Tag Archives: character

“I’ve BEEN A WAITRESS SINCE THIRTEEN…”

One afternoon while heading out of the college cafeteria during the last semester of college, a classmate clearing plates and cups from the tables in the Union lost control with her hands and it all came crashing to the floor. That moment inspired a poem that I wrote based on how she responded.

WAITRESS SINCE THIRTEEN

Although the saucer fit the dish, she turned too quickly, threw the cup,

and watched in vain as coffee stained her shoes and left her morning drained,

“You’d never know,” she said to me, “I’ve been a waitress since thirteen.”

Last night I was writing at a local eatery and overheard the head waitress talking about her previous places of employment. Both are well-known restaurants. They’re not cheap places to dine. She talked about the fact that some of the clientele was snooty, and that the establishments charged way too much for what they provided. Now she’s happier working in the open bar and restaurant atmosphere where customers are more down to earth. She works the room with candor and kindness. An expert waitress in her element is a sight to behold.

Hands-on, hands off

Two weeks ago in Florida, we celebrated a landmark birthday with a relative at their golf club. Our round was delayed by rain and there was a wedding going on upstairs where the main bar and grill are located. So we moved to the downstairs bar and ordered food and drinks. Things were getting merry among the members that had already played that morning. Several were showing the effects of drinking.

The waitress working the room is a veteran of such situations. I watched her deftly fend off the handsy attentions of a member well into his liquor. She kept a smile on her face the whole time while using her arms like fencing swords to redirect his advances. In those situations a waitress is something far more than a person who serves food and drinks. She was at once counselor and therapist well-aware that there would be a tomorrow even if her customer refused to recognize it in the moment.

Frontline dedication

During this pandemic mess, we’ve all learned who the real frontline workers are. They are people at the point of contact for all sorts of human interactions. This morning the Chicago Tribune reported that here in Illinois, customers will be required to keep their masks on while ordering food. That’s a small move to protect the health of those who wait tables. Surely some people will take offense to that requirement as they have toward the concept of wearing masks at all. But they would be selfish and wrong to do so. Sadly, some will refuse to comply.

That further places our wait staff in positions where they are forced to govern all sorts of human behavior. Here in America, waiting tables is typically viewed as some sort of servitude. Not so in other parts of the world, where being a waiter or waitress, or however you care to describe it, is considered noble work. It takes real character to be a good wait staffer, whatever the circumstance. It is a form of caregiving in real time. Our sense of community in this world comes from such dedication. Wait staff are the frontlines of civility.

In-flight service

The same goes for the people working these days as flight attendants. That profession has changed drastically over the years. Where full meals used to be served on many flights, these days it is more common to receive a bag of salty snacks and a glass of ice water.

The old standards about appearance that once applied to flight attendants are now gone. Travelers also don’t fly in formal wear they way they once did. Airplanes are now packed wall-to-wall with people to maximize profits for every flight. That strategy has backfired in the age of the pandemic, and the middle seats now sit empty.

The entire industry is a bit more low-brow and some regret that loss of glamour. Flying moved from an experience to be enjoyed to a gut-level mode of transportation. Airplanes are no longer a version of a flying restaurant for shorter flights. The in-flight movies can be nice, and Wi-Fi is appreciated. But these are more about sharing isolation than engaging in the communal experience of air travel with flight attendants as hosts.

Noble work

It is still noble work taking care of others, despite what the prideful and selfish among us care to think about it. In a world where so many people behave grotesquely in public while looking down on others for their manner of earning a living, it is the right kind of pride to look for the humanity in all those doing their jobs. Because unless we all do that, the world is doomed to its caste-like appetite for tribalism, wrought with greed, dismissiveness and abuse.

So to make the point about treating others right in public, we’ll leave with this video from the Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life. The first time we watched this in the theater my brothers and I almost heaved up our popcorn while nearly dying from laughter. Absurdity is often the best illustrator of graphic abuse. There’s a little too much Mr. Creosote in the world right now. That’s not the right kind of pride.

