Category Archives: Uncategorized

Fire and Rain all points in between

 

Maple leaf in rainI first purchased a James Taylor album as a freshman in high school along with works by Paul Simon, Neil Young, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and Elton John, to name a few. Among those, there were a few mentions of God in the lyrics, a subject of consequence since I’d recently chosen on my own to get confirmed along with friends at the church whose pastor lived right next door to me.

And while I’d gotten confirmed at the age of thirteen, already I was asking questions about traditional religion and its role in our lives. Something about the confessional language of orthodoxy never satisfied my vision of what it meant to believe in something larger (or as large) as what we see around us.

And later in life, when religious leaders that I met began picking on the subject of evolution and showing bigotry toward various kinds of people, I’d had enough, and parted ways for a while with conventional Christianity.

Sweet returns

Then I met a girl in college whose academic interest in the Jewish religion led me back to thinking about what the whole story of Jesus was about. And as a quasi-English major, I was interested as much in the story aspect of scripture as the supposed literal truth it conveyed. At the same time, I was aware of the need to write my own version of that story.

June 1979
Journal entry from June of 1979, 21 years old. 

The woman that I later married was raised in the Missouri Synod Lutheran tradition. So we joined that church and for twenty-plus years raised our children there. I sang in the choirs, taught Sunday School to middle school and high school kids, and served on the Church board. Meanwhile, our congregation enlisted a successive line of pastors who preached an increasingly harsh and conservative line of doctrine. The theory of evolution was just one of their favorite targets, as were gay people and even women who dared think they could ever be pastors.

Departures

Thus toward the end of my wife’s life after six years of cancer treatment, we bid a solemn goodbye to that church and moved upriver to a more welcoming Lutheran congregation that cared for us during the final years of her existence on earth. For that and all service before I am eternally grateful.

During that whole journey, I drew on a ton of faith to get through. The practical issues of her illness we addressed through medicine and following doctor’s orders. I kept working at the jobs I held between severe challenges on many fronts. Her treatments had profound emotional effects on us both. That’s when we looked to faith for support.

In my case, it had never really disappeared. All those mentions of God in my running journals during those self-focused years training almost full-time and racing twenty-four times a year were testimony to that desire to understand it all. Every day was a trial of sorts, I knew that much. And when my former track and cross country coach heard that my wife had cancer, he intoned: “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”

Sustaining hope in the face of adversity

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He was right. But you can’t be prepared for everything. And when hope drains away it is comforting to turn fear over to something other than a piece of paper on which you write down your problems, somewhat in order, in hope of tackling them the next day.

That’s when some of the lyrics from the James Taylor song “Fire and Rain” came back to me:

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got to see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way

Frankly, I’ve never been a big Jesus worshipper. When asked long ago by a pastor what my faith is most based upon, I told him that knowing God was my first priority. Of course, that received the standard confessional response that Jesus is the portal to God, is one with God, and so on. But I persisted in seeking what I know of the spirit outside the lines. And nature is often the source of that insight.

Chance meeting

Recently while out doing bird photography I waved to two women out walking through the forest preserve where a pair of wood thrush was singing loudly in the brisk spring sunshine. We met back in the parking and I struck up a conversation with them by shared how long I’d been visiting that preserve both as a runner and a birder. That led to a discussion of our respective families. One of the women had been an Olympic Trials swimmer and her sons and daughter were both college athletes. So was her husband. I found that fascinating and offered to write a story about their clan.  She seemed game to the idea but there was something else going on in the conversation, and I didn’t feel right to press it.

Transitions

But I shared some recent facts about learning to swim after meeting my present wife on a website called FitnessSingles.com. Then I explained to them both, “I lost my first wife to cancer seven years ago.”

The two women exchanged quick but earnest glances. Then two minutes later in the conversation one of them turned to me and said, “You were put here by God to talk with us, because she just lost her husband to cancer last Saturday.” It was a Tuesday morning.

We cried together, the three of us. But no one exchanged hugs in the age of the Coronavirus. Even her husband’s funeral the next morning would be a private affair, limited to ten people due to the pandemic.

A walk in the wilds

Prairie Hill

They both shared that their walks in the woods were a way of coping with problems and talking them through together. But now their walks had taken on the role of processing the immediate grief of having lost a loving spouse. As most of us know, grief has both mental and physical effects on us. In its most difficult stages, grief can make you want to cease living and at the same time put your body through aches and pains that you never see coming. That is fire. And that is rain.

