Weeding our way through the world

Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8“Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”9And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  –Mark 4:8

The inner dialogue of a person engaged in weeding a garden can go in a number of directions. There is the associative focus of separating good plants from bad, and yanking the weeds by the roots. There is also the dissociative tendency to let your mind wander and weigh your life along with everything in it.

A little of both is likely required to do a good job weeding. One must pay attention to identify weeds amongst the plants we choose for ornament and beauty. But sometimes weeds are so thick it does not take much thought to do the job. You stick your hands in there and yank for all you’re worth. Little thought is required, only muscle.

Pile of WeedsOver the years, one learns the best way to weed through practice. There is no other substitute for experience. One learns which plants are easy to pull up by the roots and which break off in your hands four to six inches from the soil. That makes for bigger problems. A trowel needs to come into play. There is not enough leverage left on the slimy stem of the weed to get a grip and yank up the roots.

Otherwise the weeds come back. Well, they come back no matter the method of removal. They’re weeds. That’s what they do. There’s always a supply of new weeds to fill in for the old ones.

One learns this lesson in your own yard and garden easy enough. Weeding is a required activity if you attempt to grow anything at all.

Of course, weeds are also at times a matter of perspective. Gardeners grow some varieties of plants that can escape and propagate places where they are not welcome. Purple loosestrife is one such beautiful pest. In a garden they are quite beautiful. But unleashed in a wetland they can take over an entire ecosystem. At that point, they must be yanked or otherwise killed off.

There are entire woodlands that need to be managed for the influx of plant colonies such as garlic mustard and buckthorn. Natural area restoration crews descend on these colonies and yank, burn and poison them to death. But the weeds almost always come back. It’s what they do.

Chemistry

That makes it all the more triumphant when the results of weeding actually do work. Perhaps there is no more profound example than that of a managed prairie. It can take years of propagation and burning to kill off the weed colonies and invasive species. But when prairie plants are given a chance, their competition strategies are smart and strong. The roots grow deep and the soul of the plant lies below the surface. That means burning takes off the dried up stems but does not affect the rich underground root system that also taps deep into the soil to gain moisture. Hot summer days do not kill these plants.

So nature invented weeding, on its own. But humans love to create environments with the appearance of natural balance that are, in fact, a stripped down version of nature that can be hard to sustain. Golf courses are one such example, and for years their strategy was to bathe the fairways and greens in dangerous chemicals as weed control. The monoculture necessary to allow the game of golf to be played requires intensive weed strategies that for decades contributed to ground pollution and other problems.

Our lawns at home often depend on such chemicals. Some are relatively benign and go away quickly. Others persist, and it would be much better for the world if these strategies were weeded out of our eco-strategies.

Answered prayers

One of my neighbors does not believe in lawn chemicals. That meant her yard become overgrown several summers in a row. She could not tell the weeds from her plantings. Finally I offered to help weed her lawn. She is a good Christian woman and had been praying about what to do for her lawn. Money was tight for her at the time and a full-on landscaping company was out of the question.

So I offered to weed. My late wife was glad that I did this. The Creeping Charlie from her yard had grown all the way through her lawn to reach the edge of our garden. When I dug into the mats of Creeping Charlie it could be hauled up like sheets of laundry. That work revealed an entire system of hostas and small groundcover plants that thrived once the weeds were removed. There were giant, towering thistles as well, and old, dried-up cedar trees in need of removal.

The process took several days, and my wife grew impatient with my dedication to the task. I quietly told her it was a duty that somehow called me. Nothing else. There was no husband or helper available to our neighbor at the time. So I lent my services in that department. I knew how to weed.

Since that time a man has come into her life, and a bit of money too. First he tore into the landscaping and removed many of the weeds, mulched the gardens and tore up funky trees. Then a landscape service began to show up and a beautiful new fence was installed. I love her new fence. It’s a wonderful backdrop for my own garden.

The property of life

Recently a family I know also needed some weeding around their yard. The husband has been dealing with the progressive effects of ALS for years now. His devoted wife keeps up with everything the best she can, but the duties and commitments of things like yard upkeep are not possible, yet are relentless. The family now also has grandchildren to enjoy. This is the property of life, which is so often counterbalanced by the weeds of existence. It takes a strategy of caregiving to manage these priorities.

Weeding water bottleSo it was with some joy that we organized a small community of workers from our church to do some weeding around their yard. The resultant piles of thick weeds piled five feet high. Along the north side of their property the landscaping was obscured by groundcover gone out of control. In fact some of it had died for lack of light. The daylilies competed with thistles and mulberry trees shot up through the arms of the spruce trees. All the weeds and overgrowth had to be inspected, sorted and removed. The tall mulberries were sawed up and heaped on the curb. The weeds were stubborn and thick, but the loose mulch gave up the roots easily enough. It was hot, and it was thirsty work. But it was worth it.

Organizing thoughts

All the time I was out weeding I thought of my friend Steve inside the house. This was his garden, and his love. It exhibited his character. I could see the organization of the plants and the landscaping at every turn. His wife told me how much he loved to garden. There were beautiful plants; butterfly weed (how ironic?) and many more.

As the shape of the garden emerged again I thought of how Steve and I first met. Our children were in high school music and drama together and something between us clicked after we met. He’d join me for lunch over at the Country House restaurant where they served nice fat burgers and cold beer. There were several meetings where he talked me through issues of depression related to some of life’s changes and work issues. Then my wife had cancer and Steve was there for that too.

Meanwhile his own health issues began to emerge. It became difficult for him to open the huge wooden door at Country House. There was a growing weakness in his system that could not be identified. It progressed and was finally diagnosed as ALS.

He has never let it stop him from living life, thinking through his writing and enjoying the company of all those who love him and his family. And there are many.

Steve and I helped each other weed through those depressive instincts years ago. We weeded out the negative thoughts to make room for positivity and hope to grow. That is a garden worth tending every day. Every year. Every life.

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

It all begins and ends with a dance

That iconic movie “The Big Chill” celebrated the lasting friendships emanating from time shared together in college. Of course the cause of the mini-reunion at the home of a Southern sporting shoe magnate was a sad one. An intelligent yet tortured classmate had taken his own life.

The thing that brought those friends together was sad indeed. The deep question dug at them: Why would anyone take their own life? The William Hurt character angrily dug at the answer, in essence saying, “Why shouldn’t we all take our own lives?”

IMG_1292The pain of loss is always hovering around us. A reunion acts like a scorecard for life and death. The older you get, the more scorecard there is to encounter.

Or so it seems. There also those life-affirming aspects of children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. There are anniversaries to celebrate, and life changes to encounter.

At the risk of behaving like the Jeff Goldblum character in the Big Chill, exploiting his friends’ reunion for a People Magazine story, this blog has traveled the path of reunion with my class from the year 1975. For me that association began with a dance. I’d met a friend who shared the same birthday that summer afternoon. We walked all the way to pick up another friend and showed up at a dance hall named The Powder Keg.

