That homesick feeling

The farm in Upstate New York that I loved to visit as a child.

At six years old, most of us don’t have a great grasp of the world around us. Life revolves around parents and family. The rest of life is a mystery until we experience it.

During the summer after my second grade year in school, my favorite aunt and uncle traveled from their farm in Upstate New York to visit our family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When the time came for them to leave, I begged my parents to allow me to go with them back to the farm. To my surprise, my parents agreed.

A half hour later a bag was packed and I was plopped in the back seat of their car for the trip north to Bainbridge and the farm that I loved.

But the next morning, I woke up with a horrid feeling in my gut. I was homesick. If you’ve never experienced that feeling for yourself, it can be best described as a deep combination of longing and loss that penetrates your whole being. All you want to do is go home.

Confession: I was always an anxious kid. Already at that age, I chewed my nails. Looking back through a life of dealing with aspects of anxiety and depression, I realize that homesickness was a product of who I am. Learning to cope with anxiety is a lifelong job. I don’t blame myself for it, and these days I know myself well enough to function healthily. It wasn’t always that way.

The morning of my homesickness, I recall my aunt making a phone call to my parents, who drove up from Lancaster that day to fetch their anxious, homesick son. Apparently all involved had pity on me. Perhaps they knew those feelings well enough to realize there was no cure except to send me back home. Sometimes good caregiving is a matter of listening to the people involved.

Keeping me on the farm a couple days might have cured the homesickness, but I must have been a sorry sight with all those aching tears. I guess I can be grateful that adults had compassion for my condition.

The giant elm that once stood in front of the Nichols family farm where my mother grew up.

I looked up homesickness on the Psychology Today website. It had interesting things to say about homesick feelings. “A number of studies have suggested that homesickness can be associated with psychological difficulties such as lonelinessdepressionanxiety, difficulty adjusting to new situations, and psychosomatic health problems. Given that being away from home can be accompanied by the sadness of missing it, one wonders why we form such powerful emotional bonds to our home. Surely, attachment is at least partly the product of all the wonderful experiences we enjoyed during our childhood.”

It goes on to say, “As poet Robert Frost famously explained, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Our bond extends beyond enjoyable experiences. It encompasses unconditional love, commitment, loyalty and enduring connectedness.”

Still, no specific mention of fear as a cause of homesickness. Perhaps there’s no reason. That emotion is woven into the DNA of anxiety and depression. It is both the cause and a symptom of those conditions.

The PT article continues,” Efforts to prevent homesickness must contend with a paradox. Although research findings have been inconsistent, homesickness seems to be more likely when children have had prior experiences with separation from home as well as when they had had little or no prior periods away. If homesickness is the price we pay for attachment to a strong loving home, would anyone want to diminish the quality of a child’s home to prevent the possibility of future homesickness?”

Like many children in that day and age, I lived in a home that was both loving and at times, a conflicted place. My father lost his mother to complications of cancer treatment when he was just seven years old. He went to live with an uncle and two aunts because his own father experienced profound depression at the loss of his wife and also brought on in some ways by The Depression.

So my father’s upbringing was at times gruff. His pain at losing his mother at such a young age was probably never adequately addressed. No doubt there were feelings of homesickness after being shuttled from his family home to a life with a tough old uncle and two unmarried aunts. The sense of loss must have been profound. Thus despite his largely caring character, he bore an anger within him that spilled out at times. His four sons tried to meet his approval but there was an exasperating and sometimes frightening tone to certain aspects of our upbringing.

So that feeling of separation from home as a place of safety and comfort is both a physical and emotional reality for all of us. Yet to this day, I still view our Lancaster house and yard as “home” in many ways. We moved away when I was twelve years old. A type of homesickness has traveled with me all these years. We’d have never left that place if I’d had my way.

A Google Maps photo of the family home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Yet that would have denied me all the experiences that were to come and those were good. So while homesickness is real, it is also not permanent and is no way to define or limit one’s time in this world. We have to rip off the bandage at certain times in life, and move on.

All of us have some sense of home that lives within our souls. Sometimes it’s just the smell of a room when the windows are open… or the curl of a pillow as you roll over to face that person whom you love. It can be heard in the song of a bird calling in the trees, or the sound of a car pulling into a driveway.

Take in those sensations and indeed, you’re home again. That’s the right kind of pride.

Note: I’ve shared impressions about homesickness before on this blog because they symbolize so many other aspects of life. May you find that sense of home wherever you are.

I’m in love with stacey’s mom

See that iRobot® Roomba® coursing through our dining room? That’s a recent addition to our household, purchased by my wife to sweep up dog hair and detritus on the downstairs floors.

Our Roomba is named Stacey.

She named the Roomba Stacey. “I don’t know why,” she told me when I inquired about the name. “It just seems to fit.”

This is not a paid endorsement. The arrival of Stacey in our household is a direct result of my wife getting sick of looking at dog hair around the house.

My wife also loves a good bit of technology. She taught our musical friend Alexa to instruct Stacey to begin her morning rounds at 9:00 a.m. The sound of Stacey whizzing around bumping into walls is audible for an hour as we work in our respective home offices upstairs. Then Stacey rolls back to her dock to charge up for another day. That makes my wife so very happy.

