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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

Treasure what is precious, desire what is best

Treasure what is precious, desire what is best

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Travertine leaf fossils, The Getty Museum (external walls), Los Angeles, CA (taken May 2012)

“This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.”

— one of the “Riddles in the Dark” from The Hobbit by J.R.R.. Tolkien

When I was a girl, perhaps five or six, a book came in one of the boxes of mysterious oddments from my father’s mother, or perhaps it was received among my Christmas gifts that year.  Honestly, I am not certain.  It was an odd sort of book — fantasy stories, mostly about children, with seemingly no particular significant origin.  These were not collected tales from an author or place, they were just…stories.  As I am more widely read now, these stories remind me somewhat of George MacDonald’s work.  It was a hardcover volume, illustrated in color.  The book itself — along with too many others — eventually ended up at the local Friends of the Library bookstore in a particularly traumatic move.  I remember little of this book but the vague outline of one particular tale:

There was a girl who somehow came upon an enchanted ball of silver string (I believe there was an odd old woman or a witch involved).  What the girl discovered about her magical ball of string was that if she pulled the loose end, it caused an instantaneous and enchanted passage of time: a tug for a moment, a pull for a span.

The ball could not be rewound.

The girl began to use this string in small — and later large — ways to affect the passage of time: first to avoid small unpleasantries and waiting, later to grow up more quickly.

Only too quickly, however, the impatient girl found herself a very old woman at the end of her life…holding a very small length of silver string…facing death.

The girl woke up and found she had been dreaming  (to her great relief), but forevermore considered time a much more precious commodity.

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Footprints in the sand, Carpenteria, CA, 8 SEP 2010

Could we all but be so wise.

In America our society tries to both escape death by attempting to eternally cling to the spectral shadow of youth…while also avoiding life by running at a break-neck frantic pace — without rest — in pursuit of “progress.” Time affects us all, and death is the great equalizer. After love and life, time is the next most precious gift we have in this life.

Time cannot be bought…sold…or stopped.

I have held four beloved guinea pigs in my arms as they breathed their last breath (most recently, of course, my beloved Eleanor…Wentworth’s sweet mama). The story was that after a prolonged (but gradual) terminal illness — with baby Annie as her beloved friend — Eleanor was actively dying the Tuesday morning after Thanksgiving. I could not get out of my stupid shift at work. I helped her drink some water when I came home at lunch, and miraculously (by greater grace than can be quantified), I found her barely clinging to life when I came home that day. I helped her drink more water, wrapped her in a towel, and held her on my chest.

We both fell asleep that afternoon; only I woke up.

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Eleanor Wigglewhiskers, 12 MAY 2010

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.

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Carpenteria Beach Sunset, 8 SEP 2013

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Me and Eliza, 11 JAN 2013

Thus far, 2013 has been a rough year. A friend of mine remarked yesterday morning:

“Wish you could wake up in 2014…it’s got to be better.”

My reply to her was:

“No guarantees to that. My Lord and my God is good and sovereign. Against all odds he has still preserved a place for me in this world. His providence brings hope worth anchoring my life on. But there is this — the question of St. John of the Cross — if life with God and Christ comes with NO blessings, is who God is still enough to merit faith in him? (*Hint* — the answer is “Yes,” but a person can’t “own” that from a theoretical perspective. Sometimes the path to heaven neans you have to pass through hell first.)

My friend meant well, I know she did — and I love her well — but even such a well-meant statement given in love and sympathy is downright horrifying when considered from an eternal perspective.

Would I really rather sleep through the next 9.5 months of my life?!?!?!?!

My precious, beloved baby niece is now eight weeks old. In developmental terms, the first year of life encompasses a lot. Infants come into the world as scrunchy little grublings — a novelty for their tiny perfection, but on the whole not very engaging little creatures; by a year old they are well on their way to being their own unique little people — shreiking, squeaking, playing, engaging with the world, expressing opinions.

To sleep through 2013, I would miss all of that my friend.

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Annie Wigglewhiskers, 31 JAN 2013

My beloved little Annie is expecting pups. She and Wentworth are the two nicest guinea pigs I’ve ever had in my life — not a trouble-making bone in either of their bodies (Eleanor, on the other hand, was an absolute imp of a pig!).

Have you ever seen a baby guinea pig? They are about the cutest baby anything on the planet — like most herbivorous herd animals, they are born “ready to go” — all feet and ears and fluff. Eyes open, ears open, alert, they begin to explore their world from the moment they are born. Every day I watch Annie change as we wait together. She’s never had babies before, she doesn’t know what exactly is going on. There is nothing in this world more amazing than new life, and these little expected friends are already beloved.

