A letter to Joy.


April 18th, 2015 was the day that changed everything. It was the day I met joy. It was the day that things shifted–a cellular sort of shift–the kind in which you instantly know: there’s no turning back. It was the sort of shifting that happens very few times in a lifetime, the kind that swallows a person whole. A radical rearrangement of…well, everything. On that day, God handed me a map in the shape of Uganda. Along with all of its pain and beauty, the whole achingly immense, impossible, perfectly imperfect lot of it, He slid it into my heart like putting a memory card into a camera and, from the moment it snapped into place, I knew that God had just given me everything I had been praying for. On that day, I took on the sponsorship of an 10 year old girl named Joy. Yes, there is obvious goodness in her name, but it was and is about more than that. It is a story that I someday hope to tell, but for now, I will say this:

The day I met the kids of Uganda was the day I met Joy…
and that was the day my heart started coming back to life.

JOY  noun \ˈjȯi\
: a feeling of great happiness
: a source or cause of great happiness : something or someone that gives joy to someone
: success in doing, finding, or getting something
: a source or cause of delight

And now? It seems I’ve handed my life over to Africa. A lot can change in 3 short months. Then again, a lot can change in a millisecond. As I write this, I feel the horrible moment of Carl’s death saddled side by side with the gift of God so thoroughly transplanting my heart to that red soil so far from home. One might have never happened without the other. Oh God, I wish it could have happened any other way, but in my heart of hearts…I know this is the story that has been written for me all along. My job is only to follow it. The great big question is this: What do I have to lose?

There is immense freedom in immense loss. In a lot of ways, I can see that God was preparing me for this all along. At times, this is difficult to admit. It’s an acknowledgment that makes me want to kick and scream at all the pain and heartache I’ve traveled through to get here. And yet…here I am. I’ve been given two things: an invitation from God and the freedom to follow it.

This past week, I finally started working on my first letter to Joy. On an allegorical level, my writerly brain spent quite a bit of time contemplating what one might write if the emotion of joy could be a real and living being. I can get as clever as I want, but the lovely thing is that Joy IS a real and living being! I found myself writing a letter to both joy and Joy all week long. One was to myself (sometimes my younger self, sometimes my current self, sometimes to my older self and sometimes to an imaginary entity all together), the other was to a young orphan girl in the mountains of eastern Uganda.

In other words, it wasn’t just a letter. Something else was happening. It was (and is) God gently knitting things into place. To be honest, I’ve been a bad sponsor “mom.” I should have wrote to her a couple months ago. Then again, maybe the timing was just right because the letter turned into a portrait and, with every extra minute spent in communion with Joy, I felt my heart softening in ways that I might not have been able to experience earlier. I found myself starting to truly care for this little girl whom I’ve not yet met. I found myself falling in love.


As I continue to work on painted portraits for clients, it was easy to sneak in short breaks to play with Joy’s portrait whenever I had time to spare in the in-between moments of my schedule. I found that I enjoyed mixing colored pencil with the monochromatic effects of graphite. Mind you, oil on canvas is the medium I normally work in. Everything else feels foreign! But it was good to stray off course for awhile. I find that the map God gave me has a significant number of routes leading me OFF-ROAD on a regular basis. The map I was once using has become all but useless. No problem. My old map played a fantastic role in all of this. Abba’s got this figured out perfectly.

As joy begins taking up more and more space in my heart, I feel my energy returning. I’m not as easily run down. I have a better ability to put in a full day’s work in the studio. I’m not as easily overwhelmed. I’m eating much healthier. I’m getting more exercise.

When Carl died, I died right along with him. Wholly. Completely. Friends and family and faith kept me on some sort of supernatural life support. My heart broke. It broke wide open. And then God gave me this. Joy and a new life. He took this mess and turned it into a gift of grace.

God’s grace has a drenching about it. A wildness about it. A white-water, riptide, turn-you-upside downness about it. Grace comes after you. It rewires you. From insecure to secure. From regret-riddled to better-because-of-it. From afraid-to-die to ready-to-fly. Grace is a voice that calls us to change and then gives us the power to pull it off!

