tenuous thread at best. A holy moment. Our connection, like a prayer. She was the brightest spot in the entirety of that otherwise awful place.

How many precious and life changing moments made of Heaven have I been a part of since Carl’s passing? Sometimes shattering, other times simply dazzling. They have become too numerous to count. This life here in Africa has changed me. My encounters and experiences are both heartbreaking and joy-filled in ways that have destroyed me and are recreating me. God asks us to “count it all joy.” And, in the truest sense, I am beginning to understand what that means. Carl, my best angel, continues to love and encourage me, even from heaven.

It’s been four years of the most deeply challenging gift I’ve ever been given.

This evening, the girls and I will go out for a nice meal to celebrate “Papa Carl’s” Heaven Day. God sustains me in this journey in ways I could have never created or imagined or asked for on my own. He sustains all of us, if only we allow.

A boy and his horse.

img_0717szc

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

img_0713szc

{originally posted on Facebook Dec 3, 2016}

with new eyes.

img_4551

img_4546

 

img_4537img_4552

img_4541

img_4538

img_4549

12901394_10156701603095394_1263973259086116073_o

img_4543

This weekend I opened up my wee little tiny cabin to my friend, Brittany. She’s a mama of 3 and rarely gets time to herself. She works hard and is always taking care of everyone else before herself. Brittany was a long time friend of Carl’s, although I didn’t come to know her until after he passed away. One thing about Carl is that he had a whole world full of beautiful friends. He loved those who were a part of his life dearly and, even tho there were countless people, he made everyone feel like they were a best friend. The thing is tho, is that it was true. His friendships genuinely were that real.

With both of us having busy schedules and full lives, Carl and I had to work pretty hard to spend quality time with one another. In the process of making that time together, we didn’t get all the opportunities we would have liked to introduce each other to our different worlds of friends. Anyway, we had our whole lives ahead of us. There would be time later. But time got cut short. And so it is that many of my friends now only know Carl from what I have written about him. The church where we held Carl’s funeral, one of the biggest in town, was filled with people who loved Carl…from wall to wall to wall. The day was a blur, one that I only just barely survived. It was the day that I met so many more of Carl’s friends. The beauty is that many of them have remained a part of my life and we have begun creating meaningful friendships of our own. Carl filled his life with good people. Hard working, down to earth, generous, loving people. Brittany is one of them and I know without a doubt that Carl is happier than ever to be a part of our connection.

Since returning home after my first trip to Africa, I find that I no longer take very many photos of everyday moments. I used to all the time. But these days I can’t seem to be bothered. Everything looks grey and lifeless, broken down, dirty, uninspiring. I feel like a broken record, but it has been hard to be back home. Every day here is often nothing more than a reminder of all that is gone. I think about Sharon and the women I’m working with in Africa and can’t help but feel that is where my “real” life is waiting.

I find moments of reprieve when I am with my horses. I go out into the pasture to feed them and, after throwing the hay over the fence, I smile with the snort and snuffle, their words of gratitude, while I respond with my own sing-song of “you’re welcome.” I duck between the barbwire and rub down each horse. As I walk up to Colorado he bends his neck around and encloses me against his side. It’s his way of saying thank you, I love you. It is his hug and I get one daily. It is the one moment of every day that I feel fully present. Yes, even here.

Once I walk away from the horses, the blur picks up speed and dullness all over again. There are moments of incredible inspiration when I find time to work on Africa-related tasks. I struggle to carve out the time I need to process so much goodness and transition. If I had that time, perhaps it would make the tasks related to old commitments a bit easier. But let’s face it: this earthly life was never intended to be perfect. I fluctuate between extreme agony in needing patience to attend to all the things I must do before I can leave and sheer panic that I’ll never accomplish it all in the short time that I have. My time-line, I should mention, is entirely self-created. Even so, it feels carved into a rock that is not entirely my own and, believe it or not, I feel comfort in that. It reminds me that something bigger is at work and, whatever is meant to be, is going to happen, despite my failings.

I want to shrug off all my struggles and grieving once and for all. But it doesn’t work that way. I know that. The thing I didn’t know was how giving up the comfort of my cabin for a night would end up being such a great and much needed gift to me. This evening, while in my studio, Brittany texted me a whole pile of photos from her stay. They took my breath away. I instantly felt a nostalgia in looking at them. A fondness, as though looking into an easier past. My everyday world through the eyes of another. I found it beautiful. The quirky wall of spices and tea. My cat, Viscosa, at the window. A shelf lined with an eclectic mix of antiques, cups, and whatnot, along with the view beyond: oak trees outside my kitchen window. The wine and treats I left for Brittany to make her stay feel a little more inviting. Even the cracked window overlooking the lake became something worth appreciating.

Experiencing my world through Brittany’s eyes was something I needed more than I could have known. There have been dead parts inside of me and, over time, they’ve begun to spread in ways that are dangerously invisible, like an ugly noxious weed with roots underground. I don’t want to live with the feeling of so much deadness, even in this time of “in between.” It is the sort of deadness that has begun to take up space even where the emptiness of grieving has left off. Without even realizing it–through her photos, her heart, her way of seeing–Brittany brought my world out into the light and, in doing so, has helped return those lifeless places back into being.

Brittany gifted me with a journal in exchange for her much needed retreat. The words she inscribed in the cover’s pages could not be more fitting. Today I am glad to have eyes for a new way of seeing. There are comforts and a quality of light to be cherished. Yes, even here, right now, in this very moment.

img_4536

 

Photo credit: Brittany Sand. Images Copyright Brittany Sand 2016.

Miracle thinking.

IMG_3357

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.

IMG_3271

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.

IMG_6973-2

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.

 

A flight to Uganda, unicorns, provision and babies in suitcases…

11537709_10207172092931380_6000976177862857813_n

Yesterday I purchased my plane ticket to Uganda. Oh my dear Lord, my heart is full. On November 8th, 2014 I gave my life to God. I handed it over. I asked Him to use me. ANYTHING, God please, just use me. And now? He did, He is, He will. The opportunity, coupled with complete passion, to work with these kids in Uganda came up and I told God that if He provided, I would go. Within mere days HE PROVIDED! In the form of just a few earth angels, the costs were covered.

Of course. There is no need for me to be surprised. God is a funny guy. This has not been a light hearted life…and yet, somehow, He has brought lightness to my heart. Not even one detail has been overlooked!

After texting friends and family in celebration, and having a few good cries of happy tears, I wandered the woods several times throughout the day, walking with my palms up in a revolving prayer of thanks, guidance, protection, thanks and more thanks.

Last night I had a dream that I rode a unicorn. She was buckskin in color and so beautiful, maternal and calm. She was grazing in a large and rolling pasture with other horses too. It took several tries, but eventually I got on her back by pulling myself up by her dark mane. Ah, to ride bareback. She was perfect and we moved well together. Never mind that her unicorn horn was made of paper and paint. She was gorgeous and so was the experience.

Later in the dream someone left me a small suitcase with two newborn babies in it, a boy and a girl. Before the person left, I was told that the babies could stay in the suitcase, but one was crying and so of course I opened it up. The dream would switch…one moment I was with my friend, Emily, then my sister and nephew. But the babies stayed the same, in all their messy sweetness. I was like a fumbling new mother. My sister laughed at me.

Oh dreams, sweet weird, weird dreams….
Oh life, sweet weird, weird life…

Oh Carl, sweet, sweet love of my life. I thank God for you. I thank God that even His calling you Home has brought me to this. Uganda and unicorns, babies and tears and laughter….

I love you! I love you!
I love you!