Finding a way to make things work out

Over the past winter the coffeehouse where I often go to work and write was closed for a complete remodeling. They stationed a smaller store a block away while the expanded Graham’s 318 Coffeehouse was being constructed. But it was a test of patience and timing while the new store was being built. The City of Geneva is pretty picky about its appearances and historical feel, yet Graham’s and the builder Hogan Construction made it work.

Then when it finally opened, the Covid Crisis hit. That delayed things again. Now the business is operating at full function allowing for masks and social distancing.

It has always been a welcoming place. There are regulars who work here daily. During peak hours the bustling background of people coming in and out of the restaurant acts as white noise to a writer. They don’t play their music too loud or too soft. The vibe is one of community. They even serve Two Brothers beer along with their incredible menu of coffees, teas and food menu.

Long-time associates

I’ve known the owners Bob and Beckie Untiedt for perhaps 20 years. We were members of the same church. They led an exceptionally well-run Praise Band in which my son played bass and cello. Then my daughter followed suit playing violin, but she was never much of a fan of praise music with its repetitive chants and predictable key changes.

That didn’t stop me from joining the group later on as a rhythm guitarist. I’d grown up playing clarinet and participating in bell choir in elementary school. Come high school, I learned to play some guitar chords with a group of friends and even performed a few songs for our Key Club banquet. That went horribly. Following that, I let the instrument go for twenty-plus years until my daughter asked for a guitar and I started playing again.

Joining that Praise Band was a humbling experience. My brain does not memorize music well. Some of the chords I was asked to play were difficult for my knuckle-cracking fingers to accomplish. But Bob and Beckie were patient and encouraging. After a year or two of being in the group, they even urged me to perform a song I’d written. So we practiced and had a go at it. I recall singing somewhat tentatively in rehearsal that morning and Beckie was direct and real with me. “You’re going to have to sing clearer than that.”

That was the point, after all. The song was titled Flowering Tree In Spring, a piece I’d written from different aspects of my experience. Perhaps it was also a competitive attempt to write something better and less repetitious than the praise songs we played so often.

The first stanza lyrics introduced the metaphor:

Have you gazed in wonder at a flowering tree in spring?

no petals yet have fallen a perfect, holy thing. 

If life were just that simple, no rain or wind would blow

then we might be as perfect as a flowering tree, you know. 

The song came out really well. I think Bob and Beckie have always appreciated the idea of people trying new things. Their businesses of Graham’s Chocolates and 318 are a living example of that. As a result of their considerably novel approach to business, these businesses are lively fixtures in the communities they serve. They also provide work for dozens of employees of diverse backgrounds and needs.

Yet the thing that I appreciate most about them is the impish brand of honesty one finds in Bob and the earnest commitment to quality in Beckie. Their business was recognized by the Geneva Chamber for its contributions to the community.

Appreciation

The Untiedts (center) with daughters Jaynie and Maddie. Kane County Chronicle File Photo.

Bob’s impish side is not directly revealed. I well recall playing a song in Praise Band by the musical artist Bruce Cockburn. Whether intentional or not, that act was a bit of a thumb in the face of the conservatism of that church, whose pastors often preached against homosexuality. Cockburn is gay, and performing his song in that church was something that I relished whether it was a closeted protest on the part of Bob or not. It was for me. All I can say is that Bob often had a wry smile on his face the days we played that song. But then, Bob always has a wry smile on his face. That’s who he is.

Beckie is kind of the opposite type of person, with an open-faced honesty for which she is both apologetic and unapologetic. If that sounds contrary, so be it. She’s a person of strong faith, but no stuffed shirt either. I recall the night that she was singing when one of the cups of her underwire bra broke, sending a sharp bit of metal into her side. She let loose a surprised yip and then starting laughing along with her Praise Singer sisters while trying to push the whole contraption back into place.

Musical talents

It was always astounding to me to watch their respective musical talents in action. Bob could sit and play songs on the piano seemingly out of nowhere. He’d transcribe chords for all the instruments from one key to the next, and orchestrate the parts of bass, rhythm, drums, lead guitar and piano in real-time. I don’t think in musical terms like that, but I can keep rhythm with the best of them, and that was my role.

