Category Archives: Christopher Cudworth

The takeaway on feeling good about yourself

IMG_0446It’s been an interesting process becoming the runner I am versus the runner and athlete I once was. Just last week while working out on a treadmill at the fitness club (not my favorite thing to do) I glanced over to see myself in a giant mirror (itself a confirmation of social vanity) and realized how common and ordinary I actually appear in my shorts and tee shirt.

The shirt I was wearing read IRONMAN on the front. But I only got that shirt by volunteering at a water station. That was one of many places where I have had keen opportunity to observe other people in action.

Having won a few races over the years it is a compelling thing to study those with absolutely no chance of winning. Sure, they may earn an age group award. I’ve gotten a few of those too. For some reason it makes you feel good to know that you beat other people in the same age category as you. Just a step ahead?

Yet we must consider what it means to be “better” than someone else our own age. A few years back a nurse from an insurance company came to my house to conduct health tests in order to qualify for a new life insurance policy. There were blood checks and an EKG. She pronounced that I ranked in the top 2% of all males in the country in terms of general overall health. Well, all that working out must be worth something. At least that’s what I told myself.

Yet despite all the advertising telling you the importance of physical health and owning good life insurance, my high ranking did not produce much of a discounted rate. On the actuarial tables of life, there really are only a few facts and figures that really matter. Most of us do not know these algorithms. We proceed on best guesses and a gut instinct about how we feel.

That’s a big part of what matters out there in the real world: how we feel. We take pride in our physical and mental health to feel better about ourselves. Some people even treat the human body as a temple to God, striving to avoid influences that might undermine dedication to good values and respect for the gift of grace.

Those are high standards indeed. Like so many people I tend to fall somewhere in between the devout soul and letting it all hang out. We figure the balance keeps us safe and might just get us into heaven, or wherever.

IMG_0438What we’re really talking about here is self-discipline. That’s the takeaway on feeling good about yourself. It takes focus and some humility to apply discipline in your life. That’s why Jesus counseled the wealthy man that it would be so hard for him to get into heaven. When wealth gives you too many roads, you can wind up trying to take them all. That’s also why the bible tells us that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” It’s not money itself that is evil, but the fact that self identity can be consumed as well as earned. It is well known that sooner or later the love of wealth can consume the soul. That’s what Jesus was talking about.

On the other hand having money can make us feel secure and even charitable. Those are both good things to have. There is certainly nothing wrong with either one of those attributes. It helps to have a dose of gratitude as well.

Notice there is no mention of who deserves more kudos in this process, conservatives or liberals. Both are wholesome worldviews when applied with some level of jurisdiction over greed and what constitutes acceptable expressions of freedom, and social justice.

Feeling good about yourself is an act of discipline just as feeling good about another person is an act of love. Sometimes it is hard to achieve that balance. If you cease to forgive your own flaws then feeling good about yourself can be difficult. There are so many ways for that challenge to manifest; from physical self image to emotional trust.

Then when it comes to loving and trusting strangers, there is so much confusing information in the world. But there’s a formula that is time-tested and true. Sometimes the best way to feel good about yourself is to put the needs of others first, and let that teach you what you really need in yourself.

And that’s a race that never ends.

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.

Confessions of a hayseed and what it means to a life well-lived

As a kid who loved being outdoors there was never shortage of burrs in my socks or mud on my pants. My roots were rural. Both parents grew up on Upstate New York farms on the banks of the Susquehanna River near Bainbridge. We freuqently traveled back to visit those farms. That also meant time spent shoveling manure into troughs in the barn and hanging out in the upstairs of the barn where mountains of dusty hay made a great playground.

These rural experiences colored my worldview about what is valuable and true in life. My brothers and I developed a land ethic that led us to become avid birders. That led me into a life of painting birds, wildlife and landscapes.

Decidedly rural

In some ways that formatively rural background was vital to becoming who I am today. Yet there were drawbacks as well to the innocence and joy found in outdoor experiences. While my mother and father both attended college and were well educated (mom at Potsdam University in Music Education and my father at Cornell and electrical engineering) there was a certain simplicity to their worldviews in having come right from the farm into the larger world.

That is no criticism. But it is reality. Throughout my early years there were many times when I sensed a gap in my understanding about how the world really works versus the manner in which I believed it worked.

My brothers evolved a quite sophisticated understanding of music and social graces. We all excelled in athletics. But we also wrote poetry, produced art and loved insightful banter.

But there was always a bit of hayseed lurking in our past. I once even had a track teammate walk up to me and say, “You know what? You’re a hayseed.”

