What has God been teaching you most?

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A dear friend sent me a message asking this question…

What has God been teaching you most?

Our friendship has never been shallow and I like that about her. It’s been two weeks and I’ve yet to respond because I can’t seem to come to any easy answer. I hope she understands the gift in this delay. At least…there has been a gift in it for me. I don’t mean to be selfish in holding back in the timing of my response, but you see…this question keeps rolling around in my mind and heart. As if tasting something for the first time. Something that holds complexity and richness. Something that tastes interesting and leaves you wanting more so that you might figure out what its made of. You roll its flavors over the surface of your tongue trying to taste and make sense of more of it more fully.

In my imagination, I am sitting on the mountain’s edge, at the home of one of the widows I work with, a slope of land covered in growing things. Look to the photo above. What you can’t see is that behind me and a bit to the left is the grave of Aidah’s husband. He died in a vehicle accident. Aidah and I are the same age. We lost both of our beloveds in a similar way and have been widowed for about the same length of time. In my imagination Aidah is sitting next to me. Both of us quietly considering the bigger picture, listening for what God has to say.

I like imagining Aidah sitting next to me because it’s tiring to always feel so alone. But surely God wants me to write something more uplifting than this? I wear weakness like skin and am almost always hurting. I imagine that Aidah is made of something stronger than me. Perhaps she thinks the opposite. I keep remembering the tiny tomato seedlings she had growing in a row along side a patch of newly sprouted cabbage plants awaiting the rains so that they could be transplanted. The tomatoes were spaced as evenly as my steps of which I was only a quarter of an inch from tromping them all until they were pointed out to me. I was horrified by how oblivious I had been of their presence. To me, tomato plants hold a special kind of promise. I’m not sure why.  Perhaps it is because I know that, when eaten, they fortify our blood and make us stronger. Perhaps it is because I’ve seen their potential for plentitude. On the side of that mountain, their small and sturdy leaves were made of a green that I found admirable. Rigorous and certain. But their stems, although healthy, were also immensely fragile. And isn’t that true of all of us?

Luckily, those little tomato plants survived my heavy footed, oblivious steps and I became at least a little more observant because of it. Aidah continued to show me her hard work and I began to see a pattern of immense planning and foresight in her endeavors. I saw possibility and faith in her newly dug garden plots. Things weren’t just growing, they were expanding upwards and outwards also. Her sloping plot of land was being turned into something much, much more than the three sack gardens we had started her out with in the months before.

Although I wish that I could be seated next to Aidah right now, I am instead sitting in solitude in my sister’s kitchen. An early morning thunderstorm has now turned into our first blizzard of the season. These days, one of the things I’m learning is patience in God’s timing…but also His patience in me.

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Photo credit: Safi Kitsao

This morning my friend, Safi, sent me a photo of an avocado tree that he planted earlier today. I met Safi last month, when both of us attended a PDC course in Kenya. Safi amazes me. He’s seventeen years old with a smile made of pure gold and resiliency. His brightness of mind and spirit is magnetic and, although often quiet, he is simply impossible to ignore. It doesn’t feel fair or polite to talk about another person’s burdens, but I will say that I like the way he planted this tree. I imagine he added compost at the roots, just like we learned to do in our permaculture course. I like the way he added mulch on top and even left a small depression of soil to better soak up water. The leaves are vibrant and strong. Even so, they need protection. Branches and brush. To me, this photo reads like a prayer.

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness…because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” ~Romans 8:26-27

God has been teaching me most about surrender and faith, humility, trust and patience. More than anything, God has been teaching me about the protection found in Him and that, when it comes down to it, He will use even this, this and, yes, even this. He’s been teaching me that when He answers one prayer, He often answers many. We are a complex web of cries that beg for some sign of hope and comfort and, as I stand within that web, I never imagined the need for so much protection. I’ve stepped somewhere deep. The ground is fertile with God’s love and the devil knows it. I feel the tension, even as I write these words. But God can’t and won’t be compromised. I lean into that promise knowing with my whole being that things are growing in the right direction. Upwards, towards Him and Him alone.

 

Joseph.

A white bird glides just above the surface of water so still that it reflects the sky. It’s hawk-like, but I can’t identify the species. Everything feels unfamiliar and strange to me. It’s my first full day back from the hot tropical coast of Kenya. I’m disoriented by the nakedness of the trees, stripped of their colorful leaves while I was away. A sharp reminder that I’ve returned to this northern Minnesota landscape with uncomfortable timing. In six days it will be Carl’s death date of two years. It happened just yesterday and a thousand years ago. In some ways if feels like it hasn’t happened at all…that I’m living some strange premonition that I just can’t seem to extricate myself from.