Beckie is possessed of one of the most beautiful, clear voices one can imagine. There were nights while playing the guitar in practice that I’d get distracted by her lead vocals. Along with the harmonies of the gals singing with her, one could not help but listen. But then, I’m always easily distracted. Still, I once broke script in rehearsal and told her that she had one of the most wonderful voices I’d ever heard. She was a bit taken aback. Perhaps it was a bit too laudatory. Yet if someone doesn’t express appreciation for the good things in life, events roll by and things like that never get said.

Eclipsed by circumstance

That is why I felt horrible a few years ago when I was invited back to play with the Praise Band and was given a lead part to play on the rhythm guitar and things got out of hand.

The main song I was asked to play was one of my favorites and it went well in rehearsals the week before the service. But the morning of the performance I was also scheduled to do a live painting in front of the church and things got a bit chaotic setting up the easel and floor coverings while also trying to get ready to play the guitar. It was so noisy around the front of the church I went out to the narthex at the last minute to tune my instrument. On the way, I accidentally bumped the settings on tuner and changed the readings of the pitch. Not knowing that had happened, I tuned my guitar to the wrong key and returned to the front of the church to begin the service.

To my horror, I knew within two bars that my guitar was badly out of sync with the rest of the band. The only option I knew was to stop playing. Actually I faked it a bit at first, strumming nothing, then looked at Bob with a guilty shrug and mouthed the words, “Out of tune.” There was no time to explain. He covered my parts with some creative piano playing but to this day I get a queasy feeling every time I think about that moment.

That made it tough to concentrate on the painting process as well. The flush of embarrassment was still on my neck and face when I stood up to begin the painting. There was pressure to complete the picture in the few minutes allotted for the performance. It came out okay, and people were gracious, but I knew it wasn’t my best effort. It was all a lesson about being present in the moment.

It was also a lesson that taking chances and trying new things comes with some risk. I’m pretty sure that Bob and Beckie know better than anyone else I know that not everything we try in this world comes out a success. The story behind the scenes of life and work is often chaotic and challenging. In the end, the public face we present is the product of both determination and patience in the face of adversity. Along the way, we hope to celebrate the joys as well as endure the failures. That is how our true character is formed and emerges.

That is the right kind of pride. Finding a way to make things work out despite the frustrations of life is what it’s all about.

All plugged into this new remote thing

 

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

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

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

Technology helps

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

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

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

The multi-tasking debate

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

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

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

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

The drama in your head

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

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

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

Practical measures

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

Doing things right

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

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

Look for consensus

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

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

Ask questions

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

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

Prioritizing

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The art of dying

Losing a loved one is one of the hardest things to experience in life. All signs may indicate that the end of a life is near, yet it is so hard to accept them.

Most typically, people experience the death of parents late in life. There are exceptions of course. Tragic accidents or fatal diseases intervene with the normal cycles of life. For those experiences, the principle need is to focus on coping strategies. Helping people when the shock of death comes too early is a profound challenge. Every single circumstance is different.

But there are some commonalities we all share when it comes to aging parents or grandparents. We know they are not going to live forever. We sometimes see the decline, yet focus on the good signs and hope the bad things hold off as long as they can.

Triggers

Often there is some incident that triggers the process toward actual death. It may be some shift in health such as a heart issue or surgery. Yet something as simple as a fall can undermine a person’s health.

Recently that happened to a close associate of mine. His mother fell in the middle of the night and her equally aged husband did not notice. What followed was a series of stays in different hospital facilities and nursing homes.

There is a harsh reality afoot with people very aged and in a severe state of decline. Hospitals are chartered to help people get better. They reserve the right to determine if that is happening. There are broad patterns that affect these decisions. People experienced with the dying come to recognize whether the trend is toward better health or whether the symptoms of an accident or illness are likely insurmountable.

The protocols of this decision-making can seem confusing to family members or those chartered with caregiving. The legality of prescribing certain medications, for example, is often determined by the prognosis issued by the presiding physician.

Free radicals

Then there are the more radical decisions to consider. Will a surgery help mom or dad survive longer, or is it just a desperate attempt to extend their life?