Hayseed mentality

He was right. There was so much about the world that was so hard for me to understand. There were social graces that escaped me. Even basic knowledge sometimes came as a revelation. I readily confess all that.

It’s not that the kids around me were much less rural in outlook than I. In fact the high school I attended was surrounded on all four sides by cornfields. Many of my classmates were farmers. Yet they also seemed to grasp the life ahead so much better. Business and such.

When I attended a small college my worldview grew some, but not that much. Back in Illinois for work as an admissions counselor, I was still shy and scared of the city. I didn’t know how it worked. I was still a hayseed.

Growth and change

Fortunately through years of reading and experiences the hayseed in me represents a percentage but not all of my worldview. But it’s still there in important ways as well. Never have I lost that connection between the natural world and its importance to all of us. It even infuses my religion and an appreciation that the faith we know as Christianity is deeply dependent on the same rural roots from which my own worldview has grown. The Bible is inextricably woven with organic symbols and metaphors that drive our knowledge of God. Our grasp of spiritual principles emanates from a long series of highly significant natural symbols from Genesis to Revelation. Jesus taught using these organic symbols because he knew that people need to be able to go back to basics to grasp the greatness of God.

That does not undermine the verity of science in any way. Nor does it defy our own lifelong journey to become educated or develop a sophisticated understanding of the world. Instead the confession of a hayseed understanding of the bible teach us that great wisdom can come from great humility.

Whether it’s a hayseed or a mustard seed, great faith can some from small things. That’s a lesson we should never ignore.

On the subject of past loves, lost loves, exes and others

IMG_0191It is possible to fall in love at first sight. I can speak from experience.

It happened to me once on a moonlit August night. Everything seemed prime for such an occurrence. Headed into the senior year of college, I was training for a cross country season that would turn out to be a dream come true. We placed second in the national meet in a triumphal conclusion of four years of hard training. We’d done it.

But first I had to fall in love. We met at a resident’s assistant retreat held at Bethel Horizons camp near Dodgeville, Wisconsin. For two days we’d hung together getting to know each other through meetings and meals. Then the group gathered for a fireside singalong. She put her head on my knee while looking up at me under a rising full moon. I looked into her bright green eyes and nearly fell all the way in. I was instantly in love.

Dating

We dated through my senior year and beyond. Ultimately circumstance with work and opportunities droves us apart. She fell for another man and has four wonderful daughters, as I understand, to show for it.

One her daughters spent several summers together with the daughter of some of my close friends here in Illinois. The two met at a Norwegian language camp in Minnesota. They had no idea they both knew me until one of them mentioned my name by coincidence and the girls put two-and-two together. “Wait…your mom dated Chris Cudworth?” Actually I’d gone out with both of their mothers during college. One turned into a lover. The other turned into a lifelong friend.

But when my friend’s daughter came home from Norwegian camp that summer she coyly asked me about her friend’s mother. “I hear you two dated?” she asked.

I honestly explained that it was no small romance in my life. We had shared that senior year in college and all our pursuits. She was a lead in the musical production Godspell while I was running my guts out in cross country. It was one of those relationships where both of us were discovering who we would actually turn out to be.

vfiles24241That summer after college we drove cross country to visit my brother in Pennsylvania. Eager to entertain her with music I purchased and installed a cassette deck player in my 1978 Plymouth Arrow. It hung below the dash in precarious fashion and had to be tweaked now and then to keep the wiring intact.  Secretly I was in love with some music by Jackson Browne and the album Hold Out. One of those songs, “That Girl Could Sing,” turned out to be a foreshadowing of what our relationship could be, and what could not.

She was a friend to me when I needed one
Wasn’t for her I don’t know what I’d done
She gave me back something that was missing in me

She could of turned out to be almost anyone
Almost anyone with the possible exception
Of who I wanted her to be

And so we ultimately parted. I drove to Minnesota one July and we sat together on the banks of a lake waiting for fireworks to begin. To the east was a giant thunderhead. It rippled and flashed with lightning as the skies around us grew dark. The upper portions of that massive cloud turned gold, then pink, then purple. Finally all was dark and we were left momentarily to watch lightning coursing up and down the 60,000 foot pillar so easily cast by nature.

We both knew we had gotten together to break up. So we made the most of that last time together.

Love and loss

It took a year or more to get over her. Ultimately however I met the woman with whom I would spend 28 years in marriage before she passed away from ovarian cancer last year.

In a strange circumstance it happens that my freshman year college roommate from cross country also lost his wife two years ago to ovarian cancer. Those two dated and were married for 35 years all told. The odds seem long that two young men who lived and ran together in college should lose their wives to the same disease 35 years later. But it happens.

