That’s why they call it fishing, not catching

In the spring of 1970 my brother and I were excited about the pending trout season. The streams in southeastern Pennsylvania ran clear and cold out of the hills. There were fish to catch.

It wasn’t “just” fishing season to us. My brother had purchased fly fishing rods and we practiced casting on our side yard. The mystery of the process felt much like throwing a baseball well. There was technique and there was flow to the art of casting a fly rod.

Learning technique

We soon learned that the long, looping casts were not so valuable as the short, accurate casts necessary to land the fly in a small stream at close quarters. It does not help to have 50 feet of line if your target is 20 feet away and shrouded by overhanging bushes. In many cases that is where the trout were. Dark, boiling holes at the edge of strong rivulets were their favorite haunts.

We worked our way up sections of streams overflowing with spring rains. It was dangerous work in hip waders. You did not want to let the water top your boots and fill them up. You could dragged under and away.

At 12 years old I had plenty of moxie about such things, but there was a moment when the cold water came tumbling down my boot leg. A short shot of panic ran through me and I moved too fast, sending even more water into the boot. Clamoring ashore, I sat on a rock and let my heart slow down. Just then a fish rose to the surface and took an insect in its mouth with a sharp pop. It’s funny how often things like that happen when you’re fishing.

Other waters

Years later I would fish the Lake Michigan shore with the same brother. We were casting lures to catch King Salmon, coho and other stocked lake denizens. For seven hours we worked that shore by Waukegan Harbor. For seven hours we watched other fisherman bring in their catch, but we caught nothing.

The sun sank low in the September sky. A quick rain storm passed through. The lake surface darkened and you could see down into the water for twenty or thirty feet. I cast a lure and the line went stiff. A large King Salmon had taken the lure and took off toward deeper water. “Work the drag!” my brother yelled. I never understood drag on a fishing reel. The physics of it escape me. So I kept the line taught and forgiving at the same time.

Then the fish turned toward me and my brother yelled. “Keep him off the rocks!” For a second I saw the huge side of the fish flash past. Then the line went straight and the fish passed near the shore where the rock edges were sharp and I felt the telling slack that told me the fish had broken free.

Landlocked

It’s a strange phenomenon fishing for trout in Lake Michigan. Those fish really have nowhere to breed. There are no traditional rivers they can follow to lay their eggs for future generations. They simply get tossed in the lake, grow to a certain size, come tearing up to shore in fall and then a bunch of them wear out and die.

So you’re really fishing for ghosts, of a sort. If you’re lucky you’ll catch one and perhaps even eat it. Trouble is, many of these big fish accumulate levels of mercury and other heavy metals from the pollution falling on the lake. As predators even further up the food change, we risk taking all that in if we eat too much of the creatures just below us on the food chain.

Purity

fall_brown_troutBut if you’ve ever eaten a fresh trout caught from a clean lake or stream, you know the allure. That’s why my brother and I retain a certain sense of wonder about the process. It’s not just about the eating. There’s the thrill of actually catching such a beautiful fish. As I’ve aged the allure of that has diminished somewhat. As a lifelong birder and naturalist my leanings go toward catch and release, or not catching all. Leave the fish alone.

Out in Glacier National Park one year I had brought along my fishing gear and decided one afternoon to try my luck in the rushing stream that exits from St. Mary’s lake. With one cast at the base of a bridge I latched into an elegant gray trout of some sort that I did not even recognize. It looked like a grayling but I let it go so fast to put it back in the water I’m not sure to this day what it really was.

Then I stood next to shore and was showing my son how to use the lure in the water when another big salmon struck the lure and I lifted that fish right out of the water. I’d caught it right underfoot. But this was not a pretty scene. The crankbait I’d tied to the line was too big and tough for the mouth of that fish. It caused damage. I let the fish back into the water but packed up the fishing gear and told my family, “This isn’t right. We don’t have the right kind of tackle to fish here. ”

Sure, we could have caught more fish. But it would not have been proper. That did not stop my wife from teasing me the rest of the weak about a brand of beer called Trout Slayer sold in Montana. The rip was justified.

All fishing is local and global

I don’t fish much anymore, although a few years ago a friend of mine and I worked a former farm pond for bass and I caught two fish more than 20″ long. We released everything we caught, and we caught many. But within a year or two the pond was essentially fished out by locals who took buckets of fish home with them daily. There was also the problem of new homeowners slathering their lawns with weed chemicals. That runoff could not have been good for the water in that lake. Algae now coats the entire surface in summer.