A second generation of beloved tiny friends? I wouldn’t miss raising those little ones for anything in the world.

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Pine Mountain Thunderstorm, 30 SEP 2010

And as for so many I love? None of us are getting any younger, and the future is never certain. Last night I watched a man nearly run down by a car ten feet in-front of me, as I crossed in the same intersection from the opposite corner. I’ve had many close calls, and several instances where I was spared from certain death. I’ve lost dear friends who were not old and still had much living to do. That any of us will live to greet the following morning is neither known nor certain. Every moment of every day in this life is a dear and precious gift. Time cannot be bottled, nor saved…nor kept, nor held — only savored, cherished, remembered…or else merely regretted for its passing.

Life in this world is to short and too precious to live with regrets.

Life and time are dearly precious, but love is the single greatest gift in all creation. Do you know it? Do those you love know you know it? Do those you love know you love them? Seriously. Those you hold dear and love — all of them — do they know without question that they are loved? Do they know without question they are loved by you???

It’s a valid question, though perhaps a disturbing one: Do you say “I love you” enough — and mean it unquestionably — such that there can be no room for doubt in the minds of those you love that they are loved?

It’s not that hard (unless you don’t mean it). If a loved one suddenly comes to mind, pray for them, and drop a very quick line or two of love and encouragement in their direction (not that complicated, don’t overthink this…). Most of us have camera phones, if you see something fun or beautiful that someone you love would particularly enjoy, send the moment along.

Because the truth is, the greatest cost to you will be a few moments of your time.

There are likely a few among my own close friends reading this with a wry smile at this point.

The truth is, “just because” is the most wonderful, beautiful, important reason in the world to love and bless someone. Let the sun never set on your anger, truly, but just as important? Never part company with those you love lest your parting words be that you love them — you never know if or when you may ever meet them again (and life in this world is too short and to precious to live with regrets).

I wouldn’t be a good friend to opt-out of the chance to love, bless, encourage, share wonder, and pray for all those I love (especially if I am opting-out of 9.5 months of life for the expressly selfish purpose of potentially avoiding personal suffering — that’s inexcusably shallow!).

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Sylmar hill walk, 8 MAR 2013, Santa Monica Mountains

Whether I am a good disciple or not I will leave for Christ to work out, but it does not follow for a good disciple to be one self-seeking comfort for one’s own sake in a way that divorces herself from life, love and all humanity. I simply love life — and love my Lord and my God — too much to ever wish such a thing. And if my friend only meant that by my sleeping my life away, that she wished it so that I may be further protected from suffering and harm? I remind that to be so-protected from harm not only means I will be unable to experience pain and suffering in my slumber…but that I will be unable to experience all the joy and love possible in this life as well.

In the First Week of his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of 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.”

Now, my friend’s wish for me had two clauses…the second part being that the reason for sleeping until 2014 would be because “it’s got to be better.”

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Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, 12 MAR 2013

Does it? I’m not sure that’s actually true. I’m not signing up for a lifetime of masochistic asceticism, but “being comfortable” isn’t on the list of promises associated with being a faithful disciple of Christ. The Bible has a lot to say about suffering, we are also promised comfort for our afflictions, and we are promised glory both in heaven and when Christ comes again…but there are no promises that following Christ will be a comfortable journey. To be clear, I’m not seeking suffering, but I also do not seek (nor do I explicitly prefer) a life of insulated apathetic comfort.

Because like it or not, life is under no obligation to “get better,” and God is under no obligation to “make things better” in accordance with our particular requests. However? My Lord and my God is a good God, a loving God, a merciful God, a gracious God — a God who keeps his promises. If I strive to live my life prayerful that my desires be in alignment with God’s will for my life, “better” becomes completely beside the point because living life in alignment with God’s will is already “best.”

And can anything I wish for myself possibly be greater than what God wills for me?

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Wildwood Park, 12 SEP 2010, Thousand Oaks, CA

Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

A. That I belong — body and soul, in life and in death — not to myself, but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all of my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

— The Heidelberg Catechism

By no means would I ever say I don’t want life to get better — I absolutely do — but I also believe life is only worth living when you can find God in all things (sometimes a stretch, but always possible). “Life always getting better” didn’t make the list for “only comfort, in life and in death,” but God’s love, mercy, sovereignty, and providence did.

I can live with that. — VKS