If the bloom rubs off

IMG_0251Some relationships blossom into fulfillment and others run out or run their course by necessity. There are relationships of which I was not proud before I met that young woman and fell in love. Most of us have personal histories that are far from perfect. So many of my friends have either gone through divorce or had friends suffer that marital consequence. Despite what the church has long said and what the Bible intimates, I do not believe it to be a sin to end a bad marriage. In so many cases people I know have made good of their lives by starting anew. There’s no sin in that so long as you care for those for whom you are responsible as well.

The harder part to achieve in all that distress is forgiveness. So many hard and harsh feelings come from a failed or failing marriage that it is impossible to imagine ever wanting to forgive that other person for the things they say and do. Yet you must sooner or later forgive in order to move on in life.

The right or wrong time

So much has to do with circumstance. Falling in love happens at unpredictable time. We can’t always control or predict who that person might be. Too many of us are attracted to people that aren’t really ideal life partners. We also can choose for the wrong reasons, or out of need. We’ll leave that subject open to interpretation. There needs to be some wiggle room here.

Yet our past loves, lost loves, exes and others do play a role in our lives whether we like it or not. We must be careful not to be too proud about how we define the good and bad in those relationships. There are always reasons why two people (or more) don’t get along. It takes two people to have a fight. We’re not always in the right. None of us is perfect, nor wholesome, or even true. We’re human. And that’s that.

Lessons learned anew

I’d always thought I knew all the lyrics to the Jackson Browne song That Girl Could Sing. Only I didn’t. There is a twist at the end of the lyrics that I’d never noticed before. See if you notice it here…

The longer I thought I could find her
The shorter my vision became
Running in circles behind her
And thinking in terms of the blame

But she couldn’t have been any kinder
If she’d come back and tried to explain

She wasn’t much good a saying goodbye
But that girl was sane

That’s right. That girl was sane.

Love can make us crazy sometimes. Losing love can make us even crazier. That can lead to bitterness, shame and acting in ways that we regret.

It can also be damaging to hold onto love too long. Lord knows there are a million songs about that. Instead we need to take pride in putting our past loves, lost loves, exes and others in perspective. Only then can we continue to grow, and to love again.

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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That’s why they call it fishing, not catching

In the spring of 1970 my brother and I were excited about the pending trout season. The streams in southeastern Pennsylvania ran clear and cold out of the hills. There were fish to catch.

It wasn’t “just” fishing season to us. My brother had purchased fly fishing rods and we practiced casting on our side yard. The mystery of the process felt much like throwing a baseball well. There was technique and there was flow to the art of casting a fly rod.

Learning technique

We soon learned that the long, looping casts were not so valuable as the short, accurate casts necessary to land the fly in a small stream at close quarters. It does not help to have 50 feet of line if your target is 20 feet away and shrouded by overhanging bushes. In many cases that is where the trout were. Dark, boiling holes at the edge of strong rivulets were their favorite haunts.

We worked our way up sections of streams overflowing with spring rains. It was dangerous work in hip waders. You did not want to let the water top your boots and fill them up. You could dragged under and away.

At 12 years old I had plenty of moxie about such things, but there was a moment when the cold water came tumbling down my boot leg. A short shot of panic ran through me and I moved too fast, sending even more water into the boot. Clamoring ashore, I sat on a rock and let my heart slow down. Just then a fish rose to the surface and took an insect in its mouth with a sharp pop. It’s funny how often things like that happen when you’re fishing.

Other waters

Years later I would fish the Lake Michigan shore with the same brother. We were casting lures to catch King Salmon, coho and other stocked lake denizens. For seven hours we worked that shore by Waukegan Harbor. For seven hours we watched other fisherman bring in their catch, but we caught nothing.

The sun sank low in the September sky. A quick rain storm passed through. The lake surface darkened and you could see down into the water for twenty or thirty feet. I cast a lure and the line went stiff. A large King Salmon had taken the lure and took off toward deeper water. “Work the drag!” my brother yelled. I never understood drag on a fishing reel. The physics of it escape me. So I kept the line taught and forgiving at the same time.

Then the fish turned toward me and my brother yelled. “Keep him off the rocks!” For a second I saw the huge side of the fish flash past. Then the line went straight and the fish passed near the shore where the rock edges were sharp and I felt the telling slack that told me the fish had broken free.

Landlocked

It’s a strange phenomenon fishing for trout in Lake Michigan. Those fish really have nowhere to breed. There are no traditional rivers they can follow to lay their eggs for future generations. They simply get tossed in the lake, grow to a certain size, come tearing up to shore in fall and then a bunch of them wear out and die.

