3rd year. cups, caves, ash and making space.

img_1057

Yesterday was the third anniversary of Carl’s passing. I’m afraid that if I start writing that I might not be able to stop. I don’t know where to begin. There are too many things in these past many months that have been left unsaid. Life here in Uganda is always happening. It’s often messy and includes a complex weaving of stories that are not always mine to tell, at least not publically. Writing takes time. Untangling my thoughts from the complex intertwining of miracles and disappointments often takes more than I have to give. Which is unfortunate. Because God has been woven into every single detail.

It’s nearly noon. I’ve been sitting at my desk for nearly two hours. I’m reading about different strains of amaranth, pollination and seed saving.  I’m reading about carrots and nutrient density in varied colors. I switch gears in search of an organic solution for the blight that is attacking our tomatoes and am nearly undone with excitement when, in the process, I also find a hearty handful of ideas of how we might get rid of the pests that are eating our cabbage and kale as well.

This morning, I went out to the garden in the light of the rising sun and again, later, to share my discoveries with Simon, our Joy Collective employee whom I work alongside in the garden. I was exhausted. Late to find sleep and early to rise. This place requires all of me. My fatigued state of mind made things seem more cluttered than usual. It made things shift shapes to look worse than they actually are. My walk in the garden felt discouraging. Blight, leaf eating pests and even rats stealing our vining plants in the night. The devil snickers at my tiredness and his success in causing me to notice all the threats from every angle. I always thought that northern Minnesota gardening was one of the most difficult places to grow food. Turns out I was wrong. I was so naïve. Despite being well traveled, my hands had not spent much time in dirt other than my own. Our rich glacial soils and cold winters that eradicate so much of what we struggle to keep at bay here in Uganda was a blessing that I never fully understood while racing those all-too-short growing seasons. This tropical environment gives forth a never-ending supply of challenges. The persistent heat of the tropics is just as unforgiving as any amount of snow and ice that my former environment had to offer. This place is designed to devour itself.

Whatever the case, my exhaustion was causing me to see things in ways that aren’t really true. The pest issue isn’t that bad and, honestly, most of the vining plants can still be replanted, even if for the third time. As for the blight, that story remains to play itself out, but I actually have more tomato seeds than I know what to do with and, with every challenge that arises, a massive amount of learning happens right along with it.

As for the wave of discouragement that had just washed over me, what I had on my hands was not a case of unredeemable failure, rather the strange and unpredictable run-off of grief, a backfill of emotion I had either experienced or escaped in the day before. Perspective is shifty.

I decided to go back to the house with the intention of allowing myself some rest. Since moving to Uganda, I find the benefits of rest to be both obvious and profound. I told Simon that I would return to the garden later with more encouragement. This place isn’t just teaching me about pest management in the garden, but also how to tend to what rises up within me, too. There is more than one way that this place will devour you, if you let it. My morning rest ended up taking the form of pouring over books and then getting too excited to sit still once I found myself fully footing down a rabbit trail of solutions.

At the moment, I sip tea from a fragile, but beautiful cup that I purchased yesterday. As I lift it to my lips to take a sip, it smells of smoke, the scent of a wood-fired kiln. I linger, enjoying the way the process of its creation is somehow infused into its very being. I doubt the cup will last long. It also smells of clay, a consequence of being fired at low temperatures. I don’t care. I’ll enjoy it thoroughly as long as it lasts with hopes that it holds its earthy smell no matter how many times it’s washed. The cup was a gift to myself. Something like a birthday gift, but different. The whole day was somehow a small act of quiet celebration. Three years now, Carl has been in Heaven. Three years since the day that, standing at the table in the swirling motion of Carl’s family’s kitchen, I gave my life to God. Carl and I both died that day. And then birthed into something entirely new. It has been the hardest three years of my life. But yesterday was less about my sadness than I expected. It was, instead, a tenderhearted day of quiet celebration. It was a day of beauty and friendship and fellowship. In deep ways, my day filled with gorgeous hearted people in moment after moment that I never even planned for. I made it through the day that I had so thoroughly dreaded.

