Little Lejla

She was much smaller than her age indicated. Glancing again at her file to be sure I had the right girl, then back at her before calling out “Sta ima, bona?” Her little head bobbed up from the coloring book upon which she was focused. She jumped up and bounced over with her light up shoes glowing at her feet. “Wow! Those are pretty shoes, Lejla! My name is Ms. Rhonda.” She grinned sticking one glittery sneaker out for me to admire. I instantly became attached to her, this precious little one who had just arrived to Phoenix from a refugee facility in Germany. Originally from Sarajevo, a thriving metropolitan city of Bosnia Herzegovina- Lejla and her mother with her gorgeous olive skin fled Bosnia in the middle of the civil war. They crept on the hillsides with other refugees hiding among the trees in the cold until they found it safe enough to travel further. Her mother was Bosnian. Her father was Croatian. Their marriage, which had been celebrated several years earlier with a joyous ceremony and a feast, had later become filthy and despised. Sadly in the course of terror that overtook the city, Lejla’s father was taken and killed. Her uncles and older male cousins had been separated from the family and forced into camps. Fortunately they survived and were reunited in Germany before coming to Phoenix.

Lejla’s eyes resembled big, dark marbles…the kind that have a hint of shimmer in the center but only visible when luminated just so.  She had short dark hair that highlighted the large round eyes underneath. Her front teeth were silver due to lack of proper nutrition during the siege. Her laugh- a raucous phlegm filled laugh- tickled my funny bone and never failed to make me laugh too, not for its sweetness but because such a laugh could come from a tiny being. She, however, was sweet. Over the course of my visits, I gave her a nickname- miš mali. Little mouse. She was just that- cute and small, curious and observant, quiet…except for her laugh.

Starting over again in the United States is not easy, especially as a single parent; especially after seeing all they had seen, feeling all they had felt- the tremendous heartbreak and loss. Lejla was frightened by loud sounds. Miš mali. She slept in her mother’s bed at night because every time she heard a helicopter overhead she would tremble. Once at school a few of the other girls made fun of her speech, her boyish hair and her teeth to the point that Lejla cried. After school, the heartbroken little mouse cuddled up to her mother for consolation.

Even still, among her fears and adversity were bright moments of happiness. Happiness so dazzling you could see a shimmer in the darkest of marbles. I still remember when she learned to swim. Her thin arms swinging as she ran towards me blurting out all at once, “MsRhondaMsRhondaIcanswim!” It was a delight to share with her a love of reading. Her pale cheeks would practically glow with joy at learning a new word. I would bring her books, some of my childhood favorites or an occasional stuffed toy. In return I received a much sweeter gift- a big hug from her twiggy arms. 

In time, Lejla made friends. She learned English much faster than anyone else in the family and loved correcting her mother. She grew taller. The silver baby teeth fell and shiny pearls took their place.  Her mother found work as a maid; a lower position than she held in her country, but it was work. They found an apartment to maintain on their own. No longer did they need to live with other family members. Lejla made the honor roll in school, time and time again. Her mother later remarried and not to a Bosnian. She proclaimed early on that she would never marry a Bosnian, nor a Croat. No, she would marry an American. It wasn’t for papers as refugees are given green cards shortly after entry to the U.S. She wanted to marry an American because she now was American. She wanted no memory of the sorrow she left behind. She moved away from the Bosnian filled neighborhood and surrounded Lejla with American friends. She was determined to make a new life for her little mouse.

As she grew, Lejla learned to dance. Silky slippers replaced her sparkling sneakers. She would glide across the stage, her arms now strong, her legs muscular, her dark hair long and thick flowing with every whirl and leap…her eyes gleaming as bright as any of the stage lights. She had earned a new nickname. Not ready yet to let go of the little girl, I renamed her mala ptica. Little bird. ❤

flying-blackbird

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Worthy of Friendship

In the last few days, the social media newsfeed has shown numerous posts reflecting upon creating our circles, and choosing friends wisely. It’s left me with this thought. We teach our children to choose their friends carefully, curating relationships based upon outward actions, reputation, behavior, and other attributes that we can see with the eye. This is understandable. We don’t wish ill will or difficulty to come to our little ones as they learn and grow. We don’t wish their reputations before being fully formed, to be tarnished. We don’t want them to be on the receiving end of cruelty or ridicule by other students, and honestly, by other parents. We teach them to select friends from whom they will benefit by matter of character. We use these same principles when selecting our own circle of friends and colleagues. It’s said, “choose your tribe”, “select those who will help you soar”, “be around those who benefit you and challenge you”. This has merit. Yet, I ask, upon what is this based? The majority of the time it is based solely on outward presentation. When first meeting someone we have no other knowledge from which to draw a conclusion. It seems to me, rather than draw a conclusion of any kind, rather than selecting myself who I want to associate with, rather than picking and choosing based upon reputation, the focus should be inward. Am I someone that others would want to be around? Am I someone that helps uplift others? Am I someone that has depth of character and compassion to be a good friend, a good human to any and all or only to those who fit a certain mold? It saddens me to read things about discerning the character of others based solely on reputation, especially so when the person is young. I knew a girl in high school who had a poor reputation. She was referred to by many as “trashy”. Yet, few knew the details of repeated abuse that stole her value. She truly had not even “slept around”, as it was said. All it took was one or two foul mouthed male students who took from her something and then by their actions made her daily life hell. Freshman year, my second school already, and being the new girl with few friends, I was fortunate to have made a friend in her. She was real. She was honest. She was smart. She was significantly more than anything ever repeated about her.