Our interest was meeting girls, or sharing time with girls. Or whatever encounters we could manage. My only real recollection of the night was being willing to dance. That distinction alone helped me meet some nice women. The New Kid In Town.

Somewhat scared but daring to dance out of sheer joy in music, I took a risk with reputation that first night. Not every guy loved to dance, that’s for sure. There were always those who chose such ventures to question masculinity. I was little more than a skinny cross country runner with thick hair and wire-rimmed glasses.

But it’s always been a philosophy to do new things and take chances. The hell with being a guy that was not willing to try. And so it was that some of my new friends happened to be girl friends. I came home thrilled and excited that night.

From there the social network took off. And yet it was a painful period as well. Moving to St. Charles had meant leaving behind good friends out at Kaneland High School as well. I’d been Class President there and leader of the cross country team.

Such is life that we are sometimes forced to grow into and out of friendships. Fortunately many of those former associations still exist. It is a philosophy that friends from school and work and life encounters should remain friends if at all possible. Some grow apart. Some disagree with my politics or tolerance for things they consider absent of moral consequence. But those choices are not made without consideration. The people one chooses to love are paramount to existence. If people can’t accept that love and friendship are realities with dimension they are the ones sacrificing good for selfish motives. All you can do is demonstrate your purpose. Find your spirit. Survive. Live. Thrive.

IMG_1281Some of the choices we make are necessarily made with such independence from social expectations there seems to be an entirely different music to which we are dancing. Those choices are small as a micron and as large as time itself. We give birth to our hopes any way we can. If people want to judge us for those choices, then there is no such thing as hope.

Yet hope certainly exists, and it is fostered in the glimmer of recognition. Our particular class grew up listening to the Beatles because that was the era in which that band literally changed the world. Then we migrated to the Stones and Neil Young and Frank Zappa, for God’s Sake. It turns out there were no rules to this dance at all. One dances to whatever tunes one likes, the world was telling us.

Of course that philosophy produces consequences. Our generation is blamed for the decay of society by some. Our experimentations with sex and drugs and rock and roll are called by some… the influences that broke down social standards and led to a reduction in “moral standards.”

What pap. Never mind the fact that liberalism whipped up courage to install real civil rights rather than sustain a fake society favoring one race over all, and one that cudgled women into subservient roles and closeted gay people on grounds that their lives are a sin or a lie. We said Fuck That and kept moving. We’re dancing here, God Damnit.

However imperfectly, as a collective we’ve stood up to those fake realities and made society a better place. Each one of our lives has mattered in that respect. You can dance alone for sure, and that is all good. But you can also participate in a dance that grows the very soul of the world. And that was our generation. Embrace it. Embrace each other. We still have lives to live.

It all begins with a dance and ends with a dance. Indeed some close friends, mostly women it seemed, moved onto the dance floor by night’s end and shared that space to the beat of the movement. I was tempted to join them, but also realized there would likely be more chances. Ours was a reunion that turned into a direction in life. The committee didn’t just put together an event, they created new bonds and respect for all those classmates who share that space and time. That’s the best kind of dance to join. The best kind of all.

Reunion wisdom: even a stopped clock is right once a day

The crowd gathered outside Thompson Middle School in St. Charles, Illinois was mostly in their late 50s. Hands were shaken. Hugs doled out. Smiles of confidence and query mixed among the faces.

But what one noticed most was the eyes. The eyes never seem to change. Over forty years had passed since high school graduation. It was time to reunite and, just for kicks, take a tour through the old high school.

IMG_1287Newer facilities had long since been built. Referendums passed. Taxes rose. Two new high schools and additions later, the former St. Charles High School still stood, a bit forlorn in places, but with a shiny new entrance that was even air-conditioned.

Inside the school the tour guide showed off the new resource center and murals painted on the entrance hallway. Then the group was taken to the spot where the former front entrance to the school was built up into the ceiling. There were no lights on the old entrance, but there was a plexiglass portal through which one could see the archway. Glancing around, people were not sure whether this was something to be celebrated, or simply strange.

Inside the school not much had really changed. The bland brown brick that lined the hallways was still there untouched. No drywall had covered up the mood of the place. The wear and cracks and linoleum floors marked the passage of time. But there was more.

The former auditorium had been co-opted into the band classrooms. Yet there it was, another archway lofting up into the ceiling. This was almost like a theme. Or a meme.

Yet the classic aspects of school environs never really do seem to change. The tape coming up off the wooden gym floor. IMG_1297The peeling paint on old gymnasium benches. “This is where we spent a lot of time,” one former basketball player laughed while pointing at the bleachers where the scrubs perched their butts during games.

It all has a certain chemistry, but the passage of time is more like alchemy. It transforms some things but leaves others far behind to be considered. Did the magic formula of youthful enthusiasm actually work or not? Were we changed from the kids that roamed these halls? Were we much different from the children who roam those halls now?

It has been said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Which made some people laugh when a during a tour of the almost classically preserved chemistry room a classmate recalled a tragic result in which he had accidentally replaced a chemical in a large jar that was not supposed to mix with the new liquid involed. Whoom! The entire jar turned bright blue and the ingredients for the day’s experiment were instantly ruined and unavailable.

Another student recalled cheating on a genetics test by using a crib sheet tucked under his thigh. The teacher had put him out in the hall for a makeup test and it seemed like he could get away with a little cheating. But the teacher, a biology instructor and birding buddy of the student involved came up behind the guilty party and said, “Well, if it isn’t the furtive nutscratcher…”

Busted.

IMG_1294The track stars recalled doing distance work in loops around the upstairs and downstairs hallways. That involved tearing down the stairs at high rates of speed in running shoes slick with dust. That would never, ever happen in most schools today. But it was how the indoor track season started in the 1970s.

Finally, the group paused by the upstairs lockers and people began recalling the placement of their own locker in the school. That brought up old girlfriends and boyfriends. You could almost feel the palpable presence of young love in the hallways by then. But you could also see the merit of long-term love and trust in the faces of all those standing together in their old high school. Almost everyone shared quiet stories of challenge and loss along the way. Some lost spouses. Many had lost parents. A person in the late 50s of their life on earth is often at the cusp of so much loss.

As the crew stepped our from the hot hallways of the old school a few looked a bit relieved. It was almost a tangible feeling on the order of “We made it…”

That’s what so many said that last day of the graduation ceremony. “We made it!”

The old school is proof of that, we must suppose. We bear cracks and wrinkles and signs of age just like the building in IMG_1299which our high school years had passed. But as one woman stated while looking at the aged clock on the wall, “It’s not even the right time.” Indeed. But then again, even a stopped clock is right once a day.

We stopped the clock for a few moments, just to take a look around. Time breathed in and time breathed out. Then we all went and had a few drinks. Because otherwise the second hand will hit you in the ass. Best to keep moving, wherever that takes you in this life.

