5 months.

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Super-saturating the sky above my studio is always an option, especially when my heart feels saturated too.

It’s been 5 months.

I never imagined myself being the sort of person that kept track of these sorts of things. Then again, I never imagined I would be riding shotgun with such significant loss.

Not too long after Carl’s passing, a woman named Stacy reached out to me. She was about my age and also recently widowed. She was 5 months into her grief and, at the time, I remember pondering what a great mystery that distance felt like to me.

I assumed that Stacy was a friend of Carl’s since, after his death, I was getting a lot of messages from his friends. They shared condolences and stories and, quite honestly, those connections helped (and continue to help) in about a million ways. However, in a sea of new names and faces, my connection with Stacy stood out for some reason. Not only because she was in the middle of a brutal loss all too similar to mine, but…I don’t know. We simply found it easy to lean on each other.

It wasn’t until finally meeting Stacy in person that I realized she didn’t even know Carl. With stupefied wonder, we thanked Facebook’s strange algorithms for our chance meeting.  The men we had planned to marry had died just 3 months apart and were now buried in the same tiny cemetery tucked far-far-away in the woods, a peaceful place that only locals seem to know how to find. How unlikely. How strange. This new friendship, how perfectly God-sent.

My friendship with Stacy has taken on a life and goodness of its own. I am still in awe of the way the right people have come into my life at just the right time. Stacy…and others, too. Along the way, five months turned into some sort of mental bench-marker. Without rhyme or reason, it lodged itself into my head and there it stuck. I wasn’t consciously waiting for it, but I did know that one day it would just happen. And that’s exactly what happened. I woke up (late)…and half way into my first cup of coffee, I realized it was here.


I started writing the post above on April 8th. I wish I could have written more, but God said: “go to bed.” And, from there, it seems He is doing the rest of the work in my heart, at least until it comes time to write again. Five months didn’t come with ease and very little grace. And yet…there was grace. And a renewed wave of grief, complete with snot and tears and deep gratitude and more tears. There is so much depth and intricacy to all of this, and yet there are times when the human mind simply cannot construct the complexities in any manageable version of expression.

And so here I am. Showing up with undeveloped thoughts and a life that’s still sifting through.

What I will say is this: God is good. Even in the worst of it all, He has given me everything I need, every step of the way. I publish this here, now, only to remind myself that I am merely a work in progress. I am willing, dear God. To do this work, I am willing.

brown rice and spanish horses.

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My eyes are tired. My heart aches. I’ve cried a lot these past couple days. It comes unexpectedly, in waves. It began last night with a remark about remembering a time when you heard the desperate, all-too-real sound of sorrow. I was watching a video with a group of women, half of whom I don’t even know. Oh God, please no. Not now. This hits too close to home. I brace myself against the inevitable. Carl’s sister, Christine, is sitting next to me.

I set my coffee cup down on the floor, grab a Kleenex from my purse.

I accomplish neither before I’m sent colliding into my own internal, wailing memory. The phone call. The one that has replayed itself in my head every single day since it happened. It was morning. I was out walking my dogs in the woods, at a curve in the trail, surrounded by pine trees, the ground covered in new snow. The whole world unraveled and all I hear is my own nightmare-stricken voice…NO-NO-NO-NO-NO-NO-NO…even before I hear what is needing to be said. Something inside of me already knows what I’m going to hear and I’m screaming NO, trying to stop it, undo it, make it not real. Please God, don’t let it be real. Tell me I misunderstood. I didn’t hear right. Please, stop the terrible, unthinkable wreckage that is happening inside of me, my whole world. Stop this loss of everything in my heart. Gone. Please, God, no. Let me out. Let me out of this horrible, unthinkable, impossible news. NO-NO-NO. This cannot have happened. But it did.
It did.

The sound of my own sorrow. All these months later, the memory still deafens me.

I feel Christine’s arms around me, hugging me. I think my body might crumble, but somehow we manage to create a soft net in the outreaching of our arms that holds us through. I hear someone behind us crying also. These losses, they’re all too real. And we’re all too human. Profoundly fragile, even the strongest of us.

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Revelations 21:4

Today though, the sun is out. It feels good/It makes me sad. Sunshine mixed with the warm weather of spring confuses me. My emotions come too close to the surface. I feel like Carl should somehow be a part of all this sunshine, but he’s not. At least, not in the way I expect him to be. My make-up was wiped away by tissues and tears long before I even leave the house. I go to an early morning appointment and then the studio. I drink my coffee with cream. There is something comforting about that, a little luxury, since I more often drink it black. The studio is aglow with the warmth of sunlight.  I sit on cushions on the floor. I write for awhile, but don’t paint. I feel gratitude for the canvas sitting on the easel and its willingness to wait for me until tomorrow.

