Elder Care.

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“Too often we underestimate the power of
a touch,
a smile,
a kind word,
a listening ear,
an honest compliment,
or the smallest act of caring,
all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
~Leo Buscaglia, author

Last week I went to the village to check on one of our elder widows. When I began this work, I did not yet realize just how important the role of elder care would end up being. I also could have never imagined how rewarding this particular expenditure of love would be.

The people we work with have lived a life of backbreaking labor and raising many children (their own, others and also their grandchildren). Many times over they have lived through times of persistent hunger. They’ve lived through awful illnesses without the help of even an aspirin, let alone a doctor. They’ve lost not only their husbands, but almost all have also lost several children as well.

And yet. They persevere.
In life, there are times when that is what we all must do. I’m not interested in romanticizing poverty.

In the beginning, we ignorantly expected the same level of commitment from all the women we work with. It didn’t take long for us to begin to see (and more deeply understand) that the elders of our group were showing up to the work with a significant physical disadvantage. Their aging bodies have less energy, are more easily injured and have a higher propensity towards illness and infections. I spent many months trying to come up with a solution to lessen their workload without throwing the expectations of our group out of balance. Ideas bubbled to the surface, but when thinking it through further, the nitty-gritty details never seemed to hold water in the big picture. The younger widows in our group were already stretched to their limit with all the demanding tasks that go along with life in the village. Having them take on the extra burden of caring for our elder members did not feel like the answer we were looking for.

I continued to rack my brain for ideas to help give relief to our older widows, but I was stumped. Empty-handed and with a mind full of dead-ends, I’d come to the end of myself. The only other thing I knew to do? Pray. And every time I prayed, I heard the same words coming from the same anchored source: “Keep going. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

And so…not knowing how else to deal with the challenges that confronted us, we continued.

In January of this year, we held a workshop and meeting with all our women. In that particular workshop, we were teaching sewing and, in the cool, dirt-floored sitting room of Anna’s small home, I sat with a circle of widows discussing business plans and a way forward. We were also celebrating something remarkable: our first big produce sale! The only light in the room came from a small, wooden-shuttered window and an open front door, but the sheer amount of hope and JOY being shared in that room was palpable.

As always, we ended our time together with, what we call, our Joy Collective “Family Moment.” It is a time for everyone to speak about what is on their hearts and minds. We go around in a circle and everyone is given a chance to share in whatever way they feel called to do so. This particular Family Moment is one that I will never forget. Unlike the sharing at previous meetings and workshops where there was a lot of crying and complaining about sicknesses and challenges, this time around the women were practically bursting with happiness. We were experiencing real change! And not just the younger widows, but the elder widows, too.

When it became M.’s turn to talk, a 76-year-old widow who has also lost four children, she said,

“I’ve seen a lot of projects come and go in the many years that I’ve lived here, but in all these years, I have never seen a project like this one.”

Her words soaked into my bones in a way that could only come from God Himself.

Those words, coming from such an old woman, were the ultimate praise to the valuableness of our program. One after another, the women talked about the fullness in their hearts over what we were doing together. The elder women echoed a common theme: there had been people around them who tried to undermine, chastise and discourage them by telling them that they were wasting their time. With pockets full of honest-earned money and a glow in their eyes, they mirrored each other’s sentiments of happiness in having proved the naysayers wrong!

It was in that moment that I realized why God had been directing us to just keep going, continuing to include the elders in our plans just as we had from the beginning: as EQUALS. You see, what those women needed just as much as food or an income was to feel VALUED. At the end of the day, the elders of our group sold just as much produce (or more!) than any of the younger women. They had an important role to play in our group in showing us just how much is possible, even when things seem otherwise.

M. reminded everyone not to lose hope. Everyone nodded their heads in hearty agreement. The smiles that day were so big that they threatened to break open into tears. We had rounded a corner and everyone knew it. Yes, even the elders knew they were stepping into something amazing and new. Not a hand out, but something they themselves had created through their own hard work.

This, my friends, is what empowerment looks like. This is what God looks like. This is what Love looks like. It’s a glowing room full of women building a new life together, a circle filled with the JOY of hope and possibility. A room in which every single person feels seen and valued.

 

 

 

 

And there shall be blessings. Letting images tell their own story.

“Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.'” ~Genesis 1:29

 

The Parable of the Sower
“He replied, “The knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, ‘Though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’ Now this is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.” ~Luke 8:11

“A seed is a doorway between the life of the old plant and its gift to the new plant. Our teachers are the plants. They teach us that we have to be able to sacrifice something of ourselves in order to give something to the next generation.”

*Photos from our most recent seed saving, planting and propagation workshop in the mountains of Eastern Uganda. There is no greater Joy.  My heart: http://www.theJOYcollective.org

Reagan.

