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.

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

Let her sleep for when she wakes, she will move mountains.

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Today has been a day of rest. Deep and necessary rest. In the past 2 weeks I have traveled to Minneapolis twice, upheld approximately 20 social engagements, and gone to the studio more days than not (admittedly, painting is a slow process that refuses to be any other way these days). With the help of God, I survived Mother’s Day and, with the help of a(n incredible) friend, I hauled 7 months worth of garbage to the dump. I got organized (a Herculean task), met with my financial advisor, and came up with a pretty awesome plan. I attended a workshop on project funding, filling my brain and heart with ideas that I’m excited to let shimmy and shake into place. I’ve kept up with a spring load of housework (why does spring have to be such a messy season?!), hosted friends, and took care of a literal ton of animals (1 ton = approx 2 horses, 3 dogs, 1 cat). And the list goes on. In other words…

Life is full. Life is busy. Life is good. Life is challenging.
And?
I am exhausted beyond measure.

Every day contains a week, a month, a year. Or, at least, it often feels like it. On the outside it looks like not a whole lot is getting done. Or maybe that is just my own insanity speaking. Even so, I hold all of this in the palm of my hands with gratitude, the moments of nourishment as well as the accumulation of movement that has so easily worn me out.

This grief is such a strange, strange process. Emotionally, I’m beginning to feel so much better. That’s a serious step in the right direction. Despite this newfound strength, it seems my body is keeping me firmly planted in the present. I often feel so weary that I think my bones might break. Truly. Who is this shattered shell of a body? Lest I forget, I’m reminded in no uncertain terms that my current state of being still requires all of me. The wild blue yonder continues to place patience on the agenda and yet, even in this brief state of slow necessity, God’s quickening has already begun. There will be no rushing ahead and, in surrendering to this, I realize just how quickly a new path is being laid out in front of me. In truth, God is wasting no time.

In the next week, I am attempting a quieter kind of focus. My body simply cannot sustain this pace, at least not yet. May there be nothing but me and God and time in the studio. Nothing but brushing horses and eating a whole lot healthier and going to bed as early as nesessary. Hushing the pace, slowing the speed. Oh, sweet solitude. Daily naps and daydreaming allowed. My life: simplified.

But wait…all of this is just taking us the long way around the mountain. What I’m really wanting to tell you about is the way that things are beginning to lead me forward in the direction that my heart has been praying for all along. Where do I begin?!! The rain falls on the tin roof of my cabin as I write. It has rained so much in the past couple days that there are tiny rivers forming in the sand. A million minuscule rivers, all flowing the path of least resistance. With the persistence of rain, the easier those little rivers flow. The rain that was so very, very needed. Dear Abba, I feel you bringing me to a place that I’ve been praying for since the day Carl died. This prayer that I’ve been putting at your feet since the very beginning of so much loss. This intimate prayer, too powerful for words.

My hands are open, palms up…in willingness, in surrender. As though in answer, a month ago I met two women who are doing extraordinary work in Uganda. Since then, my despair has increasingly been replaced by peacefulness, hope, happiness. My life has not been the same since. I’m obsessed, really. I want to give myself over completely. There is more clarity in my next steps. God is putting the invitation directly into my hands. I can’t know where He’s taking me until I get there, yet I feel profound trust in the path ahead. I understand, even as I write this, that tomorrow might not look anything like I imagine it. I presume nothing, but there is one thing I know for sure and that is the way He’s been answering my prayers…all along.

“There is no patience as strong as that which endures because we see ‘him who is invisible’ (Heb. 11:27).” ~Streams in the Desert (Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing this).

My last journal is filled with so much pain. So much learning. So much faith. And now? There couldn’t be a better time to begin a new journal. To fill with even more learning, even more faith, even more healing. I experienced pure enjoyment in creating this journal cover today. As it becomes so very undeniable to me that Africa is holding a piece of my heart, I am letting God prepare me. If it is His will, I hope to travel to Uganda in August and, until then, I have offered my time and talents to do what I can to be of service to Hands of Action International from where I’m at. I’m also, with equal importance, praying for the energy to get thru the projects I committed to in my life before Carl’s death. I am grateful for the tasks at hand. This is sacred time. I would not be able to handle the weight of God’s gifts if I weren’t slowed down and protected by this timeline of events and even my own ability. I can be patient because I have faith that God is using this time in deep and gorgeous ways.

“God I trust you with all of my heart.
Wherever you want me to go, I will go.
Even if it’s not where I planned
lead me and I will follow.”

I look forward to filling these new pages with whatever is to come.
I love you, Carl. You are with me and in me and a part of all of this.
I love you, Abba. You turned my whole world upside down. And then you gave me everything.

Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd…

I was letting the words roll peacefully off my tongue, slowly pondering their meaning as I did so. I woke up feeling broken, sad, a little lost. But the grey morning had thinned its sky full of clouds until finally giving way to a perfect blue. I was driving country roads out to a sheep farm belonging to a friend, on my way to help feed the bottle lambs. Little did I know that God had been shepherding me in that direction all along. Not understanding the depth of my need until surrendering myself to the sunlit glow of Julie’s world, what did I know? A world of newly born lambs, attentive ewes, the flitting songs of barn sparrows. All that softness, golden light and energy. Oh, Abba…you knew. All along, you knew. 

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The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.            ~Psalm 23:1-6

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Leah, Carl, and Diana…with Jethro, Bambi and Bashful.

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The Lord is my Shepherd…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am not alone; I am comforted; I am guided and kept safe. My cup overflows.  I love you, Carl. I miss you in a way that can’t be undone. But truly? It is well with my soul. And, oh, dear Abba, I am thankful.