Meanwhile, the patient sometimes vacillates between wanting all that rigamarole and perhaps not putting up with the intrusions. This can seem like they are giving up, or losing hope. But in truth, some people come to grips with their situation faster than their caregivers.

Yet that’s not often the case with people suffering pain. Their decision-making abilities are directly affected by their pain tolerance. That’s where it gets difficult for the hospital or other facilities to make decisions that please the family. Either the patient gets so doped up from painkillers and can’t converse, or they grow agitated from lack of treatment and just want the pain to end. Even death becomes a desirable option.

Opponents

There are relationship issues to confront as well. A temperamental parent can be a daunting opponent when it comes to end-of-life decision-making. If there are unresolved or dysfunctional relationship issues between parent and child or siblings, the end-of-life process can become complex and tense. Blame gets tossed around. Insinuations made. Guilt enters the picture. No one can find peace or balance. The parent becomes Ground Zero for family conflict.

Usually, there’s one sibling or one person that does most of the steering through an end of life journey for a parent or grandparent. Yet that leadership role can generate friction too. It can happen that parents will play one sibling off the other in order to gain sympathy or hedge the bets. When those parallel decisions work against the medical advice of the presiding doctor and the presiding sibling, things can get really confusing. Or angry.

Palliative care versus hospice

Sometimes medical staff will seek out the primary decision-maker(s) for discussions about palliative care or even hospice. Palliative care is defined as follows: a multidisciplinary approach to specialised medical care for people with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain, physical stress, and mental stress of a serious illness—whatever the diagnosis. The goal of such therapy is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.

But quite frequently, palliative care has the goal of keeping the patient comfortable leading up to the actual process of death. When death is likely imminent due to any number of signs related to disease or debilitation, a transition to actual hospice care occurs.

Hospice removes most life-giving supports and acknowledges that the patient is indeed dying. This can be an extremely challenging decision for families to make. But there are good reasons why hospice is entered as a care strategy.

Experience

Having worked with both my parents and my wife in both palliative and hospice care situations, I can assure you that the differences are not so distinct or profound as they might seem. I am fairly convinced that the only reason the terms differ is to ease the transition for family members. The term palliative is designed to help them come to terms with the fact that their loved one is indeed dying. When the wise female physician pulled me aside the day my wife was unable to move from the table where she lay, and counseled me that palliative care was likely the next step, I knew what she was saying.

In my mother’s case, she had been directed home from the hospital because there was, n the doctor’s words, “nothing else we can do for her.” In plain and simple terms, a hospital is medically defined as the place where people go to “get better.” When it is determined by the hospital that a mission of that order is not likely to be fulfilled, families are often asked to move their loved ones to another facility, or to simply take the patient home. Hospitals do not like it when people die under their care. It does not look good on the record sheets.

My mother was consigned to palliative care following an attempt at chemotherapy to treat her pancreatic cancer. The treatment was too hard for her to take. It put her in the hospital for a few days. Then the doctor came by and told me that they were done treating her. She was able to get home and we hired caregivers. All our family visited during a three-day period and she was happily able to see nearly all her loved ones.

But then she had a stroke on a Sunday evening, and by Monday morning, the case was clear. Her ability to swallow had been destroyed. The decision to enter hospice care was defined by that condition. Within a week of entering hospice, she passed away peacefully at home. Her husband and immediate family were there with her. And while it was sad to know that she was gone, there was great closure and peace that came from that.

Hospital business

Hospitals try to avoid keeping patients until they die. It’s simply bad for business. And hospitals are a business. That does not mean hospitals can necessarily avoid death in their patients. Plenty of people die in their hospital beds. Death is simply unavoidable when the human body and mind have had enough trouble dealing with pressure and failure.

Life comes to an end in one of three ways; natural, unnatural or somewhat assisted. A natural death is what we all seem to desire. That’s when people pass away of so-called natural causes. That would be heart failure in many cases, or other organs. There are many ways to die.

An unnatural death is typically the product of overtreatment. That would be too many surgeries in many cases, and not enough energy to recover. From what I’ve read, that process and occurrence is an all-too-frequent occurrence in the American health care system.