My last night in Kenya, I sat cross-legged on one of the couches in the common room of the eco-lodge where I was attending a PDC course. I was so hungry for a moment of peace and quiet. The rave/reggae/techno funk hadn’t stopped playing for two weeks straight and I was exhausted from the constant noise surrounding me. In an attempt to find my center, I would have liked to stayed planted in bed under the mosquito net of my grass thatched room, but I needed some dinner after not eating most of the day. And I needed a cup of tea. My journal sat on the coffee table in front of me with high hopes of being written in. It was what I wanted most from the day. Not a very lofty goal, but as night laid her darkness over the baobab and banana trees I saw my opportunity to make sense of the last two weeks in the form of journaling slip from reach.

My phone buzzed with a message and it was James. I read the words fast. Then read them again. I felt a wave of sickness well up inside of me.

Nandala Jane’s elder son is dead.

I hate writing this. And yet I need to write something. I hate the feeling of tears. I’m tired from two years of crying. I no longer know where to begin. I used to love writing braided essays, weaving the threads of thoughts and experience into something tidily poetic and sensical. These days, I feel as tho I more often just sit in a twisted up mess with words in my head instead of on paper.

Where does one experience end and another begin? Lunyolo, a young widow and member of The Joy Collective whose baby had just herself gotten out of the clutch of sickness, was now calling to tell us about a loss that knocked the wind from our lungs. Our sweet Mama Jane, one of the twelve widows we work closely with in the mountains of eastern Uganda, her son’s life snuffed out at the age of twenty-three. The call got cut off before Lunyolo was able to tell us more details. I knew only one thing: Jane’s son was gone. I wanted to vomit. Or cry. Or both. Jane’s loss hit me as if it were my own. I thought of Janet, Carl’s mom, and how strong she is but also how no amount of strength can save a mother from the pain she feels when she loses a child. I thought about Jane’s gardens. The ones we helped her build. At the foot of each garden is a grave. One belonging to her husband and the other to her son. And now…there will be a third grave, another son. Joseph’s.

Death, death and more death. Before I even had a minute to process this awful news, Jackson and Timothy, two of my course-mates, sat down next to me for a bit of evening small talk. I tried telling them what had happened, but it felt impossible to convey. I needed a moment alone, but I couldn’t figure out how to untangle myself. I felt bad for wanting to be alone in the first place. By that point, I had been wanting it for two weeks. Everywhere I went there was someone who wanted to talk. My plate full of pasta suddenly grew heavy in my hands. I set it down and wished I could find my way out of so much noise. My energy felt too heavy. I didn’t know where to put the shock of such sadness in a room so full of people.

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Jane had finally caught a break in life. She joined our group and, despite my initial assumptions that she might fail, she ended up surprising us all and has since become one of the most successful gardeners in the group. Jane grew so many vegetables that she began sharing with others also. That was a huge leap from the hunger that too often filled her belly in the months and years before. She figured out a way of plant care-taking and harvesting that kept her kale and spinach producing vibrant succulent greens for three seasons straight without replanting. She was doing so well that she ended up hosting and teaching the most recent workshop that was held with the other widows. On the day of the workshop she was beaming. For perhaps the first time in her life, she felt respected and empowered in a way that was changing her from the inside out. From learner to teacher, the light shone from her eyes so thoroughly that it took our breath away.

And now? Just as things were getting better…her beloved son, Joseph, dies. Just like that. He got sick; they got him to the hospital; he was gone within minutes. No definite reason. Just gone. I feel the words rising up into my throat and out of my mouth: It’s not fair. It’s just not fair.

Those words are useless. At midnight, just a few hours after receiving James’s message, I put my bags into the back of the taxi. With a heavy heart of mixed feelings I was headed to the airport so that I might return to the States one last time before moving to Uganda indefinitely. I sat at the edges of numbness until arriving in Istanbul thirteen hours later. In Istanbul, the airport terminal was busy with people, a teeming hub of movement in all directions. The chairs were filled with old turkish women and families and individuals from all reaches of the world. I found a place to sit along the raised ledge of a wall. I sat low to the ground with my head in my hands. It felt good to be low to the ground after so many hours in the air. And that’s when the tears let loose in a silent snot producing sob.

