Changing My Story

By: Jenni Taylor

I come from a family of storytellers. I can still hear my uncle’s voice, a baritone rumbling with hints of love hidden deep in the diaphragm, winding a yarn about an owl taking over his truck and making the rest of the family laugh until they couldn’t breathe. I can hear my aunt, who takes my face into her hands and tells me what her kitchen smelled like growing up, and suddenly the room is full of apple pie.

Stories change you. They pick you up, toss you about, tickle your heart and then prick it with pins. A good story is real, more real than real, in the velveteen rabbit way of love being bigger than facts.

Wisdom comes from stories. Scheherazade, the woman who changed the heart of a Persian king with her one thousand and one tales of adventure, love and loss. Samuel the prophet, who brought King David to his knees with the story of a poor man and his sheep. The creation stories, the myths, the legends spread across time existing to give us understanding, entertainment, warnings, hope, knowledge, and more questions.

I am living my own story now. I choose to let it intertwine with a story of a loving being who gives me purpose and adventure and courage to fight dragons. I cross paths with other stories, other beautiful human beings with expositions and rising actions and climaxes and nothing even close to a resolution quite yet. I have this crazy belief that we may be all a part of another story, one much bigger than all of us, that brings meaning and joy and connections and hope. I think if I can let myself be part of that bigger story, it will change me, and it will be absolutely worth it.

Roots, Old and New

By: Jenni Taylor

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A wise person once told me to live in a place like my gravestone will be next door. You claim it as your own, make yourself part of the whole, and dive in with everything you’ve got.

When you give to people, you are giving to the place, too. Tears, laughter, blood from broken bones or broken hearts- it all spills into the ground and becomes food for roots. Relationships are tangible things, leaving vibrations in the air and under your feet long after you’ve gone.

Traveling, I set down roots. I make myself a part of that place. There are swing sets in Chicago, trees in Saint Louis, malocas in Peru, and dumpling vendors in China where I have left fingerprints and feelings and memories. Each new place I find myself, it becomes home.

I find myself home now. Not the physical house I grew up in, but surrounded by family and soon to be surrounded by friends. I am returning to old roots for a moment, for a breath of fresh air, of life and energy poured into my somewhat tired soul through the hugs of people I love dearly. I find myself blessed, with conversations and laughter that mean the world to me. I refresh myself before diving back into my new home with new roots reaching out ever so slowly in the jungle of Shanghai. I reach my roots out all over the world, feeling the community of individuals, families, teachers, friends, all who have made my life so incredibly rich.

I love my worldwide roots. Don’t be afraid to jump out, to find a new home, start something new. The ones you love will still be there for you.

Asking for Strength

Today, we have the honor of posting a piece from the amazing writer and journalist Alex McAnarney. Alex is a native of El Salvador and former resident of Mexico City. Her work focuses on migration, youth, gangs, and health and can be found at perishmotherland.tumblr.com.

Her post today, though longer than what we usually publish, is a testament to strength, wisdom, and love. We ask you all to take a little extra time over the weekend and experience all the beauty and honesty this post has to offer. We ask you all to recognize your own triggers, and take care of yourselves while reading, and as always, we ask you all to honor the wisdom we are blessed to share with you today.

When Friederich Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he developed the idea of the “Overman” (übermensch). While the concept of the Overman remains up for debate, several interpretations fall along the following: guided by individually crafted values, the Overman lives with purpose, possessing the power to impact others around him (or, I controversially interject, her). The Overman attempts to go above and beyond the human

In stark opposition to a strength that surges from the individual will to transcend humanness, morality, and likely— given Nietszche’s struggles with migraines and neurosyphillitic infections— illness, I’ll quote Psalm 46:1-3: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”

I can’t say I know what the meaning of strength really is. To ground yourself in the absurd, greyness of life and live with a measure of creative dynamism to carve out your own rugged path independent of others—a life of perpetual overcoming— is a type of strength. Yet, to relinquish yourself and your trust to someone else when the cacophony of “mountains falling into the sea” becomes too deafening, that too is a type of strength. One thing about strength is clear: I ask for it. A lot.

