Steep mountain pass.

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This morning, in church, I sat looking at a near wall-size photograph of Mount Kilimanjaro. Due to the angles of architecture, my chair just happened to be situated in a way that caused me to look straight at this behemoth of a mountain or, rather, for IT to look straight at me. It hung on an unlit wall in preparation for an upcoming VBS event. I didn’t notice it at first, but once I did, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down to write here. Not for lack of things to write about, quite the contrary, actually. So many layers of thoughts, prayers, passions, commitments, projects, excitement, exhaustion. A fine mix of grief, work, hope and healing. I travel far, each and every day.

I have been dreaming of horses nearly every night. In the dreams, I am always riding them and we are always moving quickly, our bond deep and otherworldly. A good friend recently told me that she is getting the sense that I will be leaving sooner than I imagine. She told me that she is excited for me, but sad at the same time. She told me how proud she is of me. I love her for sharing these thoughts with me, even if I can’t imagine how or why I would be leaving sooner than planned. Since I am, indeed, planning on going to Uganda in August, I assumed she meant that she feels like I might leave for Africa sooner than expected.

And then this morning I woke up at about 4:30am, with the boisterous sounds of birdsong. I wanted to record the jungle-like animation. It was still dark out, but their chirps and calls were so much louder and more lovely than usual. With these sounds, I awoke with the stark realization that the leave-taking my friend was sensing could just as easily mean that I don’t have much longer left here on earth. It seems unlikely, the odds nearly impossible…but then again, that’s sometimes the way death comes. I continued to listen to the birdsong and realized how beautifully neutral I felt about this. At the center of all that neutrality was a deep feeling of love, a trust that I am safe.

In the first few months following Carl’s death, I admit: I wanted to die. I would not have committed suicide because I feared my spirit might be forever separated from Carl and God, but I prayed fervently for God to please take me Home. I prayed for a lot of things. Mostly, I prayed for God to help me. “Please God, help me, please help me.” And He did. Because I survived each and every horrible moment until one day I decided that I wasn’t so sure I actually wanted to die. When I got to that place, I asked myself what I would do if I got cancer or stung by a bee (which I’m highly allergic to) and was a bit surprised when I realized I would fight for my life. I had turned a corner. I was coming back to life and, in the weeks and months since, my desire to FULLY LIVE has grown with each day. When I finally found my way to Joy and the kids of the mountainous region of the Bududa District, Eastern Uganda, I knew for a fact that I no longer wanted to die. Now I have things to do. My life and my work is not over yet. Not even close.

The desire to live or die. What a weird thing to write about, I know. I write about this with honesty because, for some reason, it feels like a pebble left in the path of a story that’s still being written. As though someday I might return to these words and better understand something that is still a mystery to me.

I sat in church this morning, looking at that huge photo of Mount Kilimanjaro and thought about Africa and whether or not I might live to see it. Everything felt so surreal, an ocean of aloneness separating me from the chairs and people surrounding me. It wasn’t a bad feeling, just something I was aware of. A neutral but profound observation. I sat and looked at that mountain looking at me and thought of Carl’s surname: “BRATLIEN.” It means “steep mountain path.” His sister, Diana, mentioned this shortly after Carl’s passing one evening when we were all sitting around the kitchen table talking about our heritage. My mouth dropped open when she said it.
“What did you say?!” I asked in disbelief.
“Bratlien,” she said. “It means steep mountain path.”
And in that moment, I felt my whole world shift into place.

You see…for many years I had been living by a very clear vision. The vision is that my life (and purpose) will lead me through steep mountains. I didn’t know how or even where exactly…but I trusted (and continue to trust) it completely. I have made plans and decisions around this vision, my entire adulthood. Carl, my beautiful man…I could have never known that life would take me to a mountain that looks like any of this. I could have never known that you would die in a car accident. I could have never known that I would break so thoroughly. I could have never guessed that everything would so thoroughly change. But here I am. God, use me.

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I cried a lot in church this morning. Silent, snot producing tears that are impossible to avoid once they start. I cried and felt alone in the sea until I reached over to my sister-in-law, Carmita. I reached to her from the deep waters. She felt the depth, saw the tears and reached for my hand. Everything fell back into synch, but the tears continued to flow, unstoppable. We were studying John 18, those final moments of Jesus’s life. I cried because Jesus was about to die and death still feels startling real to me. The sermon was about God using our brokenness as a way to draw us closer to Him, just as He did with Peter who denied Jesus three times, yet was restored. I cried because Jesus feels so close to me. Getting to the part of the story when He is about to die feels like I am experiencing the death of my very own beloved, by deepest friend, my everything. It hit me hard in a wholly new way. Bible stories no longer feel like just stories. God is in me, in my life, in this steep mountain path, in my love, in the people and animals around me, in my willingness to travel to the ends of the earth and even my willingness to die. I felt God in a way that broke me open–completely–all over again.

