Saturday, October 24, 2015

A grief observed....

With sincerest apologies to the estate of C.S. Lewis, I am taking quite a liberty using the title of one of his books for a blog post. But last night, I did observe grief - and it was loving, tender, and heartbreaking.

Oni with Audrey, taken in 2013.
We have been blessed for over 5 years to have guinea pigs as part of our family, primarily as pets for the kids, but they are great pets for adults, too. There have been times when Lorrie will say to one of the kids "get me a piggie", and that kid will run and get her one of the pigs that we have. Guinea pigs are very cuddly and affectionate, and are social within their own circle of other piggies. They can also be bullies or domineering towards other piggies. You have to keep male piggies (boars) separated from other males unless they are, well, uh, um....fixed. Piggies are curious, responsive, and purr when petted in a way they like. And the response of the kids to the piggies was wonderful: Troy and Oni were given their own Facebook pages, and the piggies assisted them with homework, became reading buddies, or just lap companions while watching TV. 

Sadly, we lost Troy - one of those first ones we adopted - after 2 years, and even though I wasn't home, Lorrie documented the kid's reaction as Troy slowly slipped away. Then we lost a second piggie, Hank, who went very suddenly. Again, I was not home for that passing. But last night, we lost Troy's original companion, Oni. And this time, I was home. 

In the last few weeks, Oni had been acting like she was nearing the end. We figured out last night that she was 5 years old, and Guinea Pigs have a life expectancy of 4-6 years. She'd been losing chunks of fur for during these last few weeks. But last night, Colin came out to tell me that Oni was acting strange, that she couldn't move well, that she was leaning off to one side. Soon, Audrey brought Oni out, and I could see that she was not doing well at all. We had lost Troy to strokes (Guinea Pigs get strokes and can get pneumonia), and it appeared that this was happening with Oni as well. Her once luxuriant and soft fur was gone, and she was struggling to breathe and to stay up. Audrey lovingly held Oni, tucked Oni under her chin, where Oni tried valiantly to give Audrey what we called "piggie kisses", but Oni couldn't. Then, Oni started to twitch, and Lorrie got a towel and wrapped Oni up in it as a mother wraps a newborn in a blanket. Audrey, who had been crying the whole time, did not wish to hold Oni any longer, and the sweet and loving piggie slowly slipped away, being held and petted by Lorrie. 

As a father, it was tough for me to know how much to console Audrey. But I soon found that I didn't need to be the one who made that decision: Audrey made it for me. She hugged me, and later on cuddled with me as I watched a bit of Netflix. And even though the tears of grief were real for Audrey, she recovered quicker than I expected, and I believe she already has said we need to adopt a new companion for Latte, Oni's cagemate. 

Now, granted, losing a pet is tough, and it cannot in any way compare to losing a spouse, close relative and certainly not a child. But to see how Audrey handled this situation made me realize that she's grown up now - she's 14 - and she's able to understand that life ends, as much as we wish it didn't. She loved Oni very much (she loves ALL animals) and has a empathy with them that makes me realize that Audrey has a good soul. Perhaps that is a result of loving these small creatures of God as much as she does, and understanding how fragile they truly are.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The value of stillness.....

Be Still, and Know that I am God. 
                                               Psalm 46:10

For some reason, during pastor's sermon today, my mind went off on a tangent. Thankfully, his sermons usually hold my attention. But today, I allowed myself to wander. And I thought of something that has deep meaning for me: the value of being still, and allowing God to surround you.

I can think of at least three times in my life where I have experienced the very presence of God. It was something both elusive yet very real. Something concrete but also something fleeting. One of those times was as I was singing with the Pacific Chorale, and in the silence after the final chord of a piece, I was overwhelmed with a Presence that I can only say was God. Another time was when I was standing in a grove of turning aspen trees in northern Arizona. The trees themselves were arranged with an opening, and their branches reaching out as if I was in a chapel. There was only a light breeze and no noise, and I was absolutely alone. In the quiet of that chapel of golden leaves, I dropped to my knees in reverence, knowing I was in His presence. 

