Category Archives: the Right Kind of Pride

On apples and temptation

3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

You may recall the fateful verses cited above from the Book of Genesis. That last line in Genesis 3:3 is a tricky passage when it comes to understanding the nature of temptation. When the Serpent said to Eve “You will not certainly die,” it was not a lie. Not in the short term, anyway. In fact, Eve took went ahead and ate the fruit, and lived. So did Adam.

They were both now engaged in a conspiracy theory of sorts and would have to hide their nefarious deed from God. That didn’t happen, of course. We all know the outcome of that story. Adam and Eve were booted out of the Garden of Eden. God then informed them that by listening to the Serpent and breaking the unspoken vow of obedience, they had lost the gift of eternal life. “Now you really will die someday,” God warned them. Ooops.

This tale is so popular in religious tradition that the “fruit” in the Garden of Eden came to be represented by an apple. That fruit is a good choice. Everyone recognizes apples. Even the Apple computer symbol has a bite out of it, and that’s no lie.

Apples play a large role in both religious and scientific history. As the legend goes, Sir Isaac Newton was bonked on the head by an apple that led him to consider the nature of gravity. History.com explains that didn’t quite happen: “There’s no evidence to suggest the fruit actually landed on his head, but Newton’s observation caused him to ponder why apples always fall straight to the ground (rather than sideways or upward) and helped inspired him to eventually develop his law of universal gravitation.”

We know that gravity behaves fairly consistently here on earth. The same cannot be precisely said about the genetic direction taken by apples. The human race has coerced and cobbled apples into countless varieties. Each tastes and feels different to eat. Some are tart. Some are mild. Some are crisp. Others are soft. All apples grow on trees, yet even these vary by shape. People love to play games with genetics.

While apple-picking this past weekend it was obvious that people also like the hands-on experience of plucking apples from a tree. The organic quality of that experience recalls the act of temptation conducted by Eve and followed by Adam. A ripe-looking fruit of any kind is hard to resist. We filled our quarter-peck bags with apples of different sizes and shapes.

Along the way, we shared bites of different kinds of apples. There were Liberty and Empire, Honeycrisp and many others either ready for plucking or waiting a few weeks until they were in prime condition.

On the ground lay the detritus of apples either discarded with bites in them or recently fallen from the trees on their own. Some would be plucked up for use. Others would serve as fodder for yellow jackets.

The potential energy in every apple is hard to imagine. The evolutionary processes and human intelligence that combined to create these fruits would not be easily replicated if some tragic cataclysm befell the world’s population. The art and science of apple breeding is collective as much as it is individual.

Certainly there are growers out there who take great pride in the quality of their apples. The docent who talked us through the process of apple picking tried to educate the milling crowd about the best apples for baking and eating. It was a short talk. Civilization seems to have little time for learning. The apples sat out there like Forbidden Fruit. Let’s go have a taste.

As we left, I discovered an apple on a tree that had a face on it. The mouth was agape as if it had just seen some distressing surprise. Someone said the fruit looked diseased. I picked it and put it in my quarter-peck bag just the same. It was coming home with me. That apple and I might share some time with a plate of peanut butter. We could talk about the birds and the bees, the sun in the orchard, and try to make some sense of why some people seem to believe in talking Serpents anyway.

I think it’s possible to wander through an orchard, a garden or a field full of goldenrod on a clear September day and realize that we can all look at the blue sky and see forever. We are alive in eternity. We can take pride in the fact that our human awareness enables us to consider the nature of our existence.

That brings us back to the meaning of the fruit in the Garden of Eden. Taking a bite out of that “apple” was not the whole story. The real sin in that situation was the Serpent claiming to own the authority of God and a shortcut to wisdom. That’s a warning against all others that would do the same. While tradition tells us it was the “Fall of Man” that took place in the Garden of Eden, in truth it was the Rise of Religion as one of the stumbling blocks between the human race and God.

That may sound shocking to some who hear it, especially to those who supposed that religion is the one gift from God that we can trust because it exists in close proximity with the Creator. That’s also not what scripture tells us.

Jesus learned that harsh lesson when Satan caught up with him in the wilderness. Just like the Serpent in Genesis, Satan offered food for comfort and all the authority in the world. Jesus wisely said no, showing that discernment is the right kind of pride even when the fruit looks so good you can almost taste it.

