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.

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Perfect storm, stormy night

Perfect storm, stormy night

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So my touch of a stupid cold has turned into pharyngitis, which I’m praying won’t turn into bronchitis.  Coughing up chunks of *magically disgusting* is not my favorite way to pass the time.

Monday was fifteen hours there and back to Ventura, Tuesday was twelve hours there and back to university.  Yesterday I decided to stay local and work on the new-to-me bike I picked up last week that will eventually be my pretty sweet ride.  It is amazing how what looked like “really clean” after removing a thick layer of dust an hour before sunset now looks “really dirty” in direct sunlight.  I’m the kind of person who *does it right* — not merely a quick wash, but scouring with 00 steel wool to get off the rust (employing borax as needed), and then a good synthetic car polish clearcoat over it all.

Yesterday I got the handlebars done, installed the new (very lovely!) synthetic leather grips, and installed a larger saddle that almost matches perfectly; the cupholder gave me fits, but the two new replacement reflectors were easy (the original owner pulled the originals off to install lights).  Didn’t have time to do the bell (KA-CHING!), but since I’m not going anywhere until I fix the wobbly back wheel, that doesn’t matter much.

The fender struts are going to be a nighmare (there really is no way to “rush” scrubbing rust with steel wool), and those are the worst because of how much I have to take apart to do it right.

Eventually this will get done and it will be a beautiful thing, but for now the “what’s clean” just makes everything else look that much more dirty.

And even though I tried to work in the shade, the UV index was crazy high and I ended up with sunstroke and sunburned.

I also, for various reasons, ended up with a screaming migraine such that I wasn’t sure I could make it home.

I did, but I passed the night in screaming pain, blind in my right eye, running a low-grade fever plus a sunburn…unable to sleep, tormented by the nightly battle to keep the bugs away, basically just wishing death and unable to focus or hold a thought in my head.  Is that dramatic?  No…there are some places of pain and illness that can take you to a place where that pain or illness is the only thing that can be processed.  A broken shoulder is certainly one, and migraines can sometimes be severe enough to be another.

I was there last night.

Still found enough energy for a few short messages to a couple dear friends.

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The night was mostly sleepless, but eventually the meds kicked in and I was granted the mercy of a few hours of the sleep I so desperately begged for.

For in the case of pain and suffering, restful sleep is a great mercy.

To be fair, I still feel like I was hit by a truck (just no longer like I was also dragged by one). I had much to do today, and I am supposed to watch all three kids tomorrow (ages 5, 3½, and 2). I’ve canceled physical therapy to be quiet and rest (I’m not good at this).

I’ve been so constantly ill and recovering for so many months, I honestly thought I was “safe” and would stay well this time. It’s a hard thing to wonder when this season will pass, and how long it will take to truly fully recover enough to face the rigors of a life spent doing “normal” things — working, family, enjoying life…living. It’s hard to feel left behind. It was especially hard to trek out to university on Tuesday, to be in that place, to know I have every right to be there — and someday I will — but also know (and feel) how far this beautiful place was from my own present-tense reality.
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So much of my own journey always makes me think of Rudy: click here for the best link I could find for the conversation with Fr. Cavanaugh when Rudy first arrives in South Bend.

It’s hard to know that what you want is also where you are supposed to be, but that for some reason the timing is wrong. God? I’m still here, you’re still here…but where? I have no answers, though I remember all the weeping for joy…and then for sorrow. It’s a lot to deal with, especially with zero real prospects of what to do with myself until the timing is right.

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Double rainbow near Pine Mountain Club, Kern County, CA. Taken 30 September 2010.

Today I’m just too tired to care.

I’ve been reading a lot in recent months, and much on suffering. I think there really is something to the idea that chronic illness can bring a person closer to Christ. Now, certainly, there are sometimes some pretty wild explanations given for that, and the motives for that bring us to that place are sometimes selfish-from-desperation, but close is close. It’s easy to gloss over the “encounter” gospel accounts, but the longer I live, the more people I meet who have lives that perfectly square with some of the darkly broken lives in the gospel accounts (knowing the woman who had a discharge of blood for twelve years — watching how that is destroying her life — is hardest).

