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.

I love you. 


Not too many more days and I’m gonna get to see my beautiful girl, Sharon. I have missed her every single day since I rode away from her just over 3 months ago. She was the hardest part about leaving. I wonder if she misses me too? I keep her photo near me in the studio as I paint. She has my heart. As in like…allll of it. I gave it to her the night she got sick…the night she started staying with me because I realized she had been abandoned…the night I heard her say her very first words out loud: “I love you,” she whispered. “I love you too. Oh Sharon…I love you too.”

Beauty for Ashes.

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This morning, I received this photo in my inbox. It was from my good friend, Moses, in Uganda. I was sitting on the floor of my living room, drinking my first cup of coffee and writing in my journal. These past two days I have been giving myself that extra time with God in the early hours of the day. I was feeling such a deep ache in my heart as I wrote…hashing out difficult dreams reflecting the awareness that entire chunks of my life have been falling away over the course of this past year–like an iceberg cleaving–entire sections of the things I once held dear have slowly fractured, then crumbled away, falling into the ocean.

I pressed blue ink to white paper asking God if there is something more He wants me to understand.

And that’s when the photo showed up.
10 women.
Widows.

Like a prayer answered in no uncertain terms. His voice was clear. The details of what has fallen away won’t matter. Yes, Carl will always matter. But those other things? Not so much. Not much at all. God is multiplying in ways I cannot yet even grasp.

Since returning home from Uganda, I have been in the beginning phase of starting a micro-lending and education program for widows in Eastern Uganda. I will be traveling back to Uganda in the near future to document the stories of these women and, in time, begin working intimately alongside them.

Wow. Would I have ever imagined my life would look like this one year ago? Certainly not. I guess this is what they mean by beauty coming out of the ashes. Oh, and those ashes…they almost suffocated me.

But there’s a reason and perhaps this is why…perhaps only just the beginning of why. I look into the faces of each one of these women and, with my whole heart, can stand alongside them, knowing that “…he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair.” ~Isaiah 61:3

Dear Abba, I thank you for these women. Make us beautiful for You. Make us strong, resilent, joyous and loving for You.

Thank you, friends, for walking so steadfastly next to me on this journey. Thank you, Mukhobeh Moses and Hands of Action Uganda for partnering with me and the organization that I am in the midst of bringing into being.

Carl, I miss you into the deepest part of my being. And yet…
I have faith that there will be beauty for these ashes. In the form of 10 women, it is already true.

I love you, Carl, always and into every aching heart, may that love grow.

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Photo credit: Mukhobeh Moses :: Bukibokolo, Bududa District, Eastern Uganda.

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Photo credit: Mukhobeh Moses :: Bukibokolo, Bududa District, Eastern Uganda.

These days.

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It is Friday and, in two days, on Sunday November 8th, it will be the first year anniversary since my beloved’s horrible and unexpected death. I never expected my life to be touched so personally by tragedy. I never imagined that the unthinkable would become my reality. But it did. Anniversaries aren’t supposed to be like this. It’s not the right word, not at all. Anniversaries are meant for celebrating. One year. This is not an anniversary. It is simply a painful marking of time. A notch carved out on the stick of survival.  I’ve carved out lots of notches on that imaginary stick in the past year. Every single day.

This morning I woke up with a migraine. The muscles in my neck and back taut with the discomfort of these dreaded days ahead. What I know from the experience of grief is that, sometimes, the expectations of something are more difficult than the reality of it.

Visiting Carl’s grave for the first time.
Carl’s first birthday in heaven. He would have been 36.
This one year anniversary of his death.

I can’t believe that I’ve survived any of this. I can’t believe that I survived those first awful, awful, awful seconds/days/weeks/months. But I did. And I continue to do so.

This morning, I took some ibuprofen and went back to bed until it took effect. I was folded in tight against the configuration of three dogs. There was no room to feel lack of love. Eventually, the tension in my body eased. An hour later, I wiggled my way out from under the covers and made a special pot of coffee…with beans we brought back with us from Uganda. There were 5 of us. We each brought back 5 kilos and then, once home, had a local coffee roaster work his magic on them. From green to black.

I stood in the kitchen and cried. I don’t know why. Half of those tears were an overflow of love for my new Ugandan home awaiting me and all those who I love in Africa. The other half of tears were an overflow of love for a man that is no longer with me on this earth.

I have not cried like this since before I left for Uganda. I am afraid that these tears might not stop for awhile. And I suppose that’s ok because, honestly, I need these tears to wash me clean.

I have fallen so deeply in love with a place and, most of all, its people. I feel a sense of purpose reaching so deep into my bones that I find it blessedly impossible not to act in accordance with it. I cry, but with a complete and holy knowing that God has had a plan with this all along.

Oh, God, why did you have to break me so thoroughly?

And yet I know He had to because it is the only way I could have experienced any of this in  the way that I am. I’m moving into a future of working with widows in Eastern Africa to rebuild their lives. I’m moving into a future of loving and working with children who have lost some of the most important people in their lives.

