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.

 

Where in the world is Jessie?

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At the moment I am sitting crosslegged on the floor at my old wooden coffee table. This is where the good stuff happens. I have a cup of tea to my left and my bible to my right. On the rug next to me is Carl’s dog (and my eternal sidekick), Henry. These days his fur is shaggy and slightly unkept. He lays with his back pressed against my leg, slowly falling asleep as he listens to music. Ella, my other dog, rests with her head on a pillow on the couch behind me.

Although I have done a fine job of unintentionally confusing the majority of people in my life with my whereabouts, I am indeed here. It’s a quiet Sunday evening in the autumn colored woods of Northern Minnesota. I’ve moved out of my “tiny house” cabin and into my original lake studio, but only briefly. I don’t have running water, but I do have high speed internet. The view is gorgeous and so, therefore, all is well. Admittedly, my brief return to the States has been extended by circumstances of passport visas, commissioned paintings and final moving preparations. It’s been all-consuming, but quickly enough it is, indeed, coming together.

There are times in life when patience is required. This is not one of those times. As a matter of fact, I don’t feel like I am waiting on the Lord for any aspect of this move. Instead, it seems He is waiting on me! I feel God whispering with the sort of calm encouragement that only God can possess: “Hurry, hurry my dear…it’s ready for you as soon as you are.”

As I write this now, it seems silly that I’ve allowed myself to experience so much self-created anxiety over everything. Even so, I’ll cut myself some slack because, let’s face it, this life change (giving up everything, moving to Africa) does feel like a big deal. I’m being catapulted into the Whatsnext whether I’m ready or not!

I recently learned that the original Hebrew root of “be still” doesn’t mean “be quiet”; it means “LET GO.”

LET GO
and know that I am God.   ~Psalm 46:10

Since Carl died, I’ve been living my life in an ultimate sort of surrender. I’ve been learning how to be led by a current that is both watery and electrical. It is made of faith. Like water, it simply knows the way. It is calm and knowing. Like electricity, this current is energized. Alive.

I didn’t mean to write all this tho. I was simply going to tell you where I am and what my plans are. I laugh, even as I write those words. The Great Whateverafter awaits.

Yesterday, the Whatsnext involved purchasing a plane ticket to KENYA.
I leave in less than two weeks!!

Wha? Come again?

  • Bemidji (+ multiple quick and last minute trips to Minneapolis): now-October 14th
  • Kenya (October 14th -31st): PDC Training
  • Bemidji (+ multiple quick and last minute trips to Minneapolis): November 1st-?
  • Uganda (MOVING indefinitely, with dogs!!): mid to late November

When all is said and done, I will arrive in Uganda a little later than I had originally “planned.” Am I ok with this? Absolutely!

God’s plan is perfect and things are falling into place in some pretty amazing ways.

And so? I’ll be in Kenya for two weeks for an intensive 72 hour certification course in Permaculture Design (PDC). Let me just mention that NEVER in a million years would I have ever imagined my life going in this direction.

I am happy. I’m doing this for the widows that I’m working with in Eastern Uganda. I’m doing this so that I might be a learner as well as a teacher, because it’s a thread that’s meant to be added to the master weaving. I’m doing this because I know God wants me to. It’s a seed that He wants planted in the soil of my heart so that I might share it with others too, a seed that wants to grow…into something entirely unique and new.

This is what I’m going to learn:

• Approaches to design including: mapping, designing from patterns to details, analysis of elements, using slope & orientation, zones and sectors and analysing the needs & yields of systems.

• How to increase productivity using intensive garden design strategies including: stacking, soil-building, soil biology, mulch, nutrient cycling, pest control, green manures, worms, compost & companion planting.

• How to survey landscapes for property design using simple and sophisticated tools; mapping and map making, site analysis, and assessment.

• Climate: how to read weather patterns, create and enhance micro-climates, and create design strategies for all major global climatic zones.

• How trees and forests regulate and moderate ecosystems. How to sustainably use, propagate, harvest and manage tree systems using techniques such as coppicing, pollarding, grafting, shelter belts, orchards, guild planting & succession planning.

• Sound nursery practice, propagation, and bio-security.

• Integrated pest management.

• Homesteading and small scale farming.

• How to save money on energy bills with efficient home design, retrofitting, and renewable energy systems.