My own life, spirit, and health are broken in many ways, but through that I can see (with a very different view) the deeper truth of the hope — a desperate hope — of all who sought this man, Jesus.

There is great humility required to ask for mercy.

There is great faith required to receive it.

Should I spill my secret that some of the best and most wise things I say or write in personal correspondence are not of myself but are inspired? It’s true, and I rarely remember any of it once I enter into a deeply prayerful place while writing. Often the words which touch others deeply were some small aside thing on the way to a greater point. Don’t think that God doesn’t hear our prayers, because he does. It is the absolute weirdest thing in the world to be used by God to answer someone else’s prayer, not know you’re doing it, and then be told later about some inspiring thing you never remember saying or writing. I have been keeping copies of my own correspondence for years, and to have a reference for so much I never remember writing is part of the reason why.
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One of these things came up on Monday, when I was visiting with a friend in my day’s travels. She said that words of mine — spoken or written to her in a time when she was in the midst of a very dark time and so was I — that really stuck with her were: “Life is beautiful.”

I never remember saying or writing this, but God-be-praised because it is the truth of his glory. Yes, we discussed it: that life is beautiful, life is always beautiful…but sometimes you have to look really, really, really hard to find that. I hold that life is only worth living if you can find God in all things. But I’ll also be the first to admit that there is a level of pain and suffering where I am so distracted and consumed by the pain that God is impossible to find.

That doesn’t mean he’s not there, it just means our focus is distracted in a way such that we cannot find him: that which obstructs our view to God by no means removes God from our reality, it merely removes God from our limited perception of apparent reality.

There is a difference, and the difference is a huge one.

There is the greatest hope that can be hoped in the promise of that difference.

Vanities

Vanities

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The artist’s caption on “Healing in New Light,” by Imaculate Heart High School student Katie Ganz, reads as follows: “We all bear scars, whether they are from childhood accidents, surgeries, or even from self-inflicted injuries.  From these scars, no matter what their source is, we learn.  Scars are a sign of healing: new skin covers the wound and protects it from future harm.  The scars in my piece are from self-harm.  They show suffering, while also symbolizing healing and new life.  The water, both in the hands and on the scars, represents healing and the washing away of pain.  My piece symbolizes new life, healing, and rising from pain and suffering, as Jesus did when he was resurrected.”

The image of the scars, the hands offering the rosary — which could represent prayer, but which also contains a crucifix — combined with the water stopped me in my tracks as I walked through the cathedral student art galleries; it’s a powerful symbol regardless of whether or not the viewer is Roman Catholic.  The power of this image haunts me on a level that only one who understands it intimately can be haunted. — VKS

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity…I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” — Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14

I’ve not stopped thinking, but my health still really isn’t quite what it ought to be this week, so it’s been a lot of “resting quietly” as my body has finally allowed me to sleep for more than an hour or so at a stretch (thus there were some days when I was too exhausted to do much else).  Sleep can be a grace, but only dreamless sleep, for sleep is the place my mind goes where all of the unspeakable evils it works so hard to block all day (to keep me sane and functional) no longer have a conscious “block” to keep them in-check.  It’s not always or every day, but nightmares can certainly play a bold part in making my attempts at sleep anything but restful.  It’s my body at war with itself and the devil; illness and roaches don’t help.

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There is living, there is thriving, there is merely existing. Life is a rich and beautiful thing, precious and not to be wasted. We are not called to muddle through, we are called to live.

I am not living, this is something else.

There may be a difference between “resting” and “losing days,” but in many ways they seem the same. I can’t get the days I’ve slept through back, and no one was blessed for them, not even me. I can’t answer for them, only that if we who are human are composed of both “soul” and “dust,” it was my “dust” that failed.

I’m Type-A. Type-As don’t take failure well…nor easily.

