I grew up during a time when holidays meant television specials and that almost always included Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang. The Great Pumpkin and a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving were family favorites. Undoubtedly, Snoopy was my favorite character. Though speechless he managed to portray for me the fun side of Charlie Brown. When Snoopy dons a pair of dark sunglasses and a red turtleneck, his alter ego Joe Cool emerges and hangs out near the water fountain at school with no intentions of attending classes. He plans only to hang out and look cool. Oh, how I wanted to be cool. Since my middle name was Jo, I thought I could have an alter ego as well, Jo Cool. She would be smart and nerdy as I am but somehow manage to be cool, fashionable, liked by teenaged boys and envied by teenage girls as well for her beautiful skin and long, thick hair. On most days, the nerdy girl part took over and I found myself failing in all possible ways to be cool.
While in high school I began collecting items that adorned Joe Cool’s image, not Snoopy, only Joe Cool. It was fine if his equally cool sidekick Woodstock was included. He wore sunglasses as well. In Charles Shultz’s own words, Snoopy’s personality is “bittersweet.” The creator of the Peanuts comic strip saw Snoopy as a “strong character who could win or lose, be a disaster, a hero or anything.” In the end, Snoopy always works it out. It’s when he’s in real trouble that he retreats into fantasy and thereby escapes.
I’m not sure there’s a way to escape at all from my real life situations: a pending divorce, a daughter who hates me and all of the issues that surround living in a new city without the usual friends and family to support me as I go through these changes (yes, Professor Fluker, bullshit changes indeed). Even though I’m wiling taking my name back I still feel the void left behind by the curdled marriage. I tried, giving every effort to smooth out the lumps but they refused and instead multiplied to the point where I couldn’t care anymore. It hurt too much to care. I had to will myself to not care so I could survive. Two more years. That’s all, just one more year. Until even that became too long, too much to bear alone.
At some point in college, I decided that I really liked my middle name, Jo, much better than my first name, Devita. There’s a long-standing argument in my family about who gave me my name. My dad wanted to name me after one of his favorite musical artists, Damita Jo. His sister, Aunt Laura, preferred Davita to Damita stating that I should be given a similar name to the famed jazz singer but not exactly. BTW, this is the same Damita Jo that Janet Jackson gets her middle name from. My mom claims not to know of any of this. She just liked the name Devita Jo and gave it to me. On the day I was born, at the Chicago Lying-In Hospital (University of Chicago) another baby girl was given the same name, her mom having asked permission of mine as the two chatted about motherhood.
Yesterday, a conversation with an old college friend surprised me. She asked, “What did we call you while we were in college?” I was stunned a bit. How could she have forgotten. “Jo,” I answered. She admitted that she had my name in her contacts as Devita Joy but it didn’t sound right. She hadn’t realized that Joy was my married name. The contact had been supplied by our friends at Facebook and there I had succumbed to using my first name. So yes, my soon to be ex-husband’s last name is Joy. For almost 20 years now, I have been Devita Jo Joy. When I met him, I told him my name was Jo. At some point in our first few months of dating, he discovered my first name, I don’t remember how. He insisted on using it even though I asked, pleaded to be called Jo. He said it sounded like a boy’s name. Well, it does. It is. But it’s my name none the less. He refused for the remainder of our relationship I would be Devita to him and that name would spread to those he knew and even others like Chinyere who had known me for years as Jo would divert to calling me Devita, even forgetting Jo altogether. I let them.
I think I forgot Jo too.
Jo wanted to be a missionary. She wanted to build schools in faraway places where children and families and communities lacked resources to provide free education to its youngest members. Jo loved learning and would have continued in graduate school to earn a doctorate, studying how students learn math, teaching math and helping others use their knowledge of math to lift up their communities, providing a means to the end of serving God.
But Jo got married instead, thinking it the thing that she wanted most. Thinking that marriage would solve the problem of loneliness and would take away this feeling of wanting to fit in. It didn’t.
And Jo was lost.
Dreams aside marriage required compromise. Didn’t it? Or was it something else? Looking back I think I may have lost more than a nickname.
Did it have to be that way? Probably not. Had I been stronger in my true identity as a child of the Most High God, maybe not.
I’ve walked with Jesus since my 12-year old self, having been inspired by a Father Tom during our weekly religion classes at St. Francis de Paula Elementary School, was baptized and confirmed. I had long since grown to love church and everything about it. I loved the smell of the frankincense and burning candles. I loved the stained glass windows, the art and marble, and the grand architecture. It was a beautiful building. The carved wooden pews and gold goblets and plates used for communion were magnificently ornate. I loved the people, Sister Grace, with her tie up black orthopedics with shoemaker heels, taught me advanced math while I was in 7th and 8th grades. I learned algebra and geometry at her side. She watched me work out problem after problem from behind thick glasses that distorted her eyes for those who took in her face, finding such an unusual sight above her broad smile and powdered nose. I loved Sister Ann Martin, my six grade science teacher who would inspire me to teach. She recognized my heart for God’s people and would remind me many, many years after sixth grade that I had let her in on my dream to teach, to travel the world doing God’s work. Back then i thought I would be a nun too. But when I left Chicago and experienced the Catholic church away from our community of believers on the south side of Chicago (think Afro-centric, urban, medium income families) I realized I wasn’t really Catholic. Definitely a follower of Jesus Christ but not Catholic. When folks would talk to me about Catholic beliefs like the transubstantiation of the Eucharist or that Mary, Jesus’ mother, remained a virgin and was in heaven receiving our prayers and somehow mediating for the forgiveness of our sins. I believed none of these things and the fact that Catholics did was news to me.
So I found myself attending a nondenominational church while in college and even to this day. With each passing year, I grew in my knowledge of the Bible. I began to take spiritual disciplines seriously. As I sought the Lord he drew me nearer and it would be my relationship, my faith, and trust that would bring me through so many trials and help me even endure the consequences of my poor ‘outside of the will of God’ choices
Here I am now, upward of 50 years, closer to the Lord than ever and planning to be even closer tomorrow, looking back over my life and looking forward. I look forward to becoming as Michelle Obama is inspiring us all to do. I look forward to becoming the woman who finds her strength and her joy in the Lord, in serving Him by loving His.
Call me Jo, please.
And feel free to join me on this journey of healing, of finding freedom, of finding identity and of loving others as Jesus would.