Category Archives: character

Fire and Rain all points in between

 

Maple leaf in rainI first purchased a James Taylor album as a freshman in high school along with works by Paul Simon, Neil Young, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and Elton John, to name a few. Among those, there were a few mentions of God in the lyrics, a subject of consequence since I’d recently chosen on my own to get confirmed along with friends at the church whose pastor lived right next door to me.

And while I’d gotten confirmed at the age of thirteen, already I was asking questions about traditional religion and its role in our lives. Something about the confessional language of orthodoxy never satisfied my vision of what it meant to believe in something larger (or as large) as what we see around us.

And later in life, when religious leaders that I met began picking on the subject of evolution and showing bigotry toward various kinds of people, I’d had enough, and parted ways for a while with conventional Christianity.

Sweet returns

Then I met a girl in college whose academic interest in the Jewish religion led me back to thinking about what the whole story of Jesus was about. And as a quasi-English major, I was interested as much in the story aspect of scripture as the supposed literal truth it conveyed. At the same time, I was aware of the need to write my own version of that story.

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Journal entry from June of 1979, 21 years old. 

The woman that I later married was raised in the Missouri Synod Lutheran tradition. So we joined that church and for twenty-plus years raised our children there. I sang in the choirs, taught Sunday School to middle school and high school kids, and served on the Church board. Meanwhile, our congregation enlisted a successive line of pastors who preached an increasingly harsh and conservative line of doctrine. The theory of evolution was just one of their favorite targets, as were gay people and even women who dared think they could ever be pastors.

Departures

Thus toward the end of my wife’s life after six years of cancer treatment, we bid a solemn goodbye to that church and moved upriver to a more welcoming Lutheran congregation that cared for us during the final years of her existence on earth. For that and all service before I am eternally grateful.

During that whole journey, I drew on a ton of faith to get through. The practical issues of her illness we addressed through medicine and following doctor’s orders. I kept working at the jobs I held between severe challenges on many fronts. Her treatments had profound emotional effects on us both. That’s when we looked to faith for support.

In my case, it had never really disappeared. All those mentions of God in my running journals during those self-focused years training almost full-time and racing twenty-four times a year were testimony to that desire to understand it all. Every day was a trial of sorts, I knew that much. And when my former track and cross country coach heard that my wife had cancer, he intoned: “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”

Sustaining hope in the face of adversity

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He was right. But you can’t be prepared for everything. And when hope drains away it is comforting to turn fear over to something other than a piece of paper on which you write down your problems, somewhat in order, in hope of tackling them the next day.

That’s when some of the lyrics from the James Taylor song “Fire and Rain” came back to me:

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got to see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way

Frankly, I’ve never been a big Jesus worshipper. When asked long ago by a pastor what my faith is most based upon, I told him that knowing God was my first priority. Of course, that received the standard confessional response that Jesus is the portal to God, is one with God, and so on. But I persisted in seeking what I know of the spirit outside the lines. And nature is often the source of that insight.

Chance meeting

Recently while out doing bird photography I waved to two women out walking through the forest preserve where a pair of wood thrush was singing loudly in the brisk spring sunshine. We met back in the parking and I struck up a conversation with them by shared how long I’d been visiting that preserve both as a runner and a birder. That led to a discussion of our respective families. One of the women had been an Olympic Trials swimmer and her sons and daughter were both college athletes. So was her husband. I found that fascinating and offered to write a story about their clan.  She seemed game to the idea but there was something else going on in the conversation, and I didn’t feel right to press it.

Transitions

But I shared some recent facts about learning to swim after meeting my present wife on a website called FitnessSingles.com. Then I explained to them both, “I lost my first wife to cancer seven years ago.”

The two women exchanged quick but earnest glances. Then two minutes later in the conversation one of them turned to me and said, “You were put here by God to talk with us, because she just lost her husband to cancer last Saturday.” It was a Tuesday morning.

We cried together, the three of us. But no one exchanged hugs in the age of the Coronavirus. Even her husband’s funeral the next morning would be a private affair, limited to ten people due to the pandemic.

A walk in the wilds

Prairie Hill

They both shared that their walks in the woods were a way of coping with problems and talking them through together. But now their walks had taken on the role of processing the immediate grief of having lost a loving spouse. As most of us know, grief has both mental and physical effects on us. In its most difficult stages, grief can make you want to cease living and at the same time put your body through aches and pains that you never see coming. That is fire. And that is rain.

There are also many points in between, where sudden bursts of recollection and joy mix together in a combination of fire and rain. How is that possible? How can two seemingly opposite substances mix together in our minds?  

Our spiritual selves

To me, that is the mystery of our spiritual selves. If emotional pain is real––we can certainly feel it––then love must be just as real. And if love is real, then to me, some sort of spirit is a reality too. And as the saying goes, God is Love.

So in that sense, I truly believe in God. It is both within and apart from us to love in this world. If anything, that is the meaning of that passage in the Lord’s Prayer; “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

As I wrote in my first book The Genesis Fix, I call that call of gratitude and active love grace appreciated. When we are attentive to appreciating love a grateful sense, we are appreciating it. Yet when we extend love to others in an active sense, we are appreciating grace on behalf of God. Then our lives take on a different and richer meaning. We commence to live from a foundation of our spiritual selves. That is what I think scripture is all about, that perpetual discovery of purpose, principle, and life fully lived.

Connections to spirit and life

Butterfly weed

That is why I talk to people. I consider it a connection to the spirit and life of others. One might call it a ministry of sorts, to talk to people, find their mutual humanity, and learn interesting things about them along the way. Even during this Coronavirus pandemic, I find ways to speak with people even under the call of social distancing.

