words and images: Jessica Sowards
I had written my first short story before I was halfway through elementary school. It was a riveting tale about a bi-species gal named Uni, half unicorn and half pegasus, being raised in the bustling city of Unilopolis. She faced the hardships of prejudice and bigotry and dreamed of a city where all people got along.
I can’t say it was my best work. I wanted to write something real and deep and for the years I tried to write fiction, I found myself reaching for loftier things. In fact, I think to this day, Uni probably stands as my most involved fiction piece. A couple of years after writing that little story, binding it in a construction paper cover and settling it into a forever home in my dad’s file cabinet, I wrote another short story.
I was twelve, and a daily volunteer at the local animal shelter. I’d fallen head over heels for a long-haired shepherd dog named Buddy, and in a bet with my dad over a game of Chinese Checkers, I won the right to bring the dog home. I don’t remember how long Buddy was with us. Long enough for me to become absolutely smitten with him. Then he bit the neighbor’s granddaughter, and they threatened to sue. Buddy had to go.
I took to the computer, a boxy Macintosh that sat on top of my dad’s dark brown wooden desk. I cried the whole time I typed, all about the way that silly dog’s paws felt and the way his breath smelled and how wild the injustice was of his conviction. “He was only playing,” I ascertained. “He didn’t mean to hurt her. She hit him in the face.” I even spoke of the way he looked out of the back window as the shelter employees drove him away.
I don’t remember everything that story said. Perhaps it’s on a floppy disk or in the same file folder with Uni, or maybe it’s gone forever. I do remember sitting at that old desk in the dining room of my childhood home, surveying my heart in paragraph form, and typing bold and centered at the top of the page, “BUDDY.” And no matter what the contents or the wording, that was the day I learned what it meant to bleed experiences onto pages and heal a heart through words.
In the two decades that have passed since Buddy left, I have told a lot of stories. During my teenage years, I lived for the thrill of something lovely to write. Lovely it was, and reckless and foolish. Oh, I’d shout “Stop the car!” so we could get out and dance beneath the stars. I’d drive for hours for a surprise, find the cliffs with the city view and tiptoe right to the edge to feel a thrill that might incite a wordy flow. I’d be unpredictable for no reason but to confuse people and write about being a living question mark. I would woo the boys just to write about what it felt like to smell summer and romance on my hair. But eventually, those firecracker romances and silly thrills stopped satisfying.
I wanted a deeper story to tell. And because I didn’t really know about the real Truth and the real Deep, I assumed it must be found in sadness. I wanted a sad story. I wanted a sad story so much that I would choose stupidity for the sake of the sorrow. I broke my own heart more times than I could count, and I kept on breaking it. Again and again, breaking and running in a cycle of self-destruction and angst. Until I met the living God in a Golden Corral bathroom at one in the morning.
And I wrote a story. About hope, and about fear and about understanding that I didn’t understand. The sadness began to dissipate. My life began to form direction. A short while later, I met womanhood in a hospital room with an eight-pound baby boy cradled in my arms.
That was when I realized my story was not my own. I spent the next ten years telling the stories of sons, telling the way they all entwined, telling what it was to grow up with them. I told about their triumphs and their firsts, about the things I learned and the things they discovered. I wrote about our adventures, our road trips, our meals and our milestones. And eventually, I realized I was lying a little. Because I cried at night and always felt like a failure. So I started to write about that too. I wrote about motherhood in the most raw and real way and I was surprised to find I wasn’t alone.
Then, as my twenties dwindled, a tornado came. It killed, and it stole and it destroyed the life of someone I loved. And I wrote a story. I typed it at my kitchen table, on a sleek silver Mac, while son number four nursed, his sweet, chubby hands clutching my shirt. I cried while I wrote it and then I hit enter and the views climbed into the millions.
In what felt like a blink, everything changed. It was beautiful and bewildering. It was worthy of the telling, but I could hardly sort it out. But I found lifelong dreams being fulfilled; I found wildest imaginations being surpassed. And through it all, I wrote. Here and there, in articles and clips. Then as my eyes opened more and more to the importance of the story, I started asking a lot of questions. I questioned God, and I told Him I wanted to know more of Him. He began to reveal Himself to me. And I began to see His heart for people. So friends and strangers alike, I asked them, “What is your story?”
They told them to me. They told me their funny anecdotes and their deepest wounds. All around me, I found there were stories waiting to be told, and I gathered them up like some avid collector. I learned that the key to great storytelling resides far deeper in the listening than it does in the words. Oh, the things I’ve heard. Stories of moonshiners and movers and shakers. Stories of lack and poverty, of best-days-ever, of lifelong romances and star-crossed trysts. I have heard stories of faithfulness, steadfastness and stewarding. I’ve heard of hard work and broken hearts and the way God mends. I’ve heard of miracles, so many I can’t even count them all.
At some point, the need to know more spilled over, and I realized it was expressed in every place of my life. My home is full of second-hand clothes, reclaimed furniture, Craigslist saddles and hand-painted art. Without even realizing it, what started as a choice of frugality became a way of life for the story collector. Granddaddy’s office chair, my late aunt’s jean jacket from the 1980s, my great-grandmother’s hutch. All these meager things made mighty by the story they tell. And from the house into the yard, I find myself always questioning. With the mutt dog I found in a ditch hot on my heels, I walk to the horse pasture in the morning. I stare into the eyes of my rescue horses, the same deep brown as my daddy’s old desk, and I tell them every day, “I wish I knew your story.”
I just turned thirty-two. Most days I feel like I have not lived enough to know much at all. I have a foundation of identity as a child of God and the bride of Christ. Upon that is one structure, built of many parts. I am a mother and wife and even a writer, a cook and a photographer and a minister. They are all pretty pictures on the walls of who I am. I have been reckless and I have been faithful; I have adventured and stayed put; I have learned to listen. Now I don’t know for sure, because I still have a lot of life to live, but I’m pretty sure that at the core of everything, I am a storyteller. Living this life for the love of the story, to worship, to nurture, to listen and to grow, to write and to tell of beauty and redemption, of sadness, love, pain and the ways of God and humanity.
So I’ll keep collecting them, and the structure of who I am will grow, built by the stories told and lessons learned. I’m grateful for each one, and hold them close, knowing how much treasure they hold.
Follow Jessica on her blog @thehodgepodgedarling.blogspot.com