I couldn’t understand their loss without having experienced such mind-bogglingly impossible loss myself.

I couldn’t do it without the amazing support of friends and Carl’s family standing beside me.

I couldn’t do it without God. And it was this loss that brought me straight to the feet of Him.

I’m moving towards hope and a future. And my heart fills to the point of overflow.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. ~Jer 29:11

I put my faith in those words and God has never once left me wondering about their truth. It began with a yearning. Then glimpses of a future. Soon those glimpses began transforming into real possibilities. It wasn’t long before those possibilities become actions and those actions became a reality.

With my own two feet planted on African soil,
my arms folding in a whole lot of love,
it was the first time I felt the depth of
JOY
that God had been promising me all along.

And I know that was only just the beginning. With each passing day I grow closer to the dreams that God planted a seed for so long ago.

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My sponsor child, Joy. The one who led me “home.” Eastern Uganda.

I can do this. I can walk through this weekend with a full and grateful heart. I can get through the day I have dreaded for so long. Sunday. A sacred day. Carl’s first year in heaven. So many blessings have happened in that time. Carl made me ready for God. He wasn’t just the person I wanted to spend my life with…he’s the one who, by the gift of his love for me, taught me what true and good and healthy love really means. I didn’t know how to be loved like that before him. What a gift…

a gift that led me straight to God.

And so, these days, even through the tears, I am grateful. Because life is filling with a JOY and a depth that I have never before known.

Dear Abba, I am yours. Thankfully, I am yours.
Amen.

Psalm 95, a prayer.

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“I speak to you from deepest heaven. You hear Me in the depths of your being. Deep calls unto deep. You are blessed to hear Me so directly. Never take this privilage for granted. The best response is a heart overflowing with gratitude. I am training you to cultivate a thankful mind-set. This is like building your house on a firm rock, where life’s storms cannot shake you. As you learn these lessons, you are to teach them to others. I will open up the way before you, one step at a time.” ~ Jesus Calling by Sarah Young

Hands down, the one thing that the children most often asked us to pray for them was for knowledge. They are so eager to learn. So observant. So motivated. So very, very willing to do whatever they need to do to gain knowledge. Going to school or experiencing a new opportunity of any kind is a tremendous gift in Uganda. It is a country whose economics are not in a position to guarantee it’s children an education. Many children go without even the basics.

I continue to learn from these children and their community. If I could have one prayer these days, I too would ask for knowledge. Dear God, please give me the knowledge, the insights, the experiences and connections to help lead me forth in the ways that You have planned for a greater good. Help me to build a strong foundation in everything I do.

I pray for hope and a future for this young girl and the many who are in a similar situation. Ultimately, I pray for the ability not only to survive, but to THRIVE. Dear God, please fill us with the JOY we are capable of experiencing. Thank you for the presence of this young girl in the world. I believe in her, with my whole heart. Let us hear You, deeply. Dear Abba, show us the way.

Goodbye old studio. Hello new life.

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Yesterday I locked the door of my old studio for the very last time. It was a good place. The light was soothing and the floors were warm. The ceilings were high and the breathing space plentiful. It was the studio space that I moved into with the help of Carl. We had big dreams and that place was a perfect fit. From the very first day, I felt protected by divine forces whenever I entered. Truly, it was an amazing feeling and I trusted it. I moved in only one month before Carl died. Little did I know then, what a true Godsend that studio would be for me over the coming months. When Carl died, I died right along with him. It was many months before I was able to work again, but it was that studio that drew me forth out of the dark confines of my bed and into the warm and sunlit interior of this creative space. Most days, I didn’t really accomplish anything, but even the act of showing up was the miracle that slowly worked its healing magic on me. For many weeks and months, that’s all I did. Show up. Slowly, but surely I found myself producing new work. Sometimes just to satisfy myself and other times to fulfill client obligations. In either case, the progress, however slow, was a gift beyond measure. My clients may never know just how truly important they have been in this process of healing. God knows, the utmost patience has been required on their behalf…and I thank them for that.

Before leaving for Uganda, a very special opportunity came up. My friends, Emily and Karen, two immensely talented artists, were looking for studio mates. I’ve always had private studio space and am not in the habit of creating in the presence of others. And yet…something about this felt so right. SO very right. I already knew the space they were working in, but went once more to look at with new eyes…the eyes of using it as my potential new workspace. I walked in the back door and it was an immediate YES. There was only one stipulation: I would rent 3 of the 5 spaces and, beyond us (and a quiet, fairly non-existant artist renting in the basement), we would keep it a private space in order to eliminate the possibility of too much white noise of more renters. It happily fell into place for all of us and I planned on moving in the day after getting back from Africa. This move would afford me the opportunity to reallocate my budget to accommodate one or two more trips to Africa per year. I didn’t yet know what Africa would do to me…but something in me DID know to prepare!

God had handed me an opportunity and, gratefully, I accepted.