These tender days, they still happen. The sun continues to shine. My heart travels entire continents of emotions. I’m peaceful, then agitated, then grateful. I get swallowed whole with sadness, then decide to give up on whatever I’m working on and instead give myself over to editing some Lusitano and PRE photos from Spain. Yes, horse medicine. Sadness gives way to the grace and strength contained in those images. I am in awe of the beauty I’ve witnessed in this world. I wonder where life without Carl will lead me. My heart has been forever altered. Surely, this could be a gift if I allow it to be?

I try to imagine what heaven feels like. I attempt to plug into this feeling as directly as possible. This feeling of Home, I turn it into a map. A conduit, a pathway for every next step. In these moments, I feel closer to God, I feel Carl’s tremendous peace and happiness. I feel some of heaven’s presence on earth. It does exists, in glimpses. Only glimpses, all along. It is all our earthly selves can handle.

I get hungry. I make brown rice. Eventually, the cabin fills with it’s warm scent. I intended to make a vegetable curry to go along with it. But the rice smells so good. I eat it straight from the steamer I cooked it in. I am satisfied in it’s simplicity. I remember that I will be ok. I will make it through. I experienced God in a hundred different ways today. Brown rice and Spanish horses. Little by little, my heart begins to mend.

For breakfast: coffee steam and candles.

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I’ve been obsessed these past two days with getting this blog up and running. Everything published before this post was originally written and shared on Facebook. I’ve gathered those posts here for the sake of congruity and perhaps even for safer keeping. I’m grateful for the space and connection Facebook originally provided, but at some point, it became difficult and inappropriate to share my heart on such a haphazard platform. I had entered a desert. The lowlands. It stretched out in front of and behind me, in seeming infinity. It was a place of dirt and dry earth. There were mountains, but they were in the distance and only served to contain me in that low spot. I needed to walk alone for awhile, in that deep valley of sadness. And, in doing so, my faith walk got deeper, too.

As I write this, it dawns on me that Jesus also spent 40 days and nights in the desert. This was about the same amount of time that I spent in my own dusty barrenness. I’m not saying that I am like Jesus, but it should not surprise me that there is something to be said for the sacredness in this time of desert walking and wordlessness.

It has been 4 1/2 months since Carl died. It seems like an agonizingly long time and yet, as the days and months and years will continue to pass between us, I know that someday I will look back on this day and realize that the distance between now and then was miniscule. But time stretches. It shrinks and expands and then doubles back on itself.

For over a week I have found myself, for the first time, suspended in a place of happiness, inspiration, hope, even giddiness. I have felt energized by some strange and unexplainable joy. It felt like God. It was God. It is God. It felt impossible to feel so much joy in the face of so much loss. I don’t fit the mold of what I imagine grieving “widows” of unexpected tragedy to look like.  Yet I also know that is what Carl loved about me. That is, he loved my optimism and passion for life. And that is what I loved most about him. Of course, God knows that even the unspeakable loss of the man I loved with my whole heart could not stop this life force within me, even tho, at first, I so badly wanted it to. I am both devastated and satisfied in a way that I’ve never before experienced. I cry as I write this. I feel like a conundrum, an oxymoron, an absurd paradox. All last week I was on the verge of breaking out of my skin with a renewed sense of euphoria and hope. Today I simply feel like I’ve made it to the edge of the valley where I will sit and rest for a moment before continuing my walk into the foothills and, eventually, someday, maybe even the mountains.

I created this blog so that I might have a space that I can more openly write about my journey through grief. I’ve been a wanderer my whole life, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would travel through a landscape like this. All I know is that, like Jesus after his 40 days and nights in the desert, I am hungry. But it is a strange hunger. Not for food, but for more of God.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” ~Matthew 4:1-4

As I write this, I once again notice how Carl’s bible smells like him. Somehow, in drawing close to God, I feel closer to Carl, too. I draw close, not for Carl, but because of him. I draw close because this is what was meant for me all along.

“I am a bow on your hands, Lord.
Draw me, lest I rot.
Do not overdraw me, Lord. I shall break.
Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break?” ~Nikos Kazantzakis

For those of you who have found me here and are reading these words, thank you for journeying with me. I pray that, even in breaking, grace might be found.

with love and honesty,
Jessie

my sentinel.