I went to the hospital today to assist a young woman who is having a difficult pregnancy. That’s not how things turned out tho. While searching for a place to get her checked in, we ended up waiting in line at the emergency room of the government hospital. God help us. It wasn’t but 2 minutes before I parted ways with Kevin and the young woman and ended up spending the entire day with this street kid instead. It was a horrid sight. His leg was mangled, broken, bleeding. He was screaming, a mess. He was all alone. I watched for a little while as I tried to make sense of the situation. He had been run over by a car. I don’t know how long he had already been there, but I quickly found out that he had not yet even been given pain killers. That part was obvious. There was meat hanging out of the broken part of his leg. I held his head and hushed him. He immediately calmed down. I talked with him and tried to calm him with reassuring touch. He would intermittently start screaming and crying from the extreme pain of his broken leg, then let me hush and calm him some more. The entire hospital watched me, but no one would help. Welcome to the Ugandan hospital system. He cried for porridge. He was thinking about porridge in this condition?! Yes, he was starving. I wondered how long it has been since he last ate. I bought him 3 boiled eggs from a man selling them nearby. I gave him water. I finally got the doctor to come and was told they’d only work on him if he had “a book.” A book is a little notebook that costs less than a nickel. If I got that then the doctor would talk to me more. I went down the road and bought the book so that I could return and start the whole process of trying to get help all over again. After giving them the book (which was immediately lost), they gave me the shopping list and prescriptions for the necessary materials to work on him. The hospital itself has nothing. You have to leave to purchase everything you need, even things as basic as rubber gloves and medication. I went back outside of the hospital down the exact same street and got everything we needed from a pharmacy. My first priority was getting the boy pain medication. They administered it wrong, but at least it was in his system. For a short time, he fell asleep before the pain took over again. Let me tell you…that boy was strong. All day I sat with him and will be returning shortly. It’s all a horrifying story, but let me just end here.

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A 12 year old street kid named Reagan. Sparing you the graphic angle of his leg injury. What I will say is that this is one tough kid. I can’t even begin to imagine the hurt this boy has seen in his life. 

I thought I was tough, that I had the right sort of character to handle even difficult situations. I might have been wrong. Abba, this boy needs you. I need you. I was never trained for this. Never prepared. We’re looking for a “mommy” that he says he has…but he’s a registered street kid and I’m not so sure that even if we find her that it will offer us any salvation. Situations are complicated here. No one has anything. Hospitals, especially government hospitals, are hell on earth. I’ve already seen it too many times. People were dying around me today. I was in the Emergency, Accident and Casualty Ward. On the outside, I’m functioning just fine. On the inside, there’s a whole lot that I don’t even know how to begin to process. And so write. Because I don’t know how else to make sense of this broken day.

And can I admit? I’ve kept my distance from the street kids. They’re often razor sharp when it comes to thievery. I’m not afraid of much, but I surely am wary of them. It’s bothered me to be afraid of a child and yet the street kids are hard to trust. Funny how God doesn’t really care what you’re afraid of. Today I sat by this scared little boy and found out that he is 12 years old and that his name is Reagan. I learned that his dad is dead. I saw his heart and it broke mine.

Despite everything, there’s goodness in today and, for me, that came in the form of seeing past the broken surface of a boy that everyone else refused.

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Was grateful to leave the situation for just a moment to pick up my little peanut from school. She came back to the hospital with me and kept our friend, Reagan, company. Sharon is a trooper. I can assure you, the government is not fun. 

~Originally posted on Facebook Feb 25th, 2017

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.

Things found.


God works in mysterious ways. Once upon a time, perhaps 10 years ago, I left my beloved garden in the country and moved to the middle of the city. I was just finishing a master’s degree while simultaneously starting up an art business. I was obsessive and driven in my hard work, but there was a quiet side of myself that it seems was whispering prayers into a future I could have never planned for. In a little more than a month, I will finally be living in Uganda where I’ll be building, growing and living amidst model gardens. A garden that will provide my little family and our community with a whole lot of nourishment, education and encouragement. All because I was forced to walk in the footsteps of a widow…I’ve been delivered to so much more. And a quiet dream that I had all but given up on is being fulfilled in more meaningful ways than I could have ever anticipated. I love you, Abba. Thank you for taking care of me the way you do.

Anna.

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I want to introduce you to someone. Her name is Anna. I feel like I talk about her all the time. Sometimes tho, I think I’m mostly talking about her to myself, in my heart and in my head. Anna is phenomenal. She is the reason that The Joy Collective was even started. She is the one who God first led me to. She’s a widow and that level of loss is something we, unfortunately, share in common.

And yet.

(And yet. I love those two words. They contain entire worlds of possibilities.)

Anna has become a beacon of hope to me. Maybe I’m something of the same to her. I don’t pretend to know that is true, but I do believe in the way God pairs us with people. I do believe the light I see in her smile and in her eyes whenever we are reunited. I believe it because seeing her always causes the same light to radiate from me.  I believe in the way God loves us so deeply, so uniquely that, in answering one prayer, he often answers a thousand. He connects us in ways that are too simple and simultaneously too complex for us to even fathom.

