Transfigured: gems in the perfect setting.

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Today I purchased my ticket to East Africa. Everything in me begging to return, this will be my second trip since August. This time, I will stay for an entire month. I feel restless today. There was some confusion with the tickets since the prices started to sky-rocket and, although I knew the cost would eventually go down again, I worried about the availability of decent flights or even getting a seat if I waited too much longer. After much searching, there turned out to be only one option and that was to fly into Entebbe, Uganda via Nairobi, Kenya. Normally I would have flown in via Rwanda. I’m a bit disoriented by this turn of events, but feel that God has a definite plan. You see, I had prayed about it and felt guided to go through Kenya. I considered this, but then got turned upside down and attempted to stick with my original, seemingly less complicated program. I laughed out loud when going through Kenya ended up being my only option, the details aligned beyond my control. I surrendered. And now? I will land in Kenya on the evening of my 41st birthday and then, by midnight, be stepping out into a Ugandan night. A new year, a new life. And, for this, I thank God.

You’d think I might pair this wonderful news with a happier photo, but in all honesty, this is the image I’m most drawn to tonight. I’m fighting a fever and feeling both the gravity and beauty of the world. My friend, Poppy, recently sent me an article from Vogue featuring Kenyan actress, Lupita Nyong’o. We were having a conversation about portrait photography–beauty and dignity, intelligence and humility–and the art of illuminating the soul. We talked about “putting the right light on the jewel that is in the right setting.” Poppy’s words struck me as stunningly exact. Yes. Even in the worst situations, the most dire circumstances, the most impoverished places, that is exactly the thing I want most to look for. If there was one thing Carl taught me, it was to see beauty where it would otherwise be overlooked.

I am returning to Africa to begin a new life (tragedy has a way of offering such gifts), returning to begin laying the groundwork for future work in building opportunities for widows and children. Starting with seeds. Yes, literally. The most basic ingredient of growth and development. How apropos. I will be meeting with some amazing individuals to plan and discuss as well as exploring Eastern Uganda to look for that place that God has set aside as Home. I will be meeting with my camera crew kids that I worked with back in August. Oh, my precious kids, I cannot wait to wrap my arms around each one of them! Most importantly, I will also be meeting with my first group of widows and their families in order to photograph, interview and simply spend time together. 10 women. It is through their time and willingness to so openly share that will get this project successfully off the ground. It is not something I am doing “for” them, but rather with them. We will be a group of 11 widows with a willingness to rebuilding our lives and, perhaps in the process, inviting others to rebuild along with us. We are starting with nothing but our own dust and ashes and, in this way, I feel we are exactly where God intended us to be. That is all.

Transfigured: gems in the perfect setting.
Amen.

Dear Abba, use us.

Dear God, bring me home.

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“Let your mind start a journey through a strange new world. Leave all thoughts of the world you knew before. Let your soul take you where you long to be…Close your eyes let your spirit start to soar, and you’ll live as you’ve never lived before.” ~Erich Fromm

I only want one thing. To begin my life. This new life. The one that includes mountains and humid African air and a world filled with all sorts of love.

I am happy now. My new life has already begun. These are the days of preparing. The days of closing the chapters of my old self and preparing clean sheets of paper for a new story to begin.

These days, I find myself getting down on my knees to pray. It somehow shuts out the clamor of my mind and the world around me and puts me in direct communion with God. My prayers no longer even have words. They are made of a silence that needs no translation. Sometimes, the clutter of my prayers are burned away so completely that I think this must be what brings me to my knees.

Dear Abba, yes…please…take me to that place you have allowed me to see.
Amen.

First Morning.

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It was our first morning in the village. We had arrived late at night, after barely making it up the mountain in our taxi van. We slid off the road and got stuck just as we pulled into our new home. It was dark. Pitch black. Not even a sliver of moon. The kids ran so happily around us in the dark, singing and all clamoring to help us carry our bags, to hold our hands. Their little hearts were bursting, the feeling carrying me through the dark to wherever it was we were going. The guest house was a confusing twinkle of light at the edge of the earth. I really had no idea where we even were…but didn’t care. I knew only one thing: I liked it.

In the morning, after a good sleep, I walked out one door and was met with an awe-inspiring view of the mountains. I went back inside, made a cup of coffee and then walked out the other door to this. The sun was rising on a new day.

I felt at ease.
I felt at home.
I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

{originally posted to facebook Nov 11, 2015}

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.

Vulnerable.

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Her scars are faint, but they are there. On her forehead and cheek. I want to know how they got there.

This photo haunts me. I do not know this girl, but I do know many of her schoolmates. Maybe she fell on the wet slippery soil of the mountainside. Perhaps she was hurt from riding as a passenger on a motorcycle. Maybe she got in a fight with her brother. I can’t know just by looking at a picture that sits open on my computer screen a half a world away. I sit here looking at her photo and feel some worry in my heart. The chances of abuse are likely. There are other photos of her as well. All of them hold a look of sadness that is impossible not to notice. I begin reaching around inside myself for a happier story, but instead keep returning to this one, the one I can’t set down.

I Google the distance between Bemidji, MN USA and Bududa, Uganda and am told that it cannot be calculated. Yes, that is about how far away it feels some days. I fight with the urge to simply be there, in the thick of all those uncertainties where I can at least put my arm around these kids for a few seconds or minutes or hours each day. Where I can at least look in their eyes and SEE them, even when others don’t.