When grace happens, we receive not a nice compliment from God but a new heart. Give your heart to Christ, and he returns the favor. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.” (Ezek. 36:26). ~Max Lucado

In a few short weeks my lungs will be breathing in the air of Africa. As relationships deepen and connections accumulate, I realize that this is just the first step of many ahead of me. And yet, through the grace of God, I feel ready. I feel strong enough. I feel resilience creeping back in. I feel a continuous flow of happiness and joy, enough to bolster against the bad days and heartache that I’m almost certain to experience again in following this path.

I liked the blank space of Joy’s portrait. I liked that it still had something left to tell. I like the way we’re all in this story together. And yet I decided to fill the blank with a spill of bright light. Because JOY is a colorful space. It lacks nothing. May the same be true for this girl who I am only on the cusp of very barely getting to know. May there be enough light to spill over the edges.


“May the God of hope fill you with all the JOY and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” ~Romans 15:13

Dear Abba, ease our pain. Put color in our lives.
Help us find our way, fill our hearts.
I love you, I thank you, I am forever yours.

plans to give you hope and a future


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.” ~Jeremiah 29:11

It is a time of preparation. My heart feels full and expectant. I sit at my desk as I write this and, outside my window, the buds of poplar trees have finally leafed out enough to dance in the soft breeze. Sturdier oaks are only just beginning their process of unfurling. And yet…amidst all this northern spring, something in my soul feels dusty and deeply pregnant. I let myself settle into this sense that God has been creating a special life for me all along. I feel that He has already placed a part of me into tomorrow and yet, somehow, every moment of the present is equally important, preparing me for what is ahead.

God is being good to me. He allows me this time in the pasture with my horses and dogs. I sit in the dirt and experience long moments of complete peace. I brush burrs from the horses manes and tails for the millionth time. I go to the studio; I meet with friends; I read (a lot). For once in my life, God has given me the grace of patience. This patience does not come from a desire to wait or from a lack of curiosity, but is instead from a knowing that He is doing the deep work inside of me that needs doing so that I might survive the rest of my days with my health and well-being in tact. That dusty, deeply pregnant self within my spirit knows something that my mind cannot yet comprehend. I am grateful for the way I’m being led forward.

In the meantime, I do my best to show up for the work at hand. It is sometimes difficult. My prayers, at times, still feel like desperate pleas for help. There are moments when it feels nearly impossible to tend to today when I so very much want the fullness of tomorrow. But I’m being taught how to strip things down to their simplest forms. When I want to crawl out of my skin with boredom or anxiety or just general resistance, each time, I am gently reeled back in and reminded to use this time to learn and to bolster my soul with His words and presence. Over and over again I am reminded: I am being prepared. I relax back into the flow that has been waiting for me all along. I find easiness there. Or, at least…easier. I quit fighting with myself and relax back into the gifts of now. Grace takes the form of surrender.

to surrender to God is grace…
I’m a slow learner, but I like what is being taught.

In the past couple weeks I have had more good days than bad. This is nothing short of miraculous. Up until now, I was lucky if I had one good day. But recently I experienced 2 and then 3, 4 and then 5 good days in a row. Then a couple not-so-good days followed by more good days. Sitting in the dirt has been good for me.

God is letting me get to know Him and this causes me to feel hope. I’m given glimpses into what’s to come and it is making all the difference in this tendency towards more goodness. I don’t pretend to know anything other than my own willingness. This necklace? It is a reminder. In this one little sentence, I trust, completely.

I’ve saturated myself so thoroughly in God. As I write, I wonder if I might lose a lot of my friends along the way. And yet…I cannot help it: There is no turning back.  I wouldn’t want to. Something tells me that this path is leading me somewhere extraordinary…yes, even in this life.

I lost everything the day that Carl died. I gave myself to God. I vowed that it would not be for nothing.

