Gratitude and looking toward my lesson this Sunday

Gratitude and looking toward my lesson this Sunday

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I was looking at the church newsletter Wednesday morning. I knew I was teaching this weekend, but had forgotten which story.

Hannah and Samuel.

I wrote this earlier this year. I won’t be teaching this lesson this way to the preschoolers and kindergarteners on Sunday, but Hannah’s is a story that gives me chills and pause:

Could you pray to God to give you the one thing you want most, and in the same breath offer it back to him?

Day 3 — Gratitude (Monday, 18 February – Monday, 4 March, 2013)

And sorry for the silence, but my move has been — in a lot of ways — a tough transition. Grace and peace to you. — VKS

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Remembrances

Remembrances

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Best friends, L to R: Jenni Carstensen Pavia, Jenn White Davidson, Val Starkgraf, Laurie White

There is a photograph — and we all have one somewhere — that speaks volumes about my life and friendship as a young person. Granted, there is a story this photograph does not tell about all my very deep friendships with various teachers, but if you want to boil down who my very best friends were in junior high and the first few years of high school, this is it. Left-to-right we are Jenni Carstensen Pavia, Jenn White Davidson, Val Starkgraf (me), and Laurie White.

This was taken in June 1995, on the day of our junior high school graduation in 9th grade (our school was 7-8-9, not 6-7-8). I had, of course, been crying for days. For so many reasons, Sequoia Junior High School was my “safe” place for three years. It was a real community with amazing teachers who really, really, really cared. I was one of the favorites of many for various reasons (the page-long letters in my 9th grade yearbook speak well to this — I had more teacher signers that year than students!). But as far as friends my own age? This was the group. I don’t remember who Laurie had for homeroom, but Jenn, Jenni and I had Vicki Guleserian, so we’d known each other from the very first day of 7th grade.

I’m being — essentially — held up and surrounded by my best friends. That’s what always gets me about this picture: art imitating life. Strong as I am, I rely much on my friends (as they rely on me) for support.

Given that we moved so much over so many states and schools until I was twelve, arguably, this set was the closest thing I’ll ever have to “childhood” friends.

We’ve mostly kept in touch. Jenni and I are members of the same church, I’ve seen Jenn a few times since high school, I would get together with Laurie when I could (I was living out-of-area for awhile, then she was living out-of-area when I moved back in 2011). We were both in-area again after she moved back from Salinas a little over a month ago. Getting together was high on my list.

Apparently we’ll be getting together on Wednesday, under about the worst terms possible.

She was twelve days older than me. Thirty-three year-olds aren’t supposed to die, that’s not how the world is supposed to work.

Apparently the world didn’t get that memo.

Of the three of us, I’m the only one in this photo — besides Laurie — who can make it to her funeral on Wednesday. That’s killing me — especially since she and Jenni were inseparable BFFs for so many years — but at least Jenn (who now lives in Maine) got to see her the Saturday before she died (and died very suddenly — none of us even knew she was sick — viral meningitis, MRSA, encephalitis…nasty business, headache and disoriented Wednesday, dead Friday).

I still generally don’t have words for this, I just don’t.

Can there be words for this?

I’m not sure there can be.

We didn’t share the same cosmological worldview, that’s been bothering me for a lot of different reasons. I know what I think, but what to say about that that? Is there ever a time to have that conversation, and what should I say about it? Still thinking about that.

I went onto Facebook and pulled the photograph that was used in her obituary. Yes, she went to zookeeper school, but she didn’t love the cute/fluffy animals most people love — she loved the reptiles.

It was just who she was — a girl who loved hugging alligators (though, to be fair, she did love some cute/fluffy animals, like her dogs).

This photo speaks volumes about much of what my friend loved best. She was — and is — loved by so many. There aren’t words for the hole she will leave in my life. She was one of the kindest and sweetest people any who knew her had ever know — you can’t ever “replace” a person like that.

Her Obituary:

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Laurie Rae White...girl with gator, because, why not?

Laurie Rae White (1980 – 2013)
Obituary

April 14, 1980 – July 26, 2013 Laurie Rae White passed away on Friday, July 26, after a brief illness. Laurie was born in Mission Hills, Calif., on April 14, 1980, to Karen and Gary White. She was their only child. The White family moved to Simi Valley in 1985.

Laurie went through the Simi Valley schools, graduating in 1998 from Simi Valley High School. She graduated from the Exotic Animal Training and Management program at Moorpark College in 2006. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology at CSUN in 2009. She earned her master’s degree in education at Claremont Graduate University this past May. She was a biology teacher by trade, working this past year at Soledad High School in Monterey County. She was hoping to teach closer to home this year. In addition to being a teacher, Laurie was an excellent musician, a writer, an avid reader, a good artist, and a local actress, appearing in musicals at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center for two years.

She is survived by parents, Gary and Karen White of Simi Valley; grandparents, Ben and Trudy Bronwein of Santa Clarita; uncle, Elliot Bronwein of Santa Clarita; aunt, Bonnie Becker (Gary) of Moorpark; and aunt, Rae White of North Hills.

Laurie’s funeral will be held on Wednesday, August 7, at 3 p.m. at Mount Sinai Memorial Park, Simi Valley. In lieu of sending flowers, please donate to your favorite charity.

I’m not sure I’m ready for Wednesday. I’m not sure I can be ready for Wednesday. I’m not sure I will ever be ready for Wednesday…but Wednesday is coming, whether I like it or not.

Blessings — VKS

Post-script — One of the things that has marked my life is deep and profound loss on a lot of levels. I try not to live with regrets, and I know I’ve written in this post from last April about the idea that we need to live life as if we might never see those we love again — that we should make sure they know they are loved. Please, may the words of how much you love your friends and family always be your parting words. You will never regret this. — VKS

Sorrow, dying, hope…and two butterflies

Sorrow, dying, hope…and two butterflies

For a lot of complicated reasons, my soul was in a darkly fragile place the last Friday in June, and throughout that weekend. I haven’t been able to write much, but have been working on this in quiet moments

There are some things for which Hallmark just doesn’t make a card.

