Retreat.

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“Silence of the heart is necessary so you can hear God everywhere–in the closing of a door, in the person who needs you, in the birds that sing, in the flowers, in the animals.” ~Mother Teresa

I’m on retreat. A working retreat with the intention of accomplishing the impossible and drawing close to God in the process. I’ve temporarily planted myself somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Stateside. Much too far from Africa and a bit too close to the Dakota prairies for my liking (too close because that is the place that took Carl’s life). In this landscape where the sky feels so big, at the edge of this endless expanse, the silence found here is what I need more than anything. Distractions and the immense disparities in culture have, at times, made my time away from Uganda nearly unbearable. I came here (to this cabin) because I couldn’t find my footing. I was holding a tension in my body as if trying to hold my skin and all its contents in place. I had been carrying myself thru this strange time, as tho none of this belongs to me. And, in truth, it no longer does. Not really. The psychological transformation took place with exquisite subtlety. It happened quickly, easily. In the laughter and naturalness of raising two girls, being in constant companionship, and being so deeply immersed in the intense situations of Ugandan life, I changed. Willingly and wanting to. I gave myself to it completely.

I am only a few days into my retreat time. I’m sure it sounds quite luxurious to be “on retreat,” but the truth is that I’m a seasoned soldier in the art of solitude. Art itself is an extreme discipline. Especially if it’s also been your livelihood for most of your adult life. I’ve gotten good at separating myself from the noisy world so that I might accomplish the often huge amount of tasks at hand. I enjoyed it at first. There are great freedoms in creating your own schedule. But eventually I started to notice that the work never ended, even when I wasn’t working. Seclusion eventually eroded my sense of wellness. After Carl died, I think it’s safe to say that the isolation required of my art making tore my already worn nerves to shreds. Anxiety, mixed with the deep depression of loss, was a mean dog that I couldn’t seem to shake.

In Uganda, my life is filled with the work and presence of being with others. It’s woven into my days effortlessly, intimately, and with easy familiarity. My life there allows me moments to go into the gardens to sit by myself, in the company of only God, to look at the mountains and shifting sky. In many ways, it’s the best of both worlds: offering both solitude and companionship. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not perfect. The days can be exhausting. It’s often so hot that it is hard to think. There are times that I’m left at the perimeter of things, unable to talk or listen freely because of language barriers, sometimes even at my own dinner table. But even these struggles are a welcome relief from the incessant chewing of my own inward turned thoughts with too much time spent alone.

Here in the States, there have been many times when my work has caused these extreme and long-winded bouts of solitude to feel like punishment. And there are other days when I need that solitude more than anything. After all, half a life-time’s work done mostly in seclusion, will change a person. I’ve always been very comfortable spending time alone. But the circumstances of life have created a need for alterations. I’m grateful for my life in Uganda. It’s a fabric that, although complex, fits me well. Coming home has been a lot like putting on old clothes that I no longer know how to wear well. I make due, but it’s awkward and, strangely, a lot of goodness is coming out of it.

With each walk I take with the dogs, the wind hollows me out a little bit more and, in returning to the cabin, I walk past my easel and see God in what is revealing itself on the canvas. In seeing this I realize that, even as the threads of longing pull at me continuously towards my truer home, it is a choice to enjoy this time.

A flock of 20 or 30 redwing blackbirds are picked up in a shift of wind and, from this lakeside perch, I realize that I am, indeed, happy.

I didn’t think things thru before renting this cabin. It’s proximity to the North Dakota plains has both startled and surprised me. Carl’s presence feels as true as the sun and wind. It’s evoked a tender pain and yet also another level of healing that I wasn’t seeking or even expecting. Maybe even…a level of healing that I might have been avoiding. But something is happening here. I’ve even started to let music, a language shared between Carl and me, come alive again in ways that I have not been able to before now. Just a little at a time, like these strong winds, is all I can handle. But, as a good friend of Carl’s recently reminded me, “life isn’t a race.” This can take as long as it needs to.

