Joseph.

A white bird glides just above the surface of water so still that it reflects the sky. It’s hawk-like, but I can’t identify the species. Everything feels unfamiliar and strange to me. It’s my first full day back from the hot tropical coast of Kenya. I’m disoriented by the nakedness of the trees, stripped of their colorful leaves while I was away. A sharp reminder that I’ve returned to this northern Minnesota landscape with uncomfortable timing. In six days it will be Carl’s death date of two years. It happened just yesterday and a thousand years ago. In some ways if feels like it hasn’t happened at all…that I’m living some strange premonition that I just can’t seem to extricate myself from.

My last night in Kenya, I sat cross-legged on one of the couches in the common room of the eco-lodge where I was attending a PDC course. I was so hungry for a moment of peace and quiet. The rave/reggae/techno funk hadn’t stopped playing for two weeks straight and I was exhausted from the constant noise surrounding me. In an attempt to find my center, I would have liked to stayed planted in bed under the mosquito net of my grass thatched room, but I needed some dinner after not eating most of the day. And I needed a cup of tea. My journal sat on the coffee table in front of me with high hopes of being written in. It was what I wanted most from the day. Not a very lofty goal, but as night laid her darkness over the baobab and banana trees I saw my opportunity to make sense of the last two weeks in the form of journaling slip from reach.

My phone buzzed with a message and it was James. I read the words fast. Then read them again. I felt a wave of sickness well up inside of me.

Nandala Jane’s elder son is dead.

I hate writing this. And yet I need to write something. I hate the feeling of tears. I’m tired from two years of crying. I no longer know where to begin. I used to love writing braided essays, weaving the threads of thoughts and experience into something tidily poetic and sensical. These days, I feel as tho I more often just sit in a twisted up mess with words in my head instead of on paper.

Where does one experience end and another begin? Lunyolo, a young widow and member of The Joy Collective whose baby had just herself gotten out of the clutch of sickness, was now calling to tell us about a loss that knocked the wind from our lungs. Our sweet Mama Jane, one of the twelve widows we work closely with in the mountains of eastern Uganda, her son’s life snuffed out at the age of twenty-three. The call got cut off before Lunyolo was able to tell us more details. I knew only one thing: Jane’s son was gone. I wanted to vomit. Or cry. Or both. Jane’s loss hit me as if it were my own. I thought of Janet, Carl’s mom, and how strong she is but also how no amount of strength can save a mother from the pain she feels when she loses a child. I thought about Jane’s gardens. The ones we helped her build. At the foot of each garden is a grave. One belonging to her husband and the other to her son. And now…there will be a third grave, another son. Joseph’s.

Death, death and more death. Before I even had a minute to process this awful news, Jackson and Timothy, two of my course-mates, sat down next to me for a bit of evening small talk. I tried telling them what had happened, but it felt impossible to convey. I needed a moment alone, but I couldn’t figure out how to untangle myself. I felt bad for wanting to be alone in the first place. By that point, I had been wanting it for two weeks. Everywhere I went there was someone who wanted to talk. My plate full of pasta suddenly grew heavy in my hands. I set it down and wished I could find my way out of so much noise. My energy felt too heavy. I didn’t know where to put the shock of such sadness in a room so full of people.

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Jane had finally caught a break in life. She joined our group and, despite my initial assumptions that she might fail, she ended up surprising us all and has since become one of the most successful gardeners in the group. Jane grew so many vegetables that she began sharing with others also. That was a huge leap from the hunger that too often filled her belly in the months and years before. She figured out a way of plant care-taking and harvesting that kept her kale and spinach producing vibrant succulent greens for three seasons straight without replanting. She was doing so well that she ended up hosting and teaching the most recent workshop that was held with the other widows. On the day of the workshop she was beaming. For perhaps the first time in her life, she felt respected and empowered in a way that was changing her from the inside out. From learner to teacher, the light shone from her eyes so thoroughly that it took our breath away.

And now? Just as things were getting better…her beloved son, Joseph, dies. Just like that. He got sick; they got him to the hospital; he was gone within minutes. No definite reason. Just gone. I feel the words rising up into my throat and out of my mouth: It’s not fair. It’s just not fair.

Those words are useless. At midnight, just a few hours after receiving James’s message, I put my bags into the back of the taxi. With a heavy heart of mixed feelings I was headed to the airport so that I might return to the States one last time before moving to Uganda indefinitely. I sat at the edges of numbness until arriving in Istanbul thirteen hours later. In Istanbul, the airport terminal was busy with people, a teeming hub of movement in all directions. The chairs were filled with old turkish women and families and individuals from all reaches of the world. I found a place to sit along the raised ledge of a wall. I sat low to the ground with my head in my hands. It felt good to be low to the ground after so many hours in the air. And that’s when the tears let loose in a silent snot producing sob.