Tech woman

That’s not the only tech my wife adores. She’s got a heart monitor for her many workouts as an Ironman Triathlete. She wears a sleep monitor strap to track the quality of her overnight rest. For everything else, we have Garmin tech to measure swims, runs and rides.

You might say Data is her friend. But I’m her husband. And I’m in love with Stacey’s mom.

When we first met we kept the “L” word off the table for a year or so. She was coming off a divorce and I was a relatively recent widower. But the more time we spent together, the more commitment we felt. She even asked the point blank question: “Are you sure you don’t want to date someone else?” I said no. Then after a year or more, one or the other of us said the word “love.” From then on, we didn’t look back.

Guilt factor

I’ll admit that it’s still a little hard to write about the L word in relation to my wife to this day. Having loved my first wife for twenty-eight years of marriage (and four years of dating before that) through the day that she died of ovarian cancer, there’s a touch of guilt associated with proclaiming love for this woman to whom I’m now married. But loving again has nothing to do with not having loved the person before her. If anything, it affirms the fact that love is real, and that I’m capable of it.

That’s the right kind of pride.

Love talk

So I’ll say it again. I’m in love with Stacey’s mom. Here are some of the things I love about her.

We laugh together in the car quite often. To stoke our conversations, I’ll raise an idea about some doubtful topic on purpose that she inevitably swats down with a bit of joyful skepticism. “No…” she’ll intone when I gigglingly make an inane statement, “That’s not how that works.” Then we riff on the subject by making even more jokes about it. I love that in her.

I love her head to toe. She takes good care of herself and we have an affectionate relationship. I love giving her hugs and feeling the strength of her back and arms and the warmth of her arms around me. When I give her massages her leg muscles feel like broad ropes or sheaths. Over the last eight years, I’ve gotten to know her typically sore spots earned from workouts in swimming, riding and running.

Sudden smile

She has a sudden smile that attracted me instantly on our first date. That smile is my reward for pleasing her or making her laugh. She often compliments me on finished projects when we’re working on around the house. Hearing her say, “Nice job, honey,” is one of most satisfying statements a man can hear.

Artful minds

We enjoy seeing aspects of the arts together. Exhibitions. Musicals and concerts. She knows music well and though she’s a bit younger than me, our musical tastes line up well. Except for certain artists. She’s not a fan of Todd Rundgren or Dan Fogelberg, for example, nor Rufus Wainwright. So I don’t tell Alexa to chime those up unless I want to tease her. Then I might tell Alexa to play Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer” and give her an Ear Worm for the next day or so.

The dance of life

I like how she dances too. Her moves are both alluring and demure at the same time, and when she’s lost in the music, she doesn’t care much about whatever else is going on. “Dance like no one is watching,” is the popular phrase, and I follow her lead. Catching the shine of her eyes while we’re dancing makes my heart jump.

And I’ll also say that I’m ardently, physically attracted to her too. Even with all the images floating past our eyes in this digital day and age, it is the site of her that makes the sap within me rise. We lose ourselves in each other.

So while the song “I’m in love with Stacey’s mom” celebrates cross-generational lust through the naive notions of a young boy fixated on a friend’s mom, there are more ways than one to love a woman.

And I’m in love with Stacey’s mom.

Glad for those who retire, and for those who don’t

People nearing my age often retire. Some run their career course and it makes absolute sense to cash in and cease working in the conventional sense. Others plan wisely and have the financial resources to allow them to quit working and do what they want with the rest of their lives. I’m glad for all those who achieve those milestones. They’ve typically earned them.

Yet I’m also glad for people that choose not to retire at a given age. While the age of 55-65 is often the traditional age for retirement, there is nothing that says you have to quit working at that stage. Our current President of the United States, Joe Biden, is 78 years old. The masterful Bob Dylan just turned 80. Many great artists work even into their 90s. What’s the damn rush to quit working?

Still, the pressures to do so can be daunting. I know a sales executive, now retired, who could not find employment after his company consolidated departments and he wound up on the outside. He’s living now in Arizona, and enjoying it. But at first he was hurt by the sense that he was no longer valued in a working way.

Those are challenging emotions for people at any age, and losing your job or needing to step back from employment is often a solid blow to the ego. So much of our identity is tied to our working life.

There is also the sense of “earning a living.” During my peak earning years I found myself out of work several times during caregiving for my late wife. At several times during eight years of caregiving she needed me home to take care of her through surgeries, chemotherapy treatments and recovery periods of both physical and mental consequence. The timing was seldom convenient to long-term success or building the perception of a steady-growth career. Each time I peaked in income, rising from $80K to $100K, cancer whacked us with a recurrence, and it was hard for her to work as well.

It felt like starting at Square One during each of those comebacks. Sometimes the return to work involved taking lower-paying jobs that were closer to home during periods of cancer caregiving. I won’t claim that I was a perfect employee during those periods of change, either. During those eight years, I was also principal caregiver to a father who was a stroke victim. The dual demands were daunting.

