Hoofprints of the Stag

Hoofprints of the Stag

Friday, October 30, 2015

Back to the Future: Reflecting on Personal Change (featuring a Treatise on Crying)

So last week, we hit the date to which Marty and Doc traveled in Back to the Future Part II.  As part of the 'festivities,' I decided to have a Back to the Future marathon over the course of two days, squeezing in parts of the movies between classes, prayer, and meals.  But of course, I cannot often do anything without thinking deeply about it and over-analyzing it, and watching Back to the Future was no different.  While watching Part I, I had a strange experience which led me to a period of reflection and musing.

I started writing this post last week and put it aside before I finished it, partly because I ran out of time, and partly because I wasn't sure quite what I wanted to say (and to some degree I still don't), but I was inspired by a similar blog post by a fellow Catholic blogger over at Journey of a Catholic Nerd Writer, and so I decided to write it out after all.  Even though it's over a week late, just go back in time in your mind to last week, and it'll be fine.  After all, this is time travel.

The fact that the date featured in Back to the Future II recently happened (October 21, 2015) has given many media outlets cause to reflect upon how the imagined 2015 compares to the real 2015 we are currently experiencing.  When you actually watch those videos and read those articles, it is truly amazing what we do actually have that the movie 'predicted' (but alas that the Cubs did not win the World Series though).

In a similar manner, my own recent re-viewing of the trilogy has instigated my own reflection on how I personally have changed over the years, particularly how I was in high school/college vs. how I am now.  Incidentally, I was born in 1985, so it seems to me to be quite fitting to make parallel my own reflection with similar reflections on the movies themselves.  But it wasn't mere thought that brought this reflection to my mind.

While watching Back to the Future Part I yesterday, I had what I can only describe as an unusual emotional experience.  I say unusual in the sense that it was unusual for me and not necessarily in a general sense. And I'm not really sure how to describe it.

Basically, I was watching the first movie, and when it got to the part where George McFly has his confrontation with Biff and he has his arm twisted behind him and then delivers his epic punch, for some reason, I started crying.  Well, maybe that's an exaggeration.  There were no actual flowing tears, but my eyes got really watery and my throat was tight.  It was like between being "all choked up" and actual crying.  Nevertheless, it was a strange emotional surge that lasted for several minutes (quite a while for me) that had no obvious explanation.  When it was over, I started chuckling a little bit because it seemed so funny that I would be crying at Back to the Future, but the emotion continued on, even up past the part where George McFly finally kisses Lorraine and saves the timeline.

What was causing this surge of emotion?  Nostalgia, perhaps?  Memories of my early days watching the movies at my grandma's house with my cousins flooded in.  I even had a memory of my older brother and I reenacting the scene with Biff and George McFly where my brother would twist my arm behind my back (not too gently) and then I would make a tight fist and pretend to punch him.  But was it the memories?  Maybe, but perhaps it was my identification with George McFly.  I have always seemed to have been the nerdy, sometimes awkward and unconfident type, and perhaps it was this epic moment of George's triumph over his own cowardice in the face of a bully that set me off.  Maybe it was the fact that I'd sung Earth Angel in the men's chorus in high school and thought of a particular girl I liked while singing it in a concert.  Who knows?  It seems impossible to analyze such things.

I had to pause the movie there, for it was time to head to the chapel for Evening Prayer, and I even had to compose myself before leaving the my room and make sure my eyes weren't red or something.  As I sat in my chair in the chapel, waiting for the prayer to begin, I wondered what in the world had just happened.  Why had I cried at Back to the Future?  This is where my reflection on the past began.

Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius
When I was in middle school and high school, I was a fairly emotionless person.  In fact, I was even partial to the notion that emotions needed to be controlled and every decision needed to be made rationally without any input from emotion.  In this respect, I was very influenced by Planet of the Apes, where Dr. Zaius says, "I have always known about man. From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself."  I did not want my emotions to rule my brain.  From my own experience, I saw that when people let their emotions (usually anger) influence their decisions, then the outcome was negative.

Though I did not often experience many intense feelings (other than happiness, I guess), I was always very cautions when I did feel something and generally sought  to keep it inside where no one could see it if not outright suppress it.  But again, these instances of emotion were rare.

Toward the end of high school, and especially during college, I noticed that I often had a lot of trouble knowing how to sympathize with people.  I never knew what to say or what to do (which I suppose happens to a lot of people), but more importantly, I never could feel the same way as the person.  If someone was super angry about something, I didn't know how to share the anger (i.e. I couldn't get angry over something that had nothing to do with me).  If someone was sad, I felt literally unable to feel sad with them.  What horrified me most about myself is that I rarely felt sad at funerals.  I mean, I knew that I was sad, but I didn't feel sad.  It was kind of weird.  There were several points in my life like this where I'd feel like I ought to cry, but I didn't feel like crying.

Now, given what I said before about keeping control over your emotions, I suppose one would expect me to be the kind of person who would see crying as a kind of weakness.  People say that this is a prevalent attitude among boys, and perhaps that is true, but from a relatively early age (like late grade school), I knew that it was okay to cry, even if you were a boy.  I never had trouble understanding this.  Of course, I still didn't want to cry, but I never saw it as a sign of weakness.  I know that I thought this way because of an episode of this old PBS show called Ghostwriter (remember Ghostwriter? What an awesome show!).