So much loss. And I was moving in entirely the wrong direction, away from Africa instead of towards it. I didn’t want to be traveling back to the States. Is this even home anymore? After two weeks in Kenya, my heart was aching for Uganda more than ever. The further away I traveled, the deeper that ache grew.

After 28 hours of flights and layovers, I eventually made it to Chicago. I sat with detached indifference, apathetically watching random Americans walk by dressed in Halloween costumes. It all seemed so odd, surreal. The corridors of the O’Hare Intl Airport felt cold and dull.

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When I met Joseph, he taught me how to braid rope. It’s work meant for men, but with a laugh he said it would be ok for me to braid rope too. He was sweet and welcoming. We sat together, along with Headmaster Moses who had accompanied me to translate, while we waited for his mother, Jane, to get home so that I could meet with her. Joseph’s home was right next to hers. We sat on tiny wooden chairs and waited, talking and getting to know each other in broken English. He stayed close to his mom during my visit. I could feel his love for her. Gentle, protective and caring.

I look at these pictures of him and can’t believe he’s gone. Before the details were confirmed, we hoped it wasn’t him that this had happened to. Death happens easily in Africa, but even so…it was too much, too unexpected. It’s too big of a loss. For the community, for Jane, for all of us. That I captured these photos of him, even that feels surreal. I took them back in December and can’t help but feel that, even then…God knew.

God knew that He would take him Home and He knew that Jane would need us. Just like God knew I would need Jesus before Carl died and so Jesus came to meet me two weeks earlier at baby Anna’s funeral.

These losses make my heart cry out in agony. And yet I see the divine orchestration of details and I cry out again in awe. Agony and awe, pain and comfort. The white bird flies sharply, quickly over the reflections of still water. Two days ago I was sweating in the tropics. Today I’m shivering in the cold, naked forest. I’m here and yet I’m there.

I see beauty in these photos that captured Joseph’s existence. Beauty that brings me to tears. Beauty that crushes me and pulls me forward nonetheless. Like energy, love never disappears, it only transforms. Even after the forest burns, new life grows greener than ever before.

Quite honestly, it’s more than I know what to do with. My journey to Kenya was a head-full. I felt strangely awkward and disconnected. I don’t have it in me to wrap up this writing with a neat and tidy ending. For now, just let me lay out these broken pieces so that perhaps, someday, I might be able to make better sense of them. For now, I just want to grieve with Jane. And, even as I write those words, I know I am also grieving for myself and for Carl and for a million other losses. I’m grieving for the world I’m giving up in exchange for a precious, precarious life in Africa. A life with even fewer guarantees than the one I am leaving behind. How beautifully fragile are we.

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Rest in peace, Joseph.

 

with new eyes.

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This weekend I opened up my wee little tiny cabin to my friend, Brittany. She’s a mama of 3 and rarely gets time to herself. She works hard and is always taking care of everyone else before herself. Brittany was a long time friend of Carl’s, although I didn’t come to know her until after he passed away. One thing about Carl is that he had a whole world full of beautiful friends. He loved those who were a part of his life dearly and, even tho there were countless people, he made everyone feel like they were a best friend. The thing is tho, is that it was true. His friendships genuinely were that real.

With both of us having busy schedules and full lives, Carl and I had to work pretty hard to spend quality time with one another. In the process of making that time together, we didn’t get all the opportunities we would have liked to introduce each other to our different worlds of friends. Anyway, we had our whole lives ahead of us. There would be time later. But time got cut short. And so it is that many of my friends now only know Carl from what I have written about him. The church where we held Carl’s funeral, one of the biggest in town, was filled with people who loved Carl…from wall to wall to wall. The day was a blur, one that I only just barely survived. It was the day that I met so many more of Carl’s friends. The beauty is that many of them have remained a part of my life and we have begun creating meaningful friendships of our own. Carl filled his life with good people. Hard working, down to earth, generous, loving people. Brittany is one of them and I know without a doubt that Carl is happier than ever to be a part of our connection.

Since returning home after my first trip to Africa, I find that I no longer take very many photos of everyday moments. I used to all the time. But these days I can’t seem to be bothered. Everything looks grey and lifeless, broken down, dirty, uninspiring. I feel like a broken record, but it has been hard to be back home. Every day here is often nothing more than a reminder of all that is gone. I think about Sharon and the women I’m working with in Africa and can’t help but feel that is where my “real” life is waiting.

I find moments of reprieve when I am with my horses. I go out into the pasture to feed them and, after throwing the hay over the fence, I smile with the snort and snuffle, their words of gratitude, while I respond with my own sing-song of “you’re welcome.” I duck between the barbwire and rub down each horse. As I walk up to Colorado he bends his neck around and encloses me against his side. It’s his way of saying thank you, I love you. It is his hug and I get one daily. It is the one moment of every day that I feel fully present. Yes, even here.

