Trust.

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Jessie Marianiello. Artist. Photographer. Writer. Philanthropist. Adventurer. Lover of life and animals and God.

I had a hard day yesterday. Or, at least, it started out that way. I missed Carl. The tears were too close to the surface. I also felt very surrounded by those who love me on the other side. My grandpas and great-grandmas, Clara and Leonard (my adopted grandparents), my aunt Iffa, and other angels too…some that I don’t even know who they are, but my whole life, since I was a little girl, I have felt this celestial love and protection with me, surrounding me, looking over me.

Yesterday, while looking through photos from my childhood, I felt them especially near. And I needed them. Things are getting so much better, easier…and yet, even in the midst of such goodness, there is sometimes an ache in my heart for Carl that is deeper than all the world’s oceans. On my way to pick up a bunch of old suitcases to use as props for a photoshoot I was doing that evening with my dogs to help raise funds for my upcoming trip to Africa, I got out of my car and was met by this message written on the sidewalk in chalk. The message led straight to the second-hand store I was going into.

“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” ~Isaiah 41:10

I felt my heart relax back into the hands of God. A weight lifted. The threat of tears evaporated in the sunshine. It might as well have been arrows drawn on the sidewalk with words saying, “Yes, this way. You’re going the right way. Keep going. I’m with you!”

Really, yesterday was good in a lot of ways. Carl’s sister, Leah, shared a photograph of the Ugandan landscape with me that completely lit me up. That evening, Carl’s niece, Lauren, and I did a photoshoot and ended up playing with light in ways that stretched our minds and probably our hearts, too. Before going to sleep, I received midnight prayers and encouragement from a friend. I fell asleep with a mantra of gratitude, thank you God, thank you God, thank you God. My heart was peaceful.

This morning, as my conversation with God continues, I find myself wishing for lots of answers. I’m inspired. Everything is changing and so I find myself asking God, “Who am I? Who do you want me to be for You? God, where am I watering myself down? What do You want me to let go of?” I want to make more of my life about working in Africa. But there are logistics to consider, ya know? I guess I am feeling like, if I knew where my income would come from, I could build the rest around it. Then again, I also know that God knows better than I do. While I’m sitting here wishing for God to give me insights and answers to all the unknowns, it’s quite possible that He is waiting for my heart to find its way first. There is graciousness in this.

As much as I want all the logistics figured out and guaranteed, yes…it makes sense for my heart to find its way first. There is more meaningfulness in this approach. It’s my own worried mind that wants to run ahead. There is a part of all of this that feels so reckless. I want to be smart or wise or clever or all of those things so that I don’t fall flat on my face. But the truth is that Abba is asking for my complete trust. There are no shortcuts.

There are gifts in the time it takes to struggle with something. 

I’ve asked God to use me. And now He is. I gave all of me. And now He is using all of me. I’d regret my decision to throw my life at God, offering myself up to the trenches, but then He leaves me sweet messages written on the sidewalk in chalk. He leads me to the sunshine with my camera. He fills my life with people and love and encouragement. He provides, continuously. In all ways, He has been providing everything plus some, every step of the way. I don’t have to have it all figured out yet. God isn’t going half-way with me, that much I know. Do I get scared about that? Yes. My heart is tender. I’m afraid of more heartbreak and yet I’m feeling led to one of the most heartbreaking places in the world. I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know who I’ll be. I don’t know what my world will look like. I don’t know anything, really. But I know that I want to live without holding back. I know that I want to inspire someone else to live their own version of that too. I know I’m here for reason and, most of all, I know I have God.

Abba, please hold us close. Continue to remind us how close you are in every way, every day. Fill us with courage to accomplish the impossible. As we attempt to step into our TRUE path, let us hold nothing back. Prepare us, protect us, fill us with faith, unshakable.

I love you, dear Abba. Bring out the best in me. I’m yours.

A letter to Joy.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

A flight to Uganda, unicorns, provision and babies in suitcases…

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Yesterday I purchased my plane ticket to Uganda. Oh my dear Lord, my heart is full. On November 8th, 2014 I gave my life to God. I handed it over. I asked Him to use me. ANYTHING, God please, just use me. And now? He did, He is, He will. The opportunity, coupled with complete passion, to work with these kids in Uganda came up and I told God that if He provided, I would go. Within mere days HE PROVIDED! In the form of just a few earth angels, the costs were covered.