There are some sorrows beyond words and beyond tears where — if there were tears — there could never be enough tissues.

There are sorrows, loves, longings, and prayers too profound to be articulated — profound on a level of a depth so deep only the Holy Spirit can work it out.

That Friday night, and throughout that weekend, I was there.

I still don’t have words, but I try to find words.

God takes the time to find me.

I’m still reading Hiking Through: One man’s journey to peace and freedom on the Appalachian Trail by Paul Stutzman.  Stutzman’s account is his journey along the Appalachian Trail under the trail name “Apostle” after the sudden death of his wife Mary from sudden and aggressive Stage-IV breast cancer. I really do love this book, it’s a pilgrim’s journey.  What will follow is an excerpt from Chapter 7 — “Butterflies” — which “found” that Friday night.  Unless otherwise credited, the butterfly photographs are of an actual Monarch butterfly I rescued from an orb weaver’s web back on 5 September 2010.  Many days lately I feel like the “before” picture of this rescued butterfly. — VKS

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Monarch caught in an orb weaver's web, 5 SEP 2010

The next morning, Friday, it turned cold and windy. Six miles brought us to a small clearing at Stecoah Gap, where several men had set up a grill and offered hikers hot dogs, candy bars, chips, and beverages. The Good Samaritan this time was a former thru-hiker. Those additional calories helped us knock off the next twelve miles quickly, and we knew we’d meet our deadline. We were less than five miles from the Fontana post office and the comforts of the Fontana Lodge when we stopped for the night just past Walker Gap.

I pitched Big Agnes in a clearing only three feet from a small stream. The little creek was so close I could almost filter water without leaving my tent. I settled in for the night, relaxing into the murmuring of the brook, the sound a balm for my tired body and spirit.

I thought I could hear the soft voice of God in the music of the brook. Apostle, did you see Me today?

“Yes, God, and thank You for springtime!” The valleys and mountains were bursting with new life. At higher elevations buds were starting to appear. In the gaps, flowers waved as I walked by. The earthy smell of spring was everywhere.

How about the butterfly? Did you see the butterfly?

“Dear God, that was awesome! It stopped me in my tracks.”

That morning, a beautiful butterfly had floated above my head, sailed ahead on the path, then circled back and fluttered around me. As I walked, it drifted along beside me for a while. I had watched it with amazement. “Yes, God, and today I remembered that other butterfly you sent my way.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Mary had loved butterflies, especially Monarchs. The Monarch is sometimes called the milkweed butterfly, because most of its life cycle takes place on milkweed plants. Every year, my wife drove out to the country, located a stand of milkweed, and searched for a caterpillar marked with bright yellow and black stripes. The chosen caterpillar would be housed in a mason jar topped with screen, and furnished with twigs and plenty of milkweed leaves. Then the waiting and watching began.

For about two weeks, the caterpillar did nothing but eat and eliminate. But then the excitement started. Mary never missed it, and she made certain we didn’t either. Her excited call would round up the family, and we’d watch that caterpillar start to spin. Hanging upside down from a twig or the bottom surface of the screen, the caterpillar spins until the exterior skeleton slips off and the chrysalis forms a jade green shell.

For the next several weeks, the chrysalis hung immobile. If we went on vacation during that time, the jar of hope traveled in the front seat with us. As the butterfly developed inside, the green sheath slowly changed color and became thin and almost transparent. When the chrysalis finally started to move gently, Mary again gathered our family to watch the drama unfold. Soon a wrinkled, deformed butterfly emerged. For several hours, this sad looking creature would hang on to its former home, slowly moving its wings up and down in an effort to dry and strengthen them.

Then came the ceremony of release. To the front porch we all went, and with Mary’s encouraging words, “Fly, little butterfly,” the now-beautiful creature was set free.

In the week before Mary left us, she spent both days and nights in her chair in the living room, enduring considerable pain, not wanting to move between the chair and bed. Finally, we convinced her to move to her bedroom. As I lifted her from the chair to a wheelchair, someone exclaimed, “Look out there!”

Outside our glass door, a tree branch curved over the balcony, and a caterpillar inched along that branch, ten feet from the ground. In seventeen years of living in that house, we had never seen a caterpillar on that tree. None have been there since that day. This little messenger crept along the branch, then onto a smaller twig, inching closer to the sliding door. I wheeled Mary over so she could get a better view.

I had no doubt God was showing us that Mary was going through her own metamorphosis. She would be set free to fly away, just like all the butterflies she had released into the sunshine.

I settled Mary in her bed, then went back to find the caterpillar. But it had disappeared. Later, I related this little story to our pastor. He did not seem surprised; he said he had often seen God reveal Himself, especially at difficult times.

* * * * * * * * * *

Following Mary’s funeral, I gave some of the flower arrangements to the local nursing home and several friends. I still had a living room full of flowers, so I decided those would go to my sisters and Mary’s friends who had been so helpful during her illness.

The day after the funeral, a friend of Mary’s brought me a twig with a chrysalis bound to it. I stuck the twig into a flower arrangement. One of my sisters had told me she had never seen a butterfly emerge, so I would give her this one to enjoy.

That evening, I fell asleep in my chair in the living room. At two in the morning, an unfamiliar sound woke me. A mysterious fluttering whisper was coming from the assortment of plants and collectibles on the shelf above the kitchen cabinets. I stood dumbfounded as a Monarch butterfly emerged from the plants and danced around me in the living room. It had abandoned its chrysalis before I could deliver it to my sister. I watched in wonderment, not quite believing what I was seeing.