There are also many points in between, where sudden bursts of recollection and joy mix together in a combination of fire and rain. How is that possible? How can two seemingly opposite substances mix together in our minds?  

Our spiritual selves

To me, that is the mystery of our spiritual selves. If emotional pain is real––we can certainly feel it––then love must be just as real. And if love is real, then to me, some sort of spirit is a reality too. And as the saying goes, God is Love.

So in that sense, I truly believe in God. It is both within and apart from us to love in this world. If anything, that is the meaning of that passage in the Lord’s Prayer; “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

As I wrote in my first book The Genesis Fix, I call that call of gratitude and active love grace appreciated. When we are attentive to appreciating love a grateful sense, we are appreciating it. Yet when we extend love to others in an active sense, we are appreciating grace on behalf of God. Then our lives take on a different and richer meaning. We commence to live from a foundation of our spiritual selves. That is what I think scripture is all about, that perpetual discovery of purpose, principle, and life fully lived.

Connections to spirit and life

Butterfly weed

That is why I talk to people. I consider it a connection to the spirit and life of others. One might call it a ministry of sorts, to talk to people, find their mutual humanity, and learn interesting things about them along the way. Even during this Coronavirus pandemic, I find ways to speak with people even under the call of social distancing.

There are times when that is not welcome, and I respect that. Not everyone is coming through this crisis with an attitude of appreciation. Some engage on their own terms and hold to their spirit in the best way they know how. And I say God Bless them. And if they don’t believe in God, I say bless that too. Just as in nature, there is diversity in the human condition as well. We should honor that, and sadly too many supposed Christians take certain passages of scripture literally and dishonor the spirit and love they could otherwise find in others.

I know there are also passages in scripture that demand absolute fealty to Jesus in order to be saved, as in: “No one comes to the Father but through me.” Well, that passage is the product of a patriarchal society, isn’t it? We’ve discovered a bit more about the significance of the feminine in this universe, and science too. So I don’t place limits on the points between fire and rain. Instead, I choose to celebrate them.

And if we meet, I hope to celebrate you too. For that, if anything, is the Kingdom of God.

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

All images by Christopher Cudworth. christophercudworth.com

 

Happy Anniversary to us

Chris and Sue and wedding too
Our wedding was held in an art gallery where I was a Resident Artist.

Seven years ago I visited a website called FitnessSingles.com. At first, it did not seem too promising. There were women all over the country, but only one in Batavia, Illinois where I lived. She looked cute enough; blonde hair and an athletic build. But I thought to myself, “That’s too convenient. She’s probably just an Avatar to get me to subscribe.”

But when I clicked on her photo the profile came up. “Huh,” I said out loud. “She’s real.”

We had our first date at a local restaurant and ordered drinks and artichoke dip. And we talked and talked. She looked quite pretty heading into the restaurant with curly blonde hair and a summer dress. I sat across from her at the table and wondered how it would all turn out.

It happened that a middle school teacher that had taught both of our children was seated with her husband at the next table over. She glanced at us a few times and finally connected the dots that we were out on a date. “Oh that’s great!” she chimed in. “You guys have a lot in common.”

Chris and Sue
Riding together in Arizona. 

It turns out that we do. Our first official date was a cycling ride in the countryside. She was fit for an upcoming half-Ironman so I had to ride pretty fast to stay on her tail. And that tail looked pretty cute in her bike shorts. We sat down for a break on the lawn of a high school out in the cornfields, and she asked, “Have you ever been out here?”

I replied, “I went to school here for three years.”

And that’s how our relationship proceeded. The more we talked, the more it turned out that we knew many of the same people. Both our daughters attended Augustana College. All our kids went through Batavia High School. And once they met, they all got along well together.

Which was a joy on our wedding day three years ago when they all joined in the wedding party and we celebrated joining our families together.

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Our wedding party consisted of our kids, boyfriends, and siblings. 

That is not to say there are no challenges to melding families. We’re like every married couple in having to figure out financial plans, living arrangements, and work-life balance. We’d done many things right and a few things wrong. Celebrating a happy anniversary is as much about working at marriage as it is about having a perfect one.

She came from a divorce. I came from the loss of a wife to cancer. Both of us had grief and some anger to work through as we figured our way forward from that first date. So we took our time using the “L” word because that puts a bit of weight on things as you begin to share worlds.

 

We began to share friend networks. She introduced me to her triathlon clan and I introduced her to my longtime buddies that had shared high school sports and college and lives together. That first Labor Day we traveled to Wisconsin and rode the Wright Stuff bike event, camped in tents, and hung out with a gaggle of teenagers grabbing a last bit of summer before September took over.

