A smile as big as the mountains. 

Everything feels so very precarious today. I just arrived from the veterinary clinic where I made plans with my dear friend, Dr. Annie, should anything significant happen with Louie while I’m in Africa. Even just the thought of it brought tears to both Annie’s eyes and mine. Once I got to the studio, I shared a few emergency contacts with the key caretakers of the details of my life while I’m away. I thought about all of my Bratlien family and how much I’ll miss them and worry about them while I’m gone. Life feels so extremely, intensely, horribly fragile.

My heart feels worrisome. I know from experience that tremendous loss is all too possible. I find it strange that God is healing my heart by leading me to a place that will most certainly contain even more loss.

Then I opened up facebook on my computer and saw that Everest had passed away. It brings a terrible lump to my throat. The threat of tears rest at the edges my eyes. He had the biggest smile I’ve ever met. He lived his days in a jalopy of a wheelchair and was often in plenty of pain…and yet: he smiled. And smiled. And smiled. He lit up the world in a miraculous way.

RIP Watero Everest. Blessings on your spirit as you make this last journey Home. I knew you only very briefly, but you will be a bright star in my memory always.

This girl is going somewhere.

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Stella Nambwall. She is 13 years old, a brilliant glint of starlight in a dark sky. Do you know which child I’m talking about? Yes, the one in the gingham dress. The one looking directly into the eye of the camera.

This girl is going somewhere.
I can feel it with my entire being.

There are certain people I can’t stop thinking about. Stella is one of them. Along with her mother, Anna, and her cousin, Harriet. This family feels like the muscles lining the inside of my ribcage. They contain a reservoir of strength, even in their brokenness. Stella’s father died this past May. He hung himself from a tree in the middle of the night outside the family’s back door. I can’t seem to take the edge off of this fact. It was a horrific shock to the entire community. Her cousin, Harriet’s father is also dead. Death is everywhere. It’s made Stella and Harriet close like sisters. They are both bold, respectful, friendly.

Stella and her family are eloquently real to me.
In the closest fold of the mountain, their house sits in perfect lines.
Red dirt and jungle trees.
My eyes constantly falling in their direction, even before I knew why.

There are those times when a magnetism pulls us in the direction of something before we even know the reason. Repeated moments of distinct lucidity. One at a time, the puzzle pieces come into existence until, eventually, locking into place.

In the mountains of eastern Uganda, there’s yet another sad story everywhere you turn. But this girl? This one isn’t stopping at sad. She’s traveling further than that. She’ll keep going all the way to redemption. I can see it in her eyes. I can feel it in my bones. And like tendons growing into the bones creating a connection that is extremely strong and hard to break, we’ve somehow become inextricably woven as one. It doesn’t end with her and it certainly didn’t start with me.

This is a story of deliverance. And Stella won’t be alone as she walks it.

Yes, this girl is going somewhere.
Just watch.

Watch
and
See.

(amen).

Palms Up. In Surrender and Praise of a Life Well Lived :: Susan Carol Hauser 1942-2015

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For Susan Carol Hauser, my mentor, my teacher, my friend.
In Memory :: a funeral eulogy, read July 25th, 2015 :: by Jessie Marianiello

I first met Susan in 1999 as an English student here at BSU. She was my teacher in so many writing classes that I lost count! She was my undergraduate academic advisor as well as my graduate thesis advisor. She was my creative cohort in many independent academic studies. She supported me through the recent death of my beloved and husband-to-be. She was a kindred braveheart, my greatest writing mentor and also a dear friend. Susan played a very special and important role in my life, but what I know for sure is that this room is filled to the brim with people who have a story of similar depth to tell. These stories weave a brilliant, richly colored tapestry of a life lived well. Our dear Susan, each of us a thread.

Here, today, we take our deepest sorrow and continue that weaving into our own living landscapes. Forever altered by this great and gregarious mountain of a woman who lived boldly, beautifully. A woman who rode the waves of her own personal tragedies with immense grace. A woman who filled her life with an expansive sort of passion that spilled over into everything she touched. Susan, a full-hearted woman, whom we love beyond measure, we grieve her leave-taking from this world and yet we celebrate the brilliant ways she still remains. Dear Susan, even here, with our feet planted firmly to this earth, we feel your smile, your heart now a little bit of all of us.

