Category Archives: character

Tackling the Christmas Closet

By Christopher Cudworth

Christmas Closet
Sorting through Christmas decorations can be a soul-searching enterprise. And that’s good.

A few weeks before she passed away from ovarian cancer, my late wife pulled me aside and said, “Chris, I’m sorry about the junk.” She was referring to the many things a couple collects in 27 years of marriage. Over the last year it has been an interesting and sometimes emotionally challenging process to make decisions about what or what not to keep. Some of it was hers, and hers alone. Much of her clothing went to friends and charity. Her jewelry went to friends with the exception of a few meaningful keepsakes saved in her favorite jewelry boxes. Room by room it has been a tour through our lives together.

But the Christmas Closet is the biggest challenge of all. Jammed tight with strings of lights and glittering ornaments, thick in boxes and wedged with holiday paper stock and more lights, that closet has been on my mind for nearly two years.

This morning seemed like the right time to pull everything out and take stock. I found a few surprises such as a box labeled “Christmas Lights 2015 Good” that would have saved a few dollars on lights for the tree this year. It seems that like most families, Christmas memories are something we treasure but also soon forget.

And one must be forgiven for that. The holidays as a whole tend to be much like the Christmas Closet at our house. A jumble of lights and half-wrapped presents and suddenly it’s over. Then we stash it all away for another year.

Only when you never attempt to clean out the Christmas Closet it becomes layer upon layer of half-utilized sentiment. And think about it: keeping a year-round closet chock full of Christmas decorations is a bit warped.

Out of Season

It’s tough to wrest ourselves free some such sentiment. In July when we’re yanking regular old wrapping paper out of the Christmas Closet to give gifts to our friends or relatives, all that Christmas stuff looks absurd. But once Halloween has turned over the mind turns to winter and Christmas lurks. First the colors brown and orange emerge for Thanksgiving. There’s plenty of that stuff in our Christmas Closet too. It tends to intermingle with the red and green of winter decorations. That’s what makes it so tough at times to decorate. It seems like the entire holiday season extends from October 15 through January 15th.

So I’ll be bold. Come out and say it. At some point, we have to clean out our Christmas Closets for our own sanity.

That means right now there is a living room full of boxes and…and strings of lights, and…and candles and you name it. Some of it has to go. Even my late wife would have to admit that. She’d several times promised to give that closet the once-over. Yet it never happened.

News of the Day

NewsThere were a couple surprises waiting at the bottom of the storage. The two newspapers featuring the election of Barack Obama were stashed there, still in the wrappers in which they arrived. She was excited about Barack. She read his books and liked his character. Before she died she wondered aloud why so many people chose to hate the man. “He’s trying to do the right thing,” she said with some irritation at the manner in which political opponents threw up absurd barriers to his policies.

Below those newspapers was another announcing the new Millennium as well. That was published before cancer entered our lives. Anyone remember what a big deal Y2K really was? It kind of makes you realize our fears and politics and ideologies really don’t matter that much. What matters is caring about others.

Soul celebrations

And that’s how it goes with things like Christmas Closets. It’s a holiday that rends our souls in so many ways. That is made so clear when watching movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The stuff that really matters lurks behind all the trappings and the snow and the trauma of family and work challenges.

So it helps in some ways to clear out our collective Christmas Closets and take a look at what our lives really mean. The junk we accumulate to celebrate Christmas is not the purpose of the holiday. Otherwise we could walk in that closet in April or July or September and pull out lights to get in the Christmas spirit.

The real meaning of Christmas is much, much simpler. It is in knowing our closets well enough to know what’s really in there. That’s the meaning of Christmas. It might help to realize that while you’re putting all that stuff away this year.

Christopher Cudworth is the author of The Right Kind of Pride, a book about character, caregiving and community. It is available on Amazon.com. 

It’s Christmas and Chuck the Dog reminds us that love is all you need

Chuck thinkingWe buy Christmas presents for our dog. But we really buy them for us.

To Chuck, the schnauzer-poodle mix rescued by my son and friends from a Chicago street at two in the morning, every day is Christmas as long as his “people” are around.

He also has a penchant for chocolate that can kill him if we’re not careful. Just last week he discovered a Thanksgiving bit of cast off chocolate in the three-season room where he typically does not gain access in the winter months. He pushed open the door and dove into those wrappers to find that lone bit of chocolate and ate it fast as he could.

