On contentions and being content in what you know

purple_hills_by_beth25491white-d3c42a6In college our dorm room was on the 7th floor of a tower overlooking the Oneota Valley in Decorah, Iowa. Our windows faced west and winter sunsets over the valley were often quite dramatic. When the sun went down and twilight was complete, the hills lining the Upper Iowa River a mile away turned purple in the evening light.

Or so it appeared one late afternoon to the eyes of all those sitting together in our dorm room as the sun went down. “Look how purple the hills are…” I pointed out the window.

“No they’re not. They’re black,” one person responded. We all looked at him.

“Are you color blind?” someone asked.

“No. I can see colors,” he insisted. “But those hills are black.”

The hills clearly appeared purple. But everything this fellow knew about the world was telling him the hills looked black.

We all argued the point for a few minutes and then someone changed the subject. We were getting nowhere in our efforts to help him understand the principles of shadow, light and the color spectrum.

Other than reality

His contention that the hills could not be anything but black once the sun went down were based on something other than a reality perceived by everyone else in the room. Perhaps he truly could not see the color purple and did not know that he was color blind in that way. None of us had any way of proving that to him at the moment. So from his perspective, he won the argument.

That tendency to argue something cannot be a fact unless you can immediately prove a contention wrong is quite common in this world. It helps explain why so many people have trouble grasping basic scientific principles as part of their worldview. Over time, people tend to build up a brand of pride in affirming their own worldview, no matter how wrong or shortsighted it may be. If they find enough people that share their narrow perspective, it becomes even more powerful a way to think.

Content in what they think they know

vfiles24241In other words, people tend to be content in what they feel they already know. Many feel like they’ve worked hard to assemble their worldview. They don’t really want to hear contentions to the contrary. They grow proud of their ability to defend this worldview to the death. One thinks of well-known creationist Ken Ham, whose arguments about biblical truth through literalism are popular with all who find solace and contentment in a simplified view of the world where God created the universe and nothing has changed or evolved since the beginning of time.

That’s very much like contending that the hills are black rather than purple at sunset. Or that they were green during the day, so how could they be purple at night? Nor could they be orange at dawn. Perceptions confined to simple rules quite easily rule out so many possibilities on grounds that cannot be argued away. They are matters of faith in how something is meant to be perceived. It’s a confining way to think, but some people like it that way. They’re proud of their surety, firm in their convictions, and nothing can make them change.

Not even the purple hills of sunset 

Yet we also know from the Bible that not even God is depicted as changeless. The deity that appears in a cloud in one book and a burning bush in another takes apparent pride in shifting and playing with the perceptions of all those who would fix the Creator in one place, one form or one time.

God transcends all of that. So does nature. It is very clear that our perceptions of both are organically intertwined. It is also acceptance of one does not automatically cancel out the other.

New understandings

PaversWe all proceed at times with theories that ultimately get proven wrong. It happens in faith as well as science. Among Christians the old religion gave way to a new understanding with the advent of Christ. Then Martin Luther came along to shake up the Catholic order and traditions. Now there’s a new wave of Progressive Christians tugging at the sleeves of believers to reform around an organic view of the Bible that allows scholarship into the mix to determine a better understanding of what scripture really means, and what it doesn’t.

The trick to a establishing a better understanding in life is to never be content in what you know. That’s what’s taking place every day in science. Some people point to that fact as the source of an idea that science cannot be trusted. But that’s a mistake in perception too. We depend on science for all kinds of trustworthy activities. From medicine to industry, biology to economics, our sciences deliver dependable if not changeless information about how we view and interact in this world. Without this source of humanistic culture, we are in essence reduced to tribal beings caught in a blind play in which we have no control at all over our destiny. And shockingly, some people still think God wants that for us too.

We need our moral traditions to be equally open to change. One could say that God expects that of us. The right kind of pride is having the humility to be awakened to new ways of thinking. God has never liked stiff-necked believers.

Proverbs 21: 9–– “Whoever remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed–without remedy.”

Understanding the character of a city is about understanding yourself

Chicago Sun Times
The Sun Times building seems aptly named. Since this photo was taken a new building is under construction next to this one.

My first recollected trip to the City of Chicago was as a thirteen year old child. We drove from the tiny town of Elburn, Illinois (Pop. 1500 at the time) to visit the Museum of Science and Industry. That’s a trip of about 50 miles all told. At the time, it might has well have been a trip around the world.

Kids who grow up in the city know how it works. They take buses and a few even ride in cabs. The buildings do not intimidate them, nor the urbanity and pigeons and graffiti coloring them.

With so little knowledge to build upon, that trip to the museum was like boring into the core of something so foreign to me that it overwhelmed my thought processes. Back home in Elburn life seemed to make more sense. I went birdwatching in the fields and played baseball under a hot sun next to a cornfield.