In the episode (the time travel episode, if you remember), Frank, an orphan boy, and Catherine, his foster sister, are trying to solve the mystery and they think they've failed.  Frank is sitting on the sidewalk crying over their failure when Catherine sits beside him.  "Sorry I cried," he says.  "It's okay," she responds.  "Everybody's gotta cry sometime."  "Not where I come from," Frank replies.  "When you live on the streets, you have to be tough all the time, or else you won't survive."  Then Catherine says, "Just because you cry doesn't mean you're not tough.  A tough guy is somebody who keeps trying, no matter how bad things look."  Here's a link to that part of the episode if you're interested in some epic 90s nostalgia: Ghostwriter: Just in Time, Part 3

"Sorry I cried."
That small, seemingly unimportant (to the plot at least) conversation stayed with me for many years.  Granted, I often remember obscure lines from shows I watched as a kid, but this one always stuck with me.  If I ever cried (which was rare, as I've said), I would think of that line, "Sorry I cried," and then remember that I didn't need to be sorry at all and that it was okay to cry.  So yeah, I never saw crying as any sort of weakness.

So we come back to my unempathetic, unemotional self from college.  I began to wish that I could empathize, that I could be sad or angry, or something.  I remember my junior year taking a conducting class for my music minor.  I can't remember the piece, but I was conducting our class orchestra in something, and our teacher said to conduct with more emotion, saying, "You have no soul."  I suppose I ought to have felt bad, but I didn't really.  I guess that's the case when you have no soul, ha ha.  My friend CJ, who took the class with me, would often joke with me that I had no soul and we would try to figure out ways to find my soul.

But joking aside, I actually did feel like I had something missing, like I was defective in some way.  I would look around at all these people who were emotional, people who cried, and I saw them as people functioning as they were meant to and myself as somehow defective.  And the thing that frustrated me the most is that while I cared about this idea, I didn't feel like I cared.  I wanted to cry about how I couldn't cry, and I couldn't do it.  What a strange thing.  What's funny to me is that people see crying as a sign of brokenness.  Perhaps someone's heart has been broken, perhaps something has happened in their life has made them feel broken and thus moved to tears.  But when I saw people crying over something that I knew I should be sad about, I was the one who felt broken, like I wasn't working right and they were, that something they had was missing or defective in me.  Broken, like a remote control car might be broken.

So one day (I don't remember when, but I do definitively remember doing this), I actually prayed to God that he would give me emotions.  I was sort of afraid to ask because I knew it meant having less control in my life, and I still believed that decisions shouldn't be made based on emotion, but ultimately I thought of myself as being cut off in some way from everybody else and that having deep feelings would fix that.  Perhaps that prayer was the turning point, though I certainly didn't see the results then.

So when I look back over the last fifteen years or so, I have definitely seen a change, and perhaps that prayer was what spurred the change.  Or perhaps it's just the weight of experience which wears down the walls that I never thought existed but in fact did.

The luckiest man on the face of the earth
I can point to several times in the last four years now when I have cried, probably more instances in them than in the twelve years before that.  And where I can't think of what I cried about in those early days, I know very specifically what I cried about more recently.  There was one girl I cried over; I never expected that to happen.  I cried once while watching a video of Lou Gehrig's farewell speech.  I've also had several instances of crying over music.  It happened once with the fourth movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, several times with various parts from the opera Turandot (for which I sang in the chorus in the Utah Opera).  Have you ever seen the movie Equilibrium?  It's just like what happens to Christian Bale's character when he hears Beethoven's 9th Symphony (see the clip here: Equilibrium: Preston cries at Beethoven).

But these crying catalysts don't always work.  How can something that makes you cry one time not make you cry every time?  I've had people tell me that they have certain things they can watch which will automatically make them start crying.  This always seemed strange to me.  But then I discovered that I had one.

There is a part during the fourth to last episode of Season 9 of The Office (Paper Airplanes).  I won't share it specifically, because spoilers, but let's just say it has to do with Pam and Jim.  There is a part at the end of the episode (if you've seen this episode, you might know the part I'm talking about), and the very first time I watched it, I cried (and actually cried).  I watched it over again, and I cried again.  A few months later I was going through Season 9 again, and it happened again.  Like clockwork.  I couldn't believe it.

And now, here in the present (a week ago), I was for some reason crying over Back to the Future.  What has happened to me?  I don't know, but I am so happy to feel something.  This moment of emotion over a nerd in a movie rising up over a bully set off a chain reaction in my mind that brought me back to so many moments in my life that all made me feel.

This was a really long and rambling post, so congratulations and thank you if you've tracked my Hoofprints this far.  Of course, if you didn't read this far, I'm not going to cry about it (see what I did there?).  I hope you have enjoyed it, and perhaps, that it made you feel.