Less than a year ago Anna was almost too broken to work after the devastating and traumatic loss of her husband. I was only about 6 months ahead of her in experiencing that same sort of loss. By the time I met Anna, I had taken a “first step” out of my grief and into Africa. I was feeling a sense of happiness for the first time since my beloved’s passing. But I was still just at the precarious outer edges of of that happiness. My sight, at times, had a sparkling quality to it. A diamond, shimmering sort of light that somehow promised something good to come out of that heavy mountain of loss. This new feeling touched everything, even my soul. It felt delicate, ice thin. But I walked towards it anyway. Then there was this simple invitation to sit with another widow who was struggling. The mountain somehow folding us together and, without hesitation, I said: Yes.

When it was finally time to return home, I spent the eight hour flight from Entebbe to Amsterdam in a conversation with God, asking him, “Ok God, so now that I know what you want me to do, next I need you to tell me HOW!” I laugh as I write that. It seems like such an obvious question, but it’s also one that I must never quit asking. Although my sight was sparkly in those first days, there is also the awareness that I’ve stepped into some awfully deep waters. A place where I am quite certain I will get dragged into the undertows of an ugly dark current if I do not constantly plug into God’s plan.

One hour with a woman I hadn’t previously known, without even a common language. And yet…

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Yeah…I do believe this photo says it all. My Anna. And I am her Jessie.

I have returned to Uganda twice since that first trip. We have come SO FAR. One of the most important reasons for my visit was to check on the widows we are working with and the progress of their gardens. I was fully expecting to find at least some level of failure. Not because of them…but because there had been difficulties and challenges, as there often are in Africa. Let’s just say that I was SHOCKED when this is what I saw upon coming into the village.

I saw ABUNDANCE, RESILIENCE, DEDICATION. Anna, the woman I had met less than a year ago took her newfound knowledge and variety of seeds that we had gifted her with and completely reinvented her life. Together, we’ve taken death and are turning it into life. Just as Jesus did for us. I visited the homes of widow after widow, all of our Joy Collective members, and was amazed by the tenacity of our circle of women.

Anna has been hired on as our first Joy Collective Field Manager. It shouldn’t surprise me that she has such natural leadership skills and a profound gift for gardening. It is no mistake that God led me to this woman. I love the way it feels to not be needed on a constant basis in the village–of course, I love being there(!)–but I also love seeing these women take the initiative to create success by their own efforts. As Field Manager, Anna will check in on our members to see how things are going. What is working well? What are the challenges? How can we come up with solutions? Do any members need help due to sickness? Did a member discover something helpful to teach the others? Since most of our widows do not have phones, Anna is also our point of connection in the village. Each one of our members is such a beautiful and vital piece of the puzzle. It has been amazing to watch this program grow in such a short amount of time. And Anna…she is living proof of what is possible.

We’re doing this together. This thing called living. We’ve been given a handful of seeds from the broken pieces and, you know…it pulls me forward…this curiosity to see what might grow.

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Saturated.

At 3am I get out of bed and begin writing. One dog is snoring. There is a cup of strong black coffee to my left. After a long flight and a mid-night arrival home just yesterday, I feel rested. Very rested. I don’t feel jet-lagged in the usual sense, but apparently my heart and body still think I’m in Africa. I’m ok with that. I’m going to continue pretending that is so as long as possible. I accomplished a vast amount in the past month and I want to continue bringing out the goodness I’m finding in those accomplishments. It feels like a flower, unfurling. I don’t want to stunt this great revealing of what is to come. I attempt to get out of my own way and let the energy of this project and life-building take on its own rhythms. I’ve begun to see the world in terms of growing things. In vivid detail, we too are among this ongoing, miraculous cultivation of being. Being. Yes, I like that term. It includes a lot.

At 4am I chef up a delicious stir-fry. Purple cabbage, broccoli, mushrooms, spring onions and dark greens. I’m obsessing over an idea that came to me yesterday: a beautiful way of treating our guests that might also transfer over into all we do locally, too. I’m excited about the way things are going, in directions that I would have never previously imagined or created on my own. I feel this story being orchestrated by God. I like it that way. He’s a much more talented artist and author than me. I like the way His mind thinks. I like the way His heart feels. I like the way His eyes see things. I also like the way He surprises me. He saturates me in colors and visions that are too beautiful to contain. It’s the overabundance of  sight that forces me to live it out loud. Sometimes putting things into motion before I fully understand where it’s all leading. He’s never led me astray. There is a certain knowing and I give myself to it completely.

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The bougainvillea tree bursts with color in The Joy Collective’s gardens. Home Sweet Home. Africa, I love you.