Now it was my turn to grant freedom. The Monarch did not seem eager to leave, but was attracted to the light in the living room. i turned off that light, and turned on the kitchen light. Follow the light, little butterfly. It came to the kitchen. I shut off the kitchen light and flipped on the light in the foyer. The butterfly followed. I opened the front door and snapped off the foyer light while turning on the porch light. Go, little butterfly, fly away. You are free. The butterfly winged through the front door and disappeared.

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Monarch freed from the orb weaver's web, 5 SEP 2010

* * * * * * * * * *

In my tent beside the brook, I remembered the unexpected caterpillar and the night visit of the Monarch butterfly. And before I realized it, was talking aloud, talking with that voice of God in the brook. Correction, I was talking to the voice, because once I got started, I was on a roll and didn’t give much chance for reply.

“Yes, God, I understood the symbolism that night. You set Mary free. So You were there all along? I often questioned whether You cared about what was happening to us. If you care, why did she suffer, so and die?”

I didn’t want glib, churchy lines, I wanted answers.

“Is there a reason for all this sickness and death? If You are in control of everything, why is the world in such a mess?”

Was He listening? Was He there?

“I need to know if You are firmly in command. I could make a case that You do not control events and everything happens at random. But if I can convince myself that You do have a plan, then maybe I could believe Mary died for a good reason.”

If God cared but let us suffer anyway, then I was angry and would be a bit brash with Him.

“How can You know how much pain we went through? Do You know what it’s like to lose a wife or a mom? Oh yes, You lost a son once. But You were only apart for three days. Even I could bear just three days of separation.”

An answer came back, cutting through my pent-up questions and frustration.

You are missing the point, my dear Apostle.

A storm warned me of its rapid approach. Lightning crackled around the campsite and thunder rumbled and echoed through the mountains. The sound of raindrops drowned out my conversation with the brook. Another thunder clap seemed to shake the very ground under our campsite. God had apparently moved from the gentle brook to the powerful storm.

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Wildwood Park, Thousand Oaks, CA 12 SEP 2010

“Wow, God! You can talk loudly!” I said at last — when I could speak again.

You’re a funny one, aren’t you, Apostle?

“Created in Your own image, I believe. Perhaps I am missing the point, but that’s why I’m out here. Sure wish I’d always hear You this clearly. Oh, and thanks for the butterfly today. I’ll look for You tomorrow on the trail.”

* * * * * * * * * *
Right now, in this season of profound darkness, God is sometimes very hard to find or hear. And yet? A part of me still knows that God can be found in all things…somewhere.

God…I’ll look for you tomorrow on the trail. — VKS

How it really is

How it really is

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How it really is…

I’m pretty socially networked.  I’m socially networked because the accident last December generally cut me off from being actually networked.  My one thread left has been to my church family, and that thread is precariously fragile.

I’m not particularly keen about entertaining the idea of no longer having a church family.  I ended up stranded 25 mi. from church after the accident (which might as well be the moon for lack of public transit).  I can say with absolute authority that I have visited all of the local Protestant churches within a reasonable distance to my present location (e.g., I can walk there in under an hour) except the church where my sister’s family used to go (and I support “used to”).  There isn’t a single one where the congregation “has room” for folks under 50 — in this part of the Valley.  That doesn’t stop me from attending Bible Study with 70-somethings, but it’s frustrating — few of them have room for me as a sister-in-Christ, only as a curiousity.  Is that harsh?  Maybe, but I don’t have a place to fit in their world.  Young people in this part of the Valley are not in church locally on Sundays, and unless you grew up in a certain congregation, you’re not welcomed in the sense that there exists much to support you or welcome you in congregational life; there is also little by way of Christian Education (either nothing at all, or you have to choose between  Worship OR Sunday School…which is inexcusable in any Christian church).  The closest churches that are viable options for my own denomination are 10+ mi. away, and at least an hour or two by bus (making participation in congregational life at those places pretty impossible).

At that point, what’s the point?  I’m not a “show up to show up” kind of person.  The Roman Catholic church down the street is fine, though I am not Catholic and would be partially excluded from some service opportunities there because of it.

But since I still have no idea where I will end up, what’s the point?  Contemplating the threat of falling out of church as you’re about to fall out of the rest of life isn’t the best way to go.

That would be me giving up; I’ve been close lately. Very close.

But the original purpose of this post was to rant about the recent disaster at Social Services a week ago Thursday…

Backing up, I was in a horrible accident last December that left me with a broken shoulder, no car, no job, and no possibility to work because of my profound disability.  I went to Social Services to be rejected for one type of medical coverage, but found out I qualified for food stamps (a debit card program for grocery purchases).  Really?  I’ll take it, one less thing to think about.

Except the program makes no sense.

My maximum allowable monthly income — as a single person — is $1,100/mo. to remain on the program.  For awhile my roommates’ family (a family of five) was receiving benefits from this program, but their maximum allowable income was $2,000/mo.

Given that the cost of rent for a space big enough to marginally accomodate a family of five — rent alone, not utilities — is about $1,400-$1,500/mo, don’t ask me how or where one is expected to live.  Nothing about the program makes any sense.  If you really want to know the truth about the insane mismanagement of this program, go hang out in Social Services for awhile — everyone there knows they are going to be stranded for hours, it can be a chatty place for how to work the system not to game the system, but to get your wait time under three hours at various agencies (talk to this place, fill out this form, etc.).  Ain’t nobody else watching out for the poor, the poor take care of their own.

I wish I were kidding, it’s deplorable and unacceptable.

So, I’d been getting letters in the mail that they were going to terminate my benefits if I didn’t provide my disability income information.

