Vanity of Vanities and the Value of Life

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.”

I am a bit in awe that the words of King Solomon written some 2400 years ago could have such relevance in a life as inconsequential as mine. Not that I possess kingly or divine wisdom or anything close – nor am I living in the depths of despair – although I have been there quite recently – but I must hand it to the man, the sage of a bygone age – he took the words right out of my mouth. But then again, American novelist Thomas Wolfe said of Ecclesiastes, “[O]f all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth—and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth.” So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by my shared sentiments with a king.

Image result for probate in montanaWhat do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.  Almost a year and a half after my father passed away the Morck family “estate” is finally coming to a close. A year and a half of emotion-filled frustration and emptiness that no one other than the people living it understand. Certainly, the attorneys and staff who saw my parents’ assets and the distribution thereof as anything more than a pile of papers that kept getting piled upon by more pressing and lucrative matters did not understand. Surely, the sting of death is gone by now they must have assumed. Surely, it was strictly a matter of business for my brother, the executor of the estate, to call time and again for “any news” on the process, and not something that reminds one of a life lived that is no longer with us – taken away in a manner of death that had no respect for the caliber of life lived.

This is the road we have traveled since saying goodbye to our parents beginning with our Mom 2.5 years ago and our Dad an impossible 18 months ago. A road of lessons learned we don’t intend to ever need again – other than to pass on our death wisdom to others.

“All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.”

I have shared a considerable amount of our journey through the end of my parents’ lives with you. It is quite the topic for contemplation – the value of things and what makes up this big thing we call life.  I shared with you as my brother and I sorted through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children) and how flabbergasted we were at the  sheer number of things collected and types of things held on to during their nearly 60 years of marriage.

I shared with you my family home decluttering tales, the sentimental moments of nostalgia that flooded the basement with tears, the moments of shock that sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories at seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain priced for the estate sale. So much emotion devoted to things and the memories made with them.

I shared with you the ramifications of trusting but not verifying that my father had the affairs of his estate in order—after all we had gone through all the “actions,”  family meetings,  attorney appointments, etc. That unverified trust turned into an unfortunate surprise for my brother and I after Dad had passed away and there was no one left to ask the pertinent questions of. Granted, my parent’s deaths were so close together that we still didn’t have our feet under us before we were grieving all over again, but we had plenty of time during the “good” years to have made sure we weren’t dealing with the unsavory issues of death afterward.  But those were the “good” years and death, while not unmentionable in my family, seemed a long way off. Until it wasn’t.

One would have thought that we would be done by now – left to regroup and remember not the losing of our parents’ lives but the living of them. But unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way – life has far too many complexities and complications.

But then last week – out of the blue it would seem – the beginning of the end came. The attorney was ready for us and with a mere signature at the bottom of a bunch of sterile legalese, the sum of my parents’ and more specifically my father’s life will officially come to a close.

The irony of the timing was not lost on this sentimental, deep-thinking, slightly emotional bride-to-be. As I look forward to the beginning of sharing the rest of my life with someone – just as my parents did some 63 years ago – I realize just how very much death has changed me. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things become a part of our lives. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how little those things matter in life.

My family lived a comfortable life. We wanted for nothing – okay that is a stretch – of course, I wanted cool games, designer jeans, my own car, and fantastic trips to places other than relative’s homes, the list goes on – but we did not get everything we wanted. We had what we needed – each other and love.

I used to be a wedding planner for an upscale floral and home shop.  I was jokingly known as “always the wedding planner never the bride.”  I helped brides dream up lavish wedding day celebrations and register for every possible thing they could ever want for feathering their nest. The more the better seemed to be the modus operandi. I, just as every girl and woman I imagine, once had dreams of my own wedding someday – big floral ensconced, orchestra – serenaded dreams.

“I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But again, this also was vanity.  I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”  I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life.”

