Sometimes we create our story, and other times it creates us…
I was just like every other kid in junior high. Twelve year old Liz with big red glasses, shoulder length sandy blonde hair and teeth that were begging for some braces. My arms and legs were too lanky for my body and everything I did was awkward. Painfully awkward.
I was just like any other junior higher, except for one thing. I lived in Irkutsk, Russia. My family moved to Siberia when I was eleven and it remained my home until I was thirteen. Those long Siberian winters and their stories are preserved deep in this soul. The food, the smells, the sights. The people. Mostly the people.
I don’t think you could separate those experiences from me. They are so woven into my perspective, thoughts and dreams that to remove them would be to unravel me altogether. Russia marked me.
But something has happened since I’ve moved back. More and more years have gone by since those days, and it seems smaller and smaller. Not to me. Never smaller to me. But when people learn that I used to live there, I get riddled with questions. And the answers go something like this:
I only lived there for two years.
No, I don’t really speak Russian anymore. If I am around it then it will come back, but sadly I am no longer fluent at the drop of a hat.
Umm, no. No I haven’t gone back. Yea, I know it was a long time ago.
I bet you are right. A lot has probably changed since I’ve been there.
Oh, really? You lived in Spain for eight years. Yeah, I’d love to hear about it.
At the end of the conversation I am left feeling a bit small. Like people expected more from me. Or I am surrounded by people who have lived overseas longer, currently speak Russian or have visited since I lived there years ago. I don’t remember the answers to their questions. Suddenly, I feel a bit disqualified. Probably like a guy who played junior high football would feel surrounded by college players. Still a football player – but not really compared to them.
And it hurts when something so significant to you seems insignificant to someone else. So I don’t bring it up all the time. I hate feeling that it wasn’t that big of a deal. So I hold it tucked next to my heart and only share it with the people who make it that close.
But yesterday something happened.
A friend of ours, Ryan, visited Russia this summer on a mission trip. While there he spent time in Irkutsk and he came back with a gift for me – a gift from Natasha. After trying to figure out which Natasha, cause there are like a billion of them there, I learned it was from my friend who lived near us in our first apartment. She was one of my very first friends in Irkutsk.
Now as an adult, she attends the church that my family moved there to start. And when Ryan came to work with that church, she sent back a box for me. A box that made me cry.
There was a sweet note that was written in English, but with that distinct Russian handwriting – “ To Elizabeth with love from Siberia.”.
Each item brought back a flood of memories. A beautiful box made of birch wood – carved by the hands of a people I love so much. A Christmas ornament that will go front-and-center on my tree this year, I assure you. Some yummy chocolates to have with a cup of hot tea. And then, I opened the silver box. Inside was a bag of meringue cookies.
I just stared. How could she possibly remember that? Tears came. She remembered. Natasha remembered.
Those cookies were one of my favorite things in the world. Any time I passed a stand or kiosk selling them I would always stop. There was a bakery down the road from my house that sold them and I went nearly every afternoon after school. And she remembered.
Peel back the layers of time, the change of government, the loss of language, the nineteen years since I had seen Natasha… and it was all still there. Because it happened. Because I was there.
So, what if others have more international experience than I do? Or more language skills. Or more up-to-date information on the country. So what if in a conversation among expats my experience doesn’t compare to theirs.
It is my story. And Natasha knows it.
All of us feel the same way to a degree. Our story is big to us, but compared to another’s it seems to lose a bit of its glitter. Making the rounds at parties we don’t feel we have anything interesting to say, because sometimes we fear that the things that have become part of us are only average.
We look at people and decide within our minds that our stories are not worth telling. At least not loudly.
If I had a magic wand, I would do what Natasha did for me. I would send you a silver box and inside would be that thing that helps remind you of your story. The love you lost, the book you started to write, the college degree you loved but didn’t set you apart. You would pull out your junior varsity swim jacket and rock that thing in front of Michael Phelps himself. Or that high school basketball trophy? Shoot I’d send that to you with a chain so you can wear it like a baller. ‘Cause it’s your story and it is worth telling.
And while your life may not be the thing of best-selling novels or Oscar-winning films – it matters to you and to the people you shared those stories with. And it matters to God who composed the whole thing Himself with a beautiful vision that we can’t even begin to touch in our wildest imaginations.
Natasha, who I haven’t seen in almost twenty years, sent me cookies and it tells my story. I don’t know what is in your silver box, but you know what? I hope you tweet it, Instagram it, share it with the world. ‘Cause it’s your story and it’s worth telling.