The lines from the title song of an album I owned, that would be “Honky Chateau” by Elton John, seemed to mock my naivete.

When I look back
Boy, I must have been green
Boppin’ in the country
Fishin’ in a stream
Lookin’ for an answer
Tryin’ to find a sign
Until I saw your city lights
Honey, I was blind
They said, get back, Honky Cat
Better get back to the woods
Well, I quit those days and my redneck ways
And oh, oh, oh, oh, the change is gonna do me good
Truly, I did not know how to “quit those days and my redneck ways.” Even when I landed a job in the city at the age of 21 I stuffed my wallet down my pants on the first walk to work because I was not sure whether I’d be robbed or not.
Sun Streak
A sun line streaks across the face of a building in downtown Chicago. Such adaptations of natural elements are vitally important to the beauty of architecture.

You can laugh, but I bet I’m not alone in that delayed (retarded…as in delayed) response to appreciation of the city. Once I worked downtown it all fell into place. The restaurants and the architecture. The plays and the bars. Finally my redneck ways receded from my eyes.

Then I got transferred to Philadelphia for work and had the experience to soak in a whole city on entirely new terms. Philly was different from Chicago. It was low-slung for one thing. At the time no building was taller than the William Penn statue in the center of downtown. How odd, I thought, that people should agree on such a thing. How many architects longing to make their statement on the Philly skyline had to bite the bullet and build another grumpy testimony to anachronistic style?
While working in Philly it was once my job to cart 140lbs of AV equipment up to the Chemical Bank building in New York city and return the same day. All of this was done by train, then cab, then back to the train. It ranks as one of the most exhausting 12 hour periods of my life. Those four hours in downtown New York were little more than strange. Looking down from the upper floors of the skyscraper there was nothing but a river of yellow cabs grunting along the street below.
I would not get back to New York City until 32 years later. That was to visit my son at his home on Delancey Street in Manhattan. We wandered around under his guidance visiting some sites like the 9/11 Memorial. Then we rented Citibikes and rolled around the riverfront from 5th Avenue across the Williamsport bridge and more.
And it struck me. This is a big place. But it’s just a place. All the familiar landmarks are there just like in the movies. Someone built them and someone uses them. Yes, some of the biggest financial decisions in the world are made on Wall Street. But even that district was forced to stick protective barriers up in front of the buildings so that no one can ram them with cars or explosives. I had to laugh: Who are the rednecks now?
That’s been my experience over the years in visiting all sorts of cities. They are built on assumptions that urbanity is the ultimate expression of human development. Yet they also expose the weaknesses of all those who depend upon them. Some people can’t even bear the idea of functioning outside their given city. And it strikes me as odd that when they arrive in the country and look around them, they seem to think there’s nothing of interest there.
Trump Tower
The TRUMP name is visible on the lower face of the Trump Tower in Chicago.

I wonder most of all how that most urban and urbane of characters, Donald Trump likes to think about the world. Walking through Chicago yesterday on the way to a business appointment, I saw his name slapped on the building he chartered on the Chicago River. It is reported that sign pissed off the mayor a bit. Such personal branding seems out of place in a city where architecture prides itself differentiations of shape and style, not the five letters of a last name.

But in case anyone has refused to notice, Donald Trump is all about bluster and artifice in life. Even his reality shows focused on firing people as a sign of sophisticated management.
What do we really owe such people? Typically is is them that owes us. Public financing of giant buildings and especially sports stadiums are often highly leveraged deals. It’s quite rare that someone’s personal worth actually swings the hammer. I have a friend whose relative is a major builder of hotels. On paper he’s worth millions but in reality he owes millions. “They really can’t come after me because I owe so much it wouldn’t pay to take me down,” he admitted.
Our entire economy turns out to be just such a game. We’ve seen the cost when the chips come in. The City of Detroit has suffered as the financial house of cards caves in. Urban decay is much the same as backwoods, redneck existence in the country. It’s no coincidence that guns are so highly valued in both extremes.
Fear drives it all. Fear (or the lack of it) drives the market up and down. Survival in the big city is all about having the wits to grasp the real circumstance of life and not let the perception of urbanity be confused with the establishment of real character.
Despite what people like Donald Trump with his pile of vainly coiffed hair might have us think, there really is nothing magic in the supposed sophistication of the city. Certainly it’s a place to appreciate culture and conduct business. But that just proves that the real magic of the place comes from within yourself.

The thing about fathers is they’re not perfect. But forgiveness is the light that shines through.

In the early 2000s my father Stewart Cudworth experienced a set of severe health challenges. The first required open heart surgery that took more than five hours. I still recall the calm with which he faced his surgery. He held my mother’s hand as he waited to be wheeled off for the procedure, a quintuple bypass to deal with heart disease.