Yet I still managed considerable successes that included winning large accounts, earning national awards in public relations and marketing, and building a literacy project that served more than 375,000 families. But my failures included forgetting meetings, allowing the occasional typo to slip through, and trying too hard to protect my job by posting a sample of client work to my personal website. I was under enormous stress in the moment and didn’t think that decision through. It led to my dismissal just a day after I’d revealed to the company that my wife was a cancer patient. They brought in a lawyer to protect their interests in that circumstance after they’d promised to support us no matter what. It was hard not to consider that a cheap shot.

Plus, that situation left me with no job and COBRA insurance premium payments of $2000 a month. To say that some of our premium earning years were compromised by cancer struggles is a massive understatement.

So I’ve forgiven myself for not retiring at age 55 when some of my peers managed to do so. But here’s the odd truth about my actual attitude. I’m not eager to retire. In many respects as a writer and content developer, I’ve never been more capable and productive. Quitting now would be a shame, from my perspective. I still enjoy the challenges work provides.

I’ve also been an athlete all my life, and I’ m swimming, riding and running every week. I enjoy the sensations of being fit and active. That aligns with my daily writing, painting or producing creative content across a spectrum of platforms. Perhaps it would be nice to retire, but I feel like I’d still be doing the same things I do now even if I weren’t traditionally “working.”

As for a retirement plan, there is still time to make up the difference and that’s what I plan to do. The other main goal I have in life is to MAKE A DIFFERENCE. That is why a series of books I plan to publish are so important to me.

The first is a book titled Honest-To-Goodness: Helping Christianity Find It’s True Place in the World. It is a treatise on the roots of Christian tradition and how legalism leads so many people astray. It is a collaborative project with a Professor or Religion named Dr. Richard Simon Hanson.

The second is a book titled Nature Is Our Country Club. It is a book about the way golf courses thirty years ago realized there was a better way to manage their properties than pouring chemicals all over the ground and mowing everything in sight. The narrative traces how natural landscaping relates to the world at large, and what the human race needs to do in order to protect the earth on which we all depend.

The third book is Competition’s Son, a biography about life that deals with the effects of competition in all aspects of life; learning, sports, family, relationships, business, religion, success and failure, and emotional conditions ranging from anxiety to joy, from depression to salvation.

The first two books are finished and being prepped for release. My goal is to begin speaking and producing content around those topics going forward. All the while I’ll continue working because I love what I do. I’m glad for those who retire, but I’m also glad for those who don’t.

To me, that’s the Right Kind of Pride. How about you?

What it means to lose a longtime friend

Five Luther College teammates, from left to right: Dani Fjelstad, Steve Corson, Paul Mullen, Keith Ellingson and Christopher Cudworth.

I’m driving out to Iowa today to share in the visitation and funeral for a longtime friend, Keith Ellingson. He was a freshman year roommate at Luther College where we were also cross country teammates.

After that, we worked together in college admissions, then parted ways as we got married, raised children and engaged in our careers.

He built a legacy as an excellent coach in track and field and cross country. His worked earned him a place in the Simpson College (IA) Hall of Fame. Dozens of his athletes earned All-American status, and one of his decathletes made the United States Olympic trials, no small accomplishment for a Division III collegiate athlete.

His achievements were many, but he was perhaps proudest of his three daughters, Jessica, Bailey and Catie, all of whom I’ve followed in their careers and family life as well.

Back in 2010, Keith lost his wife Kristi to ovarian cancer. Then in 2013, I lost my wife Linda to the same disease. That was a strange convergence for two longtime friends. Our wives met several times at our college reunions where they quietly shared the challenges of chemotherapy, surgeries and survivorship.

As if that weren’t enough of a rough outcome for my friend Keith, he was later beset by Parkinson’s disease, a condition that muted his physical and social affect. Despite that challenge, he never lost his wry sense of humor or his love of storytelling. Sometimes I had to lean in to hear what he was saying, but it was always worth it. Every. Single. Word.

Then he was diagnosed with a form of Alzheimer’s disease as well. None of this was what I ever expected for him. Throughout his life he was an active athlete and vividly social being. Many times in his presence I was reduced to absolute laughter by his incredibly quick wit. He had a laugh that seemed to say so much as well. It was a welcoming and yet objective sort of laugh. As in, “Can you believe this?”

Over the last year Keith had become more animated, the result perhaps of some medications that worked well. A large group of his friends and former athletes conducted Zoom calls with him, swapping stories… and asking Keith to tell a few of his own. Those calls were akin to the Knights of the Roundtable, sharing old “war stories” of track and field triumphs and failures. We laughed at ourselves some, and Keith laughed along with us.

Along the way his daughters got to know some of us a bit better as well. We exchanged some direct messages, and I was in the process of gathering information to nominate him for Luther College Hall of Fame status when I learned of his passing. He deserves that HOF honor for his work as an athlete, as a coach, and as a longtime supporter of the institution. Even through his struggles with Parkinson’s, he led our class reunions several times, and I did as well. His classmates revered his perseverance, I can assure you.