There are times when that is not welcome, and I respect that. Not everyone is coming through this crisis with an attitude of appreciation. Some engage on their own terms and hold to their spirit in the best way they know how. And I say God Bless them. And if they don’t believe in God, I say bless that too. Just as in nature, there is diversity in the human condition as well. We should honor that, and sadly too many supposed Christians take certain passages of scripture literally and dishonor the spirit and love they could otherwise find in others.

I know there are also passages in scripture that demand absolute fealty to Jesus in order to be saved, as in: “No one comes to the Father but through me.” Well, that passage is the product of a patriarchal society, isn’t it? We’ve discovered a bit more about the significance of the feminine in this universe, and science too. So I don’t place limits on the points between fire and rain. Instead, I choose to celebrate them.

And if we meet, I hope to celebrate you too. For that, if anything, is the Kingdom of God.

Christopher Cudworth is the author of The Right Kind of Pride: A Chronicle of Character, Caregiving and Community. It is available on Amazon.com. 

All images by Christopher Cudworth. christophercudworth.com

 

All plugged into this new remote thing

 

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The first time I worked remotely was back in 1994 during the original advent of email communications and the Internet. I’d started a small company called Environs whose clients included a fitness company, a real estate management company, a pair of newspaper companies, and a few other clients.

Communicating via the web was not too slick back then. My nifty new Powerbook 540c laptop had dialup capabilities, but the connection process as you might recall was slow, noisy (that dialup tone was classic) and bandwidth was limited.

But to me, it all still felt like magic. I could communicate with clients far away, send and receive proofs of creative work and writing, and seldom feel alone.

Technology helps

Because while I’ve never been a tech device geek or software coder, I’ve always loved what new technology can do. Clearly, I was not alone in that realm, as Apple products appealed to people like me who found the IBM/Microsoft world offensive in its lack of intuitive traits and its often cloying yet clunky interface. If I could have obliterated that paper clip character when using Word on client computers, I surely would have.

The arc from the early days of Apple through the Macintosh years to the melding of compatible software with Microsoft pushed the world toward increased efficiency, and it has all been remarkable. Now many of us are working from home thanks to the enhanced speed of computer performance and Internet accessibility.

While I’ve worked as a full-time employee in marketing, communications, and public relations for thirty years, I’ve also always worked from home in some capacity. So the Coronavirus demand for social distancing and WFH mandates is nothing new. It’s just a matter of plugging into another new reality. Some people find it easy while others struggle with a sense of isolation. 

The multi-tasking debate

The first question everyone has to ask themselves when working from home is how much multi-tasking they can or should try to handle. Some efficiency experts insist that multi-tasking is the absolute bane of productivity. “Don’t do it!” they’ll insist. “You can only do one thing well at a time.” 

Well, the parents of children working from home can’t afford that luxury. So people adapt to circumstance as need be. As a person that was once a caregiver to three people simultaneously while holding down a full-time job, I learned how important it is to build a solid foundation of self-affirmations.

I was looking after a mother with cancer, a father with a stroke, and a wife with cancer, so I learned quickly to give myself credit for things accomplished. I also learned that multitasking isn’t a luxury at all. It is oftentimes a necessity. People working from home have to juggle multiple worlds. That means learning how to compartmentalize the daily task list, putting things into groups, and doing things in segments. It can be a great feeling to see a chunk of work through.

There is no real reason you can’t shift gears, do some other things in groups and segments, all while keeping a line open for unexpected calls and unanticipated emergencies. It might seem more stressful than working in a contained office space, but learning how to cope in different environments is, over the long term, a quite valuable skill.

The drama in your head

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Here’s a ‘dirty’ little secret about working from home. The world outside often can really wait.  It’s the drama in your head that is the real traumatizer when you’re working from home. Granted, some companies are measuring every moment spent and every keystroke logged. So let’s not be naive. If that’s their measure of true productivity, it may well be the case that any day-to-day functions need to rest outside working hours.

But for many of us, it’s a question of how well we get the job done, not how many keystrokes we’re plinking away during the day. If the kids need attention or the dogs need a walk, go do it. You may well solve a problem in your head during those activities. Almost all the solutions to problems that I conceive are the result of going out for a run or a walk. It works miracles.

Through success and failure while working remotely, learn to take a breather and step away if you need to. Working out at noon can be a great way to break up a day. Sitting at the same desk in the same office you’re occupying 8-to-5 or longer can be physically and mentally exhausting. Go outside and walk around for even five minutes if the pressure builds up or you grow frustrated. It’s a great way to find perspective. 

Practical measures

There are some practical measures you can take to quell any productivity drama that builds up in your head. Take a moment to document what you’re doing and develop the instinct to be tactically sparse and ‘remotely confident’ when communicating your progress. If something isn’t getting done, or you need answers and can’t make progress until you get them, be honest and even-keeled about it. Many times the people with whom you are communicating are also juggling tasks and just want to know when to pick up the next task. Amusing fact: they may even be relieved that you’re not outworking them. But where there are genuine deadlines to be met, don’t hedge bets. Prioritize those first and don’t let distractions get in the way. 

Doing things right

At one of the agencies where I worked as a creative director, our graphics department had a saying that went like this: “We always have time to get things done in a hurry, but never time to do them right the first time.”

That’s a hard thing to remember when communicating remotely. We all make mistakes of passing things along just to get them out of our inbox and “done.” So remote work requires us to take one extra look at the things that we and our associates do. It never hurts to enlist a partner in that process. Having a champion alongside you in project management helps to confirm the importance of what you’re doing and can provide important reminders of when things need to be done. And how to do them right.