And I do believe
God will make it so.

Dear Abba, I love you. Thank you for plucking me from my old life. Thank you for breaking me, however painful it has been. Thank you for choosing me. Thank you, through Carl, for showing me what love really is. I am beginning to realize that it was only the beginning…

Only the beginning of
so. much. Love.

brown rice and spanish horses.


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.


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.

my sentinel.


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}

booked flights. peeled potatoes.


I did it. I booked my flight. I’m going to Florida for my 40th birthday. The trip that was going to be a gift from Carl, has instead been gifted by something I can only call grace.

Honestly, it’s been a rough day. It’s been a day of tears. Lots of them. Yesterday wasn’t all that easy either, but then the goodness started flowing in. A quickening occurred. My neighbor and his two strong friends hauled a trailer full of hay over from the barn so that it would be closer and easier for me to feed the horses. Another friend texted an offer to help me pay for the flight to Florida. At the exact same moment, someone else, who isn’t even on facebook and therefore doesn’t see my posts, texted me an image of a crystal ball in the hand of a woman, lit with sunlight and magic on the beach of an ocean. She wished me light and love. These three things happened simultaneously and, in that moment, the gaps of my doubt were brightly, divinely filled in.

Later that night, I went to celebrate Carl’s brother-in-law, Steve’s, birthday. It was a special celebration because his life, too, is a gift. He’s had to overcome his own hurdles. In my brain-fog, I almost forgot about the party. Then I didn’t want to go. Then I changed my mind. I went and was grateful that I did. It ended up being just what I needed. I came home to an email with a commitment from a new client, one that’s been hanging in the wings for the past couple weeks.

I’ve also been gifted with two places to stay–one a high-end Miami Beach hotel and the other my very own grotto near the ocean. I was offered friendship. A place to follow jungle roots or space to cry into the sea.

I went to bed last night feeling exhausted, amazed, almost overwhelmed by the speed and depth of it all. I had another dream about Carl. Another adventure. And his spirit was with me.

Tomorrow I’m leaving for North Dakota again. I will be finishing up loose ends, tending to remaining details. I leave early. There’s still lots to do before I leave and I can’t seem to get my energy to settle down enough to write. There is a part of me that dreads this particular trip out west–the finality of it. Carl won’t be there. His room is clean. Nothing is the same.

Constantly, this contradiction between grace and difficulty. I sometimes feel like I’m walking in a bog. The ground constantly moving, changing beneath me. There is death and beauty in every step.

On Thursday I peeled potatoes with Carl’s sisters. We peeled potatoes and talked and listened to soft music. I felt peace. We were sad when the job was done. I wished I could have peeled a thousand more potatoes because, for that time, the depth of my loss held still. This morning I went to listen to a friend sing at the Unitarian church. I had never been there before, but I braved my own unknowing and let myself in thru the front door. The words of her song, her voice, the acoustics of the guitar she played: her beauty condensed. So perfect that it caused cold, plump tears to streak the skin of my face. Reaching my chin and then holding there for a moment before disappearing into my lap. I couldn’t stop them. I sat in a room full of mostly strangers and, silently, with my eyes closed, I wept. That same friend who sang such a beautiful song will accompany on my journey tomorrow out west tomorrow. We don’t even know each other all that well and, yet, there couldn’t be a better person to be holding this space with me. These gifts, they just keep showing up.

But this trip to Florida…this is something. The way I feel him so close to me in all of this. I was supposed to go on this trip with Carl…and it seems that I still am. He is so entirely woven into all of it that, without a doubt, I know I am meant to go. I decided to rent a car and leave much of the trip unplanned. Going there to see where Carl leads me…even if it’s only to the ocean where I’ll probably have a good cry.

This photo, it is one I took in Spain, near the border of Morocco and the Strait of Gibraltar…it’s a million lifetimes ago. I’m so heartbroken and perplexed by where this journey is taking me. But, Carl, I love you because the entire universe conspired to help me find you.

{originally published Nov 23. 2014}