I’d offered them this information twice (once as a bonus to the trip I had to take when they terminated my benefits because they lost the paperwork I turned in…in-person).  That’s two trips at $5/each in bus fare (though the Social Services office is not actually served by public transit, it is four long blocks to the nearest bus).  I took a third trip out, and my worker had no idea why I was there (this is the man that made me fill out all my paperwork myself with a broken right shoulder three days after I broke it; I now have a new worker and the world is a better place).

If you’re counting, that’s three pointless trips at $5/each (plus about five hours of waiting) all because Social Services can’t get their act together.

Also, I was still getting the letters.

A few months back they took away our ability to directly communicate with our workers (this was when I had my worker changed).  There is just a toll-free number to a call center.  I called and the worker (not my worker) who answered the phone looked at my file and said that my former worker was shoddy on the data entry side and forgot to check a box in a form in their system.  Eventually, some days later, my new worker called — problem fixed, you shouldn’t be getting any more latters, but please turn in your QR7 when you get it.

What is a QR7?  A QR7 is the form required for income and employment eligibility requirements to assess if you qualify to receive continued benefits from the program or programs from which you receive assistance.

Q…stands for “Quarterly.”

R…stands for “Review.”

7…is a reference to the 7th Circle of Hell (Violence) from which the employees in the QR7 department escaped (but deserved) after getting lost in their botched escape plan from the 8th Circle of Hell (Fraud); these employees belong resolutely in the 8th Circle of Hell.  Social Services is actually one portal to the 5th Circle of Hell (Anger), which becomes abundantly clear to anyone who has ever spent any time there (it really would improve Customer Service if the security guards just handed out complementary Xanex after they screen your bags).

Right, so…”Turn in my QR7 for the reporting month of April when you receive it in the mail.” Got it. Waited for my QR7. Mailed the 30th of April, received the week of the 6th of May — late — and thus assumed it was therefore due by the 5th of the following month June, and didn’t really give it much thought. I would turn it in the next time I had to run errands in that direction.

Got a letter on Wednesday the 15th of May with a notice that my benefits were being terminated (again) because I failed to provide income information. Now all those dumb letters said they needed the disability income information they didn’t need by the 7th of May. I thought the letter was related to that, well, since I needed to make the trip out there, might as well turn in the QR7 too.

Then — filling it out — noticed that it had actually been due by the 5th of May, not June (a pretty fancy feat for me to do since I didn’t even have the form at the time).

Went to Social Services, walking nearly two miles because I also needed to stop at the Post Office on the way). Got there at 1:50 PM. Security screen, waited in line, checked in, was called by my worker within five minutes. Explained the situstion, can I turn it in, I also need to file an affidavit to document filing for a pending disabilty extension (in March, which I hope to see by June). She called the QR7 department, yes someone would come down to meet with me, please wait and they will call you.

Was okay for the first hour, but then my blood sugar dropped dangerously. At an hour and a half went back to the reception window — are they coming, do they know I’m here? They called my worker again. Getting up made me realize I was almost at a place of passing out. Had some almonds and a sugar packet (all I had in my purse). Asked the guard about vending machines — yes, a soda machine in the next building (no good, I had to wait here). Was there a problem? Yes, hypoglycemia. Ten minutes later he randomly showed up with a piece of candy (which actually, probably saved the day).

At two hours total wait time, my worker called me again.

“You’re stiil here?”

“Yup.”

“Didn’t they call you?”

“Nope. At an hour-and-a-half I went back to the reception window.”

“Let me call them… They say they already met with you.”

“If that were true, why am I holding the forms I want to turn in? I just need to fill out the affidavit for my disability status and turn it in.”

[Long pause]

“I’ll call, no…you know what, we’ll do it here. If I get you the affidavit form you can fill it out?”

“Absolutely, but I have a question about what I need to put, which is why I am here.”

Got everything straightened out, took the time to fill out a comment card to document my visit, finally left at 4:30 PM. Walked up the street and caught the bus just before 5:00 PM. Two-and-a-half hours, an hour of walking off the bus line, and $5 in bus fare because other people cannot do their jobs (for which they are paid) correctly.

It is at this point that I would note that there are probably people who game the system, but the majority of individuals in that office have a profound and legitimate need. Often the legitimate need is a short-term transitory need for a few months, maybe a year. With respect to food stamps, it’s impossible to actually eat well because you’re bound to get by on $5/day or less for food.

You can’t eat much worth eating on $5/day, but it will keep you from starving to death. Lots of “poor people” food — peanut butter sandwiches, quesadillas, protein never gets to be a mainstay. Corners are cut. Regular and herbal tea bags “count,” so often I get by with cold-brewed herbal tea instead of juice (which works out to about $1.52/two quarts compared to $3.00+/two quarts). “Juice cocktail” is also cheaper than 100% juice. Some drink mixes (Gatorade, Kool-Aid, etc., but not sure which) also seem to be covered — also cheaper than juice.

Pre-cooked food is not covered.

I have a friend whose favorite example is that when she was homeless she could buy a raw chicken (which she had no way to prepare) but couldn’t buy a pre-cooked chicken from the deli section. It’s true, the restriction to “ingredients” make life a challenge to any homeless or near-homeless or even folks living in room-for-rent situations where storing and preparing perishable food is impossible. I haven’t had a kitchen since 2005, I haven’t had access to a safe refrigerator since 2007. I live in a world of eternal breakfast — fruit, nuts, dry cereal, juice, and tea…occasionally with crackers. Life is one long preschooler snack, and has been since mid-2007 (as even though the food stamps is a recent thing, in room-for-rent situations you eat like this anyway; some would add ramen noodles to that list).