Perspectives 

I’ve watched my own family members anguish over the merits of yet another surgery for my father-in-law. Deep down I knew it was fruitless. But the patriarch of a family is not something people give away easily. Never mind that he’d already skirted death when he collapsed face first into a pile of sawdust while sawing wood in his own backyard. His wife woke him up that day. But from there, it turned into a series of heart operations, kidney problems, weight loss and finally death in the hospital. None of that was an easy choice for the family to make. It was deemed necessary as long as he was alive, to keep him alive. But whether it was absolutely necessary to keep him alive was the question everyone avoided.

Almost all families face that type of decision sooner or later. No one said dying is easy. But we tend to make it much harder than it should be.

Prayers for dad

My father passed away in a hospital bed six months ago.  He had fallen in the middle of the night and broken his hip. His caregiver called emergency for the umpteenth time and they carted my dad off to the hospital.

Everyone knows that a broken hip is a tough injury for any elderly person to sustain. My father already had an injured arm from a previous accident. But mostly he’d had a long time dealing with the effects of a stroke suffered back in 2003. He outlived my mother by ten years and we kept him in his own home with caregivers. The diagnosis to do surgery was his decision.

The diagnosis to do surgery for the broken hip was his decision. I let him make it because even though I was an executor of his estate with Power of Attorney for health care, he was still lucid and capable of deciding for himself whether to live with a repaired hip or die from the effects of the injury.

He lived another four days and saw all four of his sons during that week. Then he passed away quietly in that hospital bed. I arrived on a Saturday afternoon to a room with quiet music playing. His blanched figure with open mouth lay on the hospital bed. I kissed his forehead as I had done many times in fifteen years of taking care of him. Then I knelt and said a prayer next to him even though he was not necessarily a praying man.

I thanked him for his love over the years even though he lost his ability to say it. I said thanks to what I know of God for believing in my ability to take care of my father. It was tough as hell, and definitely worth it.

He was dead, but his memory just as surely came alive in the days that followed. There was nothing medically I could have done to change that outcome. There seldom really is. Death comes because it is meant to be. It gave me peace to know that he no longer had to live without his voice, and his golf clubs, and that wandering spirit squelched by his confinement to a wheelchair all those years. He dealt with it pretty well, and like an SOB at times.

The art of dying

But he dealt with it. And it was our job now to deal with his passing. It all took so long and happened so fast. That’s how death works, after all. And sometimes you should not fight it. That is the art of dying.

There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading
When things that seemed so very plain
Become an awful pain
Searching for the truth among the lying
And answered when you’ve learned the art of dying

––George Harrison, The Art of Dying

 

As the crocus petals fall

A close friend has been at the hospital the last few days tending to his mother. She injured herself severely in a household fall by tripping on a braided rug that her husband has long refused to throw out in their bedroom.

Such are the vagaries of old age, and sentiment. Her broken ribs and swollen brain are being treated at the hospital, but she’s not sure it’s a good idea to go on. There is fear, and there is pain.

Her son is also in pain, of the emotional kind. There has been no more faithful a son than he. For two decades he has tended their garden. Mowed their lawn. Taken them to church when necessary. His own life is intertwined with that of his parents. Because he cares.

And because he cares, he is suffering now at the thought of his mother’s passing. She is alive, but barely. Sooner or later most of us go through this experience with a parent. A spouse. Or a friend.

I know people that have even lost children. Such abrupt dissolutions.

Crocus

As I entered the house today, I glanced down to notice that the crocus in the front garden are already starting to drop their petals. We wait all winter for the first signs of spring. Then spring comes and sheds these bright signs of life as if they did not matter at all.

I have watched my mother die. I was there when she passed away 10 years ago. Recently I watched my father die as well. We emptied their house this past week. Filled a three-yard dumpster with all their former belongings. Kept a few keepsakes and practical items for our own.

My brother said, “I’m going home to get rid of 25% of what I own. If this is what happens to us when we die, I don’t want that.”