What to expect from a class reunion

For some people a class reunion is a joyous occasion and an opportunity to connect with long time friends. For others, class reunions are bring on the worst kind of trepidation. Dread of encountering people you don’t like, or who don’t like you. Being nervous about your popularity, present or past. Worries over looks, weight or success in life can bring about anxiety, even depression of fear. Justifying yourself in the eyes of others is not too pleasing to some.

It need not be that way of course. Most people come through reunions relieved and unscathed, because somewhere between the fear and joy lies reality.

Yes, there are almost always people who arrive at reunions prepared to judge the relative success and youth of others. Perhaps the most amusing movie of all about this process is the chick flick Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. The two slightly daft gals discover their true talents by the end of the movie, but not without some grievous pain in the process. One even finds true love.

Changing traditions

Reunions for both high school and college are designed to bring people back together. This long tradition is changing with the advent of social media where people now connect without benefit of a reunion of any sort. Every day of the week can be a reunion if you want it to be.

Even so, as the years go by perspectives about what it means to reunite typically tend to change. The vagaries of life almost demand it. My brother once offered this advice to me before the occasion of my 20th-year high school reunion. “You might actually like this one,” he observed. “By now everyone’s had their ass kicked at least once.”

Interestingly, that year I attended not just one but three separate 20th-year high school reunions. One was for my actual graduating class. The second was for the class with which I would have graduated had I not moved away from a high school out in cornfields of Illinois. And the last was a reunion for the class with which I would have graduated had I not moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois in the 7th grade.

Guess which reunion felt the most tangible? Perhaps you know. That reunion back home in Pennsylvania put me back in touch with kids that had shared grade school and middle school together. We all know those connections are earthy and real.

Yet the two actual high school reunions delivered on promises of old friendships as well. I actually served as emcee at the first reunion I attended. Frankly that was not much fun. Gaining the attention of people deep into discover of old friendships means you’re basically a distraction. It was pretty much an evening that felt like consistent rejection. I promised myself not to take it personally. Anyone else in charge could have had the same experience. But I’ll confess that it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Life interventions

I missed the 25-year reunion because my late wife was sick with cancer. The milestones of life and death do not pay attention at times to our own plans and schedules. Missing that reunion served to instruct me how many years had actually passed.

It’s a strange feeling to so many people when the years come crashing down on you. As a high school product of the 1970s, it’s pretty easy to find song lyrics predicting the passage of time. Pink Floyd does both a service and a disservice to this topic of time passing with these lyrics:

“But you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking…

And racing around to come up behind you again…

The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older…

And shorter of breath, and one day…closer to death.”

It’s a humbling reality that none of us lives forever. We laugh and play through our 20s even into our 30s. We come to grips with financial and family realities in our 40s. By our 50s we either stay marriage or lose a spouse to divorce or death. The kids grow up and you feel exposed to the winds of life, and one more reunion can feel like the wind knows all your secrets.

New growth

But some of us ignore that wind and stick new seeds of self into the ground. We weed away concerns and learn what faith really means in the context of a full life. We forgive ourselves and others, if we’re lucky and smart. Women tend to choose close friends and confirm their sanity. Men learn to forsake their concerns over athletic prowess and begin to take pride in the facility of their negotiations over self and ego.

Humility is a grace in two forms. It takes grace to jump those hurdles of worry and distrust that trip us up in life. As the Bible says, the world is full of stumbling blocks to enlightenment.

Then there is the grace it takes to handle intentional and unintentional affronts to your character. Sometimes people can’t help themselves with their words. They say things that echo old habits of insecurity or arrogance. The words come out of their mouths as if they had not grown away from that long-ago character or situation lurking around in their sub conscience. Be it a class clown or a brilliant student, we all absorb character aspects that are not always easy to manage. Even as years pile up it only takes a word or two at times to bring bad associations to the surface.

Playing nice

That’s what makes it so difficult to know what to expect from a class reunion. Will people be nice or not? Will they accept the person you’ve become or impose some assumption of character upon you in awkward, even vicious ways?

Sometimes the opposite happens. While attending that reunion back in Pennsylvania I was taking a breather from encounters with long lost friends by nursing a drink in a far flung corner of the VFW hall where we gathered. Just then a quiet man walked up to me and said, “Chris Cudworth?”

“Yes,” I smiled. “It’s great to be back.”

We talked a bit and slowly we recalled details of our association together. I remembered sharing gym class and a few other experiences with the guy. He was not one of the so-called popular but we spent a lot of time together. “The thing I liked about you is that you treated everyone as equals,” he told me.

Values and insecurities

That’s a value that I’ve held from the earliest phases of my life. With insecurities of my own boiling around inside, it made sense in not to push others about their flaws. All people deserve respect. I have indeed forgotten that value at times and shamed myself and others in the process. That is my confession.

But a reunion is a great opportunity to make good on any of those transgressions in life. It’s amazing at times that people who have crossed us, or whom we have crossed on our own accord, can become friends when false pride and fear is relinquished. The right kind of pride enables us to look for these opportunities for reconciliation and forgiveness. It can also protect us when we try to make good and find people unaware or unwilling to find paths to healthy, mature relationships.

You can probably expect a little of both from most reunions. We all travel the same path in life, but every person has to actualize at their own pace in life.

The best thing you can do, and the best thing you can expect from any reunion is a forgiveness for any wrongs in the past and a joy at someone acknowledging the person you are in the present.

Christopher Cudworth is author of The Right Kind of Pride; Character, Caregiving and Community. 

The real meaning of prairie

ConeflowerIn 1973 our high school biology Robert Horlock put the word out to students that he would like to have help on a visionary project to re-establish a prairie at the Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve in St. Charles, Illinois. The project began with humble scratching in the dirt. Each of us was assigned a 15′ X 15′ plot from which we removed all grass and weeds. We worked in summer’s heat and then turned the soil enough to make way for a seed stock of prairie plants that our teacher had gleaned with permission from remnant prairies.

These were precious tools and a vision that was both far ahead of its time and far too late to recover the true scope and scale of the Illinois prairie. What remained of that once massive ecosystem was 1/10th of one percent of the original prairie. The wet and tallgrass prairie had once flowed west from the dunes of Chicago beyond the Mississippi all the way to eastern Colorado. Settlers described it as an ocean of grass, but it was more than that. It was flowers blooming from June through October. Tough flowers with deep roots and flame tolerance.

The prairie was indeed both a beautiful and unforgiving place. It was filled with snakes that bit and wolves that roamed. Reaching back 10-15,000 years in earth’s geological history, the prairie grew on soils crumbled and dumped by retreating glaciers. Onto this expanse roamed large animals and small ones too. The diversity was enormous, and prairie chickens were common as hens.

Rattlesnake masterBut it was all gone thanks to development and the fertile soils created by the prairies. These riches were sectioned and cordoned by barbed wire and agribusiness. The prairie was shoved into tiny corners next to railroad tracks.