• Multiple uses for grey-water, constructed wetland design, and other techniques for treating waste water.

• Passive water hydration and infiltration, rainwater collection, storage and composting toilets.

• Dry-land strategies: using reconstructive earthworks, water harvesting and soil conditioning to recharge ground water, re-hydrate and drought-proof the landscape.

• How to bring fertility back to the land and build topsoil through a diversity of ancient and modern techniques.

• How to cycle nutrients and incorporate animals into your system using innovative techniques such as chicken tractors, pannage systems, dairy systems and beekeeping.

• Creating living ecosystems that feed and nurture us and future generations. Design through the use of nature’s rules to create a lush and resilient natural environment.

• Aquaponic systems; the combination of aquaculture (growing fish) and hydroponics (growing food without soil). Aquaculture systems and their use in Africa as well as global aquaculture.

• How to design solar-heated and solar-cooled buildings. The use of natural building materials, energy efficient house placement and design and the assurance of a healthy indoor environment.

• Strategies for creating community-wide sustainability, village development, alternative economies, local currencies, and how to organise community groups.

God has opened a new door in my life. It is a strange door. It leads to a mountain. It leads to a group of twelve women in rural, eastern Uganda. It leads to a group of kids who I love as tho they were my own. It leads to a new home on the flip side of the planet. It leads to a call on my life that I just can’t seem to shake, shimmy or live without.

This door. In the deepest places of my heart, I feel it leading somewhere good.

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Image Credit: Barefoot Soulutions 

I’ll write another post about this upcoming trip to Kenya and more about permaculture in general. But for now, I just wanted to at least share this.

The work continues. The Joy Collective is in full motion. The closing up of my old life and the details of everything to come is a current work in progress. This quickening that’s been occurring let’s me know that I am, indeed, on the right track.

I love you, Abba. Thank you for using me in this direction. I’m yours. Every
last
bit.

 

Really we don’t need much, just strength to believe.

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The further I travel away from Africa, the more sad I become. It’s not supposed to be like this. I’m not supposed to feel this way. (but of course it does.) A few days ago I was looking forward to this brief journey back to the States. I’m moving out of my cabin and back into my lake studio for the next few weeks before wrapping up details “for good.” I was looking forward to the peace of that northern Minnesota lake, the vibrant greens and perhaps even the first touches of autumn if it comes quickly. I was looking forward to a bit of ease. The sort of ease that comes with living in a place were things happen, for the most part, as expected. Nothing happens as expected in Africa. Imagining a brief reprieve from the discomfort of constant irregularity of life felt enticing. I was looking forward to high speed internet, ice cubes, a good mattress, hot showers and snuggling my dogs. I was looking forward to using my blowdryer and using tap water to brush my teeth without worry.

But now, instead, I just feel like crying. I’m sitting in the Amsterdam airport. The construction has finally been completed and it is such a gorgeous place. Perhaps one of the nicest airports in the entire world. I’m enjoying good quality coffee with cream and sugar and even this is a luxury. It’s comfortable here. Morning sunlight fills the thoughtfully designed architecture. There is a flow of people from every corner of the planet. A convergence of cultures. I have 20 Euros to spend frivolously on food and drinks as I wait for my next flight. I have a long lay-over and am, surprisingly, grateful. I need time. I’m confused by how tight my heart feels to have left Africa, even for this short time.

Everywhere I look I see mothers with their daughters. Some of these daughters are teenagers, others quite young…all of them good travelers. They laugh sweetly with one another, in knowing ways. Their interactions with each other are simple and in-tune. Tears threaten again at the edges of my eyes. I’m tired of crying. I feel like I’ve been crying ever since Carl died. I find reprieve from those tears more often, but then they return and it feels like they never stopped. Tears have worn me out. I’ve become allergic to them.

