“Peace I leave with you,
My peace I give to you;
Not as the world gives do I give to you.
Let not your heart be troubled,
Neither let it be afraid.” ~John 14:27 NKJV
I woke up feeling hopeful. I had taken the day off and so it felt a little bit like a holiday or a birthday. And, in truth, it is a birthday. It’s Carl’s Heaven Day. For me, it’s an equally special day because it’s the day I gave my life to God. Four years ago. Carl died and so did I. God took my life and, in the taking, gave me His. It wasn’t a decision, just as it wasn’t a decision for Carl either. It wasn’t anything that either one of us could stop. Rather, it is something we were both chosen for. In one moment, our old lives snuffed out. And we became brutally, completely, new. The day that Carl died, my life went out from me and was replaced by a glowing force that, even in my darkest moments has held me and kept my heart beating in a song beyond myself.
I’ve dreaded this day for weeks, planning every aspect of my life around it, giving this day space to be whatever it needs to be. Grief is a funny thing. It never guarantees you anything.
Even so, today started out with genuine peace and calmness of heart. Unexpected, but so very welcome. It felt like New Year’s to me. As if it could be January 1st with a whole new fresh year ahead of me. Except this “new year” is bittersweet in a way that splays my thoughts before I even make sense of them. The road behind me seems short, while the one ahead of me feels excruciatingly long. Over the course of the day, optimism gave way to sadness and sadness to the heaviness of melancholy. But, somehow, the feeling of peace remained.
I allowed myself a nap. I rested deeply. I ate a late lunch. And then took another nap. Again, resting deeply. I was soothed by dreams and memories of so many moments, like clips on a movie reel, coming alive in my heart and mind. Moments of joy and goodness, poignancy and purpose, all that have happened in this after-life since Carl’s passing. Maybe I should have left the house today. But something in me needed to, instead, spend time in this inner landscape.
All day long I keep going back to one thought.
Just last week.
Holding the hand of a dying woman.
Feeling so much love flow from her.
The warmth of her feverish hand as she softly squeezed mine. The gauntness of her young body and face ravaged, most likely, by the last stages of AIDS. The look of tenderness in her mother’s expression. Simply holding space because it was the only common language we had.
The feeling of Jesus saying, “this one,” and somehow that including all of us. The warmth and acutely tangible current of love so unexpected, so profoundly nourishing. The line between life and death, a tenuous thread at best. A holy moment. Our connection, like a prayer. She was the brightest spot in the entirety of that otherwise awful place.
How many precious and life changing moments made of Heaven have I been a part of since Carl’s passing? Sometimes shattering, other times simply dazzling. They have become too numerous to count. This life here in Africa has changed me. My encounters and experiences are both heartbreaking and joy-filled in ways that have destroyed me and are recreating me. God asks us to “count it all joy.” And, in the truest sense, I am beginning to understand what that means. Carl, my best angel, continues to love and encourage me, even from heaven.
It’s been four years of the most deeply challenging gift I’ve ever been given.
This evening, the girls and I will go out for a nice meal to celebrate “Papa Carl’s” Heaven Day. God sustains me in this journey in ways I could have never created or imagined or asked for on my own. He sustains all of us, if only we allow.
“Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’” ~John 18:36
I’ve been a woman walking in two worlds. I travel to the village after the recent landslide in Bududa via car, then motorcycle, then a bit further on foot. On one hand, I am there to survey the damage and needs of the area and its people. On the other hand, I am witnessing all of this from a realm not of this world.
There are four of us together in total. One companion has gathered some beautifully soft, warm blankets, as well as nearly 100 pounds of maize flour, sugar and even money cards for those in need. I intended to join her in gathering supplies until God showed me that, in going to the village, I was to instead “be still and observe.” I refrained from any preemptive fundraising or making purchases of potentially needed supplies. I prayed a lot and, each time I did, God spoke easily, peacefully, quietly, clearly. In the process, God managed to create a small church out of our seemingly haphazard group. One in which we were each given a very specific role to play. In the end, I was so grateful to be orchestrated in just the way we were.