Things were in a lull for awhile, but the promise of aid has faded before my ability to work has been regained. Not that I was particularly desirable as an employee before the accident, but presenting a newly more broken version of myself as a candidate for employment is not a winning plan. There are thousands of applicants out there for the entry-level stuff I’m fully-qualified to apply for — no one in this job market needs to extend a single bit of grace to accomodate me, there are only to many behind me happy to fill the spot without exception. I am a number, not a name.

At least I’m not “just a number” to God.

I am fully-capable to do better things, but the requirement of a four-year degree keeps me barred from much. I am gifted, yes, but what in the world good to me are gifts I’m not allowed to use?

The neighborhood was on lockdown again the other night — three-and-a-half hours of helicopter patrol, cop cars galore. Not sure what happened or if they ever found who they were looking for. The key problem is again. I am very blessed to have a place to be, but when there seems to be no place safe in that place, it doesn’t always seem like a blessing. Roaches don’t help, they are the vilest sort of company. Guinea pigs do help, but it is dangerous to pin so much hope and love on such dear little fragile creatures.

Hard news seems — once again — to be coming from every quarter. I pray much for those I love, and God does hear my prayers, but my poor petitions seem so small compared to the very great and dire needs, the profound physical and spiritual brokenness, of those I so dearly love. My cranky Calvinist self holds no belief to the intercession of the saints (Christ alone is our intercessor), but that does not make me shy in the least to fall down and weep at the feet of St. Monica when I’m at the cathedral (as a bonus, she is standing next to Francis and Clare of Assisi). Monica in real life would understand the prayerful tears shed for those I love — tears for wandering souls, broken spirits, broken relationships, broken bodies. Francis would understand the kind of crazy love that can make loving others in the name of Christ seem like an insane proposition.

Friday afternoon I did, in-fact, retreat to that place in the Cathedral downtown, but I was so completely drained I couldn’t think, pray, or have an emotional response. I could just “be”…and no more.

Does the fact that I took the time to take myself out of my life — with the intent to go “be” quietly in a place where I went to seek God’s presence — “count,” even though I was too tired to function when I got there? Normally I would have found a quiet corner for a nap before prayer, but there isn’t one in a place like that.

In my day-to-day life, there isn’t a quiet, well-rested corner for God anywhere. In my day-to-day life, there isn’t a quiet, well-rested corner for me either. I love life, I just don’t happen to love my life.

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Broad Museum of Contemporary Art, LACMA. 21 May 2012

I feel like a horrible person to have argued against my friend about this, but I did…she commented on a dripping-with-discouragement social networking status the other night:

“Remember your gifts, Val. You have much to offer. Healing will come, then you’ll reach out again. Maybe God has granted you the gift of time to gather your thoughts and count your blessings. You are a bright, intelligent woman with insights many people twice your age don’t possess. People love and support you. Keeping you in my prayers every night my friend.”

And while she is right on many levels, I still feel like — on some level — it isn’t quite that simple. My reply to her was:

“You can’t eat time my friend, and as I have had many long years of forced solitude, “time” really wasn’t something I needed. I have spent most of the last seven years in solitary confinement. “Time to gather my thoughts” is kind of like telling someone in Seattle that they need more rain. All of this is also serving to cut me off from ministry, and that is certainly not from God. I understand your point, but those insights only serve to further alienate me from people. Every day I say the way I am I become more irredeemably odd and alienated from people. Bless you for your prayers my friend. If you have any prayer requests, send them in a private message or e-mail if you wish.”

I also added as a bit of post-script:

(And what good are gifts I’m cut off from using????)

I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to that one, because it’s been bugging me for a long time.

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St. Val the Eccentric with a very dead bear at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, MLK Jr. Day 2009

In-case you were wondering? In-case it was not already clear? This is the blog of “St. Val the ECCENTRIC,” not the blog of “St. Val the Socially-Acceptable.” Irredeemably odd, unfortunately intelligent on levels that make people back away slowly. I was recently accused of a tendency to “irritate people without realizing you’re irritating.” No, I was not brought up on a planet without social cues, I know, but my sanity and your civility very often depends on me pretending I don’t. If I didn’t know, I’d probably never shut up actually. My “silent mode” exists because I know.

