Things found.


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

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.
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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. 

Saturated.

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

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

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

God Light.

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IMG_4320Sharon went to the doctor today. I can’t help it…these photos take my breath away. Look at that light! I feel that God was in that room with her this morning. Sharon’s tests all came back negative (malaria, typhoid, ect.). The HIV test also came back negative (thank God)!!! And so it seems her earlier flu-like symptoms were simply just that and her earlier bout with Malaria is also gone. She was, however, diagnosed with a severe allergic reaction. To what, we do not yet know. James took these photos as Sharon was getting injections. My strong, brave, skinny-armed girl! She also received a prescription for medication and medicated cream. We are giving her a week to see how she responds, but also took a referral and are making arrangements for her to see an allergy specialist so that they can do more thorough testing.

I’ve been praying hard for this girl. And I know many of you have too. I can’t help it, I feel like something has shifted in the power of all these prayers. God feels mind-boggling present, even in these challenges (*especially* in these challenges). It’s starting to sink in…the power of one little girl’s life, the way God might use her well beyond anything I might imagine for her.

This light breaks me open. Just two days after Carl died, I stood on the side of the road where tragedy brought his life to an end, and I EXPERIENCED heaven. I felt him so strongly with me. I felt his sadness in having left me. I felt the impossible weight of my own disorienting grief. But something in me knew I had to let him go. I told him in prayer-like words that, as long as he would stay with me as long as I needed him, it was ok for him to go. I felt God blessing us in that connection. That was the moment it happened. Carl went Home. The sheer immensity of love and perfect peace that I was touched by as heaven swallowed him is a feeling that will forever defy words. It is an experience I will never, ever forget. And when I look at these pictures of Sharon…I feel it all over again. God. My eyes can’t hold back the tears.

My world has changed in these last two days. I think, perhaps, Sharon’s has also. I thank Carl for being our Best Angel. Perhaps he was in that room today, too.

Abba, you fill this world with so much love. If only we could see past our frustrations and anxieties. Needless to say, Sharon will be fine. I thank Uncle James for helping her get all the care she needs on this earthly side of heaven.

{Originally posted on Facebook 03.24.16  :: Reposting here as a testimony to God’s grace in our lives.}

Music.

For the first time since Carl died, I am listening to the music that I so much used to love. The music that filled my home and studio and that I used to share with Carl on a regular basis. You see, Carl was the best musician I have ever known. He was the best musician that lots of people ever knew. He could play the guitar, mandolin, banjo (you name it!) like nobody’s business. He was constantly sending me music and, in many ways, our relationship was anchored in all those songs we sent back and forth to each other.

When Carl died I quit listening to music. It was too painful. A world without music? The depth of my pain swallowed up my whole world. When I finally did start listening again, I found I could only listen to Christian music. I was never very impressed with most of the contemporary Christian music I heard snippets of on the radio. Even so, it was a genre that I hadn’t much listened to. It was palatable because I didn’t associate it as easily with Carl. With the exception of the old-time hymns that Carl would share with me in the middle of the night, Carl’s death sent me adrift into a soundless world. Because it was such an important part of my relationship with Carl, I felt extreme anxiety at even the thought of music. Going into a shop or getting in someone’s car or being somewhere that I did not have control over the music that might be playing was enough to send me into a near panic attack. Irrational, yes. But deep grief is often irrational. I was so shut down in about a million ways. My world became horrifyingly silent.

In my search for music that didn’t spill me into the depths of grief, I found some amazing new Christian artists that not only played and sang well, but were deeply encouraging, too. I’ve traversed some pretty dark places in this past year. I mean, really dark. As I look back, I see how it is some of that new music that kept me alive. In those lonely, too-quiet days working in my studio, my world filled with worthy acoustics and God-filled guidance.

This past weekend was a real turning point for me. The “i luv u, MPLS!” art exhibition was originally scheduled to debut a year ago, but after Carl’s death, I just couldn’t do it. My clients patiently and lovingly stood by my side as I grieved and began my healing journey. They even stood by my side as I ran off to Africa not once, but twice! Even so, I carried a lot of weight on my shoulders in postponing such a big event. To see this show into being has been a relief of the most extreme kind. Somewhere along the line, this event became not only a thank you…but a THANK YOU as well as a good bye! As some doors close, new doors are opening.

My heart feels light with a newfound freedom that I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced to such depths. For the first time in many, many years, I feel current with my life and my passions. I feel freed from the past in a way I needed more than I can describe. There is so much love and pain behind me. But ahead of me is more love, all the hope I could ask for, and more JOY than I even quite know what to do with.

I feel weepy in these days since the show’s debut. But my tears and sensitivity of heart is filled gratitude and relief, excitement and simply the feeling of God’s love.

Long post to say: I’ve started listening to music again.

Yes, all kinds of music. Even those beloved artists whom I’ve not listened to since before Carl’s passing. My God…I thank Abba for getting me through. I know the grief won’t magically be “gone.” But I do feel as though I’ve rounded a much needed corner and it seems there is a whole ocean of tears wanting to fall from my eyes singing: release, release, release….