What I know in my heart is that, this time on retreat has been precious and powerful. It’s been gentle and love-filled. In my solitude, God has saturated every moment. From the vantage point of this place I’m able to look back over the past month and see the ways in which returning Stateside made all the raw places of my soul to come jumbling to the surface. It came too loudly and all at once. I needed reprieve. And so…here I am. Met by the sky and the restful comforts of this quiet cabin where God himself is tending to me. He draws me out from the places where I was hiding from so much pain and, in the doing, I see that He is preparing me to walk places I could have never before imagined.

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In waiting.

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Backing up image files in preparation for my leave-taking. A bittersweet experience because there are soooooooo many photos of my artwork that I never even shared. I spent the past 8+ years feeling wildly behind schedule and, because of this, often didn’t share as much as I would have liked to. With success came a clamor of commissions and with that a very long wait list. I found it difficult to know how to make each person feel as special as I wanted them to feel. And so I stopped posting my artwork photos. I’m sorta sad about that. There is a beautiful story to be told in those images. I lived a life so full that in some ways it became a burden. And yet…I can’t imagine it having been any different. Such a long winded challenge that was, and yet I’m also grateful for the prolific amounts of art, travel, friends, clients, animals, life and love that my life contained in these past many years.

As I work on remaining commissioned pet portraits, I find myself feeling invigorated by the newness of the work that lies ahead of me in Africa. With each painting completed, an entirely new space of freedom opens up before me. With that freedom comes sparks of inspiration. Where will art take me next? In Africa, will I have time to paint? Will I even be able to source the supplies I need to so? I’ve already got a head full of ideas that want to be expressed. A whole life, really, that simply wants to be expressed.

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.

Goodbye old studio. Hello new life.

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Yesterday I locked the door of my old studio for the very last time. It was a good place. The light was soothing and the floors were warm. The ceilings were high and the breathing space plentiful. It was the studio space that I moved into with the help of Carl. We had big dreams and that place was a perfect fit. From the very first day, I felt protected by divine forces whenever I entered. Truly, it was an amazing feeling and I trusted it. I moved in only one month before Carl died. Little did I know then, what a true Godsend that studio would be for me over the coming months. When Carl died, I died right along with him. It was many months before I was able to work again, but it was that studio that drew me forth out of the dark confines of my bed and into the warm and sunlit interior of this creative space. Most days, I didn’t really accomplish anything, but even the act of showing up was the miracle that slowly worked its healing magic on me. For many weeks and months, that’s all I did. Show up. Slowly, but surely I found myself producing new work. Sometimes just to satisfy myself and other times to fulfill client obligations. In either case, the progress, however slow, was a gift beyond measure. My clients may never know just how truly important they have been in this process of healing. God knows, the utmost patience has been required on their behalf…and I thank them for that.

Before leaving for Uganda, a very special opportunity came up. My friends, Emily and Karen, two immensely talented artists, were looking for studio mates. I’ve always had private studio space and am not in the habit of creating in the presence of others. And yet…something about this felt so right. SO very right. I already knew the space they were working in, but went once more to look at with new eyes…the eyes of using it as my potential new workspace. I walked in the back door and it was an immediate YES. There was only one stipulation: I would rent 3 of the 5 spaces and, beyond us (and a quiet, fairly non-existant artist renting in the basement), we would keep it a private space in order to eliminate the possibility of too much white noise of more renters. It happily fell into place for all of us and I planned on moving in the day after getting back from Africa. This move would afford me the opportunity to reallocate my budget to accommodate one or two more trips to Africa per year. I didn’t yet know what Africa would do to me…but something in me DID know to prepare!

God had handed me an opportunity and, gratefully, I accepted.

I need to admit that it was harder than I expected to make the transition. And even as I write those words I am grateful that the transition is occurring. You see…moving out of my old studio was, unexpectedly, a huge process of letting go. Letting go of a life I had planned with Carl. Letting go of his daily presence in that space. Letting go of a whole lifetime leading up to the gifts of Africa.