That surgery was successful. Another challenge awaited. He developed atrial fibrillation in the following years that led to a debilitating stroke. He lost use of his right arm and leg. He also lost the ability to speak, but not the ability to understand language and all that was going on around him.

I recall the day that my mother called from Upstate New York to inform me that dad was incapacitated. When I hung up the phone, I turned and said to my wife, “Well, my life just changed.”

It was true. From that point forward I became a caregiver to both my mother and father. Then my mother passed away in 2005 from a combination of cancer and stroke and it was my job to be the direct caregiver for my father.

The Comeback

That came with all sorts of challenges. My father had recovered from his stroke enough to gain his full personality back. That was troublesome because he can be a demanding guy. Without the ability to speak his frustrations sometimes boiled over into anger and even physical actions that were not conducive to solving his problems.

It forced all our years of association through the keyhole of having to learn how to communicate on a new and different plane. There were days when it was best for me to simply depart the room or even the entire house during visits to his home. We both needed time to chill out. Get away from the issue at hand and process the anger.

Because I had anger toward him that was unresolved. Some of those ancient conflicts from youth were never discussed before his stroke took away the ability to deal with them in full light. That brought irrational emotions to the surface in me.

All this was compounded by the fact that I was also dealing with the fact that my late wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2005, the same year my mother died. Managing her needs and those of my father, especially when time and patience were often worn thin, proved a real test of character.

Sometimes I’d just pray about it all and figure out what best to do. Figuring out how to handle the sometimes quirky needs of the live-in caregivers hired to stay with my father.

Haunted memories

But mostly there was one incident from my early youth that kept coming back to haunt me. My father was a forceful man prone to physical discipline of his four sons. At the age of six he tore into my two brothers for some transgression and it hurt me from the inside out. There were many other unreconciled emotions from those days as well. At the age of 27 I woke up pounding the pillow one night not knowing why I was so angry. That’s when I realized there was work to be done.

And through the years that work got done. And when it mattered most with my father I was able to forgive any and all anger that existed in our lives. He made it tough at times. But the thing that kept me going was his deeper nature. He is an enormously sensitive man, keen on relationships and wanting the best for others. For all the tension of youth there was also tenderness, loving guidance and care. When some sports injury came along his calm, intelligent voice walked me through it. He also helped me sell my artwork. Encouraged me to pay attention to my craft.

Know thyself

He knew my internal struggles better than I thought at times. That is something most fathers struggle with in their lives. How to tell their sons and daughters that they really do understand. That no one is perfect. Least of all ourselves. What we want to say at times is that we love our children more than we can express. And please forgive us if we do not always say or do the right things.

That is how I began to look at my father. Through a macro rather than a micro lens. The small, painful hurts began to dissipate. They were replaced by a sense of love rather than a sense of obligation. We began to have our laughs and through practice and concentration I learned to ask questions to help him express his concerns and interests even through the apraxia and aphasia that stole his speech.

Symbols

In many ways those conditions became a symbol for our communications over the years. It was strange one day to turn on a videotape made by my father before his stroke and hear him speaking so lucidly. It then struck me that so much personal history of his would be lost forever.

I know the basics. How he and my mother lived 200 yards apart on Upstate New York farms. How his mother died from complications of breast cancer when my father was only seven years old. He and his three sisters went to live with aunts and uncles when their father experienced mental illness due to the loss of his wife, a farm and another business during the Great Depression.

My father went off to war with the Navy late in World War II and did not see action. But he has photographs of his tour of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The boat on which his crew crossed the Pacific ocean was so bad and beat up the Navy scuttled it when they reached Japan. Somewhere on the bottom of the ocean lies a hulk of metal that my father once described as the smelliest tub you could ride upon.

He married my mother right out of the Navy and had four sons and a daughter lost at birth in a span of twelve years. He used his electrical engineering degree from Cornell University to work in the fields of television and later fiber optic cable.

The rest is our family’s history of sports and art and literature and music.

Happy Birthday Dad

And suddenly he’s 89 years old. He grieved with quiet tears for my mother when she died almost ten years ago. People can’t believe he’s done so well or lived so long. It surprises me too. The man I saw one month after his stroke barely looked like he’s live a week.

Tonight we’re going out for dinner to celebrate his birthday. We have many more things in common than we once did because forgiveness has opened those doors. In some ways I have to lead that conversation because he can’t talk. But we know it’s there. The thing about fathers is they’re not perfect. But forgiveness is.

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

What a plastic bag of Cheerios says about the right kind of parenthood

The praise service at our church is something of a refuge for parents of young children who want to attend services. With its open format of chairs arranged in semi-circles and a liturgy formed around singing every few minutes, young parents have flexibility to keep their toddlers busy while still paying attention to the message.