Our teacher Bob Horlock ushered us to these treasured remnants. We stared in awe at lilies taller than our heads, and sensitive plants that recoiled when touched. We learned about prairie dock and compass plant, coneflowers and shooting stars. These we saw in pictures, for the most part.

But then we planted, and waited. Within a year the first nibs of real prairie plants came up. We had to weed to keep the ugly plants at bay. But our plots bore prairie plants that had not seen the light of day in that part of Illinois for 150 years. And we were proud.

We learned the different between big bluestem and little bluestem. We watched as those greenish blue stems turned to russet red in fall. From a distance the prairie in autumn is a rusty orange, The husks of dark prairie dock leaves are speckled like aging skin.

In spring, we burned the prairie to knock back weedy plants and allow the prairie its full strength in competition.

One year’s efforts was followed by another. The “prairie” we were growing expanded in size and depth. Treasured rare species of plants like cream and blue wild indigo were brought in. Many Butterfly weedof these were negotiated for introduction by Horlock and his cohorts at the Morton Arboretum and Fermi Lab. Ray Schulenberg and Gerould Wilhelm were instrumental in this new prairie movement. So was the peripatetic plant specialist Dick Young, whose book about wild plants in Kane County is considered a bible for many to this day.

Bob Horlock was a visionary who motivated many young people to enter the sciences. I tried that path myself before recognizing that my lack of aptitude in the study of genetics and chemistry would likely be a  problem. But our many birding jaunts with Bob Horlock fueled that interest and my pursuit of art in college combined to turn me into a wildlife artist.

To this day while walking through a prairie I cannot help thinking of Bob Horlock. He actually passed away from a heart attack doing what he loved. He was supervising the burn of the Garfield Farm Prairie when his heart gave out. Unfortunately Bob was a smoker for years. But despite the fact that the physical presence of Bob Horlock left this world in 1993, when he was just over 50 years old, his legacy exists in every prairie plant that graces today’s gardens throughout the Midwest. Men like Bob Horlock popularized the use of native plants in Illinois and beyond. Entire nurseries are now dedicated to perennials that grow in urban and suburban gardens. We see them in planting beds in the City of Chicago. We see them at the entryway to golf courses, and on the golf courses themselves. The prairie may be a whisper of what it once was, but it is still talking to us.

But I loved the man Bob Horlock because his voice was not always a whisper. At his funeral many great stories of his leadership were told, and I learned that he was an avid singer in his church choir. He had a deep base voice and he used it to good effect while teaching and instructing. You knew he was a man of both authority and good judgment. His students respected the fact that he fully expected them to learn what he shared with them.

Cardinal FlowerAnd yet he knew when the learning was through. During one afternoon field trip our class had worked in the sun and heat for three hours when one of the more raucous boys in our class pushed a female classmate into a cold running stream. She emerged with a see-through shirt and Bob turned on his heel and told me, “You tell everyone to come back to the bus. I have to leave right now. Go find that girl an extra shirt.” We did what he told us.

Yet Bob was no phony saint. During his funeral one former student stood up and said, “Well, Mrs. Horlock, I agree with all the great things these people have said about your husband Bob. But I have to say that every dirty joke I ever learned was from your husband.”

The entire crowd of people roared at that anecdote. Because it was true. In fact I always knew our birding trip was through for the day when Bob turned his head with a grin on his face and said, “Say, did you the hear the one about the…” and from there it was all laughter and relaxation.

There is a stone commemorating Bob’s life at the Horlock Hill Prairie in St. Charles. I speak to it every time I run or ride by, for it sits at the head of the Great Western Trail, a converted railroad bed that runs from St. Charles to Sycamore 17 miles west.

And I walk by my personal prairie plot and think of how deep those roots now fun into the ground. It has been 40 years since they were planted. So many spring and summer and fall days those plants have faced the sky. And winter’s too. The prairie will never be what it once was, but for me, it will always be what it became again. A place to sink down roots, and to remember: All great things start with an idea and a vision.

Yet the prairie is truly a community. It is not one plant or one thing. It is many plants and many things working together. That’s the most important lesson of all.

Perhaps you have some summer memories to share…

1725 Willow Street PikeAs a child there was no better place to grow up than the home our family owned in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. For a kid with my interests, the location and style of home was perfect. Our four-square house had a cupola and windows looking out the third story. One could sit in the book nook at the turn of the stairs going to the third floor and see out the back of the house, which faced the east.

Summer sunrises in Pennsylvania always seemed to arrive slow and steady. The sky would brighten in the east before the sun topped the trees. When it did, the dew on the grass lit up like a thousand little lights.

Green grass and games

There was tons of green grass to explore. Our yard itself was a couple acres in size. The side yard had formerly been a clay tennis court. That meant it was perfect for games of catch or even football. The center of that section of yard was always worn thin, even to the dirt, because our games of rundown wore out the grass.

This to the chagrin of my father, who treasured a rich lawn. At one point he planted a species of grass called zoysia in a corner of the tennis court lawn in hopes that it would spread to cover the entire area. His idea was that a tougher species of grass could withstand our many ball games. However it was slow to spread and ultimately covered only a corner of the yard.

Mowing the place took more than an hour. When old enough to mow, I’d fire up that machine and start pushing it up and down the many sections of the lawn. And inevitably, my mind would drift at the precise moment when I was supposed to remember to steer around the sewer pipe out front of the house. CHUNK the mower would go, and it would stop. Then I’d hear my father’s footsteps thumping down the stairs inside the house. He’d run out and deliver the same lecture about paying attention and taking care of the mower blade.

Dream trees

I could not help it. I was a dreamy kid and probably always will be. Many afternoons were spent climbing up into the maple trees of our yard. The air inside the tree canopy was cool. The branches were worn smooth from my climbs. And if one really wanted to get away from the world, there was always the tall hemlock tree to climb. Its branches were close together and it was not much effort for a seven-year-old child to climb up forty or so feet where the perch swayed and the breeze could reach you. That was where I’d go and dream.

We moved there when I was only five years old. Right away I met a friend named David that became a keen part of daily existence. We lived about a half mile apart, and to reach his home meant crossing the practice range or fairways of the Media Heights Golf Club. The private club was always immaculately groomed. That meant summer months could be spent in bare feet as long as you paid attention to the few clover patches on the practice range. That’s where honeybees lurked and would sting your feet if you stepped on them. Summer was full of freedom and reverie, but there were always some dangers for which you had to look out.

Rainy days

1725 Birds EyeOn rainy days I would grab a set of golf clubs to sneak out onto the course and play golf. Usually I took just the three wood, the seven iron and a putter. With these clubs I could conquer most circumstances. With a couple golf balls in my shorts pockets, I’d tee off behind my neighbor’s house and run from shot to shot. Often I played in bare feet because shoes would get soaked anyway. It did not occur to me to get tired or be scared of getting caught. If a course worker showed up somewhere in a golf cart I’d gather my stuff and hide in one of the sets of pine trees dotting the course. You could always hear the golf carts in the distance so it was impossible to get caught. Like all summer joys, there was always a touch of illicit danger in these rounds of golf. But I treasured them.