Every single day that I walked into my studio, I would walk through the door, turn to the right and see Carl’s hardhats and Yeti cooler that I had them sitting on. I would say hello and tell him I loved him. Of course, Carl wasn’t physically there, but something of his spirit lingers in those items and it felt so good to have that moment of connection and gratitude with him each day. I would then walk to the back of the studio and reprogram the microwave clock to 12:34. Every. single. time. I walked in the studio. 12:34 was our “I love you” number.  Even after his death, Carl was woven so thoroughly into that space. I always felt his spirit close to me there. I knew how much he loved to see me working hard. I knew how much he wanted to see me happy. I knew how much he would want me to live…no matter what.

I let that space heal me. In the cold of winter and into the briskness of spring, it was a loving cocoon of warmth and light. I felt surrounded by guardian Angels. I prayed and painted and painted and prayed. God infused every brushstroke that happened in that space. He infused me. I cried and painted, listened to endless sermons and worship music. Some days I even danced or smiled and laughed. My heart poured itself out into that space and was equally filled with new hopes for the mysterious future that I could feel waiting for me on the horizon.

How stunningly apropos that my move would take place immediately after returning home from Uganda. I never intended things to work out this way…but God did. He knew all along. Oh GOD! How does He so truly and deeply know everything in my heart?

The task of moving was overwhelming. I wasn’t expecting all the emotions that it would bring up. Not to mention, I wasn’t feeling well (fighting something intestinal…yay, 3rd world travel!) and, of course, a bit jet-lagged. As usual, I had been overly optimistic in my abilities after such an intense journey. BUT! Then Carl’s family showed up. They didn’t even know I was struggling. They simply did what a loving family does best: SHOW UP! First Carmita, then Christine and Lauren…they saved me from much floundering and tears…and the best part? I did not even ask! Such a gift. I felt soooo spoiled. So incredibly, incredibly blessed!

And so…now? I have a big pile of canvases, inventory and STUFF to unpack and organize in my NEW space. It seems that the weird interior of my artist’s mind has exploded in a cluttered mess of the studio floor. I find myself standing on new ground. Both literally and metaphorically. I feel myself stepping wholeheartedly into the rest of my life, into this story that God had written for me all along.

I will always love Carl. Africa has shown me that it is possible to love him forever and yet also to completely move forward. I broke when he died. I fell apart. I was smashed into a million pieces. But something about that mountain in Eastern Uganda put me back together in a way that defies language. It’s a process that I’m still living out…but the best part is that I feel as tho I am truly LIVING. My heart is open. I am steeped in great love, even on this earthly side of heaven.

I feel whole.
I feel able.
I feel ready to live the rest of my life.

Thank you, dear Abba. You are the one who saves me. Over and over and over again.
Amen.

Composition.

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Yesterday I enjoyed a long afternoon in the studio, time that stretched late into the evening as well. It felt good. God urged me on.

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“Tori” :: 36″x24″ :: Oil on Canvas :: Commissioned

I originally created this blog post a little over a month ago. I had intended on writing more, a whole lot more, but perhaps this is enough. With only a month and a half before I leave for Africa, I am diving deep into the process of painting. I am preparing for a solo-exhibition. It is long over-due and I am eager for its completion. I publish this post today as a reminder of the way God makes Himself present on this journey, continuously. In every moment, He is there. As an artist, I have taught myself to pay attention to the details that might otherwise be overlooked.

Dear Abba, help me to see. Show me the way. Use my hands, my heart, my ears, my eyes. Prepare me. Dear Abba, I surrender.

Happiness, unstoppable.