The time that has passed does indeed make me think about what it means to lose a longtime friend. I think of all those college reunions and can count the years, but it would require more than a few hands these days. Yet I don’t feel old, because having lifelong friends keeps you young in many respects. Those shared experiences are sustaining in the long run. It means something to work together through thick and thin. To offer that call of commiseration when needed. To extend condolences when appropriate.

Then we get back to the business of living.

That’s not always easy. But that’s what it means to lose a longtime friend. It means you can have gratitude for the time shared and even the time apart. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well, with longtime friends it is often the case that once you touch base again, it is like you never left.

The physical Keith is gone. That needs to be said. I’ve been with my mother when she passed away, and my father too. I was by the bedside when my wife died in the company of her two children, and not long before that, her father as well. A few years ago, I lost a longtime friend that had been my baseball coach when I was thirteen years old. He was my running coach in high school and a longtime friend thereafter.

These bonds are important to all of us. One of the interesting products of social media is that people who knew each other from “back then” reconnect and find out they’re friends in new ways. That has redefined how some of our social networks exist and flourish. I consider it a blessing to have met some of my longtime friend’s daughters through Facebook. Now we’ll meet in person today.

The loss of a longtime friend is hard. If I know anything about Keith Ellingson, he would like it if his passing led to emotional support for his daughters and their families. I think of my own daughter Emily and my son Evan, and how much they’ve missed their mom since she passed. In so many ways we are all family, and through that hope we might all find healing. That is the right kind of pride.

And that is what it means to lose a longtime friend.

Bathing in love and respect

She works hard and seldom takes time to slow down.

After our fifty-mile bike ride in the hills of Galena, Illinois, this past Saturday, we awoke Sunday morning to do a long run back home in Illinois.

It turned warm and the long run turned out to be, in my wife’s words, “A lot of ouch.” When we got home she proclaimed that she was going to take a relaxing bath.

She does not do that often. More typically she takes a shower “on the fly” after her morning and afternoon workouts. That’s why her plan for a late-morning bath seemed like a good idea.

Knowing that my wife wanted to slow down and indulge herself a bit inspired me to move into the background. She did request that I bring her favorite shampoo, conditioner, and deep conditioner to her in the tub. I delivered those and flopped back on our bed to rest my own tired body after an earlier shower.

From my reclined position in bed I could see her head as she ran the whirlpool. She called out: “I’m flexing my toes…They’re really tight.”

I flex my toes that whirlpool tub as well. It feels good to let the jets work out the stiffness in joints. Finally the jets turned off and she took to washing her hair. Her blonde mane darkened as it got wet. Watching her ply her hair with product made me smile. She was due for a stylist appointment before the weekend but it didn’t work out. “So, much, hair,” she observed.

Like many couples, we’ve shared the bath and shower a few times over the years. Those moments of intimacy are blessed connections when the time is right. There are also times when the best thing a husband can do is be the “support crew” for her relaxing bath.

I went downstairs to make breakfast. The vision of her bare body in the tub made me feel a tremendous intimacy that had less to do with sex and more to do with bathing her in my love and respect. A woman deserves that and more.

Through the eyes of children

I’m not a big believer in the idea that the deceased are able to talk with the living. No amount of talk by so-called “mediums” convinces me that people in this life can connect with the dead through supernatural means. I once read that a famous celebrity promised his wife that if he died, she would someday see his presence revealed in a white feather floating in the air. I don’t think that ever happened, or we might have heard about it.

Instead, I believe that when it comes to all things supernatural, it is up to us to find meaning in everyday experiences that trace the lives of those we have lost. Yesterday, I felt the strong presence of my late wife in a teaching experience with children the same age that she once served.

As a substitute teacher the last month and a half, I’ve had the opportunity to work with classrooms ranging from first grade through middle school and high school. Having been in many teaching situations over the years, including adult and higher education, I’m exploring how I can expand that love of teaching at this point in my life.

It has been a challenge and a joy to learn how to work with students of all ages and abilities. Like my late wife, I’ve also worked with special needs students across a range of abilities. Her ultimate career choice was a preschool teacher, a bit different than the higher-paying public school positions to which she once planned to return, but her love of teaching young children won out.

I always knew why my wife loved teaching children that age. They are getting ready for the big world of kindergarten. They need guidance in social skills as well as basic learning in the alphabet and numbers. They also love to explore the arts and play.

As a teacher one learns to adjust to aptitudes and witness how personalities are already forming. It is also a calling to help form those personalities in an encouraging way.

That means you use what talents you have available to connect with kids. For me, that means read-aloud time and drawing. Those are my best teaching attributes. While moving from group to group during play time, I shared some drawing time with a left-handed little guy who absolutely loved the process of copying what I drew on the board. At one point I drew the head of a mouse. He then completed the body and legs, and drew a companion mouse next to the first.

Such are the serendipitous arrivals of teachable moments. Sometimes you make them happen. Sometimes you let them happen.

Over a twenty-year period my late wife experienced thousands, if not millions of such encounters. Those kids were a gift to her in life. Though her life ended earlier than she ever planned, the children and raised (our kids) made it the richest life imaginable. She saw it through their eyes, and the purity of the moment is made from the absence of time. It will be eight years since she passed away on March 26, 2013. It was nice to feel a bit of connection with that life through some preschooler’s eyes.

