Category Archives: character

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.

Lost and found on the day after my father died

Stewart Cudworth, born January 26, 1926. Died, October 17, 2015.
Stewart Cudworth, foreground. Born January 26, 1926. Died, October 17, 2015.

As I climbed in the car this morning the song In My Life sung by John Lennon of the Beatles was playing on the radio. I’ve sung and played that song many times on guitar, and know the lyrics well. But never have they sounded so prescient as today.

There are places I’ll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all

Yesterday my father died at 3:00 in the afternoon. The call came from the hospital, a kindly doctor trying to ease me into the knowledge that my father had passed away. He was beginning to go through the medical aspects of how my father had been cared for during the week, but I already knew the details. So I stopped the doctor and told him, “Your entire staff was wonderful. You gave my father an extra week or so to live, and all his sons got to come and be with him.”

In fact, my youngest brother had just visited that morning. He was in town by chance for a collegiate volleyball tournament with his daughter. He was quite close with my dad in many ways, perhaps the main son in the family that has dispensed wth any felt difficulties over time, and it was appropriate that he was the last son to visit.

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

My father was a passionately curious and often insistent man, willing to challenge our perceptions on any front. I recall the evening I stated that I’d seen some ducks on the river ice that day. “They were huddled together for warmth,” I said casually.

“How do you know they’re huddled for warmth?” my father asked.

To which I responded with some sort of angry retort. But that was my father. He wanted us to know the world did not accept everything we assumed we knew.

That was a lesson to be learned over and again. But the need to understand his thinking became a quality fo life issue when he had a stroke in 2002. That was when I first began assuming responsibility for his care. At first, it was my job to support my mother in her decisions about how dad should live. He moved through several care facilities with good and bad experiences before finally returning home with a live-in caregiver in 2004.

Then my mother passed away in 2005, and the direct opportunity to care for my dad presented itself. At first it was enormously difficult, because my father lost his ability to speak with his stroke. There were still seizures, and his body was compromised with loss of function on the right side. He could grow angry and frustrated at times, and my caregiving skills were put to the test in those circumstances.

All those changes and challenges are compounded when there are emotional patterns at work. The father-son relationship we had was transformed over the years as a result of the need to work together. I became adept at asking questions in sequential fashion to ascertain what he was thinking. This was an ironic rehearsal and reversal of the challenges he had long put to us growing up. All those probing questions were his teaching style, but too often we took that as an exasperation

But as we worked together our relationship softened somewhat. The same thing ultimately happened for my brothers as well. So while we’ve ostensibly lost our father to this life, in many respects we also found him again.

Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more
In my life I love you more

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride; Character, Caregiving and Community. It is a chronicle of cancer survivorship, and available on Amazon.com. 

Weeding our way through the world

Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8“Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”9And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  –Mark 4:8

The inner dialogue of a person engaged in weeding a garden can go in a number of directions. There is the associative focus of separating good plants from bad, and yanking the weeds by the roots. There is also the dissociative tendency to let your mind wander and weigh your life along with everything in it.

A little of both is likely required to do a good job weeding. One must pay attention to identify weeds amongst the plants we choose for ornament and beauty. But sometimes weeds are so thick it does not take much thought to do the job. You stick your hands in there and yank for all you’re worth. Little thought is required, only muscle.

Pile of WeedsOver the years, one learns the best way to weed through practice. There is no other substitute for experience. One learns which plants are easy to pull up by the roots and which break off in your hands four to six inches from the soil. That makes for bigger problems. A trowel needs to come into play. There is not enough leverage left on the slimy stem of the weed to get a grip and yank up the roots.

Otherwise the weeds come back. Well, they come back no matter the method of removal. They’re weeds. That’s what they do. There’s always a supply of new weeds to fill in for the old ones.

One learns this lesson in your own yard and garden easy enough. Weeding is a required activity if you attempt to grow anything at all.

Of course, weeds are also at times a matter of perspective. Gardeners grow some varieties of plants that can escape and propagate places where they are not welcome. Purple loosestrife is one such beautiful pest. In a garden they are quite beautiful. But unleashed in a wetland they can take over an entire ecosystem. At that point, they must be yanked or otherwise killed off.

There are entire woodlands that need to be managed for the influx of plant colonies such as garlic mustard and buckthorn. Natural area restoration crews descend on these colonies and yank, burn and poison them to death. But the weeds almost always come back. It’s what they do.

Chemistry

That makes it all the more triumphant when the results of weeding actually do work. Perhaps there is no more profound example than that of a managed prairie. It can take years of propagation and burning to kill off the weed colonies and invasive species. But when prairie plants are given a chance, their competition strategies are smart and strong. The roots grow deep and the soul of the plant lies below the surface. That means burning takes off the dried up stems but does not affect the rich underground root system that also taps deep into the soil to gain moisture. Hot summer days do not kill these plants.

