Music.

For the first time since Carl died, I am listening to the music that I so much used to love. The music that filled my home and studio and that I used to share with Carl on a regular basis. You see, Carl was the best musician I have ever known. He was the best musician that lots of people ever knew. He could play the guitar, mandolin, banjo (you name it!) like nobody’s business. He was constantly sending me music and, in many ways, our relationship was anchored in all those songs we sent back and forth to each other.

When Carl died I quit listening to music. It was too painful. A world without music? The depth of my pain swallowed up my whole world. When I finally did start listening again, I found I could only listen to Christian music. I was never very impressed with most of the contemporary Christian music I heard snippets of on the radio. Even so, it was a genre that I hadn’t much listened to. It was palatable because I didn’t associate it as easily with Carl. With the exception of the old-time hymns that Carl would share with me in the middle of the night, Carl’s death sent me adrift into a soundless world. Because it was such an important part of my relationship with Carl, I felt extreme anxiety at even the thought of music. Going into a shop or getting in someone’s car or being somewhere that I did not have control over the music that might be playing was enough to send me into a near panic attack. Irrational, yes. But deep grief is often irrational. I was so shut down in about a million ways. My world became horrifyingly silent.

In my search for music that didn’t spill me into the depths of grief, I found some amazing new Christian artists that not only played and sang well, but were deeply encouraging, too. I’ve traversed some pretty dark places in this past year. I mean, really dark. As I look back, I see how it is some of that new music that kept me alive. In those lonely, too-quiet days working in my studio, my world filled with worthy acoustics and God-filled guidance.

This past weekend was a real turning point for me. The “i luv u, MPLS!” art exhibition was originally scheduled to debut a year ago, but after Carl’s death, I just couldn’t do it. My clients patiently and lovingly stood by my side as I grieved and began my healing journey. They even stood by my side as I ran off to Africa not once, but twice! Even so, I carried a lot of weight on my shoulders in postponing such a big event. To see this show into being has been a relief of the most extreme kind. Somewhere along the line, this event became not only a thank you…but a THANK YOU as well as a good bye! As some doors close, new doors are opening.

My heart feels light with a newfound freedom that I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced to such depths. For the first time in many, many years, I feel current with my life and my passions. I feel freed from the past in a way I needed more than I can describe. There is so much love and pain behind me. But ahead of me is more love, all the hope I could ask for, and more JOY than I even quite know what to do with.

I feel weepy in these days since the show’s debut. But my tears and sensitivity of heart is filled gratitude and relief, excitement and simply the feeling of God’s love.

Long post to say: I’ve started listening to music again.

Yes, all kinds of music. Even those beloved artists whom I’ve not listened to since before Carl’s passing. My God…I thank Abba for getting me through. I know the grief won’t magically be “gone.” But I do feel as though I’ve rounded a much needed corner and it seems there is a whole ocean of tears wanting to fall from my eyes singing: release, release, release….

May our lives ahead be filled with all the beauty of color and song. May our notes build the most beautiful choruses together.

My heart sings: Grateful.

The Heart of Home.

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Lillian, Sharon and Aullelia.

My tears froze before ever hitting the ground as I stepped off the stairs descending from our little small town plane and onto the ice-encrusted tarmac of the Bemidji airport this morning. At 3am we flew over the stiffly frozen tundra of northern Minnesota. Last leg of a long journey and everything felt painfully barren. Lifeless. Cold. In that moment of avian first sight, the stark contrast from the colorful equatorial landscape I left behind was almost too much to bear. The temps are well below zero, a different world than I traveled away from 5 weeks ago when I left for Uganda. The disharmony in weather feels impossible. So does the discomfort of my heart. It’s fibers are stretched too far. I struggle to find the love I once held for this place. Everything here reminds me of Carl, a cruel imitation of a life that no longer exists. I wasn’t expecting that. I never seem to be prepared for the grief that rises so unexpectedly to the surface. I don’t plan for these things because, quite honestly, at this stage I prefer to avoid the anguish of grief altogether. Ok, so it happens. In retrospect, I always remember that I’m better off if I just allow myself to flow through it.

Flying over the inky, frigid landscape of home made me realize that perhaps one reason I’ve so thoroughly fallen in love with Africa is because it offers me a new beginning in all it’s differences. When I’m in Africa, everything is new. I often think of Carl, even while I’m there, but usually those thoughts are about how much he would enjoy it. I am comforted because, in those moments, I can feel him smiling down on me, happy to see me so happy. But coming home? That’s a different matter entirely. For the first time in my life, as I walked from the the door to the baggage claim, I heard my lips utter the words: I hate this place.