I’m suddenly missing my Sharon so deeply that I can hardly stand it. Our time together was more challenging than I expected this time around. She waited earnestly for 6 long months for me to come back. True to my word, I returned. And then she stayed almost absolutely silent until her 9th birthday, just a few days ago. We went out for food and she sucked on the salt shaker. We went shopping for a new pair of school shoes and the store-keeper grew impatient. Then I grew impatient with him because I felt Sharon communicating everything to me, just not with words. People asked what was wrong with her. Is she mute? Can she talk? They asked this in many different languages. Yes, she can talk, I would answer. She is just very shy. She’s adjusting. She’s been through a lot. Give her time…just give her time. She’d look at people and frown. She’d look at me and frown. My heart wanted to break. She would occasionally allow for some ease by speaking in yeses (lifting her eyebrows) and no’s (shaking her head). I learned to ask questions in ways that we could yes and no our way to the necessary answers.

She was quick to let me know that she did, indeed, want to be with me. She didn’t want to go back home. She didn’t want to be any where else. But her silence…I wasn’t prepared for it to last so long. I found myself wondering if I had made a giant mistake. I no longer understood my role. Intellectually, instinctually, maternally…I knew that my job was to just keep loving her. Just keep giving her kisses. Just keep holding her when she allowed me to. Just keep trying my best to invite a smile to transform her over-serious frown. And that’s hard to do when you’re hot and tired and everything else is going seemingly wrong, too. Then I’d find a “love note” in the form of a drawing or a video she made on my phone, something she had recorded in the morning while I was in another room. In these messages, she’d tell me how much she loves me. Other times she’d sing a quiet song, just loud enough so that I could hear. She’d play with Ashraf, the four year old boy who we lived with for 3 weeks and eventually, while playing, she would forget herself and out would come that bright little voice of hers. It was the fuel I needed to carry on with her otherwise endless silence.

It was on her 9th birthday that she finally broke open into a flood of chatter and smiles. It was the gift of a doll that she had been wishing for that finally brought her into the sunshine of verbal communication. She named the doll Mary and a whole new world seemed to open up. The whole day opened her up.

And then it came time for me to leave. Again. I did my best to prepare her for this month ahead. Yet another change. More waiting.  Keep it light, I told myself. It felt wisest not to make a big deal about it. We did things that made her feel happy and loved. I hugged her big before she left for school early-early-early on Monday morning. She seemed ok. I was relieved. She’s been abandoned too many times in her little life. I didn’t want my leaving-taking to be as traumatic as the last. It’s too much for her. It’s too much for either of us. She was ok, but then the reality of the situation started to hit her once she got to her school yard. Just like the reality of the situation is starting to hit me now…here, two days later in the Amsterdam airport. I’ve assured Sharon that I will be back soon. I’ve assured her that she’ll be well taken care of while I’m away and that we can talk on the phone every day. And now it seems that it’s time to begin assuring myself that very same thing.

I make an effort to stop this heavy train from moving in the wrong direction. I’m tired of being sad. I don’t want to be sad anymore. I’m ready for something different. In every moment, things are being reconstructed. A new life is being formed. There is a massive amount of planning and preparing to do before I return to Uganda indefinitely. It’s exciting if I allow it to be. There was one big challenge after another during this past month in Uganda…and with each challenge, I felt the presence of God. Strongly. Tweaking details in all the right days, preparing me. Each time bringing us to bigger, brighter and better outcomes. I have a million things to write about. And, oh God, I so very much want to do just that.

There’s nothing easy about Africa. And yet…
my heart doesn’t seem to care.
There’s nothing easy about any of this. And yet…
somehow it is enough. There will always be enough.

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Enough :: by Sara Groves

Late nights, long hours
Questions are drawn like a thin red line
No comfort left over
No safe harbor in sight

Really we don’t need much
Just strength to believe
There’s honey in the rock,
There’s more than we see
In these patches of joy
These stretches of sorrow
There’s enough for today
There will be enough tomorrow

Upstairs a child is sleeping

What a light in our strain and stress
We pray without speaking
Lord help us wait in kindness

Really we don’t need much
Just strength to believe
There’s honey in the rock,
There’s more than we see
In these patches of joy
These stretches of sorrow
There’s enough for today
There will be enough tomorrow

Absolute uncertainty. Absolute faith.

img_5296Just when I didn’t think I could handle yet another unknown on my own, my world started filling with connections and conversations. Luckily, I have a special person in my life who always tells me that God hears my tears. And it’s true. It seems like those tears have been working their way to the surface a lot lately. I have many different types of tears, but the kind I’m referring to right now come from a deep and anguished place. They come from a place of needing God. Maybe that’s a good thing. The need be close to the Abba I met when Carl died is just as serious now as it was in the beginning.