Sophomore year brought another change of schools and a student who was decidedly cruel to me was waiting there. I never understood why. She would call me names in Spanish that would be inappropriate to repeat. She whispered to other girls about me. She occasionally pushed too hard walking past me, but not hard enough to be considered hitting. There was no reason, of course, so on most days, I shrugged it off. Somehow, in my 16 year old jolly optimism, I decided to do the opposite of what I wanted to do. She did frighten me because of her tough persona. Yet, nearly every time I saw her, I said, “Hi Angelina,” as if she was my best friend or on lesser days, I would at least smile. She wouldn’t talk other than to ridicule me. Other times, on days when I couldn’t handle it, I did steer away. Flash forward to graduation night after all the diplomas were passed out. There before me in white cap and gown with black mascara streaks down her face stood Angelina. She looked much smaller that night than when encountered in the halls. She said she never understood why I was always nice to her even though she didn’t return the treatment. Then she thanked me. What?! This girl, this bossy mean girl was thanking me? She then briefly told me of a rough life, of not having much, of not even having one true friend. She apologized to me for the nearly three years of whispers and hallway jabs. There was nothing to apologize for and standing there on the field in 100+ degree heat of late spring Phoenix weather, we hugged a long, earnest hug. We never saw another again. We didn’t exchange numbers. Yet, to this day I am changed by that moment with that girl of bad reputation and mean outward behavior. I can only hope she was changed too. Rather than focus on those who we perceive as worthy of spending our time with and worthy of befriending, it seems to me, we should focus on being worthy ourselves by not giving attention to outward representation shown to us by others, but instead on the inward reality of ourselves. Show love, give love, be love. This is what changes lives. 💓

Life Lessons and Laces

This summer has been particularly challenging for my teenage daughter. She spent it working hard on studies to complete freshman year of high school. The most difficult for her was Algebra. Having a mom who is basically a mathematics idiot certainly did not help.

By misfortune that resulted in a positive, her dad was laid off from his job in DC, thus, he was able to spend the last month tutoring her. With advanced degrees in mathematics and physics, he literally is a rocket scientist. Who better to serve as her teacher than dear dad?

In the final countdown of preparing for her last exam, they crammed several chapters into hours of review yesterday. By this point, they had each had enough…enough of math, enough studying, and enough of each other. After fielding a few calls and texts from each of the exasperated duo of teacher and pupil, I was up to my limit as well and let them both know it in not the most gentle way.

Once home and able to observe the lesson firsthand, and all of their mutual frustration about how she was repeatedly skipping steps leading to the wrong solution, a thought struck me. I remembered teaching her to tie her shoes. She refused to wear the kind with Velcro straps or buckles and insisted on laces because she was “a big girl.”  We both repeatedly and with loving care taught her over and over again how to hold the laces in her stubby fingers using sing-songs and cute anecdotes to form a bow. This recalcitrant teenager had once been that precious, little, angel child. This  obstinate father, had once been the guy who spent hours teaching her the simplest of life’s tasks with joy.

Algebra was her new set of velcro-less shoes and without the shiny buckles. With all her strength of spirit, independence, appearance, intelligence, and confidence, we had forgotten in some ways, she is still a little person. Her fingers are less stubby and instead of stickers and marker smears, they are now adorned by metallic blue nail polish.

I reminded her dad that just as he did so gingerly with her five year-old version, he needed to tenderly teach the fifteen year-old version how to tie her laces using equations and polynomials.

Although the years have truly passed so quickly, we somehow lost sight of the  patience we once had with her. No doubt part of this is her constant reminder to us that she’s “a big girl.” I can only imagine that there will be many more of these tutoring lessons as life goes by. In the future, hopefully when she doesn’t tie the laces tight enough and they come untied, or when she ties them without thinking and they end up in knots, we will remember our roles. Then proceed with tolerance, love and probably a few concentrated breathing techniques until her laces form well tied bows.