It all felt right. We kept on with our respective parenting duties as her kids migrated from teenage years to college with the typical bumps in the road. My children wrestled with memories of their mom and seeing their father in a relationship after their mother’s passing. I may have taken things a bit quickly but have no regrets in that aspect of life. I loved my late wife fully, and for 28 years.

I now love my wife as a wholly different person and in many respects, an essentially different life. To put it simply, I appreciate my Sue for the person that she is. That she is attentive and sincere. That she tells me she loves me. That she is disciplined in her health and fitness and flexibly devout in her beliefs. We’re a good pair, if I may say so myself.

Proposal photo 2
Our engagement was at a triathlon camp in Arizona. 

Recently, on the cusp of all this Coronavirus stuff, we were scheduled to head down to Tucson for a triathlon training camp. That afternoon, the term “social distancing” first flew into the public sphere. As we rode to the airport, questions began to arise in our minds about whether we should go at all. But the airport was largely vacant, and the fellow passengers respectful of space, so we traveled there and back with no incident.

It made us think about how difficult it might have been had the virus struck while we were on a cruise trip in Europe last October. Her mother took us all on that adventure, and we jumped on and off the ship on day trips touring Naples, Florence, Pompeii and stops in France and Spain. It was a wonderful lark and one we never imagined. It kind of served as a belated honeymoon for the two of us.

But being on a cruise ship during a pandemic would not be fun. So much of life is like that. There’s a certain amount of risk in everything we do. Often the question of safety or wisdom is about timing or dumb luck. Had each of us not gone on that website the day we connected our lives would have spun off in different directions.

That’s why every anniversary is meaningful. Not every moment in life is happy, but we can be happy in having lived every moment, and appreciating them for better or worse. Doing that together is what life is all about.

It’s time to appreciate the nurses literally and figuratively

During eight years of caregiving for a wife with ovarian cancer, there were many times when nurses served to help us get through the challenges of treatment, surgeries, chemotherapy and in the end, palliative care. I wrote the following essay about the value of nurses for the caregiving group that formed around us. Later it was published in The Right Kind of Pride, the book I wrote about our journey and for which this blog is named. 

With nurses doing so much work on the front lines and as first responders during the Coronavirus and Covid-19 epidemic, this bit of testimony is meant to encourage nurses everywhere, and to urge people to appreciate their training and work

Nurses, literally and figuratively

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011, 5:30 PM

Two days after my wife’s surgery I woke early to head west and pick up our dog to go home and check on the house. Stepping onto the elevator I encountered two tired-looking nurses leaning on the back wall.

“Shift over?” I asked. “Yes,” one of them breathed, trying not to look too relieved.

“Well, I admire your work,” I told them. “Patients can be a pain in the butt, I’m sure.”

“You said it, not me!” one of them replied as they headed out the elevator and down the hallway, exchanging knowing glances.

No easy gig

Nursing is no easy gig, of course. Nothing in the medical profession really is.

They see so much, both literally and figuratively. Nursing is the most intimate of all professions. Even more so than being a doctor, in some ways. From inserting catheters to administering shots to washing patients who can’t wash, nurses see humanity up close and personal.

There are also broader dimensions. Families in crisis. Human frailty laid bare. The human condition. On those dynamics rest hopes of healing. That is why medicine exists, and nurses carry it out to the best of their abilities.

Of course, nurses deal with varied results and varied perceptions of their profession. Not having worked in the medical field, I do not entirely know what the environment is like. But some nurses I’ve met speak of doctors that do not treat them well, or show respect. Maybe the pecking order at some hospitals is harsh. Yet the good hospitals seem to celebrate every role from orderly to surgeons. And there really are some great hospitals in the area where we live. We can be grateful for that. And this is no paid testimonial.

But I’ll reiterate: When we think about who provides a great amount of care and recovery in medicine, we should never forget to thank the nurses, both men, and women. There was Allan, and Silvia, Rafaela, and Kathy. the list goes on. All with attributes that add up to good care.

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Professional caregiving

Because nursing is basically professional caregiving, it is something to observe when you’ve been placed in the role of caregiver yourself.

The challenging part is that the tools have advanced but the needs have not changed. The records have gone digital. The ability to monitor patients is so sophisticated. Yet it is still the human responsibility of nurses to read those signs and pass them back along the chain for the doctors and surgeons to study. Front line. First responders. In tune. In touch. That’s the role of nurses.