“The beginning.” What a weird way to refer to Carl’s death. But that’s when everything changed. That’s when I truly found out who God is. I feel like I should be shifting the conversation away from talking about Carl so much. In some ways, I feel as tho I’ve “legitimately” entered some sort of “next chapter” of this story, but my self-made constructs simply aren’t holding water. My theories leak, a lot like my eyes. I’m still making sense of all of this (whatever “this” is) and, quite honestly, there’s a lot to make sense of. My world is being turned upside down…and I’m actively participating in it. Pardon me, but what am I doing?

It’s one thing to give your life to God, have him personally hand you a job several months later, and then be told that you’re supposed to pick up an move to Africa. I think that’s the part that is most inspiring and/or shocking to people. But, honestly…that’s the easy part.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” ~Isaiah 6:8

The difficulties that I never anticipated are the sheer amount of COMPLICATIONS, WORRIES, UNKNOWNS and HARD WORK that go along with the LOGISTICS and LEGALITIES of making such a move! Sorry for all the capital letters, but I need to breathe.

So far, in down-sizing and preparing to move, I’ve managed to turn my studio into a giant, unusable mess; I’ve begun the courage-requiring leap of shutting down my business (and therefore my income!); I’ve decide that I’m going to subject my pets to all the same uncertainties of health, safety and well-being (or lack of) that I’m throwing myself into; annnnd I’ve done a fine job of upheaving the life of a little 8 year old Ugandan girl who has been through more abuse and difficulty than I even want to spell out. She now calls me mum and I take that seriously. The potential to fail is mind-boggling real.

This doesn’t even address the actual issue of my original intention in moving to the other side of the world: which is to work with widows and gaggle of impoverished kids.

Oh my word…WHAT AM I DOING?!!!!!!

And that’s precisely the problem these days: I don’t know how to do this!! I’ve never run a non-profit before! I’ve traveled a lot, but I’ve never attempted to live overseas for the long haul. I’ve never taken a dog on a plane or figured out the logistics of extended visas. I don’t even know how, exactly, I’m going to fund this crazy vision!

As I write, I stop to put my face in my hands and simply laugh. Mind you, at any moment, my laughter could turn to tears and then back to laughter again. Tears, laughter, sleep, tears, laughter, sleep…it’s a fairly constant cycle these days. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much I suck at all of this. <sigh/chuckle/sigh>. But God is good and I can only hope that He made me this stubborn for a good reason.

Today I cried out to God. And then I spent the majority of the rest of the day generally weeping or recovering from it. My tears came partly in grief, partly in feeling utterly alone, partly in a state of total overwhelm.

I’m moving to one of the most corrupt places in the world and, the closer I get to my leave-taking, the more I feel as tho I’m walking straight into the belly of the beast. Mind you, my eyes are wide open. I can’t even feign surprise.

“In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and he answered by setting me free.” ~Psalm 118:5

Needless to say, I’m beginning to feel that I might have been crying for nothing. God’s got this. He’s handling it. He’s opened a door for me that no man can close. (Rev. 3:8) Even now, as I write, He is showering me in a path of verses that have a powerful effect in leading the way.

Before I gave my life to God, the bible didn’t do much for me except make me feel annoyed and argumentative. But things have changed. I’ve changed. The closer I get to the reality of moving, the more turbulent and unsettled I become. You know the old adage: change = stress. Yeah, it’s feeling pretty dang true.

I love change.
I’m hungry for adventure.
I’m in deep need of new challenges.

AND YET…oh, dear Lord, HOLD ME.

I want nothing more right now than for someone to hold me close and tell me that everything is going to be ok. Not only that, I want them to show me what I need to do. Then I want them to hold my hand and help me do it! Am I asking too much??!!

Nothing could have prepared me for so many unknowns all at once. It seems that every move I make, I’m confronted by yet another layer of challenge..and they are starting to pile up. So far, I’ve managed to find myself at the foot of a mountain that only God will be able to move. No one said Africa would be easy. In my old life, I’m pretty sure I would have questioned my sanity in choosing to paddle so hard upstream.

But this isn’t my old life. It’s my new life.

And God sees. He hears.
He really does.

Amen.

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

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.”

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.