In many ways, these days, I’ve been editing myself into silence. The combination of words, circumstances and cultural differences between the actual experience and my varying audiences is complex. This particular bout of silence, though, is the handiwork of the devil. Why? Because God asked me to share certain aspects of things. It’s just that I haven’t known how and, in the course of trying to let the words emerge, my thoughts became increasingly cluttered. I’m backed into a corner with my process of reasoning, my sense of expression drowned like nonsense in the water, causing my mind to become messy and scattered, at best.
Last night I dreamt of the landslide. There have been other dreams of the same. The details are vague; I only remember that I was there. In waking life, there was an aspect of me that simply shut down, like a weary reporter who has grown overly accustomed to war. Things felt illusive. Fake. I was guarded. In that dreary, weird, confusion of what was real and what was a lie, I seemed to have carried home a certain amount of residue from with all. I didn’t see anything awful. No dead bodies or mangled limbs. Unfortunately, these are images I saw in the form of videos before my arrival. I saw things I wish I could un-see. Instead, what I did see were freshly dug graves and a lack of authenticity.
I refuse to be a source of more misinformation and under-researched news. I also don’t want to hold the handle of a shovel whose only motive is to pocket the profits of tragedy. Lies, corruption, death, manipulation, stealing. It is woven into so much. It’s cumulative, like the buildup of mud and logs and debris that came roaring down the mountain. It’s dangerous. And perhaps not even surprising. I don’t want to discourage eager hearts, so willing to help. I need God to help me say anything at all.
These days, the girls are on reading sprees. I don’t know what lit these book-bound fires, but I sure am happy for it. Sharon has moved a little deeper into the literary waters and is now reading Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. She leaves it on the dining room table each morning before setting off to school. She doesn’t realize it, but each day I am reading too. I read as far as her bookmark leaves us, letting her lead the way. I like being quietly on this journey with her. And–wow–what a wonderfully written book, it is. It opens with a quote that one would not expect to find in a children’s book.
“The heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.”
It makes me think of Bukalasi (the landslide village) and the end of its road. That place where we got off of our bodabodas, already so familiar from news footage and photos posted online. Familiar, even, because of pretenders. “Heroes on the scene,” sharing selfies of their “good” deeds, “rescuing” others from the deadly event. But, upon arriving, I saw that their photographic location was no place to dig, rather just a dramatic and muddy backdrop. In other words, a good photo-op. Their too-clean clothes give them away. Sometimes discernment is nothing more than common sense. In some ways, I knew what I was walking into before I ever got there.
Because the bridge has washed out, this particular spot is where most people stop. Getting to the other side of so much broken wreckage means trekking a slippery path a short distance downstream and then crossing a precarious set of bouncing eucalyptus logs strung across the fast-flowing river. Joy was walking ahead of me and turned to cover her eyes saying, “I can’t!” She was afraid. This option forward was potentially disastrous, but before I could say even one word to comfort or encourage her, she was already half way to the other side. Her bravery amazed me. Sometimes I see the light of Jesus in that girl, as real as a tree or sand or sunshine. It wasn’t until I came to the edge of this improvised, unsteady crossing that my own bravery left me. I was the last one to cross. In the end, I also don’t totally understand the heavenly presence that got me to the other side. But I do have faith in it. There would be, after all, no turning back.
For ineffable reasons, it is hard to tell this story. The weight of it has been burdening me for days. It’s only now that I’ve stepped into its center that I find any relief at all. Perhaps it is the relief of fulfilling even just one small portion of a godly assignment. You see, I fail on a regular basis. Today though, I needed to make some headway. I guess this slogging through mud and bushwhacking with words has been necessary, if only to get me to here.
Still, there is further to go. What I experienced that day can only be described as both frustrating and celestial. How can disappointment and holiness exist together all in one breath? With each interaction, my eyes, my heart, my mind and spirit scanned the inner and outer landscapes of those we were meeting and talking with. This is the part where I struggle to find words so that I might bring you with me. How could something be so devastatingly ugly and yet so shockingly beautiful all at once?