Clear intentions

Which all makes me yearn for fishing of a different sort. The morning I spent fishing for stocked brown trout in Octoraro Creek in Pennsylvania, for example. The water was cold and clear. We used our fly rods and even tried our luck with our own hand-tied flies. These were created from the feathers we collected at an amazing aviary near our house. There were peacocks and peafowl and the feathers of those many birds would float out of the pens to be collected by us. We’d break them up and make them into fishing flies.

But none of that was working, and for some reason my brother handed me a can of fat earthworms and said, “Here, try these.”

I stood alone in that rushing water and put a chunk of worm on a small hook and gently looped the fly line out into the middle of the stream. Instantly I felt a tug. Several fish later I had caught the limit. I walked upstream to meet my brother and showed him the creel full of fish. I was done for the day yet satisfied.

Fishing for your self

There are lifelong principles at work in all of this. The entire experience of fishing is dependent on how well you respect your prey and your situation. Life is most sustainable when you understand your limits and your measures. It does no good to take more than you need or to fish without restraint. It always pained me to witness large stringers of fish rotting in the sun at some lake resort? Why drag those fish out of the water only to let them turn into fodder for flies?

It is incumbent on us to be our own governors, to seal our appetites with the satisfaction of doing the job well enough to know when it is done. Otherwise the balance of creation is thrown off, sometimes for good. And we mean that in the strangest way. Even when it appears that human dominion over the earth is executed for the good of humankind, it is easy to deceive ourselves and go over the line, as it were, to wanton consumption.

When the Bible cites the example of Jesus calling fisherman ashore to consider making his ministry their cause, he casts a net instead of a line. “Come with me,” he invites them, “And I will make you fishers of men.” It is no coincidence that same call is all about avoiding wanton consumption and giving in to desires. That is the ultimate and true nature of fishing.

Case studies

Americans wiped out an entire species of bird, the Passenger Pigeon, that once numbered in the billions. Some of those hunters took pride in wiping out 10 birds in one blast of the shotgun. Finally there were not even 10 birds left to shoot.

It’s true even in politics and business. It is possible for one party or industry to want to win so much that they wind up losing all perspective on what their winning is really all about. Nature and human culture has a tendency of pushing back at that point. It’s the balance of evolution and of social dynamics that a creature of any sort that does not understand sustainability is likely to fail in the end.

The real victory is in having the perspective and humility, the grace and gratitude, to know how to conduct yourself in concert with all of creation. That strategy never leaves you fishing for answers, because you have them all along.

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On working under pressure

The little brick bungalow in which our family lived for 10 years when the kids were little had only 750 square feet of living space. The house was cute, in other words, but not spacious. It also had one bathroom. That meant that when repairs were needed it took some planning to make it happen without putting everyone in jeopardy.

The tub was old and we hired some contractor to coat it with some form of material popular at the time. The wall tile needed to be replaced as well. The vanity was rickety. The toilet was too. Even the floor tile was due for a change.

I scheduled the entire makeover for a single weekend. It was an ambitious plan for sure. My wife and kids went to grandma’s house from Friday through Sunday night. It was just me and the bathroom for the weekend.

Planning

The work went well. It was all planned out in my head. The wall tile was tough to do because the plaster came loose from the backing. That meant a major patchup with wallboard compound was necessary. I never knew whether that was advisable, but it worked. That’s what counts around the house. It worked.

The sink and vanity and toilet came out and the floor tile was torn up. Underneath were rotted floorboards. A quick trip to the lumber store fixed those, and a lot of nails.

Panic

Now that the entire bathroom was stripped down it was late at night. Midnight to be exact. I’d worked solid for 14 hours and was pretty tired. And then it hit me. I really had to go to the bathroom. Number two. There was no toilet now. Just a dark hole in a flat floor.

That was a humbling situation, but I made it happen. It struck me that for thousands of years in human history this is how people got it done. One way or another, it all came down to one thing. Squat and go. No need to flush. No modern plumbing. Just a lone sole over a dark hole.

Preparation

The next morning it was time to put in the wall tile and the floor tile. That took a few hours. The grout was done on the wall while the floor set. Then I put the seal down for the new toilet and put the new bowl into place. Like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway I stood back and admired the modern contraption that plumbing really represents. All that to take care of our excrement. The world really is a humbling, confusing place at times.

All this work had to be done with care to avoid bumping into the new sealant on the tub, which was sprayed into place and therefore delicate for the first 48 hours.