Look for consensus

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Working remotely is increasingly reliant on group conferencing calls through Zoom, Teamworks, Google Meetups, and the like. All these apps are scrambling now to improve their capabilities and win the market for remote conferencing. Yet it all comes down to one thing: providing a platform where people can build consensus around ideas, projects, and plans.

To be a successful conferencing user, look for opportunities to be a leader in building consensus. We don’t know how long this WFH world may last, so you’re a valuable team member if you help people come to an agreement and even inspire and motivate others. It’s entirely possible for you to be that person.

Ask questions

Want to know the easiest way to lead in this world? Be prepared to ask questions. Make up a list of smart and necessary questions before any conferencing call, or issue one good question per session to contribute in the best way you can.

And when communicating via email, chat or any other channel, ask questions quickly if you’re going to ask them at all. We can all make the mistake of waiting too long to get clarity. That leaves the impression that 1) you’re not on the ball 2) don’t care 3) don’t understand the project as a whole 4) are unsure of yourself.

Prioritizing

Being quick or attentive to potential problems may be the most important “rule” of all, but it’s not always easy to do when working remotely. Just like the “real” office, people aren’t always available.

In that case, make a point of considering genuine solutions. That value is even greater when you’re directing projects for multiple clients, as freelancers often do.

At all points, people need to learn to prioritize, and we all know pleasing everyone can be tough. No client or partner likes to think they’re playing second fiddle to what you’re doing while working remotely.

Surely that holds true in working for bosses and collaborating with teams or other partners. It all comes down to focusing attention where it is needed most. That’s the base principle behind all successful remote workers. Give full attention to whatever is in front of you, ask questions early and to fully understand the goal, and multi-task by prioritizing at all times.

Most of all, take pride in your work no matter where you’re doing it. That’s the right kind of pride.

 

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride: Character, Caregving, and Community. Available on Amazon.com. 

 

Friday night calls for ZOOM

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About ten years ago, two close friends began having dinner on Friday nights with a woman they knew that was going through a divorce. Her husband was bipolar and the marriage had dissolved over the stress of trying to hold things together. She was also dealing with children spreading their wings at the same time, so there was plenty to talk about.

My late wife and I joined their little group, and Friday nights were spent mostly at a Mexican restaurant called El Mocajete. It was a small place without room for parties of more than four or five at best. But it was our place, and it served the purpose.

Eventually, our woman friend moved out to Colorado after some dating adventures that included meeting a winemaker famous for his inexpensive reds and whites. She turned him down for a date, but somehow that gave her a sense of independence and liberation and she moved out to Colorado.

Once she moved on, other folks were invited to join the Friday night club. It grew organically from there, mostly with members of our church, which was also going through some growing pains. So there was plenty to talk about along with family, work and other changes familiar to the fifty-plus set.

Working through loss

A few years into the Friday night social club my wife passed away. She’d been through eight years of treatment and surgeries from ovarian cancer. Together we’d received much help along the way from the people in the Friday night club, especially one woman that was the preschool director where my late wife taught four-year-olds. So it was a strange thing to meet those first few Fridays after her passing. So many conversations had taken place over the years.

We’d all been through those struggles together, and several of my Friday friends encouraged me to date. Before long I met a woman that I really enjoyed through a dating site called FitnessSingles.com. The Friday night group liked her company and the months and years started to roll past. Four years into our relationship, we got married. Through it all, we met most Fridays with an alternating group of regulars that at times totaled fifteen people. We’d squeeze tables together at whatever restaurant we chose and talk with whoever sat closest to us. Sometimes we’d catch the eye of someone down the table and wink and wave. It was accepted that not everyone would get to talk each week.

Stay-At-Home

When the Coronavirus Stay-At-Home order came through in Illinois, our Friday night group adapted like so many other social connections in the country. We jumped on Zoom. The call was ably coordinated by the original organizer of the Friday night club. That fellow and his wife have been friends of mine since college. We’ve even served as godparents to each other’s children and have helped each other through some harrowing stuff over those forty-plus years, included auto crashes and bicycle crashes, heart attacks and family crises of all kinds. But all along, there has been joy as well.

In fact, there’s a foundational feel to the Friday night group as a whole. Thus our Friday night Zoom calls are not strained affairs. In some ways, other than talking over each other on occasion, the calls have transcended even the conversation capabilities of the weekly restaurant meetups. We’ve had amusing moments given the varied technical capabilities of our collective users as people play with the views on Zoom. Somehow a friend outside the group even had a call in which her mother’s image was upside down. Yet even our typical on-screen facial expressions and body language call for a new awareness. It seems the whole world is learning these things together during this pandemic.

Dining and defining local

But all of us agree that being safe is important to ourselves and everyone else. So there’s no selfish whining about why we have to Zoom rather than dine out. We’ve each been catering food from local restaurants to support them. That’s the first round of conversation: “What’s everyone having tonight?”

Then we open up the forum to what’s happening in life. We’ve gotten laptop tours of new flooring and baby chats with a prior and new grandchild. Cats and dogs have made appearances, as have daughters and sons living with parents during this odd moment in history. On that front, it’s interesting to hear what the kids think of our inevitably overhead, often loud, filled-with-laughter conversations blaring throughout the house.

Nothing’s perfect

Nothing in life is perfect. Thinking back over the time covered by the Friday night group makes me realize some of the mistakes I’ve made on the work front, the family front and life in general. Yet there have been joys and successes as well. All we can really hope to do is ask forgiveness for the dumb or thoughtless stuff we might have done and appreciate those who share this multifaceted journey we call life.

After all, it all goes by like zoom. And then it’s over. So it’s much wiser to live fully in the moment, hope for the best, plan for the worst and work to make things better the best way you can. That’s the right kind of pride.