So you’re really fishing for ghosts, of a sort. If you’re lucky you’ll catch one and perhaps even eat it. Trouble is, many of these big fish accumulate levels of mercury and other heavy metals from the pollution falling on the lake. As predators even further up the food change, we risk taking all that in if we eat too much of the creatures just below us on the food chain.

Purity

fall_brown_troutBut if you’ve ever eaten a fresh trout caught from a clean lake or stream, you know the allure. That’s why my brother and I retain a certain sense of wonder about the process. It’s not just about the eating. There’s the thrill of actually catching such a beautiful fish. As I’ve aged the allure of that has diminished somewhat. As a lifelong birder and naturalist my leanings go toward catch and release, or not catching all. Leave the fish alone.

Out in Glacier National Park one year I had brought along my fishing gear and decided one afternoon to try my luck in the rushing stream that exits from St. Mary’s lake. With one cast at the base of a bridge I latched into an elegant gray trout of some sort that I did not even recognize. It looked like a grayling but I let it go so fast to put it back in the water I’m not sure to this day what it really was.

Then I stood next to shore and was showing my son how to use the lure in the water when another big salmon struck the lure and I lifted that fish right out of the water. I’d caught it right underfoot. But this was not a pretty scene. The crankbait I’d tied to the line was too big and tough for the mouth of that fish. It caused damage. I let the fish back into the water but packed up the fishing gear and told my family, “This isn’t right. We don’t have the right kind of tackle to fish here. ”

Sure, we could have caught more fish. But it would not have been proper. That did not stop my wife from teasing me the rest of the weak about a brand of beer called Trout Slayer sold in Montana. The rip was justified.

All fishing is local and global

I don’t fish much anymore, although a few years ago a friend of mine and I worked a former farm pond for bass and I caught two fish more than 20″ long. We released everything we caught, and we caught many. But within a year or two the pond was essentially fished out by locals who took buckets of fish home with them daily. There was also the problem of new homeowners slathering their lawns with weed chemicals. That runoff could not have been good for the water in that lake. Algae now coats the entire surface in summer.

Clear intentions

Which all makes me yearn for fishing of a different sort. The morning I spent fishing for stocked brown trout in Octoraro Creek in Pennsylvania, for example. The water was cold and clear. We used our fly rods and even tried our luck with our own hand-tied flies. These were created from the feathers we collected at an amazing aviary near our house. There were peacocks and peafowl and the feathers of those many birds would float out of the pens to be collected by us. We’d break them up and make them into fishing flies.

But none of that was working, and for some reason my brother handed me a can of fat earthworms and said, “Here, try these.”

I stood alone in that rushing water and put a chunk of worm on a small hook and gently looped the fly line out into the middle of the stream. Instantly I felt a tug. Several fish later I had caught the limit. I walked upstream to meet my brother and showed him the creel full of fish. I was done for the day yet satisfied.

Fishing for your self

There are lifelong principles at work in all of this. The entire experience of fishing is dependent on how well you respect your prey and your situation. Life is most sustainable when you understand your limits and your measures. It does no good to take more than you need or to fish without restraint. It always pained me to witness large stringers of fish rotting in the sun at some lake resort? Why drag those fish out of the water only to let them turn into fodder for flies?

It is incumbent on us to be our own governors, to seal our appetites with the satisfaction of doing the job well enough to know when it is done. Otherwise the balance of creation is thrown off, sometimes for good. And we mean that in the strangest way. Even when it appears that human dominion over the earth is executed for the good of humankind, it is easy to deceive ourselves and go over the line, as it were, to wanton consumption.

When the Bible cites the example of Jesus calling fisherman ashore to consider making his ministry their cause, he casts a net instead of a line. “Come with me,” he invites them, “And I will make you fishers of men.” It is no coincidence that same call is all about avoiding wanton consumption and giving in to desires. That is the ultimate and true nature of fishing.

Case studies

Americans wiped out an entire species of bird, the Passenger Pigeon, that once numbered in the billions. Some of those hunters took pride in wiping out 10 birds in one blast of the shotgun. Finally there were not even 10 birds left to shoot.

It’s true even in politics and business. It is possible for one party or industry to want to win so much that they wind up losing all perspective on what their winning is really all about. Nature and human culture has a tendency of pushing back at that point. It’s the balance of evolution and of social dynamics that a creature of any sort that does not understand sustainability is likely to fail in the end.

The real victory is in having the perspective and humility, the grace and gratitude, to know how to conduct yourself in concert with all of creation. That strategy never leaves you fishing for answers, because you have them all along.

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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