Liberated Truth

In order to feel pretty, I relied upon cosmetics, clothing and other add-ons all of which were unattached to me. I purchased new lip colors or pots of cream promising radiant skin only to be disappointed. No amount of dieting changed my vision. Shoes…pretty, sparkly shoes…as much as I adore them, once removed and in my bare feet, the magic vanished.  In my own skin, I was not pretty in any shape or form. Like many women, I fell into the trap of requiring things to define beauty. While there is nothing wrong with these things, they are only things after all and things cannot make a person pretty. Beauty does not reside in things.

As a girl, attention that I received from the male gender was untoward. The aggressiveness, the language, the blatant disrespect…it not only was uncouth, but it was frightening. With shame, I hid my body under baggy clothing and jackets, long hair covering my face. I didn’t want to be seen in the way I felt when men looked at me. Walking home from school was a lesson of indignity as adult men would yell things out the car window or approach me on the bus. Once while rushing to class with my head down as it usually was, an older student reeking of alcohol and whose name I didn’t know, pushed me against a wall and bit my neck before running off into the crowded student body. Afraid of being punished at home, I wore my hair down and high collared shirts buttoned to prevent the bite from being seen.

During the Summer of my eighth birthday, we lived in a campground near Austin. Earlier in the year, our family lost all of our belongings in flooding that swept through the property my parents purchased near Smithville. It was beautiful property and my parents used their last dollar to buy it. While lying in the tent, listening to chirping and other sounds of nature, I realized it was my birthday. I was eight! It was early and my mother still sleeping so I sneaked out of the tent and ran to the park bathroom where I was greeted by a maintenance man. He looked familiar to me and knew my name. Happily I informed him it was my birthday. He came closer and asked if I would like a present. “Yes, please!”, I replied. The man’s rough hands pulled me up, pinning my arms at my side, my long golden braid swinging. Before I could realize what was happening, he kissed my mouth. He kissed it hard and I felt his tongue between my lips. His uniform a dark green, smelled like sweat and dirt. I kicked and tried to be free of his grip and his mouth. Then he placed me back down on the ground, his fingers still holding my arms and looked into my eyes and asked if I liked being kissed. Holding my breath so as not to cry and not to breathe him any longer, I turned my head. I didn’t want his eyes on me. He clutched my chin and forced my face to turn back towards him, then said if I told anyone that he would take my little sister and I would never see her again. At that he let me go and I ran. I forgot that I needed to relieve myself. I forgot the excitement of turning eight. I ran as fast as I could back to our camping space, unzipped the tent and got back into the sleeping bag silently hoping my mom wouldn’t wake up. She would scold me for having left the tent at all, even if it was my birthday.

I share this story not out of pity for myself in any way, but as an example of the sort of atmosphere in which I grew up…the atmosphere which we must be aware and be careful, as it surrounds most little girls and more often than we realize, little boys too. So you see, by the time I was a young woman of fourteen, the catcalls, the stolen kiss and other unwanted experiences caused me to be ashamed…ashamed of being a girl, ashamed of my body, ashamed of my face…sometimes ashamed of just being. It took some time to realize that those experiences had nothing whatsoever to do with me but were out of underlying sickness that is hiding within society. However it took significantly longer to not feel ashamed of my femininity and develop pride in being a woman. It was not until a few years ago that I began to embrace being a woman and with it the full understanding of beauty. After a failed marriage that was not the glistening love I had imagined, but one that was instead hateful and at times cruel, I was left feeling more ashamed than before. I was insignificant. I not only felt unwanted, but I was ugly. I was stupid. I was unseen.

Being mother to a young girl, this was not the example I wanted portrayed to her. In my work with young people, it was easy to encourage them, cheer for them, support them, love them and believe in them. Yet somehow I neglected this same belief in myself. While realizing logically that this was preposterous, convincing my spirit was an entirely different story. Unsure of how to correct this poisonous thought process but completely determined to do so, I began writing love notes…from me, to me. I wrote sticky notes with pretty words of inspiration and placed them on my mirror, my desk and anywhere else I would see them. Each morning I forced myself to stand in the bathroom mirror, just me…my skin exposed…no makeup or hair products and forced myself to stand there looking at the reflection until I could say something nice. It began with compliments such as, “you are a nice person.” Weak sauce. Then I began to compliment my ability. Less weak. It was awful to stand, looking at my body with all of its flaws, the lumps, the little lines around my eyes, the fake highlights in my hair, the big backside, the soft stomach, the one tooth that is a little crooked and chipped from a childhood accident, my red cheeks and the little vein than runs from the side of my nose to its tip. I completely hated looking at myself! That is a strong word, a word I do not often use…hate, but it was true. However I had made a rule and rules are rules after all. So there I stood until I could begin to say something nice about my appearance.