None of us know when our final day will come. But one thing I’ve come to realize is that I never want to forget how absolutely precious every moment of this life truly is. It’s been a painful road to this place with probably many more painful days ahead. But, dear God, I give you my heart–all of it. Please, take me to the mountain.

Dear God, as I wrote that last sentence, I just remembered the very last song that Carl ever sent me (we were having a constant conversation through songs). God On the Mountain. Oh, dear Lord…I listen and cry even harder than before. You knew all of this, all along. You have a plan for everything. You break me wide open. And I trust You like I’ve never trusted before.

I love you, Carl. My beautiful man…my steep mountain pass…my path to God.

brown rice and spanish horses.

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My eyes are tired. My heart aches. I’ve cried a lot these past couple days. It comes unexpectedly, in waves. It began last night with a remark about remembering a time when you heard the desperate, all-too-real sound of sorrow. I was watching a video with a group of women, half of whom I don’t even know. Oh God, please no. Not now. This hits too close to home. I brace myself against the inevitable. Carl’s sister, Christine, is sitting next to me.

I set my coffee cup down on the floor, grab a Kleenex from my purse.

I accomplish neither before I’m sent colliding into my own internal, wailing memory. The phone call. The one that has replayed itself in my head every single day since it happened. It was morning. I was out walking my dogs in the woods, at a curve in the trail, surrounded by pine trees, the ground covered in new snow. The whole world unraveled and all I hear is my own nightmare-stricken voice…NO-NO-NO-NO-NO-NO-NO…even before I hear what is needing to be said. Something inside of me already knows what I’m going to hear and I’m screaming NO, trying to stop it, undo it, make it not real. Please God, don’t let it be real. Tell me I misunderstood. I didn’t hear right. Please, stop the terrible, unthinkable wreckage that is happening inside of me, my whole world. Stop this loss of everything in my heart. Gone. Please, God, no. Let me out. Let me out of this horrible, unthinkable, impossible news. NO-NO-NO. This cannot have happened. But it did.
It did.

The sound of my own sorrow. All these months later, the memory still deafens me.

I feel Christine’s arms around me, hugging me. I think my body might crumble, but somehow we manage to create a soft net in the outreaching of our arms that holds us through. I hear someone behind us crying also. These losses, they’re all too real. And we’re all too human. Profoundly fragile, even the strongest of us.

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Revelations 21:4

Today though, the sun is out. It feels good/It makes me sad. Sunshine mixed with the warm weather of spring confuses me. My emotions come too close to the surface. I feel like Carl should somehow be a part of all this sunshine, but he’s not. At least, not in the way I expect him to be. My make-up was wiped away by tissues and tears long before I even leave the house. I go to an early morning appointment and then the studio. I drink my coffee with cream. There is something comforting about that, a little luxury, since I more often drink it black. The studio is aglow with the warmth of sunlight.  I sit on cushions on the floor. I write for awhile, but don’t paint. I feel gratitude for the canvas sitting on the easel and its willingness to wait for me until tomorrow.

These tender days, they still happen. The sun continues to shine. My heart travels entire continents of emotions. I’m peaceful, then agitated, then grateful. I get swallowed whole with sadness, then decide to give up on whatever I’m working on and instead give myself over to editing some Lusitano and PRE photos from Spain. Yes, horse medicine. Sadness gives way to the grace and strength contained in those images. I am in awe of the beauty I’ve witnessed in this world. I wonder where life without Carl will lead me. My heart has been forever altered. Surely, this could be a gift if I allow it to be?

I try to imagine what heaven feels like. I attempt to plug into this feeling as directly as possible. This feeling of Home, I turn it into a map. A conduit, a pathway for every next step. In these moments, I feel closer to God, I feel Carl’s tremendous peace and happiness. I feel some of heaven’s presence on earth. It does exists, in glimpses. Only glimpses, all along. It is all our earthly selves can handle.