So much loss. And I was moving in entirely the wrong direction, away from Africa instead of towards it. I didn’t want to be traveling back to the States. Is this even home anymore? After two weeks in Kenya, my heart was aching for Uganda more than ever. The further away I traveled, the deeper that ache grew.

After 28 hours of flights and layovers, I eventually made it to Chicago. I sat with detached indifference, apathetically watching random Americans walk by dressed in Halloween costumes. It all seemed so odd, surreal. The corridors of the O’Hare Intl Airport felt cold and dull.

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When I met Joseph, he taught me how to braid rope. It’s work meant for men, but with a laugh he said it would be ok for me to braid rope too. He was sweet and welcoming. We sat together, along with Headmaster Moses who had accompanied me to translate, while we waited for his mother, Jane, to get home so that I could meet with her. Joseph’s home was right next to hers. We sat on tiny wooden chairs and waited, talking and getting to know each other in broken English. He stayed close to his mom during my visit. I could feel his love for her. Gentle, protective and caring.

I look at these pictures of him and can’t believe he’s gone. Before the details were confirmed, we hoped it wasn’t him that this had happened to. Death happens easily in Africa, but even so…it was too much, too unexpected. It’s too big of a loss. For the community, for Jane, for all of us. That I captured these photos of him, even that feels surreal. I took them back in December and can’t help but feel that, even then…God knew.

God knew that He would take him Home and He knew that Jane would need us. Just like God knew I would need Jesus before Carl died and so Jesus came to meet me two weeks earlier at baby Anna’s funeral.

These losses make my heart cry out in agony. And yet I see the divine orchestration of details and I cry out again in awe. Agony and awe, pain and comfort. The white bird flies sharply, quickly over the reflections of still water. Two days ago I was sweating in the tropics. Today I’m shivering in the cold, naked forest. I’m here and yet I’m there.

I see beauty in these photos that captured Joseph’s existence. Beauty that brings me to tears. Beauty that crushes me and pulls me forward nonetheless. Like energy, love never disappears, it only transforms. Even after the forest burns, new life grows greener than ever before.

Quite honestly, it’s more than I know what to do with. My journey to Kenya was a head-full. I felt strangely awkward and disconnected. I don’t have it in me to wrap up this writing with a neat and tidy ending. For now, just let me lay out these broken pieces so that perhaps, someday, I might be able to make better sense of them. For now, I just want to grieve with Jane. And, even as I write those words, I know I am also grieving for myself and for Carl and for a million other losses. I’m grieving for the world I’m giving up in exchange for a precious, precarious life in Africa. A life with even fewer guarantees than the one I am leaving behind. How beautifully fragile are we.

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Rest in peace, Joseph.

 