But I digress, what is on the approved list of things you can buy makes no sense. Often, it is a brand difference. Sometimes the name brand qualifies and the store brand doesn’t. Sometimes one brand qualifies but its other name brand equivalent doesn’t. I am hypoglycemic, and was stranded at the mall on a 100°F+ day needing to eat. It took three tries before I gave up trying and used a single banana as my litmus test in Target — none of the single items I tried to buy, including a box of the store brand granola bars, was approved (which meant I had to also stop at a neighborhood market for the perishable stuff on my way home). Was it because the granola bars had chocolate chips in them (with dried cherries)??? It is possible to buy a bag of chocolate chips, it is possible to buy cookies, it is possible to buy some varieties of candy (I have been told this about candy, but I have not tried it, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth). Granola bars? Hit-or-miss. Ice cream? Also hit-or-miss. Deli-prepared fresh food (e.g., those roast chickens), never.

And never, ever, ever, ever soap, toilet paper, shampoo, laundry soap, female sanitary supplies, etc.

No one would choose to live this way.

No one would choose to put up with the bureaucratic ineptitude, the total degredation of being treated like a sub-human or unintelligent by many social services employees. The world operates with a single story on aid recipients, but it was never really true, and is especially false after 2008 when entire job sectors disappeared (including mine) and will never come back.

Ever.

I wonder if people who only know my writing, who can only see my mind, “get” how far below the U.S. poverty line I live. I am very well aware how rich American poor are, but I’ve variously gone without things most people take for granted — indoor plumbing, potable water, access to a refrigerator, heat, natural light, ventilaton, access to sanitation for trash, a bed, cleanliness enough to be able to turn off the lights without being swarmed by roaches. I don’t remember the last time I regularly ate dinner, probably sometime in 2000.

On paper, I am not worthy of your consideration as a person of value given my dossier, résumé, etc. — an entry-level struggling nobody.

Is that who I really am?

This is not a rational lifestyle choice, people in my station end up here, it’s not an aspiration. It’s a hellish way to live, no one in this place stays here a moment longer than absolutely necessary. And yet I always come up against stereotypes and people with impractical/unhelpful “advice.”

I’d seriously like to give them a year of this to see if they could survive it.

This is how it really is. A girl sitting on acceptance to a prestigious university (can’t go), food insecure, marginally employable, on the cusp of homelessness again. None of it adds up, this is not the Reagan-era ideaology that if you work hard in school (I am an honors student with very nice grades and a beautiful long list of community service and ministry work), you will do well.

I got 99 problems, and 73 of them can be fixed by throwing money at them.

I don’t think the American Dream is dead, but it is unconscious and bleeding in a back alley somewhere.

This is how it really is: but for the grace of God go you.

The View from the “Clouds”

The View from the “Clouds”

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A pastor friend posted this video on Facebook on Tuesday (21 May 2013).  Though he wasn’t the first person in my feed who did, his comments gave me pause.  He wrote:

He died yesterday at age 17.
How does a kid know so much about parenting?
How does a teen know so much about life?
How does one suffering know so much about joy?
How can such sorrow and loss shout hope and purpose?

When we talk, Sunday after Sunday, that it is possible to have joy in all things, he shows it is possible.

So how can I put the wisdom of this life, with all its joy, hope, and courage into my life?  I want to be like him when I grow up.

Before watching the video, I replied:

There are those among us who have not only spent life living, but watching and thinking — the introspective contemplatives.  It is in the presence of these individuals that one realizes what “an old soul” truly means.  Most live simple lives that only impact the lives of those in their immediate world around them, but every so often the words of one or another of these remarkable persons are preserved and handed down. Often we find the writings of these individuals as mature adults, but in peeling back the layers, realize the individuals in question were long remarkable. Add to all of that the knowledge that he knew that life is short, fleeting, and precious long before most people figure out they aren’t invincible and immortal…that’s how.

The video:

Love the video. Zach gets it — got it:

“Because you can either sit in your basement and wait, or you can get out there and do some crazy stuff.”

“Life is just really beautiful moments, one right after the other.”

“It’s really simple actually, it’s just…try and make people happy. Maybe you have to learn in less time, maybe you have to learn it the hard way, but as long as you learn it, you’re gonna make the world a better place.”

So many people clutter up life with just…things that don’t even matter. The younger this can be learned — the sooner this can be learned — what does matter, the better. The gift that Zach’s cancer gave him was a clarity about this. The thing that can be the greatest evil in this world is not isolated incidents of wickedness and depravity, but the wholesale distraction on a massive and societal level toward ephemeral things and away from the beauty and preciousness of what makes life…life.

Not the best shot of either one of us, but there we are

Not the best shot of either one of us, but there we are

I have a dear baby niece who I try to see a little bit every day. She’s about four and a half months old (younger in this picture) — a sweet, willful, sassy little thing — this child has known what she wanted since before she was born. But she came into the world with little expectation from life — as we all do. Everything is a fascination, and there is so much delight and joy in her as she experiences life. What she wants is simple: to be with those she loves who so dearly love her, and to experience (and delight in) the wonder of life that is her world.

At what point will she be told that’s not good enough?

At what point will she internalize that ‘that’s not good enough’ is true?

The thought that there will come a day when that will be true fills me with profound sadness, because that is the day she will lose her life…the part that matters anyway. Because Zach is right (though I’ll be the first to admit this is a difficult truth to always internalize at every dark moment):

“Life is just really beautiful moments, one right after the other.”

If we ever lose that perspective, we risk losing — forfeiting — all the goodness, joy, hope, and love possible in this life.

For all my love for life (though not always love for the way my own life is going), for all the words of love, of hope, of encouragement…I tend to spend a lot of time on the theological dark side. Sin, evil, pain, suffering, death — what do these things mean within the parameters of a Christian worldview, what does God have to say about it, and how do theologians across the ages weigh in on the discussion? And there is a lot to be found on the subject, because the primary narrative of the Bible is not of children of light living in the glory of eternal light — the primary narrative of the Bible is God’s great rescue plan for broken humanity.