 

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride: Character, Caregiving and Communityon Amazon.com. 

 

 

 

When body and spirit become like oil and water

 

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Photograph by Christopher Cudworth. 

I didn’t have much time to consider the meaning of my late wife’s death between her passing and the Good Friday service being held several days later. I spoke to my brother the night before, and he said to me, “You’re going to Good Friday services? You’re gonna walk right into the pain…”

That’s actually why I go to church, I thought to myself. To deal with the pain of life.

It happened there was an interim pastor serving our church during that period. I’d gotten to know him well enough that we exchanged glances as I entered the church. His eyes fixed on mine and I gave a short nod. People can see when you are covered with the coating of grief. It does not shed easily.

Pain points

The structure of the service was somber as usual in remembrance of the time Jesus was crucified. Having so recently experienced the death of someone I loved, the whole ritual took on a different meaning. I sat there quietly until the service invited us all to come to the area behind the altar and pray with the deacons and pastor in a time of repentant consideration. I kneeled down in front of the pastor and noticed there were tears falling from his eyes. He was well aware of all that I’d experienced leading up to that point. He said something on the order of “You’re in the right place.”

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Oil and Water. A painting by Christopher Cudworth.

Oil and Water

By that time my grief had already journeyed down a path of consideration farther than I could have imagined. In truth, I’d been grieving for years and had long since let go of the sensation that I was in control of her spirit. We’d shared in all the challenges of being “one flesh” through all those bodily changes. But its ability to sustain her in this life ultimately ran out.

The body and spirit become like oil and water at that point. One can no longer mix with the other. The spirit floats on the surface, takes on its own aura and color, then moves into the spectrum of the imagined, yet realized.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, Character, Caregiving and Community. Available on Amazon.com. 

From bitter to sweet memories on the 7th anniversary of my late wife’s passing

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Our early dating years.

Tomorrow marks seven years since my late wife Linda Cudworth died after eight years of survivorship through ovarian cancer. The diagnosis came as a shock, as did multiple episodes of recurrence. Each time we’d reel from the news, go back into treatment and compartmentalize the best we could by using the phrase, “It is what it is.”

Those last months during the winter and spring of 2013 were confusing because doctors treating her for seizures learned there was a tumor in her brain. I’ve never published photos of her during that last round of radiation treatment because while we made the best of it, snapping pics using my laptop Photo Booth and laughing as the absurdity of it all, it was a strange world we were about to enter, because ovarian cancer was not supposed to be able to pass through the blood-brain barrier. But it did.

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All dressed up and going somewhere.

We treated it with radiation and she started a regimen of steroids to contain the swelling and her personality became magnified. She lost native inhibitions about many things. On one hand, that was disorienting, as it ultimately became impossible for her to continue teaching at the preschool she loved. On the other hand, it proved to be liberating as she used those final bursts of steroid-fueled energy to buy a beautiful piece of art. She also stayed up late at night to research and buy a new car even though she abhorred going online. In sum she lived life to the fullest, however manic it might have been.

And that was bittersweet. Because when the steroids stopped, so did her energy. She passed away a few weeks later in the company of her husband and two children. Still, she never lost her sense of humor. After I’d arranged for palliative care in our home, we moved her from our master bedroom to the hospital bed in the living room where nurses and such could tend to her properly. The journey from bedroom to living room was awkward and difficult given her weakened state, but she looked up at me once she was tucked into the cover and smiled while saying, “I thought I wasn’t supposed to suffer.”

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On our honeymoon at Waterton-Glacier

Most of that was indignity, and my late wife was a person who believed and abided in dignity in all she did. It was part of her beauty as a person. She also respected propriety, which made it amusing to think back on the fact that I showed up a night early for our first date. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “Our date is tomorrow night!”

She agreed to go out for a short dinner before hosting her parent-teacher conferences at the high school where she taught special education. But before we parted that evening, I got a taste of her naturally biting humor in reminding me that I ought to call confirm a date.

We got to know each other a little that evening and followed up with a hike to Starved Rock State Park. Stopping on a high ledge for a picnic on a mild November day, she broke out a lunch of apple-walnut bread sandwiches, cheese and wine served from a leather-covered flask. That implement was a remnant of her high school hippie days.

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Enjoying our festive 4th of July traditions.

We dated four years and even survived a long-distance romance early on when I was transferred from Chicago to a marketing position in Philadelphia. She visited me on Thanksgiving that year despite her mother’s objections, and I moved back to the Midwest the following spring when the company decided to disband the entire marketing department due to misguidance by the Vice President.

That would be one of a few job upheavals experienced over the years, and we survived them all. Our children came along in our late 20s and early 30s. Soon our lives were immersed in preschool, elementary adventures, and all the way through high school performances in music and drama.

We also belonged to the highly conservative church synod in which she’d grown up. The pastor that married us at the time was, however, a grandly considerate and patently open-minded man that once gave a sermon titled, “Do-gooders and bleeding hearts : Jesus was the original liberal.”

Emmy in Garden

Our lives swirled with church activities as our children passed through Sunday School all the way to confirmation, where they roundly passed the tests despite having to choke down conservative ideology about evolution preached by the pastor that had long-since replaced our marriage counselor.

After 25 years we moved up the road to a more tolerant and progressive Lutheran church. It was gratifying to learn that our friends from the former church did not abandon us. In fact without their help and the guidance of one of Linda’s best friends, a woman named Linda Culley, we would not have had as much grace and good fortune in the face of the perpetual challenges served up by cancer survivorship.

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At 7 Mile Pinecrest

Now what I like to think about are the camping trips we took to the north woods while dating, and later, when we had small children, we’d spend a week each summer at a humble resort called 7 Mile Pinecrest thirteen miles east of Eagle River, Wisconsin.

