I’m cooking potatoes on the stove. Or, “Irish,” as we call them here in Uganda. It’s 10:30am and I’m hungry. The day started pre-dawn early and so a mid-morning lunch seems perfectly appropriate. One day unfolds into the next and, lately, it seems best just to eat whenever hunger taps my shoulder. I have a soft blanket thrown around my shoulders because the doors and windows are open to a cool breeze. Henry sleeps at my feet. Clara and the puppies have been playing non-stop all morning. I think, by the sounds of it, they’re probably deliriously exhausted by now.
When I was in my early twenties I spent nearly a year in India. At the time, India was the homeland of my soul. A lot has changed since then, but that experience of time and place surely prepared me for so much. After Carl died, I thought that maybe I would return. Early in my grief journey, God had revealed James 1:27 to me in the first day of my first ever bible study. I was sitting in a circle of women who would eventually become some of my dearest friends. Several women were perhaps twenty years my senior, but it didn’t matter. I don’t remember a single moment without that strong sisterly thread weaving each of us to the next. The small white-painted, cinder-blocked church library held us together perfectly. We were reading James, Chapter 1. As someone read aloud, the rest of us followed along. When we got to the words of verse 27, my world shifted into something slightly indescribable, an immediate halt. The word “widows.” Something inside of me broke open. It felt impossible. It was both a description of me and the clearest glimpse of where my life would take me. I knew nothing yet. But suddenly something was more clear than I have ever known. Several weeks or months would pass before I eventually began to considered the number of widows in India. Maybe I’d go back. I didn’t have a whole lot more to lose. About that same time, there was a viewing of a documentary called “The Isle of Widows” (or something like that) at my church one Saturday afternoon. I went because I thought it would inspire me and maybe lead me towards a clue in how to read this muddy-valleyed map. The watching filled me with so much heaviness that I knew it was not where God would lead me. It seemed that place wanted to be sad. And because of that, somehow, I knew it wasn’t where I was supposed to go.
It’s funny but, as I write this, I become so entirely sick of writing about grief. I sat down this morning because I was spinning my wheels and didn’t know how to begin the day’s work. I prayed and felt God telling me to first find my joy. He gave me permission to set everything aside and simply write. It is, after all, what I really wanted to do. These moments pass quickly and, before I know it, entire months have passed without having set down a single word to paper. This is another type of mapmaking that feels so necessary to me these days. I woke up from so many nightmares and that same anxiety, again. Writing allows me to process in a way that nothing else does. No matter how many other things I have going on, I know I need this. It feels like time with God. Perhaps a selfish version of it, but I have to trust that if He leads me to the page then He’ll use it, even if only by allowing it to do its work within.
As I sit here, an employee brings a ripe, heavy pumpkin to the door. He’s come from the garden. I was feeling lost this morning, but as my hand drops several inches with the pumpkin’s weight, for three solid seconds I feel perfectly connected the moment. This pumpkin is small, but dense.
Since I’m in the kitchen, I heat up some spaghetti sauce, adding a few extra spices as I do so. I give each of the dogs a bite of freshly mashed potatoes. Ugandans don’t eat their potatoes mashed and so this is a special treat to me. I’ve added milk and butter and salt, just like my grandma does. Too much of each, which is what makes it taste so good. I put the creamy potatoes in a shallow bowl, the edges of it are rimmed in red and blue flowers. This particular bowl has a chip in it. Most of our dishes don’t match and I like it that way. I cover the mashed potatoes with spaghetti sauce. Simplicity at its finest. I learned of putting mashed potatoes and spaghetti sauce together one day in Kathmandu. After a solid six or seven or eight months of blissfully eating Indian curries, this unlikely “international” culinary combination tasted like the new idea I hadn’t even known I was looking for. I was sitting at an outdoor restaurant under a huge croton tree. Mind you, in the part of the world where I grew up (northern Minnesota), crotons are nothing more than small potted plants that we sold in my family’s flower shop. It staggered me to see so many “plants” the size of huge trees, including that croton. It still amazes me, even here in Uganda. Whether in India or Africa, the tropics have miraculous powers over things. Sometimes that power comes in dark forms as well. Disease has a similar way of thriving as do other living things.
I can’t keep writing. I need to move on to other work. But I had to sit down for just one moment to gather myself. I’ve been reading 2 Corinthians these days and especially loving The Message’s version. This morning I read 2 Corinthians Chapter 4.
“Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. It started when God said, ‘Light up the darkness!’ and our lives filled up with the light as we saw and stood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful….
If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives…You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do….
So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.”
~2 Corinthians 4
The image of an unadorned clay pot stays with me. Just like the weight of a pumpkin or taste of mashed potatoes with a tomato sauce. There is something so simple about all of it that anchors me to this one marvelous life God has given me. Never mind the bad dreams, the anxiety I felt upon waking or the lack of joyful presence in those first hours of early morning. There is incense burning and dogs snoring. We’re cutting grass outside and preparing for a Composting Workshop tomorrow. God shows up unexpectedly in these gardening endeavors. And somehow, in the span of all these paragraphs, I’ve managed to write myself back into the present.
Thank you, Abba, for inviting me.