So nature invented weeding, on its own. But humans love to create environments with the appearance of natural balance that are, in fact, a stripped down version of nature that can be hard to sustain. Golf courses are one such example, and for years their strategy was to bathe the fairways and greens in dangerous chemicals as weed control. The monoculture necessary to allow the game of golf to be played requires intensive weed strategies that for decades contributed to ground pollution and other problems.

Our lawns at home often depend on such chemicals. Some are relatively benign and go away quickly. Others persist, and it would be much better for the world if these strategies were weeded out of our eco-strategies.

Answered prayers

One of my neighbors does not believe in lawn chemicals. That meant her yard become overgrown several summers in a row. She could not tell the weeds from her plantings. Finally I offered to help weed her lawn. She is a good Christian woman and had been praying about what to do for her lawn. Money was tight for her at the time and a full-on landscaping company was out of the question.

So I offered to weed. My late wife was glad that I did this. The Creeping Charlie from her yard had grown all the way through her lawn to reach the edge of our garden. When I dug into the mats of Creeping Charlie it could be hauled up like sheets of laundry. That work revealed an entire system of hostas and small groundcover plants that thrived once the weeds were removed. There were giant, towering thistles as well, and old, dried-up cedar trees in need of removal.

The process took several days, and my wife grew impatient with my dedication to the task. I quietly told her it was a duty that somehow called me. Nothing else. There was no husband or helper available to our neighbor at the time. So I lent my services in that department. I knew how to weed.

Since that time a man has come into her life, and a bit of money too. First he tore into the landscaping and removed many of the weeds, mulched the gardens and tore up funky trees. Then a landscape service began to show up and a beautiful new fence was installed. I love her new fence. It’s a wonderful backdrop for my own garden.

The property of life

Recently a family I know also needed some weeding around their yard. The husband has been dealing with the progressive effects of ALS for years now. His devoted wife keeps up with everything the best she can, but the duties and commitments of things like yard upkeep are not possible, yet are relentless. The family now also has grandchildren to enjoy. This is the property of life, which is so often counterbalanced by the weeds of existence. It takes a strategy of caregiving to manage these priorities.

Weeding water bottleSo it was with some joy that we organized a small community of workers from our church to do some weeding around their yard. The resultant piles of thick weeds piled five feet high. Along the north side of their property the landscaping was obscured by groundcover gone out of control. In fact some of it had died for lack of light. The daylilies competed with thistles and mulberry trees shot up through the arms of the spruce trees. All the weeds and overgrowth had to be inspected, sorted and removed. The tall mulberries were sawed up and heaped on the curb. The weeds were stubborn and thick, but the loose mulch gave up the roots easily enough. It was hot, and it was thirsty work. But it was worth it.

Organizing thoughts

All the time I was out weeding I thought of my friend Steve inside the house. This was his garden, and his love. It exhibited his character. I could see the organization of the plants and the landscaping at every turn. His wife told me how much he loved to garden. There were beautiful plants; butterfly weed (how ironic?) and many more.

As the shape of the garden emerged again I thought of how Steve and I first met. Our children were in high school music and drama together and something between us clicked after we met. He’d join me for lunch over at the Country House restaurant where they served nice fat burgers and cold beer. There were several meetings where he talked me through issues of depression related to some of life’s changes and work issues. Then my wife had cancer and Steve was there for that too.

Meanwhile his own health issues began to emerge. It became difficult for him to open the huge wooden door at Country House. There was a growing weakness in his system that could not be identified. It progressed and was finally diagnosed as ALS.

He has never let it stop him from living life, thinking through his writing and enjoying the company of all those who love him and his family. And there are many.

Steve and I helped each other weed through those depressive instincts years ago. We weeded out the negative thoughts to make room for positivity and hope to grow. That is a garden worth tending every day. Every year. Every life.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride. It is available in print form on Amazon.com. 

Literary contest winner Stewart K. Cudworth, May 30, 1943

My father Stewart Cudworth was always a great writer. Typically this ability was funneled more into his job as a sales engineer in a career working for electronic and fiber optic companies. Yet early in his life he wrote fiction and sometimes teased my mother, an avid writer of poetry, that he was the better writer. 

What follows is an essay written during wartime in 1943.  This piece won the Literary Contest in the Bainbridge News and Bainbridge Republican newspaper in Upstate New York where he and my mother lived on farms a mere 200 yards apart. At the top of the newspaper clipping in my mother’s writing there is an inscription written in fountain pen. “By Stewart Cudworth. He won it. Fooey.”