Our children paddled around in the water and slipped off to Secret Places in the woods while their father fished in the early and late hours and went for runs half-naked in the pine woods north of the resort, swatting at deer flies the entire time.

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Linda and Evan reading together.

At the center of all that family joy and adventures was Linda, whipping up sandwiches and sitting with a glass of wine on the small beach overlooking the lake. That was the only time the Do Not Disturb sign seemed to rise on the Mom Flag.

And when we weren’t visiting or traveling or doing school activities, Linda was immersed in planning, purchasing and planting her garden every year. Her priorities were indeed God, Family, and Flowers.

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She was a really good person. That’s what so many friends have told me over the years. I was married to a really good person, and that makes me think of what a close friend told me when he first met her. “This is a good one, Cuddy. Don’t let her get away.”

It is bittersweet and sweet to think about all those years together. My daughter went through our stacks of photos to digitize the images and I’ve waited until today to open it up and pull some memories out to post with this blog. Holding people close to your heart is first and foremost the right kind of pride. I hope this writing inspires you to consider the importance of people in your lives.

And to realize as well that life does go on. She told our close friend Linda Culley that she knew, if she were to pass away from cancer, that I would meet someone again. And I have found love. But it does not mean the years with Linda Cudworth are forgotten. Far from it.

These memories can lift us up. Give us courage to go on. Cherish the life we had as well as the life we have. And that is the right kind of pride as well.

 

Six years on and beyond

Linda and Chris.jpgDuring eight years of cancer caregiving for my late wife Linda, who passed away six years ago this day on March 26, 2013, I grew to understand many things about other people. How some have such a heart for others. How giving they could be. How friends willingly took on chores too difficult to imagine. All of it done without judgment. These things came true in our lives.

There were also mysteries that were beyond explanation and should remain that way. During one period of time when I was out of work to take care of her needs, we sat together at our dining room table and added up the money needed to cover our bills. We’d already paid the $2000 COBRA monthly premium for health insurance. That was absolutely vital or we’d be broke in a minute from a running list of medical bills that came our way. These included chemotherapy treatments and surgeries that cost tens of thousands of dollars. In the days before the Affordable Care Act and protection from  pre-existing conditions, clinging to your health care was a life or death matter.

Somehow we made it week-to-week, month-to-month and year-to-year. But sometimes we just turned to prayer for help. So it was that we determined the need for $3500 to cover the rest of our bills. During periods when I had to be out of work to take care of her, I’d hustle up freelance work to cover our bills and more.

LInda and Chris.pngBut it was stressful. Sometimes we’d be pressed financially, and it was on one of those nights that we added up the bills, said our prayer and got her into bed to rest.

The next morning I came out to the kitchen to make her oatmeal and heard the front door mail slot creak open and shut. Whatever fell through the door made a solid thump on the floor. I walked out to check on the delivery because people were often bringing us food and other requests made through our caregiving website.

This package was different. The envelope was thick and bulging. I picked it up and opened the tab. Inside was a wad of money. $3700 worth.

I broke into quiet tears and stood there looking out the door. Whoever dropped off that envelope and collected that money was already gone. To this day I have inklings about who might have gathered that cash but in many respects prefer to leave it as a mystery. That’s what the folks who gave us the money apparently wanted. We used it wisely and gave a prayer of gratitude in response.

Yes, it’s been six years since my late wife passed away. But the kindness and grace of others that sustained us has never left my mind. I know it never left her mind either. In so many ways the support of others kept her alive during all those years in and out of remission after her initial diagnosis. We drew on that support for strength and hope during periods of both sickness and health. Our children felt that support, and in the ensuing years that remains an important part of our collective grieving process. Last year we held a memorial gathering in her honor. Rightfully so.

She and I met in 1981 and were married for twenty-eight years. Yet in many ways, we were also married to the world around us. It was that bond of vulnerability and hope that drew on the strength of others and became our main source of pride. The Right Kind of Pride. 

 

 

 

Hooking up with Leonid and Friends

 

Leonid and friends.jpegA year or so ago, I stumbled on the YouTube website for Leonid and Friends, the Russia-based assemblage that recreates the music of the band Chicago. The first time I watched and listened to the video for the song 25 or 6 to Four I sat mesmerized. The vocals were clean and authentic. The guitar-playing, astounding. So were the drumming, the horns and the background vocals. “Who are these people?” I wanted to know.

I wasn’t alone. Fans of the group lined up on Youtube begging the group to come to America. In January 2019, that finally happened.

I saw them the second night they appeared in America. The first gig was in New York City. Then they came to the exurbs of Chicago in Rosemont for a performance at Joe’s Live. The site was perfect.

Sitting four rows back from the stage, I was pleased to see that we would not be required to stand the whole performance. The last few concerts I’ve attended almost required the audience to stand up the whole time, which I find unnecessary and distracting. All that shifting of feet to stay comfortable over a 1-2 hour performance is insane.

Plus the age of the audience in attendance was definitely skewed toward the over-50 crowd. In fact I learned that Joe’s normally doesn’t have seating, preferring to just flood the floor with concertgoers and let them sort it all out.

The audience was roundly excited for the show at any rate. I stood in line with the folks who did the advance public relations, including the band’s appearance on WGN TV 

It’s an interesting phenomenon to travel internally from being a Youtube follower to sitting thirty feet from people you feel you’ve gotten to know, in that digital way, by watching them enthusiastically and masterfully play music in a way that helps you appreciate and rediscover the talent of a group that frankly for a while had become wallpaper for the soundtrack of life.