Please remember that the world didn’t start out as a place of light, it started as a place of darkness (see Genesis 1). It is, in-fact, impossible to know light without darkness. That’s not to say that the light does not exist without darkness, it is to say that it will not be noticed: for though the stars burn as brightly during the day as at night, their light is lost to us during the day because of the light of the sun.

Sometimes what makes a thing most noticeable is its deficiency.

“How does one suffering know so much about joy?”

Because amid suffering it becomes apparent that joy is the only thing that really matters. I frequently raid the theology section of a local used book shop, and was having a conversation Tuesday afternoon with the owner about my general distaste for the “heaven tourism” genre. It isn’t about whether I believe or disbelieve the accounts, it’s that I don’t find them relevant or important. I pointed to Philippians 1:21, and said that what interests me more are the books by the people who have wrestled with and internalized “to live is Christ, to die is gain” because they have faced death. It may or may not be a hard word or a hard sell to an eschatologist to say that I don’t give much thought to “what’s next,” but I don’t. I have deep enough Roman Catholic roots for God to be “allowed” to be mysterious. I know God keeps his promises. There are enough broad brush strokes in the Bible to understand the glory and benevolence of heaven without needing a tour map and itinerary. I have an eternity of “later” to think about “later,” what don’t have a lot of is “now.” A friend of mine presented the thought a few months ago that in-light of my trials, suffering, and constant illness this year she wished I could just sleep until 2014 (my reply to that can be found here). I wrote:
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Time is precious…

fleeting…

measured in breaths…

in sunrises and sunsets…

in grains of sand…

in waves on the shore.

It cannot be bottled, nor saved

nor kept, nor held —

only savored, cherished, remembered…or else merely regretted for its passing.

What Zach understood is that life — what we make of it, how we live, and how we die — is a matter of perspective. Whatever we go looking for in this life with intentionality — goodness or evil, hope or despair, joy or sorrow, beauty or wretchedness — we will find. One of the most profoundly affecting things I’ve ever done in my life was volunteer-visit hospice patients. Because hospice patients are a distinct group — a person has committed to not seeking further medical treatment for his or her terminal condition at that point — my various patients gave me the quiet gift of a very close view of death and dying. One thing I discovered first about hospice patients, but then chillingly realized applies to every single living human in my world, is this: absolutely everything about how a person lives his or her life and faces his or her death is tied to the question of whether or not he or she fears death.

Everything.

I have faced my own death many times, and have been called to be a part of the death and dying process of many pets and people. Now there are those who do not fear death who still fight it a little — e.g., what can be done to fight this cancer, do I have a chance? There is a line, however, in a certain type of patient that never makes it to hospice — the patient who fights to fight, even when fighting is of no practical use and destroys the possibility of living and dying with dignity, because their soul has no anchor but to this life and to this world. Realizing how these people lived long before they died, the quiet similarity I’ve noticed — especially among women — is that defying the aging process on all levels becomes a macabre obsession. The thing is though, in the time spent trying to defy aging and death (which, face it, our culture shoves down out throats) we actually surrender control of our lives — minute by minute, dollar by dollar — to that same distracting, dark spirit that steals our days by filling them with ephemeral things. Zach’s view was:

“Death is just another thing on the agenda, kinda. Yeah, it’s scary, but the only reason it’s scary is ’cause you don’t know what’s next or if there is a next. So it’s kinda like sittin’ in the dark. And so you can either choose to be freaking out in the dark and thinking, ‘okay, what’s out there?’ or you can just relax and fall asleep, and be happy and content with everything.”

And it’s by this view — in not “freaking out” but knowing to “relax” — that I know Zach did not fear death, he had a greater peace.

And one of the greatest graces that facing death — reckoning with Philippians 1:21 on a very personal level — is that it can teach you how to live.

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Zach knew this.

Because if a person can come to the place of peace to know “to die is gain,” it completely removes all distracting and self-serving, fear-related barriers to the “to live is Christ” portion of that verse.

Given his words:

“I want to be remembered as the kid who went down fighting…and didn’t really lose.”

and statements made this week by his family, following his death, Zach knew that too.

And its my own deep knowledge of the truth of that verse that brought me to the position I took with my friend who owns the book shop, because there are a lot of really wonderful and rich verses in the Bible to use as an anchor for life, but time and time again I keep coming back to Philippians 1:21.

It’s the ultimate win-win (which Zach also knew).

A pause to fly a little close to the earth with respect to joy and Philippians for any who might not be as deeply familiar with my favorite book in the Bible as I am (or as my pastor friend). Firstly, one of the most beautiful renderings of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi (i.e., Philippians) is to be found in The New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips (click here to read it). And to read it (in any translation), one thing that is most striking about this epistle (“epistle” is the $10 word for “letter” in Bible-speak) is that it drips with hope and joy…sometimes on a nauseating level.

Seriously, read it…joy, encouragement, hope, love (and the most beautifully succinct passage on the incarnation of Christ is to be found in Chapter 2).

So what’s the story behind the writing of Philippians? Paul hints at it — he was in prison.

Prison?

Yeah, prison. He was chained to a guard 24/7 and used the opportunity to evangelize the guards. Prison — not much joy and hope to be found there. And yet? In Philippians we have one of the most beautiful books in the Bible coming out of the darkness and despair of unjust imprisonment written by a man who was eventually martyred.

“To live is Christ, to die is gain.”

Paul knew what Zach learned — life is too short and too precious to brood over unalterable injustices. In this broken world terrible things happen that we have no power to prevent or to change, but that doesn’t mean we have to swallow the poison and define our days by brokenness. The world was not created broken, it was created beautiful — God made it and saw that it was good. All the goodness didn’t drain out of the world at the fall — much goodness and beauty exists still, albeit imperfectly, and it’s up too us to seek it.