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.
~~~~~

 

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. 

Really we don’t need much, just strength to believe.

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The further I travel away from Africa, the more sad I become. It’s not supposed to be like this. I’m not supposed to feel this way. (but of course it does.) A few days ago I was looking forward to this brief journey back to the States. I’m moving out of my cabin and back into my lake studio for the next few weeks before wrapping up details “for good.” I was looking forward to the peace of that northern Minnesota lake, the vibrant greens and perhaps even the first touches of autumn if it comes quickly. I was looking forward to a bit of ease. The sort of ease that comes with living in a place were things happen, for the most part, as expected. Nothing happens as expected in Africa. Imagining a brief reprieve from the discomfort of constant irregularity of life felt enticing. I was looking forward to high speed internet, ice cubes, a good mattress, hot showers and snuggling my dogs. I was looking forward to using my blowdryer and using tap water to brush my teeth without worry.

But now, instead, I just feel like crying. I’m sitting in the Amsterdam airport. The construction has finally been completed and it is such a gorgeous place. Perhaps one of the nicest airports in the entire world. I’m enjoying good quality coffee with cream and sugar and even this is a luxury. It’s comfortable here. Morning sunlight fills the thoughtfully designed architecture. There is a flow of people from every corner of the planet. A convergence of cultures. I have 20 Euros to spend frivolously on food and drinks as I wait for my next flight. I have a long lay-over and am, surprisingly, grateful. I need time. I’m confused by how tight my heart feels to have left Africa, even for this short time.

Everywhere I look I see mothers with their daughters. Some of these daughters are teenagers, others quite young…all of them good travelers. They laugh sweetly with one another, in knowing ways. Their interactions with each other are simple and in-tune. Tears threaten again at the edges of my eyes. I’m tired of crying. I feel like I’ve been crying ever since Carl died. I find reprieve from those tears more often, but then they return and it feels like they never stopped. Tears have worn me out. I’ve become allergic to them.

I’m suddenly missing my Sharon so deeply that I can hardly stand it. Our time together was more challenging than I expected this time around. She waited earnestly for 6 long months for me to come back. True to my word, I returned. And then she stayed almost absolutely silent until her 9th birthday, just a few days ago. We went out for food and she sucked on the salt shaker. We went shopping for a new pair of school shoes and the store-keeper grew impatient. Then I grew impatient with him because I felt Sharon communicating everything to me, just not with words. People asked what was wrong with her. Is she mute? Can she talk? They asked this in many different languages. Yes, she can talk, I would answer. She is just very shy. She’s adjusting. She’s been through a lot. Give her time…just give her time. She’d look at people and frown. She’d look at me and frown. My heart wanted to break. She would occasionally allow for some ease by speaking in yeses (lifting her eyebrows) and no’s (shaking her head). I learned to ask questions in ways that we could yes and no our way to the necessary answers.

She was quick to let me know that she did, indeed, want to be with me. She didn’t want to go back home. She didn’t want to be any where else. But her silence…I wasn’t prepared for it to last so long. I found myself wondering if I had made a giant mistake. I no longer understood my role. Intellectually, instinctually, maternally…I knew that my job was to just keep loving her. Just keep giving her kisses. Just keep holding her when she allowed me to. Just keep trying my best to invite a smile to transform her over-serious frown. And that’s hard to do when you’re hot and tired and everything else is going seemingly wrong, too. Then I’d find a “love note” in the form of a drawing or a video she made on my phone, something she had recorded in the morning while I was in another room. In these messages, she’d tell me how much she loves me. Other times she’d sing a quiet song, just loud enough so that I could hear. She’d play with Ashraf, the four year old boy who we lived with for 3 weeks and eventually, while playing, she would forget herself and out would come that bright little voice of hers. It was the fuel I needed to carry on with her otherwise endless silence.

It was on her 9th birthday that she finally broke open into a flood of chatter and smiles. It was the gift of a doll that she had been wishing for that finally brought her into the sunshine of verbal communication. She named the doll Mary and a whole new world seemed to open up. The whole day opened her up.

And then it came time for me to leave. Again. I did my best to prepare her for this month ahead. Yet another change. More waiting.  Keep it light, I told myself. It felt wisest not to make a big deal about it. We did things that made her feel happy and loved. I hugged her big before she left for school early-early-early on Monday morning. She seemed ok. I was relieved. She’s been abandoned too many times in her little life. I didn’t want my leaving-taking to be as traumatic as the last. It’s too much for her. It’s too much for either of us. She was ok, but then the reality of the situation started to hit her once she got to her school yard. Just like the reality of the situation is starting to hit me now…here, two days later in the Amsterdam airport. I’ve assured Sharon that I will be back soon. I’ve assured her that she’ll be well taken care of while I’m away and that we can talk on the phone every day. And now it seems that it’s time to begin assuring myself that very same thing.