What cracked earth can teach us about humility

Yesterday I stopped at a dried out wetland to see what shorebirds might still be lingering behind in Illinois. Most have moved through our region during July and August, as shorebirds are the first to head south in fall migration. There are typically some stragglers, so it’s often worth checking out watery places in case there is some interesting bird to be found.

The wetland I visited was nearly dried out. That’s often the case in August, when lack of rain and heat combine to evaporate what’s left. Then the mud shrinks. The earth cracks open.

Once the process of dehydration starts in earnest, the waters often recede quickly. This wetland shrank so quickly that I found a ring of bird feathers at the outer edges of the mudflat. Even that feathery edge wasn’t the true high water mark. Further up the low bank a thick mat of cattail stems lay choked among the bushes. Earlier this spring the wetland swelled with water. Over weeks and months, it shrank in size until there is only a broad puddle left.

Year after year, these events occur in varying fashion. Early in my birding career, I’d often visit a slough on a farmer’s property at the edge of town. In spring there were would be twenty species of ducks that stopped at the wetland in spring. In summer, I once found the tiny black chick of a Virginia rail, evidence that many species depended on that wetland.

These moments teach us plenty about nature’s movements. When the wetland would dry up in late July or August, there would be swarms of small catfish left to wriggle about in the narrow channel of water. Water birds such as herons arrived to glean them for meals. Then the water would be gone completely. So would the food supply. These are the rhythms of nature.

Yet they’d spring back again to life the following year. Frogs and turtles lived through the same big rhythms. Their evolution as a species is built from the process of natural selection taking place every moment in time. Those with instincts to sink into the mud and wait out drought conditions will live to see another day. Others take off in search of wetter places. Some make it. Others don’t. It is humbling work, this process of survival.

Yet those that die often leave traces of their lives and evidence of their former existence. The world is rife with fossil records that run thousands of feet deep. Layers sedimentary rock hold evolution’s grand story in place. These fossils tell a tale of lives come and gone, entire species that flourished into existence and vanished when conditions changed. It has happened before. It will happen again.

The earth cracks and absorbs the living and the dead. It humbles those whose arrogance ignores warning signs and whose instincts fail them as a result. The human race loves to think itself a bold and brave species, almost separate from nature. Yet the raw intelligence of history cannot be denied. The waters cover the continents or gouge the earth, creating great chasms like the Grand Canyon. These speak to the time and patience the earth embraces. Selfish believers may write these events off to sudden cataclysm in an attempt to own the narrative. But these selfish notions deny the reality of the ages, replacing them with literalistic notions of Great Floods and Rainbow Promises that are an insult to the massive grandeur and eternal flow of nature.

Even the human race is but a footprint in the passage of time.

The ephemeral mark of a bird on the surface of a parched wetland reminds us that life and time don’t owe us anything. Science pokes and prods at these truths while religion reflects them in prose and praise.

It is evidently clear that all depends on paying attention to the rhythms of time and place. That is all we have to discern our place in this world. If we respect that reality, and do our best to provide a place for the generations to come, that is what the religious among us love to call the Kingdom of God.

But from a more pragmatic perspective, caring about stewardship of the earth and those who live with us is the right kind of pride. Anything else is a sin of selfishness. Ignoring that fact, we have no meaning or purpose at all in this world.

Finding a way to make things work out

Over the past winter the coffeehouse where I often go to work and write was closed for a complete remodeling. They stationed a smaller store a block away while the expanded Graham’s 318 Coffeehouse was being constructed. But it was a test of patience and timing while the new store was being built. The City of Geneva is pretty picky about its appearances and historical feel, yet Graham’s and the builder Hogan Construction made it work.

Then when it finally opened, the Covid Crisis hit. That delayed things again. Now the business is operating at full function allowing for masks and social distancing.

It has always been a welcoming place. There are regulars who work here daily. During peak hours the bustling background of people coming in and out of the restaurant acts as white noise to a writer. They don’t play their music too loud or too soft. The vibe is one of community. They even serve Two Brothers beer along with their incredible menu of coffees, teas and food menu.

Long-time associates

I’ve known the owners Bob and Beckie Untiedt for perhaps 20 years. We were members of the same church. They led an exceptionally well-run Praise Band in which my son played bass and cello. Then my daughter followed suit playing violin, but she was never much of a fan of praise music with its repetitive chants and predictable key changes.

