first day. first week.

My heart is full to bursting. A new school year has hereby begun here in Uganda and these two girls couldn’t be more excited. At 4am on the first day of school I find them awake, lights on and waiting. The smiles on their faces and in their eyes at that otherwise dark hour is something I want to always remember. It’s been a busy couple of weeks as we’ve prepared for this new chapter in our lives. I lack the words to describe the state of our hearts or even the processes and journey that all of this change-making has contained. In short, let me start simply and somewhere to say: God is good. 

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Wth my whole heart and being, I love these two.

My thoughts have felt ponderous and full these days. I’ve been thinking about where we’ve all ended up and how we got here. By “we,” I mean this little family of ours. I’ve been thinking about what’s been asked of me, what’s been given, the role I’m playing in all of it, and how it affects those around me. I’ve been walking a space between doing my best to be mindful, logical, wise and giving myself in complete surrender, a vessel to be used purely by God.  Sometimes these ways of being overlap naturally. Other times, not so much. In either case, if I am to follow God’s guidance, in no uncertain terms, it is Trust that’s being asked of me. 

I find myself wanting to tell these stories (all of them), but I don’t know how. As I sit here at my computer, I stop to ask God if this is even what He wants me to do. He says yes. He tells me to keep trying and that, eventually, it will get easier. The writing pathways of my brain have become overgrown with the debris of other thought patterns. I’m in the process of doing some clearing. 

These days I’m learning how to use a machete. I use it to cut brush and banana leaves for making compost. I’ve become addicted to the early morning process. Myself, James and Kevin…we work on garden preparations most days until the heat of late morning becomes too much and we’re forced to quit. We’re in the very first stages of building demonstration gardens so that we might teach permaculture and more resilient methods of food and income production to the widows, children and communities we work with. As I look around me, I wonder if perhaps this pipe dream is a royal joke that’s being played on me. This land is much tougher and unforgiving than us. We’re slow moving and weak compared to the forces of a tropical climate and drought. But then we accomplish some small task. We feel encouraged by these newfound experiences and knowledge. James or Kevin tosses me a fresh guava from a tree. Chewing its tart fruit, I look upwards towards the hot blue sky and suddenly, perhaps unreasonably, feel like this thing we’re doing is possible. Even the parts we can’t yet see or understand. I begin to feel a holy sort of current moving the circuits of my overheated brain and body. I begin writing the memory in my mind, even as it’s happening. But it’s like trying to memorize the ever-changing sky. Impossible. Throughout the day, one activity begets the next and, in this way, entire weeks have already been swallowed up.

In the midst of all these activities, one day it just happens. Kevin and I find ourselves on a bodaboda (motorcycle taxi). We’re going to one of the best schools in Mbale. We’re in search of a new school for Sharon. We don’t yet know about Joy, but suddenly we’re standing in front of the gates of the school. I don’t even clearly remember getting there, but what I do remember is feeling that God himself has planted us there, in that very spot, at that very moment. I’m observing the moment from outside of the situation and yet somehow deep inside of myself all at the same time. The whole world seems to open up as we walk thru the gates. It’s clean and academic. The buildings are painted a fresh red-brown, the color of the Ugandan soil. The curbs outlining the grassy areas are painted in vertical stripes of black and white. The place is alive with teachers preparing for the new school year. The vibe is friendly and intellectual. It’s like a breath of fresh air. Before we’re even halfway down the path leading to the administration office I know as clear as day that this school is not just for Sharon, but for Joy also. This knowing is deep and unshakable. I know with all my knowing that there is nothing more I need to do except to be a conduit for whatever is next. 