I make an effort to stop this heavy train from moving in the wrong direction. I’m tired of being sad. I don’t want to be sad anymore. I’m ready for something different. In every moment, things are being reconstructed. A new life is being formed. There is a massive amount of planning and preparing to do before I return to Uganda indefinitely. It’s exciting if I allow it to be. There was one big challenge after another during this past month in Uganda…and with each challenge, I felt the presence of God. Strongly. Tweaking details in all the right days, preparing me. Each time bringing us to bigger, brighter and better outcomes. I have a million things to write about. And, oh God, I so very much want to do just that.

There’s nothing easy about Africa. And yet…
my heart doesn’t seem to care.
There’s nothing easy about any of this. And yet…
somehow it is enough. There will always be enough.

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Enough :: by Sara Groves

Late nights, long hours
Questions are drawn like a thin red line
No comfort left over
No safe harbor in sight

Really we don’t need much
Just strength to believe
There’s honey in the rock,
There’s more than we see
In these patches of joy
These stretches of sorrow
There’s enough for today
There will be enough tomorrow

Upstairs a child is sleeping

What a light in our strain and stress
We pray without speaking
Lord help us wait in kindness

Really we don’t need much
Just strength to believe
There’s honey in the rock,
There’s more than we see
In these patches of joy
These stretches of sorrow
There’s enough for today
There will be enough tomorrow

the middle distance.

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I’m enthralled. I’ve only made it to the xviii page of the introduction of this book and I’m afraid my highlighting pen is going to run out of florescent yellow juice in its trail of interest.

Oh my God, where do I even begin? It feels like it’s been a hundred years since I’ve truly written something here. I’ve been so hungry to untangle the words from my experiences and place them on the page where I might see them better. But life keeps coming at me and, quite frankly, sometimes its messiness and confusion is not meant for public consumption. Other times, the days are simply ticking off more quickly than I can get my fingers to the keyboard. Ahh, but today? I’ve taken the day off, or at least mostly. Something I have only done a couple times since I returned home from Africa back in January. As to be expected, the quiet of today has been good for me.

I’ve been feeling a multitude of emotions lately, but one that seems to be the most consistent is anticipation.

[an-tis-uh-pey-shuh n]

1. the act of anticipating or the state of being anticipated.
2. realization in advance; foretaste.
3. expectation or hope.
4. intuition, foreknowledge, or prescience.

Oh, but my very most favorite definition of anticipation is musical.

5. a tone introduced in advance of its harmony so that it sounds against the preceding chord.

As I consider the nuances of that last definition, I can practically hear the notes rolling off of Carl’s guitar. I miss him like crazy and am also grateful beyond measure to have him as my Best Angel, always at my side–with me, watching over me, working in my behalf–a connection allowed by God alone.

That “tone introduced in advance of its harmony so that it sounds against the preceding chord” has been causing a certain amount of pressure, as if walking into the wind. It’s a feeling of “tipping into.” It requires a strange stamina to hold such deeply gorgeous, tenuous notes as my life moves into the cusp of this very tangible transition. An unfolding. It’s a stamina built of complete surrender. Were there ever two more opposite states of being? And yet it seems to be what this song is made of. I seek some sort of harmonization in the balance between being effective in my forward motion and malleable in God’s grace. Often, lately, there seems to be some sort of pressing: between action and stillness, confusion and certainty, inspiration and doubt, clear vision and mystery, strength and softness.

I’ve been referring to this time in my life as the middle distance. Thankfully, it’s no longer that horrible valley I found myself in all those months after Carl’s death. No, that place was a low, dry, dead, anxiety-ridden place.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. ~Psalm 23:4

This middle distance is made of higher ground. And yet it is neither here nor there. There are greener things awaiting growth in this space. There is hope and possibility. There is also a fair share of impatience and discomfort. There is disorder.

As I prepare to wrap up my life here in the States and move to Africa, I find a whole mess of emotions to sort through. A couple weeks ago, I managed to go through most of my possessions. I sold much of them and, believe me, it was no small endeavor. Memories of Carl are written into so much of it. Going through my things is much more difficult than a simple move. There’s not a whole lot about moving to another continent that is exactly simple, but doing so after you’ve unexpectedly lost the love of your life, well…it comes with its own sort of exaggerated doses of both freedom and pain.

Carl is woven into all of this; I can’t undo him, nor would I want to. That in itself leads me to a place of both sadness and comfort. Ah, but then there is Sharon, waiting for me on the other side of all that needs to be done. I have never in my whole life felt so motivated by another human being to accomplish so much. My dear Sharon…oh, that girl. She has changed me forever. What a beautiful song this would be if I could just hear it played out loud with these earthly ears.

