Category Archives: Christopher Cudworth

Some poetic justice

Over the years I’ve written dozens of poems along with acres of prose. Some of them have been published officially. But many reside in digital files or yellowed folders where they do not see the light of day.

But right now my priorities are solid. In 2014, I published The Right Kind of Pride, A Chronicle of Character, Caregiving and Community, a memoir on cancer survivorship with my late wife.

I’m now finishing work on a new book titled Rescuing Christianity from the Grip of Tradition. It is a followup to the original book on theology that I published in 2007, titled The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age. I’ve assembled that self-published book to print it again through Amazon.com, since the first 250 I produced are largely sold out. It is a treatise and a warning about the effects of biblical literalism on politics, culture and the environment. 100% of it has come true in the last four years.

When those projects are done, and I have another couple books in the works, I think I will publish the poetry and the title of the book will be Spider Husks, named after this poem I wrote before a ten-year college reunion. In the face of all this madness in the world, it somehow seems poems are the best response.

Spicer Husks poem

Spider Husks (On Contemplating a Reunion)

Old letters save history;

youth, plus vigor and family.

Dust jackets reconcile their fate,

and records cover passions

from baby books to pornography

in the messy ordeal that is life. 

We’re cleaning; shaking off the mouse poop

to decide which box of books to keep

until one tires of trying

to sort, and one heads for sleep.

The later sight grows keener––

spotting old consonance

with long hair, bad glasses

and a college tan. It’s me.

Spiders leave husks when they die,

and what will we?

A cardboard soul filled with this,

an archaeology.

 

––Christopher Cudworth

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

Linda and Chris
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.

LInda and Chris
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.”

LindaAtGlacier.300x300
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.

LindaWithFirework
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.

CudMuesPhotos-61
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.

CudMuesPhotos-55
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.

CudMuesPhotos-35

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.

 

Approval at last for a bird nerd

When I was five years old, my mother’s sister Carol handed me a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. Somehow she knew that I’d be interested in the subject. Over the years I purchased many other field guides that improved on the methods of the original book developed by Roger Tory Peterson. Yet I owe a sentimental debt to that first copy. It fueled my interest and taught me so much about the natural world.

Peterson's guide
The original Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds given to me at five years old.

With an early passion for drawing, I began tracing the birds in the Peterson’s Field Guide with a special focus on the hawks, which drew my attention the most.

Peterson Hawks
The visible tracings of hawks in my first Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds.

By the time I was twelve years old I was painting and drawing birds on my own. And when my eldest brother came home from college on fire with interest in birds after taking an ornithology course, we all went out in the field together to identify every bird we could find. These I marked down with eagerness and pride.

Birding List
A chronicle of species seen as recorded in the back of my Peterson’s Field Guide.

Among my friends, the interest in birds was at that age a point of teasing and ridicule. The nickname “Birdman” was applied with some disdain. But I ignored those supposed insults and kept painting and drawing birds because frankly, I was by then making some money at it.

Through high school, I found a mentor in Robert Horlock, a biology teacher with whom I spent hours in the field. He introduced me to other birders. That led to my first engagement with Citizen Science as a founding member of the Nelson Lake Marsh Bird Survey team that tracked breeding and migratory species in a newly established wetland preserve. We participated in annual Audubon Christmas Bird Counts as well, a commitment that lasted for thirty consecutive years.

LMBST
The zones of the marsh marked out for the Nelson Lake Marsh Bird Survey Team.

That bird survey team was one of the first times in my life that a seemingly childish interest felt validated in the adult world. My ability to credibly identify birds was respected by the adults with whom I met on a quarterly basis. My trips afield for that purpose felt serious and important. I was contributing to the preservation and conservation of something that I really loved. And having fun doing it. That was the right kind of pride, I thought.

Admittedly there was some ego involved in all my birding and art pursuits. As a young man with a strong need for approval, the praise earned for finding bids and doing artwork was a prized reward. So were the bragging rights in having seen twenty species of warblers on a cool spring morning, or calling in a peregrine falcon to the Rare Bird Alert phone line that served as the Internet for birders before the digital revolution began.