The girls pass their entrance exams and interviews. After doing more research, we find out that this isn’t just the best school in Mbale, but also the highest ranking primary school in all of Eastern Uganda. Sharon is placed in P4 and Joy in P5. Joy has been set back a year, but we are feeling good even about that. It’s an immense opportunity and we’re happy that she’s being placed at a level that will give her a stronger foundation. Joy is determined. I know with my whole being that this placement is a perfect fit. This girl is going to succeed wildly. I don’t know yet what any of this means for her, but I do feel God’s presence and that’s all I need to know.  Joy’s parents and Sharon’s biological mother have been a part of the process from the beginning. Ultimately, the decision is theirs. There’s no hesitation in their answers.  Everyone is a full-hearted YES. 

And so…we step into this new beginning, this opportunity of the highest Ugandan caliber. The first day has turned into the first full week. I wake the girls at 5am and walk them to catch a bodaboda the rest of the way to school by 6am. They are at school until evening and, after a quick shower and a snack, they study until dinner time at 8pm. Dinners are late here in Uganda. Sometimes they are doing homework all the way until 9pm. They go to school, not 5 days a week like in America, but 6 (for Sharon) and 7 days a week (for Joy). It is brutal! But the girls? They are in love with it. They have somehow morphed into scholarly warriors. They won’t stop! Sharon and Joy sit at the table together with all their books and paper spread out in front of them, encouraging each other thru each set of questions and answers. They laugh at how easy everything was before this. I look at these two young girls and am amazed by how hard they are willing to work. Most college students in the U.S. don’t even work this hard! They make me realize how much we’re all capable of. I love them beyond measure and wish for them a long night’s sleep and a day of play. But for now, the work continues. I surrender them to the plans God has for their lives. I surrender them to their own desires to give themselves so thoroughly to their studies. I hug them often. I kiss Sharon’s cheeks. I place my hand on Joy’s shoulders. As a family, no matter how much work there is, there is always a lot of laughter and joking with one another too. Life feels full and I want to hold it close. There seems to be no end to it. I look like the tired moms I’ve so often seen. And yet we’re happy. We laugh some more. It’s time for dinner and then bed and then it’s morning again, the starlight of the dark sky walking with us as we begin again, girls giggling. We get to the main road and I smile so big that love somehow comes out of my throat. “I love you, girls.” We all three raise our hands for a passing bodaboda to stop. “Be safe.” I tell both the girls and their driver, as I look into his eyes and then hand him their backpacks. The girls and I exchange a soft high-five, the sound of I love you’s still hanging in the air as they pull away on the motorcycle taxi towards school.

Last night we took the girls to a restaurant and let them order anything they wanted. It was a big treat since making a habit of limiting our budget and eating from home. They ate chicken, rice, matoke and greens. We were glad for them to fill themselves with protein and extra nourishment to replenish them after such a hard week and refuel them for all that’s to come. While waiting for food, Joy complained of a headache. I could see it in her eyes. She’s suffered from headaches for as long as I’ve known her. In giving her extra doses of attention, I noticed that the lump she’s had on her neck is growing larger. And then I noticed that three more have emerged. Oh God, no.

I don’t know why God has sent Joy to live with us and go to school. Yes, I selfishly want her here also…but something about all of this feels like it stretches well beyond me. The lumps on her neck cause us real concern. We had it checked out over a year ago. The doctor gave a vague diagnosis and a prescription for her headaches. Welcome to Uganda. We’ve kept an eye on it and there haven’t been any changes. Until now. Already, plans have been made to take her to a better hospital in the capital city of Kampala later this week.

Life continues to move forward. The compost piles creating new soil for our gardens get warm, then warmer. The sky continuously changes. Affection deepens. Laughter grows. I love more and know less.

I pray. God, we need you.

42.

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I must admit, my second day of being 42 feels alright.The sun rose on this day with a whole lot of soft beauty, despite the frigid temperatures. Yesterday started out so hard. My birthday. I was sick, uncomfortable with the cold outside, uncomfortable even in my very own skin, and missing Carl all the way to the marrow of my bones.  What I wouldn’t have given to hear his voice upon waking. There is still so much grief inside of me that I find myself fighting with every ounce of my being to stay swimming above that relentless dark place that threatens to swallow me whole. I feel like I’m near the bottom of the ocean. I’ve been there for a long time now. The longer I stay down there, the harder it seems to break past its persistent lower leveled midnight zone. It’s a monstrous, strange and lonely place. I grew especially weary this past week as my legs and arms grew tired from the constant attempt at swimming upward, away from the bottom-of-the-ocean trenches that pull at my feet. That place where nothing lives.