My father was 19 at the time he wrote this. He did not serve in the air force as this story might have suggested, but instead enlisted in the United States Navy and served in the Pacific theater. 

The story begins: 

Fighter pilot“Johnny Gordon saluted in reply to the C.O. and turned and walked to his Spitfire. He climbed in, all the time turning his orders over in his mind. He gunned the motor and took off just as the sun rose above the distant hills. It was his first operational flight and he thought about all his fighter instruction which had been drilled into his head, the best flying altitude, the tricks of Jerry and all the other little things that enter into a fighter pilot’s life. This flight Johnny was making was a “rhubarb,” so called because it consisted of flying low over the coastal territory of Europe, so low that the propellor sometimes chopped leaves off that sour plant, the main home crop of little northern France towns.

As he gained altitude to set his course, Johnny noticed the darkness emptying out of the hollows. There was a little knot in the pit of his stomach, but as soon as he saw the shimmering Channel, he forgot his worries to enjoy the short trip over the water.

Johnny picked a large wave and lowered the Spit into the trough and sped for France. He came over land and started looking for any Nazi activity to strafe. Apparently taking the Germans by surprise, he attacked a train, a supply depot and gun emplacements without opposition. Then he headed for the Channel and home, skimming the treetops.

As he cleared a small knoll he saw a group of German infantryman raise their rifles and fire at him. Johnny gave them the rest of his ammunition, which he had been saving for any Jerries he might encounter. Over his should he saw three of the soldiers fall; the rest scattered over the fields wth terror written on their faces.

SpitfireAbout 10 miles from the coast without warning his motor suddenly quit cold. Johnny zoomed as high as his momentum would allow and picked his spot to land. Before the plane hit, he looked at the gauge and saw there was plenty of gasoline. Must be the Germans had hit is ignition. The Spit hit the rough ground and came abruptly to a stop. Although Johnny’s safety belt saved him from injury other than bruises, the plane was a complete washout. Fearing the arrival of a German patrol, Johnny headed for the weeds. Ass soon as he was out of sight he plopped down to rest and regain his strength, stretched out in the bushes for a short nap, hidden from hostile eyes.

When he awoke, the sun had climbed high in the sky and it shone directly from above. Johnny felt a slight gnawing in his stomach, so he arose and carefully made his way through the woods, keeping his eyes open in order toduck at the first sign of danger. If he were captured, there was no telling what might happen to him. Suddenly, as he passed a large tree, a voice said, “Arretez!” Johnny stopped as the voice commanded and slowly turned around. From behind the tree stepped a man with a mustache and dressed in the style of a French peasant. He said one word, “Yank?” and then motioned to Johnny to follow him. Johnny nodded and fell in behind. He marveled at the way the man picked his way through to a little thatched cottage with woods on one side and fields on the other. Across the fields he saw the smoke rising from the chimneys of a town. The peacefulness of the scene belied the cruel servitude these homeloving people were under.

After scanning the area, Johnny and the peasant sneaked to the house. Inside, the man turned and said quickly with an accent, “In there,” pointing to the small attic. Johnny climbed up and laid down on the straw that was there. “Wonder how long I gotta stay here,” he thought. It seemed like hours before the peasant reappeared. He brought some black bread and some porridge. “here,” he said, “eet is the best I have.” Johnny muttered “Merci” remembering that fragment of his high school French. The food tasted good to this empty stomach, although ti was far different from the scientifically prepared diet of the A.A.C. The rest of the day dragged by and Johnny napped fitfully, being awakened frequently by the sound of distant airplane motors. He crawled to the knotholes to look out, but he couldn’t see any of the planes.

Dusk fell and Johnny again crept to the knothole, and looked out into the night. There was a bright moon shining through broken clouds.

Good night to hit Berlin with some blockbusters,” he thought. Then his mind turned for the firs time to home, his family, his girl and the gang back home in the drug store. He said a little prayer that he might see them all again.

About two hours after sunset, Johnny’s benefactor put his head through the door. “C’mon, M’sieu Yank,” he said in a low voice. “It is time to go.” Puzzled, Johnny slid down to the room below. There the peasant swiftly coated Johnny’s face with lampblack. Then they set out into the woods with only brief patches of moonlight for a guide. It was eternity before they stopped, thought Johnny. The man said nothing but pointed to the North. They were on a slight rise and in the distance was the sparkling Channel. They pressed on to a small cover in which there was a small fishing boat with another man in it. The peasant led Johnny to the beach and whistled softly to the man in the boat. “Au revoir, M’sieu Yank,” and vanished into the night.

The man in the boat beckoned to Johnny to get in and then cast off. There was a brisk southern breeze and they soo passed into the open seas. For the first time the boatman spoke. He surprised Johnny with his fluence in English. “You are flier, ”est-ce pas,” he asked. Johnny replied. “Yes, I was forced down this morning and was hidden by the peasant who brought me here. He said very little, but I trusted him completely.”