As if yesterday could somehow be a birthday, I realize that this year ahead will be filled with something softer. The dark cave of grief that I’ve made my home out of for so long is asking to be tended to. God Himself has been whispering ever so gently into my very being. He tells me to carve out space and with that thought I notice the warmth of a small fire where it is darkest. It glows golden. I tend to my surroundings in a peaceful and loving way. Not hurried. Even my heart feels soft. Love fills the space, transformed. I open up my arms to allow in the prayers of those in pain. Somehow there is no end to how much can be gathered in. This soft, glowing cave, somewhere in the mountains of my heart, becomes a healing space not just for me, but for all who are drawn there.

I go back to the garden. With bare hands, I spread ash around the leafy plants, a circle of protection. The ash feels like death, but added to the garden it creates life. I enter into a new time and space, one which God has had waiting for me all along. Even this, right now. I give myself to it fully.

Retreat.

IMG_3877

“Silence of the heart is necessary so you can hear God everywhere–in the closing of a door, in the person who needs you, in the birds that sing, in the flowers, in the animals.” ~Mother Teresa

I’m on retreat. A working retreat with the intention of accomplishing the impossible and drawing close to God in the process. I’ve temporarily planted myself somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Stateside. Much too far from Africa and a bit too close to the Dakota prairies for my liking (too close because that is the place that took Carl’s life). In this landscape where the sky feels so big, at the edge of this endless expanse, the silence found here is what I need more than anything. Distractions and the immense disparities in culture have, at times, made my time away from Uganda nearly unbearable. I came here (to this cabin) because I couldn’t find my footing. I was holding a tension in my body as if trying to hold my skin and all its contents in place. I had been carrying myself thru this strange time, as tho none of this belongs to me. And, in truth, it no longer does. Not really. The psychological transformation took place with exquisite subtlety. It happened quickly, easily. In the laughter and naturalness of raising two girls, being in constant companionship, and being so deeply immersed in the intense situations of Ugandan life, I changed. Willingly and wanting to. I gave myself to it completely.

I am only a few days into my retreat time. I’m sure it sounds quite luxurious to be “on retreat,” but the truth is that I’m a seasoned soldier in the art of solitude. Art itself is an extreme discipline. Especially if it’s also been your livelihood for most of your adult life. I’ve gotten good at separating myself from the noisy world so that I might accomplish the often huge amount of tasks at hand. I enjoyed it at first. There are great freedoms in creating your own schedule. But eventually I started to notice that the work never ended, even when I wasn’t working. Seclusion eventually eroded my sense of wellness. After Carl died, I think it’s safe to say that the isolation required of my art making tore my already worn nerves to shreds. Anxiety, mixed with the deep depression of loss, was a mean dog that I couldn’t seem to shake.

In Uganda, my life is filled with the work and presence of being with others. It’s woven into my days effortlessly, intimately, and with easy familiarity. My life there allows me moments to go into the gardens to sit by myself, in the company of only God, to look at the mountains and shifting sky. In many ways, it’s the best of both worlds: offering both solitude and companionship. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not perfect. The days can be exhausting. It’s often so hot that it is hard to think. There are times that I’m left at the perimeter of things, unable to talk or listen freely because of language barriers, sometimes even at my own dinner table. But even these struggles are a welcome relief from the incessant chewing of my own inward turned thoughts with too much time spent alone.

Here in the States, there have been many times when my work has caused these extreme and long-winded bouts of solitude to feel like punishment. And there are other days when I need that solitude more than anything. After all, half a life-time’s work done mostly in seclusion, will change a person. I’ve always been very comfortable spending time alone. But the circumstances of life have created a need for alterations. I’m grateful for my life in Uganda. It’s a fabric that, although complex, fits me well. Coming home has been a lot like putting on old clothes that I no longer know how to wear well. I make due, but it’s awkward and, strangely, a lot of goodness is coming out of it.