Instead, the music comes alive all over again. The ever-so-slight hint of Russian accent that comes through in some of the singers only makes you appreciate the effort that has gone into replicating Chicago’s music for an entirely new audience that is probably in part it’s increasingly old audience.

I say that age doesn’t matter when it comes to revelations such as these. It’s pretty hard to watch and listen to Leonid and Friends perform Questions 67 & 68 and not find yourself muttering, “Damn, that’s good.” From the opening guitar solo to the ascendant vocals, the intensity of the drumming to the clear and cogent intonations of the horns, this is some marvelous stuff.

Just how a band of Russians got together and created a catalog of high-fidelity recordings of an American group is a story that probably comes back to its founder, the apparent genius mind of Leonid Vorobyev himself. To everyone who follows the group, doing recordings of Chicago masterpieces is the right kind of pride, case closed.

Follow them at Leonid and Friends on Youtube or maybe you can catch one of their American tour dates. They’re even branching out into other classic songmaking with tunes by Earth, Wind and Fire, and others.

And here’s a prediction, the lovely Ksonena,a backup singer thus far for the band, may be headed toward her own brand of stardom in the near future. That’s my prediction anyway.

From all that I could see in their live performance, these are people having fun doing what they love. The horn section is talented, tight and hilarious, and the fact that none of them speak a word of English is irrelevant. They don’t need to talk. They speak with their trombone, sax and trumpet. Same with the drummer, the heart and soul of this band, who wound up a ten-minute drum solo during the concert by literally kneeling down to hammer our rhythms on the floor. And the guitar playing? Even diehard Chicago fans (I don’t qualify…but do enjoy their music) have to admit the solos are masterful and spot-on.

These people are into it.

The feedback from the crowd must have been gratifying for all them to hear. Mid-way through the concert the band’s originator Leonid spoke about their journey in halting English. He ardently thanked the crowd while admitting it was strange and wonderful to be playing in the namesake town of the group Chicago that has now made Leonid and Friends famous.

 

A legacy that is still alive

MuesPicnicRecently my son Evan drove west to California for a new venture in his career. On the way, he stopped by the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Approaching the park, the snow was two feet deep, he informed us. He arrived in time to see the sun setting.

Back home, my daughter made note on her social media account that she misses nature. That can happen for all of us. But Emily has made a point of immersing herself in concern for nature. She’s learned the plight of bees and butterflies, and captures her instinctual love for these creatures in amazing photographs.

Their mother Linda Cudworth would have been 59 years old today. She would have loved to hear the enthusiasm of her son Evan as he sat on the canyon rim going Live on Facebook as his many connections shared the moment.

She would also have been appreciative of the fact that her daughter embraces those bees and butterflies with such verve and purpose. We all learned monarch ranching from Linda Cudworth during the summer months. In the years since she passed away from ovarian cancer in 2013, we’ve ranched a few monarchs of our own. One summer we released 50 of the insects back into the wild after raising them from eggs detected on the bottom of a milkweed leaf. They would eat their way through the caterpillar stage and emerge from a chrysalis into free-flying male or female butterflies. Symbolic, you might say, of so many transitions in life.

Tattoos 

My daughter has a tattoo of monarchs and bees on her shoulder. My son has a symbolic symbol of flowers on his chest. But the real legacy is the tattoo she impressed upon their hearts through her exceptional care as a mother.

In all those years of marriage, I observed her dedication to such things. She invited the neighbor kids over to catch bugs and to show them the secret faces of nodding spring wildflowers and summer lilies. Some of these beauties have been transplanted from the garden we started in Batavia two decades ago. I gathered up the lily bulbs and inserted their yellow and white forms into the soil behind the house now shared with my fiancee.

These symbolize the fact that life indeed goes on. My children and in-laws have shared many memories of Linda over the last four years. We keep that legacy alive. But I am also fortunate to have met a woman that is not threatened or jealous of that legacy. As a result, it never needs be denied.

Additional roles

I believe my children can feel that in their lives. I certainly hope they do. It has been difficult at times to know how much to insert myself into their lives. On one hand, it is important not to helicopter their thoughts or experiences. On the other hand, a father to children that have lost their mother has an additional role to play.

What we have all tried to do, and I include my wife-t0-be’s family in this, is honor the legacy of the life we’ve lived and find the honor of the legacy we’re creating together. This is the true cycle of life, where love is at the heart, and people gather around it to share in the hope and determination required to embrace this world.

The fact that my children are now drawing upon nature for inspiration is likewise an inspiration to me. It shows that those many walks in the forest preserves (or ‘forced preserves,’ as my son once thought we were saying) were for good reasons.

Ashes and prairies

Following my wife’s passing, my children and I took some of her ashes and distributed them in the heart of a massive prairie. The sun was setting and we all recalled how she loved the place for its open spaces and its prairie soul. I thought about those ashes as I biked through the prairie yesterday, and how strange it really is that we all come and go in our time.

That is reason enough to hold on to the legacies that matter in our lives. And to make new rejoicing in the fact that we are here, and alive, where the flicker of butterfly wings demand our attention yet so many people seem to deny their importance in favor of this virtual mess going on this world.

No fan of fools

I can say without hesitation that my late wife would have been disgusted by all that has transpired in the last four years. She was a keen fan of the former President, whom she simply called “Barack” with a touch of respect and love in her voice.

While she was a loving person, she did not suffer fools gladly. We all loved her biting sense of humor that emerged at often unexpected times. There was always a touch of leadership in such remarks. “Don’t be fooled by fools,” she’d often intimate. So you can imagine how disgusted she would have been at the election of Donald Trump as President. A part of me is honestly glad she does not have to abide the mortal offense.