“Yes, Georges Dandot he is one of our best men,” said the Frenchman. “He speaks little English, but he does good work anyway. I am Pierre Robert. I used to be a university professor before the fall of France. We are both members of the Underground which fights the Nazis under the cover of dark. You are the 13th flier we have returned to fight another day.”

“But aren’t you caught returning by the Germans?” asked Johnny. “Wouldn’t they kill you?”

“Yes, I am sometimes caught, but I shrug my shoulders and say that the wind blew me off my course. The Boches don’t dare kill me, because for every dead Frenchman they find a strangled Stormtrooper by the road. Some day, when the Allies invade Europe, all of France will rise and fight the enemy. Then France will regain her glory.”

As the white cliffs of England rose in the moonlight, a flight of four-motored bombers passed over on their way to Germany. Pierre, who had been calm in his conversation with Johnny, rose and addressing them said in a tremulous voice, “Hit the enemy in its vitals ––for la belle France.” His voice died to a whisper and he said no more until the boat scraped on the beach. Then he said simply, “We shall meet again I hope.” With that he headed to France.

Johnny watched the small bot until it vanished from sight. Then he turned and walked up the beach to the barricade where he would find some Home Guards. When he returned to his station, he would have something to tell people––that la belle France still fights.

The story predicts the future: 

At the time this piece was written, France was obviously under the rule of Germany. That next year on D-Day, June 6 of 1944, the American move into Europe that defeated Hitler and his troops began. In some small way, even fiction written during wartime contributes to the hope of defeating a dangerous enemy. And that’s the right kind of pride. 

There’s no place like home

When Dorothy clicks the heels of her ruby slippers in the movie Wizard of Oz, she closes her eyes to chant, “There’s no place like home…”

The moment is poignant because Dorothy has lived the bad dream of being displaced from the place that gives her a feeling of security and being loved. What she discovers in the Land of Oz is a world in which love for all its flaws and strange forms really does exist.

When she “returns home” and awakens to find her family watching over her, she struggles to express the deep affection she feels for them, and her home.

Many of us go through life with similar feelings. We feel pride and affection for the place (or places) we most feel at home.

Yet many of us find that the events of life separate us from these places. We feel forced to move on with our existence and not look back. Yet the longing we feel for a place to truly call home resides within our hearts and souls.

Of course it’s not productive to live in the past. There is so much to occupy us in the present the idea of ignoring it turns into a core dysfunction.

It helps instead to think about what it is that makes a place in time or space feel like home. One might look back with great affection on a childhood home, for example. Those trees you climbed and the green grass. The innocence of riding your bike around a neighborhood on a summer day. Even playing video games in the bedroom of a favorite house calls up deep emotions.

Sometimes the mere smell of a type of food calls us back into a time and place. Or, we walk out onto a mowed lawn and realize the sensation of hearing our parents call us back in for supper on a summer’s eve.

All these associations are powerful emotional trigger points. They are healthy, proud reminders that we come from somewhere, and that our memories do matter. They have helped form who we are. They may even help form the lives of our own children. We try to share the values most important to us. We hope those values will sustain the ones we love most during times of trial.

We often speak of the importance of stable upbringings and the merit of traditional families. While the human mind recognizes these values at the core, they are not the only model for what we call home or happiness. For many of us, it is the intense experiences in friendship that make us feel most at home. There is great value in that kind of pride and a sense of being home as well.

That is why so many people return to their college or high school reunions. These shared experiences form our notion of home as well as family. In many religious traditions the notion of home or the Kingdom of God is defined by a community of fellow believers.

Still others feel this community and the place of home in truly wild places. The great naturalist John Muir roamed the mountains and even clung to the tops of swaying trees in tremendous storms. He was seeking that connection to the earth and the world that most made him feel at home.

We may indeed find a sense of home in these peak experiences. People fall in love because their senses are piqued by the presence of others. One can define this sense of home in a number of ways, but it speaks to the notion of family.

We feel most alone when separated from these connections. Those of us who feel the touch of isolation due to anxiety or depression or any other very human conditions face a constant struggle between the desire to return home and the desire to never go home again. Home can thus be a source of pain and joy at the same time.

It is a reminder that the statement that “there’s no place like home” is not entirely true. That’s the ironic message in the Wizard of Oz that too many people miss. Our dreams and the longings they create are just as important as the reality of everyday life. And here’s another truth that escapes most people: It’s never exactly the same when you actually do go home. Your perceptions of the place, it’s size and everything about it have changed. This can be as jarring as a bad dream or as exciting as a good one.