In 2003 Susan spoke at my wedding. As a gift, she wrote a poem and, although the marriage did not survive, her words most certainly continue to live. Yesterday I dug her poem out from where it was stored. I had not read it in years. What takes my breath away is that Susan’s words touch upon something that is transcendent and pure. It is filled with love and, as though written just for this moment, is made of something circular, that place where life and death hold hands. I’ve taken the liberty of making a few small edits and, this morning, co-wrote this poem with Susan, for Susan.

What is Joined

Atoms join, one to the other,
married into molecules,
still themselves,
but something else.

Molecules join molecules,
one to the other,
keeping faith with themselves,
yet coupled into something else.

Water to water, drop
to drop, each holding
unto its own, yet wedded into
the body water, something else.

Water joins with earth,
river current kissing show,
ocean tide consuming beach,
continents spooning the seas.

Here, today, we say goodbye to Susan
Mother, Grandmother, teacher, friend,
wise, laughing, loving woman.
Palms up
in surrender
our lifelines, small rivers
running together.

This is where the heart
escapes from its ribbed cradle, loosed
into molecules, delicate.
Released in a way
too perfect for this world.

Each of us still ourselves, but something else:
current that kisses the shore;
tide that consumes the beach;
continent that spoons the sea.

Our lifelines, small rivers
running together.
A watershed
a deep ocean.
all of us, in your parting, molecules transformed.

One of my very first memories of Susan is the day she gave our Creative Writing class a photocopied handout of “Living Like Weasels” by Annie Dillard. Many of her students might remember this essary well. Turns out, that day was a catalyst moment in my life as a writer. The essay, in essence, is about learning, or remembering, how to live. Susan not only knew how to live, she did it well. She “stalk[ed] her calling in a certain skilled and supple way.” She located “the most tender and live spot and plugg[ed] into that pulse.”

In the words of Annie Dillard, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.”

Dear Susan, may you be blessed by God as you have blessed us. Our wild, limitless, loving friend, fly high, as high as eagles, in perfect freedom. We love you, Susan. Beyond measure. You are loved.

Steep mountain pass.

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This morning, in church, I sat looking at a near wall-size photograph of Mount Kilimanjaro. Due to the angles of architecture, my chair just happened to be situated in a way that caused me to look straight at this behemoth of a mountain or, rather, for IT to look straight at me. It hung on an unlit wall in preparation for an upcoming VBS event. I didn’t notice it at first, but once I did, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down to write here. Not for lack of things to write about, quite the contrary, actually. So many layers of thoughts, prayers, passions, commitments, projects, excitement, exhaustion. A fine mix of grief, work, hope and healing. I travel far, each and every day.

I have been dreaming of horses nearly every night. In the dreams, I am always riding them and we are always moving quickly, our bond deep and otherworldly. A good friend recently told me that she is getting the sense that I will be leaving sooner than I imagine. She told me that she is excited for me, but sad at the same time. She told me how proud she is of me. I love her for sharing these thoughts with me, even if I can’t imagine how or why I would be leaving sooner than planned. Since I am, indeed, planning on going to Uganda in August, I assumed she meant that she feels like I might leave for Africa sooner than expected.

And then this morning I woke up at about 4:30am, with the boisterous sounds of birdsong. I wanted to record the jungle-like animation. It was still dark out, but their chirps and calls were so much louder and more lovely than usual. With these sounds, I awoke with the stark realization that the leave-taking my friend was sensing could just as easily mean that I don’t have much longer left here on earth. It seems unlikely, the odds nearly impossible…but then again, that’s sometimes the way death comes. I continued to listen to the birdsong and realized how beautifully neutral I felt about this. At the center of all that neutrality was a deep feeling of love, a trust that I am safe.

In the first few months following Carl’s death, I admit: I wanted to die. I would not have committed suicide because I feared my spirit might be forever separated from Carl and God, but I prayed fervently for God to please take me Home. I prayed for a lot of things. Mostly, I prayed for God to help me. “Please God, help me, please help me.” And He did. Because I survived each and every horrible moment until one day I decided that I wasn’t so sure I actually wanted to die. When I got to that place, I asked myself what I would do if I got cancer or stung by a bee (which I’m highly allergic to) and was a bit surprised when I realized I would fight for my life. I had turned a corner. I was coming back to life and, in the weeks and months since, my desire to FULLY LIVE has grown with each day. When I finally found my way to Joy and the kids of the mountainous region of the Bududa District, Eastern Uganda, I knew for a fact that I no longer wanted to die. Now I have things to do. My life and my work is not over yet. Not even close.