That’s how such sorrow and loss can shout hope and purpose — because sorrow and loss have a walk-on part in eternity for people of faith like Zach, they were not the main characters of Zach’s life, and they will have no part in things to come. Sorrow and loss certainly shaped and informed Zach’s last few years in this world, but by no means did it define him or his beautiful life.

“When we talk, Sunday after Sunday, that it is possible to have joy in all things, he shows it is possible.”

Yes, he shows it is possible, but he also doesn’t deny the bad days. What any who choose to find joy in all things will tell you, is that finding joy — and light…and hope — in profound darkness requires intentionality.

“So how can I put the wisdom of this life, with all its joy, hope, and courage into my life?”

Well that’s the answer, isn’t it: intentionality.

Please understand that finding the goodness, hope, joy and beauty in this broken world is not equivalent to turning off one’s brain and declaring that bad things and brokenness do not exist (“La, la, la — not listening!”) — they do, and they are just as real as all of the good and beautiful things. What intentionality means, is looking at all the good and all the bad, but choosing to honor the goodness of life as more important to value than the bad. It really is that simple…and yet it is so damnably easy to be distracted down the rabbit hole of despair.

Intentionality is no easy task, but it is possible for all. We don’t need to be some kind of super-saint sitting on top of a mountain contemplating life 24/7, it is perfectly possible to be intentional — each and every one of us — in everyday life. It does require a bit of contemplation.

Marginally connected to my application and acceptance to one of the best Jesuit universities on the West Coast U.S., last fall I started delving into the history of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and their founder St. Ignatius of Loyola. I really like what Loyola had to say about much; his Spiritual Exercises (basically a month-long retreat), The Examen, and so many of his other spiritual disciplines are an amazing and simple way for everyday people to grow closer to God in a very practical way that — really — anyone can do. Ignatian Spirituality is one of the most practical approaches to conducting an interior life that I have found. And don’t think just because Loyola was a Roman Catholic, that this is somehow a “Catholic” thing and doesn’t apply to Protestants, it does. Ignatian Spirituality is a really great tool box for practical faith, and for more information I would recommend reading The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin, SJ as a great place to start (he’s very readable and approachable and funny — this will not be a slog, Martin is great!).

Because one of the best ways I’ve found of being intentional about life is the Ignatian principle of finding God in all things — all things. There is a passage from the First week of the Spiritual Exercises that both inspires and challenges me. I’ve quoted it before, but I just keep coming back to it because it is so clear in what it teaches: come what may, our ultimate desire should be anything which enables us to best praise, revere, and serve God (which echoes the famous question/answer from the Shorter Catechism to The Westminster Confession of Faith: Q. 1. What is the chief end of man? / A. 1. Man’s Chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever). Loyola wrote:

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord and by this means to save his soul.

And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.

To be intentional to seek to lift up what is good and worthy (regardless of circumstances), to find God in all things (regardless of circumstances), and to desire what will best enable us to serve God (regardless of whether the circumstances that come of it are particularly comfortable or desirable to us) — that’s the secret to living a life of hope and joy and courage. Embrace today, it’s the only “today” you’re going to get.

That is what Zach knew.

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Sylmar hill walk. Sylmar, CA. 8 MAR 2013.

And so Zach journeys on without us, and we sojourn here without him. I immediately thought of the Mr. Rogers quotation when I started writing this post:

“If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you many never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you will leave at every meeting with another person.” — Fred Rogers

because whether Zach knew it or not, we know it of his beautiful life. It is a challenge to us, however — for if we leave something of ourselves with all we meet and in the lives of all we touch, what are we leaving? It cuts both ways — positive and negative. Seek to be intentional that what you leave is positive (as Zach did).

Blessings – VKS

Post-script: I’ve been intermittently watching Zach’s video “Clouds” on YouTube all week as I’ve been writing this (always makes me cry):

Love and light

Love and light

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Another excerpt from a letter to a friend…

—–

The root of so much that has so long been so broken in my own self is not that I rarely expend much time or energy in my own direction, it’s that as much as I deeply love so many, I just don’t have a place to love myself. I mean, surely I’m no longer knocking on death’s door begging to be let in (as I did for twelve years), but I also know that I’m not “fixed” and that this is the piece of myself that is far from “recovered,” and is the root of every ugly thing. It’s one of the horrendous things in that’s in The Hall Closet [a reference to My Heart: Christ’s Home], but you know that.
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But the thing is, my brain is just…broken. I only apply this standard to myself, but I absolutely equate “utility” and “worth.” I can argue the theological and ontological and everything else logical arguments for why that isn’t a valid perspective…for anyone else. I can’t make any of it stick for me. And it’s not just the absence of self-love, it’s the presence of self-loathing. And like I said…I can parse through the head knowledge beautifully, but I can’t make it stick on the soul level.

I can’t fix that, because in that case the problem is within. Only God can fix that one.

There’s a lot more to all of this on a lot of levels. I hear your words — as I have heard your words on multiple occasions — about me taking care of me. I don’t know how to do that, I just don’t. I don’t even know enough to know the pieces I’m missing to try to figure out what that would even look like without being off-balance.

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I generally love without expectation — e.g., I am not your friend because I’m trying to earn your love or friendship (I am your friend because I just love you). And I don’t work that way because I’ve spent too much time around miserable people who do. If a person appreciates my love or kindness, and expresses that appreciation in love or kindness in return, I am happy…but I am not happy BECAUSE they were kind to me, I am happy because they were able to receive my love. And even then it’s not on a level of “I am an acceptable person because my love was found to be acceptable by this person,” no. I am happy because the person I love was blessed by the love I intended to bless them. And it isn’t that I somehow did well for sending that love, but merely joy that love itself (not my part in it) “won” and my friend was blessed. When I play with my dear baby niece, my goal is to engage her (and if possible, delight her because it’s so sweet when she laughs). It’s not about my aim to be perceived to be delightful, it’s about spreading love and joy. I am still going to love her if she doesn’t delight in my presence.

