by Debora Smith

It’s always been there. On the right side of my head, that tussock along the hairline, unruly ruff, I toiled to hide it all my life by combing my hair in the opposite direction like a balding man trains long hairs to swoop down and hide the facts. I volunteer for a cowlick, said no one ever.

Hide it I did quite successfully from all but the hairdresser until a “series of unfortunate events” sought expression in my body by the loss of hair on the opposite side of my head. What audacity! The hairdresser assured me that the vacancy in the hair follicles would not be permanent. Even now tiny baby hairs were slowly sprouting forth, but it would be months before the spot would be fully inhabited again. So I daily combed and teased in an attempt to cover the emptiness, without much success. When my persistent efforts failed to yield the desired effect, I finally decided to change the part in my hair. Annoyance with the barren spot on the left eclipsed the scorn I felt for the cowlick on the right. That is how I arrived in my new hairdresser’s chair sheepishly defending that unmanageable tuft.

“It’s terrible,” I said. “It certainly is strong,” she replied, and her words hung for a moment in the air. Strong. She called my cowlick strong. Suddenly, that bane which I had tried to vanquish all of my life took on new meaning, became a symbol, an ensign for my life. We laughed, my new hairdresser and me, as I embraced my identity represented by that disdained place on my head. My cowlick represents me, literally leads me forth into the world, a banner announcing my arrival.

However, strength has not always been a moniker that would aptly describe me. I moved into adulthood from a sheltered and restricted world that included a fair amount of spiritual abuse. Barely into my mid-twenties, I had suffered the loss of a child and was beginning to experience a late-blooming rebellion against a religious system that knew little of love and much of rigidity and dogma, reeking of hubris and empowered by fear-inducing rhetoric. I was lost in a shallow, narrow-minded world that was unsatisfying and unsustainable. And I felt anything but strong as I toiled with a cognitive dissonance between the world I inhabited and a world of love and expansion that I was beginning to glimpse. A mentor from those early days challenged me not to be a fragile person. Her words gripped me and have never left me, remaining a marker, a compass to keep me steady when assailed by life.

Yet, I have struggled with my definition of strength, imagining a person, unlike me, who calmly glides through trouble and trauma disaffected by emotional upheaval. I have sought this person but never found her in myself. I could see evidence of strength in my life but never felt strong, mainly because of my emotional nature that experiences everything in life at a visceral level, feeling every emotion deeply, not realizing that the very characteristics I devalued and regarded as weakness, actually gave me the tenacity to live the life I have lived.  Now I am seeing strength in a new way, recognizing that it manifests most profoundly in hidden spaces. Indeed, it can be manifest in apparent weakness, a fortitude that keeps me putting one foot in front of the other despite pain, sorrow, and disappointment and all the accompanying emotions.

So, yes, I am strong, if strong means staying with it, sticking to it, never giving up, retaining faith, rising each morning with new hope, believing in new life, resting in love, no. matter. what. Proof, you say? Let me indulge in the folly of a litany of woes like St. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians. Spiritually traumatized from a young age by domineering religious leaders who knew little of love, delivered of an infant unable to sustain life, bereaved by her early death, tortured by fears of not measuring up, blindsided by sexual abuse in family and church, compelled by passion to love children not of my flesh, aggrieved by the pain and loss in their lives, confused about how to navigate trauma, tossed from one state to another because of job disruptions, alienated from support systems by the constant chaos of children in crisis, burdened with financial loss, taxed by a life that never seems to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

And I am still here.

Still trusting in good over evil, learning in ever abundant ways about the One Divine Presence that fills and surrounds the universe and me with love. Yes, I am strong. As a matter of fact, in my weakness, I am strong (another line from St. Paul). Thank you, Cowlick, for reminding me of this.

Deborah says, “My life with God has been a priority for me since childhood. In recent years, I have experienced newfound ways of knowing God through practices of contemplation that have opened up my understanding of God’s love and abiding in Christ. I am interested in spiritual formation, spiritual direction, and pastoral care. I have a master’s degree in multicultural education and have been an educator for nineteen years, presently teaching English language learners. I have been married to Carl, an Anglican priest and church historian, for forty years and have five children, two daughters-in-law, and seven grandchildren. I currently live in Arizona.”