I get hungry. I make brown rice. Eventually, the cabin fills with it’s warm scent. I intended to make a vegetable curry to go along with it. But the rice smells so good. I eat it straight from the steamer I cooked it in. I am satisfied in it’s simplicity. I remember that I will be ok. I will make it through. I experienced God in a hundred different ways today. Brown rice and Spanish horses. Little by little, my heart begins to mend.

I was wrong about Valentine’s Day.

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There are moments when unexplainable connections occur. There are gifts that go well beyond words. My friend, Char, and Dakota.

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Double love with a friend in the middle. Some serious horse medicine occurred today. Char with Colorado and Dakota.

I thought that Valentine’s Day was going to be miserable. I was wrong. Instead, it has been filled with love and goodness from top to bottom, left to right, inside and out. There are moments when unexplainable connections occur. These are gifts that go well beyond words. Sometimes I feel like Carl’s love for me has magnified and multiplied itself many times over and in all directions.

God is good.

{originally published Feb 14, 2015}

 

disintegration.

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I feel sick today. Last night there was a huge, startling KABOOM that shook the house and sent the dogs running to me for protection. I didn’t know what it was. I decided that it must have been snow sliding down from the roof. Although I did not make the connection at first, it wasn’t much later that the road outside began filling with the sounds of sirens. We don’t get much siren traffic on this road and, when we do, I think all of us begin to worry what might have happened. It is one of the blessings of this somewhat rural neighborhood: we care about each other.

Police cars, fire truck, ambulance…my God. This must be what PTSD feels like. I’ve never known it before, but since Carl’s accident, it seems that I know it now. Before Christmas, I was pulled over for speeding. The police officer was nothing but nice, but as I sat in my car waiting for him to run my driver’s license, I nearly came undone. Those lights flashing in my rear view mirror. Flashing, pulsing, unrelenting in their consuming brightness. For the first time, I imagined all the lights that must have been on the scene of Carl’s wreck. My mind screaming, mentally pleading with the cop to PLEASE turn off those flashing lights!!! Pleading with myself to pleasepleaseplease hold it together, the edges of a full blown panic attack growing imminent. I’m let off with a warning. He thanks me for being a good driver. The cop has no idea of my crushing brush with panic until he hands me a Random Act of Kindness and I burst into tears. Will you be ok, he asks with kindness in his voice? Yes, yes…I will be fine. I thank him and I mean it. I drive the rest of the way home, crying my eyes out. The trauma, the kindness, the wanting Carl, for just…everything. And so it begins again last night. My quiet little world fills with flashing lights and sirens. Again, my imagination takes me to the scene of that horrible night that I wasn’t there to see. Then it loops over on itself, back to the present. I begin to worry if I might know people where all these sirens are headed. Is it my dear friends next door? Where is this dire emergency that requires so much attention? What has happened? Is anyone hurt? Dear God, has someone lost their life?

Meanwhile, Carl’s sister is on her way to pick me up. She is seeing all the flashing lights and having a similar experience of anxiousness and worry. She doesn’t yet know if they’re going to my house or somewhere else or what is even happening. When she pulls up to my cabin, I get in the car, we exchange thoughts and, for a moment, I become grateful that I am not as crazy as I feel. I’m not the only one struggling with some of these startling ways that life keeps happening around us. I become extraordinarily grateful that we have something soulful and good planned together for the evening.

I question whether I should even write about this here. It is too raw. I would prefer to reach towards optimism and hope. I want to contribute something positive to this world. Instead, all I’m capable of this morning is worrying about the house down the road. It exploded, completely obliterated. There was a man who was injured. I don’t yet know who it was and I probably don’t know him, but I worry about him and his family, too. I worry about the blizzard out east and all of the good friends I have who live there. That storm is both beautiful and ugly. I worry about the homeless people. I worry about the elderly and the sick. What will they do if they need help and can’t get it?

I feel traumatized. Like I am disintegrating.

But my spirit won’t let me stop here. I attempt to lift myself out of this. And I am hoping that it will have the circular effect of helping to lift you up, too. Over and over and over…this is perhaps the best thing we will ever do for each other. We’ll take turns. Here is my hand.

I step off my downward spiral of worry, back onto solid, snowy ground.
I take a deep breath.
I realize that I am not alone.
And neither are you.

Suddenly, the path becomes a little bit easier again.

The horse photo? Well, that is just a little gift to you and to me. A reminder that all is well, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

I love you, Carl. You pull me thru…in ways that I sometimes don’t even realize.

{originally published Jan 27, 2015}