Because her dedication to the needs of small children and the practicalities of public and private education were evident in her preschool teaching. I specifically recall her admiration for a mother from the Hindu faith that brought their child to the Christian preschool where she taught. “There are many paths to God,” the woman responded when asked if there were any concerns with the educational format.

Achieving

Likewise, my late wife’s training in special education revealed her deep concern for the humble and less fortunate in this world. Arrogance by principle she did not abide, nor false pride. She worked with high school students with learning disabilities that included profound degrees of autism. Yet she also guided one of her students through the challenges of high school to make it through college and earn a playing spot in the NBA.

Many a social evening were spent with our close friends who were also teachers. Few people outside the teaching profession can comprehend the many ways teachers go beyond their job descriptions to positively affect the lives of young people in public education. And while my late wife genuinely thought the athletic world a bit vain, she also volunteered to direct the Cheer Club at the high school.

False vanity

Her amused disregard for athletic vanity could have its humorous consequences. When I took up cycling, she made fun of my tight-fitting cycling “kits” and called me Lady Legs for the tradition of shaving my gams, as serious cyclists do. Heck, back when we were dating, and I held back from going out the night before a running race, she teased that I had Golden Leg Syndrome.

Yet I persisted in my pursuits despite this brand of teasing, because every couple uses the other for balance. It does not pay to be too co-dependent either. So we found our respective spaces in this life, and worked together to encourage that same self-confidence and hunger for growth in our children. I see that belief at work in them still, and pray that they can continue to find love in this world among people who support it. That is the legacy that is still alive.

 

Grieving in dream time

We all know plenty of people dealing with loss in their lives. A friend loses a child in the latter stages of pregnancy. Another grieves over the death of their parent or a sibling. We lose people to cancer, or car accidents, suicide or heart attacks. All these losses are carried with us in many ways.

Most recently my father passed away. The day he died I entered his room and cried heavily over the man who raised me. I also cried for the relative valor with which he suffered 13 years of stroke disability. The loss of his ability to communicate robbed our family of valuable time with him. We also lost a share of family history since he was unable to tell stories of his youth or his experience.

And a few years ago, my wife died of cancer after eight years of survivorship. We had been married for 28 years. That’s a lot of shared history as well.

Just a year before my wife passed away, my father-in-law died from complications related to heart problems.

And ten years ago in 2005 my own mother passed away.

All these losses have been processed in different ways. Yet all of them have converged in some way in my dreams.

Shred of guilt

Whether we like to admit it or not, there is often a shred of guilt that goes with losing someone we love. Working through that brand of guilt alone can take years. We might wish we could have done something more for the person we loved, or been there more. We might have wanted to tell them with more urgency how much we loved them.

None of these feelings are foolish or unwarranted. They are the very real consequences of having loved, and having lived. It is simply impossible to have lived perfectly, of having never forgotten to say “I love you” when it counts. So it takes time to grieve through these feelings as well as the raw loss of someone in our lives.

Asking forgiveness

FamilyBefore my late wife passed away, I sat down by her bed and told her that I loved her and asked forgiveness for any wrongs or ways that I might have disappointed her over the years. All relationships have some degree of failure in their mix. I thought it important to let her know how much I appreciated our time together, and to apologize for my own shortcomings. Her doctor had advised me to be absolutely positive in her last few weeks. Yet we’d been through quite a few things together, and I positively wanted to tell her how I really felt. That included a bit of confession. We all try our best, but love requires that we admit some of our shortcomings along the way.

Recurring dream

Perhaps that is a brand of emotional w0rk we must always do on our own. The one recurring dream (every few months) that I have in relationship to my late wife is that she has returned somehow from the dead and I am in no way prepared to deal with that.

The dream typically finds her rising from apparent death at the funeral home to re-enter her life. I encounter her at parties or other events and don’t know how to engage. Awkwardly, I’m challenged in those moments to know what to do because I’m in a new relationship.

This is a painful dilemma in a dream world, much like those moments when you are trying to run away from some threat and are unable to move your feet. Dream interpreters say that not being able to run away in a dream… is a sign of general anxiety in your life.

That’s exactly how anxiety works, of course. It can focus on any topic, but it also invents its own realities. And so, in relation to grief, it brings that person back on the stage of your life as if they were alive again. “What do you think of this…” it wants to know?

Bad dreams and divorce

The anxiety of dealing with loss in a dream world is similar in some respects to a person living through a real life divorce. Rather than grieving through bad dreams, however, one is forced to grieve that relationship every time you encounter a former spouse in real time. That can seem like a bad dream in more than one way.

It takes just as much time to grieve through that kind of loss as it does to come to grips with the death of a sibling or a loved one. None of us can completely separate ourselves from the reality of a divorce any more than we can divorce ourselves from feelings of grief or loss with someone that has died. It’s part of your subconscious thoughts whether you like it or not.

Dealing with loss

In relation to our experience in loss, overall I feel our family has tried to deal with these experiences in healthy ways. Obviously, the pain of children grieving a lost parent is a different thing from a husband dealing with the loss of a wife. I think some of the guilt I am processing relative to my late wife is a shared empathy for my children in having lost their mother. The dream in which she returns to life reminds me that my work in helping them is not over. Nor should it be. She returns to me in dreams so that I remain sensitive to the fact that I am responsible as their living parent to keep her memory alive for all of us.

Rather than a nightmare, such dreams are instructive and healthy to the grieving process. In many ways, our family has found positives in our life celebrations together. We are not afraid to recall both joyful and amusing aspects of my late wife’s personality. She loved to tease but could also be petulant about certain subjects or beliefs. These dichotomous aspects of her personality do keep her memory alive. They can also be shared with others because they are honest. We can be unapologetically real about her memory.

