What defines you?

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
e. e. cummings

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Pacific Rim Trail / Ucluelet, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada / Julie Cook / 2011

I imagine if you ask people what it is that defines who they are, most people would respond with something associated with their work or job. It is as if they are a product of the job. I had written an entire little preamble to today’s topic about work, jobs and identity..of how we tend to let work or the job suck up our identity but I really didn’t like where that seemed to be leading…feeling as if I began veering off base.

My intention and my thoughts here are to go much deeper than the mere obvious.

When asked what it is that defines me, defines who I am…my response a year ago would have been that I was a teacher–I’d follow that with my being a wife and mother. I think that’s pretty much how most of us would answer when asked. We define ourselves by telling others what it is we do for a living–our job, our work. We tell others that we are a student, a soldier, nurse, a contractor, a policeman, a doctor, a wife, a husband, a mother, a father…. But do any of us, who are Christians, respond first with “I am a Christian”…then to follow that with what it is we do?

Have you ever been at a function and met someone for the first time with the first question usually being, “so, what do you do?” They want to be able to define who we are, measure our place, figure out how we fit in…what is our production level–are we being successful, are we a contributor, are we a rising star, a game changer, will we be impressive or someone who is to be quickly dismissed.

There was a time, in the early days of our Christian faith, when it was dangerous, even life threatening, to be defined by ones belief and faith… and yet the early followers of this new religion did not skirt the issue–it was the foremost defining factor in their lives…the foremost defining factor. It was that big of a deal to them.

Somewhere, sadly, along the line of Time, the definition of being a Believer no longer seemed appropriate to throw out there when “defining” ourselves to others. Our faith no longer relevant when telling others of who we are. I’m Scotch/ Irish, I’m adopted, I’m a wife, a mother, I’m a retired educator…all of that sounding normal, typical—but if I were to met you on the street greeting you with “hi, my name is Julie. I’m a Christian” You’d probably look at me uttering something awkward like “oh, ok, uh good… uh good to know” all the while thinking you needed to move along quickly as you’d just run into some sort of fanatic.

Awkward, not relevant, not socially acceptable….

But it shouldn’t be that way–it should be standard.

If we are believers, if we are members of a Christian church, if we claim to be of a denomination, then why wouldn’t we first announce the definition of who we are by stating that we are a Christian, a follower of Christ? How many people have happily, defiantly, proudly, strongly, bravely proclaimed to be such knowing that they would face imprisonment, torture and death? How many people have sacrificed everything to be able to say that they are defined by their Christian Faith?

Sadly we consider it awkward and out of place proclaiming our faith when meeting others. Would Jesus not proclaim us to others joyously and gladly without a second thought? We will not be twisting arms or pushing others into corners with our proclamation but rather we will simply state who we are foremost, as everything else simply follows suit.

On this new day to this new week, how will you be defined?

Mother, the moon looks lovely tonight

“Moonlight drowns out all but the brightest stars.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

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(photograph: moon as seen from Julie’s back porch/ 2013)

Next week is my mom’s birthday, or actually it would have been her birthday. My mom died 27 years ago from a short battle with cancer.
I think she’d be 80 next week. Wow…
That’s hard to imagine.
My mom had just turned 54 when she died. She had become quite sick with what was an out of the blue case of pneumonia. Odd for someone who was never sick and was an avid tennis player (I hate tennis but that’s another story)
She was hospitalized on July 25th.
She stayed in the hospital with what was then soon diagnosed as lung cancer. She died 6 weeks later, having never left the hospital.
I am now her age.
I don’t think I feel like my mom when she was this age. At least I don’t think I do. Mother seemed, well, like mother, not like me, a daughter. And thinking about my mom being 80, well that’s just kind of weird. Dad is 85, but that just seems like Dad, but Mom at 80….??… My mom was not old when she died and resides, I suppose, in a bit of a time warp. My mom will always be this age I am now. Time stands still in one regard and races forward in another. Almost hurts my head thinking about it.

I don’t know if you noticed the moon last night. It caught my eye as I was cutting out the lights making my way to bed. I was walking past a window when a bright light practically blinded me. “Oooooo, a full moon!!” I hear myself saying out loud. “Camera!!! Where’s the camera??” (remember that is my mantra). I go running through the house grabbing my camera. My startled husband, who had been taking a shower, catches a glimpse of me darting past with camera in hand racing outside—in my pjs. I think he now thinks I’ve totally lost my mind—but what’s new?!