But wait. Lest you think I’m romanticizing a desperate situation, I fumble with words to share with you: what I was experiencing was both heaven and earth’s hell. One reality overlaying the other. As I stood surrounded by common-looking liars and thieves, I also held presence next to the Truth of one woman and her grief. In that, I saw a glimpse of heaven. God. Even as I search for the language to communicate any of this, I am reduced to tears. I’ve heard stories of people who have died and then come back to share their extraordinary, but too-brief experience of the other side. Even when Carl died, God allowed me to journey half-way with him. The closer I become to His presence, the thinner the veil becomes. I stood outside, next to the closet-sized mud house of a newly widowed woman with too many young children to care for by herself. What I saw–somehow inside and yet beyond all of it–was made of the most extraordinary light. It sparkled and glowed and somehow reached into all the folds of the mountains, its vanishing point intermingling with God himself.
Everything in me wants more of that Light. I don’t yet know what’s next. But I do have the greatest faith that, at the right time, the next steps will be revealed. I also sense, in a deep way, that I was never intended to make this journey alone.
And so here we are. In unknown territory. Touched by heaven, even here on earth.
I’m cooking potatoes on the stove. Or, “Irish,” as we call them here in Uganda. It’s 10:30am and I’m hungry. The day started pre-dawn early and so a mid-morning lunch seems perfectly appropriate. One day unfolds into the next and, lately, it seems best just to eat whenever hunger taps my shoulder. I have a soft blanket thrown around my shoulders because the doors and windows are open to a cool breeze. Henry sleeps at my feet. Clara and the puppies have been playing non-stop all morning. I think, by the sounds of it, they’re probably deliriously exhausted by now.
When I was in my early twenties I spent nearly a year in India. At the time, India was the homeland of my soul. A lot has changed since then, but that experience of time and place surely prepared me for so much. After Carl died, I thought that maybe I would return. Early in my grief journey, God had revealed James 1:27 to me in the first day of my first ever bible study. I was sitting in a circle of women who would eventually become some of my dearest friends. Several women were perhaps twenty years my senior, but it didn’t matter. I don’t remember a single moment without that strong sisterly thread weaving each of us to the next. The small white-painted, cinder-blocked church library held us together perfectly. We were reading James, Chapter 1. As someone read aloud, the rest of us followed along. When we got to the words of verse 27, my world shifted into something slightly indescribable, an immediate halt. The word “widows.” Something inside of me broke open. It felt impossible. It was both a description of me and the clearest glimpse of where my life would take me. I knew nothing yet. But suddenly something was more clear than I have ever known. Several weeks or months would pass before I eventually began to considered the number of widows in India. Maybe I’d go back. I didn’t have a whole lot more to lose. About that same time, there was a viewing of a documentary called “The Isle of Widows” (or something like that) at my church one Saturday afternoon. I went because I thought it would inspire me and maybe lead me towards a clue in how to read this muddy-valleyed map. The watching filled me with so much heaviness that I knew it was not where God would lead me. It seemed that place wanted to be sad. And because of that, somehow, I knew it wasn’t where I was supposed to go.
It’s funny but, as I write this, I become so entirely sick of writing about grief. I sat down this morning because I was spinning my wheels and didn’t know how to begin the day’s work. I prayed and felt God telling me to first find my joy. He gave me permission to set everything aside and simply write. It is, after all, what I really wanted to do. These moments pass quickly and, before I know it, entire months have passed without having set down a single word to paper. This is another type of mapmaking that feels so necessary to me these days. I woke up from so many nightmares and that same anxiety, again. Writing allows me to process in a way that nothing else does. No matter how many other things I have going on, I know I need this. It feels like time with God. Perhaps a selfish version of it, but I have to trust that if He leads me to the page then He’ll use it, even if only by allowing it to do its work within.