It is a cosmopolitan profession. The nursing professionals in the four or five hospitals with which we have had experience are quite racially diverse. Hospitals seem to hire nurses to match the culture and backgrounds of their constituent populations. But not always.

Language is another important aspect of nursing. For example, at the network hospital where Linda had her surgery, the primary phone greeting is given in several Eastern European languages. Diversity is not some casual thing at a hospital. It really can mean life or death.

Communication

Style of communication is also important in nursing. Some nurses excel in this category, with a gift for compassion that is comforting and encouraging. Others are more business-like, and their attributes can be of tremendous value in many circumstances. Linda’s chemo nurse this time around was a focused woman whose competency and the organization was of great assurance. Success in chemotherapy treatment can depend on the nurse’s ability not only to administer the medicine but also to track and monitor patient response in real-time (daily response to treatment, blood counts and side effects and over the course of treatments (chemo tolerance and patient affect) these attenuations add up. Literally and figuratively.

Racing for life

Getting chemo really is like running a marathon; checking your vitals along the way, taking aid at the proper points and pacing your effort so you don’t falter. Chemo is a marathon.

But surgery is a sprint of sorts. Our surgeons fixed a hernia, did a colon resection and removed a 31mm cancer tumor in about 2.5 hours. That’s fast and brilliant work. You can worship athletes all you want. Medical doctors like these deserve real accolades.

It is the nurses however who are the trainers that get you back into shape after the taxing sprint of surgery or the exhausting marathon of chemo. With cancer sometimes you need both to be successful. Fast-twitch and slow twitch.

The range of human foible

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That and a sense of perspective and humor helps. I was really glad the people at the nursing station had a sense of humor when after the first night at the hospital I trundled out of Lin- da’s room at 5:00 a.m. to visit the bathroom down the hall. No one looks dignified at that hour, and I felt a little like a college freshman in a “walk of shame” down the dormitory hall after an all-nighter. But no one said a word. They see weirder things every day. Lucky for me, a bald man seldom has bad hair days.

Nurses see it all, of course, the whole range of human foible. Being able to encourage patients with an occasional jest about the difficulties of recovery can break the ice and open channels in working through pain or other humbling issues such as finding ways to go to the bathroom when it is far from easy and convenient for the patient. All this basic stuff,. They have to know when and how to be light about it, and when not.

Startups and bending over backward

Nurses are the professionals who get it all going for people again, over and over. Week after week. Year after year. Think of all the focus and dedication it takes to be a nurse for 5, 10 or 25 years. And people do it.

The nurse who checked Linda out of the hospital has been working in the same phase of nursing for 25 years. She was immensely practical and detail-oriented, dispensing instructions so that we would know how to care for the surgical wounds and tend to bathroom matters the right way. That nurse fit her job.

A young nurse named Rafaela checked on Linda regularly during her week in the hospital. She seemed to appear like magic from around the curtain whenever there was a need in the room. That nurse excelled in care.

The first night after surgery, Linda’s nurse was a soft-spoken woman who struck up a conversation starting with a compliment about the fact that I was staying overnight with my wife. Perhaps it is not so common for people to stay over. The new Planetree model for health care offers a more humanistic approach to medicine and facilities, especially hospitals. Hospitals now provide comfortable couches that convert into beds so that family or supportive friends can stay overnight with a patient.

I can tell you that’s a huge improvement from the night spent next to her bed back in 2007 when the only available place to sleep next to her was something like a Medieval torture device. The vinyl recliner on which I slept formed a pronounced hump approximately the curve of a mature dolphin in mid-jump. It was not the most comfortable night of sleep in my life, punctuated as well by beeps and whistles and the bustle of nurses hustling in and out for blood pressure checks and temperature readings. They were just doing their job, yet I felt like it was a torturous night of sleep deprivation in a black site somewhere in Eastern Europe. I exaggerate, but when you’re tired the mind works overtime.

To her everlasting credit, my mother-in-law, who had done overnight duty on the dolphin chair the previous evening tried giving me fair warning without scaring me off completely. But let us say that it was one of the 3 worst nights of sleep in my life. The top 2 were surviving a bad bout of the flu and one very long night in the late 1980s with a prostate infection that made my lower abdomen feel like I’d swallowed an angry serpent. I don’t really want to list a Top 10. The memories are too painful.

But the dolphin chair simply had to do in that instance. Such are the duties of caregivers at times. It’s like God wants to humble you into sympathy for the patient. So I thank God for Planetree now.

