This is the fifth article in our new series called “Every Heart has a Story to Tell.” As we head towards our first Thrive Conference in October, our desire is share how Every Story Matters. Please check back each week to see how God is moving in women’s lives and let us know how he’s moving in yours.
Come close, friends. I have a secret I’m about to share with you. It’s a little odd, I realize, but in sharing our stories, we all have quirks that come out sooner or later, right? Well, here it is: I am obsessed with the circus. Now, before your judge-o-meter starts leaning dangerously into the red “weirdo” zone, please know that I don’t mean the sad circus situation of the present day, with mullet-hair-rocking, leather-pants-wearing men riding motorcycles in a spherical cage before heading out back for a smoke. Also, there are exactly zero creepy clown dolls in my house.
I mean the kind of circus that rolled silently into town while everyone was sleeping and magically appeared at the break of dawn, bringing wonder and excitement to big cities and small towns across the country, the train circus that lived its glory days during the early 20th century. The thing I love about circus history is that it is packed with stories. Some are true. Some are legends. Some are straight up smoke and mirrors. Glitzy, dark, mysterious, dangerous. It all just sucks me in. But the story of the incredible life of Mabel Stark has perhaps drawn me in more than any other.
Mabel’s early life, like that of many circus figures, is a bit of a mystery. Born in Kentucky around 1889, Mabel grew up with a dream of working with animals, although after her parents died, practicality led her to nursing school. After graduating in 1911, she serendipitously met a circus manager who offered her a job training goats and horses. Mabel saw her chance to make her childhood dreams a reality and traded her white nurse’s uniform for sequins and short skirts in a heartbeat.
But Mabel’s passion didn’t lie with riding horses around a ring. Although nearly unheard of for a woman in her day, she wanted to work with tigers, and she didn’t stop until she reached her dream. By around 1915, Mabel, having exchanged her sequins for head-to-toe leather, was making gentlemen scream and ladies swoon with her seemingly effortless command of up to 12 tigers at a time, sometimes throwing a lion or panther into the steel cage for good measure.
Magazines promoted her. Photographers couldn’t get close enough. People loved her. Under the big top, in the center of a hushed crowd, Mabel must have looked incredible. Beautiful, talented, brave, the envy of all. Her life must have looked spectacular.
But when the tigers were tucked away for the night and the train rolled on to the next town, life wasn’t always as bright as it seemed. Mabel’s personal life included between four and six marriages, all but one of which she later claimed were simply attempts to further her career. Mabel occasionally kept tigers in her apartment and even took them for walks along Venice Beach in the off-season, but the animals she loved so much nearly took her life on many occasions. Crushed bones, countless lacerations, and a nearly severed arm and leg requiring over 700 stitches were just some of the injuries Mabel suffered throughout her career.
Yet she never wavered in her love for the magnificent, striped creatures. Mabel recognized her passion and lived it with abandon.
In her autobiography, Hold That Tiger, Mabel wrote, “Mine may seem a strange profession…I have been clawed and slashed and chewed until there is hardly an inch of my body unscarred by tooth or nail. But I love these big cats as a mother loves her children.”
And yet despite finding her life’s passion, the ending of Mabel’s story is not a happy one. As the great circuses fell to bankruptcy one by one, Mabel found herself floundering for meaning without her giant furry companions. In 1968, at the age of 79, she wrote a letter, swallowed a handful of pills, and never woke up.
I have often wondered what went wrong for Mabel, why she couldn’t look back on her fantastic 60-year career with satisfaction. But the more time passes, the more I realize how quickly life just slips away, often taking our aspirations and treasures with it. And Mabel must have thought, All that work, all these scars, and what of it?
What we believe about our story? It matters. A lot.
Without the belief in a God who can redeem all we experience, who can take our small failures, our gigantic screw-ups, and all the things out of our control, and turn them into good for us and those around us, life feels a bit like wandering through a cage full of tigers, wondering which one is going to take a bite out of us next.
Even with God by our side, life will scar us. But when we stop dragging our pain and disappointment around with us, when we lay it at his feet and say, Take it, Lord. Make it good. And make it matter, he will. He will.
When we give it all to him, God will use absolutely every chapter of our stories to teach, to heal, and to redeem.
The most spectacular story on Earth is the one God is writing — a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph at a time — in each of our lives. Without the words he is writing in your life, the story is less than complete.
Mabel’s story mattered. She just didn’t know it.
Connecting our story to God’s story: This is where the pieces of life that seem so fleeting find a permanent home. This is where the tigers’ teeth get removed from our flesh. This is where a story is transformed from scarred to spectacular.
Are there pieces of your story you need to turn over to God? How might the tough parts of your story fit into God’s story, even today?
If you’ve enjoyed Mabel’s story, you might like to read others in our “Your Story Matters” series: #1 – Michelle’s Story, #2 Carolyn’s Story , #3 – Sara’s Story, #4 – Jolene’s Story, #6 – Carolyn T’s Story