I’ve always loved my birthday and, in the past, have even been so brass as to tell people jokingly that it was my favorite holiday of the year. But I don’t seem to feel that way anymore. Just like I lost my love of winter because it stings sharply of Carl’s death. I lost my love of autumn because it is what leads up to his death. I always liked my birthday because it felt like a new beginning. There is nothing I love more than a fresh start. But yesterday, I found it nearly impossible to find the good in any of it. Even with a dear heart’s kind-hearted reminding, I found it hard to acknowledge all the accomplishments of the past year when all I had in me were tears and the reality of turning yet another year older. Childless, weary, grieving. Believe me…I’ve gotten exceptionally good at feeling sorry for myself. I hate to even admit that. Yes, in my defense, I have good reasons to be making a home here in this dark place.  But I also understand that it is not a place where I am meant to stay. It’s a false comfort. The allure of that watery ocean is not meant for me.

I again begin swimming towards the surface, feeling the aqueous sunlight begin to touch my skin. The closer to the surface I get, the more buoyous the water begins to feel. The ascent quickens until finally I find myself here. In the second day of 42 with a plate of warm cinnamon rolls given to me by my dear adopted sister-twin, Carmita, and a steaming hot cup of French pressed coffee. The morning sun slanting across the snow on such a cold day, looks a lot like it does near the surface underwater. But here I can breathe. Even if it hurts a little, with relief, I once again feel oxygen touching the inner surface of my lungs.

Today, the day after my birthday, I feel ready to step into this new year of my life. Last year was filled with more struggle than anyone will ever know. And yet…in that year there was a strong foundation being built. The work in Africa full heartedly began. The transformation in my life began in ways that simply couldn’t be undone. No one ever said that metamorphosis and foundation building would be easy. I’ve fought the devil himself. And yet, over and over, even when I get too close to those dangerous underwater trenches, a strength arises. God wired me with some grit that often surprises even me.

And so…this is where I start today. On solid ground. Utterly frozen, but at least sun-infused. And soon enough my life will be turned inside out and, on January 9th, I’ll emerge from the airport into a softer, more tropical world. A place where even more struggles await, but also a place where my spirit has been undeniably called to.

Yesterday was hard, but it ended with the voices of a HUNDRED women singing Happy Birthday to me and sending me off with love to Africa. For real. Seriously…how many people get a gift such as that? In that moment, the dark place I had been battling got swallowed by all those beautiful voices. I shift occurred and I simply allowed myself to be saturated by so much love. It continued on thru the night in words and conversations and great big hugs. I open the map a bit further and am instructed to leave the ocean. The water is beautiful, if I only go there to rest closer to it’s salty surface. But there are seeds to be organized, compost to be started, gardens to be planted, children and mamas to be loved.

It’s time for that new beginning…and this year it’s called 42. It’s middle name is Joy.

The new chapter:

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Thank you, Jennifer Berg, for sharing this verse on the day I so very much needed to hear it. Thank you, Abba…because I know you love me.

~~~
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I love you. 


Not too many more days and I’m gonna get to see my beautiful girl, Sharon. I have missed her every single day since I rode away from her just over 3 months ago. She was the hardest part about leaving. I wonder if she misses me too? I keep her photo near me in the studio as I paint. She has my heart. As in like…allll of it. I gave it to her the night she got sick…the night she started staying with me because I realized she had been abandoned…the night I heard her say her very first words out loud: “I love you,” she whispered. “I love you too. Oh Sharon…I love you too.”

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.

Dream Bigger.

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“When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come.” ~Leonardo Da Vinci

Earlier this week I was given guidance to dream bigger. I’m already a pretty big dreamer and so…to dream BIGGER? Yeah, I’m willing to give it my all…even if I don’t entirely know what that even means just yet.

This morning I have been looking through images from Bududa. I can’t seem to get from Point A to Point B in my editing endeavors in any linear fashion because I get distracted by the sheer beauty that so many of these photos contain. This little girl’s name is Mutenyo Evelyne. She hung out with us a lot while we were working in Bududa. She was as curious and sweet as her eyes might lead you to believe. I’ve had her photograph open on my computer since Tuesday because her eyes have captured me, her expression creating a peaceful stillness buoyed with possibility.

Dream bigger, her eyes say.

I want this girl to dream as big as she possibly can. And I want to dream right along with her.

When I left for Uganda, I didn’t really know where God would end up leading me. I knew I was going there to photograph, document, and tell the stories of a particular group of kids and their community. I went there as a Hands of Action volunteer, but the entire time leading up to the trip and even during the time of my stay, my deepest prayer was, “God, plug me into where I am needed most!” I wanted to find my place in this great wide world of need. I wanted God to use me. I trusted that He would. I wanted more than a 3 week experience doing short-term mission work. There were moments when I prayed, “Oh, dear God, please don’t leave me hanging without a sense of place after this is through.” There was a bit of desperation under the surface of that prayer, but He listened to my heart on that one, too. He has a plan.

And you know what? I am falling for His plan hook, line and sinker. lol I’m laughing as I write that…only because it’s true. I’m not even aware of when, exactly, “it” happened. It was incremental, perhaps a bit like the way a baby grows. You don’t notice how fast it happens when they’re in your arms all day long every day, but eventually you turn around and and can’t believe the change that’s taken place!

I left for Uganda with a backpack full of camera gear and several journals. Included in all that gear were a few point and shoot cameras that had been donated after a last minute moment of inspiration to capture photos from the kids’ point of view. Little did I know how important those inexpensive little cameras would become! Actually, I have a feeling that even I still don’t know the full potential of this new journey that I have so divinely been sent on.

This is what the good stuff is made of. Meet my Camera Crew (below): Emma, Emma (a common boy’s name in Uganda) and Godfrey…just three of the fourteen kids that became a committed and integral part of a photography project that I haphazardly pulled out of thin air just days before leaving. God is GOOD! That project changed everything. As my dear friend Moses would say, it is giving me the way forward.

I’ll tell you more about the camera project in future posts, but for now let me just say that the kids took it seriously. Very seriously. It was also my doorway into getting to know the community in a much more intimate way. Those involved became my special crew, my students, my interpreters, sherpas, guards and best friends. They were eager to participate and learn in every way possible. We were a team. It didn’t matter that we sometimes spoke a different language; it didn’t matter that we came from opposite ends of the earth. We found a common thread and I daresay it has woven our lives together for good.

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Emma, Emma and Godfrey, eager students learning how to use a camera tripod.

Since the moment I left African soil, I’ve been obsessed with getting back. I keep saying that I can’t wait to dive into the work that awaits me there. My friend Poppy finally asked me, “Jessie, what IS the work you are going to be doing now?”  Ahhh, such a simple, yet powerful question! Leave it up to Poppy to get down to the brass tacks.

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I believe in these boys. This is the look of limitless possibility.

The short answer is this:

  1. I am working to further develop the camera project as a means of creating continued education and opportunities for the kids involved.
  2. I am working side-by-side with Hands of Action Uganda to grow a micro-loan lending system/cooperative group to help widows get back on their feet after significant loss.