Time passes

Three years ago this March 26 my wife passed away after an eight year go-round with cancer. She lived fully right to the moment she passed away. I have always said that I am proud of her for that. But life itself sheds its hold on us like petals on a crocus.

We are reminded of all this come Easter time. According to Christian tradition, even the Son of God shed those petals of life here on earth. The faith holds that our souls are borne into heaven if we have accepted the grace, and shed the brand of pride that prevents it.

Instead, we should hold pride in the mercies we can show others. I told that to my friend, the selfless man that has cared for his parents all these years. “You are in pain because your love is wrapped together with her life. That is pain your have earned through caring. God knows that we feel that pain, and it’s the knowledge that we are loved that sustains us through it.”

Walking right into the pain

Three years ago on Good Friday, I walked into the church I attend with tears barely concealed behind my eyes. My brother asked me why I attended the service so soon after the death of my wife, and I told him, “I’m walking right into the pain.”

That’s really the only thing we can do. You can’t escape it by walking around. It follows you like a shadow. And when I walked up to meet the pastor for a blessing that Friday evening, he was the one shedding tears in my family’s name. “You are in the right place,” he told me.

That does not cure it all. There is still the absence and the loss. The profound depression knowing that someone is gone, for good. That is grief. It must be reckoned with as well. But first we must acknowledge the pain. All else is folly. That can take time. It cannot be rushed. Yet neither can we dwell in the past, lest we forget there is life to be lived.

Preaching to the choir

I understand that church is not for everyone. I get that more deeply than you might think. My own father relinquished his churchgoing ways. He loved the camaraderie of the choir, but the words ultimately didn’t mean that much. It doesn’t mean he did not have a soul. And I do not worry for it. That is not the brand of faith to which I ascribe.

We are all flawed people, who need forgiveness for the things we do. And, we should do all the forgiving we can muster. Because the real purpose of those falling petals should be to let go the lies, and the hurts, the harsh words and the lost opportunities to say that we love someone.

That is the faith to which I ascribe. It is ultimately transcendent, even in all its fallen glory. It is not keeping the crocus past its time, but knowing that its coming and going is the real sign of hope, and of caring, and of things planted for the right purposes.

My father’s house

Back in October 2015 when my father passed away in his hospital bed, I was proud to think that we’d managed to keep him in his house in the ten years that passed after my mother died in 2005. As anyone with caregiving responsibilities can tell you, there are challenges to protecting the freedoms of the elderly. And when we love them, those challenges only increase when emotions and old relationship patterns cloud decision-making.

My father’s house was purchased in 1977 or so. It sits on a hill in St. Charles, Illinois where my brother and I used to chase grey partridge around the fields where hunters had released them as wild game.

Those birds are long gone, replaced by the suburban sprawl that created my dad’s place. The house is nothing special in any way. A split level with peach and apple trees planted in the back yard by my dad and mom years ago.

But my folks made it home for 30 years. Then my father had a stroke in the early 2000s and the home turned into a caregiving facility. In fact, caregivers lived in the home with my father all 10 years that he survived after my mother’s passing.

That’s all done now. And soon my brother will be coming out to Illinois to go through all the family archives left in the home. That includes albums both musical and photographic. My dad chopped up lots of pictures and pasted them into collections, so it’s a mixed bag. But it’s our bag, and I trust my brother of all people to handle that process.

Before leaving after a walk-through today I noticed a videotape on the shelf that took me back to the period when my dad had his stroke. He was out East on a reunion trip when the stroke hit. That threw our family into turmoil. It was my job back here in Illinois to keep the home safe and pay the bills.

The home itself has never had much sentimental value for me. But my father’s house instead was the symbol for caring and concern. We’ll be cleaning it out and selling it soon. But there’s no need to give up the former for the latter.

Understanding the Relationship Algorithm

What follows is a brand of simple, straightforward advice on how to have better relationships.

The Relationship Algorithm (RA) is a tool to help you open communications, build respect and sustain love through all the years of a relationship. The Relationship Algorithm is a formula one takes to either tear down or build up a relationship. It works like this:

Relationship Algorithm: Negative Direction

Relationships break down because they are subjected to a series of negative responses.