May our lives ahead be filled with all the beauty of color and song. May our notes build the most beautiful choruses together.

My heart sings: Grateful.

Forehead kisses.

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I miss my girl, Sharon, so much that I can hardly stand it. She would become especially snuggly the closer it got to bedtime. If it was just the two of us, she’d crawl into my lap and snuggle in as close as possible. An 8 year old that snuggles? Yeah…it’s just about the best thing ever. Sometimes there were tears that needed to wiped away. She didn’t want me to leave. Not ever. I would rock her in my arms and sing sweet songs, giving little kisses on her forehead. Maybe we never really outgrow a need to be loved like that. Never in my life has it felt better to bring comfort to another person. My heart yearns to hug and to be there for her in ways that simply defy words. This must be what it feels like to be a mother. My God…how does one survive this kind of love?

In the morning.

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The rooster crows. When was it, exactly, that the sky full of stars slipped herself into this silky dress of daylight? The transition comes softly in the mountains of eastern Uganda. Subtle movements stir outside. All is peaceful except for the unavoidable and overly officious crowing of the rooster. I love this time of day…despite that damn rooster. Actually, I love even the rooster. Because it means I’m here. I’m in the village, held by morning and all the things I love. Held, even my dear girl, Sharon, who stays with me while I am here. We share a full size mattress, but despite the luxurious amounts of room, I find myself at the edge of the bed, held by the mosquito net on one side of me and Sharon pressed up against me with her tiny arms tangled around me on the other side. I’ve never known love like this. She can’t get close enough. She’s eight years old and so small for her age. She snuggles in closer and whispers for the hundredth time: “I love you.” I think her voice whispering those words is exactly the sound that Heaven is made of. I tell her how much I love her, too. She holds out her hand in mine so that I will run my fingers up and down her little arms. She likes the way it tickles. She doesn’t want to get up. A sadness flits somewhere deep in her eyes when I suggest it. She’s attempting to soak in half a lifetime worth of love. In all honesty, I am equally content to hide from the day just a little bit longer. With her, I become a mother. It is an empty place that I didn’t even realize how much I wanted to fill until she came into my life. It’s a strange feeling to unexpectedly become a mother to someone. We didn’t have time to grow into it and yet it feels like its always been.

The light is soft through the old curtain. It isn’t long before we hear the tap-tap-tap of little birds outside the window. It sounds like a wood-pecker tapping softly. I think of Carl, my woodsman, and smile. After a few days I realize that it isn’t a bird…but the softly tapping fingers of the children. They know they can’t knock on the door to wake me up. They’ll get in trouble from a passing adult if they make too much noise yelling my name. And so they tap…tap…tap. Persistently. Eagerly. Sweetly.

Eventually their enthusiasm to spend the day with me seeps through so thoroughly into my room that I’m reluctantly charmed out of bed. Sharon is always a few steps behind as I shuffle out of the bedroom and into the simple kitchen with crazy bed-head hair standing on end. I am greeted by this: a window full of kids, paper boats, love-notes and flowers on the sill. Someone’s smiling. Someone’s singing. Someone little is crying because she wants to be lifted up.

And I smile.

Because, as much as I crave a little more sleep or just a quiet cup of coffee, what I have instead is even better. My Africa…I love you. It is for this that I live to wake up to every morning. Dear Abba, thank you for giving me something to live for.

Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life. ~Psalm 143:8

 

A smile as big as the mountains. 

Everything feels so very precarious today. I just arrived from the veterinary clinic where I made plans with my dear friend, Dr. Annie, should anything significant happen with Louie while I’m in Africa. Even just the thought of it brought tears to both Annie’s eyes and mine. Once I got to the studio, I shared a few emergency contacts with the key caretakers of the details of my life while I’m away. I thought about all of my Bratlien family and how much I’ll miss them and worry about them while I’m gone. Life feels so extremely, intensely, horribly fragile.

My heart feels worrisome. I know from experience that tremendous loss is all too possible. I find it strange that God is healing my heart by leading me to a place that will most certainly contain even more loss.

Then I opened up facebook on my computer and saw that Everest had passed away. It brings a terrible lump to my throat. The threat of tears rest at the edges my eyes. He had the biggest smile I’ve ever met. He lived his days in a jalopy of a wheelchair and was often in plenty of pain…and yet: he smiled. And smiled. And smiled. He lit up the world in a miraculous way.

RIP Watero Everest. Blessings on your spirit as you make this last journey Home. I knew you only very briefly, but you will be a bright star in my memory always.

I love you. 


Not too many more days and I’m gonna get to see my beautiful girl, Sharon. I have missed her every single day since I rode away from her just over 3 months ago. She was the hardest part about leaving. I wonder if she misses me too? I keep her photo near me in the studio as I paint. She has my heart. As in like…allll of it. I gave it to her the night she got sick…the night she started staying with me because I realized she had been abandoned…the night I heard her say her very first words out loud: “I love you,” she whispered. “I love you too. Oh Sharon…I love you too.”