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You know it makes me sad that there are people in my life whom I love dearly but who cannot receive or accept my love. It took a long time to get to the place of realizing that their reaction didn’t change the reality of who I am — I am not less because they cannot receive my love or love me. But that doesn’t stop me from weeping (often to God). Yes, I am sad that they do not love me and cannot receive my love, but only a little — because I know this isn’t how life was meant to be, broken families are not part of God’s best plan. What sets me to weeping and prayer is that love isn’t winning the day.

That’s really it.

Because I am a broken person, I see my brokenness, and I do not just not love what is broken within me, I hate it. And I absolutely live with (and live by) this question: “How can I live this day to bless others?” I’m still the same parts beautiful and wretchedly broken I was before I woke up and before I decided to be proactive about loving others, but whether love is accepted or reciprocated, love itself makes the world a less-broken place.

And isn’t that, essentially, one pretty big take-home point of the gospel?

I do take time to take care of me a little, and I don’t derive self-worth or merit or acceptance from my love and service. I just happen to have a cazy-huge servant’s heart. I really do love Merton’s metaphor of a crystal:

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When a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace.

The soul of a man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.

So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it. What happens when a man loses himself completely in the Divine Life within him? This perfection is only for those who are called the saints — for those rather who are the saints and who live in the light of God alone.

— Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

Even before I read all of the various brilliant things Merton had to say on the subject, I felt that the best reflection of who God is through me is in my love and service of others. I love to love and I serve to serve because I am grateful that I CAN love and that I CAN serve. I seriously scrutinize anything that detracts from that, even if that “something” happens to be me.

All life is a matter of perspective

All life is a matter of perspective

Edited from a letter originally written to a friend on Tuesday, 1 May through Thursday, 3 May, 2012

Montano de Oro State Park, San Lius Obispo County, CA.  22 JAN 2012.  Copyright V.K. Starkgraf, All Rights Reserved.

Montano de Oro State Park, San Luis Obispo County, CA. 22 JAN 2012. Copyright V.K. Starkgraf.

January 22, 2012 was a stormy day in winter, the last day of a passing winter storm.  It was the last day of a retreat conference event in Pismo Beach. I had barely had a moment for pause all weekend, save a few hours on Saturday afternoon. It was not a restful weekend for various reasons, and by the time it was over I was so done with a retreat without quietness or rest.  I wasn’t sure about my decision or whether it would be “worth it,” but I took the suggestion of a friend to drive further up the coast to Montano de Oro State Park.

It’s quite the sloooow drive through shopping districts and rural areas.  It seemed far, I’m not much a fan of the beach, would I regret this?

What I do regret is not getting any photographs of the grove of eucalyptus trees on the drive in.

Montano de Oro State Park, San Lius Obispo County, CA.  22 JAN 2012.  Copyright V.K. Starkgraf.

Montano de Oro State Park, San Luis Obispo County, CA. 22 JAN 2012. Copyright V.K. Starkgraf.

I have some pretty epic seascapes from that day — God really came through for dramatic and perfect lighting!  I didn’t have a proper camera and lens to capture the eagles (!!!) soaring overhead and resting on the side wall of a nearby cliff, but they were there too.  Crazy as I am, I spent a couple hours lying down in the edges of various cliffs to capture certain shots.

Montano de Oro State Park, San Luis Obispo County, CA.  22 JAN 2012.  Copyright V.K. Starkgraf.

Montano de Oro State Park, San Luis Obispo County, CA. 22 JAN 2012. Copyright V.K. Starkgraf.

Please remember it was January — very resolutely “winter.”  My mother or sister might’ve frowned at the view, as every growing thing was brown or dead.  But to do so would’ve been indicative of complete lack of imagination or perspective. As I walked out to the cliffs, I noticed how fantastic the light was, and I wondered…

This shot?

Montano de Oro State Park, San Luis Obispo County, CA.  22 JAN 2012.  Copyright V.K. Starkgraf.

Montano de Oro State Park, San Luis Obispo County, CA. 22 JAN 2012. Copyright V.K. Starkgraf.

This shot was a risk, I had no idea what I might get (and no way to know either, as I was shooting with a 35mm camera).  This was taken while lying down on a wet and sandy trail, looking up through a lot of dead brush, shot directly at the light source.

For so many reasons, I could’ve gotten nothing.

And yet — look!!!

On a cold, windy, stormy day with dodgy weather, staring directly at a view of nothing but death and stormy skies, and all from the vantage point of a spiritual and emotional low…while lying on a wet, sandy hiking trail?  In all aspects of this scenario, there promised no aspect of goodness.  And yet?  With the right perspective – low enough to see all that God had on-view that day — there was great beauty to be found (even among storms, death, discomfort, and austerity).  How many people would have merely walked by and missed this?  Glory to God alone for the great and inspiring beauty that day, but what was required to obtain this shot was someone with the imagination to see the (literally!) humble perspective to find it.

All life really is a matter of perspective, and it’s what we do with that idea that really matters.

I come from dark places.  My soul is beyond the reach of darkness, but my day-to-day life is not beyond the reach of its effects.  What I choose to do with those two truths is, however, what can make all the difference in the world with respect to the direction and the character of my life.  Suffice it to say that I am adept at drinking poison from the wellspring of my own despair.  I won’t say I’m immune from the temptation to revert to this, but watching so many I love fall by this?  It’s just not productive.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t still feel it.

Perspective can change much, but one thing perspective cannot change is reality.  The plant life along that trail was dead, the weather was still stormy, the trail was still wet and sandy.  What was variable?  My response.