I am fascinated by the definitions of words lately. These days I seem to be mostly obsessed with words like JOY, HOPE, GRACE. I get stuck on upward punctuating words such as SING, DANCE, FREEDOM, FAITH. Vocabulary is a powerful thing. Language itself holds some of the deepest power available to us.

But then there are words like this:

vul·ner·a·ble
ˈvəln(ə)rəb(ə)l/
adjective
  1. susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.
    “we were in a vulnerable position”
    synonyms: helpless, defenseless, powerless, weak, susceptible

    • (of a person) in need of special care, support, or protection because of age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect.

Put that word next to even a “neutral” image and it is easy to be reminded of the life that all too many Ugandan kids are living. I hate it that I don’t even know her name…as though that might somehow make a difference.

Poverty.
Malnutrition.
Dirty water.
HIV/AIDS.
Child marriage.
Lack of education.
Lack of health care.
Child sex slavery.
Abandonment.
Orphanhood.
Homelessness.
Child labor.
and, of course…
Child abuse.

Oy, this is getting dark.

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I have a lot of images of kids from the mountains of rural Uganda whose names and stories I do not know. When I took this particular photo, I didn’t even notice his torn shirt sleeves. I had grown used to such raggedness. What made me notice him was something about his silent, soulful self. I’ve done a disservice tho, you see. I didn’t stay long enough to get to know this boy. I find myself feeling annoyed by that fact. Suddenly, my camera feels useless. And yet…these images have etched something permanent on my heart. They call me home to a people whose names I do not yet even know.

Maybe my camera is useless. Maybe my words are, too. Or maybe they are exactly the things that pull me back. I am a fine art painter by profession. My style of painting takes me a long, long time. I’ve always said that, if you look at something long enough, you will get to know it. I learned that lesson years ago, while still in my late teens. I had a journal and, in it, I taped a couple of old black and white photos of people whom I did not know. I spent a lot of time looking at those photos and, after the better part of a year, I felt as tho I knew them intimately. The same turned out to be true when painting. Whether it was a person or a dog, by the time I had applied the last brush stroke, I found that I had grown to know that person or animal from the inside out. To realize this has been a perfectly humbling experience every time.

Vulnerable. To be exposed. Unguarded.

What if…
vulnerability could be transformed into
being seen.
feeling loved.
finding security in knowing that you have not
fallen through the cracks
or disappeared into the darkness.

What if…
those dark places were exactly the place that
set us free and into
the light?

What if…
we didn’t stay standing at the open grave of death
and abuse
and hunger
and hurt.

What if…
we let the light shine through us in a way that burns
everything
away
and instead leaves only
brightness
and
joy, hope, grace, singing, dancing, freedom and faith to fill
all the desperate places where darkness and the things of death once stood.

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“Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out and where it touched the Darkness the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining, and through the shining came the stars, clear and pure.” ~Madeleine L’Engle

Dear Abba,
Put us in each other’s paths. Show us the way. Give us the eyes to see, the hearts to feel, the grace to understand. Light hope like a fire somewhere deep inside us. Tinder and spark. Lead us even further to Joy. Use our scars to create a more useful landscape. Burn us clean so that we might shine bright because of You.

Help me to stand in the face of vulnerability, even my own, without turning away. Give me a new song. Your way is not the way of the world, but dear Abba, I trust You.
Amen.

This girl is going somewhere.

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Stella Nambwall. She is 13 years old, a brilliant glint of starlight in a dark sky. Do you know which child I’m talking about? Yes, the one in the gingham dress. The one looking directly into the eye of the camera.

This girl is going somewhere.
I can feel it with my entire being.

There are certain people I can’t stop thinking about. Stella is one of them. Along with her mother, Anna, and her cousin, Harriet. This family feels like the muscles lining the inside of my ribcage. They contain a reservoir of strength, even in their brokenness. Stella’s father died this past May. He hung himself from a tree in the middle of the night outside the family’s back door. I can’t seem to take the edge off of this fact. It was a horrific shock to the entire community. Her cousin, Harriet’s father is also dead. Death is everywhere. It’s made Stella and Harriet close like sisters. They are both bold, respectful, friendly.

Stella and her family are eloquently real to me.
In the closest fold of the mountain, their house sits in perfect lines.
Red dirt and jungle trees.
My eyes constantly falling in their direction, even before I knew why.

There are those times when a magnetism pulls us in the direction of something before we even know the reason. Repeated moments of distinct lucidity. One at a time, the puzzle pieces come into existence until, eventually, locking into place.

In the mountains of eastern Uganda, there’s yet another sad story everywhere you turn. But this girl? This one isn’t stopping at sad. She’s traveling further than that. She’ll keep going all the way to redemption. I can see it in her eyes. I can feel it in my bones. And like tendons growing into the bones creating a connection that is extremely strong and hard to break, we’ve somehow become inextricably woven as one. It doesn’t end with her and it certainly didn’t start with me.

This is a story of deliverance. And Stella won’t be alone as she walks it.

Yes, this girl is going somewhere.
Just watch.

Watch
and
See.

(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.