Patience and patients

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Still, as a caregiver, I lose patience in too many situations, grow irrationally embittered by circumstance or fall too quickly into self-pity or worse, anger or depression. What is the cure for those selfish emotions? Mostly, it’s gratitude. Step back and take a breath. Be a nurse to your own soul. Forgive your- self. Then get back to service.

Because it’s a miraculous little dynamic that when we fix our focus on serving others we wind up serving our own true best interests. That’s where we learn we are not alone in our challenges and our minds off our own problems.

People who through simple self-control and a modest demeanor exhibit such patience always amaze me. Admittedly I envy people like that, especially when failing to manage that level of self-control myself. Where do some people get such strength of character? Can it be learned? Are some people just natural caregivers?

Probably those questions cheapen the issue. It is, of course, a complex combination of things that makes people good caregivers, or nurses, or doctors. Or perhaps it is simplicity that makes it possible. Be content. Learn to give. Don’t make life harder than it needs to be.

When it comes to institutional compassion, that is a goal much harder to achieve in some respects. The hospital where Linda had her surgery communicates its compassionate values in many ways. If I recall correctly, one of the messages posted on the wall reads, “We welcome all to this place of healing.” There’s definitely room for a religious message in there, but not an exclusive one. As it turns out, our nation is actually formed on a similar, inclusive ambiguity. So uniquely Ameri- can. Yet people seem to miss the subtlety in that. Want to turn it into an ideology not in keeping with the Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

We are all equal souls. Nurses probably know that better than most. There’s nothing special about any of our functions. We all poop and pee. We all have a heartbeat. Breathe. Think. Cry out in pain. Laugh. Worry. Hope. Heal if possible. All part of the process. Such is humanity.

You know that cynical phrase, “some people are more equal than others…” Well, a nurse cannot afford to think like that. People notice if that sort of thinking creeps in.

When it’s your wife or your husband, your son or daughter, a close friend or even co-worker, you want the hospital and doctors and nurses taking care of them to do their very best to help them get well. It simply cannot matter whether someone is one race or the other, speaks Russian instead of English, or has no money to pay for the care they need.

Grace and blessings

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I can tell you we have been the beneficiaries of such care, in ways that absolutely flabbergasted our ability to comprehend the many forces working behind the scenes to ensure our welfare. The least we can do in response to this grace and these blessings is what? Give back in any way we can. Pay attention to those taking care of us. Express our appreciation.

And guess what? Opportunities to reach outcome up more often than you might think. It is true that when you are in a position of most vulnerability, you are best able to share in the pain and challenges in other people’s lives.

Our nurse during Linda’s first night in recovery from surgery was so caring and attentive that conversation naturally flowed to the discussion of family and friends. It turns out our nurse was a single mom whose husband left her for another woman, leaving her to raise her two children alone. She was frustrated by how hard it was as a working mother–also attending graduate school–to meet someone, a man she could grow to love. She had nearly given up hope, she told us. Even the men on the Christian dating services turned out to be less than honorable.

It’s a story quite familiar to my wife who over the years has worked with dozens of families and single moms in her job as a preschool teacher. At one point after checking up on Linda, conversing while she worked, our nurse stopped and stood in the middle of the room, seeming to want to gather herself before moving on to other duties. We’d been talking about how she gave so much time to raise her kids, got them to rehearsals and practices and games. But how it was all worth it in the end because it keeps them busy even if it wears her out.

We talked of God and faith, too. She shared several of her favorite Bible passages with us. We told her we’d recently been in a bible course where we read the entire book in 90 days. “Oh, I don’t think I could do that,” she sighed.

“12 pages a day,” Linda assured her.

I admitted. “I didn’t keep up and had to hustle to finish.”

We encouraged her that all her work as a mom was worth it. That her children would turn out to be a blessing to her for her dedication. “Yes, I know,” she murmured. “But I have had to sacrifice a lot.”

Then she stood quietly in the middle of the room, seeming to contemplate her place in the universe. Standing in front of the privacy curtain and silhouetted by the light from the hallway behind her, our nurse stood and stared across the room, soaking up the relative stillness until she said quietly, “Well, God Bless you guys.”

It’s impossible to know the exact circumstances people face, or how they truly feel. Linda turned to me after our nurse had left and said, “She reminds me of so many single moms I’ve met, just “poured out” from having to do everything themselves. Wanting to be filled up spiritually.”

We met a veritable parade of nurses the following 5-6 days. All types of people and styles of care. Some were talkative. Others were focused and efficient. All played a brief yet important role in our lives. We can only hope that in some small way we give back to these people who daily give so much of themselves. Nurses literally and figuratively rule as far as we’re concerned.