This desire to live out God’s call on my life is strong. I find myself willing to walk any landscape to do what I feel is being asked of me. There’s a part of me that would like to think that, on the other side of this middle distance, there is some sort of Ugandan tropical paradise just waiting to wrap its arms around me and tell me I’ve finally come home. But I know better than that. For the first time in my life, I understand why people are willing to lose their lives or go to prison for their believe in God. I’ve become one of those people. I find myself willing to traverse those places, if it were asked of me. I’ve come up against a hard reality: and that is in realizing that not everyone wants to see this work succeed.

And yet…

I know God is protecting me. He has been putting me through the rigors of some deep pruning, even now. Already. I feel the adventure hasn’t even TRULY began and, wow. Perhaps I’ve underestimated what this next chapter might entail.

God continues to draw me forward with incredible amounts of learning. He’s planted within me an excitement to see things grow. Really grow. Plots of land abundant in food and resources. As I begin working on permaculture projects with a group of Ugandan woman, I find myself stepping into a whole new world. The vision of this draws me forward. My work with Harriet and our sisterhood of widows awaits. Building a home and a family with my little Sharon awaits. Mentoring women and children to step into their fullest, God-given potential awaits and is already being knit into being. Even from the middle distance: I can see something worth walking towards on the horizon.

God has asked me to be a part of something extraordinary. And, still, I say YES.

 

The ultimate surrender of no return. 

 


As I unpack and regroup after the whirlwind of action in these past couple of weeks, I find myself feeling stunned and maybe even a little amazed by the intensity of it all. That is, I’ve been running so fast and working so hard that there hasn’t even been time to neatly experience or make sense of things along the way. I just got back home today. It feels like I’ve been away for a long time and, in a way, I have been. As I was attempting to unearth all the clutter from the kitchen counters after the flurry of so much activity, I found a gift that my friend gave to me a couple weeks ago at a women’s retreat that I attended and had been asked to speak at. It is such a special gift from someone very dear to me and, something about finding it woven into the whirlwind of movement and change really struck me deeply. It caused me to stop. It caused a few tears to fall for no other reason than powerfully simple release.

I don’t know when it happened, the exact moment of “no turning back,” but it did happen and now I find myself moving at an ever increasing speed in that direction. I stop and cry again, even as I write this, because the truth is that I do know the exact moment of no return. It is the day of Carl’s death. The moment I gave my life to God while standing next to the Bratlien kitchen table, looking somewhere in the direction of Barbarah’s highchair, the light green wall, and the window that I was not even looking out of. It was the moment when everyone else was talking and I was somewhere else entirely…giving my life to God.

Yeah, so I guess this is what it looks like to give one’s life to God. It’s a giant mess. It’s the biggest faith leap. It’s the ultimate surrender. At its center it is truest peace, deepest purpose, a confidence that is not my own.

Eventually, I’ll get the clutter sorted. This part here in the middle is the part that simply requires all of my faith. Like the hundreds of paintings I’ve done over the past 8+ years, there is this part where it all looks like a giant mess, a failure, a weird attempt of the impossible. But I’ll do my best to live like I paint: as a channel for God. I’ve never taken credit for my paintings because I have always felt that they aren’t “by me,” rather simply “thru me.” Painting is one thing, but submitting my entire life to this way of being is another thing entirely.

For now, my prayer is this:

God bless this mess.

There’s no turning back now. I wouldn’t want to, even if I could. Abba, I love you beyond measure. I’m yours. Even in those dark places I’d rather not go, you are my candle, my light, my safety, my reassurance. Let my life be the next painting.

Amen.

with new eyes.

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This weekend I opened up my wee little tiny cabin to my friend, Brittany. She’s a mama of 3 and rarely gets time to herself. She works hard and is always taking care of everyone else before herself. Brittany was a long time friend of Carl’s, although I didn’t come to know her until after he passed away. One thing about Carl is that he had a whole world full of beautiful friends. He loved those who were a part of his life dearly and, even tho there were countless people, he made everyone feel like they were a best friend. The thing is tho, is that it was true. His friendships genuinely were that real.

With both of us having busy schedules and full lives, Carl and I had to work pretty hard to spend quality time with one another. In the process of making that time together, we didn’t get all the opportunities we would have liked to introduce each other to our different worlds of friends. Anyway, we had our whole lives ahead of us. There would be time later. But time got cut short. And so it is that many of my friends now only know Carl from what I have written about him. The church where we held Carl’s funeral, one of the biggest in town, was filled with people who loved Carl…from wall to wall to wall. The day was a blur, one that I only just barely survived. It was the day that I met so many more of Carl’s friends. The beauty is that many of them have remained a part of my life and we have begun creating meaningful friendships of our own. Carl filled his life with good people. Hard working, down to earth, generous, loving people. Brittany is one of them and I know without a doubt that Carl is happier than ever to be a part of our connection.