Yet the concept of home is important in another way. It calls us to assess what makes us feel secure, and if we’re really lucky or smart, happy in our time and place.

The movie Midnight In Paris speaks about this alternate view of home as a time and place. One character views a point in history as perfect while another determines that it is the perception of that time and place that is most important. In the end the character played by Owen Wilson arrives at the conclusion that the illusion he was living was not the search for home at all, but the feeling of fulfillment that comes with living one’s life in earnest. And in that respect, there really is no place like home. You are home.

The infrastructure of spring

Spring is typically more a concept than a thing. We wait all winter for spring and it arrives in fits and starts that both tantalize and frustrate us. Warm days are followed by chill and clouds. Rain spits horizontally one day and falls languid and splattery from above the next. Most of all, spring is the product of an extravagant explosion of building warmth, energy and sunlight. Spring is chemical too. all processes in nature have a chemical foundation. Plans stir into life and begin their new dance with photosynthesis that works at a molecular level. We can’t see these minute processes at work, but we do know they exist. Science has provided us wonderful insights into how nature really works. No longer are we dependent on wives’ tales and myths to help us appreciate the workings of the natural world. And that is good. Science is much more satisfying because it is verifiable. We can understand the infrastructure of spring. We know how bees and insects pollinate plants. Moving from flower to flower, these pollinators perform a work of sexual magic. It is entirely programmed into nature as a symbiotic relationship. People who pay attention to spring are much like those who go about town fixing things. The infrastructure of a community, its light poles and sewers and streets, does not happen on its own. Those informed and responsible for the infrastructure therefore look at a village, town or city through different eyes. Nature does not need human beings to function. But it does need human beings to understand the importance of its functions. It has long been recognized that the human race can have profound impact on the natural world. This is not always good. Sadly this adverse impact is often based on ignorance, but also knowingly wasteful habits. As bright as people can be, they can also be greedy and wasteful. It’s true at the community level as well. People who don’t really understand how the electrical grid works get frustrated quickly when a passing storm knocks out the lights. At that moment the television does not work, or the lights. So people whine and complain inside their homes, wondering when the juice will flow back into their abodes. Those who maintain the power grid can usually trace the source of the outage and get things working again. Sometimes it takes an hour or two because safety comes first, and the massive flow of energy through the power grid is not something one can take lightly. Our water works and sewage systems are similarly dependent on repair and maintenance of the infrastructure. Think how helpless we’d all be if that knowledge base were suddenly removed. When workers in these trades go on strike (and it seldom happens) entire cities can be put at risk. It is remarkable then how poorly the average person seems to comprehend the workings of nature as well. The incurious  mind regards nature with the same bland, banal attitude that is cast upon the infrastructure of a town. Too many people only seem to care about nature when it isn’t working to their advantage or behaving like it should. You talk about lack of gratitude? The infrastructure of nature is far, far more important than the infrastructure we tend to impose upon it. Yet how many people recognize even a few species of birds in their neighborhood, or can identify the sound of chorus frogs singing from a wet ditch in spring? Spring is flowers and green grass and April showers, yet asking people to look beyond these basic cliches seems almost like an affront. That’s why it is so hard for so many people to conceive that the infrastructure of spring is at risk beyond the shifting and changing it typically does in a given year. In fact the infrastructure of the entire global climate is being impacted by what amounts to a human storm of carbon that never ceases and never releases from the atmosphere. These changes we can see happening right before our eyes. But the attitudes of some politicians is much like the ungrateful soul sitting inside a dark living room complaining that the lights are not going back on. It’s a shortsighted approach to life that refuses to look at the reasons why things occur rather than claiming the status quo is business as usual and should not have to be examined. The next time you look at a flower, be it wild or domestic, know that its bloom does not require your will to occur, yet it still depends on you caring about it to see another year. And another. Lest there come a day that it cares not that you are gone. Sooner or later we all push up daisies. Better to appreciate them while you can look them in the eye and help nature propagate its infrastructure for yet another generation.

On dealing with bullies in positive and not so positive ways

Get on the bus

What you’re about to read is a confessional of sorts. No, I’m not going to tell you I was a childhood bully. But I am going to confess that I was not a pushover, either.

There were a group of kids from up the turnpike south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania that came from pretty rough backgrounds. Their homes were pushed up against a hill on a gravel driveway. Our bus stopped at that drive and every kid on the bus tensed up in preparation for what came next. The tough kids would climb on and instantly begin kicking kids out of their seats. They did this without words and without incident. We all just knew to move when the bullies got on board.