For an hour he shivered and felt sick. I kept an eye on him when I discovered what he’d done. A year or so ago we made a trip to the pet emergency clinic when he grabbed a piece of dark chocolate I’d been nibbling off the light table in the living room. That made him really sick. His affect was off and he hid under the table before I took him shivering and weird to the veterinarian’s office. They made him barf and found a piece of green eraser in the mix. I was chagrined at that as well.

When I apologized for letting him get to the chocolate, the vet staff laughed and said, “Don’t feel too bad. The other four dogs here all ate panties.”

Okay, I thought. Perhaps Chuck isn’t so bad after all. He just eats like a dog. At least he doesn’t have any human fetishes.

Now that my kids are home for Christmas he’s torn in his loyalties toward my son, who originally found him and was his first owner. Yet it was my daughter that wanted to bring him home once Evan started to travel in his job. So Chuck came west from Chicago and took to my late wife as well. She’d stated for 20 years of marriage that we never wanted to own a dog.

Chuck MopeyBut he won her heart and Chuck has become part of the broader family network of in-laws and friends who tolerate his manic three minute greetings. He loves a good pet once he settles down and has been known to keep many a visitor company on sleepovers.

So Christmas is nice but Chuck lives in a different universe from us. He’s grateful for his twice-daily walks. I let him have his “time” at the lightposts and other sniffing spots. He also has a few doggy girlfriends with whom he visits in the park. He doesn’t get overfed or too many treats. We’re grateful he’s been healthy and happy with the exception of those tiny burrs he keeps finding in the garden somewhere. It takes an hour to get them out of his hair.

I’ll take the liberty of speaking for Chuck and say that he wishes you all a very Merry Christmas. He’ll be tearing up wrapping paper when we open gifts. He’ll probably get a few table scraps but not too many. And when it’s all done he’ll join us during the Christmas Night party my children host at our house for friends. That’s a new tradition and Chuck just loves it when the house is full. But by late in the evening he’ll tuck in the corner of the couch somewhere and start to sleep it all off. The day after Christmas is another day of joys for Chuck. You don’t even have to buy him anything. Just give him love. Love is all you need.

If you want to do right by the world, get on the bus your own way

School Bus tooAs grade school students in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we took the bus from our neighborhood to nearby Willow Street school. The bus trip lasted twenty minutes or so, making loops through the modest neighborhoods next to Media Heights Country Club.

Our bus driver was named Glenn. I remember his kind expression and deep black hair as we boarded the bus. He’d always say good morning and good afternoon while dropping us off.

Catching the bus

Most days I loved riding the bus to school. That meant I got to spend time with my best friend David. In fact I loved David so much as a friend that I would sometimes hide behind the bushes at my regular bus stop and wait for the bus to load the kids and then take off running across the grassy practice range of the golf club toward David’s bus stop about 400 meters away.

The bus meanwhile had to circle all the way out of the neighborhood and take a right up Route 222, then roll up the hills of Golf Club Road to where my friend David lived on the 17th fairway.

Conventionality

That run from my regular bus stop over to David’s was an act of defiance in some respects. The conventionality of boarding the bus at the same stop every day would rankle me now and then. So the thrill of breaking the rules somewhat and joining up with David to talk before the bus arrived so we could climb on together was a sign of my devotion to our friendship.

Glenn the Bus Driver never said much about my adventurous ways. He obviously knew what I was doing, yet he never reported it to the school or my parents. Perhaps there were risks in my behavior, and what I needed was a good talking to or something along those lines. The 1960s were full of good talking-tos as I recall. But they weren’t always right.

Running the risk

To me the perceived principle behind my actions (wanting to join a friend) and the joy of that run between bus stops was worth the risk of getting a talking-to. The world is full of conventions and rules that ignore the needs and justice of people. One must be constantly on the lookout for dangerous habits of thought or action that confine our sense of understanding.

rosa-parks_mugshotWe should recall that it was the actions of Rosa Parks on a bus in Alabama that brought to light the injustice of how black people were treated in America. It was a habit of mind that black people did not deserve the same rights as whites. Here’s how the Rosaparksfacts.com website describes the situation. “Many historians date one of the major sparks of the American civil rights movement to a single event that took place on December 1, 1955. While 80% of bus riders in Montgomery, Alabama were African American, half of the seats were reserved for white people. If there were not enough seats for white passengers, African Americans were forced to move to the back or stand. This separateness was the rule in every facet of life in the South, but perhaps nowhere was it more pronounced than in the bus system. It’s fitting that it was on a bus that a movement which would transform America would be born.”