I almost fell into the trap of wedding extravagance, of material expense, and emotional overwhelm. The dress, the flowers, the food, the rings, the shoes, the websites, the registries, and the self-imposed desires for the perfect day right out of a Montana Bride magazine, oh my!  But as I drove home one evening recently after a day of bridal “bliss” my thoughts turned from matching ties to ribbons and centerpiece ideas to the condition of my heart and where my mind had been the day before – at the end of lives lived.

After taking stock of my parent’s lives, the life I have lived so far, and the life I am about to begin, the idea of registering for “things” is almost repulsive. Things do not matter. The thought of a lavish affair that smacks of competing for “event of the year” leaves me cold. What we value reveals the nature of our hearts. There is nothing like seeing life reduced to words on a paper that make you realize it is the life lived and love that matter – it is the life and love therein that remain in your heart long after the living is done. Everything else is meaningless, “vanity” as Solomon wrote; remnants of the human struggle to mask over where life and love are missing.

As I begin this next chapter of my life – there will be no masks needed. There will be nothing more and nothing less than life and love for all the days my fiancé and I  have together, beginning with our first.

“I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”

 

Let your light so shine.

The Race

18489813_1590917990932793_6319657206837000823_oI think there should be a course on how to get through life after death. I can go days doing just fine and then I am hit with a day like today – a day like any other day except I am thrown off course by my aching heart. So many thoughts and memories flood over me: the last moments with my Dad, his last breath, watching the last bit of light left in his heavy-lidded eyes disappear, hearing his defibrillator keep his heart beating ever so slowly even after he was gone as I lay on his chest one last time – not ever wanting to forget what it felt like to be Daddy’s little girl with his arms wrapped around me; not making that call to my Mom the night before she died – saving my tales of mountain adventure and my words of love until the next day when I “had more time” only to learn the heart wrenching lesson that time is not ours to bargain with.
I try to run faster, to lose myself in the snowy landscape with the cadence of my feet hitting this lonely earth. Knowing I will never outrun these memories and the pain that accompanies them all the while knowing deep down that I don’t want to…
The fastest race we will ever run is the race of life – our time is fleeting, the most important facets of life become mere flickers of memory as days become months become years. I find myself reaching to the depths of my soul to remember my mother’s voice and Dad’s bear hugs. I want time to slow down so the distance between our life and last moments together is not so far and yet I want time to speed up so I don’t have to wait to be with them again.
One can get caught up in “if only’s” but that is not how races are run and won. I don’t think we can ever win the race of life – I just wish I had run mine better this far, that I hadn’t wasted energy on trivial matters. I wish I had paced myself to run with those who were in it with me instead of being so focused on my time and my destination.
Perhaps God wants us to figure this life after death thing out on our own. Perhaps He knows how proficient a teacher death is. Perhaps He knows that the race of life cannot be completed without death. Perhaps this race of life is simply preparing us for death and the only victory that really matters.
“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”  – Isaiah 40: 28-31

Living Forward

“It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.”  – Søren Kierkegaard

I wonder if the late Danish theologian and philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, ever dreamt that a modern modicum of communication known as Facebook would one day be a vessel for bringing this illuminating thought on understanding the meaning of life to the remembering masses? If you have spent any length of time on this social media phenomenon, you will be rewarded with glimpses of your yesterdays and if you are like me, sent into thoughtful repose for a few moments at least, on a daily basis. Most days these “flashbacks” make me smile – a recent one of mine from a year ago lamenting that it was time to go to bed and dream of puppies after a hard day – made me laugh out loud as I have  now made that dream come true. But as the calendar pages turn over to a new year, I know I will soon be facing 1 and 2 year flashback “anniversaries” of some pretty difficult days and times in my life.