Of course it’s all part of the pecking order of being a kid. Another stop on our bus route included a trailer park near the Conestoga River. That’s where a kid named Rodney got on the bus. He had a strange condition in which his nose was turned up and was always filled with golden-green boogers. His nickname was Booger Nose for a good reason. When Rodney got on the bus you hoped and prayed he would not sit in your seat. Pretty much everyone on the bus paired up with someone else, anyone else, to avoid having to sit with Booger Nose.

Harsh categories

There were one or two other girls we all tried to avoid as well. One was named Peggy. She was part of what the school called the Corps, and we call called them the Corps Kids. That was a euphemism for being, in that non-politically-correct term of the day, mentally retarded.

So the bus ride every day was a mix of social strata. There was jockeying for seats and pairing up with friends. There were mean words and actions toward children we did not like or wanted to avoid. All in all it was a core sample of the cruelties of childhood.

Lessons learned

My mother was a school teacher who tutored kids with learning disabilities after school. Those kids would come to our home to get help with reading or math. After their lessons we would play together. There was never any problem with those kids. They became my friends. In fact I knew enough even at that tender age to recognize that I was not perfect either. One of my imaginary fears was that the rest of the world was actually playing along in liking me, or putting up with me. I know. Pretty sad fantasy huh? That’s how the mind sometimes works when you’re a kid.

But on balance life was manageable despite my hyper-sensitive emotional framework. I recognize now that some of my challenges were related to a form of attention disorder. I’d excel at some subjects and struggle with others. The only realm where I felt truly happy and engaged was while playing sports. That’s where creativity and activity mixed together in my head. I felt alive. Expressive. And fearless.

Singled out

Then in 5th grade one of the bullies began to single me out for unwanted attention. He kicked over my instrument at the school bus stop and challenged me to fight. I was deathly afraid at first. Then a deep resolve began to build inside my head. I already got picked on at home in a pecking order that passed from my father to my brothers and on to me. I earned the nickname The Mink for the way I could erupt with spitting fury to any sort of transgression.

By 6th grade that determination to defend my honor and pride poured out in negative ways. I started fights on the playground even with friends. All it took was one unkind word and I’d be swinging away. Some fights I wound up getting whopped in the head but good. Other fights ended before they began. But a reputation was building.

Big fight

That’s when another of the bullies started to target me for a fight. His name was Davey. He had pasty white skin and a set of lips that made him look like a vampire. His demeanor was viciously quiet and calculating. One day he walked up to me and said, “I hear you’re pretty tough. Meet me at the Media Heights pool at noon on Saturday. We’ll have a real fight.”

It was November so the Media Heights pool had no water in it. The idea of fighting deep down in that concrete pool was both frightening and thrilling. I did not fear Davey exactly. But I knew this was going to be somehow different.

Which meant that I started bragging about the fight that morning while playing basketball with friends. An older neighbor whose name was also Dave heard me and walked right over to me. “You’re not going to that pool,” he warned me. “I’m going in your place.”

I tried to protest. Dave looked me in the eye and said, “If you try to resist, I’ll kick your ass.”

Well, I liked this older friend Dave, but I knew he was kind of crazy. He played basketball like he was trying to kill a batch of bees. The idea of fighting him did not appeal to me at all.

So he went in my place. Half an hour later he arrived back at the basketball court. There was a bright red stream of blood all over the front of his shirt. “I busted his nose wide open,” he told us. Then pointing at me, he gave a stern warning. “He pulled a knife on me Cudworth. Now promise me you’re all done fighting. That’s not you, and you know it.”

Broken cycles

And I can’t say that I never fought again. But the cycle was largely broken. From then on I only fought back in self-defense. I started no more fights to prove that I was somehow tougher than someone else.

People who believe in angels might think of them as gentle spirits looking out for our interests. I don’t quite believe in that kind of angel. I pretty much believe that what we conceive as angels are the badass forces in the universe willing to save our souls to make a very good point. The right kind of pride is that which does not need to prove itself by singling out or punishing others in any way. That does not mean we cannot be critical or fight in the name of justice. Quite the opposite. The right kind of pride demands that we call out wrongs where we see them. We all make mistakes sometimes in that category, but dealing with bullies in positive and not so positive ways requires that we learn lessons from both ends of the spectrum.

Christopher Cudworth is author of The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of positive survivorship through his wife’s cancer and other challenges. It is available on Amazon.com. 

On the gains of dealing positively with loss

IMG_8031This coming Wednesday, March 4th I am speaking about the subject of loss for Lenten Services at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. I have already met with the Pastor to orient the discussion, which will center on how our family dealt with the loss of my wife due to cancer. So the topic is fully on my mind.

Last night I woke up at 2:00 with thoughts rolling through my head. I grabbed my iPhone and entered them into the Notes app. If you don’t write these thoughts down somewhere it’s so easy to forget what they are.

