Very hard work indeed

Very hard work indeed

Found this in my Facebook feed from a site called Guinea Pig Zone.  Had to post this, it’s too funny not to.


On a more serious note, my childhood best friend’s funeral was yesterday, and I was horrified to find out…after the service…and after we’d shoveled dirt on her coffin?  Her father had actually asked me to give a eulogy BUT I NEVER GOT THE MESSAGE!!!

If there was a way to make my day worse, that was it — realizing I’d missed the chance to greatly honor my friend because Facebook ate the private message.

So…I’m working on “what I would have said.”  It won’t be the same, but you don’t get a “do-over” on funerals.

Blessings — VKS




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:


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

Laurie Rae White (1980 – 2013)

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

A double portion?

A double portion?


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.

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…

On meme culture and the Patriot’s Day 2013 Boston Marathon bombing

On meme culture and the Patriot’s Day 2013 Boston Marathon bombing


Taken Saturday, 16 April, 2011 in Danvers, Massachusetts

My mother’s family is from Boston, we have deep roots there.  Two years ago this weekend we were all celebrating my sister’s wedding.  My Facebook feed — full of news organizations, ministries, and many Massachusetts friends and relatives — started lighting up like a Christmas tree early this afternoon with news of the Patriot’s Day bombing at the Boston Marathon.

And the entire media and social media world followed with the typical array of stories, memes, condolances, love, and prayers — posted from all over the world.  In the face of disasters and tragedies, our society now creates the digital virtual equivalent of an on-site memorial shrine.  It’s quite striking actually.

I don’t know if the first “digital disaster” in American consciousness was the World Trade Center bombings of September 11, 2001 or not.  It was the first major American disaster in quite some time, and both captivated and horrified the world in a way I’ve not seen since.  By 2001, e-mail and internet was something most people had, and those were the first event-oriented memes I remember seeing in e-mail forwards.  Meme culture has been a common tribute response to disasters ever since, and like I said, it’s quite striking.

Now, I definitely collect memes — mostly for use in blog posts or as a source of encouragement to others — but I question their value somewhat.  I reject the use of memes by people who use them as a soapbox to run off at the mouth with hatred, vitriol, disrespect about some perceived injustice to one’s sense of entitlement in the world.  Okay, you keep polluting my eyes with disturbing and toxic images and rhetoric, who — exactly — is served by that anger?  What makes me most angry are people who expend a lot of energy on vitriol and outrage against a certain issue, but do absolutely nothing to affect positive change in the world to make any meaningful impact toward righting that apparent wrong.  I have no love for people who do nothing but stand on street corners holding signs and shouting either, but meme culture is far lazier.  If the beginning and end of your campaign for social and political justice is to vomit memes all over your social media feed?  I promise you, pictures of sleeping kittens would bring EXACTLY the same level of effectiveness…but would be ever so much more pleasant than ire, fire, anger, vitriol, and hatred.

But I think memes do have their place in our culture.

In our high-speed, 4G, data saturated, sound-byte culture of speeding through life at a furious clip with a 24-hour news cycle chirping along in the background as we tweet and text our way through the day, memes invite us to take a breath: memes invite us to take a breath, hold a thought in our heads, have a simple mental and emotional response to a graphic, and then resume our day. They make us laugh, they make us smile, they make us angry, they make us nostalgic, they make us reflective, they make us think…

Memes make us reach out and touch our own humanity in a collective response with others. And while they may or may not be the most effective or productive response to any given situation, they are a response. May our thoughtfulness, our love, our compassion, our joy, and our hope not begin and end with mere memes. My background is steeped heavily in the study of history, and the notion is very often raised “those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.” That’s true enough, but in our high-speed, search-engine-driven, wiki-culture, what does “remember” even mean anymore? I pray it does not mean the fleeting graphic equivalent of a sound-byte without genuine depth of thought or care.

Do you remember the 26 January 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, India? I happened to be stuck home in bed and seriously ill that month with what ended up as pneumonia. The house where I was renting a room at the time was located at the base of the foothills of my city, at the mouth of a cañon. I had no television, and radio reception was dodgy. I did, however, have internet. I quickly found a passion for the BBC World Service, for when the NPR stations switched to music overnight, the events and stories of life around the world still went on — and were reported — as North America slept on through the night. I remember the extensive coverage of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake clearly, as it was the main story for weeks on the BBC World Service. I remember one interview with a local Gujarati man who was thoughtful and mused that it was good that the world was taking note of Gujarat, but would the world still remember Gujarat in a year?

I don’t think the world did, but I have never forgotten it.

We say our love, our hearts, our prayers are with the people of Boston. I hope that is really true. For me it is true because — on some level — there is an aspect of ancestral “home” to Boston (though that particular city has never been my own home). I hope it is true that our love, our hearts, our prayers are with the people of Boston in a lasting and meaningful way…not merely as the latest selection in the *Disaster of the Month Club* meme-fest. May our words to each other encourage, uplift, inspire, and bring hope — and may they do so in a lasting and meaningful way.

And of all the thoughts, prayers, memes, and tributes to mark this shocking and tragic day, the following one (posted by my friend Linda) gave me the most pause. Thank you and bless you Mr. Rogers, yes — “remember the helpers.”

Another friend remarked:

“Numb….just plain numb….this tragedy in Boston….it’s not going to end, is it”


To that, my reply will take us to Flanders, to France, and to Gallipoli in the years that followed the great battles of the Great War. To read the story of the origins of the Flanders Fields Remembrance Day Poppies in more depth, click here, but the gist of it is that the poppies that grew alongside the fields of grain in the beautiful farmlands that became ravaged wastelands in the battles of the Great war grew best in the churned-up and turned-over soils created by the battles that raged. Beginning in 1915, the battlefields began to bloom with poppies. It was this story in my mind when I replied to my friend:

“Life is beautiful my friend, but sometimes it takes awhile for the wildflowers to carpet the battlefield.”

Life is beautiful, and though some days all you can see is the mud before the poppies, there is hope…and God is still on the throne. — VKS