As I sit here, an employee brings a ripe, heavy pumpkin to the door. He’s come from the garden. I was feeling lost this morning, but as my hand drops several inches with the pumpkin’s weight, for three solid seconds I feel perfectly connected the moment. This pumpkin is small, but dense.
Since I’m in the kitchen, I heat up some spaghetti sauce, adding a few extra spices as I do so. I give each of the dogs a bite of freshly mashed potatoes. Ugandans don’t eat their potatoes mashed and so this is a special treat to me. I’ve added milk and butter and salt, just like my grandma does. Too much of each, which is what makes it taste so good. I put the creamy potatoes in a shallow bowl, the edges of it are rimmed in red and blue flowers. This particular bowl has a chip in it. Most of our dishes don’t match and I like it that way. I cover the mashed potatoes with spaghetti sauce. Simplicity at its finest. I learned of putting mashed potatoes and spaghetti sauce together one day in Kathmandu. After a solid six or seven or eight months of blissfully eating Indian curries, this unlikely “international” culinary combination tasted like the new idea I hadn’t even known I was looking for. I was sitting at an outdoor restaurant under a huge croton tree. Mind you, in the part of the world where I grew up (northern Minnesota), crotons are nothing more than small potted plants that we sold in my family’s flower shop. It staggered me to see so many “plants” the size of huge trees, including that croton. It still amazes me, even here in Uganda. Whether in India or Africa, the tropics have miraculous powers over things. Sometimes that power comes in dark forms as well. Disease has a similar way of thriving as do other living things.
I can’t keep writing. I need to move on to other work. But I had to sit down for just one moment to gather myself. I’ve been reading 2 Corinthians these days and especially loving The Message’s version. This morning I read 2 Corinthians Chapter 4.
“Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. It started when God said, ‘Light up the darkness!’ and our lives filled up with the light as we saw and stood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful….
If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives…You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do….
So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.”
~2 Corinthians 4
The image of an unadorned clay pot stays with me. Just like the weight of a pumpkin or taste of mashed potatoes with a tomato sauce. There is something so simple about all of it that anchors me to this one marvelous life God has given me. Never mind the bad dreams, the anxiety I felt upon waking or the lack of joyful presence in those first hours of early morning. There is incense burning and dogs snoring. We’re cutting grass outside and preparing for a Composting Workshop tomorrow. God shows up unexpectedly in these gardening endeavors. And somehow, in the span of all these paragraphs, I’ve managed to write myself back into the present.
“Too often we underestimate the power of
a kind word,
a listening ear,
an honest compliment,
or the smallest act of caring,
all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
~Leo Buscaglia, author
Last week I went to the village to check on one of our elder widows. When I began this work, I did not yet realize just how important the role of elder care would end up being. I also could have never imagined how rewarding this particular expenditure of love would be.
The people we work with have lived a life of backbreaking labor and raising many children (their own, others and also their grandchildren). Many times over they have lived through times of persistent hunger. They’ve lived through awful illnesses without the help of even an aspirin, let alone a doctor. They’ve lost not only their husbands, but almost all have also lost several children as well.
And yet. They persevere.
In life, there are times when that is what we all must do. I’m not interested in romanticizing poverty.
In the beginning, we ignorantly expected the same level of commitment from all the women we work with. It didn’t take long for us to begin to see (and more deeply understand) that the elders of our group were showing up to the work with a significant physical disadvantage. Their aging bodies have less energy, are more easily injured and have a higher propensity towards illness and infections. I spent many months trying to come up with a solution to lessen their workload without throwing the expectations of our group out of balance. Ideas bubbled to the surface, but when thinking it through further, the nitty-gritty details never seemed to hold water in the big picture. The younger widows in our group were already stretched to their limit with all the demanding tasks that go along with life in the village. Having them take on the extra burden of caring for our elder members did not feel like the answer we were looking for.
I continued to rack my brain for ideas to help give relief to our older widows, but I was stumped. Empty-handed and with a mind full of dead-ends, I’d come to the end of myself. The only other thing I knew to do? Pray. And every time I prayed, I heard the same words coming from the same anchored source: “Keep going. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
And so…not knowing how else to deal with the challenges that confronted us, we continued.