It all got finished at exactly the moment my children came running back into the house yelling, “Daddy can we see the new bathroom!” Of course they also used it right way. That first flush of the toilet made me proud. Same with the working faucet on the sink. My wife walked in and said, “Is it safe?”

Pushing it

I secretly laughed but assured her that everything had worked out well. I shared the “poop in the dark hole” story and she just shook her head. No need for details, she told me. We all did our business while I kept reminding them to walk gingerly on the new floor. The grout was barely dry. But it held.

That’s not really a good way to do a bathroom makeover. It’s a simple truth that necessity demands a combination of determination and humility at times. The rewards of success outweigh the tough moments of personal doubt. In the end, that’s the right kind of pride.

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

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Organizing things by heart

It is said that when you know something “by heart” it means you have it memorized. You also know it so well that you can play or recite it with minimal effort, but perhaps more emotion.

The flip side of knowing something by heart is being unable to recall anything about a song, a poem or a business speech for that matter.

In between there lies a zone where most of us operate day to day. We are organized enough to function and know enough things “by heart” to get along and get our work done. We know the path to our jobs or other obligations.

Stuff

Keeping up appearances and being organized can become a job in itself. When life interrupts with multiple demands, our organizational systems can fall apart. Or, we accumulate stuff by habit. We promise to go through and sort it all out someday. Often that someday never comes or the need arises much sooner than we’d like.

My late wife pulled me close to her a few weeks before she died and said to me, “Chris, I’m sorry about all the junk.” We’d been so preoccupied with all the health care issues and making finances work that talking about our broader needs was just not possible. “I wanted to clear it out,” she told me. It was true. We’d accumulated some layers of stuff in 28 years of marriage. It was sweet that she was concerned how much work it would take to go through.

Doing the hard work of sorting through keepsakes versus clutter can be challenging. That sometimes emotional task is only compounded when grief is woven through the choices. I found welcome homes with women friends for much of my wife’s clothing. Same went with her jewelry. We held a nice party at which friends could choose from the jewelry pieces she’d collected, many of them hand-crafted by her talented sister.

Fixations

BathroomThe process of de-cluttering the house and moving forward has taken more than a year. There is still much to do.

In the meantime it was time to fix a broken shower in the master bedroom. We’d jury-rigged that thing for years because it was always inconvenient to get it fixed with everything else going on. Plus it required knocking out some shelves to gain access to the plumbing inside the wall. I tore down the old blue tile and carefully chose a new look. My daughter’s boyfriend climbed into the space between the walls and installed new plumbing. No more leaks or creaky shower handles.

The whole operation took six months but it is finished. That let me organize things all over again in the bathroom. During the process there were tile boxes and hammers and drills, nails and screws and grout bags. It was a mess, and it spilled into the organization of other things in life. The bedroom was a cluttered mess. Too much other stuff was always in the way. Plus there was the mental process of wanting that bathroom finished.

Mixology

There was grief mixed in with that as well. For years my wife had put up with that creaky bathroom where the hot water would sometimes come shooting out at you like a fire hose. I felt some guilt in never having completed that while she was living.

I’m also very forward-looking in all these matters. To be emotionally healthy we need to organize things. We also need to be organizing things by heart. There is something about a cluttered mess that prevents real and healthy grieving. It also prevents you from moving on and finding that place where memories are not so much cluttered as they are appreciated. More can be shared in this world if we don’t allow things to remain or become a mess.

Sock drawer of the soul

That’s not to say that getting messy emotions out where you can see them is a bad thing. Quite the opposite. For a casual example, sorting through daily ideas or a lifetime of memories is quite akin to organizing a sock drawer. There’s an understanding and a peace that comes with things paired up as they should be. It happens the same way with photo albums and other keepsakes. We really need to sort through it all to appreciate their significance.

Ultimately, some of it needs to be given or thrown away. We can’t keep everything. Nor should we try.

Yet I decided after a year of experimenting that the appropriate way to encase our wedding rings was to place them on a bed of corks saved from years of wine we shared together. I used to buy “Wine for a Year” and it was a fun gift to open one of those bottles each month.

It’s also a fact that in these matters of the heart, no one else can do the work for you. Yet it is also important to share. I have not shied away from talking about my late wife with my current companion. Even my wife’s best friend turned to me recently and said, “Did you know that Linda told me that she knew you would date after she was gone?”