Sometimes, I think we as Christians feel the need to "feel" something as a means to validate that God is real to us. I am not fond of contemporary worship. While I agree that it reaches some that would not be comfortable in a more traditional or liturgical environment, I find that its focus is on songs and an emotional response, with a great deal of physical involvement to be something that rings hollow to me. Yes, there are those that would say traditional or liturgical worship is too boring or repetitive, and I would allow them to have that viewpoint. But mine is different. For to me, and maybe many others, you don't exclusively "experience" God in a contemporary service. You don't exclusively experience God in traditional liturgy as well.

Sometimes you experience Him in the silence and stillness. Which is where my mind went to this morning. Particularly, it went to a place that is etched in my soul as another location where God surrounded me.

It was a small room - the sacristy - of the Mission La Purisima Concepcion, one of the famed California missions, and the one that is the most fully restored. When you go to La Purisima, you are surrounded by open fields and low hills. You feel that you have stepped back in time to when the mission was active and alive. Go on a weekday and the place can be empty. And I did go, many years ago, and took my camera into that small room.

It was a small room, in relation to many of the other rooms in the mission. It was just big enough for a bench, and that was it. But as I walked in there, I noticed how the light shown through a single window, and also through the door, which was in direct line with the series of doors that led outside, acting like a spotlight on the solitary bench. The light made it magical. And as I took a couple of images with my big 4x5" camera, I felt something. I felt God was there. My breathing changed. A sense of peace came over me, and a sense of immeasurable Love. I stopped what I was doing and just stood there. Even the bench seemed Holy to me - I didn't want to sit on it. I stood there for moments or minutes - I cannot remember. But to this day, my mind often escapes to that place, for it is yet another place I felt God in. 

The Psalmist knew this as he wrote the passage "Be still, and know that I am God", and knew of the importance of stillness. And today, with the cacophony of noise and intrusion into our lives by work, our families, our commitments and our electronic devices, the need for stillness has never been greater. We need to find that time of stillness, when all we do - is listen.

Sacristy, Bench, Mission La Purisima Concepcion, copyright 2015, John Prothero
4x5" black and white negative, limited prints available 

Soli Deo Gloria

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Something rediscovered.

Photo Credit: Orange County Register
I have rediscovered something these past few nights. The sheer joy of making music.

In returning to the Pacific Chorale - where I had sung for four brief but wonderful seasons - I have been deep in preparation and performance of the famous Beethoven 9th Symphony as part of the Pacific Symphony's opening week. And through three nights of rehearsals, and now 3 nights of performing, I have rediscovered a core truth of making music:

Make music that does not sacrifice musicality for perfection

One of my fellow Chorale members was commenting about the quality of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra compared to the ensembles "back east". And while I may concede that person's point to an extent (having once sung with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Seiji Ozawa is an experience yet to be duplicated), I would not trade any highbrow east coast experience for what I've enjoyed and watched these last few nights. Why?  Because of Carl St. Clair, Artistic Director of the Pacific Symphony.

Photo Credit: Orange County Register
Carl strives for perfection. Rehearsals are meticulous and productive. They have to be. This is not a "full-time" orchestra, but one made up of musicians that teach locally, or work in the Hollywood or L.A. music industry, or maybe play with the Symphony as an avocation - just like I sing with the Pacific Chorale as something I enjoy and benefit from. But what Carl does that is so dynamic is that his rehearsals are less about the technicality of the music, but about the music MAKING. He focuses on the expressiveness of the line, the slight changes of tempo that create a sense of the music being alive. Carl is expressive as a conductor, using his face, hands, fingers, baton and his entire physical being to elicit from the players music - and they respond. Certainly, we as singers respond to Carl. There is a great deal of mutual respect and affection between the singers of the Chorale, and Carl. And it shows in how we perform for him. 

Because the Chorale itself is always striving for the same thing as Carl does: perfection, but not at the sacrifice of making music. And for me, the last few nights of singing and performing MUSIC have been so wonderful, and I am so happy to be in a place where I can do that again.

Soli Deo Gloria.