Of course. There is no need for me to be surprised. God is a funny guy. This has not been a light hearted life…and yet, somehow, He has brought lightness to my heart. Not even one detail has been overlooked!

After texting friends and family in celebration, and having a few good cries of happy tears, I wandered the woods several times throughout the day, walking with my palms up in a revolving prayer of thanks, guidance, protection, thanks and more thanks.

Last night I had a dream that I rode a unicorn. She was buckskin in color and so beautiful, maternal and calm. She was grazing in a large and rolling pasture with other horses too. It took several tries, but eventually I got on her back by pulling myself up by her dark mane. Ah, to ride bareback. She was perfect and we moved well together. Never mind that her unicorn horn was made of paper and paint. She was gorgeous and so was the experience.

Later in the dream someone left me a small suitcase with two newborn babies in it, a boy and a girl. Before the person left, I was told that the babies could stay in the suitcase, but one was crying and so of course I opened it up. The dream would switch…one moment I was with my friend, Emily, then my sister and nephew. But the babies stayed the same, in all their messy sweetness. I was like a fumbling new mother. My sister laughed at me.

Oh dreams, sweet weird, weird dreams….
Oh life, sweet weird, weird life…

Oh Carl, sweet, sweet love of my life. I thank God for you. I thank God that even His calling you Home has brought me to this. Uganda and unicorns, babies and tears and laughter….

I love you! I love you!
I love you!

Happiness, unstoppable.

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Dear Abba, you’ve brought me this far. Through all those millions of moments when I didn’t think I could take even a single step, when I didn’t want to take even one more breath. My life shattered. My heart broke. When Carl died, my old self died right along with him. You know this because you’ve been alongside me, through every single moment of it all. You were there when I kneeled down next to the driver’s seat of that crumpled car. You were there there when I stood in the snow at the site of the crash, semi-trucks and cars barreling down a busy two-lane highway under a sky that I remember being neither blue nor grey. But for a moment, dear Abba, You quieted the world and created space for the most intimate conversation I may ever experience on this side of heaven. You were there when I told Carl it was ok, that I knew he didn’t mean for this. You were there when I told him it was ok for him to go, as long as he would stay with me as long as I needed him, it was OK because I knew he was going Home to You. Dear Abba, I could feel you. You were in us and with us; You were everywhere and everything. Carl’s presence was separate from mine, yet also like an illuminated medallion of light lodged in the brokenness of my heart. Oh, dear Abba, you allowed us to merge in a way that defies language, right there on the ugly side of the road that took his life. Surrounded by freshly fallen snow and utter loss, You allowed us this. Not just the idea of Carl being with me even after death, but truly, in that moment you gave us the gift of uniting our spirits in a very real and living way. I told him it was ok.  And in that moment, we both knew…it truly was ok. And I felt him go. I felt him being absorbed into You. I felt it right along with him. Dear Abba, you let me die with him, and it was the most glorious feeling I will ever know until I meet You again on the other side of death. This glimpse of what it is to go Home. I felt it. I know. And nothing will ever be the same again. Not ever.

In the eastern pasture, the horses are contentedly munching on the new sprouts of green grass along with the rising sun that has been shining directly into my eyes these past couple mornings, waking me at what seems like an abundantly early hour. I use the word “abundant”  because it feels good to get up so early, welcomed into the day by such a direct invitation from what feels like God himself.

Most mornings I wake up praying. It is not an intention or decision to pray, rather a conversation that is already happening. Many nights even my sleep is filled with prayers and so, when I wake up, it is simply a more conscious awareness of continued communication. I savor these moments. I sink in and attempt to make them last as long as possible.