That didn’t stop me from joining the group later on as a rhythm guitarist. I’d grown up playing clarinet and participating in bell choir in elementary school. Come high school, I learned to play some guitar chords with a group of friends and even performed a few songs for our Key Club banquet. That went horribly. Following that, I let the instrument go for twenty-plus years until my daughter asked for a guitar and I started playing again.

Joining that Praise Band was a humbling experience. My brain does not memorize music well. Some of the chords I was asked to play were difficult for my knuckle-cracking fingers to accomplish. But Bob and Beckie were patient and encouraging. After a year or two of being in the group, they even urged me to perform a song I’d written. So we practiced and had a go at it. I recall singing somewhat tentatively in rehearsal that morning and Beckie was direct and real with me. “You’re going to have to sing clearer than that.”

That was the point, after all. The song was titled Flowering Tree In Spring, a piece I’d written from different aspects of my experience. Perhaps it was also a competitive attempt to write something better and less repetitious than the praise songs we played so often.

The first stanza lyrics introduced the metaphor:

Have you gazed in wonder at a flowering tree in spring?

no petals yet have fallen a perfect, holy thing. 

If life were just that simple, no rain or wind would blow

then we might be as perfect as a flowering tree, you know. 

The song came out really well. I think Bob and Beckie have always appreciated the idea of people trying new things. Their businesses of Graham’s Chocolates and 318 are a living example of that. As a result of their considerably novel approach to business, these businesses are lively fixtures in the communities they serve. They also provide work for dozens of employees of diverse backgrounds and needs.

Yet the thing that I appreciate most about them is the impish brand of honesty one finds in Bob and the earnest commitment to quality in Beckie. Their business was recognized by the Geneva Chamber for its contributions to the community.

Appreciation

The Untiedts (center) with daughters Jaynie and Maddie. Kane County Chronicle File Photo.

Bob’s impish side is not directly revealed. I well recall playing a song in Praise Band by the musical artist Bruce Cockburn. Whether intentional or not, that act was a bit of a thumb in the face of the conservatism of that church, whose pastors often preached against homosexuality. Cockburn is gay, and performing his song in that church was something that I relished whether it was a closeted protest on the part of Bob or not. It was for me. All I can say is that Bob often had a wry smile on his face the days we played that song. But then, Bob always has a wry smile on his face. That’s who he is.

Beckie is kind of the opposite type of person, with an open-faced honesty for which she is both apologetic and unapologetic. If that sounds contrary, so be it. She’s a person of strong faith, but no stuffed shirt either. I recall the night that she was singing when one of the cups of her underwire bra broke, sending a sharp bit of metal into her side. She let loose a surprised yip and then starting laughing along with her Praise Singer sisters while trying to push the whole contraption back into place.

Musical talents

It was always astounding to me to watch their respective musical talents in action. Bob could sit and play songs on the piano seemingly out of nowhere. He’d transcribe chords for all the instruments from one key to the next, and orchestrate the parts of bass, rhythm, drums, lead guitar and piano in real-time. I don’t think in musical terms like that, but I can keep rhythm with the best of them, and that was my role.

Beckie is possessed of one of the most beautiful, clear voices one can imagine. There were nights while playing the guitar in practice that I’d get distracted by her lead vocals. Along with the harmonies of the gals singing with her, one could not help but listen. But then, I’m always easily distracted. Still, I once broke script in rehearsal and told her that she had one of the most wonderful voices I’d ever heard. She was a bit taken aback. Perhaps it was a bit too laudatory. Yet if someone doesn’t express appreciation for the good things in life, events roll by and things like that never get said.

Eclipsed by circumstance

That is why I felt horrible a few years ago when I was invited back to play with the Praise Band and was given a lead part to play on the rhythm guitar and things got out of hand.

The main song I was asked to play was one of my favorites and it went well in rehearsals the week before the service. But the morning of the performance I was also scheduled to do a live painting in front of the church and things got a bit chaotic setting up the easel and floor coverings while also trying to get ready to play the guitar. It was so noisy around the front of the church I went out to the narthex at the last minute to tune my instrument. On the way, I accidentally bumped the settings on tuner and changed the readings of the pitch. Not knowing that had happened, I tuned my guitar to the wrong key and returned to the front of the church to begin the service.

To my horror, I knew within two bars that my guitar was badly out of sync with the rest of the band. The only option I knew was to stop playing. Actually I faked it a bit at first, strumming nothing, then looked at Bob with a guilty shrug and mouthed the words, “Out of tune.” There was no time to explain. He covered my parts with some creative piano playing but to this day I get a queasy feeling every time I think about that moment.