Since returning home after my first trip to Africa, I find that I no longer take very many photos of everyday moments. I used to all the time. But these days I can’t seem to be bothered. Everything looks grey and lifeless, broken down, dirty, uninspiring. I feel like a broken record, but it has been hard to be back home. Every day here is often nothing more than a reminder of all that is gone. I think about Sharon and the women I’m working with in Africa and can’t help but feel that is where my “real” life is waiting.

I find moments of reprieve when I am with my horses. I go out into the pasture to feed them and, after throwing the hay over the fence, I smile with the snort and snuffle, their words of gratitude, while I respond with my own sing-song of “you’re welcome.” I duck between the barbwire and rub down each horse. As I walk up to Colorado he bends his neck around and encloses me against his side. It’s his way of saying thank you, I love you. It is his hug and I get one daily. It is the one moment of every day that I feel fully present. Yes, even here.

Once I walk away from the horses, the blur picks up speed and dullness all over again. There are moments of incredible inspiration when I find time to work on Africa-related tasks. I struggle to carve out the time I need to process so much goodness and transition. If I had that time, perhaps it would make the tasks related to old commitments a bit easier. But let’s face it: this earthly life was never intended to be perfect. I fluctuate between extreme agony in needing patience to attend to all the things I must do before I can leave and sheer panic that I’ll never accomplish it all in the short time that I have. My time-line, I should mention, is entirely self-created. Even so, it feels carved into a rock that is not entirely my own and, believe it or not, I feel comfort in that. It reminds me that something bigger is at work and, whatever is meant to be, is going to happen, despite my failings.

I want to shrug off all my struggles and grieving once and for all. But it doesn’t work that way. I know that. The thing I didn’t know was how giving up the comfort of my cabin for a night would end up being such a great and much needed gift to me. This evening, while in my studio, Brittany texted me a whole pile of photos from her stay. They took my breath away. I instantly felt a nostalgia in looking at them. A fondness, as though looking into an easier past. My everyday world through the eyes of another. I found it beautiful. The quirky wall of spices and tea. My cat, Viscosa, at the window. A shelf lined with an eclectic mix of antiques, cups, and whatnot, along with the view beyond: oak trees outside my kitchen window. The wine and treats I left for Brittany to make her stay feel a little more inviting. Even the cracked window overlooking the lake became something worth appreciating.

Experiencing my world through Brittany’s eyes was something I needed more than I could have known. There have been dead parts inside of me and, over time, they’ve begun to spread in ways that are dangerously invisible, like an ugly noxious weed with roots underground. I don’t want to live with the feeling of so much deadness, even in this time of “in between.” It is the sort of deadness that has begun to take up space even where the emptiness of grieving has left off. Without even realizing it–through her photos, her heart, her way of seeing–Brittany brought my world out into the light and, in doing so, has helped return those lifeless places back into being.

Brittany gifted me with a journal in exchange for her much needed retreat. The words she inscribed in the cover’s pages could not be more fitting. Today I am glad to have eyes for a new way of seeing. There are comforts and a quality of light to be cherished. Yes, even here, right now, in this very moment.

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Photo credit: Brittany Sand. Images Copyright Brittany Sand 2016.

Miracle thinking.

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Yesterday I went to the post office for the first time since returning home from Uganda. I’ve been home for a week and a half now. I guess you could say that I’ve been avoiding certain aspects of my life. For unknown reasons, the post office was one of them. BUT then a dear friend, Jean, told me to keep a lookout for something special she was sending. I’m glad. I like the way God answers our prayers in such clever ways. As I drove towards the post office I prayed for grace. It was late. I felt anxious and depleted. I was not yet aware of God’s cleverness in that moment. Instead, I was making a grocery list in my head, considering the idea of cookies or brownie mix, even tho I really don’t need to be eating either. I realized that I was missing sweetness in my life and I asked God to help me with that, too.

Truth be told, the only thing I was expecting to find in my post office box was bills and junk mail. I found plenty of both of those…but what I didn’t expect to find was a box filling to the point of overflowing with Christmas cards and even a few packages. Wow! Christmas…and it’s nearly February! Needless to say, the discovery made me realize just how long I had been gone. No wonder my life here in Minnesota still feels so weird. I opened one of the packages right there in the post office. The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo. I love books, but this one is special. The package didn’t have a name on it, but I knew who it was from: Jean! What an angel. After losing my Kindle on the flight home, she sent me this second copy of the book in paper form. I went home and opened up the next box, this one was from my friend Lyndsi. It was filled to the brim with love: a beautifully warm scarf, a soft hat, some delicious winter tea and, my favorite (although she didn’t even know it) pure maple sugar candies! Dear Abba, thank you. I asked for grace and sweetness…and what did I receive? Yep, you guessed it: exactly that.