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Yesterday I filled the water trough for the horses, a simple job requiring Herculean efforts, a laborious blessing. My two horses, Colorado and Dakota, have a way of dragging me out of the house in a way that nothing else can. The water is on the other side of this 30-some acre property and so that means I need to drag my tired sad self down the horse trail between my cabin to the water spigot and trough near the barn. This, of course, makes the dogs happy. Especially Louie and Ella who are used to going with me and saying hi to all the neighbor dogs in the process. Henry, he has fun, too…but he stays closer to me than he would have in the past. I’ve somehow been adopted by him in ways that I would have never expected. We’ve become each other’s safe zone. Henry, although small, is bit of a renegade, Carl’s perfect match. But despite his toughness, I also see the vulnerability that’s emerged through this experience. He snuggles in tight. He listens to me better than he ever listened to Carl. We keep an eye on each other. We both understand, all too well, the hugeness of what we’ve both lost.

We get to the gate near the barn and are met by 3 of the neighbor dogs, 2 yellow labs and a big strong mutt. Henry jumps into my arms until he’s decided that he’s big enough to outnumber them all. 6 dogs total. Enough to start a gang. They play for awhile, but then I take them back home and return to filling water for the horses. The trough is full. I am empty.

I walk back down the trail through a forest of pines and am a little bit awed by the flatness of everything. Since being in a relationship with Carl, the trail between the barn and cabin had taken on a new life. It had started to SPARKLE. With possibility. With love. With partnership. I’ve never owned horses before. When I took on their care, I really had no clue what I was doing. All I knew is that I loved them and that I needed them as much as they needed me. I’ve been figuring it out along the way, little by little by little, and still am.

But then came Carl and suddenly there was someone in my life who the horses loved as much as me and who loved them as much as I do. Colorado and Dakota fell in love with Carl instantly. They trusted him completely. The realization that I had found the perfect companion in life was, well…astonishing. There was nothing we loved more than schlepping hay bales together. Carl and I spent many a morning, afternoon or evening brushing, loving, feeding, and working with the horses. He was good at it and, together, we were really a good team. It was Carl that finally made the first step to ride Dakota for the first time and then helped me to do the same. She hadn’t been ridden in over 4 years and she responded beautifully. Colorado let us blanket him. We planned on working up to the saddle later. My big, skittish gelding. It was a beautiful accomplishment and he was so pleased with himself, too.

In all that time of our relationship there was an almost other-wordly glow to these woods. I imagined a long life together. I imagined a love-filled, work-filled, outdoors-filled, animal and family-filled life…together. I imagined us, side by side, making even the hardest of physical labor seem like something fun and enjoyable. That’s the kind of person Carl was…and he brought that out in me, too.

But yesterday and, really, every day since Carl’s been gone, these woods haven’t held the same luster. I’m still glad I’m here. These woods, even in their flatness, are still holding me in exactly the way I need to be held. After filling the trough, I walked back home and simply started to weep for the enormity of all these lost daydreams, for the loss of light, for the loss of having someone so capable by my side. Honestly, there are days that I don’t know how I’ll do this on my own. I am walking a precarious trail of faith.

I walked that trail all the way back to my cabin where the horses stood waiting for me. There was nothing left to do but just give up for a moment. I sat down next to Colorado, my back leaning against the tree nearest him. Colorado is the one that rescued me before Carl even came into my life. Surely, he can do it again? And, yes, he does. Every single day. Dakota, too.

I sat and cried into a lackluster forest with Colorado holding vigilance as I did so. He munched on hay and watched me with peacefully attentive eyes, occasionally looking up to take in the world around us. I felt like I could have sat there forever and the horses would not have left my side.

My guardians. They know. They care. They work their magic on me in a way that only sentient creatures know how to do.

Whenever I was having a bad day, Carl always used to tell me to go outside and hang out with the horses. It worked every time. Always. Their saving grace was and is almost annoyingly dependable. The horses don’t necessarily take my pain away, but for now their presence keeps me alive and breathing and moving, sometimes in seemingly exaggerated ways. I had so many crystal clear visions of a life with horses and Carl. I don’t know how to do it without him, but I pray, I pray, I pray that trail of faith I’ve been walking will, someday, become a little less precarious and a whole lot more beautiful.

In the meantime, I have this beauty. Colorado. Standing right in front of me. Catching my tears, letting me lean into the warmth of his strong body, always watching and waiting for me. Until the light someday returns.

I love you, Carl Bratlien. Be with me.

{originally published Nov 29, 2014}

silence.

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This morning, I am suspended in silence. The sky is grey and it is snowing. The horses are purring as they eat their hay. It took them a moment to give into their current contentment because I forgot to go to the farm supply store to buy more sweet feed yesterday. These small, but seemingly impossible tasks, they seem to add up. Even so, the horses are forgiving. As I brush snow off their backs and rub their muscles, they bend their giant, gentle necks so that their head can rest against mine. Their eyes are soft. They’ve been particularly sensitive towards me since all of this happened. Sometimes I think they’ve transmuted into elephants, the profundity of their sentience has grown so large.