A friend of mine and I, both of us recovering from life after 2 years of living, were recently bemoaning this daily (depending on how much you frequent Facebook) reminder of how good things once were, of how bad things can be, and boy what have we done with our lives since? As we commiserated with one another over coffee, the comment was made that we could alter our profile settings to filter out what Facebook could “send” to us. We can filter out people, dates, and just about anything from our past that we don’t want to be reminded of or see. But should we? This idea did not sit well with the sentimental, soul searching, meaning of life seeking me. After all, I thought, though these Facebook flashbacks conjure up emotions in me that frankly I could do without somedays, they are the experiences that made me the woman that I am in 2018. Yes, I wish those experiences could all be mountaintop highs and photos of celebrations with family and friends, and abounding successes, but they wouldn’t be real.

Despite our superior intellect among species, God did not give us minds that can purposefully filter and forget the life we lived. Rather, he gave us mercy and forgiveness through His Son. Our memories are reminders for the here and now that we made it through, that life goes on, and that God is faithful to us. I like to remind myself that my faith needs to be as clear and strong as my 20/20 hindsight.

It is easy to be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives. Gratitude for all that life encompasses –  the good as well as the bad, the times of joy and times of sorrow, our successes as well as our failures, and connections as well as rejections – now that requires work. It is only when we look back at our lives that we can truly comprehend the journey we have been on and give thanks for the important lessons we have learned and the people we have met along the way.

It is those lessons and those relationships that allow us, prepare us, and propel us forward in life even as we do not know what tomorrow will bring – let alone comprehend it.

If we try to filter from our lives the events and people we would like to forget, we cannot claim the identity that God, in His timing, reveals to us. We can, however, choose to fill our lives with more experiences and seek out relationships with others that will, in time, become pleasant memories. Strive for flashbacks that make you smile or better yet laugh with a heart and mind that understands that life can only be lived one day at a time but with a confidence in its ultimate purpose.

As the new year gets underway, resolve to make memories you will cherish and make grateful  peace with the past. Yes, your past does define you but it doesn’t have to confine you. Who you are today is the product of the experiences you couldn’t comprehend or appreciate yesterday. Be grateful for everything that has brought you to where you are now and trust that in time you will see where the guiding hand of a loving God has led you.

Let your light so shine.

An Equation for Life

“What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” – Ecclesiastes 3: 9-11

I have spent a considerable amount of time and paper this summer, contemplating the value of things and what makes up this big thing we call life. As my brother and I sorted through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children) there were times that I just wanted it all to go away. I was flabbergasted at the amount of things we had collected and held on to throughout the 60 years of my parent’s life together.

I shared with you my family home decluttering tales, the sentimental moments of nostalgia that flooded the basement with tears, the moments of shock that sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories at seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain priced for the estate sale. So much emotion devoted to things and the memories made with them.

If anything good can come from the deaths of one’s parents, it is the lessons we, that are left behind, go on living with about what life really is all about.

I recently read an article by Carl Richards, the Sketch Guy, in the New York Times in which he wrote about the equation of life that most of us are currently in the process of solving.

[Life] = [Money]

We spend all this time earning money to spend on stuff that makes up our lives. We swap our lives for money. In fact, we swap about 40,000 hours of our lives over 20 years for money which we then spend on stuff.

His equation morphed into this final assessment:

[Life] = [Stuff]

After my brother’s and my experience of cleaning out the family home of stuff this summer, I could not agree more! To be honest, I think there was way more than 40,000 hours of life swapped for stuff – more like a lifetime worth life swapped for stuff.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying everyone should stop working and earning money and buying things – goodness, things make life worthwhile –  to an extent. We are humans. We need things. As a civilized and domesticated human, I want things and frankly couldn’t live without things. A roof over my head is important, as is heat, clothing, food, and yes, for me a car. I know some people can get by in life without a car – there is a whole movement among the millennials to not own a vehicle – and more power to them! I however, cannot. I like my car and the rapid way it transports me to places I need or want to go. I like to have a comfortable and welcoming home – a remnant of sorts of the home I grew up in, I suppose, where collections created a story of our lives.  A nifty pair of boots make me happy when the weather turns cool.  The quest for things keeps our economy humming. When the economy stops humming most of us start moaning and groaning – so obviously, things have an important role to play in our lives.

