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.

All plugged into this new remote thing

 

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

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

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

Technology helps

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

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

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

The multi-tasking debate

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

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

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

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

The drama in your head

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

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

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

Practical measures

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

Doing things right

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

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

Look for consensus

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

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

Ask questions

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

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

Prioritizing

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Earth Day and the human insult to God’s creation

August Sundown

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

Cause and Effect

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

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

Dust Bowl Image

Climate change

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

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

Erosion

The Earth groans

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

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

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

Friday night calls for ZOOM

Zoom art

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

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

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

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

Working through loss

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

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

Stay-At-Home

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

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

Dining and defining local

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

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

Nothing’s perfect

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

When body and spirit become like oil and water

 

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Photograph by Christopher Cudworth. 

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

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

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

Pain points

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

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Oil and Water. A painting by Christopher Cudworth.

Oil and Water

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

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

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

The seed of a lifetime’s work

Seed of a LifetimeThis weekend we cleaned out some life detritus from the basement. I’ve been doing an inventory of personal collections that need sorting through. One of them was a box of newspaper articles that I’ve written over the last four decades, an archive that reaches all the way back to my early 20s. There were copies of the nature column Field Day that I first started writing for a local newspaper back in 1981. I was two years out of college at that time, and itching to start showing the world what I thought I knew.

Six years later I got a job with that newspaper and eventually moved from advertising sales to promotions. Despite the journalistic wall that supposedly existed between those two worlds I wrote dozens of articles over a four-year period, covering entertainment, dance, comedy, sports, and nature.

That last interest led me to produce an entire page of nature-oriented news. I called the section ENVIRONS, and designed the entire thing on an early version of a Macintosh computer. It had a monotone 9″ screen on which I wrote and designed those full-page sections.

Environs

I credit some of that drive to the precociousness of youth. I also sold the ads that appeared on those pages, at one point producing a four-page section just to prove it could be done. I was also out to prove that people were interested in news about the environment. I’d done my research on that, even gathering a report conducted by Duquesne University that showed public interest in environmental news ranked in the top four topics right behind local news and politics.

New directions

Once I’d left that newspaper and joined another, my passion for writing about nature continued as a columnist and editorial writer. That gig ended when the Publisher moved me over to a position as a marketing manager. That meant no more writing for that newspaper. So I turned to outside publications including magazines such as West Suburban Living. One of the articles profiled state conservation police officers, an idea that turned into a story after I stopped to ask an officer if people know what they did for a living. He chuckled and said, “Seven out of ten people stop to ask me what the Conversation Police do.”

That proved to me that people don’t connect the dots on many subjects related to nature. There is even prejudice against environmental news in some sectors of society, especially where religion tells people not to put trust in science of any kind.

Big impression

Luther prairie
Last summer I visited the Luther College prairie and this plant known as butterfly weed

Which brings me back to a letter home from college that I found in that box of newspaper clippings. I’m not sure at all how that letter wound up in that box, but it was joined by several other missives home to my family from college.

The letters typically shared how I was doing in cross country or track, since that was a pressing preoccupation at the time. But this one sent home in the first few weeks of college documented a moment in a Freshman Studies class in which I was impressed by a professor who visited our class. Here’s what I wrote:

“Just finishing a good day of classes, one in particular really set my thoughts to rolling. In our Freshman Studies class a religion prof gave ideas out on ecology in collaboration with Aldo Leopold’s A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC. This guy was great, giving the truth about people’s preconception that the land they own is theirs to do with what they like, including destroying it. Also mentioning that many people do not feel that land is good unless it is developed, or is producing for them. Great.”

I did not recall that professor’s visit until I read about it again in that letter from 1975. But that moment in class definitely planted a seed in my mind that has carried through millions of words written about the subject of science and religion.

In particular, the book I wrote titled The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age (2007) addressed the impact of biblical literalism on politics, culture and the environment. A book I’ve just completed and am sending to an agent is titled Rescuing Christianity from the Grip of Tradition. It also deals with the impact of religion on the world at large.

The new book is a collaborative venture with a retired Professor of Religion at Luther College, Dr. Richard Simon Hanson, who upon reading my book The Genesis Fix mailed me a typewritten manuscript of his book titled RELIGION FROM EARTH. Inside the envelope was a note that said, “You can use all or part of this if you choose to write a sequel.” His entire intact manuscript is incorporated in the new book I’ve just completed. We’ve had several visits and chances to review and talk about the book over the last few years.

I am guessing now that the professor who visited our Freshman Studies class during my early days at Luther College was indeed Professor Richard Simon Hanson. He planted a seed in my mind that has flourished into a tree of work over a lifetime. We both believe in the organic fundamentalism of the Bible and how its most important symbols of truth in scripture depend on metonymy and creation as their source. That is the reconciliation between religion and science. That is the right kind of pride, for it leads to salvation in both a practical and spiritual sense. That is what the world needs most right now.

Christopher Cudworth’s book The Right Kind of Pride: A Chronicle of Character, Caregiving and Community is available on Amazon.com. 

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

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

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Our early dating years.

