by Jude Southerland Kessler
“You don’t need anybody to tell you who you are or what you are. You are what you are!”
Decades ago — 1974, to be exact — I was fortunate enough to compete in the Miss Louisiana Pageant in Monroe, LA, as Louisiana’s “Princess Soya” (the Soybean Queen). Standing tall at a whopping 5’1”, I knew that I didn’t stand a chance to win, place, or show…but it was a fab experience that introduced me to wonderful people such as Pageant Chairperson Caroline Masur — a Monroe living legend — and to Lexi Woodard, 1974’s gorgeous “Holiday in Dixie” Queen, who became my dear friend.
I was having a fantastic week in Northeast Louisiana, rehearsing the pageant program, performing for the Rotary Club, and lodging with the other girls at Northeast (now ULM) right up to the moment when Mrs. Masur met with the 50 contestants to impart her best advice on how to “win.” Thoughtfully, she scanned the nervous crowd of competitors — the Watermelon Queen, the Sugar Cane Queen, the Shrimp Festival Queen…you get the picture — and she pronounced with great care: “Listen girls, if you want to be successful this weekend, the best thing I can tell you is: be yourself.”
“Myself?” I blanched. “Who was I?” The nerdy student who studied later and longer than anyone at NSU to achieve two degrees in three years? The dancer who practiced hours each afternoon for NSU’s Mademoiselles Dance Team? The Beatles fan who loved telling stories about John Lennon to her friends? Who was I? I had no idea.
Struggling to be “the real me,” I immediately changed my hairstyle, altered everything I had planned to do and say…and really made a big mess of the whole Miss Louisiana experience. Now, looking back on the ordeal, some forty years later, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t myself at all.
Knowing who you are is, at best, complicated.
Around age 35, however, I became me. I gave up any pretense of being a “social animal” and started a life of intense research, writing the 9-volume John Lennon Series. I spent most of my day alone — reading, taking notes, writing, editing, publishing, and then getting John’s life story into the hands of readers. And during the years that I did that religiously, I was happier than I have ever been in my life. I was finally doing what I came here to do.
My father, however, wasn’t convinced. At least once a month, he said, “You’re wasting your life! You should have been a…” followed by any number of jobs: doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. In 2009, when I began hosting my own podcast, he exclaimed, “That’s fantastic! Now, you can tell people you’re a commentator! That’s a good, decent job!” Being an author was never something he was proud of. At all.
Have you ever experienced that in your life? Are there those close to you who want you to be something other than who you are and what you are? My guess is, it’s all too common.
John Lennon certainly experienced this. In fact, if you listen to his sorrowful song, “Working Class Hero,” you’ll hear his sentiments on the subject. As a young boy, he never seemed to make others happy. Teachers hated the fact that he was “too clever.” But if John pretended to be less than brilliant, he discovered that they equally “despised a fool.” Similarly, in his adult life, “John the Beatle” was frequently chastised for being less than forthcoming with his responses to the Press, but if he spoke his mind, he was censured for being snarky and sardonic. Or he was crucified for something taken out of context. John Lennon was never able to make people happy.
We see this every night on television as our leaders struggle to guide us through the recent CoVid-19 virus. No matter what they do, they are brutally criticized. “That restriction isn’t necessary!” or “They’re not doing enough! More is required!” Flip the channel, and you’ll hear vast extremes of opinion. But all of the stations have one thing in common: they agree that nothing is being done correctly! None of our leaders measure up to what the pundits expect.
For the last 40 dark and demanding days, Christians have also been living through the serious season of Lent…a time of sacrifice and “giving something up.” And truly, this month, all of us have given up so much that we were accustomed to enjoying, from simple grocery shopping to a meal in a restaurant or time spent together with friends. But as I write this May message on Easter Eve, I’m reminded that beginning tomorrow, we will be living in a time of celebration — a time of new life, new chances, and rebirth.
I think this is the perfect time for all of us— from President to preacher to pupil — to be reborn as the person we were meant to be, not as the person others want us to be. As the trees and flowers blossom and the days lengthen with possibility, this is the time to start over…as you!
We don’t need anybody to tell us who or what we are (as John Lennon once advised). Inside, we already know. You and me…this month, let’s begin again!