This was stream of consciousness stuff, so it’s not grammatically correct. Not even complete sentences. In some respects it’s better that way.

Sometimes your gain is your loss (hiding cancer) and your loss is your gain (blessings from caregiving and community). Blessed to be a blessing to others. Loss of activity. Loss of identity. Careful to recognize loss of hope. Blessings are miracles in real time versus miracles out of time.

Here’s what it all this means.

I have a friend whose husband had cancer and chose to hide it from everyone for two years. She was imprisoned in this world where he suffered through treatments and she could not talk about it to anyone. His concerns over his own vulnerability were what motivated him. He did not want to be seen as a cancer patient. This approach was actually part of a larger pattern of controlling behavior stemming from his unwillingness to accept the very real fact of his underlying depression. His “gain” in protecting himself from outside scrutiny was actually a loss in terms of letting others truly help him and their family. That made it all the tougher for my friend to endure.

Sharing burdens

How different (and difficult) that approach was compared to choosing to share your burdens with others. The very first week my wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer one of her friends (actually her boss) reached out to our family. We were so grateful to have that support. To her enormous credit this woman guided us through multiple rounds of treatment and needs over the next eight years. That was a gift that can never be repaid.

At times the blessings of that care were so great we felt compelled to share our blessings with others. That opened up channels of communication for people who confided in us. Some of these needs were simple. People actually apologized for expressing concerns about their situation. “I know my troubles are nothing compared to what you’re going through,” they’d often begin. “But I’m worried…”

Worry is almost always over losing something in our lives. We worry that we might lose our jobs with an illness or other difficulty. We worry about losing money. We worry about losing friends or relationships. We worry about losing the respect, trust or love of our friends and family members. The feeling of loss in our lives is almost constant. We’re always losing something, aren’t we? And we worry about it.

Recovering from loss

There’s a great passage in the Bible where a woman loses a coin and tears her house apart trying to find it. When she does recover the coin she calls her friends together to celebrate. That’s a metaphor for how God feels about lost souls. There is a universal tie that binds us when it comes to loss of spirit. We even speak of “losing our way” in life. That feeling of being lost and knowing loss is most difficult to transcend. Some people never pull free. They live with the feeling they are losing the battle. God doesn’t want us to live that way.

Maple leaf in rainBut even if you are not religious, there is sustaining hope in the very fact of life. You are here. You exist. You are the miraculous product of billions of years of evolution. You have free will. The choices you make do matter. You can choose to live in accord with all of human life and all of nature.

I choose to draw strength from both those scenarios. For me, the defining unity between God and material reality is love. It’s a very real thing, you know. It exists. It does great things. It sustains hope and heals wounds both physical and material. And as far as I can tell, God is love.

It is what it is

In our case we objectified our losses to gain some grasp of where the blessings still abided. Our phrase was “It is what it is,” That meant the cancer. The treatments. The loss of activities and joy in life. All that constituted loss

Cancer even caused us to lose insurance. Lose jobs.

But we never lost hope. That was the one thing we refused to lose.

Identifying with hope

Ultimately my wife lost her life to cancer. But she never lost her identity in the journey toward that moment. She retained her character. Refined it, in fact. At times it was something to witness. At other times it was something to support, encourage and even cajole. It was not always easy.

When she lay in bed after dying I touched her lips and told her that I was very proud of her. Hence the title of this blog and my book about our survivorship journey. The Right Kind of Pride.

Miracles happen

We’d seen miracles in our lives together. These were not miracles that necessarily broke the laws of nature. But they were miracles of love and beneficial consequence. Favors of love and care that transcended expectations. Money that arrived through gifts when we desperately needed it. All sorts of things transpired that left us in grateful, happy tears.

So you can see why that stream of consciousness at 2:00 in the morning feels rather profound. It may seem jumbled in the cold light of day. In fact it is clear that loss is real, but you can thrive in the face of it. We all must do that, for loss is everywhere. From small objects to entire dreams, hope and loss stand in delicate balance. Choose not to lose hope and loss becomes something you can handle.

Sometimes life does not seem fair. We still need to take responsibility and pride in our hope when facing difficult circumstances. Then loss does not possess us.

The Right Kind of Pride is available on Amazon.com.

RightKindofPridecover

Understanding the character of a city is about understanding yourself

Chicago Sun Times
The Sun Times building seems aptly named. Since this photo was taken a new building is under construction next to this one.

My first recollected trip to the City of Chicago was as a thirteen year old child. We drove from the tiny town of Elburn, Illinois (Pop. 1500 at the time) to visit the Museum of Science and Industry. That’s a trip of about 50 miles all told. At the time, it might has well have been a trip around the world.

Kids who grow up in the city know how it works. They take buses and a few even ride in cabs. The buildings do not intimidate them, nor the urbanity and pigeons and graffiti coloring them.

