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.

A boy and his horse.

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Last weekend we moved the horses to their new home. It’s one of the biggest decisions I’ve ever made and, quite honestly, I expected it to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And yet…every step of the way, an extraordinary sense of God’s love has been present. Colorado and Dakota have made themselves easily at home with Taevon, a 9 year old boy who is the reason I feel good about all that is to come. I’ve never seen the horses love anybody as easily as they love that little boy. They loved Carl, too. They melted into his arms the moment they met him. But this boy, Taevon…he brings out their gentleness and curiosity in a way that I’ve never before seen. It’s strange and downright breathtaking to watch. His mom and dad and extended family are pretty fantastic too. My heart still lives inside of these horses and I will miss them more than anything or anyone else on this side of the planet. In a way, I get to pretend that they’re still mine. But…this heart of mine knows…they’ve found happiness. They are ready for this next stage in their lives. And, truth be told, maybe I am too. They changed me forever. They healed me and are the reason I stayed around long enough to reconnect and fall in love with Carl. They’ve breathed life into me since the moment I met them. After Carl’s passing, they were the only thing that got me out of bed each day. I grew close to them in a way that I’ve never experienced with other animals. Colorado especially. I’m certain that he is the most special horse I will ever know. They will always, always be a part of me. I don’t know what it is about this little boy…but I trust his love for these horses with everything in me.

God knew that Africa was going to swallow me whole. But He also knew how much I love these horses. With an uncertain and anxious heart, I pleaded, “God, please protect my heart, especially when it comes to my animals.” I begged Him not to break me. I knew I couldn’t handle the loss of anything more.

And so God sent Taevon and his family into my life. Thank you Drew and Samantha. I’ve never felt better about anything. I know this isn’t a goodbye…but rather a hello. May God bless your new life with Colorado and Dakota. May they teach you more than you ever thought possible. May they change your lives as much as they changed mine.  ❤

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” ~1 Corinthians 13:13

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{originally posted on Facebook Dec 3, 2016}

Honestly, I don’t know how to do this.

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Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always.
~Psalm 105:1-4

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It’s a beautiful drive to the place where Carl rests. Curving roads lined in a million shades of green. It’s a landscape of poplar and pine trees, soft-needled tamaracks and trails that wind deep into forests that go for a long, long time. I drove past low-land swamps and deep, deep lakes. Past the place I used to live, the house I built with my very own hands. The house with the bright red roof, it’s back turned to the world, overlooking a wilder beauty. The place where I first met Carl when a friend called to ask if he could lend a hand with the construction. Later, Carl returned many times to sit on the porch, along with friends. We made music, lots of music. But it wouldn’t be until another 15 years later that life would do enough work on both of us to cause us to fall into a love that, before then, I didn’t even have the capacity to experience. It’s possible that our love was never simply our love. Perhaps it was God’s love, all along. A love from God, belonging to God.

Yesterday, as I drove to the cemetery, the words of Psalm 105 were spoken over the radio. I knew those words were meant as a gift to me. To remember. Things have gotten hard again. After a brief reprieve, the wave of grief has raised itself over me, long and hard. But it’s time now to begin shifting into a brighter place…

Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced ~Psalm 105:5

For a moment tho, I need to just sit here. To gather my energy, to allow my earthly self to disintegrate in the salty pain of all these tears. Sitting in that place where even the dogs gave themselves to grief. They know, as I do, this is no easy road.

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I lost much to gain much. I lost Carl to gain God. And here I stand, at my beloved’s resting place. The place where I first met Jesus. The place that I also tend to avoid for fear of coming unravelled all over again. But then I finally get there and what I instead find is a most profound peace.

I’m moving to Africa in just over a month and it is so difficult to imagine being so far away from this beautiful place that holds the body of the man I love.

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.

Forehead kisses.

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I miss my girl, Sharon, so much that I can hardly stand it. She would become especially snuggly the closer it got to bedtime. If it was just the two of us, she’d crawl into my lap and snuggle in as close as possible. An 8 year old that snuggles? Yeah…it’s just about the best thing ever. Sometimes there were tears that needed to wiped away. She didn’t want me to leave. Not ever. I would rock her in my arms and sing sweet songs, giving little kisses on her forehead. Maybe we never really outgrow a need to be loved like that. Never in my life has it felt better to bring comfort to another person. My heart yearns to hug and to be there for her in ways that simply defy words. This must be what it feels like to be a mother. My God…how does one survive this kind of love?

In the morning.

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The rooster crows. When was it, exactly, that the sky full of stars slipped herself into this silky dress of daylight? The transition comes softly in the mountains of eastern Uganda. Subtle movements stir outside. All is peaceful except for the unavoidable and overly officious crowing of the rooster. I love this time of day…despite that damn rooster. Actually, I love even the rooster. Because it means I’m here. I’m in the village, held by morning and all the things I love. Held, even my dear girl, Sharon, who stays with me while I am here. We share a full size mattress, but despite the luxurious amounts of room, I find myself at the edge of the bed, held by the mosquito net on one side of me and Sharon pressed up against me with her tiny arms tangled around me on the other side. I’ve never known love like this. She can’t get close enough. She’s eight years old and so small for her age. She snuggles in closer and whispers for the hundredth time: “I love you.” I think her voice whispering those words is exactly the sound that Heaven is made of. I tell her how much I love her, too. She holds out her hand in mine so that I will run my fingers up and down her little arms. She likes the way it tickles. She doesn’t want to get up. A sadness flits somewhere deep in her eyes when I suggest it. She’s attempting to soak in half a lifetime worth of love. In all honesty, I am equally content to hide from the day just a little bit longer. With her, I become a mother. It is an empty place that I didn’t even realize how much I wanted to fill until she came into my life. It’s a strange feeling to unexpectedly become a mother to someone. We didn’t have time to grow into it and yet it feels like its always been.

The light is soft through the old curtain. It isn’t long before we hear the tap-tap-tap of little birds outside the window. It sounds like a wood-pecker tapping softly. I think of Carl, my woodsman, and smile. After a few days I realize that it isn’t a bird…but the softly tapping fingers of the children. They know they can’t knock on the door to wake me up. They’ll get in trouble from a passing adult if they make too much noise yelling my name. And so they tap…tap…tap. Persistently. Eagerly. Sweetly.

Eventually their enthusiasm to spend the day with me seeps through so thoroughly into my room that I’m reluctantly charmed out of bed. Sharon is always a few steps behind as I shuffle out of the bedroom and into the simple kitchen with crazy bed-head hair standing on end. I am greeted by this: a window full of kids, paper boats, love-notes and flowers on the sill. Someone’s smiling. Someone’s singing. Someone little is crying because she wants to be lifted up.

And I smile.

Because, as much as I crave a little more sleep or just a quiet cup of coffee, what I have instead is even better. My Africa…I love you. It is for this that I live to wake up to every morning. Dear Abba, thank you for giving me something to live for.

Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life. ~Psalm 143:8

 

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.

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

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Sharon and her biological mama, Christine.

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Sharon and BOTH her mamas! 🙂

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

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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.