To close, I will share one final reference to illustrate how I've changed over the years.  In one final throwback to the 90s, there is one episode of the TV cartoon Recess where Mikey, who normally daydreams and writes poems, becomes organized and very rigid with his demeanor, basically ridding him of all emotional expression.  Of course, his friends save the day and he goes back to the wonderful, empathetic poetry-writing prodigy that he is.  The first clip linked below is his unemotional poem, and the second link is the clip of the emotionally laden poem he comes up with later on: The Organized Poem, The Good Poem.

The line that sticks with me (just as the "Sorry I cried" line once did) is the following, which can now be said for so many things in my life (though not terrible, as indicated in the line):

"Such a terrible deal, it makes me feel . . .
it makes me feel . . .
Indeed.  It makes me feel."

. . .

It does make me feel.  Things in my life over the years have indeed broken me, and I can now share in the seeming brokenness that had so long eluded me.  That something missing has been replaced, that defect has been corrected.

It was in being broken that I was fixed.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Don't Look Back

Four weeks have gone by (five, if you count orientation) since my life began here at Mt. Angel as a seminarian. My mind has been floating around to different ideas, but there is one idea that I would set apart and classify as a theme, something I've been reflecting on that has defined the beginnings of this journey and may come to define much more of it. To sum it up in a catchy phrase, the theme would be: "Don't Look Back."

As I've gotten to know myself over the last several years, I've learned that I tend to be nostalgic, and I mean very nostalgic.  There are few among those who know me who haven't heard me tell some story out of the past.  When I taught at St. Joseph's in Ogden, I was constantly talking about Portland and my time as an engineer.  When I taught at Judge Memorial in SLC, I was constantly talking about my time at St. Joe's.  And now, here in the seminary, I am constantly making references to my time at Judge as well as my time in the cathedral choir in Salt Lake (and still telling stories of St. Joe's and Portland as well).  I seem to always be thinking of some memory of the past or looking at old pictures, notes, or letters.  In every place I've lived, my yearbooks are usually given a prominent space on my bookshelves, and I actually open them up and look through them from time to time.

It would be accurate (though also metaphorical) to say that I am almost always drowned in a sea of memory.  My memory has always been something that is important to me, as I have a lot of obscure memories that are triggered by seemingly random things, and I think part of the reason I'm so nostalgic is because I am afraid of forgetting, of having to let go of those memories.

I think the reason I am so attached to my memories is the fact that I know that I can never 'go back' to the way things once were, and so the memories are all that I have left, the only things I have that allow me to go back, and if I lose the memory, it seems like I lose the experience along with it.  Before making any major life change, I always have the subtle fear: "What if I forget?"  The scariest thing for me is that you can never know that you've forgotten it.  What are the things I have forgotten?  I can't remember.  Alas.

When I was considering my first career change from engineer to teacher, there was a bible story that stuck out for me.  It was the story of the rich young man in Mark 10: 17-22.  During my days in engineering, let's just say I was in a financially good place, and though I felt my faith was strong, I could also perceive that perhaps God had something more in store for me.  There were many factors that led to me switching careers to teaching (and perhaps thereby avoiding the seminary for a few more years), but this verse was ever at the forefront as a sort of quasi-motto (since I don't think a whole passage can be a motto).  I never wanted my possessions to get in the way of doing God's will for my life, so I made the switch despite being a little nervous about leaving the security of a decent income behind.  Incidentally, when I worked at Judge, they had a print of the "Rich Young Ruler" by Heinrich Hoffman in the Campus Ministry Center.  I took it and put it in my classroom as a reminder of what I had left behind.

"The Rich Young Ruler" by Heinrich Hoffman

Now we fast forward to going to the seminary.  During my final summer in Salt Lake City, I had a really hard time knowing that I would have to leave behind so many things.  But it wasn't material possessions I was leaving behind, it was people and places and experiences and memories and the potential of adventures never to be realized that I was leaving behind.  I was very afraid of leaving all those people and experiences behind because I knew that I would probably not come back (at least not permanently), or that even if I did come back, things would never be the same.

Nostalgia is a bittersweet thing.  I love it because it helps me appreciate the things that have passed, and it also enables me to help other people remember and appreciate those things as well.  The problem with it is that it can make me ignore the present and possibly even fear the future.  I've had trouble leaving things behind in the past, and nostalgia doesn't make it any easier to do so.

I think the devil often uses our fears against us to keep us from doing God's will in our lives, but we must also be aware that he uses good things to keep us from God's will as well.  Turning our perfectly good desires and strengths against us is much more subtle and can be an even more effective strategy against us than using our fears.  And certainly, I've tried to be wary of letting my memories and my desire to not leave anything behind overcome my desire to do God's will.

As a result of this line of thought, my mind was drawn to another bible passage, which, again, I have adopted as a sort of motto.  If you'd like to read the full story, read it here: Luke 9: 57-62.  In the story, there are three would-be followers of Jesus.  I identify most with the third one.  Like him, I was (and am) afraid to leave things behind; I want to say farewell, so to speak.  But that last verse is so very important: "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God."  Scary admonition, no? especially for someone like me who looks back all the time.