First of all it is almost miraculous that I could even see the moon, what for all our months of cloud cover! Good to know there is still something on the other side of the clouds!!
I took a couple of shots—as best as my little amateur self and camera could muster.

When I think of the moon looking as it did last night, with me glancing up at it, I think about the people I love and care for–those near or far, those living and those deceased. Maybe some of them are also glancing up looking at the same moon just as I am—that always gives me such a nice connected feeling–comforting of sorts.

After my mom died, I had a very hard time to say the least. I was having to care for my distraught dad, while living about 70 miles away in one community, as a newly married young woman. I was also teaching in an entirely different community–trying to be in three places all at the same time..not to mention dealing with my own grief—when there was time…

The juggling had all somewhat started when she first went in the hospital and was in ICU. I made the journey back and forth from home every day. Once school started for the year, there was the commute from home to school, then form school to the hospital, then from the hospital back to home via a long lonely interstate late at night. That went on for the 6 weeks.

Thinking back during those dark days, I find it hard to believe I managed staying sane.

In 1987 Linda Ronstadt came out with a song “Somewhere out there” I didn’t pay much attention to the song until it was paired with the movie “An American Tail”. My son was probably around 3 when the movie came out as a video and of course I had to buy it for us to watch. The story is of the Russian jewish immigrant, Fievel the mouse, and of his separation from his family during the escape from “czarist Russia” –we all know how these things play out…drama, trauma, turmoil, resolution.

When I sat down with my young son to watch this movie, the tale of this young little boy (I can’t help he was a mouse) and of how this little boy mouse becomes separated from his family…the scene where Fievel sits all alone looking up at the sky thinking about his sister, who he had been separated from during turmoil, looking at the moon and the stars— que the song— and I immediately start sobbing.
I can’t hear this song to this day without thinking about my mom and crying. That a grown woman can cry over a song sung by a cartoon mouse….hummmm

Separated by time, age, space, dimensions—somewhere out there my mom is looking down on me, of who I am and of who I’ve become–hopefully pleased as I have, I pray, gotten over the growing pains and the more rough patches of growing up—developing into and coming in to my own as a wife, mother and most importantly as an intact woman who hopes to have made my mom proud…..as I look at this moon this night, I think of my mom and of a little mouse singing a song about “somewhere out there….someone is loving me tonight…”
Happy birthday Mom, I love you too……

Somewhere Out There

written by James Horner, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil

Somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight
Someone’s thinking of me and loving me tonight

Somewhere out there someone’s saying a prayer
That we’ll find one another in that big somewhere out there

And even though I know how very far apart we are
It helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star

And when the night wind starts to sing a lonesome lullaby
It helps to think we’re sleeping underneath the same big sky

Somewhere out there if love can see us through
Then we’ll be together somewhere out there
Out where dreams come true

And even though I know how very far apart we are
It helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star

And when the night wind starts to sing a lonesome lullaby
It helps to think we’re sleeping underneath the same big sky

Somewhere out there if love can see us through
Then we’ll be together somewhere out there
Out where dreams come true

To Rome and Jackie with Love

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”
Albert Schweitzer

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(photograph: skyline of Rome looking toward The Vatican,The Janiculum hill/ Julie Cook/ 2007)

Isn’t there something most magical about the Roman skyline?
Particularly the vista that is punctuated by the magnificent dome of Michelangelo’s
engineering genius.
Are you aware that it is Roman law that no building may be built which exceeds the height
of St. Peter’s?
I love Rome, as I’ve written before.
It is a city that is dirty, loud, lurid, raucous, serene, historical, artistic,
trashy, holy and very very real.

I’ve often mused that I could live in Rome…usually, until I step in the mountains of dog poo
which line the sidewalks or when I get a good whiff of the unmistakable stench of human urine
wafting up from the stairways leading down to the Tiber River.

For Rome does have its flaws……

I cannot, however, think about Rome without thinking of a very dear friend.

I lost this dear friend today, Wednesday.
She actually died last night from a lengthy bout with cancer–an ongoing battle that
seems to have plagued her for most of her adult life.

A mutual friend and former colleague called me this morning with the news.
I had been receiving regular texts, as she had been rushed to the hospital
last week and was in ICU.
The texts were from one of her daughters who was updating the progress of her mom…
it seemed she was greatly improving daily…
that is, until yesterday evening.
She was only 78.

