words and images: Jessica Sowards
A million years ago, or maybe only thirteen, I sat in a senior high school class with a teacher who taught creative writing. She was challenging, young, and a bit dry in the humor department. She taught about storytelling, and I learned from her. I soaked up what she said about painting word pictures.
I had moved to a new town for my last year of high school, out of my parents’ house and in with family 120 miles away from home. I had no interest in building a grand social calendar. I was largely running away and largely hiding, but, without meaning to, I was also finding myself. I was learning to see the fingerprints of God on my life. As I look back, I remember sitting at a desk in the back of that teacher’s class and waking up to who He had made me to be, however rudimentary the knowledge was at eighteen years old.
Every morning, I would drive to my uncle’s house and ride to school with my cousins. As I passed over the train tracks that stood just before their street, the commentary in my mind would say, “Her silver car, shining in the morning light, lumbered over the retired tracks, knocking loose the sleep in her eyes and jostling her to attention.” Those tracks would speak, like a mother waking up a child with their soft Clang-Clunk, “It’s time to wake up, girl. It’s time to turn on the smile.”
I remember that little excerpt and the way it would roll through my whirring mind every single morning until one day, prompted by the storytelling teacher, I wrote it down. Around the same time, she gave an assignment entitled “Where I’m From,” and she told us to develop the main character of our own story. “You,” she said, “I want you to tell me who you are by telling me what you came from.”
As I worked on the I-Am-From assignment and simultaneously began to collect clips about train tracks, I figured out that most people do not have an inner dialogue describing life around them in flowery, poetic phrases.
I don’t have a copy of anything I wrote in that class. I don’t even remember the teacher’s name, as I only went to the school for a semester before I asked my parents if I could come home and face the life I’d run from. I didn’t really realize at the time, how influential she had actually been, but now, I am a writer. I am a storyteller. And though I can look at a long line of teachers and family and friends who encouraged the gift in me, that nameless teacher was the one pouring into me when I realized, “This is not to be wasted.”
I honestly had forgotten about her, the teacher. I’d forgotten about the assignment and about the way the train tracks moved me to realization. Then a few weeks ago, I woke up very early on a Saturday. The world outside my window was still dark, and everyone in the house was still dreaming. My arm hurt. It was covered in ointment and the start of a new tattoo that spans from wrist to shoulder. I do not like sudden change and the tattoo, as much as I love it, was a very sudden change. I felt a little unsettled and a lot tired, so I started to pray. And in that deep-down somewhere, the hidden place called my spirit where God speaks in a whisper, a question rose. Who are you?
I’m thirty. Young, really. Young enough to remember clearly when thirty seemed old but old enough to forget things that once changed me. But on that early Saturday morning, praying in the dark with my arm throbbing, I felt an assignment from The Teacher. As I lay there pondering the question, I suddenly remembered that lesson from so long ago. I began, again, to collect the I-Am-Froms, thinking I would just write them for myself and for God, for He and I alone to have.
A lot of the things I share were originally written for God and myself. That’s just how it works sometimes. This is a little different, though. I’m not just sharing this for the sake of sharing. I’m here to give you an assignment.
I don’t know where you’ll come across this article, perhaps on a computer screen in your busy living room, in Do South Magazine in a waiting room, or on your phone while you stand in line at the grocery store. But wherever you are, it is a classroom. Because really, life is always a classroom if we will look at it as such. And whoever you are, I’d like to challenge you to this assignment. Tell me who you are by telling what you are from.
I’ll go first. Then you go. Find a paper and a pencil and write it down. Because even if your brain isn’t whirring with a constant, poetic commentary, you can still write your own story. You don’t have to be a writer to tell who you are, because only you really know. Only you can really say what you are from.
Me? I am from small-town Arkansas and from big-world dreams. I am from a broken family covered by grace. I am from a childhood diagnosis and a miraculous healing.
I am from a farm that I prayed for and chickens in the yard. I am from a kitchen full of cast iron and fried chicken and greens. I am from a big, wild garden with tall corn stalks and overtaking weeds. I am from fear taught to hope and anxiety taught to be still.
I am from remarriage and loving again. I am from an extended family so loud they make the earth shake at Thanksgiving. I am from a little brother who grew up to make tattoos and a sister who has the world’s coolest dog.
I am from a mother who throws her head back when she laughs. I am from a father who was the first to tell me I could be a writer if I wanted to.
I am from the altar of God. I am from intimacy with King Jesus. I am from Scripture that sings over me.
I am from a camera on my bedside table. I am from the birth room, where I learned to photograph the first moments of life.
I am from running away and then going home again. I am from being poor and learning to be content. I am from learning about The Provider and from always having enough. I am from obedience. I am from following Him. I am from leading the way.
I am from adventures, from plane trips and ministering in places I never dreamed of being. I am from always being ready to go home.
I am from motherhood that started early. I am from my five sons and my one daughter. I am from tiny hands and sweet smiles that wake me up every morning. I am from tremendous love.
I am from the classroom of life, from finding lessons in the morning moments spent awake in the dark. I am from an open laptop and the collecting of lovely words. I am from a giant box of journals that collect dust under the bed. I am from a viral blog post and a magazine called Do South that said, “We like your voice.”
I am from dancing in the kitchen and singing to Jesus at the top of my lungs. I am from not believing in coincidence. I am from the fingerprints of God. I am from pain made lovely by the big picture. I am from redemption. I am from a wildly beautiful life.
And you? What about you? Would you take this assignment and let it change you? Maybe it’s just for you. Maybe it’s for God. But maybe it’s to share, to ask someone else the question, “Who are you?” Because if you’ll ponder the question, you will wonder the answer.
And if you figure out what and where you come from, you will be able to say, “This is who I am.”