The costs of resistance

It takes courage to stand up against ugly habits of mind. People are apt to call you angry or tell you to get back in line, to know your place and to work harder to “get along.”

There is a post-modern form of censorship that is like crowdsourcing in reverse. It holds enormous danger for all those who dare speak against the grain of conventional wisdom. They’re quick to demand that you abide by their opinions even when they defy all logic or depend upon a foundation of cognitive dissonance and the science of denial. So few are willing to do the work of self-examination. That means those who do will often be ostracized as arrogant, selfish or pseudo-intellectual.

Estrangement

This is not to contend as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in his theologic treatise The Cost of Discipleship, that “We forget that discipleship means estrangement from the world.” He struggled to maintain that philosophy in the face of Nazi aggression and atrocities. Ultimately he felt the call––indeed he was forced––to speak out against a popular form of opinion that threatened to overwhelm the world. That willingness to advocate for justice cost him his life.

The real call to justice in this world is to break from convention at times when the whole world seems against you. Popular opinion is often just that. It is popular for the simple reason that it does not take much work to go along with the crowd. It happens in elections, and politics. It happens in religion and faith. It happens in sports and entertainment and music and art. People will always tell you to stop being different, to stop questioning authority and to stop being yourself.

But look at what comes from breaking from convention! When artists once decided to stop painting realistically and to paint the colors of light and air as they mixed in the world, they invented an entire new way of looking at things. But they were also branded mere “impressionists” by those who considered their work a poor endeavor. The same goes for Lutherans who followed a maverick Catholic priest who brought Protestantism into the world. Stop for a moment and think about that word: protestant. It means doing more than going along.

Conventions and credibility

It takes the right kind of pride to stand up and stand out against injustice when those in love with the idea of authority and power tell you to stand down. It may cost you friends. It may cost you credibility. It might even cost you your job at times, or your membership in any number of organizations where convention rules the day.

It takes real character to acknowledge these costs. People like Rosa Parks stand out even more with time because their choices to resist the status quo change the world. As the website describes: “Rosa Parks has become one of the most iconic figures in modern American history, but she didn’t intend to change the world on that day. She had simply had a firm belief in maintaining her dignity, and would not be treated differently because of the color of her skin. Her Christ-like character and “quiet strength” stood firm as her resolve to “do what is right” opened the doors for African Americans in the USA and throughout the world. When the bus driver demanded that she give up her seat, she refused and was arrested. On the day of her trial, local African American leaders organized a boycott of the bus system that lasted until the Supreme Court ended bus segregation. After this victory, the Civil Rights Movement went on to challenge laws that prevented African Americans from being treated like equal citizens.”

How much more prescient her example seems to become as civil rights struggles with police continue to vex America to this day. Some people in this world see opportunity for change just by holding strong to the simple fact of what is right. They may face political pressure and propaganda, even threats to their very lives. Of course it all happens so fast these days in the world of social media that we can see these evolutions happen before our very eyes. But that does not mean we should not run to get on the bus when we can, and the way we see that is right.

It always felt like Glenn the Bus Driver understood some small need in me to explore the lack of convention that grows into a passion with time. For that I am always thankful.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and facing life challenges in a positive way. It is available on Amazon.com. 

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The important relationship between forgiveness and self-confidence

By Christopher Cudworth

In the midst of prolonged stress from caregiving to a wife with cancer a few years back, it occurred to me that dealing with the challenges definitely had an emotional cost. It was difficult finding balance between work challenges and trying to keep my spouse healthy and family life on track.

For a time I tried to go it on my own, coping with caregiving pressures with a low dose of anti-anxiety drug. That helped the “how” part of coping, but it left open the “why.”

If it seems obvious from the quick description given here “why” I was feeling anxious and a bit depressed, understand it’s really not a good idea to psychoanalyze and treat yourself when you’re under that kind of pressure. All types of latent emotions enter the formula and it’s hard to separate what is actually making you anxious. Is it present worries or past failures that make you feel less capable of coping?

Getting help

I put in a request to receive counseling through the Living Well Cancer Resource Center, a non-profit dedicated to providing services for cancer patients, caregivers and their support networks. The counselor took the time to review more than our present situation. She also asked what other issues I was facing, and that happened to included my role as primary executor and caregiver for my father, a longtime stroke victim.