She was a colleague, mentor, friend, mother figure and a darn good high school
math teacher.
She was also the mother to two grown girls with families of their own as well as the former
wife of a rather notable Speaker of the House…
a Speaker who shall remain nameless as this is the place today to simply remember my friend.

She had battled colon cancer long before I had ever known her.
Her famous husband, or so the story goes, went to the hospital when she was
in the midst of her struggle with cancer and that of a life-saving surgery,
asking for a divorce.
That was the “hear-say” story, as she was not one to hang out the old dirty laundry—
and we always respected her for such and never asked for any clarification.

She never bashed him, never said a derogatory word, despite having much right to
do so… giving his philandering ways and the years of sacrifice she had made for his
rise in the state then national political picture.
She always respected the fact that he was the father to her children and therefore…
we never talked about him nor of that former life.

It was during those times when this former husband, who would try his hand at national
politics, that her life would be examined as if under a microscope by the press,
again and again.

Despite wearing the title of “ex” wife, she still seemed fair game for political fodder
or so deemed our oh so pious media (please note the sarcasm).
Reporters actually sat outside of school, in the bushes and trees for a shot, even approaching
fellow teachers for a “story”….
As we all did our best to protect her and her privacy.

The news was never flattering of her, describing her as the “ugly” one–
as she was the first of three wives.

How dare they!

She was a real woman, a real lady actually.. not one of those stretched and augmented women
not starched or altered as the many women of Washington are.
She was not a “trophy” to be lead around on a leash as if on show.
She was a beautiful lady.

I often thought of the qualities of Winston Churchill when I thought of my friend.

She was tenacious and fierce if need be—like a mama bear protecting her cubs…always
to the death.
She was like Yoda, a wise sage always full of the wisdom gained by a life lived
long and well.

She had suffered polio as a child, known sorrow and sacrifice as an adult, and
was toughened by the years of hard work… yet in the end, she was never bitter nor sad.
Her body often betrayed her as she battled countless near death illnesses,
yet all the while she managed to have a new trip or adventure in the works while
living life with chemo, radiation, hospital stays, neuropathy and lastly a stroke.

We’d never know when the cancer came back because she never really spoke about it.
She’d just be sick, fight, recover and run to another life adventure.
With skydiving being one of the last big adventures.

It was this friend that taught me to live life like there was no tomorrow—
as she herself never knew if tomorrow was promised to her or not.

It was this dear lady, this dear friend who knew of my love of Italy and
of all things Italian.
It was this friend who knew I had lost my own mom when I was young and who was
now struggling as a young wife, mom, and teacher…

She took it upon herself to befriend me and gently guide me through the often murky
waters of life.
I remember being devastated when she retired.
She was the old guard at school, the wizened sage who kept us younger teachers
in tow.
She made us laugh, think, fight and always do the right thing by our students
and ourselves.

Once she retired, we did not stay in touch as often as I had wished as our paths
simply diverged.
She was now was hanging out with the other retired teachers while traveling profusely—
With Italy being the last big trip…

It was right around the time when Pope John Paul II was quite ill and actually just prior to
his death that she told me she’d bring me a memento back, something about him…for she
knew my deep admiration for the Pope.

All the while she encouraged me to go soon if I could–as she always found
travel to be one of life’s better teachers.
She brought me back a beautiful image of my beloved pope and I did manage to
make that trip a few months following John Paul’s death—
heeding her advice to go—always go…

I’d see her, from time to time, in Target or at the grocery store—
which just so happens to be the last place we actually talked.
Funny how grocery stores are so prominent in our lives.
Those off places where we run into those important folks who seem to pop in and out
of our lives…

She’d often frequented my husband’s business, sending me her “hellos”
via my husband.
Each time she’d come in the store, he’d come home from having seen her
with the latest story of the latest adventure—

After the stroke, I recently sent a card to the rehab center in Atlanta
where she had been moved while working on regaining strength, speech, and mobility.
I told her in my card that here it was, time for me to finally retire,
and off she moves over to Atlanta…
I was all ready to start our travels and would be waiting on her—
for her to get better and for her to be ready to go, once again…

Sadly, it looks as if she went on without me.

Thank you, Jackie, for everything you ever taught me—–
I will miss you.