Complaint to or about a person is most often the catalyst that starts a chain reaction of negativity that can tear down a relationship. Complaint is a form of insult. Insult is a lack of respect. Lack of respect leads to lack of trust. A lack of trust undermines the ability to love. The inability to love reduces the will to communicate. When communication fails, the relationship is over.

Here’s the quick synopsis of that Negative Relationship Algorithm:

RA/N: Unhealthy or Constant Complaint >Form of Insult > Lack of Respect > Lack of Trust > Inability to Love > Unwillingness to Communicate. 

 

The Better option: Relationship Algorithm––Positive Direction

By contrast, a Positive Relationship Algorithm places communicate at the forefront. From there, a healthy chain reaction can occur that affirms the love in the relationship and builds on positive emotional feelings. Constructive emotions such as trust, respect and positive dialogue produce a relationship that is healthy and progressive in nature.

Here’s the quick synopsis on the Positive Relationship Algorithm.

Desire to Communicate > Ability to Love > Building Trust > Showing Respect > Complementing the Partner > No need for Complaint.  

Within this spectrum of constructive relationship tools, there are also tactics that can help you work within each component of the Relationship Algorithm to build positive dialogue.

Solving problems using positive direction

For example, imagine a couple has challenges discussing financial issues. A negative response is to complain about money issues or disrespectfully accuse the other person of mistakes or abuses. That insulting approach leads to reduced trust, lost love and reduced communication. That’s how fights over money begin and continue.

By contrast, a healthier way to engage in financial discussions is for both people in a relationship to separately write down their financial concerns. Then carve out a time where both parties can give full attention and communication to the subject. If necessary, get a babysitter for the kids if you have them. Turn off the cell phones and shut down the computer (unless you want to use a spreadsheet for discussion.)

Agree not to threaten, accuse or complain during the initial discussion.

Always show respect

Promise at all times to show respect on the issues at hand. If additional information is required to make a decision, make notes and agree on a timeframe for action or answers on each topic. Focus on establishing a consensus about each issue on the table. If that’s not possible, and you need to consult with advisors or professionals to organize or solve your financial (or other) problems, agree to make that appointment and engage in no complaint on the subject until that issue can be resolved.

Likewise, do not engage or impose the “silent treatment” on your partner following discussion of relationship (especially financial) problems. This is a form of silent complaint and a true lack of respect. In many ways saying nothing is far worse than having a fight.

Also, be especially aware of Passive/Aggressive behavior, in which one person baits the other with kindness or passivity to gain an advantage, and then turns on them with assertiveness or even violence to overwhelm or win a fight. That is obviously an unhealthy, unfair and unproductive way to relate.

It is always important to be aware of your own emotional intelligence in these categories.  Avoid using scare or manipulative tactics to get what you want. That is no way to resolution or healthy compromise where needed.

Patience, respect and positivity pay dividends

Some problems take more time than others to resolve. Again, if one person feels additional discussion might be necessary to clarify their position or provide updated information, be sure to begin from the communication side of the algorithm, not the complaint side. This prevents the negative feedback cycle from turning into a stress factor between two people.

As our financial illustration shows, a good relationship algorithm always begins with communication, not complaint. Even this simple guideline can be enough to control potentially negative feelings and get people working toward positive response to challenges and needs within a relationship.

The Relationship Algorithm can work wonders if you keep these positive goals in mind.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a memoir about character, caregiving and community, the positive aspects of cancer survivorship and facing challenges in life. The book is available on Amazon.com. 

RightKindofPridecover
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.

 

 

 

On the precociousness of November flowers

FlowersThis morning during my dog walk it was a bit surprising to find two yellow flowers blooming in the already pruned bed of a Master Gardener that lives nearby. She’s not one to pluck much of anything during the summer months. She prefers to leave her flowers out where everyone can admire them. But come autumn her garden beds get a full house-cleaning.

Yet up popped these two flowers.

Their species is not so much important as their precociousness. So I will not go on about their life cycles or why they might be giving it a second go this late in the season. All of nature perks and plays with warm fall days. Migrating warblers sing quiet versions of their springtime songs. Sparrows and robins too, and all birds in passage from north to south. It’s not so much about singing for territory as it is about communication of existence these days.