At the same time, I have to remember that my nostalgia is something that I consider to be a strength of mine and that I should not let the devil use against me.  I discovered during the past couple of weeks here that my longing for the 'olden days' has actually shaped my spiritual life in a very positive way.  As usual, my mind has been wandering back to Utah, back to my old schools, and back to old friendships.  In the past, when I did that, I would just feel a little sad.  Now when I do it, I feel compelled to pray, and my prayer is invigorated!  I'll remember someone, and I'll think, "I must pray for that person."  And I do.  My memory is not something I need to shut down for fear of having it lead me away from God; it is something that I should embrace and temper (in the positive sense of the word) so that I may grow closer to God and to my neighbor.

Just yesterday, one of the higher-up theology students gave a reflection in which he quoted Thomas Merton, a great Catholic spiritual writer.  Actually, the quote was from his abbot to Thomas when he entered the abbey.  The abbot said, “There will come a time when you’ll want to leave, but when you feel this desire, take the time to remember all of the souls whom you brought with you here.”  This quote was the linchpin to what I'd been recently discovering about myself.  Even though I have left certain people, places, and experiences behind, I bring all those people and memories with me to the seminary, and I would make the argument that in many cases my relationships to those people are sanctified because now I pray for them much more extensively and specifically, and, really, while I offer myself up for the Church, I am aware that I am also offering myself up on their behalf: that I am becoming who God made me to be (ideally) precisely for their sake, not for my own.

In Portland, a few days before I was going to repack my car and head down to Mt. Angel, I was talking with a priest friend who was instrumental in my vocational discernment.  He was encouraging me about going to the seminary, and as we finished our conversation, he said, "Don't look back."  I was amazed at this since I had only chosen that special verse from Luke 9:62 a few days before.  I took his idea upon myself as a theme of reflection, but now I have added to it.  Yes, I will not look back; I will look forward, but not forgetting what was left behind: rather, keeping 'the souls I brought with me here' ever in the forefront of my vision as I make my way to what God has in store.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Seed Planted Finally Begins to Grow

As I wrap up my week of orientation here at Mt. Angel Seminary, many thoughts are running around through my head, but one sticks out.  Having worked through the application process for the last several months and after discerning for many years, I have been really thinking about my journey of discernment, and my mind rests upon those moments which one might characterize as 'turning points.'  This story is of one such turning point.  In fact, it is the very first 'turning point' in the journey that led to all the others.

Recently, an old priest acquaintance of mine passed away.  Though I hadn't seen him for years, he had been at the forefront of my mind the past several months.  This priest was Msgr. Francis Campbell of the Archdiocese of Portland, and I was privileged enough to altar serve for his funeral Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland.  When my vocation director emailed us asking for volunteers to serve the Mass, I jumped at the chance because it was Msgr. Campbell was the very first priest (and first person in general) to put the idea into my head that I may actually be called by God to be a priest.

Msgr. Campbell
It was my sophomore year of high school at Valley Catholic in Beaverton, OR, and Msgr. Campbell was presiding at one of our all school Masses.  I recognized him because, though he was retired, he helped at my home parish of St. Cecilia's occasionally since it was such a large parish.  Msgr. Campbell was always talking about the 'priest shortage,' and on this particular day, when we got to the Prayers of the Faithful, he added one on to the end.  He said, "And we pray that one young man in here," (and he kind of looked around at all of us), "may one day become a priest," or something to that effect.  I looked around and thought, "Uh-oh, what if it's me?  What if I am the answer to that prayer?"

Then at Sunday Mass at St. Cecilia's that very weekend, Msgr. Campbell happened to be saying Mass and he did the same exact prayer again! "That one young man in here will one day become a priest."  "Uh-oh," I thought, "It seems more likely now that it would be me, because if I go, then I can fulfill both prayers in one shot."  I even remember going to confession with him one time on a retreat.  After the confession, he asked me up front if I would consider the priesthood.  The idea that I might be called to the priesthood stayed with me ever after.

Of course, it sure took me a long time to discern this call and finally enter, but here I am.  What was really interesting, though, as I prepared to serve Msgr. Campbell's funeral Mass just one week before I was to enter Mt. Angel, is that I remembered one thing he used to say all the time to me when I'd see him at school or at church.  He would 'badger' me about the priesthood, and he would say something to the effect of, "Somebody's got to replace me when I'm gone."  And here I was, a new seminarian for the Archdiocese of Portland, serving at the funeral Mass of this great priest.  It seemed to me like God's providence was at work, not just some mere coincidence.  It reaffirmed the confidence and hope I had in my vocation.

Just before the Mass, as we waited in the sacristy, I told my Archbishop this story (albeit much more briefly).  He was so taken with it apparently, that he proceeded to tell my story to the whole congregation at the end of Mass.  I am sure that I blushed, and I even got a little bit choked up (which surprised me).  "I guess there's no backing out now," I chuckled to myself.

I am very thankful for Msgr. Campbell for planting the original seed of my vocation in my mind.  I am sure that he is now praying for me in the Communion of Saints.  Obviously, there were many other moments along the way that helped me discern God's will for my life, but it was this priest from the days of my youth that tilled the soil to allow God's grace to help the seed of my vocation grow into what it is.