  3. I am helping with the photography, rebranding and websites for Hands Of Action Uganda and Hands of Action International as well providing social media and content in the form of photography, stories, and video.
  4. Last, but not least…I am sooo drawn to work with orphans on some level. I will give that time tho. I have a feeling it is something that will come to me if and when it is meant to be.

Needless to say, all of this seems like as good a place as any to start. When I asked God to use me, He didn’t hold back! In all honesty, I am overjoyed. Meanwhile, I am preparing for a solo exhibition of canine painted portraits with my whole heart. This show is over two years in the making and it is also what is going to propel me into the Whateverafter.

See those kids in the photos above? I believe in them. I believe they can do anything. Emma (left) has a heart of gold. He is gentle, observant, and thoughtful in ways that make him stand out like a shining star. Godfrey (right) is quieter and a bit more likely to go unnoticed in the scheme of things…oh, but that boy, more than any of the others his age, has an eye for detail! Every single one of the kids that emerged to be a part of the camera project is remarkable in some way.

Let this be just the beginning of limitless miracles. It is my hope that the camera project will cause those involved to see the world with new eyes. It is my hope that it will forge a path towards continued education…perhaps someday even creating an opportunity for a university education. If given a chance, what might these kids be capable of? How many other lives might they touch in the process?

All I know for sure right now is this: I want to find out.

Dear Abba, thank you for this journey you’ve set me on. Make me Yours…over and over and over again. You have touched me to the current of new water. Everything before this led to now and everything beyond this leads to what is still to come. May Your grace be limitless.

Teach me how to dream BIGGER. Teach us all.

Dear Abba, I love you.
Amen.

Ruby Slippers and Dirty Flip Flops.

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AHHHHH!!!! I might die from smiling so hard!! I just listened to a voicemail from these three lovely people from UGANDA!! Wow! It felt sooooo good to hear their voices! Crazy ol’ Maurice, Bettina Bergöö and Charles the artist all want to know when I’ll be back. There is worthy work to be done and good times to be had! Awww, man…clicking my dirty ol’ flip-flops 3 times….

there’s no place like home…
there’s no place like home…
there’s no place like home…

Bududa, my home away from home, I MISS YOUUUUUU!

Waiting.

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“Waiting For the Doctor” :: by Jessie Marianiello

I’ve been looking through and editing images today of an incredible community of children who I have completely fallen in love with. Most of the photos break me wide open with immense JOY and even wider open in my desire to return. Never in my whole life have I felt so saturated in happiness and love.

As part of our yearly audit, our team worked hard on updating the students information. We took their photos, measured their height and weight, noted progress and loss, provided an opportunity for each student to receive a medical examination and treatment from Dr. Samuel, as well as new shoes, a pencil and some sweets.

But there is another side of the story that my camera did not always capture. While my lens was focused on the smiling faces of children, behind me there was a constant line forming around the edges of the tent with villagers who were coming to us in hopes of finding even the smallest amount of help. Some of them had walked long distances in great amounts of pain. All of them waited patiently, respectfully, hopefully.

We were blessed. We had a doctor working alongside us. And not just any doctor. Dr. Samuel joined our team from Kenya. Despite significant and recent tragedy in his own family, he was by our side to help in any and every way he could. I have never met anyone quite like him. He is a special man, indeed. He worked tirelessly to help as many people as he could in the time he was there. The only supplies we had were what our small team had brought with us in suitcases from the U.S. plus a few things we picked up once we made it to Uganda. Dr. Samuel was working with the bare minimum in terms of medical supplies…and yet the number of people whose lives he changed are countless.

You see, the presence of Hands of Action International and Hands of Action Uganda was, for most of those people, the one and only opportunity they would have for medical attention of any kind. Some were living with life-and-death illnesses. Some were carrying babies that they were afraid might not survive. Others were living with the pain of serious fungal infections, dental problems, and a miscellany of injuries that we might have difficulty fathoming. No matter what our income level here in the US and in other first world countries, we DO have access to medical and dental assistance in ways that many of these individuals will most likely never know.

This photo makes my heart feel the heaviness of the world. I was reluctant to share it, but lest we forget…this is a reality that exists. I want to always remember that every soul matters. None of us can help everyone, but most of us can help someone. I am grateful for my experience. I am hopeful because…yes, it really does matter.

with love,
Jessie