The Candelabra I created to honor Dr. Steven Cook 1942-2016 on his 75th Birthday and "Re-Birthday" February 12, 2017
It was 5:30 a.m. when I met Steve. Oh, I’d seen him over there in the corner of Xanadus Bakery (Montecito, CA) most mornings, gabbing and arguing with the novelists, screen play writers and actors, but this morning he stopped and sat down at my table and said, “Every day I see you writing and drawing in that journal of yours. So what’s your story? Do you want to be a writer or an artist or hide in your journal?” That was like Steve, I'd come to learn; cut to the chase.
It was 1981, and I was finishing up at Westmont College. I’d noticed him on campus previously only because our family car had also been a circa 1970 Blazer with the same giant Stagger Block tires, only Steve’s was a sooped-up and lifted, sans muffler and roll-barred Chevy beast, which roared into campus each morning. You’d have to be blind and deaf to have missed his entrance at 7:35 each day!
He threw down the gauntlet, “Enroll in my writing class this summer and let’s see what you’ve got.” This wasn’t idle talk. It was a demand and a challenge to test my mettle, and I’m not one to back down from any challenge. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
It was the only class I’d taken from Steve, and it was after I’d already graduated and had been working full time at Westmont, but he became my mentor and the most influential professor and inspiration in my life to this day. I still have the paper I wrote and had been required to read aloud, “Back Country Symphony,” when he scowled at me long and hard across the wide expanse of the class discussion table in Reynolds Hall and said, “What the heck are you still doing at Westmont? You should be writing.”
A summer or two later, he and his wife, Terri, moved me into their home, where I lived for a number of years, and Steve mentored me in writing, art, boys and life. I was one of the very first of what Terri likes to call “Steve’s girls,” but I think she understood that I needed a father figure who loved, encouraged and supported me, because I was a little adrift. They set me up with a drawing table in my room and a typewriter and told me to write and paint. He taught me about art history, contemporary art, as well as literature, necessarily including Kafka, Potok, & T.S. Eliott, his favorites in the 1980’s. He was the first person in my life who really saw me and had shown faith in me, seeing the gifts God had placed in me.
Steve became my second father. He entrusted me with things that were important to him and while they were in England, the year Ian was born, and he let me drive his truck and take care of his treasured bonsai trees. I felt so cool in his Blazer, but I must have killed all 20 of those little trees by the time he returned. I remember being terrified that he would yell at me and turn me out, and I know he was very disappointed, but he taught me the love of a father, and instead of retaliating, he made me Ian’s godmother.
I let him down there too, as it really wasn’t until my early 40’s that I understood the role of a godmother, but he assured me all the while that he’d made the right choice and that my consistent prayers for Ian through the years were the very best way to support him. I didn’t fail in that at least.
We’re all born into a family, but if we’re really lucky, we’re especially chosen by others to be a member of their family. Steve and Terri chose me. Well, Steve chose me and Terri probably initiated a big discussion as to why (wink), and then she totally embraced me into the family! By now, they must have a giant family.
They have guided me through my teaching years, marriage, parenting, divorce and grappling with spiritual, emotional and intellectual issues. Steve taught me to cook spicy breakfasts, and Terri taught me the value of drinking chlorophyll and green tea. I rejoiced with them when Ian learned the first word Steve taught him, “Kierkegaard.”— Only Steve!! I love and trusted Steve because he never minced words, but he did it with love and humor.
I've always related to and appreciated Steve's honest grappling with God. He was continually a seeker, and while his faith was deep and true, all of the methods and trappings handed him (and me) by others were suspect. I truly feel God honored Steve's honesty and humility in seeking answers. It made Steve approachable for those of us misfits and rifraff of modern society, those hurt, abused and disenfrachised seekers ourselves. God used Steve in our lives in profound ways, and for that I will always feel undeservedly blessed.
Steve and I still met at 5:30 a.m. on and off over the past 35 years, where he mentored me on my writing and art, and of course, my relationships. Luckily, I didn’t follow all of his advice on the latter! He did teach me what to expect and look for in a man and how to value myself the way God did. He and Terri taught me how to be the best kind of writing teacher and art teacher. One of my last conversations with Steve, after my 26-year teaching career, started with his question, “So are you done hiding in the classroom yet and ready to summon the guts to get out there and be the writer and artist God intended you to be?”
In many ways, Steve and I struggled with the same kinds of demons. I have no doubt that his challenges and exhortations were as much for himself as for me. Like Steve, I've been told I was gifted with the ability to write or paint, but instead of taking the risk and putting my own out there, I chose to teach others to do so successfully. Does this mean we failed in living up to our potential or were/are we doing exactly as God intended with the gifts He bestowed us? It's a question I will ask Steve when I see him again.
(Steve went on to live with Jesus in December 2016, and while he will be dearly missed, I know I will see him again one day, when we are all whole physically, spiritually and emotionally. I look forward to that reunion!)
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