Please pray for me and for all seminarians, and know that you are all in my prayers as well.

Mt. Angel Abbey

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Leaving Utah and Looking Back: A Series of Reflections

This blog post wound up taking the form of four separate reflections on my time. There are no pictures in the post, so let memories be your photographs.

Reflection #1: Here I am at the 12th street Denny's in Ogden. My car is packed to the gills, I have turned in my keys, and I have begun the journey home to Portland. It seems funny to use the term 'home' for Portland since Utah has slowly become my home over the last six years. Can a person have two homes? Yes, I would say, and more.

When I taught at St. Joseph's in Ogden, I was involved in the theatre program there. On closing night, after the show was over, the cast and crew would strike the entire set within a couple of hours, and usually by midnight, the black box theatre gave no sign that a magnificent and intricate set had ever been there. It was the kind of thing that made one question whether there had actually been a play there or if one had simply imagined its existence. But the show lives on in the memory of those who performed it and those who experienced it. Once the set was struck (stricken?), the cast and crew and some parents would all go to Denny's to celebrate. Imagine the look on the waiter's face when 50 energetic kids (some still in their theatre makeup) walk in and get assigned to his section at one in the morning. The post-strike Denny's run was a tradition, and I partook of several of them during my time at St. Joe's.

And now, here I sit in the very same 12th street establishment. Tonight is my closing night, ending a six year run in Utah. I have struck my set; both my classroom and my house are devoid of any sign that I had ever been there. Did Luke Stager actually live and work in Utah, or did we just imagine it? Just like the play, though Utah may not give any sign that I was ever here, the realness of the experience will live on in my memory and in the memories of those with whom I came into contact.

My teacher friend Adam arrives at the restaurant and finds me immersed in thought, and we reminisce about Ogden, Salt Lake, and our schools, sharing tales and memories, and looking with hope toward the future.

Reflection #2: As I prepare to leave Utah, a flurry of thoughts passes through my mind. This has been one of my best summers, and I wish I could extend my time here a little longer. I wasn't able to accomplish everything on my Utah bucket list, but that's okay for a few reasons. 1) My Utah bucket list did exactly what it was supposed to do. It motivated me to use my time wisely and to avoid spending a lot of unnecessary time indoors. 2) Having too many items on a bucket list is much better than having too few. I think anytime a person leaves a place they have lived for a while, there will always invariably be a sense of incompleteness. I would never want to leave Utah feeling like I had seen everything there is to see and done everything there is to do. That sense of restlessness and longing for this place is something I would like to preserve. It will help me remember this place even more fondly. 3) An incomplete bucket list should never be taken as a sign of failure. People who have bucket lists often have a tendency to measure their value by how much of their bucket list they have completed. This is a dangerous philosophy to have. This is especially important when we evaluate the travels and experiences of others. I think we often measure others' experiences by our own possibly very different set of expectations. An example: "You mean you lived in Utah for six years and you've never been to Temple Square?" Yes, that is true. But to measure those six years based on one stereotypical thing I didn't do seems outrageous. I played my viola on the top of Grandeur Peak. Who has done that? I was privileged to sing Bach's St. John's Passion and Mendelssohn's St. Paul with one of the best choirs I've ever sung in. I watched my students learn and grow up and do great things. Those sorts of very unique experiences are what will define my time here. We should never quantify another's experiences based on what we ourselves expect. Who knows what special and unique memories they have created and stored away?

Another theme that has been playing in my mind is the idea that nothing ever stays the same. As soon as I leave Utah, I will never come back to the same Utah. Sure, some things will remain, but I will once again be an outsider to the goings on. Things will proceed without me, as has been happening in Portland since I left six years ago. But even though it's a little sad to miss out on everything, I think it is important that things do change. That is what makes life in any place a joy and an adventure. It's just hard to know that things will change regardless of your involvement or attention to it.

Reflection #3: I am all at once delighted that I have met so many wonderful people during my time here and but also frightened by the fact that I may never see some of these people ever again this side of heaven. I may find similar people in Portland or even similar students if I teach again some day, but no person could ever replace by any means the people I have had the pleasure of meeting and knowing over the last six years. I remember the summer between my last year at St. Joseph's and my first year at Judge Memorial. My teacher friend Andrew and I were talking about various students we'd had and the amusing stories associated with them. I was telling him about a particular student I'd had named Maria Palmetto (code named, of course). There were many hilarious 'Maria Palmetto' stories, and I was lamenting the fact that at Judge, there would be no Maria Palmetto. "Do you think there could be another Maria Palmetto at Judge? Or someone like her?" I asked somewhat facetiously. I knew my friend's answer and agreed with it before he even spoke. He said, "No, I don't think so." He paused as I nodded in agreement. "And I hope you would be disappointed if you did." His comment struck me. "Yes, I suppose I would be." I said almost automatically. And it was true. Every person I have met in Utah is unique and special, and I am sure I will never find anyone anywhere else who could ever replace them. Yes, the people I've gotten to know are irreplaceable, and I know I'd be more than just a little disappointed if they weren't.