Statements like those are gifts to be shared when it is time to open them. This entire process of organizing things by heart does not happen all at once. We process. We grieve. We celebrate. We share.

It is not perfect. I am not perfectly organized and never will be. But the commitment to live well actually honors all those whose lives impact you, and whose lives you impact. And thank God for that.

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

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Teaching is about more than the classroom

IMG_0806In my late 20s I visited the classroom of my eldest brother who was an English teacher for 30 years. He invited me to come talk about writing and marketing. He taught at a private school serving disadvantaged students. The institution was funded by a very large corporation where a nickel from every dollar of profit was dedicated to the school.

My brother was a masterful teacher with methods honed by years of working with students in the classroom. He was rightfully proud of all that he had learned about how students learn best. Many of his students returned years later to thank him for his contribution to their lives.

But I came into his classroom thinking I knew a few things about teaching myself. After all, my mother was a teacher for 20 years in the public school system. My late wife was a teacher for LD and BD students at a high school, and later moved to a preschool where she taught Pre-K.

Exhaustive learning

For an hour I led my brother’s classroom in a lecture and discussion. Only it was more me talking than them. By the time the hour was over, exhaustion had taken over. I was spent.

My brother issued a soft chuckle and told me to sit down for the next class. “Let me show you how it’s done,” he whispered. From that point he opened discussion with a few questions and let the students talk. He responded to their answers with even more questions. My brother only talked when necessary for instruction. The kids were learning through their own impetus and eagerness to learn.

There’s an art and a science to teaching. Some of my best friends served as teachers in a nearby public school system for 30 years. One of them earned the State Teacher of the Year Award. Another earned the Golden Apple award from their district. They both taught in the same school, often side by side, working with 4th graders. Their teaching methods were a combination of curriculum-guided instruction and well-considered creative learning strategies. They were the best imaginable teachers.

They recently retired a bit frustrated by how little control they had over their teaching methodologies. Federal programs like No Child Left Behind left them “teaching to the test” rather than teaching kids to learn.

Ready for life

My late wife taught at a Christian preschool that focused on the importance of socialization for the child. That started as young as two years old and continued all the way through the Pre-K program where children learned the basics of being ready for school. In other words, that foundational learning perspective was about much more than the classroom. It was teaching kids about how to be ready for life.

We’ve all seen those memes where people claim “Everything I need to know about the world I learned in kindergarten.” Respect others. Share. Don’t pick your nose in public. Right. And so on.

So it distresses me when I hear people attacking teachers like they’re lazy or earn too much. Because what’s more important, paying a teacher a fair wage for 12 hour days (and that’s typically a minimum) or paying some pro baseball player $20M a year when he has a lifetime 116-67 pitching record. Those are real facts. The dude hasn’t even won twice as many times as he’s lost and he’s being paid $20M a year.

Value of teaching

Teachers perform such vital functions for society. And yes, there are bad teachers out there. I’ve had a few of them, including one who told me that I’d fail his class because a cross country runner like me had once accidentally spit on his shoe during a race on campus. “You’re going to have a tough time in this class,” he warned.

Bad apples are everywhere. They can damage people. But that’s the point here. Only by recognizing and rewarding the best teachers can we encourage the best types of individuals to enter the classroom. Because teaching is about more than the classroom. It’s about knowing how to learn first, and then sharing that with others.

As I learned while standing up in front of that classroom years ago, it’s not about hearing yourself talk. It’s about hearing what others think, and helping them do more of that. Teaching is about far more than the classroom, and it seems like too many Americans have never learned that lesson at all.  Now that I’m out giving talks about my book, it is important to remember that people don’t only want to listen. They want to be heard as well. Often the important discussions take place after the real teaching is through. Because teaching is about more than the classroom.

The art of living

Christina's World
Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth.

A year ago I was invited to teach one of those live painting classes where wine is served and people copy another artist’s work. Rather than choose some cheesy image I insisted we paint copies of the Andrew Wyeth painting known as Christina’s World. The people in the class started to freak out because it looked so austere and difficult. The panic got worse when I told them to first coat the canvas in bright red paint. Then we scuttled it over in green. And things turned brown. With the addition of a thin glaze of yellow the canvas started to look like a grassy hill. And that’s when the lights went on in all their heads.

We moved from a moment where everyone thought they would fail to a point where everyone knew they could succeed if they took a risk and followed along. By the end everyone had created a passable image of the Wyeth painting and more than one commented, “I never thought I could do this.”