I need to admit that it was harder than I expected to make the transition. And even as I write those words I am grateful that the transition is occurring. You see…moving out of my old studio was, unexpectedly, a huge process of letting go. Letting go of a life I had planned with Carl. Letting go of his daily presence in that space. Letting go of a whole lifetime leading up to the gifts of Africa.

Every single day that I walked into my studio, I would walk through the door, turn to the right and see Carl’s hardhats and Yeti cooler that I had them sitting on. I would say hello and tell him I loved him. Of course, Carl wasn’t physically there, but something of his spirit lingers in those items and it felt so good to have that moment of connection and gratitude with him each day. I would then walk to the back of the studio and reprogram the microwave clock to 12:34. Every. single. time. I walked in the studio. 12:34 was our “I love you” number.  Even after his death, Carl was woven so thoroughly into that space. I always felt his spirit close to me there. I knew how much he loved to see me working hard. I knew how much he wanted to see me happy. I knew how much he would want me to live…no matter what.

I let that space heal me. In the cold of winter and into the briskness of spring, it was a loving cocoon of warmth and light. I felt surrounded by guardian Angels. I prayed and painted and painted and prayed. God infused every brushstroke that happened in that space. He infused me. I cried and painted, listened to endless sermons and worship music. Some days I even danced or smiled and laughed. My heart poured itself out into that space and was equally filled with new hopes for the mysterious future that I could feel waiting for me on the horizon.

How stunningly apropos that my move would take place immediately after returning home from Uganda. I never intended things to work out this way…but God did. He knew all along. Oh GOD! How does He so truly and deeply know everything in my heart?

The task of moving was overwhelming. I wasn’t expecting all the emotions that it would bring up. Not to mention, I wasn’t feeling well (fighting something intestinal…yay, 3rd world travel!) and, of course, a bit jet-lagged. As usual, I had been overly optimistic in my abilities after such an intense journey. BUT! Then Carl’s family showed up. They didn’t even know I was struggling. They simply did what a loving family does best: SHOW UP! First Carmita, then Christine and Lauren…they saved me from much floundering and tears…and the best part? I did not even ask! Such a gift. I felt soooo spoiled. So incredibly, incredibly blessed!

And so…now? I have a big pile of canvases, inventory and STUFF to unpack and organize in my NEW space. It seems that the weird interior of my artist’s mind has exploded in a cluttered mess of the studio floor. I find myself standing on new ground. Both literally and metaphorically. I feel myself stepping wholeheartedly into the rest of my life, into this story that God had written for me all along.

I will always love Carl. Africa has shown me that it is possible to love him forever and yet also to completely move forward. I broke when he died. I fell apart. I was smashed into a million pieces. But something about that mountain in Eastern Uganda put me back together in a way that defies language. It’s a process that I’m still living out…but the best part is that I feel as tho I am truly LIVING. My heart is open. I am steeped in great love, even on this earthly side of heaven.

I feel whole.
I feel able.
I feel ready to live the rest of my life.

Thank you, dear Abba. You are the one who saves me. Over and over and over again.
Amen.

Where are you? Are you here?

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View from the backyard. Bukibokolo, Eastern Uganda.

Craaaaazzy ol’ Maurice! (think Beauty and the Beast) Thanks to my new solar powered friend, Bettina Bergöö, this is how we came to lovingly refer to Morris (pronounced “Maurice”) during the last days of our stay in Bukibokolo. Morris is the elder brother of Moses. He is a community leader, a husband, a father, a grandfather. And during the time of our stay in Bukibokolo, Uganda, he was also our cook and ever-vigilant caretaker. Morris is a lean, short-statured man, but his character is as big as a mountain and sharp as an eagle. Every day, several times a day, Morris would full-heartedly walk into a room and ask:

“Where are you?
Are you here?”

IMG_0590Before you could answer, his eyes would drift towards the ceiling and he’d crumple into laughter. We’d usually respond: “I am here! Morris, where are YOU?!” ha! Ohhh Morris! A true character, indeed. Needless to say, his words have been playing on repeat in my head ever since my return. It’s been 3 days since Africa and, each morning, I awake at 4am with my heart still fully planted in the mountains of Eastern Uganda. My body seems to have managed it’s way, with deep reluctance, back to the States. But the rest of me…. ??

Where am I? Am I here?

It goes without saying that my time spend in Uganda was absolutely life changing. Of course, I doubt this surprises anyone. I’m not even going to try to write a post that summarizes the experience. Instead, I think I’ll just let it trickle out a little at a time. To do otherwise is both impossible and overwhelming. In the past two days, I have also begun the slightly gigantous task of moving from my old studio into a new one. The opportunity came up just before leaving for Uganda. The pace of answered prayers has my feet flying out from underneath me as every aspect of my life moves in motion towards this story God is writing for me.

Oh, goofy ol’ Morris…thank you for such impossible questions. I’ve been happily turned upside down (or right side up?) and all I know for sure is that nothing will ever be the same again.

I am here!

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“Whether you turn to the right or the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” ~Isaiah 30:21