So thank you, good people of Utah, for making my experience what it was. Though I leave and enter a new phase of my life, these last six years will remain in my memory, and nothing in my future years will ever be able to replace it.  I might lament that I won't find another 'you' in Portland, but because you are uniquely awesome, I now know I would be disappointed if I did.

Reflection #4: As soon as I learned that my first PACE reaching assignment would be in Ogden, UT, I immediately knew exactly where I wanted to visit when I got there. I had learned about the famed Golden Spike, which joined the original transcontinental railroad, during my first week at my firsts real engineering job at the freight rail company Gunderson in Portland. They had made me and this other new guy watch a documentary about the history of rail transport in the United States, and it featured the Golden Spike heavily. It really captured my imagination, but when I actually got to Utah, I never went. In fact, I never went at all during my six year sojourn in Utah. Never went, that is, until last week, right before leaving.

Admittedly, the exhibit is not super exciting, and none of the original ceremonial spikes are even there; they are all sitting in museums somewhere collecting dust. But I thought of all the people who labored and died to make transport across this continent a reality. Needless to say, I was immersed in thought for quite some time.

My final reflective point is this, with respect to the Golden Spike: just as a golden rail spike forged a connection between two oceans worlds apart, so my memories and experiences will be the Golden Spike that links my two worlds of Portland and Utah. But my Golden Spike will not be sitting in a museum collecting dust.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Summer Bucket List

Summer vacation has arrived, and I am now faced with the prospect of approximately one and half months left in Salt Lake City, UT before I return to Portland.  I have a few things left to do for school, but really, I need to focus on my Utah bucket list.  I am mainly posting this so that I can perhaps hold myself to it a little more firmly but also in case anyone has any suggestions as to where I might go or what I might do.  Some of the things I listed are not really Utah things, but they are things I really want to do this summer.  Here is my list so far:
  • Go to the Golden Spike
  • Do my last two so-called Small Town Adventures
  • Go to Antelope Island
  • Go to the Spiral Jetty
  • Hike Ben Lomond again
  • Hike Lewis Peak
  • Hike Mt. Ogden again
  • Hike Mt. Timpanogos 
  • Several other hikes
  • Walk from St. John the Baptist in Draper to the Cathedral in SLC
  • Actually visit Park City
  • Go to Arches again
  • Go to several other national parks
  • Actually visit Temple Square
  • Actually blog
  • Visit Magic Valley, ID
  • Finish my half of Ed's and my book
  • Visit the Trappist Monastery again
  • Finish reading a giant stack of books
  • Beat Zelda: Twilight Princess
  • Beat Final Fantasy V
  • Beat Final Fantasy VI
  • Finish learning a few songs on my guitar
  • Finish writing some poems I've been thinking about for a long time
My brain is racing with lots of other stuff to do, but I'll leave my list at that for the moment.  The possibilities are endless, so long as I don't wind up binge watching The Office and Seinfeld for the umpteenth time.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Journey of a Different Kind: Vocation and Devotion on the Feast of St. Gemma in the Middle-of-Nowhere, ID

This year's spring break brought many special opportunities.  After singing several days at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City for the Triduum liturgies and for Easter Sunday, I was able to drive home to Portland to see my family and friends.  It was a short trip, but I managed to make the most of my time.  It was a very wonderful trip, but the most important part came toward the end of it.

St. Gemma Galgani
I had to be back in Salt Lake City to sing for Mass for the second Sunday of Easter, meaning I had to drive on Saturday in order to make it in time.  This was disappointing to me because Saturday would be April 11, which is the feast day of St. Gemma Galgani, who has quickly risen through the ranks and become one of my special patron saints.  I have a devotion to quite a few saints, but for some reason I have a special affinity for Gemma and I always mark her feast day with more than ordinary fervor.  So to have to make an eleven hour drive on her day was a very disappointing prospect.  I was especially annoyed because I had this special St. Gemma candle I'd gotten at her shrine in Lucca this past summer, and I had planned on lighting it on her feast day.  I couldn't very well drive with a lit candle in my car (especially since my car has no cupholders).  And I had begun a novena to her that would end on her feast day as well.  I was describing this letdown to my friend CJ, who suggested that perhaps it may not actually be that bad and, in fact, may even be a good thing.  I therefore decided to modify my attitude and thus make the most of the day.  This change of attitude was pivotal.

Last year's 'shrine'
In the past, on the memorial of St. Gemma, I would buy some flowers and set them up in my school's chapel or at home with one of her holy cards on display.  I usually buy pink carnations (or white with red edges like the picture on the right).  Pink is a combination of red and white, and I thought of white representing her purity and red symbolizing the pains she suffered as a result of her physical illnesses as well as the special privilege she had of sharing in the pains of the Passion of Jesus (including the stigmata).  As someone who shunned anything smacking of vanity and always wore plain, black clothes, perhaps pink was a bit much, but I appreciated the symbolism, so I stuck with it.

I thought that perhaps this year I might continue my tradition of buying the pink carnations but because I had no chapel to put them in, I would make a mini shrine somewhere along I-84 and leave the flowers there.  I had no particular inclination as to where I'd leave them, but I figured the afternoon/evening would be best so I could say Vespers at the shrine in addition to my other prayers.