That made it tough to concentrate on the painting process as well. The flush of embarrassment was still on my neck and face when I stood up to begin the painting. There was pressure to complete the picture in the few minutes allotted for the performance. It came out okay, and people were gracious, but I knew it wasn’t my best effort. It was all a lesson about being present in the moment.

It was also a lesson that taking chances and trying new things comes with some risk. I’m pretty sure that Bob and Beckie know better than anyone else I know that not everything we try in this world comes out a success. The story behind the scenes of life and work is often chaotic and challenging. In the end, the public face we present is the product of both determination and patience in the face of adversity. Along the way, we hope to celebrate the joys as well as endure the failures. That is how our true character is formed and emerges.

That is the right kind of pride. Finding a way to make things work out despite the frustrations of life is what it’s all about.

people can generally get along great, if you let them

Our neighborhood is diverse in almost every manner of description. Race and ethnicity. Sexual orientation. Nationality. Occupation. The list goes on.

Everyone gets along great because we’ve all gotten to know each other. Even when turnover takes place, and people move on to other places, new residents are welcomed.

Humanity on the block

We’ve held block parties every other year or so. These are informal occasions. Yet one year, a woman on our block who is one of the leading Latina marketers in the country brought a Mexican Senator to visit with us in our ring of lawn chairs at the end of the street. The Senator was in town to speak at a Mexican Independence Day event, the first woman to ever do so. Yet she confided in us that it was nice to be able to relax in a less pressured-filled situation, and just talk.

Someone suggested that we go around the circle that day and share a personal insight about gratitude. It was fascinating to hear the diversity in scope of those telling their stories. Then one of the families in attendance shared that they were glad to be alive. Only a few months before they had been in a dangerous car accident resulting in profound personal and emotional injuries. None of us had heard about that.

We all have challenges

That testimony illustrates that while we can all know each other casually and as neighbors, many times there are events and issues that we don’t necessarily share on a day-to-day basis. Yet the challenges we don’t share are often the most compelling parts of our existence.

We all sat stunned upon hearing the seriousness of the accident. Then someone quietly said, “We’re so glad you’re okay.” Yet the physical therapy continued, and the emotional strain too.

These are the feelings that connect us as human beings. While some shared quiet joys or happy accomplishments, others mentioned gratitude for having a trusted companion, or children, or a job that supports their household.

I don’t recall what I actually said about gratitude. But one of the feelings I had during that session was gratefulness for being around such an interesting and obviously compassionate group of other human beings.

Ethnicities are only the beginning of humanity

That brings us to the socially fabricated aspect of our neighborhood. Our ethnicities. According to traditional categorizations, there are four black families, three Latino families, an Asian household, several white or Caucasian families, a home with two women in a relationship, some elderly retirees and, of course, several dogs and cats that live in our cul de sac.

One of those families embraces several generation within the household. The head of that household is a leading law enforcement officer and former police chief of a Chicago suburb. But there are many variegations within the family, and attending one of their family parties means being introduced to visiting sisters, cousins, matriarchs and more.

Nacho diplomacy

One of the pre-teens who lives up the block loves to stop and talk with me now and then on our sidewalk. He’s got a curious mind and loves to test me with questions and topics of many kinds. Likewise, I like to ask him what he thinks about while riding his bike around, which he does all the time. Then one day he asked me, “Do you like nachos?”

For some reason that caught me off guard. “Yes, I do.”

He looked off in the distance for a moment and replied, “I love nachos.” So that became a bit of a joke between us. I’d drive by when they were out playing basketball in the neighbor’s drive and yell out, “Do you like nachos?”

I conspired with one of the same-aged neighbor girls to organize a “Nacho Day” when all the kids on the block were hanging around. She counted up ten children from the age of five through thirteen, and I called a local fast-food Mexican takeout and pre-ordered enough nachos for the whole group, who were waiting in the yard when I returned. Within minutes the entire stash was gone. I teased my friend again. “Did you even get any nachos?” I asked.

“Ohhhh, yeaaahhh,” he laughed while smacking his hands together on a basketball. Then it was back to playing pickup for him and the other kids.

Just let it happen

The kids on our block are a living example that friendship and trust and conviviality are all possible when people just let it happen. The same goes for the adults of all these different backgrounds who live in our neighborhood. It’s only when people are pushed apart by selfish interests and traditional fears that people don’t naturally get along.