The streets that formed the subdivision next to the golf course were paved with dark asphalt mixed with tar. These sections would bubble in the summer heat, and it was great fun popping tar bubbles with your finger. There was also Fool’s Gold (Pyrite) stuck in the gravel margins. This we would collect like pirates into cheese boxes made of wood. There was no more satisfying treasure in the world.

Baseball and days at the swimming pool

We’d also play baseball on the far reaches of the golf practice range. Our field was measured and cut into the dirt at the far corner. My brothers and up to 20 other friends would gather for games of “Glo’ball” which was played with a certain style of plastic ball popular on the market at the time. The phosphorescent liquid inside the ball would wear thin soon enough and the balls were between the size of a softball and a hardball. This created a perfect ball for pickup games. You could pitch curves with the ball with minimal effort. And if you tagged it just right with the 29″ bat we used for games (replete with electrical tape and nails in the bat to hold it together) that ball would go on a soaring flight.

That’s how we spent summer days. Playing sports and ramming around between our home and the Media Heights swimming pool where my parents joined as Social Members. We’d swim all day and get brown from the sun. I remember looking at my coconut white butt cheeks against the tan on my legs and back and thinking, “This is perfect.”

Hiding away in the woods

When not immersed in sports or swimming at the pool, there were always woods to explore. My wonder at birds began at the age of six when my aunt gave me a Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. I traced the images of the hawks, and rejoiced at finding species of birds that I’d seen in that book. The Pennsylvania woods was filled with birds; catbird, brown thrasher, towhee, robin, chickadee and many more. These were my companions at times.

And when alone I would sometimes strip naked and walk the wooded trails free of clothing. To this day I appreciate that sensation of being naked in the wild. On many vacations as an adult I’d run far from civilization and other people just to spend some time by a lakeshore without inhibitions ruling my mind. There was never any desire to show myself to others. Quite the opposite. These were private communing moments with the feel of nature all around me. In far away northern lakes there was often the chance to skinny dip in cold, clear water. One time while sitting on a sandy bottom of a lake hidden deep in the Wisconsin woods, a bald eagle swooped down to steal a fish from the surface. Another time a mother otter led her four young down to the beach where I was swimming. They spun and rolled in the water and I imitated them on my own. I wanted have fur and buoyancy like them. Because I am an animal too, at heart.  All these instincts I credit to those early summers in the Pennsylvania woods.

Rivers and streams

1725 Willow Street PikeSeveral muddy rivers passed through our area in Lancaster. These were good for fishing if you did not mind yanking fish out of water that was typically the color of coffee. There were bass also suckers, carp and catfish in both Mill Creek and the Conestoga River.

My mother and I often sat for picnics on the edge of one of the dams low in the bottomland of Mill Creek. We’d eat peanut butter and jelly while listening to the even flow of water over the stone dam. Further upstream there was a former flour mill after which the creek was named. It’s ten-foot dam would slow to a trickle over the summer, and my brother and I would hang our lines down to the cool pool below and catch up to fifty sunfish in a day.

One of the little streams that fed Mill Creek had salamanders, crayfish and water striders to catch. These were our entertainment between swim sessions. We’d catch them in our Coke cups and let them back go when it was time to swim again. Uphill from the creek we’d run around with our large beach towels after butterflies. We’d pounce on the insects and roll back the towel until we could lift them out of the grass. There were swallowtails both yellow and white, black and spicebush. Fritillaries and cabbage and sulphur butterflies too. Red admirals. Painted ladies. Monarchs and viceroys. We knew how to identify them all.

The lure of summer dusk

Come evening there were fireflies to catch as well. We admittedly hit them with tennis rackets to see the burst of light it created. Many more we caught in jars and then released. They made the summer nights seem safe and familiar. We’d play games of Capture the Flag in darkness. Hiding behind the bushes as a member of the other team came by made you shiver with anxiety. But if you ever captured the flag, as I did one time with the older kids playing, there were slaps on the back and the knowing glance that said you’d be a big kid some day too.

And when night truly fell, my father would switch on the fan in our bedroom and the soft whirr of the blades would lull my brother and I to sleep. We lived well in that Pennsylvania home. No, life was not always perfect and calm. But it was real and fulfilling. That’s all one can ask of one’s summer memories.

By Christopher Cudworth

Want to share a summer story of your own? Write it in the comments below. If we receive enough, we’ll publish a montage.

Literary contest winner Stewart K. Cudworth, May 30, 1943

My father Stewart Cudworth was always a great writer. Typically this ability was funneled more into his job as a sales engineer in a career working for electronic and fiber optic companies. Yet early in his life he wrote fiction and sometimes teased my mother, an avid writer of poetry, that he was the better writer. 

What follows is an essay written during wartime in 1943.  This piece won the Literary Contest in the Bainbridge News and Bainbridge Republican newspaper in Upstate New York where he and my mother lived on farms a mere 200 yards apart. At the top of the newspaper clipping in my mother’s writing there is an inscription written in fountain pen. “By Stewart Cudworth. He won it. Fooey.”

My father was 19 at the time he wrote this. He did not serve in the air force as this story might have suggested, but instead enlisted in the United States Navy and served in the Pacific theater. 

The story begins: 

Fighter pilot“Johnny Gordon saluted in reply to the C.O. and turned and walked to his Spitfire. He climbed in, all the time turning his orders over in his mind. He gunned the motor and took off just as the sun rose above the distant hills. It was his first operational flight and he thought about all his fighter instruction which had been drilled into his head, the best flying altitude, the tricks of Jerry and all the other little things that enter into a fighter pilot’s life. This flight Johnny was making was a “rhubarb,” so called because it consisted of flying low over the coastal territory of Europe, so low that the propellor sometimes chopped leaves off that sour plant, the main home crop of little northern France towns.

As he gained altitude to set his course, Johnny noticed the darkness emptying out of the hollows. There was a little knot in the pit of his stomach, but as soon as he saw the shimmering Channel, he forgot his worries to enjoy the short trip over the water.

Johnny picked a large wave and lowered the Spit into the trough and sped for France. He came over land and started looking for any Nazi activity to strafe. Apparently taking the Germans by surprise, he attacked a train, a supply depot and gun emplacements without opposition. Then he headed for the Channel and home, skimming the treetops.

As he cleared a small knoll he saw a group of German infantryman raise their rifles and fire at him. Johnny gave them the rest of his ammunition, which he had been saving for any Jerries he might encounter. Over his should he saw three of the soldiers fall; the rest scattered over the fields wth terror written on their faces.