The night before I had to depart, I went over to Fred Meyer (the Portland equivalent of Smith's for you Salt Lakers) to pick up the flowers.  While I was there, I made sure to buy a decent vase to hold the flowers and as I browsed the home decor, I decided to buy some votive candles.  I bought a tall red one and a tall white one, again going for the same symbolism as the pink roses.  As I went to go to pay for my items, I wondered at the amount of thought I was putting into this, which was honestly comparable to the amount of thought I would put into a date or a gift for a significant other.  I have to admit that one of my friends makes good natured fun of me for my devotion to St. Gemma by calling her my 'saint crush.'  I had to laugh at myself for buying flowers and candles with well-thought-out symbolism for a saint's feast day.

As I left the store, I felt the gravity that this feast day was going to have.  Just that day (Friday), I had turned in my completed application for seminary studies with the Archdiocese of Portland.  I have been discerning the priesthood for quite some time, and finally, finally, I have taken action and applied.  There is still much more to the process before I am accepted, but I can safely say that most of my part is done.  Having not been accepted yet, I am hesitant to count my eggs before they hatch, so I am cautious about saying that I will definitely be in seminary (especially since I have had a tendency to cry wolf in the past), but it seems pretty likely at this point.  I feel that St. Gemma has been a special advocate for me, especially with regard to my vocation.  It seemed fitting therefore, that I should be observing her feast day with extra solemnity now that I had finally turned in the application.

After I hit the road the following morning, it was sunny for little while until I reached the dreaded Blue Mountains.  There was a wall of cloud that, when I reached it, began to unleash it's torrid downpour, which wound up lasting all the way through the rest of Oregon and even into Idaho.  Where was I going to set up my shrine?  I prayed that the Holy Spirit would show me when I ought to pull off and and where I ought to go.

Sure enough, eventually the clouds broke and the sun shone brightly on Magic Valley, which is in Eastern Idaho.  There were clouds ahead in the distance, so I knew my time was limited.  As I drove along, I spied a canyon with lots of rock formations that had a very easily viewable parking lot nearby.  I immediately got off at the next exit (147) and made my way there, which was surprisingly easy.  I shortly found out that the canyon was called Malad Gorge and that I was near the town of Tuttle, ID.

The mailbox

As I hiked around looking for a suitable spot, I spied something underneath a large rock.  It was a tiny little mailbox.  Suppressing my fears that a creature of some kind lived inside, I opened the box.  After all, the little flag was up.  Inside was a plastic bag with various trinkets.  There was a tiny booklet of orange paper bound by duct tape, and inside it read, "Everyone please leave something. :)"  It appeared to be written by a child with a pen completely devoid of ink.  I had to really concentrated to
The items in the mailbox
even read the impression left by the tip of whatever writing instrument had been used.  I scanned what other people had left.  There was a cigarette, a lighter, a roadside assistance business card, a punch card for Bandidos Mexican Grill (with 3 out of 6 punches), a quarter, a guitar pic, and a rubber stamp.  I felt like I had found a secret treasure.  I wondered how long this mailbox had been there and how long it would remain there after I'd left.  It wasn't particularly rusty, so I figured it hadn't been there for long.  After scoping out some potential spots for my shrine, I ran back to my car to get something to put into the mailbox.  I put in three things: a Bic pen, a copy of my signature Hoofprints of the Stag card from Magic: the Gathering, and a holy card of St. Gemma.  Perhaps whoever happened upon it next would find out who St. Gemma is and be brought back to God as a result.

The shrine of St. Gemma at Malad Gorge
After leaving the mailbox behind, I found a spot to set up my shrine.  Unfortunately, though the sun was still out, a heavy wind began to blow and I found it impossible to keep the candles lit.  It appeared that I had waited too long to set up my shrine, and now the weather would not cooperate.  Eventually I found a new spot that was relatively shielded from potential rain, but the wind was unforgiving.  I had quite a time trying to constantly relight the candles as I tried to pray Vespers, and then it even started to sprinkle a little bit.  One thing I can say is that those extremely thin pages in the breviary do not do well in moderate moisture.  Eventually, I was able to modify the candles and their position to keep them lit and steadfast.

As I prayed my Rosary there and my other St. Gemma prayers, the sun set and night fell.  The clouds that had plagued me earlier all but disappeared and the stars lit the night sky like the flames of candles at Easter Vigil, casting light on my bouquet of pink carnations.  After finishing my prayers and determining that I ought to get driving again to arrive home at a reasonable time.  As I walked back to my car, I spied the faint light of the three candles glowing, just barely visible.  I wondered how long they would stay lit.  Perhaps I will return there one day and see if my shrine is still there.  I contemplated the graces St. Gemma had received and it made me think of the generosity and mercy of God.  As we say in the Divine Praises, Blessed be God in his angels and in his saints!