But sitting home reading mystic theologians and learning yet more when I arguably already know too much for anyone’s good in the first place?

And gifts I can’t use really are no use.

I sometimes feel like the author of Ecclesiasties, that all is just…vanities.

It was a dark and frustrating week with little promise and less hope. I had a picture in my mind, that what this feels like is that day when a ride was supposed to pick me up and is really, really, really late…with no explanation.

Still here, God…scars, prayers, and all…still here, waiting…

Little “fishys” and lost souls

A post on Facebook from the Public Health Education department (a department that shared offices in the county building where I once worked for a couple of different county departments) put up a link to an article this morning reminding me that it is “Eating Disorders Awareness Week.”

Thus sayeth Val: Be Aware.

Seriously.  Be aware.

I don’t know if there is a “ribbon” for Eating Disorders.  Maybe there should be, maybe not.  I know cancer survivors who cling fiercely to their respective ribbons.  I suppose it is their right.  Personally though, I’ve always paused to wonder what clinging to a ribbon really means.  Maybe I’m just dense on this one, but wouldn’t being able to wake up in the morning and know the day and live life be reminder enough that one is a survivor?  And what does being “a survivor” really mean anyway?  Are you promoting your own strength or thanking God for his grace and mercy?  By no means would I dare discount anyone, but…the more I think about it, the more I agree with the idea that the two components of a human life are “dust” (the earthly, mortal, part) and “soul.”  Our dust has little strength of its own against the creative forces of life and death.  Seriously.  I’m a survivor too…but I take no credit for it. Soli Deo Gloria — to God alone be the glory.

Cancer ravages the body before it steals your life.  Eating disorders steal your mind and your soul before they ravage what is left of your body.  It’s no way to live, and it is an incredibly painful way to die — by torture and assassination of the soul.

All eating disorders work similarly, but anorexia nervosa is the one I’ve seen up-close, a devil I know well — I will thus frame my awareness in terms of and with reference to anorexia nervosa.  Anorexia is not about food — it never was about food, it will never be about food.  The food issues are merely an outward manifestation of a much deeper problem.  As the body wastes for lack of food, it is only following in the footsteps of a soul dying for lack of love on the deepest level.

The soul goes first.

It’s not about food, it’s not about being thin, it’s about self-control being run off-the-rails in the direction of self-destruction.  There is an evil element to that which defies description.  The most basic truth is that where there is a VAST space left in a person’s life (usually “girl’s life” in the case of anorexia nervosa) , great darkness moves in and takes over.

What anorexia nervosa does to the mind, soul, and body (in that order) is among the closest things in life I’ve ever witnessed that could arguably be classed as “demon possession.”  The audio and video feed of every failing and inadequacy you’ve ever experienced in your life (anyone who is not a narcissist has this) never shuts off and eventually takes over.  I say we all have this?  We do, but honest perspective and love can usually shut it off.  Anorexia comes where that love is absent, moves in, and whispers that it will keep you safe from everything in the world that can hurt you — your strength against the weakness of hunger will help build your strength against the pain, emotions, people, and situations that are trying to destroy you.  You need it, trust it — don’t be weak and let the hunger, the emotions, the pain win.

It’s all a lie, but it comes in a very pretty culturally-endorsed package — if “thin” is beautiful and “exercise” makes you “healthy,” why not worship on that altar?  The air-brushed and drug-soaked fashion and celebrity universe seems to support it, why not?

Because it is a lie.

I once heard a speaker remark that a person with anorexia is the kind of person who, if she resolved to drink eight glasses of water a day, will stay up until midnight to drink eight glasses of water in the last ten minutes of the day if she forgot just because she resolved to do it.  Not everyone suffering from anorexia nervosa is a Type-A personality, but if there is a Type-A personality suffering from an eating disorder, I won’t even bat an eye to leave any wiggle room for possible speculation: 100% of those individuals are battling anorexia, it’s the only one that appeals to a tidy, methodical, meticulous nature.