The desire for control that stems from fear is the source of all racism. Yet it also drives other forms of prejudice as well. These lead to bigotry and authoritarian discrimination. Nothing splits up a society––or a neighborhood––or a country––like allowing selfish fears to depict people as “the other.”

Because rather than forming relationships around gratitude, compassion and shared aspects of humanity, such bigotry invests only in the “I’ve got mine and you can’t have it” aspect of existence. When that happens for reasons of tribal priorities, and these range from religious beliefs to racial identity to political or economic platitudes––civil society is at risk. Those priorities only lead to hate and division while the “live and let live” philosophy of a neighborhood sharing in commonality and humanity succeeds far better. That’s the right kind of pride.

People can generally learn to get along great, if you let them

I believe that everyone gets along great, if you let them. That may seem naive to say, but it’s proven so often and in so many parts of the world that despite all the conflict it is still true that people can learn to get along together when they aren’t told that other people are a threat.

Those that refuse to get along on those terms need to be held accountable for their selfish ways, and made to understand why that isn’t acceptable. They will often resist and brand themselves the “victims” of reverse discrimination or claim to be “persecuted” for being exposed for their bigotry. Those habits go all the way to the top in this world.

The self-inflicted will even attempt to turn around and call the compassionate among us inhumane, as if caring for other people and standing up for the meek or disadvantaged in this world was an act of oppression.

That is the gaslighting defense of those possessed of anger and fear who are eager to avoid facing their own inhumanity and the flaws it so often reveals. They refuse to accept vulnerability as a legitimate condition of human existence. These are the people that love to claim higher ground and preach unity while playing people against each other to create opportunities for control.

We should not let this happen. Not in our neighborhoods. Nor in our nations. People can generally get along great, if we let them.

cHance meetings in the field

While out conducting a breeding bird census in a forest preserve named after a legendary local botanist named Dick Young, I was wrapping up the count and walking back the asphalt path to the parking lot when an older couple on bikes rolled up behind me. They’d gone all the way around the loop through the restored prairie on a windy spring morning.

Our conversation started when they showed me a photo they’d taken of a bird perched on one of the count posts in the prairie. I identified it as a meadowlark and they were pleased with that. “I thought it was a woodpecker with that long beak!” the man observed. It wasn’t a bad observation. This photo I took that same morning of a meadowlarks shows the long bill. Probably if it chose to use it in hammering wood, it would work. But that’s not its evolved purpose.

Photo of a meadowlark by Christopher Cudworth

After the meadowlark discussion, my new friend started chatting about how he actually knew Dick Young, who did so much to identify the plants that designated the Illinois Nature Preserve at the heart of the preserve named after the man.

Along with Dick Young, it turned out we had many mutual friends as a result, because he told me, “I’m Jerry Hennen. I was President of Fox Valley Audubon sixty years ago.”

Christopher Cudworth with Jerry Hennen, President of Fox Valley Audubon sixty years ago.

“Whoa,” I chuckled. “I was President of Kane County Audubon probably thirty years ago.”

“I’m eighty-five,” he proudly told me.

His wife Delores smiled and told me. “And he doesn’t hear that well.”

In fact, I’d noticed the song of a sedge wren right behind them, and pointed out the bird. They’re a small species with a high-pitched song that goes ‘chapp-chapp-chapp-chapprrr.” But Jerry has lost that range of hearing, so he couldn’t hear it. We talked about the problems of aging, and I told him about a website for which I’d written the content about hearing aid technology and advances. He made me repeat the name so he could look it up.

Then he related that he has a son my age. “I could be your father!” he laughed.

I’m proud of all these longtime associations. Grateful that there are people I meet almost every day that can add to the breadth of life like this. It’s also interesting that our shared interest in birds brought us together one late spring day.

Over the years I’ve lost a few birding friends along the way. My high school teacher and birding mentor Bob Horlock passed away in 1993. He was only 53 when he had a heart attack while burning a restored prairie. By coincidence we’d met that morning at the same forest preserve where I connected with Jerry yesterday. Bob didn’t look himself that morning, a fact I related to my wife at the time. Were it not for that chance meeting in the field that day, I’d not have seen him one last time.

Photo of a singing dickcissel by Christopher Cudworth

For all these longtime associations, one of my favorite things to do these days is share birding with people new to the activity. I get texts from people sending iPhone photos of birds they’ve seen. Two months ago I accompanied a newer birder into the field and she was so excited by the thrills gained from bird photography that she invested in a lens just like mine fo her camera. She instantly nailed some beautiful results.