Some poetic justice

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

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

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

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

Spicer Husks poem

Spider Husks (On Contemplating a Reunion)

Old letters save history;

youth, plus vigor and family.

Dust jackets reconcile their fate,

and records cover passions

from baby books to pornography

in the messy ordeal that is life. 

We’re cleaning; shaking off the mouse poop

to decide which box of books to keep

until one tires of trying

to sort, and one heads for sleep.

The later sight grows keener––

spotting old consonance

with long hair, bad glasses

and a college tan. It’s me.

Spiders leave husks when they die,

and what will we?

A cardboard soul filled with this,

an archaeology.

 

––Christopher Cudworth

Approval at last for a bird nerd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A bank swallow in full sunlight. Photo by Christopher Cudworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Headshot

 

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

Social distancing: it works for me

Screech Owl
A life drawing of a screech owl by Christopher Cudworth, 1976

When it comes to the consequences of dealing with the risks of exposure to Coronavirus, it’s easy to feel put out by the fact that we’re supposed to stay in.

Yet I was thinking back to other times in my life when I spent time alone and apart from others, and some really nice memories cropped up to make me feel better.

In particular, I recall the relative isolation of a January term in college spent at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. I’d arranged to spend three weeks studying birds and was assigned to curate the entire collection of bird art housed at the Sapsucker Woods facility, which was then a stolid little building next to a pond far from the Cornell campus.

I arrived with $750 in my pocket and no place to stay. How my parents allowed me to take off on my own without talking about a place to live for three weeks in the snowy environs of Upstate

Fuertes
Sketches by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

New York I don’t really know. They’d both grown up near Ithaca. They knew what the winters were like. My father attended Cornell and my mother went to college in Potsdam, even further north. I guess they figured I’d asked the question and found somewhere to live. All they knew was that I was enthused about studying bird art during my sophomore year in college and had visited the Lab one time before with an aunt that understood my love for the work of Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

So I took off for New York in my father’s big, white Buick LeSabre and arrived, all naive and eager, on the doorstep of the Lab with little else in mind than to do everything I’d dreamed about.

Fortunately, the director had mercy on my idiocy and found me a place to stay about a mile down the road from the main building. It was a house in the middle of rehab work. so it offered no running hot water, but it did have heat. I was only too glad to take it and I genuinely relished the time alone.

Wood Duck Bishop
Studies of drawing by Richard Bishop by Christopher Cudworth, 1976

Once that pragmatic issue was solved, I dove right away into the work of curating the Lab’s prodigious bird art collection. Some of it remained stored in cluttered chests of drawings and paintings donated by the estate of artists such as Richard Bishop. I carefully handled each of these works of art and copied some of the drawings in my own hand. For me, this was the Holy Grail of bird art, a look behind the scenes at some of the finest bird artists in the world.

In the morning I’d hide away in the closets out of sight from the occasional visitor staring at feeder birds outside the Lab windows. Feeling no compunction for human contact, and obsessed with the work before me, I went days without talking much to anyone.

And then I wandered over to the Hawk Barn where rare peregrine and gyrfalcons sat in cold pens, part of the breeding program set up at Cornell to revive the populations of those endangered birds in the wake of the pesticide devastation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. One day I stood peering through a tiny porthole doing drawings of a gyrfalcon and a set of peregrine inches away from my face. I felt no need to talk.

Gyrfalcon
Live drawings of a gyrfalcon and peregrine falcon by Christopher Cudworth, 1976

This went on for a week. I’d hike the mile to the Lab, curate or draw all day, eat a small sandwich along the way, and hike back after dark. It snowed at least an inch every day, so the world always looked fresh and inviting. The cold barely affected me.

Yet one night I finally felt the need to bathe and wash my thick head of hair. So I heated up some water on the stove, broke out a washcloth to take care of the vitals and then washed my hair under the sink. But it still required some heavy rinsing, so I took another deep pan of lukewarm water outside to stand in the snow and pour the water over my head. It was four degrees below zero outside.

Instantly my hair froze, but I wasn’t that worried about it. Yet when I’d stopped dripping and tipped my head up to look around, I felt something watching me. To be sure, it was one of the wolves from the Wolf Range peering at me through the darkness. It stood back from the fence a ways. I tipped my head back down and went inside. To this day it still feels like a dream. Perhaps it was.