SpitfireAbout 10 miles from the coast without warning his motor suddenly quit cold. Johnny zoomed as high as his momentum would allow and picked his spot to land. Before the plane hit, he looked at the gauge and saw there was plenty of gasoline. Must be the Germans had hit is ignition. The Spit hit the rough ground and came abruptly to a stop. Although Johnny’s safety belt saved him from injury other than bruises, the plane was a complete washout. Fearing the arrival of a German patrol, Johnny headed for the weeds. Ass soon as he was out of sight he plopped down to rest and regain his strength, stretched out in the bushes for a short nap, hidden from hostile eyes.

When he awoke, the sun had climbed high in the sky and it shone directly from above. Johnny felt a slight gnawing in his stomach, so he arose and carefully made his way through the woods, keeping his eyes open in order toduck at the first sign of danger. If he were captured, there was no telling what might happen to him. Suddenly, as he passed a large tree, a voice said, “Arretez!” Johnny stopped as the voice commanded and slowly turned around. From behind the tree stepped a man with a mustache and dressed in the style of a French peasant. He said one word, “Yank?” and then motioned to Johnny to follow him. Johnny nodded and fell in behind. He marveled at the way the man picked his way through to a little thatched cottage with woods on one side and fields on the other. Across the fields he saw the smoke rising from the chimneys of a town. The peacefulness of the scene belied the cruel servitude these homeloving people were under.

After scanning the area, Johnny and the peasant sneaked to the house. Inside, the man turned and said quickly with an accent, “In there,” pointing to the small attic. Johnny climbed up and laid down on the straw that was there. “Wonder how long I gotta stay here,” he thought. It seemed like hours before the peasant reappeared. He brought some black bread and some porridge. “here,” he said, “eet is the best I have.” Johnny muttered “Merci” remembering that fragment of his high school French. The food tasted good to this empty stomach, although ti was far different from the scientifically prepared diet of the A.A.C. The rest of the day dragged by and Johnny napped fitfully, being awakened frequently by the sound of distant airplane motors. He crawled to the knotholes to look out, but he couldn’t see any of the planes.

Dusk fell and Johnny again crept to the knothole, and looked out into the night. There was a bright moon shining through broken clouds.

Good night to hit Berlin with some blockbusters,” he thought. Then his mind turned for the firs time to home, his family, his girl and the gang back home in the drug store. He said a little prayer that he might see them all again.

About two hours after sunset, Johnny’s benefactor put his head through the door. “C’mon, M’sieu Yank,” he said in a low voice. “It is time to go.” Puzzled, Johnny slid down to the room below. There the peasant swiftly coated Johnny’s face with lampblack. Then they set out into the woods with only brief patches of moonlight for a guide. It was eternity before they stopped, thought Johnny. The man said nothing but pointed to the North. They were on a slight rise and in the distance was the sparkling Channel. They pressed on to a small cover in which there was a small fishing boat with another man in it. The peasant led Johnny to the beach and whistled softly to the man in the boat. “Au revoir, M’sieu Yank,” and vanished into the night.

The man in the boat beckoned to Johnny to get in and then cast off. There was a brisk southern breeze and they soo passed into the open seas. For the first time the boatman spoke. He surprised Johnny with his fluence in English. “You are flier, ”est-ce pas,” he asked. Johnny replied. “Yes, I was forced down this morning and was hidden by the peasant who brought me here. He said very little, but I trusted him completely.”

“Yes, Georges Dandot he is one of our best men,” said the Frenchman. “He speaks little English, but he does good work anyway. I am Pierre Robert. I used to be a university professor before the fall of France. We are both members of the Underground which fights the Nazis under the cover of dark. You are the 13th flier we have returned to fight another day.”

“But aren’t you caught returning by the Germans?” asked Johnny. “Wouldn’t they kill you?”

“Yes, I am sometimes caught, but I shrug my shoulders and say that the wind blew me off my course. The Boches don’t dare kill me, because for every dead Frenchman they find a strangled Stormtrooper by the road. Some day, when the Allies invade Europe, all of France will rise and fight the enemy. Then France will regain her glory.”

As the white cliffs of England rose in the moonlight, a flight of four-motored bombers passed over on their way to Germany. Pierre, who had been calm in his conversation with Johnny, rose and addressing them said in a tremulous voice, “Hit the enemy in its vitals ––for la belle France.” His voice died to a whisper and he said no more until the boat scraped on the beach. Then he said simply, “We shall meet again I hope.” With that he headed to France.

Johnny watched the small bot until it vanished from sight. Then he turned and walked up the beach to the barricade where he would find some Home Guards. When he returned to his station, he would have something to tell people––that la belle France still fights.

The story predicts the future: 

At the time this piece was written, France was obviously under the rule of Germany. That next year on D-Day, June 6 of 1944, the American move into Europe that defeated Hitler and his troops began. In some small way, even fiction written during wartime contributes to the hope of defeating a dangerous enemy. And that’s the right kind of pride. 

Father’s Day

EvanandChrisThe morning that my son Evan was born was both a great joy and a tremendous relief. My wife had gone through fifteen hours of labor contractions every three minutes. He came into this world around 7:00 a.m. on October 30, 1986.

The thrill of having your first child is complemented by the arrival of the second. Our daughter Emily arrived around 9:00 p.m. on a warm April 26, 1990. That delivery rushed along so fast that we needed to call friends and family to watch our son when we rushed off to the hospital on the heels of a spicy Mexican meal a few hours earlier.

The pain and humor of fatherhood is never-ending. Your children grow up so fast that it is the small moments you accumulate in your mind that constitute being a father or mother.

I remember one late afternoon when the sun was falling through the front window of our tiny Geneva home. My daughter was crawling around on the bare floor chewing on a flexible teething ring. The sun was bouncing off the floor and struck her blue eyes. I raced for my film camera and snapped off a few photos before the sun went down. Later when I showed those photos to a friend she quietly murmured. “Her eyes look like cracked glass.”

I also recall the first word of my son. He was sitting on the back porch with my wife who often held him in her lap and pointed to flowers and other natural items around the yard. A small sparrow landed beneath their feet and my wife said to Evan, “Bird.” And he repeated the word, “Bird.” He was six months old.

In fact word games became a big part of all our lives. On our way home from grandma’s house one December, we drove through Geneva where the Christmas lights were blazing and Evan had a question for us both. “What’s the word, ‘wreath?”

He was always asking questions about language. We laughed years later when he admitted that he never knew what we were talking about when referring to Forced Preserves. That would be ‘forest preserves.” As Emily Latella might say, “Never mind.”

Emily with ChuckWith Emily it was always the purpose of language and song that mattered. We have a wonderful video of her in a pink ballerina dress practicing a Disney song. If the words did not come out just right she would stop and huff in frustration. Then she’d begin again. But you dared not interrupt her either. This was her challenge to complete and she did not want help recalling or repeating the words. That was her job, and hers alone.

Character

It is true that the character of your children emerges early and lives in their core their whole lives. Through creative means we learn how they think and believe and play. But it is through their character that we really know them.