Sharing burdens and friends

1509152_10204571857793222_4147884275556153224_nAlso, my companion Sue is respectful and loving toward our needs. Being a companion to a “widow,” as she has done,  is not always easy. For both the spouse and the new companion, it can be difficult living in the shadow of someone so loved. Sue has treated my children with respect for their mother’s memory. She has grown to understand them better as people as a result, because learning about their mother has helped her understand their own characteristics and values.  And in our relationship, I have been very honest with Sue about my feelings in the 2.5 years since my wife passed away.

We did not leap into categories of emotions too quickly. It has been a prolonged “honeymoon” if you want to call it that, since we met and starting dating. That’s a necessary fact of our respective situations.

Sue was working through pain from a previous relationship when I met her. I was in active grief from having lost a spouse. I believe we’ve helped each other through, and grown as people as a result. We treasure relationships with both our sets of friends, and some of these groups have merged successfully, to the point where we no longer define friends as “Mine” or “Hers.”

Protection and risk

11169852_10205615038072077_292278208289650118_nThat is the protection. The risk is the investment in time and love we have made in each other. We have discussed the weight of that investment on several occasions. Dating in your 50s is not like dating in your 20s or 30s, when there are families to build and children on the horizon. Yet there is still an investment in the future. Even during the few years we’ve been together, we’ve felt changes in our bodies, hearts and minds.

We’ve also ached in real time over the challenges our children face and have shared the ache across family ties as well.

Through all this shared experience, it’s never been my process to compare Sue to my late wife Linda. The relationship we now share is clearly built on its own foundations. As stated, however, these foundations do draw from our respective pasts.

And interestingly, Sue’s actual first name Linda. She’s simply gone by Suzanne, her middle name, for her entire life. I first learned this fact in the first few months of dating her when her bike slipped and we visited the Urgent Care facility to get her checked out. The registration desk asked for her name and she stated, “Linda Astra.” Then she spun around to say, “I forgot to tell you. Linda’s my real first name.”

That was an odd little moment. But it was not lost on me.

Caution signs

We likely all know situations where in which the deceased spouse can become something of a legend or a saint in the lives of those who carry on their memory. Sometimes that sainthood can produce dysfunction among stepchildren or in other relationships where the new person in the family formula is constantly measured against the parent or loved one who went before.

That can create a “bad dream” in which people refuse to accept or show love to others. It’s much better to acknowledge that we all need each other. Those relationships may be in new or different ways those in the past, but that can be a good thing.

We have this one life to live. It is best to make life better for one another every way you can. That’s almost better than the Golden Rule.

 

On the precociousness of November flowers

FlowersThis morning during my dog walk it was a bit surprising to find two yellow flowers blooming in the already pruned bed of a Master Gardener that lives nearby. She’s not one to pluck much of anything during the summer months. She prefers to leave her flowers out where everyone can admire them. But come autumn her garden beds get a full house-cleaning.

Yet up popped these two flowers.

Their species is not so much important as their precociousness. So I will not go on about their life cycles or why they might be giving it a second go this late in the season. All of nature perks and plays with warm fall days. Migrating warblers sing quiet versions of their springtime songs. Sparrows and robins too, and all birds in passage from north to south. It’s not so much about singing for territory as it is about communication of existence these days.

I’ve even heard chorus frogs singing from inside the prairie in mid-November. The temperature and humidity of a 55 degree fall day clearly resembles those dank March or April days when breeding begins for frogs. So the frogs sing.

Occasionally I will find the stiff remains of a snapping turtle that died during a frosty night while making its way from the uplands to the lake below. Mother turtles lay their eggs in holes dug into the dirt. Many of of these holes and eggs are proceedingly raided and eaten by marauding raccoons. The next morning all the leathery eggs lay strewn about the hole. If lucky, just one or two holes with their clutch of turtle eggs may survive. That’s how life’s competition works.

Nature depends on this precociousness to advance its cause. It is a long and random process in which we are all engaged. As human beings, call survival a “battle” when in fact it is often something far more subtle that takes us down. A set of mutant cells. A virus. Old age.

Having been through many such human “battles” in recent years with family and friends that have now gone before me, I am absolutely sensitive to the precociousness of life. When my father recently passed away, it was only after thirteen full years of existence following his massive stroke in 2002. At the time, no one really thought he’d live a year past that event. Yet he survived the death of my mother ten years ago, grieved and kept on going. A precocious man.

My father-in-law survived an apparent heart attack and lived another uneasy year in its wake. His persistence was evidence of his character, for the damage to his heart and body were profound. We all credited his hardscrabble Nebraska upbringing for his perseverance.

When my late wife passed away in 2013 after eight years of cancer treatment, it was not because she had given up hope. Quite the contrary. The woman put up with more pain and discomfort than anyone could bear during those years of treatment. Yet she precociously wanted to live. So she did, and saw her children through graduation from high school and attending college. I know they miss her deeply. But I also know we all admire her strength, humor and appreciation for all of life.

I know those flowers down the block will not last forever into the winter But their presence is a reminder that all of us are precocious beings. We all feel the warmth of the sun even when it deceives us a bit, bringing us out to turn our faces toward the sky and breathe in. We precociously feel alive in the face of all that might defeat us otherwise.

Let’s face it. The news is almost never good out there in the world. Even our religions reek with the stink of death, and always have. Only faith survives precociously like two small flowers in the November dirt.

In politics, our hopes of peace lie like road kill along the information superhighway. Twitter throws 140 characters of crap in our faces and Facebook ridicules sincere and liberal concerns for humankind while videos of cats startled by cucumbers at least make us laugh.

Yet is it is the face of two small flowers in November that remind us the precociousness of life is worth appreciating. And protecting.