Once I walk away from the horses, the blur picks up speed and dullness all over again. There are moments of incredible inspiration when I find time to work on Africa-related tasks. I struggle to carve out the time I need to process so much goodness and transition. If I had that time, perhaps it would make the tasks related to old commitments a bit easier. But let’s face it: this earthly life was never intended to be perfect. I fluctuate between extreme agony in needing patience to attend to all the things I must do before I can leave and sheer panic that I’ll never accomplish it all in the short time that I have. My time-line, I should mention, is entirely self-created. Even so, it feels carved into a rock that is not entirely my own and, believe it or not, I feel comfort in that. It reminds me that something bigger is at work and, whatever is meant to be, is going to happen, despite my failings.

I want to shrug off all my struggles and grieving once and for all. But it doesn’t work that way. I know that. The thing I didn’t know was how giving up the comfort of my cabin for a night would end up being such a great and much needed gift to me. This evening, while in my studio, Brittany texted me a whole pile of photos from her stay. They took my breath away. I instantly felt a nostalgia in looking at them. A fondness, as though looking into an easier past. My everyday world through the eyes of another. I found it beautiful. The quirky wall of spices and tea. My cat, Viscosa, at the window. A shelf lined with an eclectic mix of antiques, cups, and whatnot, along with the view beyond: oak trees outside my kitchen window. The wine and treats I left for Brittany to make her stay feel a little more inviting. Even the cracked window overlooking the lake became something worth appreciating.

Experiencing my world through Brittany’s eyes was something I needed more than I could have known. There have been dead parts inside of me and, over time, they’ve begun to spread in ways that are dangerously invisible, like an ugly noxious weed with roots underground. I don’t want to live with the feeling of so much deadness, even in this time of “in between.” It is the sort of deadness that has begun to take up space even where the emptiness of grieving has left off. Without even realizing it–through her photos, her heart, her way of seeing–Brittany brought my world out into the light and, in doing so, has helped return those lifeless places back into being.

Brittany gifted me with a journal in exchange for her much needed retreat. The words she inscribed in the cover’s pages could not be more fitting. Today I am glad to have eyes for a new way of seeing. There are comforts and a quality of light to be cherished. Yes, even here, right now, in this very moment.

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Photo credit: Brittany Sand. Images Copyright Brittany Sand 2016.

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

 

as the cat crows.

This morning I woke not with the crow of the rooster, but from the loud meow of my old cat hollering down from the ladder of the loft. Feed me, love me, be with me! In the village, I got used to the morning ritual of a different set of sounds: roosters crowing, cows bellowing, the soft voices of children being sent to fetch water and beginning a long day of chores.

I woke up this morning at about 6am. The meaning of time has been temporarily erased. Honestly, I’d like it to stay this way as long as possible. Preferring to give myself over to my own internal rhythms, I’m certain I would accomplish much more with a lot less stress. I’ve slept for the better part of 24 hours since returning home. I feel rested although still disoriented from what feels like a very, very long night…lasting several days ever since getting in the taxi with Moses and his two young boys, Joshua and Joel as they accompanied me to the Entebbe 4 long days ago. There were a flurry of goodbyes and hugs once we got to the airport. It all happened too quickly. Time collapsed and then stretched itself into some strange travel warp made even stranger by extreme fatigue and delayed flights. But now the day is sifting itself out of the darkness. Still no sun in this northern landscape, but the quality of sliver-blue holds its own sort of beauty. It is a color made purely of snow and tree trunks. With no visible sun, winter creates its own version of color. Dark pine, naked oaks, white papery birch…yes, I do remember now why I love this place, even in the depth of winter. It holds a certain kind of quietness that cannot be found anywhere else. I burrow deeply into this strange environment, insulating myself as thoroughly as possible while I make the internal adjustments needed to somehow become alive and present in this otherworld, so different from the one I just left behind in the hot, life-filled humidity of Eastern Africa.

I feel as tho I could go days and days without interacting with the outside world. I want time to process and pray and simply get back to work. I want to paint. I have a lot of work to do and find myself wanting to move back into my world of current responsibilities as simply as possible. I want to conserve as much energy as I can so that I might finally celebrate completion of past obligations. On the other side of all those long awaited commitments is a vast and terrifying freedom that is calling my name. In all reality, the cold crispness of winter is a perfect fit for what needs to be accomplished. This is not the time to give into distraction. There is a stark quality to my exterior world right now and, if I’m wise, I’ll use it to my advantage. The lushness of Africa awaits. For now, I have a journey of preparation ahead of me and, since it can’t be avoided, I might was well find the sweet spots of enjoyment. Delicious coffee, being in the presence of my horses, dog snuggles, good music, time spent in the studio, softly falling snow…this time of quiet can be useful if I allow it to be.