That’s the ‘thrill of the new’ at work in her and others. Each and every bird we find is one of those chance meetings in the field. Like our human companions, their songs and visage give us a connection to all of nature. That’s why some of us get sad when we hear that a species of bird is struggling, or going extinct. That sense of loss is hard to reconcile.

That is why, during this period of greed and squander in America, when environmental laws are being tossed aside out of selfish pride and power, that our nature connections matter the most. The eagles we treasure as national symbols made a big comeback in the Lower 48 states of America because real Americans cared enough to end the practices that were polluting the environment and wiping out habitat critical to the survival of these and many other species. That was the right kind of pride, for sure.

Photo of a bald eagle by Christopher Cudworth

During that critical period of environmental awakening in America, a certain man named Dick Young carried on a secret life of civil disobedience as an environmental activist. During the polluted late 1960s and early 1970s, wildlife was suffering and rivers were catching fire in Ohio, he started punishing the industry and politicians responsible for trashing the world. Under the guise of The Fox, his activist name, he’d collect gunk from the polluters and return it to them on the white carpets of their headquarters with a written reminder to clean up their act. He was an environmental patriot of the most sincere kind.

Photo of tarsnakes by Christopher Cudworth.

Though some had suspicions, and others kept quiet about the mystery of The Fox, no one ever figured out or revealed the true identity until the work was long done, and that was after the turn of the new millennium.

Real change did come to America through the actions of environmentalists such as Dick Young and my new friend Jerry Hennen. The quality of the environment in America improved through legislation such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (by a Republican president, no less…) and protections such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty.

All our environmental protections are in the process of being trashed by a brutal narcissist with a reputation for selfish acts of power. His sycophants gladly carry out this work, and his beneficiaries gleefully relish the demise of regulations they consider fruitless. This must be stopped.

It is all our responsibility to play a role in protecting our earth. Sometimes that means dumping industrial pollutants on the carpet of a polluter, but other times it simply means voting for people who won’t destroy creation for egotistical reasons.

Why trust the future of the earth to economic zealots who can’t tell a robin from an rusted aluminum can?

Photo of a robin feeding its young. Christopher Cudworth 2020.

Willful ignorance of nature and a selfish desire to wield dominion over it is not an acceptable way to live, in my opinion. That’s clearly not the right kind of pride in this world. Not by any means.

Which is why, every day that we can, it is up to all of us to resist these efforts to compromise the most important thing we all have in this world, the earth and its life, because it all comes down to the fact that every one of us is here just by chance, and this is the only one we’ve got.

How to be discriminately indiscriminate

 

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In the days before the pandemic, human interaction was conducted a bit closer. But even with the pandemic restrictions of social distancing in place, eye contact makes a difference. 

One of the things that I do every day is to look people in the eye. Everyone I meet, I look them in the eye. Not out of suspicion. But to seek a connection of humanity.

I often smile when eyes meet. That’s a little harder now that we’re all wearing masks in public to prevent the spread of Coronavirus and the associated disease and conditions it produces, Covid-19. So I try to make my eyes smile. Which is harder. But still worth it.

It is important to look people in the eye, to make eye contact, to tell them: “I recognize you as another person. I respect your presence. I honor your struggles and joys, whatever they are.”

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It is still possible to make eye contact, and make the eyes smile if you can. 

That is how you be discriminately indiscriminate. Once you get in the habit of acknowledging the humanity of other people, you can even advance to celebrating it. And while it is also harder to hold discussions through the mute cloth of a mask, it is still worth it.

Ask how someone’s day is going. That’s all it takes. “How’s your day going?” It is the most open-ended and compassionate question one can ask. It says nothing about money or race or social status. It opens the conversation up for you to listen, to hear, and to acknowledge the worth of that person. Indiscriminately.

The word indiscriminate means “done at random or without careful judgment.” Perhaps you’ve never paused to consider that definition. I’m asking you to do that now. Because random meetings are the best opportunity to get outside your own bubble. Over time, you will find, as I have, that the prejudicial habits of our minds are persistent. It takes both courage and commitment to let down your personal guard and be vulnerable enough to ask the question, “How’s your day going?”

Take time

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Take time to make someone’s day better.