Teaching and learning

The kids in the INCubator program at our local high school.

A number of weeks ago while speaking with a friend who runs the INCubator program for high school students in which I’ve served as a Mentor and Presenter the last five years, we talked about how schools are adapting during the ongoing pandemic.

“A lot of people are out,” he told me. “We need subs.”

Getting certified

I dug into the requirements to become a substitute teacher and learned that people without a teaching degree can register to become a short-term substitute. That means teaching according to the lessons plans provided by the full-time teacher.

It took several days to fill out and submit the paperwork, gather transcripts from college and high school and file it through the Illinois website. Then I needed to register through the county website and get fingerprinted. Finally it was time to fill out the district paperwork.

Much of that signup could be done online. But wanting to put a face with a name and forms, I stopped at district offices to meet briefly with human resource directors. It is always good to become a known quantity.

I was impressed with the relative efficiency of all that registration. The districts I’m serving also have a great way to sign up for substitution assignments.

Middle school subbing

My first days of teaching were in middle school, running physical education classes all day, managing a language arts class and becoming a “floater” as teachers were getting vaccinated and needed someone to oversee class time and assignments.

Conducting a live art instruction at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse for an audience of 900 children

I’ve spent many hours in classrooms and teaching in other ways over the years. My late wife was a special education teacher for ten years and a preschool teacher for twenty. She asked me to teach her class now and then. My mother was an elementary school teacher for twenty years. I visited her classroom many times to talk about birds, art or other subjects. I’ve also been a guest speaker for the “art people” trained by the Art Institute of Chicago to share art with student at all grades. Some might say teaching is in my blood. Perhaps it should have been my profession. But it’s never too late to start…

Learning abilities

My next round of assignments were in an elementary school two miles from our house. At the front desk, a fellow substitute and I met with a teacher and administrator to determine who would take the music or ILP classes that day. ILP stands for Individualized Learning Plans, a term describing students with specific needs. My mother often tutored children in our home that needed individualized learning. She’d tell me, “These are your classmates, and you can go out and play after their lessons, but you need to let them learn while they’re here.” She also told me to keep their tutoring a private matter. “They learn differently than other kids,” she explained.

To some degree, I was one of those kids too. Only late in life did I ascertain that there is a certain amount of attention-deficit disorder at work in my brain. Looking back at my education years, I now recognize patterns of difficulty, obstinance, and outright frustration or failure when it came to certain learning circumstances. I’ve had to work a bit harder than others on certain kinds of tasks, and build discipline and good habits into my routines. I take pride in that now.

I think it can be accurately stated that every human being on earth has some kind of learning disability if a fine enough focus is placed upon it. Some excel at math and stink at English. Others love the social sciences and history while some find it excruciatingly boring.

Individualized Learning Plans

I chose to work with the ILP children earlier this week even though teaching the music class that day seemed like it would have been fun. I’ve played in bands and can sing fairly well, but I knew that past experience in classrooms with special education children would help me help them.

The ILP teacher walked me through the day’s lessons, materials, and tools used by the students to practice and learn. Each child had their own ‘best practices’ to follow. They took pride in pulling out their respective memory cards, books, and speaking devices.

The first boy I worked with was a charming child with Down’s Syndrome. He applied himself with energy for the most part, with only occasional drifting or distraction. His favorite part of the lesson was going through a series of slides depicting people expressing different kinds of emotions. While he did not recognize all the words, some of them were pretty long, he loved working with me to imitate the facial expressions and body language of the kids in the photos. We had a particular laugh at my imitation of the person exhibiting a ‘dubious’ expression. I turned my head to the side and lifted my chin, looking at him out of the corner of my eyes. He came back to the slide several times to coax me into the dubious mode, and we’d laugh all over again.

Then it was time fo reading, and he read me a book about a cat named Puff who liked to hide.He pulled out another book about a Mama Bear gathering berries, nuts and fish for her family. We talked about why the characters liked to do what they were doing.

Teaching is about helping people make connections.

By then he’d earned his ten stars for progress and I moved his behavior code up to blue from green, a promotion! He’d been good for me. Then he could grab his Chromebook and spend time with Baby Einstein software. He plunked his fingers on the screen to make a pool of faux water send ripples all around. It looked like fun. And gratifying.

Speed it up

The next student on the morning’s schedule was a charming young girl who arrived at class upset about something that had happened on the way to school. She was comforted by the paraprofessional and following a quick hug and a reminder to wear her mask the proper way, she got her stuff put away. When it came time for me to learn with her, she informed me that I was dawdling with the word cards. “Too slow,” she frowned. We sped it up.

Later when I needed help getting another student logged into their Chromebook, she washed her hands first and jumped over to log him in. I thanked her, and she asked, “Are you going to be here tomorrow too?” She was missing her regular teacher, I knew. “Probably not,” I replied. “But I want to thank you for being such a good helper today.”

“I like to help,” she chirped, then hurried to her cubby to prepare for recess and lunch.