Tomorrow marks seven years since my late wife Linda Cudworth died after eight years of survivorship through ovarian cancer. The diagnosis came as a shock, as did multiple episodes of recurrence. Each time we’d reel from the news, go back into treatment and compartmentalize the best we could by using the phrase, “It is what it is.”

Those last months during the winter and spring of 2013 were confusing because doctors treating her for seizures learned there was a tumor in her brain. I’ve never published photos of her during that last round of radiation treatment because while we made the best of it, snapping pics using my laptop Photo Booth and laughing as the absurdity of it all, it was a strange world we were about to enter, because ovarian cancer was not supposed to be able to pass through the blood-brain barrier. But it did.

LInda and Chris
All dressed up and going somewhere.

We treated it with radiation and she started a regimen of steroids to contain the swelling and her personality became magnified. She lost native inhibitions about many things. On one hand, that was disorienting, as it ultimately became impossible for her to continue teaching at the preschool she loved. On the other hand, it proved to be liberating as she used those final bursts of steroid-fueled energy to buy a beautiful piece of art. She also stayed up late at night to research and buy a new car even though she abhorred going online. In sum she lived life to the fullest, however manic it might have been.

And that was bittersweet. Because when the steroids stopped, so did her energy. She passed away a few weeks later in the company of her husband and two children. Still, she never lost her sense of humor. After I’d arranged for palliative care in our home, we moved her from our master bedroom to the hospital bed in the living room where nurses and such could tend to her properly. The journey from bedroom to living room was awkward and difficult given her weakened state, but she looked up at me once she was tucked into the cover and smiled while saying, “I thought I wasn’t supposed to suffer.”

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On our honeymoon at Waterton-Glacier

Most of that was indignity, and my late wife was a person who believed and abided in dignity in all she did. It was part of her beauty as a person. She also respected propriety, which made it amusing to think back on the fact that I showed up a night early for our first date. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “Our date is tomorrow night!”

She agreed to go out for a short dinner before hosting her parent-teacher conferences at the high school where she taught special education. But before we parted that evening, I got a taste of her naturally biting humor in reminding me that I ought to call confirm a date.

We got to know each other a little that evening and followed up with a hike to Starved Rock State Park. Stopping on a high ledge for a picnic on a mild November day, she broke out a lunch of apple-walnut bread sandwiches, cheese and wine served from a leather-covered flask. That implement was a remnant of her high school hippie days.

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Enjoying our festive 4th of July traditions.

We dated four years and even survived a long-distance romance early on when I was transferred from Chicago to a marketing position in Philadelphia. She visited me on Thanksgiving that year despite her mother’s objections, and I moved back to the Midwest the following spring when the company decided to disband the entire marketing department due to misguidance by the Vice President.

That would be one of a few job upheavals experienced over the years, and we survived them all. Our children came along in our late 20s and early 30s. Soon our lives were immersed in preschool, elementary adventures, and all the way through high school performances in music and drama.

We also belonged to the highly conservative church synod in which she’d grown up. The pastor that married us at the time was, however, a grandly considerate and patently open-minded man that once gave a sermon titled, “Do-gooders and bleeding hearts : Jesus was the original liberal.”

Emmy in Garden

Our lives swirled with church activities as our children passed through Sunday School all the way to confirmation, where they roundly passed the tests despite having to choke down conservative ideology about evolution preached by the pastor that had long-since replaced our marriage counselor.

After 25 years we moved up the road to a more tolerant and progressive Lutheran church. It was gratifying to learn that our friends from the former church did not abandon us. In fact without their help and the guidance of one of Linda’s best friends, a woman named Linda Culley, we would not have had as much grace and good fortune in the face of the perpetual challenges served up by cancer survivorship.

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At 7 Mile Pinecrest

Now what I like to think about are the camping trips we took to the north woods while dating, and later, when we had small children, we’d spend a week each summer at a humble resort called 7 Mile Pinecrest thirteen miles east of Eagle River, Wisconsin.

Our children paddled around in the water and slipped off to Secret Places in the woods while their father fished in the early and late hours and went for runs half-naked in the pine woods north of the resort, swatting at deer flies the entire time.

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Linda and Evan reading together.

At the center of all that family joy and adventures was Linda, whipping up sandwiches and sitting with a glass of wine on the small beach overlooking the lake. That was the only time the Do Not Disturb sign seemed to rise on the Mom Flag.

And when we weren’t visiting or traveling or doing school activities, Linda was immersed in planning, purchasing and planting her garden every year. Her priorities were indeed God, Family, and Flowers.

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She was a really good person. That’s what so many friends have told me over the years. I was married to a really good person, and that makes me think of what a close friend told me when he first met her. “This is a good one, Cuddy. Don’t let her get away.”

It is bittersweet and sweet to think about all those years together. My daughter went through our stacks of photos to digitize the images and I’ve waited until today to open it up and pull some memories out to post with this blog. Holding people close to your heart is first and foremost the right kind of pride. I hope this writing inspires you to consider the importance of people in your lives.

And to realize as well that life does go on. She told our close friend Linda Culley that she knew, if she were to pass away from cancer, that I would meet someone again. And I have found love. But it does not mean the years with Linda Cudworth are forgotten. Far from it.

These memories can lift us up. Give us courage to go on. Cherish the life we had as well as the life we have. And that is the right kind of pride as well.