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. ❤

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Cry, Little Sister

Mornings arrive and many nights pass,

Memories of her forever last.

 

Childhood laughter and tear streaked faces,

Echo in my thoughts and leave faint traces.

 

A familiar face in the children she bore,

Although her smoky voice will be heard no more. 

 

Long, wavy locks that floated as she danced

Hips swaying to music, lost in a trance.

 

She knew things some could never understand,

Sometimes a foe, eternally a friend.

 

Shared experiences led her to a painful journey,

A life cruelly stolen, a mother taken too early.

 

Each day I am gifted is truly a treasure.

This life brings to me fulfillment beyond measure.

 

Still sorrow waits in misty morn and sun-kissed mixture,

Love and joy do not lessen the loss of a sister. 

When will the heart be aweary of beating?

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I bruise easily. Purply blueish-grey colored blots appear, sticking out against my fair skin like a a blotch of silky ink on smooth white paper. The colors fade into a distant yellow and soon enough completely disappear leaving no remnants.

For as long as memory provides, just as my skin, I am also tender; sensitive to the emotion of a moment or of others. As a girl, hours were spent outdoors…exploring, picking up feathers, rocks, leaves and pine cones. I can recall finding birds with damaged wings to care for or other creatures; once a wounded baby Armadillo. One such feathered friend was kept in a box next to my bed. I fed it dots of mash made from earth worms and breakfast cereal. Using a dropper, I dripped water into the tiny beak. Eventually it was strong enough to be free. I set the box down on its side and encouraged the little bird to leave the safety it provided. There in the grass it sat, never taking another step further away, at which I cried. I didn’t want to say goodbye either.

One Summer I repeatedly watched The Elephant Man with John Hurt. Each time my eyes swollen and red with tears. When he was struck, I winced. I cried as he was beaten and left in the streets, then my heart would fill with hope as he sat in fine clothes at the theatre. Why couldn’t they see how beautiful he was…how kind…how intelligent? Convinced he needed a friend, I told my mom that once old enough, I would marry John Merrick. As usual, my mom laughed and shook her head. She and I were vastly different. She saw me as whimsical and a day dreamer; traits that not only did not fit into her practical view of the world but she saw them as a complete waste of time. This difference of perspective would cause great frustration in her. She often told me to be more serious. I was serious. Completely. It mattered not that John dies at the end. It was with all the confidence I had in my little girl’s heart that if we were married, he would live. He would be happy.

When will the stream be aweary of flowing
Under my eye?
When will the wind be aweary of blowing
Over the sky?
When will the clouds be aweary of fleeting?
When will the heart be aweary of beating?
And nature die?
Never, oh! never, nothing will die;
The stream flows,
The wind blows,
The cloud fleets,
The heart beats,
Nothing will die.

Now, fully grown and independent for nearly 25 years- more than half my life…my heart is just as tender. I still feel nature calling in her gentle breeze or firecracker whips of lightening. A landscape moves me as much as the sound of birds calling out “Good morning!” at dawn. This connection is something for which I am grateful. I sometimes walk alone in the rain just to feel the drops, each one filled with cleansing purity. Music moves my heart equal to a Spring storm…the kind where the Sun shines as droplets make blotches on the earth. I do not possess any musical ability, which makes me marvel all the more at amazing compositions that stir my thoughts into sweet emotions. Nature is my friend; Music my comfort. Whenever I feel blue, usually rather than share those feelings with others, a quiet walk among the trees or sitting with my eyes closed breathing in each melody of a masterfully composed piece of music, provides some peace.

I learned to accept my mushy-gushy, sentimental heart. It serves me well. It calls me to serve others…giving of my time, resources and myself through acts of charity or a willing ear. My sensitivity is now somewhat more refined. It has been influenced in the way that we all are…sifted by experiences as we grow older. My mom and I are different too. We respect each other as women now, not just love one another as mother and child. She recently gave me a card. In it she expressed that she is proud of the woman I am. Upon handing it to me she told me that it may seem she gave my sisters more but it was only because they needed more. She said she never worries about me…her middle child. She knows that I am always okay. Upon hearing this, my heart felt a little fuller.

This time of year- Autumn and my most favorite month of November, I usually find myself a bit more pensive. This seems a rather common feeling. The cooler weather brings holidays, busier schedules in preparation for another year’s end. In thought, I’ve realized that I learned a few things about the disposition I was given. It is a gift to me. Sometimes it makes for a lonely journey. However I would rather live feeling the world around me so deeply with every beat of the heart…feel connected to every particle than to live feeling detached and dispassionate. I have learned that a tender heart must be tendered. It requires attention. It requires room to breathe and heal. It requires moments spent in silent introspection. Most importantly, it requires splotches of light…light that can only come from giving…from loving. In this light, bruises fade a little faster. When will the heart be aweary of beating? Never, oh! never.

Nothing will die;
All things will change
Thro’ eternity.
‘Tis the world’s winter;
Autumn and summer
Are gone long ago;
Earth is dry to the centre,
But spring, a new comer,
A spring rich and strange,
Shall make the winds blow
Round and round,
Thro’ and thro’,
Here and there,
Till the air
And the ground
Shall be fill’d with life anew.

(With excerpts from Nothing Will Die– Alfred Lord Tennyson)

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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The Sweet Scent of Giving

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The Gardenia flower is a flowering bush within the coffee family. The evergreen plants can grow into trees as high as six feet in the right environment. Their leaves grow in a particular windmill pattern. In the center of the sails, is a fragrant bloom with sensitive petals. Gardenias are my most favorite flower. Their leather like leaves yielding to delicate petals. The scent of a tree in bloom fills the area beckoning admirers.