This morning I woke up praying about Joy, a young girl I recently sponsored through Hands of Action International. That was about a month ago and I have been obsessed with the kids of Uganda ever since. Yesterday I learned that Joy is 10 years old and an orphan. She owns a mosquito net and uses it, but she does not have a school uniform or even shoes.  Not all of the children needing sponsorship are orphans. I woke up thinking about her. I was wondering what her personality might be like. I prayed that she has someone to comfort her when she needs it. I thought about her feet and the red dirt, puddles and jiggers. I tried to imagine her smile and wondered if it comes easily. I wondered if she likes to be hugged and what it might be like when I finally get to meet her for the first time. Will she be shy? Will I? I thought about her name and the deep meaning it holds for me, yes, even beyond the obvious (a sacred story to hopefully be shared someday). I thought about my own life and where God might be taking me. All of these thoughts and questions and imaginings somehow held in the safety of God’s arms and a golden sunrise.

Today my heart feels a certain kind of peace. Yesterday I felt unstoppable excitement. I spent the entire day apologizing to everyone I interacted with for being so overwhelming. Maybe no one minded as much as I thought they might. I was overcome with happiness. Like this. Like the girl in the photo above. I don’t know who she is. Or the others either. I only know that they are the ones that I have become passionate about. They make me feel happiness and I want more of it. My heart feels alive again. A miracles, yes…a miracle, to be sure.

I’ll spend the day painting in the studio. I’m preparing for my largest solo exhibition to date and also a fundraiser for rescue dogs. I paint and pray and try to stay contained in my own skin so that I might stay in better pace with God. No running ahead, no falling behind. Then I’ll come home and work on photos of the kids for a new sponsorship website page. There are 500 children we are working to feed and clothe and send to school. Yes, I used the pronoun “we.” It feels miraculous. I feel a part of this. Thank you, Abba. There is so much to do and I feel such eagerness to help do it, whatever it is. This newfound eagerness has a strange way of fueling the obligations to even my own work that’s at hand. These paintings I’m currently working on are filled with more prayers than any I’ve ever done before.

I do not doubt that much of my newfound energy and eagerness is coming from the sheer amazement and joy in feeling happiness again. I always feel it when I think of those little kids in Uganda. There is joy and a desire to move in that direction that simply overtakes me. This feeling of happiness is still utterly foreign to me after such deep grief. And yet it is also welcome…so very welcome that I am reduced to tears. The grief still exists, but now it is saddled equally with hope–the tangible sort–made up of real possibility and action step that are being made more and more clear each day. I smile and cry and sing gratitudes to the Lord, all at once.

Dear God, if this is grace…I want more. And more. And more…

“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loves is born of God, and knows God.”
~1 John 4:7

JOY

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I don’t yet know how to talk about this. I don’t yet know how to talk about much of anything that is going on inside of me these days. All I know is that something shifted in this 5th month of my new life. I could not have referred to my existence since Carl’s passing as a new life before now. My vision and my heart was too full of death and loss and pain. But, all along, I’ve been praying for guidance and, all along, that guidance has been undeniably constant. I have been praying for God to use me. At the center of those prayers was a desperate plea that He make the loss of Carl and my love for him worth something. But nothing has to be done to give it worth. The value is inherent and, all along, God has known exactly what He is doing. All along…there has been a plan…and I’m in it, Carl’s in it, you’re in it, this little girl, Joy, she is in it.

It’s no longer a question of IF God will use me. Instead, I now find myself asking when and where. It is requiring a little bit of patience on my part and, for once in my life, I think I’m ok with that. I sense the depth of where life is taking me and it is not for the fickle hearted. He is preparing me in ways that I cannot yet even fathom. I understand the dangers of rushing ahead and I know my heart will break irreparably if I don’t keep pace with God–whether that means moving forward or holding still.

In the coming weeks or months or years, I will probably be sharing a lot more with you about Joy. For now, I just want to introduce you to this little girl who is already changing my heart. That is her tiny little fingerprint on the clay necklace on the right. She is as real as you and me. I want you to know about her so that you might see the way God is working in our lives…mysteriously, beautifully, powerfully, painfully, JOY-fully.

I don’t know anything. And yet God gives us glimpses. A part of me feels incredibly vulnerable in sharing this, but I feel Him asking me to lay this journey out openly. And so…

Here’s what God has told me so far:

I’m going to bring you somewhere beautiful. It is going to be so beautiful that without Me you would feel incredible loneliness–but because of Me you will instead feel peace, you will feel grounded. You will feel connection.

I am the way and the truth and the life.

Let Me move you.

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Simplify your life to its barest self.
You’ll find that you don’t need much.