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Dear Abba, you’ve brought me this far. Through all those millions of moments when I didn’t think I could take even a single step, when I didn’t want to take even one more breath. My life shattered. My heart broke. When Carl died, my old self died right along with him. You know this because you’ve been alongside me, through every single moment of it all. You were there when I kneeled down next to the driver’s seat of that crumpled car. You were there there when I stood in the snow at the site of the crash, semi-trucks and cars barreling down a busy two-lane highway under a sky that I remember being neither blue nor grey. But for a moment, dear Abba, You quieted the world and created space for the most intimate conversation I may ever experience on this side of heaven. You were there when I told Carl it was ok, that I knew he didn’t mean for this. You were there when I told him it was ok for him to go, as long as he would stay with me as long as I needed him, it was OK because I knew he was going Home to You. Dear Abba, I could feel you. You were in us and with us; You were everywhere and everything. Carl’s presence was separate from mine, yet also like an illuminated medallion of light lodged in the brokenness of my heart. Oh, dear Abba, you allowed us to merge in a way that defies language, right there on the ugly side of the road that took his life. Surrounded by freshly fallen snow and utter loss, You allowed us this. Not just the idea of Carl being with me even after death, but truly, in that moment you gave us the gift of uniting our spirits in a very real and living way. I told him it was ok.  And in that moment, we both knew…it truly was ok. And I felt him go. I felt him being absorbed into You. I felt it right along with him. Dear Abba, you let me die with him, and it was the most glorious feeling I will ever know until I meet You again on the other side of death. This glimpse of what it is to go Home. I felt it. I know. And nothing will ever be the same again. Not ever.

In the eastern pasture, the horses are contentedly munching on the new sprouts of green grass along with the rising sun that has been shining directly into my eyes these past couple mornings, waking me at what seems like an abundantly early hour. I use the word “abundant”  because it feels good to get up so early, welcomed into the day by such a direct invitation from what feels like God himself.

Most mornings I wake up praying. It is not an intention or decision to pray, rather a conversation that is already happening. Many nights even my sleep is filled with prayers and so, when I wake up, it is simply a more conscious awareness of continued communication. I savor these moments. I sink in and attempt to make them last as long as possible.

This morning I woke up praying about Joy, a young girl I recently sponsored through Hands of Action International. That was about a month ago and I have been obsessed with the kids of Uganda ever since. Yesterday I learned that Joy is 10 years old and an orphan. She owns a mosquito net and uses it, but she does not have a school uniform or even shoes.  Not all of the children needing sponsorship are orphans. I woke up thinking about her. I was wondering what her personality might be like. I prayed that she has someone to comfort her when she needs it. I thought about her feet and the red dirt, puddles and jiggers. I tried to imagine her smile and wondered if it comes easily. I wondered if she likes to be hugged and what it might be like when I finally get to meet her for the first time. Will she be shy? Will I? I thought about her name and the deep meaning it holds for me, yes, even beyond the obvious (a sacred story to hopefully be shared someday). I thought about my own life and where God might be taking me. All of these thoughts and questions and imaginings somehow held in the safety of God’s arms and a golden sunrise.

Today my heart feels a certain kind of peace. Yesterday I felt unstoppable excitement. I spent the entire day apologizing to everyone I interacted with for being so overwhelming. Maybe no one minded as much as I thought they might. I was overcome with happiness. Like this. Like the girl in the photo above. I don’t know who she is. Or the others either. I only know that they are the ones that I have become passionate about. They make me feel happiness and I want more of it. My heart feels alive again. A miracles, yes…a miracle, to be sure.

I’ll spend the day painting in the studio. I’m preparing for my largest solo exhibition to date and also a fundraiser for rescue dogs. I paint and pray and try to stay contained in my own skin so that I might stay in better pace with God. No running ahead, no falling behind. Then I’ll come home and work on photos of the kids for a new sponsorship website page. There are 500 children we are working to feed and clothe and send to school. Yes, I used the pronoun “we.” It feels miraculous. I feel a part of this. Thank you, Abba. There is so much to do and I feel such eagerness to help do it, whatever it is. This newfound eagerness has a strange way of fueling the obligations to even my own work that’s at hand. These paintings I’m currently working on are filled with more prayers than any I’ve ever done before.

I do not doubt that much of my newfound energy and eagerness is coming from the sheer amazement and joy in feeling happiness again. I always feel it when I think of those little kids in Uganda. There is joy and a desire to move in that direction that simply overtakes me. This feeling of happiness is still utterly foreign to me after such deep grief. And yet it is also welcome…so very welcome that I am reduced to tears. The grief still exists, but now it is saddled equally with hope–the tangible sort–made up of real possibility and action step that are being made more and more clear each day. I smile and cry and sing gratitudes to the Lord, all at once.

Dear God, if this is grace…I want more. And more. And more…

“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loves is born of God, and knows God.”
~1 John 4:7