Gardenia trees surround a property in East Texas where generations of our family are laid to rest. The dense humidity of the South make it an ideal climate. Many years ago, my great granddaddy had the fortune and good sense to purchase a section of land within the Rosevine Cemetary. This is where he and great grandma lay overseeing uncles, great aunts, a few cousins, my father and most recently, my little sister.

On this day two years ago, my sister was murdered. After several months of questions, sadness, frustration and even fear, we learned the identity of the person who took Deborah from us. It is a twisted, confusing tale of a middle aged man, a complete stranger to my sister, who offered her a ride that ended in multiple gunshots to the back of her head on the side of a country road in Palestine, TX.

Before learning the details and knowing who took her life, our family made a decision. While not all agreed, our mother, my older sister and myself chose not to seek the death penalty. It isn’t something you ever truly think about. Sure, the debate comes up at election time. However when your child or sister has been taken and her life stolen while she is on her knees in the dirt, you are forced to truly think about the value of a life. Although the killer may not have a conscience, we do. In faith and in our hearts, we could not wish for another’s life to end. What would then separate us from him?

As we later learned, similar to the Tell Tale Heart, the killer- Bobby Franks, began to grow insane at the thought of his crime coming to light. He spun an odd story, complete with pretend characters to alleviate some of his guilt. Ultimately he killed himself taking his secrets with him. We will never know why he took the life of our sister and what happened in those final moments. This- not knowing- is difficult to process but I have accepted it. The Sheriff’s offices of both Anderson and Smith counties along with the Texas Rangers were relentless in their efforts to solve the murder. Although they feel justice will never truly be served, they were diligent. They continued the case even after the killer committed suicide and did not rest until the grand jury agreed with their findings. There is not any doubt about the who in this case. The why will never be known.

Upon learning of my sister’s death, I fell to my knees, crying out. That emotion once again fills my heart as I type. A rush of thoughts and what ifs, profound sadness, confusion and anger. Then I made a choice.

The only way I know to fill the spaces of sadness and despair from losing my sister is to give. Give of myself. Give love. She had many demons and I will not allow that darkness to continue its triumph over our family. Some may laugh or take this thought lightly; the thought of doing good works. I’ve been called a do-gooder (as if that’s a bad thing) or goodie-goodie. Laugh if you will but know this. These actions are with a strong desire to fight against hate, to combat evil. You cannot see and experience what my sisters and I have and not be changed. The choice on how it will change is within each of us. So today, I will give. I will punch Evil in the face and kick Hate’s ugly teeth in. They will not win, not over me or my family. Each time I give, I release a little more of the loss felt from having my sister taken from us.

It comforts me to know that Deborah is laid to rest, surrounded by family and by Gardenias with their pure, perfumed petals. In the Summer, with their sweet scent filling the air around her grave, I will inhale…holding my breath just to keep that sweetness inside a little longer. ❤

An Un-forgone Conclusion

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I consider myself fortunate. I say this not in a trite tone or the pat reply you so often hear that is spoken without due consideration.

At fifteen and a runaway, I had experienced violence, homelessness, poverty, seemingly endless meandering and searching for truth on the part of my parents, their drug use and poor decision-making that led to a life of constant moves, new schools, new towns, new states. We were uprooted faster than a turnip by Peter and his colony of cotton-tailed rabbits. More than once, we were even deprived of an education in a public school system that did not know what to do with homeless kids. We didn’t have a home, so there wasn’t an address under which to register us. Even now I shake my head at the ridiculousness of it all.

My future did not include drugs, drinking and despair. I’ve never battled depression or addiction. I was fortunate. At fifteen and a runaway, I could have been taken advantage of, raped, forced to live on the streets, become a teenage mother, a high school dropout or addicted to any number of substances. Instead I worked. I had an address. I graduated high school. I attended college. I built a life for myself. To be certain having so little for so long did have an affect upon me. I do not require a lot of things to feel happy. I am content with the few things I have. I have joy. I have peace. I have faith. It is in these that my happiness lies.

This good fortune was never lost on me. It is something I have known with acute awareness within a few weeks of leaving my family. It is something I give thanks for daily and will never take for granted. It is because I am so keenly aware of this fortune bestowed upon me that I have faith. I have faith in God. I have faith in humanity. Yes, even in these days…the faith I have in my fellow-man remains intact. I have faith in myself and my abilities. Love flows freely in my veins and my heart is still tender to the world around me. Yes, I am very fortunate.

I have seen firsthand people overcome insurmountable odds and pain to build the most exquisite existence. I have witnessed the transformation of addictions and the glory when addiction is fought and life reclaimed.  I have hugged a woman who had been tortured and raped by a gang of rebels only for her to smile with complete warmth and sincerity. I have seen men crippled by explosions during a war handed to them by cruel dictators, look upon the faces of their children with true pride and joy. The power of the human spirit to defiantly fight back, challenge defeat and love with grace is divinely beautiful.

I am fortunate because I realized that within me was the power to fight back. I realized from a young age that the life provided to me was not meant to be; that it must not be willfully claimed simply because it is what was.

It matters not what your experience has been heretofore. It matters not that you have hurt or caused others to hurt. It matters not the mistakes that you have made. It matters not who you were, who your family was or what riches you once had or lacked. Your life is not predestined for permanent defeat simply because you have had defeats. What was does not have to become what always is. Fortune will not find you unless you actively pursue it. Your value is not worthless simply because yesterday or all the yesterdays before today have not amounted to much. Defy your challenges. Make your future invaluable. ❤