With each walk I take with the dogs, the wind hollows me out a little bit more and, in returning to the cabin, I walk past my easel and see God in what is revealing itself on the canvas. In seeing this I realize that, even as the threads of longing pull at me continuously towards my truer home, it is a choice to enjoy this time.

A flock of 20 or 30 redwing blackbirds are picked up in a shift of wind and, from this lakeside perch, I realize that I am, indeed, happy.

I didn’t think things thru before renting this cabin. It’s proximity to the North Dakota plains has both startled and surprised me. Carl’s presence feels as true as the sun and wind. It’s evoked a tender pain and yet also another level of healing that I wasn’t seeking or even expecting. Maybe even…a level of healing that I might have been avoiding. But something is happening here. I’ve even started to let music, a language shared between Carl and me, come alive again in ways that I have not been able to before now. Just a little at a time, like these strong winds, is all I can handle. But, as a good friend of Carl’s recently reminded me, “life isn’t a race.” This can take as long as it needs to.

What I know in my heart is that, this time on retreat has been precious and powerful. It’s been gentle and love-filled. In my solitude, God has saturated every moment. From the vantage point of this place I’m able to look back over the past month and see the ways in which returning Stateside made all the raw places of my soul to come jumbling to the surface. It came too loudly and all at once. I needed reprieve. And so…here I am. Met by the sky and the restful comforts of this quiet cabin where God himself is tending to me. He draws me out from the places where I was hiding from so much pain and, in the doing, I see that He is preparing me to walk places I could have never before imagined.

img_3887

God Light.

IMG_4319

IMG_4320Sharon went to the doctor today. I can’t help it…these photos take my breath away. Look at that light! I feel that God was in that room with her this morning. Sharon’s tests all came back negative (malaria, typhoid, ect.). The HIV test also came back negative (thank God)!!! And so it seems her earlier flu-like symptoms were simply just that and her earlier bout with Malaria is also gone. She was, however, diagnosed with a severe allergic reaction. To what, we do not yet know. James took these photos as Sharon was getting injections. My strong, brave, skinny-armed girl! She also received a prescription for medication and medicated cream. We are giving her a week to see how she responds, but also took a referral and are making arrangements for her to see an allergy specialist so that they can do more thorough testing.

I’ve been praying hard for this girl. And I know many of you have too. I can’t help it, I feel like something has shifted in the power of all these prayers. God feels mind-boggling present, even in these challenges (*especially* in these challenges). It’s starting to sink in…the power of one little girl’s life, the way God might use her well beyond anything I might imagine for her.

This light breaks me open. Just two days after Carl died, I stood on the side of the road where tragedy brought his life to an end, and I EXPERIENCED heaven. I felt him so strongly with me. I felt his sadness in having left me. I felt the impossible weight of my own disorienting grief. But something in me knew I had to let him go. I told him in prayer-like words that, as long as he would stay with me as long as I needed him, it was ok for him to go. I felt God blessing us in that connection. That was the moment it happened. Carl went Home. The sheer immensity of love and perfect peace that I was touched by as heaven swallowed him is a feeling that will forever defy words. It is an experience I will never, ever forget. And when I look at these pictures of Sharon…I feel it all over again. God. My eyes can’t hold back the tears.

My world has changed in these last two days. I think, perhaps, Sharon’s has also. I thank Carl for being our Best Angel. Perhaps he was in that room today, too.

Abba, you fill this world with so much love. If only we could see past our frustrations and anxieties. Needless to say, Sharon will be fine. I thank Uncle James for helping her get all the care she needs on this earthly side of heaven.

{Originally posted on Facebook 03.24.16  :: Reposting here as a testimony to God’s grace in our lives.}

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 beginning of a new life.

IMG_3320I wish I knew where to start when it comes to sharing the the journey I’ve been on with Sharon. You see, she’s not just a story. She’s not just a photo. She’s not just another kid. She is my heart. She is somehow my other half. She is and always will be my first daughter, even if she’s not biologically mine.