One mother had the requisite bag of Cheerios in a plastic bag. That gave her youngest child something to preoccupy his time. The other son was handily wrapped in his father’s arms. Those two played staring and face games for most of the service.

The Cheerio Sneeze incident

It all brought back memories of tending my own children in church when they were very young. Of course one legendary incident with a plastic bag of Cheerios stands out. My son was perhaps two when the great Cheerio Sneeze occurred. It was the late 1980s and women were sporting particularly fluffy hairstyles. One young gal sitting three rows up had no idea that after my son sneezed while eating Cheerios the sticky residue had flown forth and stuck in her coiffed hair. That is, until she reached back to feel the constellation of Cheerios goo stuck to her blow-dried locks.

It had been funny enough those first few minutes after the sneeze. The guy sitting next to me in church was suffering through a laughing fit so profound his wife was literally hammering him in the side with her elbow to get him to stop. My wife glanced over at me with that “don’t you dare laugh” look wives reserve for their husbands in such situations. But I had already lost it. My son was covered in Cheerio backdraft somehow and the sight of that stuff at close hand when I knew it was also stuck in a woman’s hair three rows up was too much to handle. I was gut laughing and there was nothing to do about it.

Unpredictable messes

Such is the life of young parents. You pretty much have to roll with the problems you face. Kids are unpredictable little mess machines. Every young mom I’ve ever known carries with her The Purse that contains solutions to all such emergencies. In it are diapers and sippy cups and medicine and who knows what else. The Purse could likely be used to get wounded men through an emergency in war, if need be.

It takes both practicality and humility to be a young parent. When your child erupts in mournful crying during church or at some other social event you know the drill; take quick action and hope it works. There is rocking and soothing and if all that doesn’t work (along with the offer of a bag of Cheerios) there is always the patented move known as the Quick Exit. Off you go into the netherlands of some bland hallway where no human being should ever be confined. Your child’s sad face either convulses further or turns to laughter. There is no predicting the outcome.

Unzipped and dealing with it

It really doesn’t get much better as you age. Your child grows a mind of their own and they make mistakes about which you can only shake your head and ask, “What did I do wrong? And then you think back to something like the Cheerios Sneeze incident and realize that you did nothing wrong really. Life is random and stuff like this happens.

I think also of the day my son and I sat next to each other in church while a young mother a few rows up and across the aisle struggled with her rambunctious son. He kept crawling under the pews and every time she bent dow to catch him the zipper on the back of her dress dropped a few more zips. Apparently she’d forgotten to get the clasp that held the back together and everyone in church could see where this was headed. It all happened fast and when she stood up to carry the child out of church her entire dress dropped to the floor. In church. My 5-year-old son gasped and my wife muttered a low “Ohh nooo” as the woman scrambled to pull the dress back up over her bra and panties.

Yes, it was humiliating. But there was not a person in the church community that day who laughed. We’ve all been there in one way or another. We all felt bad for the young mom losing her dress because those of us that had experienced parenthood were laid bare in a thousand other ways over the years.

Brave humility

Besides, it did not matter. What mattered was that her friend quickly leapt to her aid and all was rectified right there on the spot. To her credit, she hung right in there and stuck it out through church.What we also witnessed was the benefit of caregiving. Stepping in when needed. Saving face for someone else. That takes character on both ends. Sometimes humility is the bravest thing you can wield in this world. That young mother wielded it like a hero that morning.

When you are older and sit behind a couple with young children at church there are moments when you want to lean forward and share all that you know about how it works. That embarrassing moments will not kill you. That being a parent is both a humbling and emboldening endeavor.

The best thing you can do sometimes is simply look the other way so that mom or dad can do their business and navigate through any situations that can crop up. Then shake their hand during the Sharing of Peace and make sure you don’t put it near your mouth until after service when you can go wash your hands and get rid of any potential Kid Germs from colds or flu. That’s how it works in this world. The right kind of parenthood never really stops, and if you’ve learned anything from the experience at all, you’ll know that staying well is the first line of priority. Because it’s your job to care. For the kids. And for yourself.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride about facing life’s challenges. It is available on Amazon.com. 

The takeaway on feeling good about yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s a race that never ends.

Tackling the Christmas Closet

By Christopher Cudworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of Season

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

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

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

News of the Day

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

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

Soul celebrations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decidedly rural

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

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

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

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

Hayseed mentality

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

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

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

Growth and change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and loss

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

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

If the bloom rubs off

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

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

The right or wrong time

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

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

Lessons learned anew

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

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

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

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

That’s right. That girl was sane.

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

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

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

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

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

Catching the bus

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

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

Conventionality

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

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

Running the risk

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

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

The costs of resistance

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

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

Estrangement

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

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

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

Conventions and credibility

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

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

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

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

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

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