Stars

Stars

image

I’m lying awake for snoring’s sake.

I had to go to the bathroom, and snuck off down the outside corridor to the communal restroom beyond.

Over-lit, for 12:30 AM.

I came back, stopping to love the night sky — stars, planets, a waning moon in the east.

A dear friend lived very near the spot where I sleep tonight.  She has been gone from this world longer than I knew (and loved) her in this life.

That haunts me.

She loved the stars — to watch them, to fall asleep under their watch.

These stars were her stars, but they don’t shine for her (I wish they did!).

She neither loved nor feared neither God nor Christ.

Eternity is a long time to love stars without my friend.

I will forever miss her…especially under the stars.

Remembrances

Remembrances

image

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:

image

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

image

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.

image

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.

image

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

The View from the “Clouds”

The View from the “Clouds”

image

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:
wpid-Carpenteria-Beach-Sunset-8-SEP-2010.jpg

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.

image

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.

image

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):

A double portion?

A double portion?

image

I don’t know if you’ve ever had one of those phone conversations where you can hear the tears, the pain, the fact that the person on the other end of the phone is going to go cry when this conversation is over.

I have.

The worst is when you know that something you said in your own pain is what is causing the tears and the frustration on the other end of the line.

As this is a pretty public domain, I dare not say too much that might be midconstrued as instability in any way, but it’s been a hellishly rough year thus far.  Lose your car, your job, your freedom, your independence, your future, and your right arm (along with half a pizza) in a puff of airbag dust sometime, it isn’t the best way to spend an afternoon.

But then, really, any afternoon that begins with a car crash, followed by screaming in pain in Spanish like a crazy woman while in the middle of a busy intersection, all in your pajamas in-front of two totaled cars?  That afternoon probably isn’t going to end well.

(And the pizza thing is probably going to tick me off forever)

I love life, I just don’t happen to love my life right now.

I remarked variously that the one thing I’m looking forward to the most about heaven is that I won’t have to move anymore.  I tell you what, the constant moving rented rooms can bring has really made me a lot softer on the Israelites who left Egypt, took one look at their new life, and decided to cop the “This is insane, let’s go back to Egypt!” attitude.  I get it — better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

I just don’t have what it takes to Lone Ranger it through life, but there are various dear saints in my life among my friends who want St. Val to make it. I count them dear and precious and belovèd, even as I can’t think as well of myself as they do.
image

For more than half my life, the words of a dear friend have helped drive me…tearful, frustrated, “Don’t you get it, please don’t do this” kind of words and haunt me still. Her words were what I was being completely selfish, and that if I didn’t want my life, to give it to her.

I’ve long been mindful of that conversation, and challenged by it.

But here’s the thing…

Last year I found out that friend died over ten years ago (which explains a lot). That news sent me for a loop, because it is at that point when “eternally separated from God” starts to mean something very, very, very dark.

A similar level of desperation that led to the conversation where my friend spoke those words seventeen years ago slsmmed me hard last Friday afternoon. And what occurs to me this morning is that my friend is not here to speak those desperate words to me now…or ever…because she is gone.

I can’t give her my life, she is gone…forever.

Which poses an interesting question — one for which I don’t actually have an answer:

Am I released from my obligation of giving my life to her because she is gone, or am I now bound with a double-portion of embracing life/living/giving/serving/loving because she can no longer carry her own torch?

I have no answers to this.

Her life was hard-fought and hard-lived, very broken, very lonely…but not without love and joy. A different friend remarked to me back in 2009 (when everything about my life blew up when the economy melted down) that one of the things that amazed her most about me was that — in-spite of everything — I could still love.

I think my very much missed, gone forever friend was the one who taught me how that could work: what does it look like to live a life with room for love when — by all rights — all capacity for love in your soul should have been beaten out of you years ago?

Do I now hold a cup full of a double portion of life — my own, plus the life she didn’t get to finish?

I am thinking about this…

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.

