Not alone. 

You 
are 
not  
alone. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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first day. first week.

My heart is full to bursting. A new school year has hereby begun here in Uganda and these two girls couldn’t be more excited. At 4am on the first day of school I find them awake, lights on and waiting. The smiles on their faces and in their eyes at that otherwise dark hour is something I want to always remember. It’s been a busy couple of weeks as we’ve prepared for this new chapter in our lives. I lack the words to describe the state of our hearts or even the processes and journey that all of this change-making has contained. In short, let me start simply and somewhere to say: God is good. 

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Wth my whole heart and being, I love these two.

My thoughts have felt ponderous and full these days. I’ve been thinking about where we’ve all ended up and how we got here. By “we,” I mean this little family of ours. I’ve been thinking about what’s been asked of me, what’s been given, the role I’m playing in all of it, and how it affects those around me. I’ve been walking a space between doing my best to be mindful, logical, wise and giving myself in complete surrender, a vessel to be used purely by God.  Sometimes these ways of being overlap naturally. Other times, not so much. In either case, if I am to follow God’s guidance, in no uncertain terms, it is Trust that’s being asked of me. 

I find myself wanting to tell these stories (all of them), but I don’t know how. As I sit here at my computer, I stop to ask God if this is even what He wants me to do. He says yes. He tells me to keep trying and that, eventually, it will get easier. The writing pathways of my brain have become overgrown with the debris of other thought patterns. I’m in the process of doing some clearing. 

These days I’m learning how to use a machete. I use it to cut brush and banana leaves for making compost. I’ve become addicted to the early morning process. Myself, James and Kevin…we work on garden preparations most days until the heat of late morning becomes too much and we’re forced to quit. We’re in the very first stages of building demonstration gardens so that we might teach permaculture and more resilient methods of food and income production to the widows, children and communities we work with. As I look around me, I wonder if perhaps this pipe dream is a royal joke that’s being played on me. This land is much tougher and unforgiving than us. We’re slow moving and weak compared to the forces of a tropical climate and drought. But then we accomplish some small task. We feel encouraged by these newfound experiences and knowledge. James or Kevin tosses me a fresh guava from a tree. Chewing its tart fruit, I look upwards towards the hot blue sky and suddenly, perhaps unreasonably, feel like this thing we’re doing is possible. Even the parts we can’t yet see or understand. I begin to feel a holy sort of current moving the circuits of my overheated brain and body. I begin writing the memory in my mind, even as it’s happening. But it’s like trying to memorize the ever-changing sky. Impossible. Throughout the day, one activity begets the next and, in this way, entire weeks have already been swallowed up.

In the midst of all these activities, one day it just happens. Kevin and I find ourselves on a bodaboda (motorcycle taxi). We’re going to one of the best schools in Mbale. We’re in search of a new school for Sharon. We don’t yet know about Joy, but suddenly we’re standing in front of the gates of the school. I don’t even clearly remember getting there, but what I do remember is feeling that God himself has planted us there, in that very spot, at that very moment. I’m observing the moment from outside of the situation and yet somehow deep inside of myself all at the same time. The whole world seems to open up as we walk thru the gates. It’s clean and academic. The buildings are painted a fresh red-brown, the color of the Ugandan soil. The curbs outlining the grassy areas are painted in vertical stripes of black and white. The place is alive with teachers preparing for the new school year. The vibe is friendly and intellectual. It’s like a breath of fresh air. Before we’re even halfway down the path leading to the administration office I know as clear as day that this school is not just for Sharon, but for Joy also. This knowing is deep and unshakable. I know with all my knowing that there is nothing more I need to do except to be a conduit for whatever is next. 

The girls pass their entrance exams and interviews. After doing more research, we find out that this isn’t just the best school in Mbale, but also the highest ranking primary school in all of Eastern Uganda. Sharon is placed in P4 and Joy in P5. Joy has been set back a year, but we are feeling good even about that. It’s an immense opportunity and we’re happy that she’s being placed at a level that will give her a stronger foundation. Joy is determined. I know with my whole being that this placement is a perfect fit. This girl is going to succeed wildly. I don’t know yet what any of this means for her, but I do feel God’s presence and that’s all I need to know.  Joy’s parents and Sharon’s biological mother have been a part of the process from the beginning. Ultimately, the decision is theirs. There’s no hesitation in their answers.  Everyone is a full-hearted YES. 

And so…we step into this new beginning, this opportunity of the highest Ugandan caliber. The first day has turned into the first full week. I wake the girls at 5am and walk them to catch a bodaboda the rest of the way to school by 6am. They are at school until evening and, after a quick shower and a snack, they study until dinner time at 8pm. Dinners are late here in Uganda. Sometimes they are doing homework all the way until 9pm. They go to school, not 5 days a week like in America, but 6 (for Sharon) and 7 days a week (for Joy). It is brutal! But the girls? They are in love with it. They have somehow morphed into scholarly warriors. They won’t stop! Sharon and Joy sit at the table together with all their books and paper spread out in front of them, encouraging each other thru each set of questions and answers. They laugh at how easy everything was before this. I look at these two young girls and am amazed by how hard they are willing to work. Most college students in the U.S. don’t even work this hard! They make me realize how much we’re all capable of. I love them beyond measure and wish for them a long night’s sleep and a day of play. But for now, the work continues. I surrender them to the plans God has for their lives. I surrender them to their own desires to give themselves so thoroughly to their studies. I hug them often. I kiss Sharon’s cheeks. I place my hand on Joy’s shoulders. As a family, no matter how much work there is, there is always a lot of laughter and joking with one another too. Life feels full and I want to hold it close. There seems to be no end to it. I look like the tired moms I’ve so often seen. And yet we’re happy. We laugh some more. It’s time for dinner and then bed and then it’s morning again, the starlight of the dark sky walking with us as we begin again, girls giggling. We get to the main road and I smile so big that love somehow comes out of my throat. “I love you, girls.” We all three raise our hands for a passing bodaboda to stop. “Be safe.” I tell both the girls and their driver, as I look into his eyes and then hand him their backpacks. The girls and I exchange a soft high-five, the sound of I love you’s still hanging in the air as they pull away on the motorcycle taxi towards school.