The desire to live or die. What a weird thing to write about, I know. I write about this with honesty because, for some reason, it feels like a pebble left in the path of a story that’s still being written. As though someday I might return to these words and better understand something that is still a mystery to me.

I sat in church this morning, looking at that huge photo of Mount Kilimanjaro and thought about Africa and whether or not I might live to see it. Everything felt so surreal, an ocean of aloneness separating me from the chairs and people surrounding me. It wasn’t a bad feeling, just something I was aware of. A neutral but profound observation. I sat and looked at that mountain looking at me and thought of Carl’s surname: “BRATLIEN.” It means “steep mountain path.” His sister, Diana, mentioned this shortly after Carl’s passing one evening when we were all sitting around the kitchen table talking about our heritage. My mouth dropped open when she said it.
“What did you say?!” I asked in disbelief.
“Bratlien,” she said. “It means steep mountain path.”
And in that moment, I felt my whole world shift into place.

You see…for many years I had been living by a very clear vision. The vision is that my life (and purpose) will lead me through steep mountains. I didn’t know how or even where exactly…but I trusted (and continue to trust) it completely. I have made plans and decisions around this vision, my entire adulthood. Carl, my beautiful man…I could have never known that life would take me to a mountain that looks like any of this. I could have never known that you would die in a car accident. I could have never known that I would break so thoroughly. I could have never guessed that everything would so thoroughly change. But here I am. God, use me.

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I cried a lot in church this morning. Silent, snot producing tears that are impossible to avoid once they start. I cried and felt alone in the sea until I reached over to my sister-in-law, Carmita. I reached to her from the deep waters. She felt the depth, saw the tears and reached for my hand. Everything fell back into synch, but the tears continued to flow, unstoppable. We were studying John 18, those final moments of Jesus’s life. I cried because Jesus was about to die and death still feels startling real to me. The sermon was about God using our brokenness as a way to draw us closer to Him, just as He did with Peter who denied Jesus three times, yet was restored. I cried because Jesus feels so close to me. Getting to the part of the story when He is about to die feels like I am experiencing the death of my very own beloved, by deepest friend, my everything. It hit me hard in a wholly new way. Bible stories no longer feel like just stories. God is in me, in my life, in this steep mountain path, in my love, in the people and animals around me, in my willingness to travel to the ends of the earth and even my willingness to die. I felt God in a way that broke me open–completely–all over again.

None of us know when our final day will come. But one thing I’ve come to realize is that I never want to forget how absolutely precious every moment of this life truly is. It’s been a painful road to this place with probably many more painful days ahead. But, dear God, I give you my heart–all of it. Please, take me to the mountain.

Dear God, as I wrote that last sentence, I just remembered the very last song that Carl ever sent me (we were having a constant conversation through songs). God On the Mountain. Oh, dear Lord…I listen and cry even harder than before. You knew all of this, all along. You have a plan for everything. You break me wide open. And I trust You like I’ve never trusted before.

I love you, Carl. My beautiful man…my steep mountain pass…my path to God.

Anna and Carl’s tree.

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Last month, the plum tree in my front yard burst into a burning bush of white blossoms like I’ve never before seen. In the rawness of my heart it felt like Carl’s love and God’s presence. My wildly untended to, woodland yard was a mess in comparison…but here was this little tree, aflame in white flowers like an unexpected message of hope. My eyes often rested on the tree and it didn’t take long for me to notice that there was always a little white butterfly dancing around it. That little white butterfly made me think of Anna, Carl’s baby niece who died just two weeks before him.

And now? The blossoms are beginning their slow process towards fruit. The tree holds a new kind of beauty. I am not sad for the loss of blossoms, because I know they will turn into something more and then repeat their process all over again. Grief wrecks everything. But then there is this. I don’t feel good or hopeful or anything easy today. But I trust the beauty of this. I trust the beauty of two spirits that I am still grieving for. I trust the story that is unfolding. I don’t want a happy ending for this post (because it neglects the difficulty and exhaustion I’m actually feeling)…but it exists, even when I don’t want it to.

I love you baby Anna. I love you, Carl. May heaven hold our hearts here on earth as beautifully as it holds you.

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.