In January of this year, we held a workshop and meeting with all our women. In that particular workshop, we were teaching sewing and, in the cool, dirt-floored sitting room of Anna’s small home, I sat with a circle of widows discussing business plans and a way forward. We were also celebrating something remarkable: our first big produce sale! The only light in the room came from a small, wooden-shuttered window and an open front door, but the sheer amount of hope and JOY being shared in that room was palpable.
As always, we ended our time together with, what we call, our Joy Collective “Family Moment.” It is a time for everyone to speak about what is on their hearts and minds. We go around in a circle and everyone is given a chance to share in whatever way they feel called to do so. This particular Family Moment is one that I will never forget. Unlike the sharing at previous meetings and workshops where there was a lot of crying and complaining about sicknesses and challenges, this time around the women were practically bursting with happiness. We were experiencing real change! And not just the younger widows, but the elder widows, too.
When it became M.’s turn to talk, a 76-year-old widow who has also lost four children, she said,
“I’ve seen a lot of projects come and go in the many years that I’ve lived here, but in all these years, I have never seen a project like this one.”
Her words soaked into my bones in a way that could only come from God Himself.
Those words, coming from such an old woman, were the ultimate praise to the valuableness of our program. One after another, the women talked about the fullness in their hearts over what we were doing together. The elder women echoed a common theme: there had been people around them who tried to undermine, chastise and discourage them by telling them that they were wasting their time. With pockets full of honest-earned money and a glow in their eyes, they mirrored each other’s sentiments of happiness in having proved the naysayers wrong!
It was in that moment that I realized why God had been directing us to just keep going, continuing to include the elders in our plans just as we had from the beginning: as EQUALS. You see, what those women needed just as much as food or an income was to feel VALUED. At the end of the day, the elders of our group sold just as much produce (or more!) than any of the younger women. They had an important role to play in our group in showing us just how much is possible, even when things seem otherwise.
M. reminded everyone not to lose hope. Everyone nodded their heads in hearty agreement. The smiles that day were so big that they threatened to break open into tears. We had rounded a corner and everyone knew it. Yes, even the elders knew they were stepping into something amazing and new. Not a hand out, but something they themselves had created through their own hard work.
This, my friends, is what empowerment looks like. This is what God looks like. This is what Love looks like. It’s a glowing room full of women building a new life together, a circle filled with the JOY of hope and possibility. A room in which every single person feels seen and valued.
Yesterday was the third anniversary of Carl’s passing. I’m afraid that if I start writing that I might not be able to stop. I don’t know where to begin. There are too many things in these past many months that have been left unsaid. Life here in Uganda is always happening. It’s often messy and includes a complex weaving of stories that are not always mine to tell, at least not publically. Writing takes time. Untangling my thoughts from the complex intertwining of miracles and disappointments often takes more than I have to give. Which is unfortunate. Because God has been woven into every single detail.
It’s nearly noon. I’ve been sitting at my desk for nearly two hours. I’m reading about different strains of amaranth, pollination and seed saving. I’m reading about carrots and nutrient density in varied colors. I switch gears in search of an organic solution for the blight that is attacking our tomatoes and am nearly undone with excitement when, in the process, I also find a hearty handful of ideas of how we might get rid of the pests that are eating our cabbage and kale as well.
This morning, I went out to the garden in the light of the rising sun and again, later, to share my discoveries with Simon, our Joy Collective employee whom I work alongside in the garden. I was exhausted. Late to find sleep and early to rise. This place requires all of me. My fatigued state of mind made things seem more cluttered than usual. It made things shift shapes to look worse than they actually are. My walk in the garden felt discouraging. Blight, leaf eating pests and even rats stealing our vining plants in the night. The devil snickers at my tiredness and his success in causing me to notice all the threats from every angle. I always thought that northern Minnesota gardening was one of the most difficult places to grow food. Turns out I was wrong. I was so naïve. Despite being well traveled, my hands had not spent much time in dirt other than my own. Our rich glacial soils and cold winters that eradicate so much of what we struggle to keep at bay here in Uganda was a blessing that I never fully understood while racing those all-too-short growing seasons. This tropical environment gives forth a never-ending supply of challenges. The persistent heat of the tropics is just as unforgiving as any amount of snow and ice that my former environment had to offer. This place is designed to devour itself.