In time, I began to see someone else entirely. Between the lines, I saw a sparkle in my eyes. In spite of my extra weight, I saw feminine curves. My smile is warm and sincere, even the one little slightly crooked tooth with a tiny chip. As the fake coloring in my hair grew out, I chopped it off where it barely graced my chin so that it could grow back in its natural color. The reflection changed more with each day. I began to see intelligence, honesty, a kind heart…even beauty. I began to see me…stripped down, exposed, vulnerable, genuine me. Away from the mirror, I filled my soul with all the things that brought me warmth…the things I loved as a girl…books, music, art, nature, prayer, charity to others. I found my strength. I reclaimed myself. My voice became stronger and heart became fuller. While I am left now with a modest since of myself…it is an honest view. I accept the me that I am…unsophisticated, dorky, silly, mushy, sentimental, kind, full-figured, honest, red-cheeked, loyal, loving, passionate, genuine me.

There was liberation in finding and accepting my true self. I do not compare myself to others…to what they have or their achievements, their appearance or lifestyle. It matters not the things they may possess. Without any expectation or thought of change, I accept them as they are in the moment I meet them…complete in their being and understanding at the place in time they exist when presented to me. They are them and I am me and it is not necessary that we be the same in any way. I accept me as I am but still with the continual desire to be better, smarter, stronger, kinder than the day before. This liberation brought an understanding of Beauty. Beauty is raw. Beauty is honest. Beauty is emotion. Beauty is experiencing and feeling life with such force that it influences your steps. Beauty is genuine. Beauty is within the being…the bare bones, clean skin, heart of the being. Beauty impresses upon the soul a hunger for truth. This is where beauty resides. ❤

birds birds birds by lara zombie
Birds Birds Birds by Lara Zombie

To Every Thing There is a Season

As a youth, I was part of a peer counseling program that traveled the state of Arizona with skits directed at students and educators regarding social issues facing teens. While it was some time ago, many of the issues are still current. From it I learned a lot about myself and made dear friends who are still close to this day. One such friend is an artist named Kyle. On a trip to the four corners area of Northern Arizona, our group stayed overnight in Chinle. This is Navajo nation. We had wrapped up at the schools where we presented skits and discussions on drinking, teen pregnancy, suicide and other topics.  The school nurse opened her home to us. It was a small home typical of most on the reservation. The nurse was a mystical woman with long flowing gray waves that framed her face before cascading down her back. Kyle was fascinated with her crochet work and photography. While the others spread out on the living room couch and in the guest room, Kyle and I decided to camp outside. I say camp lightly because we were only armed with a sole sleeping bag. It was large enough for two, but it was the week before Thanksgiving in the high deserts of Northern Arizona. It was COLD! With our youthful stubbornness we cast aside the weather and lay under the stars. After naming all the stars and constellations we could remember, which weren’t many, we talked the night away…sharing our teenage dreams and life thoughts. We talked about our families, our problems and friends, only silencing ourselves when we heard packs of wild dogs running. They sounded much nearer than I’m sure they were. Kyle was the first boy I believed when he told me I was beautiful because he wanted nothing from me but offered friendship.

The next morning we warmed our hands with coffee and our bellies with freshly baked pumpkin bread smothered in butter. We visited an outdoor market where the nurse bought yarn. I found the raw log stall with all of the colorful yarns quite lovely and ran my fingers along the dangling varieties. From there the group drove to Canyon de Chelly. At the time, I had not yet even seen the Grand Canyon. I wasn’t sure what to expect but as a nature lover, I was excited. On the drive I was listening to a cassette tape of Tuck and Patti. I love her silky jazz vocals and his fingerpicked rhythms. The cassette needed to be flipped. I turned to the side of the van where the cassette player sat under the window. It was then that I saw a view that literally took my breath away. Warm drops graced my cheeks as I continued to stare through the window of the moving van. What seemed like several minutes was only seconds before the van rolled to a stop and I could pull the door open to be free in the fresh air and beauty of this marvelous landscape. I ran to the edge and stood in complete awe of what my eyes were taking in. Tears still coming down, I tilted my head back and inhaled. Kyle took a great photo of me standing at the edge, 15 years old- jeans tucked into slouching boots wearing a borrowed over-sized leather jacket. What the picture doesn’t show are my hands covering my mouth in awe as I stood in silence intently searching through every detail of the canyon with her high red walls, ancient Native American dwellings and hieroglyphics. It was in those moments of gazing into the canyon that I made a life altering decision; a decision that would not only change me, but my entire family.

Reluctantly it was time to leave. We tumbled into the rented minivan for the five-hour ride home to Phoenix. Turning towards the back window to get one final look, I saw the most incredible sight I have yet to see since. At the top of a cliff, with all the colors of an Arizona sunset just starting to form was a lone white horse. He was wild and this was his land. He ran to the edge and stood majestically surveying the land beneath. In that moment I felt a calmness all through my body as if the horse was a sign from an old Navajo spirit sent to tell me that everything would be alright. ❤

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