Keep all aspects of life simple so that you will see My way.

Where you are meant to go, I will get you there.

Get radical.

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You are going to find so much happiness that you’re not going to be able to contain it.

I will ALWAYS be with you.
Every. Single. Step of the way!

Live out loud, for others to see. Share it all. Share Me.

You will have everything you need, in all ways, to do everything I ask of you.
The things I ask of you are the things you’ll want.
Trust me. Even when it doesn’t make sense.

We are creating space for a certain kind of freedom…a freedom that you’ve never before known and that I promise you will love…you’ll love so far beyond yourself that, someday, when it comes time for you to die away from your physical body, you’ll merely turn into particles of light. You’re love will last long beyond you.

I’ll take care of your heart–through it all–just as I always have.
Bring it all to me. All of it–both the sadness and the gratitude.

You are covered in love.

There is an army of angels protecting you. You will be able to go absolutely anywhere without fear. You will go places where other people do not.

You will build a family and it will be brighter and more love filled than you can even imagine!

Your world will look much more different than the one now before you.

Dear Abba, yes…I am yours. I don’t know where you will take me in this life. But I trust you. With my whole heart. I’m in.

with prayers of grace,
Jessie

For breakfast: coffee steam and candles.

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I’ve been obsessed these past two days with getting this blog up and running. Everything published before this post was originally written and shared on Facebook. I’ve gathered those posts here for the sake of congruity and perhaps even for safer keeping. I’m grateful for the space and connection Facebook originally provided, but at some point, it became difficult and inappropriate to share my heart on such a haphazard platform. I had entered a desert. The lowlands. It stretched out in front of and behind me, in seeming infinity. It was a place of dirt and dry earth. There were mountains, but they were in the distance and only served to contain me in that low spot. I needed to walk alone for awhile, in that deep valley of sadness. And, in doing so, my faith walk got deeper, too.

As I write this, it dawns on me that Jesus also spent 40 days and nights in the desert. This was about the same amount of time that I spent in my own dusty barrenness. I’m not saying that I am like Jesus, but it should not surprise me that there is something to be said for the sacredness in this time of desert walking and wordlessness.

It has been 4 1/2 months since Carl died. It seems like an agonizingly long time and yet, as the days and months and years will continue to pass between us, I know that someday I will look back on this day and realize that the distance between now and then was miniscule. But time stretches. It shrinks and expands and then doubles back on itself.

For over a week I have found myself, for the first time, suspended in a place of happiness, inspiration, hope, even giddiness. I have felt energized by some strange and unexplainable joy. It felt like God. It was God. It is God. It felt impossible to feel so much joy in the face of so much loss. I don’t fit the mold of what I imagine grieving “widows” of unexpected tragedy to look like.  Yet I also know that is what Carl loved about me. That is, he loved my optimism and passion for life. And that is what I loved most about him. Of course, God knows that even the unspeakable loss of the man I loved with my whole heart could not stop this life force within me, even tho, at first, I so badly wanted it to. I am both devastated and satisfied in a way that I’ve never before experienced. I cry as I write this. I feel like a conundrum, an oxymoron, an absurd paradox. All last week I was on the verge of breaking out of my skin with a renewed sense of euphoria and hope. Today I simply feel like I’ve made it to the edge of the valley where I will sit and rest for a moment before continuing my walk into the foothills and, eventually, someday, maybe even the mountains.

I created this blog so that I might have a space that I can more openly write about my journey through grief. I’ve been a wanderer my whole life, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would travel through a landscape like this. All I know is that, like Jesus after his 40 days and nights in the desert, I am hungry. But it is a strange hunger. Not for food, but for more of God.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” ~Matthew 4:1-4

As I write this, I once again notice how Carl’s bible smells like him. Somehow, in drawing close to God, I feel closer to Carl, too. I draw close, not for Carl, but because of him. I draw close because this is what was meant for me all along.

“I am a bow on your hands, Lord.
Draw me, lest I rot.
Do not overdraw me, Lord. I shall break.
Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break?” ~Nikos Kazantzakis

For those of you who have found me here and are reading these words, thank you for journeying with me. I pray that, even in breaking, grace might be found.

with love and honesty,
Jessie