Whatever the case, my exhaustion was causing me to see things in ways that aren’t really true. The pest issue isn’t that bad and, honestly, most of the vining plants can still be replanted, even if for the third time. As for the blight, that story remains to play itself out, but I actually have more tomato seeds than I know what to do with and, with every challenge that arises, a massive amount of learning happens right along with it.
As for the wave of discouragement that had just washed over me, what I had on my hands was not a case of unredeemable failure, rather the strange and unpredictable run-off of grief, a backfill of emotion I had either experienced or escaped in the day before. Perspective is shifty.
I decided to go back to the house with the intention of allowing myself some rest. Since moving to Uganda, I find the benefits of rest to be both obvious and profound. I told Simon that I would return to the garden later with more encouragement. This place isn’t just teaching me about pest management in the garden, but also how to tend to what rises up within me, too. There is more than one way that this place will devour you, if you let it. My morning rest ended up taking the form of pouring over books and then getting too excited to sit still once I found myself fully footing down a rabbit trail of solutions.
At the moment, I sip tea from a fragile, but beautiful cup that I purchased yesterday. As I lift it to my lips to take a sip, it smells of smoke, the scent of a wood-fired kiln. I linger, enjoying the way the process of its creation is somehow infused into its very being. I doubt the cup will last long. It also smells of clay, a consequence of being fired at low temperatures. I don’t care. I’ll enjoy it thoroughly as long as it lasts with hopes that it holds its earthy smell no matter how many times it’s washed. The cup was a gift to myself. Something like a birthday gift, but different. The whole day was somehow a small act of quiet celebration. Three years now, Carl has been in Heaven. Three years since the day that, standing at the table in the swirling motion of Carl’s family’s kitchen, I gave my life to God. Carl and I both died that day. And then birthed into something entirely new. It has been the hardest three years of my life. But yesterday was less about my sadness than I expected. It was, instead, a tenderhearted day of quiet celebration. It was a day of beauty and friendship and fellowship. In deep ways, my day filled with gorgeous hearted people in moment after moment that I never even planned for. I made it through the day that I had so thoroughly dreaded.
As if yesterday could somehow be a birthday, I realize that this year ahead will be filled with something softer. The dark cave of grief that I’ve made my home out of for so long is asking to be tended to. God Himself has been whispering ever so gently into my very being. He tells me to carve out space and with that thought I notice the warmth of a small fire where it is darkest. It glows golden. I tend to my surroundings in a peaceful and loving way. Not hurried. Even my heart feels soft. Love fills the space, transformed. I open up my arms to allow in the prayers of those in pain. Somehow there is no end to how much can be gathered in. This soft, glowing cave, somewhere in the mountains of my heart, becomes a healing space not just for me, but for all who are drawn there.
I go back to the garden. With bare hands, I spread ash around the leafy plants, a circle of protection. The ash feels like death, but added to the garden it creates life. I enter into a new time and space, one which God has had waiting for me all along. Even this, right now. I give myself to it fully.
I’ve been slowly bringing seeds to Africa for just over a year now. I’ve been stock-piling, preparing, and mostly looking toward the great potential that awaits us. They are incredible seeds that can’t be found here, at least not easily. They are mostly heirlooms, including some unusual varieties. I brought with me seeds from all over the world: Guatemala, India, Thailand, France, Italy, Mexico, America and beyond. For the most part, they are seeds that will hopefully survive and thrive in a tropical environment, but some of our plantings will be purely experimental. Some seeds were purchased from specialty seed companies in the United States. Others were gifted to me by farmers, friends and family. I have several goals with these seeds, the most important being to MULTIPLY that which we’ve started with. My old farmer friend, Wild Bill, once told me, “If you don’t multiply, eventually you’ll die.”