Horses. They’ve become my healers for the past several years, in significant ways. I reached out to wild horses and started to build a life around them. It didn’t take long and then these two horses, Colorado and Dakota, unexpectedly walked into my life. Again, I reached out to them; I fed and watered and brushed them and, in exchange, they breathed some newfound life into me. Their trails started carving out new paths in my life. The most significant trail led to Carl. If it weren’t for these horses, I’m pretty sure our paths might have missed each other. Or rather, these horses were brought into my life because this was going to happen all along. I feel like this story was written long before either of us could have ever known–our marriage of spirits and Carl’s death and whatever is to come. There is a word that has whispered itself to me often since falling in love with Carl. The word is “Maktub,” an ancient word that means “it is written.” Our relationship has felt this way, to both of us, since the very beginning. We trusted in it completely.

I still trust this. But I’m not yet up to the task of healing. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, staving off this horrible feeling of anxiety that continuously keeps creeping in around the edges. Even so, the horses keep reaching for me. Their reach is so soft and unassuming that the near-imperception is powerful beyond measure. This reaching–from friends and family, strangers and animals–causes moments of lightness and lets the peace sneak back in. Sometimes I even feel Carl wrap his arms around me. He lets me lean backward into his spirit and says: “I love you, baby.” He repeats this as many times as I need to hear it. He tells me to follow my heart. He tells me that I’ll know what to do. But I can’t always feel him and, when I can’t, that’s when the anxiety comes. I plead, “Please God, please God…help me.” And, somehow, maybe these and everyone else’s prayers are working, even when I’m not sure of it at the time. The depth of my grief causes me to clench every muscle, every thought, every movement. But eventually, a softness occurs…my body isn’t built to stay frozen forever.

Even so,
This silence…if it doesn’t already exist, sometimes I create it.

Carl and my life together was always alive and connected with phone conversations and texts and sharing music. It was constant. In the most painful moments, I attempt to hit the mute button, a survival technique that doesn’t help at all. Eventually, the music will want back in. I can’t yet listen to it. Carl filled my life with music, our life together was built of it. For now, for today, I’ll just try to listen to the directions of a friend and attempt to enjoy the snow. I’m grateful for her suggestion. It allows me a way to be at peace with this silence. I love snow. These snowflakes, they are gentle, like Carl.

**the photo of Carl playing mandolin in my studio while i painted. i loved it when our creative spirits found a place to be together.

{originally published Nov 19, 2014}

the thing is…

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Friendship. It is a miraculous thing. It’s been filling in the cracks where Carl’s earthly voice and body and love used to be. Henry and Ella are somewhat inseparable today. They’re also known as “HenryElla.” A name that somehow stuck when Carl and I would call them to come in from outside. We laughed at that because the combined name rolls off the tongue so nicely. smile emoticon They were always the last ones to come in…and, well, nothing has changed about that! My big dog, Louie, lays on the floor beside them. I’ve got a good four-legged crew. But what I also have is a tremendous human tribe, too. It seems cliche to write about it, but many times I have thought about what it would be like to be going through this without this kind of support. Carl and I were both people magnets, each in our own way. I sometimes had to laugh (and worry) about how full our life, together, might become. There have been times when I’ve tried running to the ends of the earth just to be alone, but people came looking for me anyway. There are other times when, because of the nature of my work, the feeling of solitude becomes overwhelming. It’s a Catch 22 and yet, somehow, this problem was solved by being in a relationship with Carl. We were there for each other in an easy way, always, in the quiet moments, in the busy moments, and all the moments in between. We were surrounded by loving friends and family and yet we enjoyed our time just the two of us, too. It was the best of all worlds, really. Amazing.

Last night I saw a friend who I haven’t seen in over 20 years and others who are willing to travel to the ends of the earth to be with me. Gifts like this just keep showing up. And then there is Carl’s people…his family, his friends, his employees. I’ve loved Carl’s family from the beginning, but now that love has deepened to the center of the earth and the width of the universe. Carl surrounded himself with good people and, really, he saw the good in everyone. He talked and texted more than anyone I’ve ever met. And so now…messages, phone calls, texts from Carl’s friends and family…oh, it is like gold to me. Please don’t stop. Eventually, I would have gotten to know all of these people. But now we’re left to do it on our own. Horse people, woods people, business people, family people, work people, church people, international people….SO many people populated Carl’s world.

I am grateful for it. And ol hairy legs, Henry…well, he is too.

Here’s a poem for all of us, from my friend, Britta…

The Thing Is …
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again. ~Ellen Bass

Peace and friendship. To all of us.

{originally published Nov 17, 2014}