Sad day

Sad day

My sister had to put this little guy to sleep this morning.  At 6¼, he had a long and beautiful life.  Mr. Skeffington was a very special little pig, and he will be much missed.

image

The incomparable Mr. Skeffington

Pets probably won’t outlive us, and sometimes give us pause to consider mortality.  Don’t be lulled into the false comfort of muddling through.  Don’t be distracted by all the unimportant things in life and miss life’s fragility and preciousness.  We live life in a tension between now and eternity.  If you have been duped into the false idea that each moment as it comes is the only thing that matters, you are living a lie (and attempting an impossibility).  Yet to live only in the past for nostalgia or regret, or to look only to the hope and promise of the future is equally wrong; missing every moment of today because you are looking only to yesterday or tomorrow is just as wrong.

I will never cease to sing the praise that life — always, and whether you like it or not — is a very precious gift.  Life is always beautiful — even amid suffering, even in the darkest moments, and even in death.  Life is still life, and everything about life is an unfathomable miracle — is it so much an unfathomable miracle as to be completely beyond our power to comprehend its miraculousness?  Life, even in suffering, can bring gifts and love to others.  Life isn’t just “muddling through” and “taking up space” in the world, life (no matter how small) matters.  Yes, even the ants and roaches and the germs that make me sick matter…they just happen to be enjoying their sanctity of life in my personal space, and my sense of self-preservation rules that they have to go.

image

But life — even amid pain, suffering, sadness, and death — is profoundly beautiful.  Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever allow yourself to forget it.  Life is dirty, messy, painful, shocking, uncomfortable — sometimes unbearable even — but still a very precious gift.  Never deny that, dismiss it, forget it.

There really isn’t a place for the idea of “an animal” in my mind.  By no means do I discount humanity’s distinction as the creatures made in the image of God, but I know I am but soul and dust, and if I am alive on this planet I am just as fragile and made of dust (and to return to dust) as every other creature.  I have been in the presence of death — of the very moment of death — many times.  It isn’t pretty, but you know what?  Birth isn’t that pretty either.  Life is beautiful and precious, it just is.  And while I suppose I understand their perspective on some level, I’m always left generally speechless when people argue that the #1 reason they do not want a pet (especially when they could seriously use the love and companionship) is that they can’t deal with death.  Don’t get me wrong, I have fallen on my face howling over the death of belovèd pets, but it just seems so wrong to deny oneself the deep love and joy possible in sharing life with others — pets or humans — if our focus is on the idea that we will someday lose them to death.

Mortality makes me want to love more, not less.

image

I was reading a passage from Thomas Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain yesterday afternoon as I ended up on an accidental bus misadventure through a good portion of Los Angeles.  As he introduced his thoughts on the delight of discovering the life and writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (her autobiographical reflection, The Story of a Soul, is in queue for me to read after I finish The Seven Story Mountain), Merton wrote the following reflection:

It is a wonderful experience to discover a new saint.  For God is greatly magnified and marvelous in each one of His saints: differently in each individual one.  There are no two saints alike: but each of them is like God, like Him in a different and special way.  In fact, if Adam had never fallen, the whole human race would have been a series of magnificently different and splendid images of God, each one of all the millions of men showing forth His glories and perfections in an astonishing new way, and each one shining with his own particular sanctity, a sanctity destined for him from all eternity as the most complete and unimaginable supernatural perfection of his human personality.

If, since the fall, this plan will never be realized in millions of souls, and millions will frustrate that glorious destiny of theirs, and hide their personality in an eternal corruption of disfigurement, nevertheless, in re-forming His image in souls distorted and half destroyed by evil and disorder, God makes the works of His wisdom and love all the more strikingly beautiful by reason of the contrast with the surroundings in which He does not disdain to operate.

Just stop and think about that for a minute…that as completely messed-up as the created order is, as completely messed-up as we make it — as completely unnecessary as we are for God’s completeness or sovereignty (and, arguably, things would probably be a lot less messy for God if we didn’t keep messing them up) — God doesn’t just “tolerate” us, he loves us.  Indeed, if we are his saints as disciples of Christ, we are his adopted sons and daughters as co-heirs to the very Kingdom of Heaven with Christ (see Ephesians 1:3-14).

For if God thought life was that beautiful and precious, do we not owe it to him to consider a little bit on its beauty and preciousness ourselves?

image

Life is beautiful and precious, but so too is death a part of life.  I will miss my sassy, fuzzy, silly little Skeffy friend very much, but I also know that I always wish to live with as much joy and love as he did.  I always wonder why it is that — so often — the lesson which our fellow creatures can teach us is how to truly embrace and enjoy this very precious gift that is…life. — VKS