June 1994
Abue, my great-grandmother, is dead. I find out three days after they bury her. They didn’t want me to see her when she was in the coffin because they thought I wasn’t strong enough. I think it would have been nice to kiss her forehead and say bye like I did when she was going to sleep. I get mad at mom for deciding for me. From the back seat of the Toyota, I see that Tita, my grandma and Abue’s daughter, is sad. Her chin whiskers quiver but no tears come out. When my mom pulls at my hair when she brushes it I think of Abue and how she brushed my hair, expertly, gently. It makes me sad, but I think of Tita’s quivering chin whiskers and tearless eyes to suppress the waterworks. When she comes to visit us, I ask her why she doesn’t cry.

“Tears are how bad things stain you. They’re hard to wash out and forget,” she says.

I shroud myself in this. When the other girls at school pick on me because my hair is like a beehive, I try hard not to cry and get mad instead, catching bees in empty butter containers and letting them roast in the Mexican sun. When I get in trouble for telling made up stories about sleeping in a dungeon to my classmates, I really, really try not to cry. But my parents are really, really mad. When I get an egg accidentally thrown in my eye at a party, I don’t cry. I just scream and scream and scream and try to punch the boy who did it.

June 1997
When Dad leaves, I try my hardest to only cry once. It’s really hard because mom is crying and the kids at school suck, especially the boys. Daddy doesn’t cry. I know he feels bad, but I guess he’s strong? We always say Dads are strong at school. I want to be strong and not cry because I’m sad or because mom cries. I grab my little prayer book which I read every night and squeeze it in my hands trying to draw out a few drops of meaning. I only get half burnt flakes of pages. The book belonged to my mom, and before her, Tita. I don’t know if I should ask the fading doodle of a girly boy with a yellow hat on his blonde head. I ask him anyway, “Give me the strength to never cry.”

June 2003
I don’t tell anyone because I was passed out, drunk and possibly drugged. I hide the bruises. I don’t mention his attempts to keep me in the room after, calling me his Latina Lolita. I claim him as a notch of conquest achieved on a fun weekend in Key West. I don’t need to be a victim, I can keep saying what I’m saying: He was a 25 year old Marine my 16-year old self managed to seduce. I shove every shred of despair into a tightly sealed jar and lock it away in a mental cabinet, never to be explored again. Individual responsibility is strength, after all. In the meantime, I ask the 500 mg of ibuprofen I just swallowed “Give me strength to walk straight tonight.”

January 4, 2005
There is pain. There are rivulets of blood pouring from somewhere that I cannot locate. My vision is a pinhole of post-Grand Mal seizure confusion that envelops the world in a blissfully anesthetized miasma save for one little opening through which I can see blood, a stretcher, a worried fat man.
“-hit you?”

The pinhole is slowly stretched by halogen lights into a gaping, heaving asshole of reality I’m not ready to enter. My arm lifts heavily to wipe some drool that feels embarrassingly chunky. Through the asshole I see: bloody chunks of teeth and lip clustered on my hand.

“Did somebody hit you?”

“I had a seizure,” I mutter.

My shoes are off. My hand is holding an empty pillbox. My shoulders are shrouded in a brown EMT blanket. My mouth is red, dripping, and toothless.

I must have collapsed in the parking lot. I press my nose. Not broken. No plastic surgery freebie for me. It’s funny. I laugh with a blood choked gurgle.

A male EMT looks at me funny. I keep laughing and trace the remaining bits of canine and fronts with my index finger. Jagged stalactites hanging in anticipation of the next earthquake, because the aftershocks always happened. Little bastards, won’t get the pleasure I begin to try pulling out the bits with my own hands.

“Don’t do that!” the resident advisor sitting next to me swats away my offending hand.

You don’t understand. I think to myself, they need to go. They were weak!

I don’t cry. I try my hardest to be hilarious even though I have no idea how or where I am. As I do that, I keep trying to pull my bits of teeth out. To my fingers, I plea “Give me the strength to pull this weakness out of my body.” Continue reading

A Prayer for Strength

 

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Dear Universal Source of Strength,

We pray for the strength to listen to the burdens of others, and the strength to bear burdens of our own.

We ask for help in negotiating the fine line between personal strength and public aggression.

We hope the we show our own strength in the wisest of ways.

We pray for those who must summon strength all too often, those who battle, those whose suffering seems unfairly immense.

We hope that their strength is honored, not exploited.

We ask that you continue to show us the ways we can support the strength in those around us.

We ask for strength that comes from a friend’s hug, a warm cup of tea, and a good meal.