As I write this, the first light of dawn is just barely starting to sift itself out of the darkness. Everything is taking on a silvery blue quality…the trees, the snow, the sky. The animals were beyond crazy with happiness over my homecoming. I was flooded with kisses and whimpers and snuggles. I whimpered and kissed and snuggled with happiness right back. The house was cozy warm and so beautifully clean and cared for. I took a hot shower and am cleaner than I’ve been since I left 5 weeks ago. I called a friend in Africa because it is still only mid-afternoon there. I made a cup of instant (African) coffee, just like I would if I were still there.

And bit-by-bit…the gratitude starts filling up the sharp, cold edges of things. I feel love even in the richly patterned red rug under my feet.

I’ve been home for approximately 4 hours. After many, many years of looking, I’ve finally found my home and, mostly, it is not here. It’s in a place filled with banana trees, mountains, red soil, malaria and a million stars. But there is that other part of home…the one that is and will always be Minnesota. In this northern landscape I remember the Jessie who loves winter. That version of myself feels like a different lifetime ago, but I know she still exists somewhere inside of me and, for that, I am grateful because she’s the one who is going to get me through this time of in-between. That resilient side of myself…the one that got me to Africa in the first place. Yeah…she’s the one I will need to call on…over and over and over again. My life got filled even fuller with even more love and purpose than I thought possible. It’s not even about me anymore. My heart beats a different rhythm now…but I’m sure I can find that rhythm even here among stiffly frozen trees. Inside the depth of winter is always the urgency towards renewed life.

Dear Abba, thank you for the map you’ve made for me. I’m happy with where we’re going. XO

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.

Transfigured: gems in the perfect setting.

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Today I purchased my ticket to East Africa. Everything in me begging to return, this will be my second trip since August. This time, I will stay for an entire month. I feel restless today. There was some confusion with the tickets since the prices started to sky-rocket and, although I knew the cost would eventually go down again, I worried about the availability of decent flights or even getting a seat if I waited too much longer. After much searching, there turned out to be only one option and that was to fly into Entebbe, Uganda via Nairobi, Kenya. Normally I would have flown in via Rwanda. I’m a bit disoriented by this turn of events, but feel that God has a definite plan. You see, I had prayed about it and felt guided to go through Kenya. I considered this, but then got turned upside down and attempted to stick with my original, seemingly less complicated program. I laughed out loud when going through Kenya ended up being my only option, the details aligned beyond my control. I surrendered. And now? I will land in Kenya on the evening of my 41st birthday and then, by midnight, be stepping out into a Ugandan night. A new year, a new life. And, for this, I thank God.

You’d think I might pair this wonderful news with a happier photo, but in all honesty, this is the image I’m most drawn to tonight. I’m fighting a fever and feeling both the gravity and beauty of the world. My friend, Poppy, recently sent me an article from Vogue featuring Kenyan actress, Lupita Nyong’o. We were having a conversation about portrait photography–beauty and dignity, intelligence and humility–and the art of illuminating the soul. We talked about “putting the right light on the jewel that is in the right setting.” Poppy’s words struck me as stunningly exact. Yes. Even in the worst situations, the most dire circumstances, the most impoverished places, that is exactly the thing I want most to look for. If there was one thing Carl taught me, it was to see beauty where it would otherwise be overlooked.

I am returning to Africa to begin a new life (tragedy has a way of offering such gifts), returning to begin laying the groundwork for future work in building opportunities for widows and children. Starting with seeds. Yes, literally. The most basic ingredient of growth and development. How apropos. I will be meeting with some amazing individuals to plan and discuss as well as exploring Eastern Uganda to look for that place that God has set aside as Home. I will be meeting with my camera crew kids that I worked with back in August. Oh, my precious kids, I cannot wait to wrap my arms around each one of them! Most importantly, I will also be meeting with my first group of widows and their families in order to photograph, interview and simply spend time together. 10 women. It is through their time and willingness to so openly share that will get this project successfully off the ground. It is not something I am doing “for” them, but rather with them. We will be a group of 11 widows with a willingness to rebuilding our lives and, perhaps in the process, inviting others to rebuild along with us. We are starting with nothing but our own dust and ashes and, in this way, I feel we are exactly where God intended us to be. That is all.

Transfigured: gems in the perfect setting.
Amen.

Dear Abba, use us.

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.

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).