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

First Morning.

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It was our first morning in the village. We had arrived late at night, after barely making it up the mountain in our taxi van. We slid off the road and got stuck just as we pulled into our new home. It was dark. Pitch black. Not even a sliver of moon. The kids ran so happily around us in the dark, singing and all clamoring to help us carry our bags, to hold our hands. Their little hearts were bursting, the feeling carrying me through the dark to wherever it was we were going. The guest house was a confusing twinkle of light at the edge of the earth. I really had no idea where we even were…but didn’t care. I knew only one thing: I liked it.

In the morning, after a good sleep, I walked out one door and was met with an awe-inspiring view of the mountains. I went back inside, made a cup of coffee and then walked out the other door to this. The sun was rising on a new day.

I felt at ease.
I felt at home.
I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

{originally posted to facebook Nov 11, 2015}