Without a doubt, my life in Africa awaits. God has already gifted me with a clear vision of where I’m headed and my trust in that is implicit.  Absolute, complete, total, wholehearted. Faith is a powerful thing. It has, it is, and it will carry us far.

Yes, I cried yesterday with sadness and pain over my return. But I’m not going to allow myself to remain in that dark place longer than what was useful. I have love and aliveness filling my life both here in Northern Minnesota and in Eastern Africa. I choose not to take these things for granted.

The snow has started falling and my horses, Dakota and Colorado, weave their large, magic-like dark bodies through the trees. They are snow-covered, like their landscape…yet their eyes shine with intensity and invitation. They are silently calling me to them. I feel myself respond and it seems that God uses the same technique. God is in those horses, in this snow, and in all the opposites I’m carrying within me from Africa, too.

I let myself become a basket, a skeleton of vines being woven into a better story.

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The work of a basket weaver in the mountains of rural eastern Uganda. The view from his home was breath taking. I came upon him while hiking the mountains from a visit with a widow I’m working with. The view from this man’s chair under the tree outside his simple home is forever embedded into my soul. So is his smile and welcoming warmth. Dear Abba, thank you.

Dear Abba, thank you for the view. Thank you for the past 24 hours of deep sleep, for your undeniable presence in both my dreams and waking thoughts. Thank you for the healing that comes so easily when I allow for it. Thank you even for the starkness of this re-entry. I feel clear and calm, ready to move forward with You from this space. I feel Your freedom, even in the details of now.

 

The Heart of Home.

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Lillian, Sharon and Aullelia.

My tears froze before ever hitting the ground as I stepped off the stairs descending from our little small town plane and onto the ice-encrusted tarmac of the Bemidji airport this morning. At 3am we flew over the stiffly frozen tundra of northern Minnesota. Last leg of a long journey and everything felt painfully barren. Lifeless. Cold. In that moment of avian first sight, the stark contrast from the colorful equatorial landscape I left behind was almost too much to bear. The temps are well below zero, a different world than I traveled away from 5 weeks ago when I left for Uganda. The disharmony in weather feels impossible. So does the discomfort of my heart. It’s fibers are stretched too far. I struggle to find the love I once held for this place. Everything here reminds me of Carl, a cruel imitation of a life that no longer exists. I wasn’t expecting that. I never seem to be prepared for the grief that rises so unexpectedly to the surface. I don’t plan for these things because, quite honestly, at this stage I prefer to avoid the anguish of grief altogether. Ok, so it happens. In retrospect, I always remember that I’m better off if I just allow myself to flow through it.

Flying over the inky, frigid landscape of home made me realize that perhaps one reason I’ve so thoroughly fallen in love with Africa is because it offers me a new beginning in all it’s differences. When I’m in Africa, everything is new. I often think of Carl, even while I’m there, but usually those thoughts are about how much he would enjoy it. I am comforted because, in those moments, I can feel him smiling down on me, happy to see me so happy. But coming home? That’s a different matter entirely. For the first time in my life, as I walked from the the door to the baggage claim, I heard my lips utter the words: I hate this place.

As I write this, the first light of dawn is just barely starting to sift itself out of the darkness. Everything is taking on a silvery blue quality…the trees, the snow, the sky. The animals were beyond crazy with happiness over my homecoming. I was flooded with kisses and whimpers and snuggles. I whimpered and kissed and snuggled with happiness right back. The house was cozy warm and so beautifully clean and cared for. I took a hot shower and am cleaner than I’ve been since I left 5 weeks ago. I called a friend in Africa because it is still only mid-afternoon there. I made a cup of instant (African) coffee, just like I would if I were still there.

And bit-by-bit…the gratitude starts filling up the sharp, cold edges of things. I feel love even in the richly patterned red rug under my feet.

I’ve been home for approximately 4 hours. After many, many years of looking, I’ve finally found my home and, mostly, it is not here. It’s in a place filled with banana trees, mountains, red soil, malaria and a million stars. But there is that other part of home…the one that is and will always be Minnesota. In this northern landscape I remember the Jessie who loves winter. That version of myself feels like a different lifetime ago, but I know she still exists somewhere inside of me and, for that, I am grateful because she’s the one who is going to get me through this time of in-between. That resilient side of myself…the one that got me to Africa in the first place. Yeah…she’s the one I will need to call on…over and over and over again. My life got filled even fuller with even more love and purpose than I thought possible. It’s not even about me anymore. My heart beats a different rhythm now…but I’m sure I can find that rhythm even here among stiffly frozen trees. Inside the depth of winter is always the urgency towards renewed life.

Dear Abba, thank you for the map you’ve made for me. I’m happy with where we’re going. XO

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.