That’s the real role of a teacher in this world. Helping people achieve things they never thought possible. And that’s the right kind of pride.

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Christopher Cudworth is the author of the book The Right Kind of Pride on Amazon.com, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and meeting life’s challenges with practical and inspired purpose. This blog is in keeping with the philosophies of that book. Please give this a FOLLOW!

Church of the Morton Arboretum

By Christopher Cudworth

photo (33)As a person with a lifelong interest in nature and especially birds, the outdoors has always felt like a holy place to me.

These instincts were later affirmed in my faith studies. While researching my book The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age (currently being revised for release on Amazon.com) I read the bible from cover to cover. Then I read the Bible all over again in a church-led project called Reading the Bible in 90 Days.

What I noticed both times was the baseline relationship between nature and God. That is not to say that nature IS God, or that God IS nature. Instead what I learned is that God and Jesus consistently use nature to exemplify and illustrate spiritual principles.

In particular Jesus taught using parables based on examples from nature. The parable of the mustard seed growing from a tiny object to a great tree illustrates the power of faith. The parable of yeast in the dough speaks to the fact that faith leavens the kingdom of God.

That relationship between nature and God made me feel good about skipping church now and then to get out in the woods and fields where nature speaks to us in a completely different language. After all, we can’t depend upon just words to make sense of this world. We need to see, feel and experience life in order to fill and fuel or souls.

Which is why the Church of the Morton Arboretum is a legitimate concept. My late wife and I would go there each season to celebrate the changing weather. I still go there with friends and my companion to immerse the mind in something other than contentious battles over who owns what in faith, politics and the environment.

Discovering the amazing detail and complexity of a simple autumn leaf can free the mind to let God in. That’s how it should be, and always will be.

The inside lesson of a pocket door

By Christopher Cudworth

CeramicFor many years a beautiful ceramic hung on the wall of our kitchen. It featured an elegantly composed design of grapes and vines. The wall on which it hung was the entryway to the basement. We looked at that grape ceramic every day and walked by it perhaps 1000 times over the years.

The pocket door that led to the basement had a broken latch. It was therefore hard to pull it out from the wall. In fact that door had not been closed in nearly five years. Every time I tried pulling it out there seemed to be something stopping it. The door felt stuck.

Finally curiosity forced me to take a closer look at how the door worked, and why it seemed so stuck. Using an LED flashlight, I shone the beam between the wall and the pocket door. The mystery was solved.

When we hung that ceramic on the wall the nail had pierced the wall and embedded its point in the surface of the door. It basically nailed the door in place.

I took the ceramic down and pulled the nail out of the door. The pocket door easily slid out of the wall.

We had a good laugh thinking about the many times I had tugged and tried to get that door to work. We’d assumed the problem was insufficient leverage from the broken latch.

That wasn’t it at all. It took a look inside the door to figure out the simple solution to the pocket door problem.

There are quite a few things like that in life. We imagine things holding us back or keeping us stuck in place. Usually the solutions are much simpler than we’ve taught ourselves to think. Slowing down and actually taking a look at the situation can often reveal the answer to our inner questions, those things that make us doubt ourselves or make us too proud to question our self-perceptions. Little flaws can cause our whole world to stick.

It’s always worth a second look.

Christopher Cudworth’s book The Right Kind of Pride features insights on how to face life’s challenges and make the most of life’s opportunities. It’s available on Amazon.com. This blog continues the vein of thoughts and insights gleaned from 8 years of cancer survivorship and all that it taught and wrought. 

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Why great wealth does not always add up to great insight

Sorting through the real truths of the Bible takes work. Some people work instead to promote truths that support either their desires, their fears or their source of earthly power, including wealth and the position it buys you society. It’s a challenge to understand that balance.

Genesisfix's Blog

Painting by Christopher Cudworth of Chicago skyline with peregrine falcon. Painting by Christopher Cudworth of Chicago skyline with peregrine falcon.

As a very young artist I was fortunate to receive a series of commissions from a man who would go on to earn great wealth. At the time I met him, he was in the early throes of a vision that led to one of the top investment trust companies in America. A decade or more later he sold his firm to a larger entity for a profit of $400 million dollars.

For a short period of a couple years I worked for that company. That was a strange experience in some ways. The man who founded the company was also a zealous Christian fundamentalist. He formed several churches during his life. At times it was rumored that he wrote the sermons himself, critiquing the pastors he hired to deliver them.

With his growing wealth he accumulated a collection of some…

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