Non-verbal

Some of the students in class were non-verbal. We worked together on reading. I was quite impressed with their ability to key in words and letters and hear them read aloud by the device. One of the students keyed in the entire first half of the Dr. Suess book Green Eggs and Ham. You know the one: Sam I am. When he finished reading, I hummed a little tune, and he hummed back. I’d noticed that he was singing to himself before class. Why not speak the same language?

Autism

The fifth child was the most challenging for me to teach. Instead I tried to learn from her. Her autism gives her a keen energy and a need to jump up now and then. She engaged in some massively dreamy stares at times. I thought about her parents and how much they must want their child to learn on her own terms.

We read two books together and my instructions were to ask her to speak clearly, well above a whisper. She did fine with that, but ultimately felt like she’d had enough and pulled out a sheet of paper to repeatedly “knuckle” a symbol in the middle of the sheet. She wanted something specific to happen, but I could not tell what it was. One cannot learn everything a student needs or wants in one session. We do our best, and move along.

Toward the end of our fifteen minute session, she broke free from all of that and leaned toward me to study my face or simply break the tension of having someone new in her presence. It felt to me like she had three strong signals going through her brain, competing for space. I don’t know if that’s an accurate description of how autism works, but I could relate to that, and perhaps that’s what counts.

The teachers who work with these students have the knowledge, compassion, and commitment to help children learn despite their supposed limitations. That’s all that any of us can do. Keep on learning. That’s the Right Kind of Pride.

Black History month

I closed out the day teaching a class of first graders about Ruby Bridges, the American civil rights activist whose brave story of being the first student to desegregate a Southern school was read aloud in a video we watched together. I paused the video to ask the children how they would feel in Ruby’s place. We also looked at a painting of Ruby walking to school in the company of federal agents. That tomato smashed against the wall held so much symbolism.

That story has taken on greater meaning in the last year with civil unrest unfolding around the rights of Black Americans that have been threatened or killed by police, chased down by vigilantes or otherwise abused by institutional racism in the United States of America.

I looked around at the kids in that class. They were the same age as Ruby Bridges, six years old, when she dared to learn in the face of massive bigotry that unfortunately, has not dissipated in the country where she continues her work in civil rights. Some lessons take so long to learn, while some people just refuse to learn them.

That’s not what I saw in the eyes of the children in class that day. It is a gift to be present for that.

A deserving burst of grief

While driving up a local road on some necessary errand last week, I turned up the radio and found the song “Somewhere Only We Know” by the band Keane playing.

I listened with trepidation because that song has deep significance for me. The album on which it appeared was released during an intense period of caregiving for my late wife Linda.

The lyrics are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard.

I recall so strongly one of the moments I heard this song during that period of my life. I’d spent three hard days and nights in the hospital after one of my wife’s many surgeries. She was beat up from the procedure and facing chemotherapy. Due to my work obligations, my mother-in-law spent the first night with her. When I arrived to take over, she warned me that the chair provided for hospital guests was far from comfortable. In recline position it bent backwards, forcing anyone trying to rest in the device to sleep like a dying dolphin.

On top of that, the nurses rolled in and out checking on her every hour. The machines beeped and the pumps pulsed. Doctors slipped in without warning. She’d greet them with a look of hope in her eyes that broke my heart. Was the cancer gone? Again?

Oh simple thing, where have you gone?
I’m getting old and I need something to rely on
So tell me when you’re gonna let me in
I’m getting tired and I need somewhere to begin

At that point my wife and I had been married for nearly twenty years. All she wanted was to be free of the disease, to work in her garden and teach her precious preschoolers. She wanted to love her children without fear of leaving them. She wanted to live.

I came across a fallen tree
I felt the branches of it looking at me
Is this the place we used to love?
Is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?

After three days I needed to get back home and check on things around the house. She would spend two more days in the hospital watched by friends who volunteered to stay with her. I climbed into our car, leaving behind a wife still trying to fart to prove that her digestive tract was back in working order. It’s true: the things that stink about living are the things that keep us alive.

I drove back home through the black night on wet streets thinking “Why does she have to go through this? Is it worth it?”

And if you have a minute, why don’t we go
Talk about it somewhere only we know?
This could be the end of everything
So why don’t we go somewhere only we know?

I recall falling into a rage of sobbing tears that night. Felt guilt over being free of the hospital and driving back home while she lay there hooked up to drips of painkiller and antibiotics and fluids. Her blue eyes still twinkled through the haze of hospital dreams.

We were years into cancer survivorship by that point.

My strategy to cope with caregiving duties for my wife and my father, a stroke victim, was to work through a series of lyrical albums by Andrew Bird and Indie group CDs that my daughter compiled from her catalog.

Then I dug deep into the Beck catalog, so deep I thought I’d never come out. Then came Modest Mouse, Regina Spector, the quirkier the better. On and on the music played as I clung to jobs trying to take care of everything, protect our insurance and keep the money coming in. Always the money. The goddamned money.

On that night driving home with Somewhere Only We Know playing , I felt a cogent realization that her back-and-forth dance with cancer could not go on forever. The wild balance between hope and terminal completeness is one that we all face. Cancer just compresses it.