Sometimes as a father of adult children I want desperately to know what they are really thinking. It is of course easy to dwell on our personal failings as a parent. When a child calls and the phone call ends, you wonder to yourself, “Did I give them what they need? Was I enthusiastic to their purpose? Am I being a good father to them?”

Those questions surface more frequently in absence of the mother that raised them. I know they miss their mother because she was superb at saying the right things when they called. I listened to hundreds of conversations over the years. Her attention to their needs was superb.

But these questions exist whether someone is alive or gone to another place. All it takes is a missed phone call in this life to get behind in our relationships. While modern technology is great, and we see each other on Facebook and catch up by phone when we can, there is a strange back-pressure that comes from so much attenuation to communication. If you’re not careful, the pressures of communication can become an undertow. That’s true for all of us, and with everyone.

Community

It’s important as a father to remember that your family needs their own space as well. So much of my own children’s upbringing was done by other adults and friends in life that I cannot claim all the facets of their character as my own. Those summers that my son spent over at a friend’s house building forts and beating each other up with floats in a tiny pool were critical in the formation of his personality. A father simply cannot provide all that input. That friendship. That love. It has to come from other sources too. The same goes for my daughter and those concert trips with her friends. It’s not the same if your father’s standing around at a concert. That has to be experienced on your own, and with your own community.

MuesPicnicI do know that many parents struggle to know their full roles. When I encouraged my daughter as a teenager to invite the bands she’d met at concerts to crash at our house overnight during a tour, it was not always with permission of my wife.

Yet I knew the importance and resonance of that connection because where else in the world would you encounter such amazing people in a close circumstance?

The morning she woke up to find a fantastic group of musicians sitting around her bedroom singing and playing guitar could never be replicated again. Later she leveraged her musical connections to recruit the group Goldhouse to play at her graduation party. The band was about to embark on a concert series called Warped Tour. Their set was polished and when the first notes of the first song rocked through our oversized basement with 60+ people crammed into that space, people shrieked in amazement. My son turned to me in wonder and joy, shouting, “Ohhhh Myyyy Godddddd!” It was fantastic. And it was ours to share with our friends and the world.

Caregiving

It is our job as parents and especially fathers to support our families any way we can. Yet it was the morning after a long drive down to Illinois State University that made me realize the ultimate role of a father. We had left late the night before because my son was involved in a school play. Leaving at 10 p.m., we made it to the Interstate just as a deep fog settled over central Illinois. As the fog thickened, my son nodded off in the seat beside me. I focused on the tail light ahead of me for a couple hours until we pulled into the hotel parking lot. I turned to him and asked, “Were you at all nervous about the fog?”

“I decided to go to sleep,” he said matter-of-factly. “I figured if I woke up dead it didn’t matter.”

We chuckled about that and piled into the hotel to catch a few hours of sleep. He was excited to rise early and join his friends for the student state government convention he’d been invited to attend. We exchanged quick greetings and a partial hug. Then he walked confidently down the hall without turning back. I watched him go and realized that I’d helped raise a reasonably confident son. That made me proud. Yet is also made me feel alone. That’s fatherhood in a nutshell.

Transitions

It hasn’t been easy for our family in a number of ways over the years. Yet my children have told me that they appreciated the stability and love found in our home. As parents perhaps we were sometimes a little too lenient in making them do chores. Yet our children were involved in positive things that occupied their time. There was plenty of time in life to learn chores it seemed. Many times they’d come home to tell of us some onerous task they’d just done for someone else’s parents. We’d laugh and confess, “Well, at least they’re learning responsibility somewhere.”

1397396_10152283918898332_876191508_oIn the wake of my wife’s death I elected to begin dating and have been in a relationship now for two years with a woman named Sue that appreciates the legacy of my wife and respects my children. I try to do the same for her. Now her daughter is an intern with the magazine where my daughter is managing editor. We are an evolving family. Our lives have converged and convened in positive ways. We spend time together with my mother-in-law and other relatives. My wife’s best friend confided to me last year that my wife said she knew that I would date after she was gone. I thanked that friend for sharing that insight. This is not about forgetting my late wife. It is about companionship and love and supporting each other and our families.

Love abounds

It troubles me sometimes that so many people fail to grasp the value of loving relationships wherever they occur. This obsessive absorption with the idea of a “traditional family” is so lame and disaffecting it should be trampled underfoot by the crowd of people truly seeking love in this world. Aren’t we all sick and tired of the loss of love in this world? Can’t we dispense with the angry ideology that emanates from this selective reading of the Bible and its ugly byproducts.

After all, it was the literalistic approach to scripture that was used to justify slavery for years, and racial discrimination for the century after that. Long ago it generated crusades over faith and then helped lead to the death of millions of Jews through anti-Semitism. The rigid practice of patriarchal faith still foments a disturbingly immature view of women as property. Biblical literalism fuels an ignorant brand of politics that denies science and the educational process that goes with it. In the face of so much ignorant history why do we still even listen to people whining about “traditional marriage” based on a religious view that is clearly anachronistic and damaging to society?

Parenting skills and simple tools

Into this social void we wade… while wondering what the next generation will bring. Some people seem to worry that this generation of children is irresponsible and somehow lacking in important social skills. As a father that has met dozens of my children’s Millennial friends, I do not share that worry. I know their character because they helped raise my own children. I see great hope in a generation that cares not what race a person is. I see love in the fact that they don’t care if someone is gay or not. I (somewhat radically it appears) think this generation of so-called Millennials has an etiquette and a respect for self and others that older generations are simply failing to grasp.

PaversFor example, I know now to occasionally text my son or daughter if I’m going to call them. Why? Because it’s not always appropriate to answer you cell phone, but you can handle a quiet text to call later. If they’re occupied I don’t get voice mail. And quite often they’re occupied with other tasks and cannot take a call. There’s no imposition there.

That might seem like an affront to some. But as a father I look at it from a completely different perspective. I respect my children as well as love them. It simply makes sense to try to understand their social constructs and not impose mine on them. As a society we seem to have migrated toward this world where holding people at a disadvantage is considered something of a power chip and a point of pride. But it’s the wrong kind of pride. Barking about how millennials are poorly trained and communicate differently is not a sign of maturity. It is a sign of emotional immaturity and selfishness.

Social pressures

The right kind of pride is taking the time to examine why people react the way they do to the demands of social pressure, communications and opportunity. I think Millennials have evolved a patent way to accord each other respect. It’s the blunderbuss of a generation that complains about entitlement and then acts like they’re entitled to have everyone do things their way or the Old-Fashioned Way that is hopelessly out of touch. But that’s no surprise in a society where Winner-Take-All is now the social style of both politicians and the religious. It’s no wonder Millennials are running from politics and the church. Would you stick around to listen if people were sending their message in ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME?