Bankswallow7
A bank swallow in full sunlight. Photo by Christopher Cudworth

The thrills of birding over the years have included rare species that turned up at odd times. I wrote an article published in Bird Watcher’s Digest last year documenting the day that I found a European Stonechat in Illinois. It was the first of its kind seen in the Lower 48 United States. Lacking a camera on-site at the moment––it was before the era of cell phone cameras––I rushed home to do a painting and share it online. But unfortunately, the sighting could not be officially recognized by the Illinois Ornithological Union or any other organization because the bird was never viewed by another credible birder. Those are the rules. So the thrill of finding such a rarity remains a pleasure of my own accord.

Stonechat Paintings
The watercolor sketches I did of the European Stonechat found in Illinois, 1998.

These days I am well-equipped to document everything found in the field. Perhaps my obsession is in compensation for the frustration of losing that sighting of the Stonechat to the ether of personal history. I geared up over the years with a high-quality spotting scope to which I attached a series of digital cameras to take pictures of birds. Finally, I purchased a 150mm-600mm Sigma camera lens to use with my Canon camera. It’s not top-end gear, but it is fun to capture images of the birds I’ve studied for so many years.

Pelicans Flight 2
A flight of pelicans over Peck Farm Park lake in Geneva, Illinois, 2019.

It would have been nice to have that kind of camera in my early years of birding when I tried so desperately to find “references” for my bird paintings. Back in the 70s and 80s when wildlife art was a big scene, it was artists with access to detailed photography that won the day. I tried to replicate that process over the years and finally produced some relatively solid work using my own photo references. But by then the market for bird paintings was waning. Digital photography now makes wildlife imagery so commonplace that entire sites on social media fill daily with photos of birds and other creatures. In many respects, the thrill that once came with celebrating those insights of nature is gone.

Bald Eagle Painting
A bald eagle painting by Christopher Cudworth, 24′ X 36″, 2012

That said, my interest in birds has matured. My fascination now is with their behavior, and I still love leading people into the field to share in the thrill of seeing species of birds they never imagined existed.  My personal life list of American species sits just below 500 and I’ll happily accept any new species that comes along. But that’s a rarity for sure these days unless I travel to a new place such as the Pacific Coast, where I hope to bird some day.

Coopers Hawk
Painting of a Cooper’s hawk by Christopher Cudworth. 

I’ll still paint birds and have a library of 20,000 images from which to work. It is a catalog of the time spent outside staring through optics and camera lenses at living things that deserve to be protected, celebrated and appreciated. I guess that’s enough approval for a bird nerd at last.

Chris Headshot

 

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride on Amazon.com. 

Drawing on the inspiration for a new day

In 1976 as a sophomore at Luther College, I was enrolled in a Field Biology class taught by Dr. David Roslien, a professor whose course was a deep dive into every aspect of the natural world. I still have the lab journals richly recording our trips into the snows of January to capture voles and mice, and standing hip-deep in chill waters to study frogs in the ponds of northeast Iowa.

I did well in certain aspects of the coursework, but when it came to labs and genetics and such, I struggled. In true evolutionary fashion, Dr. Roslien saw that my aptitudes as a true biologist were limited. But he admired my artistic abilities as evidenced in a series of illustrations I did during our studies of frog species.

Frog and Toad 5I don’t recall what motivated me to engage in this depth of depiction, but I can say that I was inspired by all the things we were studying. Part of our classwork involved capturing specimens of seven or eight different frog species. I got after it and found them all that spring. Then I set out to paint them in watercolor.

Frog and Toad 4Working from photographs I found in some book about frogs, I painted furiously over a period of two nights. The results were some of the most detailed illustrations I’d yet done in life. I was nineteen years old. And obsessed with real-life depictions.