That’s why I let myself cry so hard in the car this week. This strange, hard year has affected us all in strange, hard ways. For a moment, I needed to be weak and vulnerable, to let it all out, and admit that life has been hard in some ways. This was a deserving burst of grief.

It is also important to say that I have found love again with a woman I appreciate and respect. We are also meant to be together. But there is great value in remembering all those you love, wherever they are. It doesn’t last forever, you know, this thing we call life.

Perhaps you’ll be moved to sing along when a song like this one comes along. Allow yourself a bit of deserving burst of grief in these times.

Oh, this could be the end of everything
So why don’t we go somewhere only we know?
Somewhere only we know
Somewhere only we know

an invitation to share in the hobby of a lifetime

I started actively studying nature through birding at the age of twelve. That’s when my eldest brother came home from college after taking an ornithology class. His interest passed to his three brothers and we initially drove the country roads outside Elburn, Illinois with a set of 10 X 50 Sears binoculars and a Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds.

Earlier in life, I’d been given one of those bird guides by my mother’s older sister. So the seeds for an interest in birds were planted well before I ever came of age. This 20-minute video explains that journey and how my interest in bird identification and art ultimately merged into one hobby of wildlife painting.

Video on bird ID and Bird Art by Christopher Cudworth

From the age of twelve on, I drew and painted birds all the time. Initially, my efforts weren’t that impressive. Back then, resources to copy weren’t that available and I didn’t own a camera. So I drew what I’d call “impressions” of birds from bird guides and the creatures I’d seen in the wild.

Over the years, as I learned more about birds and got a camera, my paintings somewhat improved. Yet one of the key learning tactics was copying the work of other artists such as Louis Agassiz Fuertes, as I did with this watercolor of a great horned owl.

Great horned owl by Christopher Cudworth, aged seventeen.

The progression of an artist from copying the work of others to producing definitive work of their own is in some ways a lifelong endeavor. Yet once I graduated from high school and entered college, I started that process in earnest. I took an internship trip to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology and studied the works of dozens of famous wildlife painters. While there, I drew birds from life in the raptor center at Sapsucker Woods.

Gyrfalcon and peregrine studies from life.

Once the process of creating my own work as in full swing, I took on the project of creating a set of life-sized murals for the Lake Calmar Nature Center. That involved painting four 4′ X 8′ panels in a month-long January Term project. The photo in the newspaper shows the relative scale of these paintings.

Christopher Cudworth circa 1977 with wildlife murals.

An article appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette that winter. It stated my life’s hobby in pretty succinct fashion.

Article on teaching the balance of nature with a brush.

I’ve gone on to sell hundreds of paintings in my lifetime. All along, it’s been my goal to teach others to enjoy wildlife and appreciate the diversity around us. I do that by leading field trips, citizen science projects and sharing work in shows, exhibitions and classrooms.

Now, I’m going to launch a new venture called a Patreon site. It will be a combination of my two deep interests, nature and art. Here’s a quick sample of the content that will appear on that site, a demonstration of how I draw and paint a kestrel while explaining some facts about the bird.

Video sample of upcoming Patreon site for Christopher Cudworth

The site will be launching on the 15th of January but I’m giving readers of this blog a “sneak preview” of what is to come. I’ve always felt it’s important to share and give back, and this site will be a great way to interact with people who appreciate and support my work. I’ll send out an invitation on the 15th when the site is officially open. We’ll be doing live painting sessions through Zoom with Covid-safe, remote “painting parties” and more.

Thanks for reading The Right Kind of Pride. Now let’s create some things to be proud of together!

The migration from lust to artistic appreciation

My rendering of a female figure from a life drawing class in college. There was seriously not a trace of lust in me while creating this image.

So many of us are taught to not feel proud about having sexual feelings. Yet human beings are biologically wired to have sexual attractions of one form or another. Many of these are characterized as taboo or against the teachings of a particular religion. We’re told these feelings are sinful and are thereby urged to repress some of nature’s most powerful instincts.

Feelings of sexual desire are loosely characterized as “lust,” a word that bears a negative connotation in context with scripture and other moral guidebooks. To “lust” after something is characterized as a craven or base instinct, something to be resisted. The website Biblestudytools.com describes it this way:

Lust is a temptation and an evil that overcomes many of us. It is born of Satan and the flesh. Every single one of us is subject to lust. If we are to overcome it, we must be strong. Use these Bible verses to find out why you should resist lust, and use them to strengthen yourself.

The quote attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5:28 is most often cited as a directive to resist lust at all costs:

28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

A drawing I produced from a Playboy centerfold when I was a sophomore in high school. There was definitely lust involved in producing this drawing.
This is an image of the centerfold from which I rendered the drawing above. The beauty of the female figure is aptly captured in this centerfold.

Yet the natural curiosity to know more about the human body isn’t just about lust. There is also appreciation involved. Even scripture recognizes this aspect of adoration in the Book of Psalms, where a lover clearly lusts for his divine partner:

“Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.” (7.3)

“Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit.” (7.7)

“My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts.” (1:13)

Okay, so now we know that exploring and expressing lust is not all bad. Many of us recognize its allure within us from a young age. I well recall, at the age of eight or so, reaching into my father’s closet to pull down copies of Playboy magazine. The sight of naked women fueled my desire even before I entirely knew what to do with it.