But I will tell you right now – I would sell you the clothes off my back and everything I have acquired in my 20+ years of working, to have a few more moments with my mom and dad.

I recently ventured “home” one last time. The house has sold and I needed to gather the few remaining things that had been stuffed into my bedroom closet and pick up a few more things that remained in storage that would now occupy my new home. This was the first time I had stepped inside that house completely void of everything since the day we bought the house 28 years ago. I was 18 years old at that time. A new chapter was opening in my family’s life. Dad had just retired and was looking forward to years of golf and staying put for a change. Mom was looking forward to being close to family again and staying put for a change. It did not dawn on me at that time that this would be the house they would die in.  Standing in that empty house, I felt like a wildfire had come through and swept everything away. Stripped bare of the contents collected, “home” felt foreign to me – as if the 28 years of life lived inside these walls hadn’t happened. The emptiness was too much. I longed to page through the books my dad’s hands once held, and to light again, the candles my mom collected because candlelight always made our hearts glow. I longed for our blue and white dinner plates that served us dinner for 35 years, I longed for the scent of my dad’s Bay Rum and Aqua Velva after shave and my mom’s Bonn Street eau de toilette.  Those things were all gone. Sold and taken away to the stories of other people’s lives or simply gone and alive only in my memories. There was no comforting ticking of the old barn clock that had hung on every wall of every home my parents owned. Just silence.

Poignantly, some of things left behind in my closet were bundles and bundles of cards  – cards from my childhood – cards from friends telling me good bye and good luck as we prepared to move away. Cards from aunts and uncles and cards from Mom and Dad. Cards from when I turned 6 and turned sweet 16. Cards in honor of my confirmation and graduation. I tried to sort through them, thinking now was as good a time as ever to lighten my collection of stuff –  but the “to toss” pile never grew. I found myself clinging to every written word on every single card as a link to my past. I knew in these stacks of cards were some of the last words written to me by Mom and Dad. All I wanted was to see their handwriting telling me they loved me and how proud they were of their little girl. I will never receive one of those cards again.

There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things become a part of our lives.

There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how little those things matter in life.

Death has changed what I value. Those hand-written cards found in my closet have far more value to me than all the clothes I could ever want to hang there. The sale price of the family home means far less to me than the life once lived within its walls. And that is what makes my heart break.

We don’t like to think that our time with our loved ones, that our own time, frankly, is finite. I took for granted the time I had with my parents, and as many wonderful memories and not so wonderful memories that I have of our family, I do not have enough. I did not invest the time I had with them wisely.

Having worked for a financial advisor for 4 years now one would think I would have this investing thing down pat. Well, from now on I plan to. I am refocusing my investments – not in things, not in money, but in life.  I am investing more time in living life.

I’m done swapping countless hours of life for things and empty existence. A few hours for a nifty pair of boots, ok – yes. The rest I plan to invest in the times of my life. Here’s my equation:

[Time] = [Life]

Aside from paying someone to mow my lawn – money can’t buy any of that.

“I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.” – Ecclesiastes 3:12-14

When Comparison is the Thief of Joy

“Last year at this time I was/had….” How many times lately have I started a conversation with that comparative statement? More often than I would like to admit. Regretfully, I have spent much of my time this summer dwelling on the past rather than living fully in the present and contemplating the future. It is a relatively easy habit to fall into and when one is feeling mentally exhausted, stressed out, or just down in the dumps. Dwelling on happier times is a good respite for the emotional soul. Positive memories have an important place in our lives – they help us out of a sad moment, help us heal from the loss of a loved one, and create meaning in our lives. They can also send us spiraling into a trap of living in the past while ruing our present –  keeping us from moving forward and enjoying the gifts of life we have now.