With so little knowledge to build upon, that trip to the museum was like boring into the core of something so foreign to me that it overwhelmed my thought processes. Back home in Elburn life seemed to make more sense. I went birdwatching in the fields and played baseball under a hot sun next to a cornfield.

The lines from the title song of an album I owned, that would be “Honky Chateau” by Elton John, seemed to mock my naivete.

When I look back
Boy, I must have been green
Boppin’ in the country
Fishin’ in a stream
Lookin’ for an answer
Tryin’ to find a sign
Until I saw your city lights
Honey, I was blind
They said, get back, Honky Cat
Better get back to the woods
Well, I quit those days and my redneck ways
And oh, oh, oh, oh, the change is gonna do me good
Truly, I did not know how to “quit those days and my redneck ways.” Even when I landed a job in the city at the age of 21 I stuffed my wallet down my pants on the first walk to work because I was not sure whether I’d be robbed or not.
Sun Streak
A sun line streaks across the face of a building in downtown Chicago. Such adaptations of natural elements are vitally important to the beauty of architecture.

You can laugh, but I bet I’m not alone in that delayed (retarded…as in delayed) response to appreciation of the city. Once I worked downtown it all fell into place. The restaurants and the architecture. The plays and the bars. Finally my redneck ways receded from my eyes.

Then I got transferred to Philadelphia for work and had the experience to soak in a whole city on entirely new terms. Philly was different from Chicago. It was low-slung for one thing. At the time no building was taller than the William Penn statue in the center of downtown. How odd, I thought, that people should agree on such a thing. How many architects longing to make their statement on the Philly skyline had to bite the bullet and build another grumpy testimony to anachronistic style?
While working in Philly it was once my job to cart 140lbs of AV equipment up to the Chemical Bank building in New York city and return the same day. All of this was done by train, then cab, then back to the train. It ranks as one of the most exhausting 12 hour periods of my life. Those four hours in downtown New York were little more than strange. Looking down from the upper floors of the skyscraper there was nothing but a river of yellow cabs grunting along the street below.
I would not get back to New York City until 32 years later. That was to visit my son at his home on Delancey Street in Manhattan. We wandered around under his guidance visiting some sites like the 9/11 Memorial. Then we rented Citibikes and rolled around the riverfront from 5th Avenue across the Williamsport bridge and more.
And it struck me. This is a big place. But it’s just a place. All the familiar landmarks are there just like in the movies. Someone built them and someone uses them. Yes, some of the biggest financial decisions in the world are made on Wall Street. But even that district was forced to stick protective barriers up in front of the buildings so that no one can ram them with cars or explosives. I had to laugh: Who are the rednecks now?
That’s been my experience over the years in visiting all sorts of cities. They are built on assumptions that urbanity is the ultimate expression of human development. Yet they also expose the weaknesses of all those who depend upon them. Some people can’t even bear the idea of functioning outside their given city. And it strikes me as odd that when they arrive in the country and look around them, they seem to think there’s nothing of interest there.
Trump Tower
The TRUMP name is visible on the lower face of the Trump Tower in Chicago.

I wonder most of all how that most urban and urbane of characters, Donald Trump likes to think about the world. Walking through Chicago yesterday on the way to a business appointment, I saw his name slapped on the building he chartered on the Chicago River. It is reported that sign pissed off the mayor a bit. Such personal branding seems out of place in a city where architecture prides itself differentiations of shape and style, not the five letters of a last name.

But in case anyone has refused to notice, Donald Trump is all about bluster and artifice in life. Even his reality shows focused on firing people as a sign of sophisticated management.
What do we really owe such people? Typically is is them that owes us. Public financing of giant buildings and especially sports stadiums are often highly leveraged deals. It’s quite rare that someone’s personal worth actually swings the hammer. I have a friend whose relative is a major builder of hotels. On paper he’s worth millions but in reality he owes millions. “They really can’t come after me because I owe so much it wouldn’t pay to take me down,” he admitted.
Our entire economy turns out to be just such a game. We’ve seen the cost when the chips come in. The City of Detroit has suffered as the financial house of cards caves in. Urban decay is much the same as backwoods, redneck existence in the country. It’s no coincidence that guns are so highly valued in both extremes.
Fear drives it all. Fear (or the lack of it) drives the market up and down. Survival in the big city is all about having the wits to grasp the real circumstance of life and not let the perception of urbanity be confused with the establishment of real character.
Despite what people like Donald Trump with his pile of vainly coiffed hair might have us think, there really is nothing magic in the supposed sophistication of the city. Certainly it’s a place to appreciate culture and conduct business. But that just proves that the real magic of the place comes from within yourself.