Woodcock bishop
A pencil drawing after the work of Richard Bishop

For weeks I filled an art book with sketches and observations about my studies of bird art and works by masters such as George Miksch Sutton, Don Richard Eckleberry and Guy Coheleach. These were my heroes, and their work spoke to me in language as clear as an actual conversation. So I seldom needed to talk.

I only broke the relative vow of silence toward the end of the internship. I’d learned that a well-known artist lived near the Lab, so I fired up the LeSabre and was glad that it started at all, for it had a testy carburetor that tended to freeze over.

That afternoon I poured out questions to the artist, who kindly tolerated my aggressive curiosity, enthusiasm, and obsession with my own studies. He warned me that a career in bird art would likely never be lucrative, that one had to be lucky as well as good, but if you worked hard enough sometimes the two would combine.

That gave me pause of course. Perhaps I’d imagined that immersing myself in all that world-class art would somehow punch a ticket to the stardom I somewhat imagined for myself. So that interior dialog took up the rest of my time. It swirled inside my head as if my mind were an inside-out snowglobe matched by the daily batch of thick flurries falling from gray New York skies.

Grouse tail
A detail from at 1976 painting Great Horned Owl with Ruffed Grouse by Christopher Cudworth

But I was happy. The last day of my internship the Laboratory director took a look at my collection of paintings and was complimentary of some of the feather work. “But you need to look at the whole bird to be convincing in your work,” he quietly instructed me.

That would honestly be a lesson learned over a lifetime. I never became famous for my bird art but have sold more than a thousand paintings over the years. Some of them pop back into my life now and then, and I calmly critique those early works with the inner dialogue of a painter unafraid to be alone with his thoughts, or his endeavors.

That is the social distance that all of us consumed with the arts or writing tend to keep. It is the space between the praise and production that drives us to be our own best and worst critics. It involves quite a bit of interior dialogue and even time apart from all of humanity to find the truth. But nature is never the enemy. It is the type of social distancing that works for me. It always has. And it always will.

 

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

10 important things you can learn about life and business by walking a dog

10 important things you can learn about life and business by walking a dog

Lucy and Me
Our dog Lucy nudging me to go out for a walk.

The lessons we can learn from the simplest acts in life are often the most valuable of all. I’ve been walking our family dogs since 2007 and along the way have learned quite a few lessons applicable to life and business that can be learned from walking a dog.