Wild Bill comes from a time and place when, in order for your family to survive, you had to know how to raise your own food. If the cows or chickens or goats got eaten up or died before they had calves or chicks, well…eventually you were left with a whole lot of nothing. The same was true for the vegetable seeds. Neglect to save seeds and you’d be empty handed when it came time to plant the next season. These days, especially in the developed world, we don’t need to multiply anything except hopefully the numbers in our bank accounts. Or so we think.
In some ways, Africa is as old as time itself. Definitely older and, in a lot of ways, less sophisticated than even Wild Bill’s earlier twentieth century American experiences. In rural (and even urban) Uganda, the old ways of doing things still hold true when it comes to surviving in an economy that’s been left shattered by so much corruption, war and disease. Mix these ingredients with over-population and a serious lack of resources, education and social services and, in a very real way, you’ve got an empty-handed mess on your hands.
And so, these seeds aren’t just seeds. They are the potential for life, health, and income. They are food for a lot of people I know and love. Some of whom are dangerously close to a precipice of, literally, starving to death. These seeds aren’t hybrid or GMO. Their ability to multiply isn’t reliant on whether or not a person has the money or ability to buy more from a company whose greed has found a way to control one of the earth’s most precious gifts. In a sea of monocrops, the seeds I’ve carried with me to Africa hold a millennium of diversity.
These seeds play a role in the bigger picture of our survival as a planet, but even more specific to my role in this new journey is that they are the tiny pod-shaped coins that will hopefully make a difference in the lives of people whose names I know and whose children I love. To me, this is personal.
A little over a week ago, we planted our first seeds. It was a deep act of faith. There have been a lot of uncertainties in so many aspects of this work and especially in building a new life here in Uganda. The potential impermanence of it all has, at times, been staggering. One day I realized that God was giving me the opportunity to decide for myself what I want. Did I want to stay and invest myself in this particular property and at this time? He told me that, if I wanted to remain, I had to show Him by planting those precious seeds. Admittedly, I had been holding off. I was afraid that if I planted the seeds, something might go wrong and I wouldn’t see them grow into maturity. If that happened, all that seed collecting, dreaming and planning would somehow become a huge loss. There were a lot of reasons to hold off on planting. And yet, in God’s straightforward invitation to decide for myself, I knew with my whole being that my future was being decided by this one small act of faith. Of course, God knew all along what I would choose. But for the first time since Carl died, I felt myself making a decision from my own personal preference. It was a powerful moment. The sky became brighter when I realized from this new vantage point that what I wanted and what God was doing, were one in the same thing. A seamless, brilliant match. When I surrendered my life to God, I did so fully, completely. And now, here I was standing at the edge of a future in which God was giving me my freedom in the deepest possible ways.
I planted those seeds. And when I did so, I planted my faith firmly in a future that God Himself planned for me before I was even born. Perhaps a million times over, grief will be turned into life. May life be multiplied. May despair be continuously turned into joy. The day I made the decision to plant those seeds is the day that God gave me a freedom like I have never before known. It’s funny how the decision to root myself to this place is exactly the thing that has given me wings.
Thank you, Abba, for letting me find my way by first setting me free. You know my heart. Since the beginning of time…you’ve known. You’ve always, always known.
“Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.'” ~Genesis 1:29
The Parable of the Sower
“He replied, “The knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, ‘Though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’ Now this is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.” ~Luke 8:11
“A seed is a doorway between the life of the old plant and its gift to the new plant. Our teachers are the plants. They teach us that we have to be able to sacrifice something of ourselves in order to give something to the next generation.”
*Photos from our most recent seed saving, planting and propagation workshop in the mountains of Eastern Uganda. There is no greater Joy. My heart: http://www.theJOYcollective.org
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.