Last night we took the girls to a restaurant and let them order anything they wanted. It was a big treat since making a habit of limiting our budget and eating from home. They ate chicken, rice, matoke and greens. We were glad for them to fill themselves with protein and extra nourishment to replenish them after such a hard week and refuel them for all that’s to come. While waiting for food, Joy complained of a headache. I could see it in her eyes. She’s suffered from headaches for as long as I’ve known her. In giving her extra doses of attention, I noticed that the lump she’s had on her neck is growing larger. And then I noticed that three more have emerged. Oh God, no.

I don’t know why God has sent Joy to live with us and go to school. Yes, I selfishly want her here also…but something about all of this feels like it stretches well beyond me. The lumps on her neck cause us real concern. We had it checked out over a year ago. The doctor gave a vague diagnosis and a prescription for her headaches. Welcome to Uganda. We’ve kept an eye on it and there haven’t been any changes. Until now. Already, plans have been made to take her to a better hospital in the capital city of Kampala later this week.

Life continues to move forward. The compost piles creating new soil for our gardens get warm, then warmer. The sky continuously changes. Affection deepens. Laughter grows. I love more and know less.

I pray. God, we need you.

42.

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I must admit, my second day of being 42 feels alright.The sun rose on this day with a whole lot of soft beauty, despite the frigid temperatures. Yesterday started out so hard. My birthday. I was sick, uncomfortable with the cold outside, uncomfortable even in my very own skin, and missing Carl all the way to the marrow of my bones.  What I wouldn’t have given to hear his voice upon waking. There is still so much grief inside of me that I find myself fighting with every ounce of my being to stay swimming above that relentless dark place that threatens to swallow me whole. I feel like I’m near the bottom of the ocean. I’ve been there for a long time now. The longer I stay down there, the harder it seems to break past its persistent lower leveled midnight zone. It’s a monstrous, strange and lonely place. I grew especially weary this past week as my legs and arms grew tired from the constant attempt at swimming upward, away from the bottom-of-the-ocean trenches that pull at my feet. That place where nothing lives.

I’ve always loved my birthday and, in the past, have even been so brass as to tell people jokingly that it was my favorite holiday of the year. But I don’t seem to feel that way anymore. Just like I lost my love of winter because it stings sharply of Carl’s death. I lost my love of autumn because it is what leads up to his death. I always liked my birthday because it felt like a new beginning. There is nothing I love more than a fresh start. But yesterday, I found it nearly impossible to find the good in any of it. Even with a dear heart’s kind-hearted reminding, I found it hard to acknowledge all the accomplishments of the past year when all I had in me were tears and the reality of turning yet another year older. Childless, weary, grieving. Believe me…I’ve gotten exceptionally good at feeling sorry for myself. I hate to even admit that. Yes, in my defense, I have good reasons to be making a home here in this dark place.  But I also understand that it is not a place where I am meant to stay. It’s a false comfort. The allure of that watery ocean is not meant for me.

I again begin swimming towards the surface, feeling the aqueous sunlight begin to touch my skin. The closer to the surface I get, the more buoyous the water begins to feel. The ascent quickens until finally I find myself here. In the second day of 42 with a plate of warm cinnamon rolls given to me by my dear adopted sister-twin, Carmita, and a steaming hot cup of French pressed coffee. The morning sun slanting across the snow on such a cold day, looks a lot like it does near the surface underwater. But here I can breathe. Even if it hurts a little, with relief, I once again feel oxygen touching the inner surface of my lungs.

Today, the day after my birthday, I feel ready to step into this new year of my life. Last year was filled with more struggle than anyone will ever know. And yet…in that year there was a strong foundation being built. The work in Africa full heartedly began. The transformation in my life began in ways that simply couldn’t be undone. No one ever said that metamorphosis and foundation building would be easy. I’ve fought the devil himself. And yet, over and over, even when I get too close to those dangerous underwater trenches, a strength arises. God wired me with some grit that often surprises even me.

And so…this is where I start today. On solid ground. Utterly frozen, but at least sun-infused. And soon enough my life will be turned inside out and, on January 9th, I’ll emerge from the airport into a softer, more tropical world. A place where even more struggles await, but also a place where my spirit has been undeniably called to.

Yesterday was hard, but it ended with the voices of a HUNDRED women singing Happy Birthday to me and sending me off with love to Africa. For real. Seriously…how many people get a gift such as that? In that moment, the dark place I had been battling got swallowed by all those beautiful voices. I shift occurred and I simply allowed myself to be saturated by so much love. It continued on thru the night in words and conversations and great big hugs. I open the map a bit further and am instructed to leave the ocean. The water is beautiful, if I only go there to rest closer to it’s salty surface. But there are seeds to be organized, compost to be started, gardens to be planted, children and mamas to be loved.

It’s time for that new beginning…and this year it’s called 42. It’s middle name is Joy.

The new chapter:

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Thank you, Jennifer Berg, for sharing this verse on the day I so very much needed to hear it. Thank you, Abba…because I know you love me.

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theJOYcollective.org

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.