Frog and Toad 3The spring peeper and gray treefrog illustrations were inspired by real-life encounters shining flashlights to find specimens on chill spring nights. We’d listened as well to the daytime calls of chorus frogs singing from flooded ditches. And toads whistling from dusk well into the night.

Frog and Toad 1But midway through the course, Dr. Roslien pulled me aside to let me know the truth about my future as a biologist. “I’ve not sure you’re a pure scientist,” I recall him sharing with me. “But you finish those six frog drawings and stuff those birds in that artsy way you do, and we’ll give you a B. But I’ve already talked to the Art Department. They’re eager to have you over there.”

And that’s how it transpired that I became an Art Major with a minor in English. I didn’t give up wildlife art. In fact I sold hundreds of paintings over the years. While I didn’t become world-famous during the peak of the wildlife art boom in the late 70s and through the 80s, I did get chosen for some world-class shows at the Brookfield Zoological Society and other venues.

It was a competitive scene for sure. Many wildlife artists depended on photos to create original works. Some copied them outright, even projecting images on the canvas to copy the exact details.

Recently I got to see the frog drawings I’d done all those years ago. They’d existed mostly in my mind for the last 40+ years. I knew that I’d done an exceptional job on detail back then. I took great pride in doing so, working on the craft of “getting things right.” That’s always a good thing.

But my real pleasure comes in knowing that my professor lovingly framed and preserved those drawings as kept them as a symbol of his teaching and influence on a young man hoping to find his way in the world.

So while I’m not famous as an artist in terms of wealth or following, it has been a great journey nonetheless. And seeing those paintings from long ago offers inspiration for a new day.

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. 

 

 

 

Letters from the past

letters-stack2My brother recently found a treasure of letters sent to him over decades by our mother. He’s called me with insights about what she was thinking during different stages of her marriage to my father, which lasted more than fifty years.

Those years were not always easy. Our father lost work a couple times in life, and ventured into some get-rich-quick schemes that required questionable investments that exhausted their savings and forced our family to move. My mother’s letters show initial hopeful support for my father. But they also exhibit hints of worry that dad had been swept up in things that weren’t so promising as they were full of promises.

Life lessons

Those lessons have stuck with me the rest of my life. And while I’ve made a few stupid decisions on my own, I was able to provide a stable family situation through thick and thin. We moved by choice one time when the kids were in 5th and 1st grade. That’s about the perfect age to do so. Plus they both needed their own bedrooms.

I moved again out of that house a year ago. Recently while talking with my son, we covered the subject of that move and he said something really important to me. “Dad, I know that wasn’t sustainable living there…” What he meant was… the fixed dynamic of keeping that house intact after the passing of my wife was neither practical or logical.

His comment was so appreciated. While it was one of the hardest things I’ve done in life to clear out that house, it also taught me that there are few things that we truly need to keep in order to be happy and healthy within our own spheres.

Catharsis

Because earlier that year, I’d had the responsibility of cleaning out my late father’s house after he passed away the previous October. There were reams of old things to go through, and we surveyed what should be kept or thrown out. Several large dumpsters filled and we broke down multiple useless cheap computer desks using sledge hammers and a few whacks. Each was a catharsis of sorts, for the difficulties we’d overcome and how life whacks you if you sometimes don’t whack it first.

It’s funny how a single paragraph from a single letter can set off so much contemplation. But when it’s a letter from the past, that can have special portent. About things long ago, and things happening now. Letters from the past have a way of bringing about revelations in the present.

Christopher Cudworth’s book The Right Kind of Pride is available on Amazon.com. 

 

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.

 

The ch-ch-ch-changes we need to make when talking about cancer

We read news of the death of David Bowie from cancer and what does it tell us? That he “lost his battle” with the disease.

It’s time for some changes in that sort of language. I’ve watched several people dear to me die from cancer, and they did not lose the battle. They won time instead.

Time to live. Time to consider the importance of the people they loved. Time that mattered.