This morning, I cracked open the pages of my new book for the first time. I read it while drinking my first cup of coffee. Afterwards, I went outside to feed my two hungry horses and, because the brittle winter temps have risen just enough to be considered enjoyable, I meandered slowly down the long driveway as my dogs ran through the snow and looked for things that only dogs know of. I thought about my presence here in these northern woods, in this place called winter, in this land that I once called home, but now feels so foreign and strange. I was in a pretty good mood, despite these feelings of ongoing displacement. I was making a list in my head. There were two columns. On the left was my life here in the USA and on the right was my life in Africa. This was broken down yet again into another two categories: advantages and disadvantages. My preferences were starting to weigh heavily in the direction of Africa and, it was then that Albert Einstein’s words echoed in my head.

There are two ways to live your life.
One is as though nothing is a miracle.
The other is as though everything is a miracle.
~Albert Einstein

I began working on evening out my two lists. Before I was even 10 steps further down my driveway, with refreshed eyes, I began to see my time here in the United States between now and moving to Africa as being equally advantageous in the grand scheme of things. In doing so, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. An acceptance of the now, just as it is. I heard a wood-pecker tapping on a tree just to my right and, although I couldn’t see my woodsman feathered friend, Carl’s presence filled the moment. I felt encouraged. As I walked back to the cabin, a sense of God’s orchestration settled in around me. Peace. A juxtaposition. My dog Ella ran past, kicking up white snow with cabin-fever glee, dodging the black stumps of pine trees along the way. Perfectly imperfect. It’s all up to us how we approach the details.

Gifts and hardships seem to walk hand in hand. This morning I breathed into that reality and settled into the miracle of what is. I lift my head with a new sense of willingness to be here now. God’s grace is needed in every step, no matter what side of the earth I might find myself walking.

 

The Heart of Home.

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Lillian, Sharon and Aullelia.

My tears froze before ever hitting the ground as I stepped off the stairs descending from our little small town plane and onto the ice-encrusted tarmac of the Bemidji airport this morning. At 3am we flew over the stiffly frozen tundra of northern Minnesota. Last leg of a long journey and everything felt painfully barren. Lifeless. Cold. In that moment of avian first sight, the stark contrast from the colorful equatorial landscape I left behind was almost too much to bear. The temps are well below zero, a different world than I traveled away from 5 weeks ago when I left for Uganda. The disharmony in weather feels impossible. So does the discomfort of my heart. It’s fibers are stretched too far. I struggle to find the love I once held for this place. Everything here reminds me of Carl, a cruel imitation of a life that no longer exists. I wasn’t expecting that. I never seem to be prepared for the grief that rises so unexpectedly to the surface. I don’t plan for these things because, quite honestly, at this stage I prefer to avoid the anguish of grief altogether. Ok, so it happens. In retrospect, I always remember that I’m better off if I just allow myself to flow through it.

Flying over the inky, frigid landscape of home made me realize that perhaps one reason I’ve so thoroughly fallen in love with Africa is because it offers me a new beginning in all it’s differences. When I’m in Africa, everything is new. I often think of Carl, even while I’m there, but usually those thoughts are about how much he would enjoy it. I am comforted because, in those moments, I can feel him smiling down on me, happy to see me so happy. But coming home? That’s a different matter entirely. For the first time in my life, as I walked from the the door to the baggage claim, I heard my lips utter the words: I hate this place.

As I write this, the first light of dawn is just barely starting to sift itself out of the darkness. Everything is taking on a silvery blue quality…the trees, the snow, the sky. The animals were beyond crazy with happiness over my homecoming. I was flooded with kisses and whimpers and snuggles. I whimpered and kissed and snuggled with happiness right back. The house was cozy warm and so beautifully clean and cared for. I took a hot shower and am cleaner than I’ve been since I left 5 weeks ago. I called a friend in Africa because it is still only mid-afternoon there. I made a cup of instant (African) coffee, just like I would if I were still there.

And bit-by-bit…the gratitude starts filling up the sharp, cold edges of things. I feel love even in the richly patterned red rug under my feet.

I’ve been home for approximately 4 hours. After many, many years of looking, I’ve finally found my home and, mostly, it is not here. It’s in a place filled with banana trees, mountains, red soil, malaria and a million stars. But there is that other part of home…the one that is and will always be Minnesota. In this northern landscape I remember the Jessie who loves winter. That version of myself feels like a different lifetime ago, but I know she still exists somewhere inside of me and, for that, I am grateful because she’s the one who is going to get me through this time of in-between. That resilient side of myself…the one that got me to Africa in the first place. Yeah…she’s the one I will need to call on…over and over and over again. My life got filled even fuller with even more love and purpose than I thought possible. It’s not even about me anymore. My heart beats a different rhythm now…but I’m sure I can find that rhythm even here among stiffly frozen trees. Inside the depth of winter is always the urgency towards renewed life.

Dear Abba, thank you for the map you’ve made for me. I’m happy with where we’re going. XO