  1. Shit almost always happens. Like all great lessons in life, we often set our minds on the processes that we most enjoy (like the beauty of a nice day outside.. or that pending great business deal) while conveniently forgetting that expected and unexpected shit always happens along the way. Being present and ready for these eventualities is far better than getting out there with no poop bag and being forced to flick a stick or hide that shit under a leaf or snow. There’s a lesson there for business and life, for sure. Be ready for that shit. 
  2. Motivation comes from affirmation. Dogs pay a ton of attention to their surroundings, but typically like to lead by their nose. That means it is important to maintain their attention and confirm who is in charge all during a dog walk. It’s great to affirm the character of the dog and understand them, but a good owner learns to lead by communication and connection. The dogs like it better because they’re actually wired that way. There’s an element of truth to that with people too, because everyone works better when they are affirmed in their efforts.  
  3. Set expectations and give directions. Typically this involves instruction given to a dog (or dogs) before one ever goes outside. A simple “sit” or “stay” inside the door is the same thing as stating “Alright let’s bring this meeting to order.” Walking a dog is a meeting of minds. Teaching a dog how to walk with you takes practice and consistency. That doesn’t mean you need to control their every action, at first focuse on those that contribute to the greater goal of having “a good walk.” A dog tugging and pulling and wandering off-trail every twenty feet is not necessarily a happy animal. Nor is a dog left to fend for themselves in the presence of strange or unfamiliar dogs. Some will work it out, but they can also wind up being dominated or intimidate, setting the stage for future fears. Set expectations in all these situations and life will be better for everyone. “Is your dog good with other dogs?” is a polite and simple question to ask. And be smart about time: keep human meetings and dog walks under an hour. Honor expectations and be rewarded with loyalty. 
  4. Vary the routine. Dogs do love a bit of routine. But they also get bored if there is nothing new along the way to see or sniff. So whether you’re walking your dog, making dinner for a spouse or managing a department of eager employees, it always helps to vary the routine. Change it up. Make it fun. That includes the bedroom. Woof woof. 
  5. It costs money to feed a dog right. The shelves at your local pet store are filled with row upon row of dog food bags and cans. All claim to be best for your dog’s health. But one must remember that much of what is available in both human food and dog chow is often manufactured from the lowest possible quality of available ingredients (such as sugar or carbs) while runing light on real food including genuine protein or vegetables. Ironically, it can be cheaper and better for you to shop the “perimeter” of a grocery store where food is loose and real rather than purchased prefabricated and sold in boxes, cans or other marketing tools that only raise the cost. A dog’s life can be better on a raw diet just like us. And when it comes to the rest of life, these principles hold true when buying products or creating services to sell to your customers. Authenticity is the name of the game, these days. And healthier for everyone. That’s as true for the information we consume as the food that we eat. Best to check it’s real before gobbling it up.Lucy on the couch.jpg
  6. Have a plan and communicate it. When you buy a puppy (especially a stray or rescue dog, which you should) you can never quite tell what their prior experiences in life have been. Some arrive with fears and baggage from mistreatment, But just like people, these tendencies can often be healed through communication, kindness and loving direction to build trust. Knowing how to do this can require the help of a dog trainer. That dynamic is just ike a human resources department brining in objective, outside help in the form of specialists to talk about sexual harassment or other critical management policies. In every case it matters that we use consistent, clear language and develop a plan that everyone understands so that both the dogs in our life and our fellow associates know the importance of respecting the plan.
  7. Know your limits. Sometimes it is tough to handle all the things that raising dogs or managing associates can throw at us in a day. Thus it is important to know when to “back off” and calibrate our own emotional stability before proceeding to the next steps. With a dog, it can be enormously helpful to crate train them because animals need time to regain a sense of control in their own space. On the human front, many companies now realize that granting associates the right to govern their time or engage in recreation actually brings them back with fresh attitudes. The byproduct of this approach is that it gives managers and executives a reasonable respite from constant demands, and they need time to recreate as well. That’s a wise way to go about the whole program. Productivity can actually increase by giving people license to expand their minds and relieve stress. it’s all about knowing your limits and respecting those of the people (and the dogs) with whom you work. 
  8. Embrace the cause. Walking your dog is an important tool for their health and wellness. It balances their body and minds because many breeds retain instincts to move and hunt and play. Embracing this as the “cause” for the walk really can put you in tune with the dog you love. It can open your eyes to their world. And while sniffing out dead frogs in the grass seems gross from a human perspective, to a dog that activity is like finding a cold, unclaimed Snickers bar in the back of the company fridge after moving the ice that’s been sitting there four months. We all love surprises. Embrace the cause of joy no matter how simple it can be. And nothing beats a truly cold Snickers. 
  9. Get out more. Taking your dog new places is an exercise in collaboration. Helping your dog meet new people or other dogs is a great way to socialize them and improve their ability to handle diverse circumstances. Bringing your dog to a local coffee shop will often produce many interesting encounters as people ask if they can pet your animal. If that’s in your dog’s nature, it can open up all-new human connections as well. Recently I encountered two obviously homeless men sitting on a bench outside a coffee shop. Both lit up with joy at the sight of our dog’s wagging tail and happy expression. She did not judge the men by their appearance, nor did they object to her over-exuberant and somewhat nippy greeting. So get out more. It’s a compassionate thing to do for you, your dog and for other people in this world. It’s also good for your soul at work or in life to go out for lunch with friends or even all alone and keep an open mind to talking with others.
  10. Forgive your dog and forgive yourself. No animals acts perfectly all the time. While we try to raise “perfect pets” that mind our every command. But occasionally they’ll still pee on the neighbor’s lawn when you’re not looking or threaten to run after a rabbit of squirrel. Our pets can be a bit ADHD at times, drawn to distractions or possessed by their instincts. First and foremost, you need to learn to forgive them. And in the process, you’ll learn to forgive yourself for not raising a perfect pet. There’s especially no reason to be cruel to animals as a means to assuage any inner guilt or disturbance in your emotional matrix. It is clear from all the abandoned or abused pets in this world that too many people take out their aggressions on innocent animals because they have not found healthy ways to deal with their own inner torments. If you have these instincts and can’t find ways to be patient with you dog, then human relationships are not going to be any easier to manage. The same goes for projecting prejudice or fears on certain breeds of dog, or for that matter. That brand of prejudice parallels resistance to human cultures or races of people different from our own. Until people learn how to overcome these fears or prejudices, the world becomes a battle for control that never ends. Thus it is important to learn to forgive yourself, how to manage internal conflicts and how to change your ways and attitudes. Your pet and the people around you in this world will no doubt return the favor with kind appreciation.