Father’s Day lessons

It seems the real lesson we need to learn on something so familiar as Father’s Day is this: parenting is not a one-way street. It’s a partnership and a revelation as well as a responsibility.

The ultimate vision of a Father is that of God. And if we’re wise we also recognize that God doesn’t just want obedience and contrition from the human race. There’s a relationship there as well. God the Father, if that’s how you prefer to visualize the ultimate form of love, is basically wondering how we’re doing. He wants to know. Sometimes it’s the smallest moments and the smallest things that matter. If you cease paying attention and miss those, then life is not so abundant as you might like.

And that’s the real message of Father’s Day.

The Right Kind of Pride is a book by Christopher Cudworth about the importance of character, caregiving and community in this world. It is available on Amazon.com.
The Right Kind of Pride is a book by Christopher Cudworth about the importance of character, caregiving and community in this world. It is available on Amazon.com.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, Character, Caregiving and Community, which chronicles the journey of his family through cancer survivorship. It is available on Amazon.com. 

Grasping the glory of the Beach Boys

I was there in the 1990s when lead Beach Boy Brian Wilson made his return to live performance at the Norris Performing Arts Centre in St. Charles, Illinois. Wilson chose the venue because he had purchased a home and built a studio in St. Charles. His producer lived in the area and Brian had begun making great music again.

People did not know what to expect when Wilson came on stage. He had not sung in public for years. The Beach Boys were not joining him on stage. At least not all of them.

Brian fared well in a nervous debut. His voice was thinning and his speech somewhat slurred, but the performance came off wonderfully. It was rather like watching a dream come to life.

The experience made me think back to a concert that friends and I attended in the 1970s. We tripped on down to Chicago Stadium to see the group Chicago perform with the Beach Boys in attendance. The two groups had recorded a song titled “Wishing You Were Here” that climbed the charts and for good reason. It was one of the most lush and wonderful pop music ballad productions ever recorded.

The Beach Boys were, after all, one of the finest harmonically tuned instruments of all time. Perhaps it was the brotherly connection of those voices. But they also worked hard at what they did.

Heading into the concert I tried to explain to my friends that what we would likely hear were the hits they Beach Boys had recorded. “But they won’t play their best music,” I insisted. As expected, the concert was dominated by songs about girls and cars and surfing. Missing were the amazing pieces from Smiley Smile and Wild Honey albums, to name just a few.

But my brothers and I had long listened to Beach Boys albums that were full of more nuanced and complex music. The Beach Boys had, through combination of shifts in 70s musical tastes and their own internal changes wrought by Brian’s struggles with emotional stability, gone through the music industry wringer.

Yet those who knew the musical quality of the band, and that included mega-groups such as Chicago and the Beatles, all knew the Beach Boys were master talents beyond their surf music.

My friends laughed at me standing up for their supposedly “lesser” music. “Why can’t you just enjoy their hits and leave it alone?” they teased.

And I thought to myself, because that’s not their best stuff!

Now there’s a movie coming out about the life of Brian Wilson. It’s titled Love and Mercy. It stars John Cusack, and in recent radio interviews Cusack has advanced the belief that Wilson is one of the most talented musical composers of our time. Combined with his ethereal voice, his music cuts into line along with songwriters such Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder.

For those of us that have stuck by the Beach Boys and especially Brian Wilson through thick and thin (and there have been some thin moments in their history) it is perhaps gratifying to see recognition coming from new angles.

It is hard to describe the feelings one gets from the singing of God Only Knows. The song is so perfectly crafted and the voices are transcendent. Just enjoy.

There’s no place like home

When Dorothy clicks the heels of her ruby slippers in the movie Wizard of Oz, she closes her eyes to chant, “There’s no place like home…”

The moment is poignant because Dorothy has lived the bad dream of being displaced from the place that gives her a feeling of security and being loved. What she discovers in the Land of Oz is a world in which love for all its flaws and strange forms really does exist.

When she “returns home” and awakens to find her family watching over her, she struggles to express the deep affection she feels for them, and her home.

Many of us go through life with similar feelings. We feel pride and affection for the place (or places) we most feel at home.

Yet many of us find that the events of life separate us from these places. We feel forced to move on with our existence and not look back. Yet the longing we feel for a place to truly call home resides within our hearts and souls.

Of course it’s not productive to live in the past. There is so much to occupy us in the present the idea of ignoring it turns into a core dysfunction.

It helps instead to think about what it is that makes a place in time or space feel like home. One might look back with great affection on a childhood home, for example. Those trees you climbed and the green grass. The innocence of riding your bike around a neighborhood on a summer day. Even playing video games in the bedroom of a favorite house calls up deep emotions.

Sometimes the mere smell of a type of food calls us back into a time and place. Or, we walk out onto a mowed lawn and realize the sensation of hearing our parents call us back in for supper on a summer’s eve.

All these associations are powerful emotional trigger points. They are healthy, proud reminders that we come from somewhere, and that our memories do matter. They have helped form who we are. They may even help form the lives of our own children. We try to share the values most important to us. We hope those values will sustain the ones we love most during times of trial.

We often speak of the importance of stable upbringings and the merit of traditional families. While the human mind recognizes these values at the core, they are not the only model for what we call home or happiness. For many of us, it is the intense experiences in friendship that make us feel most at home. There is great value in that kind of pride and a sense of being home as well.

That is why so many people return to their college or high school reunions. These shared experiences form our notion of home as well as family. In many religious traditions the notion of home or the Kingdom of God is defined by a community of fellow believers.

Still others feel this community and the place of home in truly wild places. The great naturalist John Muir roamed the mountains and even clung to the tops of swaying trees in tremendous storms. He was seeking that connection to the earth and the world that most made him feel at home.

We may indeed find a sense of home in these peak experiences. People fall in love because their senses are piqued by the presence of others. One can define this sense of home in a number of ways, but it speaks to the notion of family.

We feel most alone when separated from these connections. Those of us who feel the touch of isolation due to anxiety or depression or any other very human conditions face a constant struggle between the desire to return home and the desire to never go home again. Home can thus be a source of pain and joy at the same time.

It is a reminder that the statement that “there’s no place like home” is not entirely true. That’s the ironic message in the Wizard of Oz that too many people miss. Our dreams and the longings they create are just as important as the reality of everyday life. And here’s another truth that escapes most people: It’s never exactly the same when you actually do go home. Your perceptions of the place, it’s size and everything about it have changed. This can be as jarring as a bad dream or as exciting as a good one.

Yet the concept of home is important in another way. It calls us to assess what makes us feel secure, and if we’re really lucky or smart, happy in our time and place.

The movie Midnight In Paris speaks about this alternate view of home as a time and place. One character views a point in history as perfect while another determines that it is the perception of that time and place that is most important. In the end the character played by Owen Wilson arrives at the conclusion that the illusion he was living was not the search for home at all, but the feeling of fulfillment that comes with living one’s life in earnest. And in that respect, there really is no place like home. You are home.

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