Cancer is an indiscriminate condition that can cause death eventually. You don’t get it because you’re a bad person, but bad habits like smoking can cause it. Yet cancer can also come along because you’ve spent too much time in the sun, or had the bad luck to carry a certain cancer-causing gene. So to suggest that you’ve lost the battle is to make a pitch that the battle was lost before we ever knew it was begun.

Well, that’s rather true for all of us, isn’t it? Life itself is a pre-existing condition. Yet in defiance of that truth, we’ve all been living with a health insurance business that parses that fact for its own profit. And we deal with drug companies that jack the price of life-saving drugs simply because they can. It goes on and on.

Pushing through the market square,
So many mothers sighing
News had just come over,
We had five years left to cry in

News guy wept and told us,
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet,
Then I knew he was not lying

That means it can be an expensive battle to live, to pay for the right to continue one’s life. That’s immoral on its own, of course. But every time someone dies from cancer it seems we repeat that meme about “losing the battle” ad hominen (against the person that died) and ad infinitum (there but for the grace of God go I.)

david-bowie-5-1024x616.jpgSo stop it. Make the ch-ch-ch-change in yourself when you speak of someone dying from cancer, or any other reason. They did not lose a battle against a disease or anything else. They won time to the best of their ability. And we should all honor that.

As for the memory of David Bowie, many of us had no idea he was sick. But even famous people deserve privacy. Perhaps something reached out to me through the cosmos however, because two weeks ago I printed out a bunch of chordsheets of his music and began playing his songs. Moonage Daydream is a tremendously cathartic bit of music to rip on guitar. It brings us back to those moments in life when music props us up against the perceptions of the world.

18345-david-bowie-637x0-1Bowie and I go back to the Ziggy Stardust album, which I revered as a sophomore in high school. The androgyny of the character and his person both fascinated and terrified me. At the time, it was not acceptable in any form to be considered feminine by those terms. Not in the tiny farm town where I lived.

I didn’t necessarily have the instincts to publicly display my curiosities. But like many young men I tucked my manhood between my legs and looked in the mirror wondering what it would mean to look like or be a woman. I have photos from that period when my facial features were delicate. Not yet a man. But no longer a boy.

To some people, such behavior and curiosities are abhorrent, wrong and unbiblical. Yet the courage of people like Bowie to bring those instincts to grace and acknowledgement have indeed changed the world, and for the better. The very idea that people all fall into plain and distinct categories is false and dangerous. It is the fascism of singularly self-directed purpose, and not godlike at all. Art, by contrast, explores the unspeakable. It sings it loud. Brings truth into the light.

Nature as well is both creative and forceful in its diversity. A society that collaborates with the forces of nature is a healthy one. The elements of the world that suppress and tries to murder the fact of diversity is one that fights against none other than itself. Men like Adolf Hitler, for example, made up their own version of reality. They try to cover their fears and insecurities with willful terror and murderous intent.

david-bowieAnd that’s why David Bowie matters. His music and his leadership together changed the world. If anything, he battled a few  s0-called demons in the process. But given the fact there are actually no such thing as real demons, he battled what the world threw at him instead. And in many respects, he won. And that’s the right kind of pride.

That’s the inspiration we can take from the passing of David Bowie. He forged a creative path that enabled him to overcome many fears about the world. He was born David Jones and chose his stage name from the inventor of a knife, it seems. Then he used it to cut both ways. There’s a powerful lesson in that.

A friend just texted me lyrics from the song Heroes. “We can beat them, forever and ever. We can be heroes, just for one day.” And that’s the best example of all. Thank you, David Bowie.

Art shows

From the age of perhaps four years old, I have been drawing and painting and showing my work to others for approval. Tucked in my baby book is the first real watercolor I ever painted. It depicts a jet plane with a flag on the tail. I have no recollection of the reference material used for that depiction of a jet. But it does exhibit some precocious visual interest in the world. Bic pen, watercolor and a piece of typing paper. It doesn’t take much to get started.