Her story is long and complicated. It is filled with abuse, hunger, abandonment and suffering. But those are words that speak only of her past. Today, Sharon is walking towards an entirely new future. Let’s not over-simplify things tho. There are still struggles, there are threats…but more powerful than any of that, we’ve found a resting place of HOPE. We are finding the first glimmers of HAPPINESS and believe me, for this little girl, the simple gift of happiness is something worth celebrating.

Yesterday, “Uncle James” was able to help me take care of the details of making sure Sharon’s school fees were paid. You see, Sharon has moved. She’s starting a new school. She’s starting a new life. I don’t know what it is about Sharon’s quiet, giggly self…but she breaks open hearts in the most beautiful ways. James is a dear friend of mine from Uganda. He is my brother, truly. We met in August the first time I traveled to the village of Bukibokolo. I don’t mean to throw these terms of family endearment around lightly. I’m not sure when this familial relationship of brother/sister began, but even Sharon instinctually picked up on it and dubbed him with the honorable title of “Uncle.” You see, James loves Sharon, too. As a child, he walked the same rough road that Sharon has had to walk. And now? It seems that God is transforming James’s past pain into a love for children who need it most. Sharon loves her Uncle James and I do too. He’s making sure that her school fees are being spent as they’re meant to. He’s checking in on her on a regular basis. He is a source of constant love and support for both Sharon and I.

I’m attempting to say too much in one blog post. It makes it hard. It’s impossible to contain this much love and difficulty in one sitting. Perhaps I should have been writing more all along, but you see…I couldn’t. Because it’s complicated. It’s a story about real people with real feelings and, in some ways, living in real danger. I tread lightly with all of it. There is still so much untangling and praying to do.

I want to tell you everything and yet I don’t know how. Perhaps there are pieces of this story that aren’t meant to be shared in its entirety, at least not yet…or maybe ever. But for now, I rest in knowing that progress is being made. Sharon is with her mother. The woman who I thought had abandoned her own daughter had her own side of the story. While in Uganda, I made arrangements to meet with her and I’m glad I did. Her story is also complicated. And yet I want to believe that she is doing the best she can. I want to help her to be the best mama she can be. I want to give Sharon and her mother that chance. Because I love Sharon and every child deserves a relationship with their parents if at all possible. The situation with Sharon’s father is dubious, violent and heartbreaking at best. Sharon’s mother is another matter. Now that Sharon and her mother have been re-united, there is potential for goodness to increase, mature and maybe even flourish. For the first time ever, Sharon’s mama has a network of support in a way that she never had before. In the way that she’s needed in order to even be a mama to her daughter. God has blessed me in that Sharon’s mother wants me to be Sharon’s mama, too. The genuineness that is growing out of our gratitude for one another brings tears to my eyes, even as I write.

Sharon has a whole family of people here in the United States that already love her, especially my Bratlien family, who already think of her as a granddaughter, niece and cousin. From that family, she has a very special aunt and uncle who have helped me to cover her first semester of school fees. With each person that becomes a part of my life with Sharon, I become more amazed by the way God moves in our lives…how He changes and heals us in ways that we never imagined. We’re all so broken, but God knows, He sees, He hears, He understands…and He uses us to help heal one another. It is turning out to be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced.

Sharon begins her first day at her new school on Monday. Let’s pray for her, please! May this be only the beginning of an upward looking life.

IMG_3022

Sharon and I the day we had to say goodbye-for-now. It was a hard day, indeed!

IMG_3021

Sharon and her biological mama, Christine.

IMG_3025-3

Sharon and BOTH her mamas! 🙂

IMG_1977

Sharon and Joy. They are like sisters. And, to me, both are my daughters.

IMG_3318

Uncle James and Sharon. School starts MONDAY! 🙂

I love you, Sharon! And dear Abba…I thank you beyond measure.
B-E-Y-O-N-D  M-E-A-S-U-R-E!!!!!

Amen.

 

 

 

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.

IMG_0644-2szc

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.