So you have to discriminate against those instincts that hold you back. They might be old or present racial or cultural fears. There might be fears or suspicion of strangers. So you have to discriminate in your own mind to separate those “careful judgments” from your action and behavior.

Being discriminately indiscriminate is actually nothing more than being a good person. Someone to trust even when society conclusively compels you to draw back, pull in, protect yourself from every danger.

Social distancing?

This is not to say that you should be wanton in hour behavior, or incautious in protecting your own health. But you’d be surprised how much talking to another person actually reminds you both what social distancing actually means. It is simple courtesy, and sane behavior to stand back from someone else.

But don’t ignore them. Don’t let this pandemic crush the humanity of our society. Then it is only the yellers who triumph, the selfish who get heard, and the dividers who conquer.

Discriminate from all that. Be indiscriminate in your interactions with other human beings. Seek them out. Be nice. Invite them into your world even if sharing social space has its limits.

It is much harder through social media to be discriminately indiscriminate. Even a poorly handled joke can be misconstrued. Pointing out even basic of obvious facts can be taken as a threat. So this is not about being indiscriminate on the Internet. We can talk about that another time.

But through channels of direct, humane exchanges will emerge a better feeling about the world, and about yourself. And that’s a good place to start.

All plugged into this new remote thing

 

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

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

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

Technology helps

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

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

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

The multi-tasking debate

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

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

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

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

The drama in your head

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

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

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

Practical measures

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

Doing things right

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

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

Look for consensus

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

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

Ask questions

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

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

Prioritizing

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Earth Day and the human insult to God’s creation

August Sundown

I recently completed work on a book titled Rescuing Christianity from the Grip of Tradition. In recognition of Earth Day 2020, here is a short excerpt from a chapter titled Cause and Effect, which addresses human influence on the environment, and how people claiming dominion over the earth have gone so far it now presents an insult to God.

Cause and Effect

To answer the question of whether God is angry with one nation or the other, we need first to consider how we view natural disasters. Earth history has always been driven by events such as volcanic eruptions, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes. These natural cataclysms have shaped the world. Some of these events we call an “Act of God” because their scale and impact is so sudden or massive that we feel moved to describe them in supernatural terms.

But the Dust Bowl was different. It was a prime example of an environmental impact caused by human influence. While natural droughts always occur on the plains, the Dust Bowl was a direct outcome of people plowing up the soil in regions that were ill-suited to their desired aims. Native plants on the Great Plains had evolved to survive in desert conditions and hold soil in place with root systems adapted to cope with a lack of precipitation. Cultivated crops offered none of those soil protections. Thus human beings were both the cause and effect of the worst problems associated with the Dust Bowl. That human impact upon the environment is now described as anthropogenic change.

Dust Bowl Image

Climate change

The world is witnessing even more natural disasters caused by human activities. The increased frequency and intensity of storms and droughts, floods and heatwaves, tornadoes, hurricanes, and sea levels on the rise were accurately predicted by scientists studying the possible impacts of climate change. Much like the case with the Dust Bowl, the Earth’s overall capacity to repair and replenish itself in the face of human onslaught is being exhausted.

Given the wide range of deleterious effects caused by human activity, one can logically argue that the human race constitutes a plague of its own. The world’s human population currently stands at 7 billion people. The United Nations projects that the human population will reach 9.8 billion people by the year 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. At what point does the human toll on the planet reach a tipping point?

Erosion

The Earth groans

The Earth’s capacity to sustain life and replenish itself is being sorely tested. Fish stocks around the world are suffering steady depletion. Coral reefs that act as fish breeding grounds are dying due to ocean warming. Plastic waste pollutes the ocean, killing fish and cetaceans that ingest it. Nuclear radiation from Japan’s damaged Fukushima power plant spreads across the Pacific. Drought-driven fires in Australia burned millions of acres. Fires set in Brazil’s Amazon jungles to clear rainforest for agriculture rob the world of oxygen-producing trees and plants. The planet is groaning under the burden of sustaining human consumption and greed.

These are all the outcomes of human influence over the environment. In combination, they threaten the existence of life itself. That is an insult to God’s creation.

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

Friday night calls for ZOOM

Zoom art

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

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

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

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

Working through loss

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

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

Stay-At-Home

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

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

Dining and defining local

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

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

Nothing’s perfect

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

When body and spirit become like oil and water

 

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Photograph by Christopher Cudworth. 

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

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

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

Pain points

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

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Oil and Water. A painting by Christopher Cudworth.

Oil and Water

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

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

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