We hope that we find this strong support easily.

We pray for those for whom the strong support of loved ones is not available.

We hope that when we search ourselves for strength in times of trouble, we are able to find it.

We pray that when we cannot find it ourselves, someone does us the kindness of showing us our own strength.

We ask for the wisdom to recognize our own strength, even when it comes in quiet forms.

We pray that the strength of this world, this time, be a strength of compassion, love, and tenderness toward all things.

Amen.

More Than Just Godliness

Today we are delighted to feature our second post from Alexa. In her first post this month, Alexa talked about the strength she sees in her mother’s face. Today, Alexa looks at how her travels, and her passion for  travel as a means of personal growth and self-fulfillment, have given her wider perspectives on the strength people can derive from faith and religion. Check out more of Alexa’s writing on her blog, Past the Horizon.

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My First Communion

My mom has always said that if there were a gift that she could impart to me before she dies, it would be her faith in God. It is this faith that gives her strength and has kept her afloat throughout life’s tough moments. She believes that God works in mysterious ways, and though there are challenging moments in life, that pain and suffering isn’t pointless. It’s all for a reason. So perhaps when you are going through a rough moment, what you’ll learn from that experience will help make you a more compassionate person towards others in similar circumstances, or make you a better friend or parent in the future.

All of my life, I have seen and admired my moms’ faith for what it is, but for whatever reason it is something that I have just never felt in my being.
At this moment in my life, I would most aptly describe myself as an agnostic. Despite personally not feeling this faith in a higher power, I do recognize the strength that it can offer individuals when dealing with life’s many knocks.

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At the Blue Ridge Mountains with Different World Views

I don’t think; however, that this strengthening faith has to necessarily be constricted to the realms of godliness. I think that if you marvel at the mystery of life, nature the cosmos, the world, existence, and how the world works in cycles…you can see that nothing lasts forever, and whatever you are going through, it will change eventually.

I think there is solace in knowing that even with you lying perfectly still the world still revolves and life continues. Everything happens for a reason and faith in God, nature, and even other people’s faith is something that can be comforting and offer you added strength when you have none to spare.

The Strength to Survive with Grace

Today’s post is again about the strength of mothers. Sharon Thomas, who has been a church planter and pastor for many years throughout Chicago and the Midwest writes about her mother’s strength to survive, to endure, and to do it all with grace. According to Sharon, this where she gets her strength from…

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Sharon’s mother as a young woman

In honor of my mother who went to be with Jesus when she was only 44 years old. I wrote this several years ago for a college composition class. Mom I love you. . . .
 There are many ways to measure success. I doubt my mom would have considered herself successful, no matter how you measured it. My mom’s success can only be measured in intangible ways, like her unselfish devotion to her family and her godly character that she knowingly or unknowingly passed down to me.
 Mom would have thought of herself as rather ordinary looking, but now when I look at the old black and white photographs of her, I can’t help but notice how pretty she was. She was quite tall and rather large boned. She had a strong, slender body and long, lanky arms and legs. Her face had a pure, clean look, like she had just scrubbed it with fresh, cold water. When I was going through adolescence, my mom diligently instructed me to never pick my pimples, because doing so would cause unsightly, permanent scars, and since she had none of these unsightly scars, I figured she knew what she was talking about. She also urge me to sit up straight. I never did that as well as she did. She sat with her long, slender back straight and her shoulders up as if she had just seen her date arrive at the senior prom.
 A person could not tell by the way she carried herself that she had a hard, difficult life, and that she was raising eight children with none of the modern conveniences enjoyed by most people during the ’50’s and ’60’s. The only tell-tale sign of her hard life was her rough, calloused hands. I can see her now as she would go out the back porch to hang up the heavy, wet laundry with the cold, north wind howling around her like invisible arms trying to whirl her around and her ungloved hands fumbling to get the clothes pins in place. Several hours later, she would hurry out again to take the now frozen clothes off the line. They were freeze dried and looked like they could walk in by themselves, and I could not help but notice her red, chapped hands.
 In the late evening after the dishes were washed and put away, mom would sit on the worn, faded couch between my sister and me with an old, frayed hymn book in those rough, cracked hands, and we would sing up a storm. The singing and laughter filled the house like the aroma of mom’s fresh baked bread, and it made us feel warm and secure. The memories I have of her bringing in laundry, kneading her bread dough or rubbing Vick’s mentholatem on my chest when I had a chest cold instilled in me the knowledge that her hands were an extension of her heart.
 A difficult life seems to have a way of making us bitter or better. Mom was successful at focusing her life on what she could change and not on what she could not. Her inner strength and joyful spirit enabled her to live above her circumstances and thankfully she passed that strength and spirit down to me. It was her nature to think the best of every situation, so I have learned how to respond to unsettling and difficult situations in my life by watching my mother. Mom was successful because she lived her life for something that would outlast it.