And that’s the cruellest part — the type of person who gravitates toward anorexia nervosa is typically an extremely intelligent, capable young woman with a lot of talent, potential, and often leadership ability.  Were their heads on straight for self-perception and self-care, these are women who could justly and capably rule the world.  Anorexia nervosa snuffs out the best and the brightest by design.

I don’t know if there is a patron saint for those suffering from eating disorders.  Mary Magdalene, however, comes to mind as a potentially just and beautiful choice.  She was healed by Christ from seven demons.  It doesn’t say much more than that about the nature of the situation, but here was a woman who we got to quietly follow through various little snippet accounts in the Bible as a person who did not forget what Christ’s compassion, love, and healing did for her and meant to her life.  She followed Christ’s body to the grave.  She was given the beautiful gift of being the first person to know of Christ’s resurrection.

Stop.  Just stop.  Stop and think about that for a minute.  This was no random thing, there are no coincidences.  This was not her good luck — one lesson to learn in  the Bible is that God doesn’t work in terms of “luck.”  Just stop and consider that of all the people Christ loved who loved Christ, he picked Mary Magdalene to be the first one to encounter his resurrected self.  That’s huge.  Not Peter, not John, not his mother…Mary Magdalene.  If you want an argument for “least” being “greatest,” there’s one.  Now, there is a lot of weird mythology around Mary Magdalene (I believe none of it, and neither should you).  The three explicit references were that she was healed from seven demons, she was present at the crucifixion and followed the body to the grave, and she was the first person to learn of the resurrection.  That is what we know.  What we also know is that this is a woman who understood — and never forgot — how much Christ’s compssion and healing had restored her to life.  She loved Jesus of Nazareth and became his disciple.  She was favored with the honor to be the first to experience the wonder and joy of the resurrection.  That’s huge.  This is a woman who got up every day with the knowledge that Christ was the one who gave her both life and hope.

I can’t think of a better person to flesh out the hope of a life healed from something like anorexia nervosa.

But while we’re on the topics of saints, I need to make one thing absolutely clear: anorexia mirabilis is made-up and garbage.  There is no “holy” absence of hunger, but anorexia nervosa can actually phisiologically re-wire a person’s brain to “turn off” hunger.  There is a sub-class of ascetic saints who suffered from this “holy” disease with some pretty disturbing behaviors and outcomes.  There is no starving yourself to death for the glory of God, it just doesn’t work that way.  I have no love for the veneration of these particular saints (Catherine of Siena among them).  I cannot venerate the faith of anyone willing to worship at the altar of death.

If you’re reading this and looking for answers, maybe you’ve found them and maybe not.

Maybe you’re the one who is suffering, maybe it’s someone you know…or maybe you’re just one of the wonderful friends God has blessed me with in my life who makes it a joy to get out of bed in the morning.

I have a friend who is one of my confessors and prayer partners, she is custodian of a very large piece of my soul and I love her very much.  I was praying for her and for her family as I was waking up this morning.  She is a grandmother and has another grandchild on the way.  I was praying for this little one a prayer that is the best prayer for all children — that they may live a life where they always know (and never, ever, ever doubt) that they are loved.  If I am praying for your children or grandchildren, that’s one of the things I’m praying.

The alternative is — quite literally — a living hell.

If you or someone you know needs help, please…do something.  Praying is good, but this kills and destroys in horrendous ways.  Please get help.

I’m just a pilgrim, but I’ve battled my own Apollyon, as it were.  Survivor?  Yes.  Recovered?  Yes.  Perfect?  No.  Loved?  Without question.  I am not a therapist, I am not qualified in any professional capacity, just a pilgrim.  But I also happen to know that the fishy site is one of the most praise-worthy and amazing places on the web for resources.  They have support boards there too, it’s wonderful.  The site is well-run and well-moderated.  The fishy site is the real deal (though by no means a substitution for help in real life).  For more information:

http://www.somethingfishy.org