The drawing of Playboy model Claudia Jennings that I produced in 1972. It also drew from lust, but it was more than that as well. Look at the clothing…
The centerfold on which the drawing above was based.

So strong was my urge to understand the female body that I took to tracing outlines of those women on the pages of Playboy. I stored those tracing paper drawings in the depths of my closet and returned the magazines to my father’s room.

I even drew images of naked women on the steam-covered bathroom mirror. On Sunday mornings the sight of Blondie’s buxom figure on the cartoon pages even got me going. I copied those cartoons too, but not only those. I began to replicate all sorts of cartoon figures on my own. I was learning to draw. To appreciate what I was seeing. That gave me a sense of ownership and power over my observations.

By the time I reached my early teens, I was drawing and painting regularly. My mother bought me paints and paper. I rendered wildlife that I’d seen and copied pictures from books. My desire to capture the essence of birds and other creatures was a lust of sorts.

A 1973 watercolor of a great horned owl copied from a painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

As a sophomore in high school my drawing skills began to come together in all new ways. In a fit of drawing immersion combined with lust, I rendered highly-detailed copies of centerfolds from Playboy magazine as shown above. I didn’t always get the face quite right, but doing the shading on their bodies was captivating.

This is the same model as the drawing at the top of this blog. I produced this single image from a long series of separate drawings. The female figure celebrated.

Then I reached college and took a life drawing class. My curiosity about the female and male body was greatly satisfied by drawing live figures. There was no lust in this brand of appreciation. My entire focus was on rendering the human figure with accuracy, detail and subtlety. This applied to both men and women.

It struck me as odd that when I arrived back at my college dorm room, male classmates would gather around to look at the drawings I’d done that day. To many of them, the images constituted “naked chicks” and while I laughed about it then, my interests were migrating from lust to appreciation.

Not long after college I hired a model on my own to pose nude for an afternoon drawing session. She arrived at my studio apartment, disrobed and posed on the couch, and left at the appointed time. I compensated her for the time, and did not feel any particular lust for her body while doing the drawings.

The model I hired to pose for a life drawing session. It is an interesting reflection of the piece I created from the centerfold years before.

Yet I can’t honestly say that I never looked at pornography again. The nature and accessibility of naked images, especially of women, evolved with technology. I did a search of Playboy centerfolds and can identify the year and month that I last purchased that print magazine. It was 1994. In a strange twist two years after that, I was parked in a White Hen lot and looked down to find a Playboy magazine sticking out from beneath the parking block next to the sidewalk. I pulled out the magazine and was stunned to see that it was dated 1976. Patti McGuire was the centerfold. Had that magazine survived under that block for twenty years? I doubt it, but it was still strange to find it there.

These days it’s not just Playmates who show up half-naked or completely naked in the digital and real world. World-class athletes on social media know that a touch of sex sells. It’s part of the gig to attract followers, be they males lusting after fit girls or women appreciating the hard work it takes to look like that.

World-class female athletes know that a touch of sex sells when it comes to gaining followers.

Society has grown to accept the sight of fully exposed female buttocks as a natural part of empowered fashion. Social media encourages nakedness at many levels, including women that willingly pose without clothes or get involved in the porn industry to make money. It’s seldom glamorous, as Rashida Jones shared in a telling Netflix series.

Exploitation, whether by self-choice or by revenge porn, is a far different enterprise than building appreciation for the human body. Some of the world’s greatest art features nude human beings. That is an accepted part of culture. Yet there’s also no avoiding that lust drives considerable occupation with the human figure as well.

A pencil drawing of film star and sex symbol Marilyn Monroe.

I think the right kind of pride sits somewhere in between the worlds of lust and appreciation. Maintaining that balance is a sign of maturity and self-actualization. When I consider the manner in which attractive actresses are expected to bare all for movies, it makes me wonder how they feel about having their naked bodies out there for all of eternity. Women such as Marilyn Monroe were supposedly able to turn that lust magnetism on and off. It was a persona, they say. And yet, we tragically learned, it also wasn’t.

A drawing from a Playboy photograph rendered in the 1970s.

We all conduct our own mind experiments and learn our flaws and obsessions. The range of human sexual expression, orientation and gratification is far more diverse and appreciated now that society is becoming more honest about it. Clearly we still have a ways to go, and some argue that sexual images and exploitation are signs of a morally decaying society. Yet knowing about sex and having a better understanding of the human body ultimately empowers everyone in the end. Being educated and making choices is better than being repressed and succumbing to fears, guilt, and mistakes in conscience.

Ancient attitudes of automatic repression and hardline theology don’t do people any favors. They depend on a brand of hyperbole that comes from an age when sexuality was poorly understood, and lust along with it. It’s not true that people conduct adultery in their heart every time they look at a woman (or man) lustfully. Sometimes it’s just that: a look to wick off desire. Then we get back to appreciating the ones we love, and even making art that inspires appreciation of the human condition in all its forms.

That’s the right kind of pride.

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