Strength is My Mother’s Face

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Mother and daughter dolls made in Colombia 

Today’s post is from Alexa, and it is the first of two she has written for us this month. Alexa was born in Colombia, South America but raised in the States. Today’s post focuses on the strength Alexa finds in her mother, and how as she has traveled the world, she has come to appreciate her mother’s strength even more. You can read more of Alexa’s writing on her blog, Past the Horizon.

Strength manifests itself in so many different ways. But for me, strength has always worn my mother’s face. Though it’s not a face I always recognized in the moment, as the years have gone by and my understanding of events has expounded, I have come to recognize this face more easily, and admire the woman who meets life’s challenges with grace and faith.

At five year’s old I boarded a plane only to arrive in the U.S. a couple of hours later. You can imagine my vast disappointment when I realized that the United States is not synonymous with Disney world, as I’d previously been led to believe.

The first few years in the U.S. were really difficult. I didn’t understand why my mom had to work so hard. We lived with roommates, sometimes I had to be left alone, and though I was with my mom all the time I really missed her. Those were the days when I would be the first person dropped off at daycare, and the last one to leave minutes before they officially closed.

I missed my dad and all of the family members we had left behind in Colombia.

Why had we left our country for this? In Colombia we belonged to a higher social class, had many luxuries, were comfortable, and had all of our family. Why would my mom leave all of that behind to come to a new country with her little daughter? Why had she come to this country whose language she didn’t speak very well? Her title in business administration hadn’t even carried over from one country to another, and for a while she worked as a waitress at restaurants.

Like many immigrants before her, my mom came to this country in the hopes of a brighter future. Though we did have many luxuries in Colombia my mom had the strength to leave those comforts behind and work for something better. She loved my father, but she had to leave him to his vices in the hopes that by creating distance I wouldn’t have to grow up exposed to such things.

The older I get the more I find myself asking, “How did she do it?”. When I lived in France and China, being an immigrant, even a temporary one, was so difficult. There’s a language barrier, and even when you know the language you don’t know exactly how to say the right things, there’s a different culture and way of doing things, figuring out healthcare and where to go in case of emergencies is a pain, and creating a support system takes time.

Awakening to the Unity of Grief on Easter

 

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“Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll” –Psalm 56:8 NIV

By: Autumn Elizabeth

This is the first Easter that I won’t call my grandmother. I won’t update her on the sermon I heard, or tell her about which language I said the Our Father. I won’t describe the city I am in, the old church I found, or the breathtaking celebration of Easter I discovered. After years of celebrating Easter all over the globe, this year I will tell my Easter story to no one.

Except, I am not alone in my loneliness. Holidays after losing a loved one are always the hardest. The pain of their absence is keenly felt when we see their empty chair at the decorated table, their empty pew at high mass, the empty entry in our contact log.  This is the part of humanity that becomes general, global, universal. Whether it is Passover or Easter, Eid al-Fitr or Holi, the missing presence of a lost loved one is palpable.

As some point most spiritual quests must deal with death, with loss, with grief. In this way, we as humans are united. Not one of us can live forever, not one of us can avoid loss. As we grieve we must awaken to new possibilities, new life. As we celebrate holidays, we must awaken to our unity despite our differences.

This year as I awaken to a glorious Easter morning, as I attend a beautiful Easter mass in an ancient church, I will grieve the loss of my grandmother, and that grief will unite me with strangers I haven’t met yet, and I will find me someone new with whom I can share my Easter story.

The Choice of Leaving Syria

Today’s post comes from Shaza Askar, a young Syrian woman. Shaza’s brave words shed a new light on the theme of choices. Above all, Shaza’s post gives us a glimpse into the reality of war, and we here at Searching Sophia’s Pockets are exceedingly glad she is able and willing to share her story.  