11731884_1033524946672103_274556446325443046_oI found myself doing just that as I talked to friends about summer plans. Last year at this time I had already knocked out 23 hikes in the park including summiting several mountains with plenty of joyous trail journal entries and pictures to fill a museum. I was feeling strong and mighty, like the world below me was mine to conquer from those peak-top experiences and happiness seemed to radiate from my soul. This year however, I have only managed 6 hikes- 4 of which were remarkably wet and miserable to the point of relegating one pair of manure and mud encased boots to the trash barrel and another instance of dumping about a ½ cup of water out of each boot upon returning to my vehicle. On the two hikes not inundated by rain, I found myself drained of any stamina. I felt conquered by the world, my radiance reigned over by sadness. What was wrong with me? The lack of hiking opportunities due to rain cancellations and life events conflicting with fun in the sun were just the tip of this depressive iceberg.13754601_1256154167742512_2134166270177249671_n

My life has not been a bed of roses lately with the death of my mother, the loss of a relationship, and my father’s recent cancer diagnosis, surgery, and serious car accident. Rather than being thankful for the present I was asking “How much more, Lord, how much more?” As the summer wore on the happy memories of the past made my present seem more and more unbearable… I was on a trajectory of dejection with a dark stormy cloud hovering above me.  Indeed, this summer has been a season of discontent.

And then one of my dear friends shared a bit of wisdom with me, a belief she has followed through her own difficult times. When we dwell on the negative, we attract more of it. By focusing on what wasn’t going right in my life I was allowing that dark cloud to boil and billow into a huge thunderstorm of negative thought pellets that hailed down on me no matter where I went. The rain sodden hikes just exemplified this in physical form and further dampened my outlook! On the heels of those words of wisdom, a visiting pastor gave a sermon with a message that really hit home with me. It was one of those God moments where you think He is talking directly to you and no one else surrounding you.

The message, born from the books of Ecclesiastes and Luke, talked of getting wrapped up in the increasing busyness and trappings of life. Rather than getting caught in the frenzy of keeping up with the Joneses, or in my case keeping pace with my own over the top life of summers past, we should look to our present and give thanks for the simple pleasures and blessings we receive from others to find joy. Receiving these words of wisdom from two very different people made something click in my mind. Rather than resenting my present, I was able to accept that I was living in a very different season of life this year compared to last year. I wasn’t allowing myself any grace, something I am great at giving others but not myself obviously. By dwelling on the past I was missing the good things that were growing in this season’s garden as a result of the rain in my life. The dark cloud of comparison had hidden those good things from my sight.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” —Theodore Roosevelt

13613171_1265591673465428_7058362766506802065_oThrough this past and present emotional season of life I have been the recipient of many gifts given by others. And so taking my friend’s advice I began to dwell on those gifts – kind words, hugs, long talks on walks, the simple generosity of time given by one to the other. Because I have not spent every weekend this summer in the mountains I have rediscovered the simple joy of Sunday morning coffee hour after worship and connecting with friends I only see once a week. Because I have not spent every weekend in the mountains I have spent much more time at the piano and found new music to challenge myself with.  I began to dwell on the beauty of my surroundings – the valley landscape that I had often overlooked on my mountaintop adventures and the new life abounding around me. I dwelled on the joy of singing with a choir and the joy of sharing beautiful music with friends. I dwelled on the recent opportunities to celebrate life over dinner with friends. I dwelled on the simple but wonderful feeling of escape from the world found in the pages of a good book on a stormy evening. I dwelled on the sunlight reflecting on water. Most of all, I dwelled in this present season of life. Sure it has been a tough one, but the tempestuousness of it has made me stronger and more appreciative of yes, the joys of life.

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There is a time for everything in life, a time for living joyously and at full speed ahead and a time for mourning and rest. Both seasons should be embraced, not resented.

A Time for Everything

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.

~ From Ecclesiastes 3

Let your light so shine.

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