The emotional helix of all that family need was drawing a tight knot around my self-confidence. On a daily basis everything was getting done, but it felt like I was nearly hanging myself from the emotional burden all that responsibility required. Old hurts seemed to surface with some regularity in caring for my father. These in turn angered my wife who saw him as a bit ungrateful given our situation. And so it went, like a maelstrom of emotional concerns.

Life-changing question

As we discussed all these relationships the counselor discovered a pattern emerging. “You seem pretty good at forgiving others. How are you at forgiving yourself?”

That was a question for which I was not prepared. All those years of training in personal faith had taught me the importance of forgiveness. I’d seen the very real benefits of forgiveness toward others.

Forgiving yourself is an entirely different dynamic. It requires both an admission that you have done things wrong in the past and a will to not blame yourself to the point of eroding your self-confidence. Those two attributes are very much like the two wheels on a bicycle. You arguably need both to make healthy emotional progress in life.

Personal history

In fact self-confidence had long been a challenge in my life. It’s a funny thing however. Low self-confidence and self esteem can come from many sources. It’s both a nature and a nurture issue, but an in-borne propensity for anxiety never helps.

Her question about my ability to achieve self-forgiveness set off an interesting process of self-examination. Actually it was self-revelatory. Acknowledging my flaws was no longer so devastating. That opened up a vein of self-confidence born not so much of bluster or pride, but of humility. The ability to look at your past and say, “I did my best” makes it so much more possible in the present to honestly say, “I will do my best.”

If that isn’t good enough now and then, you learn to forgive yourself and keep trying. That kind of persistence is really important in caregiving. it is also important in other pursuits from sports to business to creative ventures of all types.

The important relationship between forgiveness and self-confidence is not easy at times to understand, but it is worth knowing there is a connection and keeping your emotional eyes open to opportunities to forgive yourself. That can be life-changing.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and facing life challenges in a positive way. It is available on Amazon.com. 

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On working under pressure

The little brick bungalow in which our family lived for 10 years when the kids were little had only 750 square feet of living space. The house was cute, in other words, but not spacious. It also had one bathroom. That meant that when repairs were needed it took some planning to make it happen without putting everyone in jeopardy.

The tub was old and we hired some contractor to coat it with some form of material popular at the time. The wall tile needed to be replaced as well. The vanity was rickety. The toilet was too. Even the floor tile was due for a change.

I scheduled the entire makeover for a single weekend. It was an ambitious plan for sure. My wife and kids went to grandma’s house from Friday through Sunday night. It was just me and the bathroom for the weekend.

Planning

The work went well. It was all planned out in my head. The wall tile was tough to do because the plaster came loose from the backing. That meant a major patchup with wallboard compound was necessary. I never knew whether that was advisable, but it worked. That’s what counts around the house. It worked.

The sink and vanity and toilet came out and the floor tile was torn up. Underneath were rotted floorboards. A quick trip to the lumber store fixed those, and a lot of nails.

Panic

Now that the entire bathroom was stripped down it was late at night. Midnight to be exact. I’d worked solid for 14 hours and was pretty tired. And then it hit me. I really had to go to the bathroom. Number two. There was no toilet now. Just a dark hole in a flat floor.

That was a humbling situation, but I made it happen. It struck me that for thousands of years in human history this is how people got it done. One way or another, it all came down to one thing. Squat and go. No need to flush. No modern plumbing. Just a lone sole over a dark hole.

Preparation

The next morning it was time to put in the wall tile and the floor tile. That took a few hours. The grout was done on the wall while the floor set. Then I put the seal down for the new toilet and put the new bowl into place. Like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway I stood back and admired the modern contraption that plumbing really represents. All that to take care of our excrement. The world really is a humbling, confusing place at times.

All this work had to be done with care to avoid bumping into the new sealant on the tub, which was sprayed into place and therefore delicate for the first 48 hours.

It all got finished at exactly the moment my children came running back into the house yelling, “Daddy can we see the new bathroom!” Of course they also used it right way. That first flush of the toilet made me proud. Same with the working faucet on the sink. My wife walked in and said, “Is it safe?”

Pushing it

I secretly laughed but assured her that everything had worked out well. I shared the “poop in the dark hole” story and she just shook her head. No need for details, she told me. We all did our business while I kept reminding them to walk gingerly on the new floor. The grout was barely dry. But it held.

That’s not really a good way to do a bathroom makeover. It’s a simple truth that necessity demands a combination of determination and humility at times. The rewards of success outweigh the tough moments of personal doubt. In the end, that’s the right kind of pride.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and facing life challenges in a positive way. It is available on Amazon.com. 

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