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“A part of me is still there…” says Shaza of her room in Homs, Syria

From the outside, Syria looks like Armageddon. It just looks like full-on combat around every corner, but war-zones are never what they appear from the outside. There are always pockets of calm and neighborhoods where life goes on.

Around the end of the year 2011, I chose to move to the capital city of Damascus to pursue a Master’s degree there. You can never guess that life was almost normal in the neighborhoods inside Damascus. However, in the distance you could always hear artillery rounds landing, but it seemed like there were areas and pockets that were nearly calm except for some mortars and Grad Rockets falling every now and then, in addition to explosions taking place once in two or three weeks.

Despite choosing to move somewhere safer, I almost lost my sister in an explosion in summer 2013. More than twenty people were burned to death while they were riding a bus after it passed over planted explosives. People around the explosion were injured too. My sister was one of those injured by the explosion, of course but thankfully she survived it. The violence continued to escalate. Battles were surrounding the capital city; some of them even took place within the neighborhoods of Damascus. We had to make a choice.

Living in a situation like that, fleeing the country was the only choice for me. After the choice of leaving Syria was made, I, along with my sister, began the long and exhausting process of preparations. After a few months of working on our papers in such a complicated situation, and having to fly to Jordan or Lebanon whenever we had an appointment with the German Embassy, risking our lives with snipers who were readily placed on the way to the airport, my sister and I were finally accepted to study at German universities that were exceptionally supportive to us with regard to our special case.  I can’t be thankful enough for every person that showed real compassion during that time because it meant a lot.

Escaping Syria was my choice, but what of the people who are still there without the option to leave? What is their choice?

Heifer International and My Brother’s Gifts

Today’s post from Jenn Schultz Simmons, who works as a pastor at  a church in Springfield, Mo. Jenn gives us a personal look at Heifer International  and how her family chose to keep their loved one’s spirit of giving alive. Her poignant words remind all of us that our lives create ripples of change, and that our generosity lives on long after we are gone. 

My mother walked up the stairs and said, “Heifer, I want to invite our family and friends to give animals in Sean’s memory.” When my brother died very suddenly at at 27 after suffering a head injury and severe trauma we searched for the best way to invite our family and friends to celebrate his life.  Years ago he put the heart donation sticker on his drivers license.  He wanted to be an organ donor. So, when we had to decide how we wanted to honor and celebrate the life of my brother, giving flocks of chicks, ducks, rabbits, and cows was a perfect fit.

Jenn and her brother Sean

Jenn and her brother Sean

Over the years, I have had the privilege to see the work of Heifer International first hand.  In Nicaragua, I had the opportunity to meet families that received pigs, trees, plants, and chickens from Heifer International.  The pig farmer, a mother of three kids,  was so proud of her pig and the way she had changed the lives of those living in their village.  Her children had the opportunity to go school all because of a pig. After receiving lessons about how to care for their pig, they were asked to teach others in their community.  I met their pig as she was about to give birth to the next generation of pigs and impact a whole new family.

While serving at Webster Groves Christian Church, I had the honor of getting to take youth and adults to the Heifer Ranch in Perryville, AR.  Everyday we signed up for new classes and chores.  Some of us learned about bees, others milked goats, while some cut down trees.  One night we stayed in the global village representing many different countries and situations.  There was a refugee camp, an urban setting, and various economic experiences in numerous countries.  Some youth had to sleep on the hard floor while others had a bed.  Each youth was given some resources and then had to decide how to share their resources for the night so that they could eat.  The overall experience at the Ranch gave the youth and adults hands on experience to begin to understand how animals really can change the lives of people and impact communities.

When I first saw the work of Heifer, I asked my family members to buy me chickens for the holidays.  At first my brother thought it was silly to ask for a flock of chicks for people in another country (I mean how do you put that in a Christmas box?), but over time, and with many stories of the difference those chickens made in people’s lives, he began to love it.  Now over the years, we have given flocks of chicks, ducks, and trees as Christmas gifts in our family.

We decided to ask our friends and family to celebrate Sean’s life by giving to Heifer. We realized giving animals through Heifer to families all over the world so that others might have new life was another way to honor my brother’s decision to give new life to others via organ donation.  Now, in celebration of my brother, chickens, pigs,  and heifers will impact new families and communities all over the world.