When I got back to the parking lot, I learned from a sign that this particular spot was called Devil's Washbowl.  Not anymore, I thought, this place belongs to Gemma now, and therefore to God.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Inspired by a Letter: An Adventure of Grandeur Hiking Grandeur Peak

Yesterday morning I returned to my home at about 1:00 PM after a morning at the Newman Center at the University of Utah.  I had planned for the day to go up to school and do some work so my Sunday would not be too crazy, but as has happened the last three weekends, the sun, the trees, and the outside were beckoning to me to become a part of them.  It would be a shame to miss out on what was clearly a grand day.  And so I sighed as I entered my house, knowing that I must banish from my mind the idea that I should put off my work to be a part of the outside.  That was my intent, that is, until I checked the mailbox.

In the mail was a letter from my friend Bob, with whom I had spent my time in PACE several years ago, and who has been living in Boston and was therefore snowed in his home for a few days with nothing to do but write letters to anyone who wanted one.  I had informed Bob that I indeed wanted a letter, and yesterday it fortuitously arrived and enchanted me with its typewritten font.  Even the typewriter periods had poked holes through the paper to the other side.

The last paragraph was what moved me the most.  I'd always known Bob was a good English teacher, but this letter showed me why.  At the end of the letter, he said:
Hope you're enjoying the ride and Utah's majesty hasn't gotten old, I know you're appreciating all she has to offer & every one of her darling sun rises or sun sets and the gnarl of her canyons and shapes, the distance of her sprawling into infinity. You're making me miss it--which is hard to do.  Oh Luke. Whisper into the wind on a mountain some time and know in that space your words are infinite and the universe is so thrilled just by your being in its space, in itself.
When I read that, my plans immediately changed.  I proceeded to change into a suit, procured a carnation from my 'boutonniere bouquet,' as I call it, placing it through the hole on my lapel, and put on my hiking boots.  I decided what peak I wanted to hike (Grandeur Peak) and set out of the house with an item one would not normally take on a hike (in addition to a suit): my viola.  Luckily, my case has straps that allows it to be worn like a backpack and a compartment in which I could store water and Clif Bars.

As I began the hike, I became painfully aware of how many people I was going to encounter on the way.  For some reason, I thought the trails would be fairly empty, but this was, of course, a ridiculous notion.  At first, no one appeared to pay any attention to me or to remark on my bizarre attire nor my musical instrument case strapped to my back.

The first people to stop and talk to me were a pair of middle aged women with a couple of dogs on the way down.  Like many people I would encounter, they asked what I was doing, wondering if perhaps there was going to be a wedding at the top of the mountain or maybe a proposal.  I shuddered at the idea of anyone having a wedding at the top of a mountain in the early days of February, but I politely said no, though I conceded that such an explanation made sense.  After all, why else would someone dressed in a suit with a white carnation and a musical instrument be going up to the top of Grandeur Peak?

I simply told them that I thought today seemed like such a grand day and that such a grand day demanded grand deeds, and playing my viola at the top of a mountain in a suit seemed like a grand thing to me.  They applauded my efforts and lamented that they would not be there to hear me.  This encounter was like many I was to have throughout the day. 

The going was moderate, but toward the top there was a lot of snow, and luckily my boots proved to be superior to it.  I encountered a couple who were resting for a moment.  Like many of the other folks I had encountered, they asked what I was doing (and whether it was for a wedding or proposal), and I explained about grand days demanding grand deeds.  They then revealed that they had been unsure whether they had wanted to continue to the top because of all the snow, but that now that they had a 'concert' to look forward to, it would be worth it.

When I actually reached the top, the sun was shining through the clouds in the west, and Bob's words echoed in my mind.  It was much colder than it had been down below, and to my surprise, I was actually alone.  I said a prayer or two, ate a Clif Bar and had a drink and pulled out my viola.  I began with Wild Mountain Thyme, followed by the tune Thaxted, which is also known as O God, Beyond All Praising and is featured in Holst's Jupiter.  As I wrapped up that tune, the hikers I had passed began to appear.

The couple who'd decided to go to the top after all arrived first.  The lady said I should get a minister's license and perform marriages at the top of mountains and make some money.  I shuddered to think that people would become ministers so they could make money performing strange weddings at the top of mountains, but I simply said, "That would be an interesting idea."  Another gentleman arrived and took pictures for us.

Another group reached the top and the girl in the group asked if I knew the tune of Greensleeves, which I then proceeded to play.  Another two gentlemen in state-of-the-art hiking gear arrived, explaining that they had been hiking along the Church Fork ridge for eight hours.  After I played a failed attempt at the Prelude for Cello Suite No. 1 by Bach (my hands were getting too cold), they said their eight hour trek was worth it just for that.

The final piece of the performance was Schubert's Standchen.  I couldn't execute the double stops I normally use, but it was definitely the best piece of the 'concert.'  The couple were the only people left, and they listened intently before departing, leaving me once again alone.  I regarded the Wasatch Valley below, crowned with the rays of the sun penetrating the clouds, just on the verge of sunset, said one final prayer, sang the Salve Regina, and made my way down.

It was in this way that I became a grand part of the grand day, and it was in this way that I could come as 'close' as I could to God in the heavens.  To take my very best to the peaks of the mountains to do as poet John Gillespie Magee, Jr. said, "slip the surly bonds of earth" and "touch the face of God."