By the time I was twelve, drawing and painting were part of my everyday life. My father even helped me sell work to his friends. And by seventeen years old we’d put some artwork in frames and hung them in the old Manor Restaurant in St. Charles where we lived.

Too many study halls were spent drawing instead of studying. My grades in classes such as Economics and Government were not the greatest because I’d be drawing cartoons for my buddies rather than paying attention to lessons about how stock prices are affected by the market.

Art is both a wonderful obsession and a significant distraction. Being creative is not the best option in disciplined classroom situations. You can even be branded a smartass for giving creative answers to seemingly rote questions. You can also be branded a dumbass for not knowing the basics of this world.

I once wrote an essay titled “My Life As An Art Major, Or Why We Qualify for the Americans With Disabilities Act.” And it was funny, in a way. Because the world does not always accept creativity as the answer to basic questions.

But notice that does not suggest that artists lack problem-solving capabilities or that artists have no role in society. Quite the opposite. This interface between “reality” and operating in the abstract is often explored through art shows, where artists gather work together to show the public, and the public wades through and considers what is being shown, and said, by the art they find.

Just last night our Water Street Studios collective held a Resident Artist’s exhibition. As part of “the team,” of people renting studio space, four of my works were shown in the main gallery and my studio was open for visits during the evening.

Making art

Preparing work for any art show is a laborious process. Doing the paintings or other processes is just part of the mix. There is often framing to do, and that takes time and money. It can be exhausting getting everything ready on time. Then comes the lugging too. Carrying artwork comes with risks. All it takes is one dent on a frame or picture from a swinging door and a work can be ruined.

For that reason, art shows are Sisyphean ventures. There is no such thing as an artist being done with his or her work. Either the work itself is in progress, or a body of works is not complete.

Yet your goal is to sell some pieces to pay for the effort. Which brings back the harsh lessons of that high school economics class in which you might not have paid that much attention. Art shows are a practice in marketing. You market your work. But you also market yourself.

Body of work

People tend to buy artwork from artists that show a body of work rather than a piece or two that attracts their eye. It’s like the mating dance of exotic birds. The more ornate and complete the dance, the more likely the “buyer” is to welcome the artistic advances.

That means an artist needs to build both a body of work and with it, a reputation. Then comes word of mouth, and loyalty. You build a clientele, if you’re lucky and smart. One of the craziest experience I ever had as an artist was an art show held in a private home in a wealthy community. The hosts served lots of alcohol and the guests whipped out checkbooks and wads of cash and paid me on the spot. Women shoved money in my pockets while grabbing a painting and copping a feel. It was a very artsy evening, to say the least.

A more rational but equally stimulating version of that show was the annual Artists In Action event held in Geneva, Illinois each year. Artists were invited to actually produce work during a September weekend on which the Festival of the Vine was held. I always sold a lot of work there because people liked being able to see the artwork being made. It built a bond between patron and artist. And that’s good.

The process

Making a sale is not necessarily what goes through you head while you’re actually doing the work in a studio. Ideally, you are producing paintings or other artwork because you have something you want to say or show about the world. When that statement is visually or symbolically pleasing to other people, they might be motivated to buy. In other words, you take pride in your work. And that’s the right kind of pride.

Yes, there are some artists who develop a formula for sales and crank out things those purposes. Art is a business, and art shows are an extension of that business. There is no shame in that either. Some of that art is sentimental or familiar. But we should be able to distinguish between that style of art and that which is produced to make an impact.

Wine and canvas

In recent years, art seems also to have taken on a public flair with people taking courses featuring wine and canvasses. Everyone in the group paints a picture while being led by an instructor. These are fun and valuable lessons in art appreciation.

But the difficult part in producing art is being definitive. That is the characteristic one Jamie Wyeth (Andrew’s son) most values in his work. If it is not definitive, he wants no part in it.

Which brings us to the conclusion that good art shows are where good art shows. That is, it is definitive. And that is the goal of any real artist in this world. And to sell, of course.

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.