I’ve even heard chorus frogs singing from inside the prairie in mid-November. The temperature and humidity of a 55 degree fall day clearly resembles those dank March or April days when breeding begins for frogs. So the frogs sing.

Occasionally I will find the stiff remains of a snapping turtle that died during a frosty night while making its way from the uplands to the lake below. Mother turtles lay their eggs in holes dug into the dirt. Many of of these holes and eggs are proceedingly raided and eaten by marauding raccoons. The next morning all the leathery eggs lay strewn about the hole. If lucky, just one or two holes with their clutch of turtle eggs may survive. That’s how life’s competition works.

Nature depends on this precociousness to advance its cause. It is a long and random process in which we are all engaged. As human beings, call survival a “battle” when in fact it is often something far more subtle that takes us down. A set of mutant cells. A virus. Old age.

Having been through many such human “battles” in recent years with family and friends that have now gone before me, I am absolutely sensitive to the precociousness of life. When my father recently passed away, it was only after thirteen full years of existence following his massive stroke in 2002. At the time, no one really thought he’d live a year past that event. Yet he survived the death of my mother ten years ago, grieved and kept on going. A precocious man.

My father-in-law survived an apparent heart attack and lived another uneasy year in its wake. His persistence was evidence of his character, for the damage to his heart and body were profound. We all credited his hardscrabble Nebraska upbringing for his perseverance.

When my late wife passed away in 2013 after eight years of cancer treatment, it was not because she had given up hope. Quite the contrary. The woman put up with more pain and discomfort than anyone could bear during those years of treatment. Yet she precociously wanted to live. So she did, and saw her children through graduation from high school and attending college. I know they miss her deeply. But I also know we all admire her strength, humor and appreciation for all of life.

I know those flowers down the block will not last forever into the winter But their presence is a reminder that all of us are precocious beings. We all feel the warmth of the sun even when it deceives us a bit, bringing us out to turn our faces toward the sky and breathe in. We precociously feel alive in the face of all that might defeat us otherwise.

Let’s face it. The news is almost never good out there in the world. Even our religions reek with the stink of death, and always have. Only faith survives precociously like two small flowers in the November dirt.

In politics, our hopes of peace lie like road kill along the information superhighway. Twitter throws 140 characters of crap in our faces and Facebook ridicules sincere and liberal concerns for humankind while videos of cats startled by cucumbers at least make us laugh.

Yet is it is the face of two small flowers in November that remind us the precociousness of life is worth appreciating. And protecting.

Go naturally

photo (33)A few weeks ago I attended a live music show led by my sister-in-law’s boyfriend Tom, a professional guitarist with a really good voice who performs with a crackshot bunch of horn players. Midway through the show the band played a couple numbers by the 60s group Blood, Sweat and Tears. One of the guest singers absolutely nailed the BSWT song, “God Bless the Child,” but there was another song running through my head the rest of the night. It’s a tune called And When I Die that was a part of the amazing lexicon of music produced in the late 1960s. The lyrics start like this:

I’m not scared of dying
And I, don’t really care
If it’s peace you find in dying
Well then, let the time be near

If it’s peace you find in dying
Well then dying time is near
Just bundle up my coffin
‘Cause it’s cold way down there
I hear that it’s
Cold way down there, yeah
Crazy cold, way down there

As a kid of 12 or 13 at the time, those were odd words to read. At that point in the life, the idea of dying was so mysterious, and most of the deaths of grandparents had happened before I even arrived on earth. My mother’s parents were both gone years before, and my father’s mother too. They were ghosts, essentially, about which people did not even talk all that much. It spooked me to think about anyone dying, for these reasons. But there was some strange hope in the song with the lyrics Go Naturally as well..

And when I die, and when I’m gone
There’ll be, one child born
In this world
To carry on, to carry on

Many years passed before anyone close to me died. I lost a classmate from college track who became too dehydrated from having a cold while competing in track. His fever shot through 107-degree mark and he passed away in his room.

During that time of life (and like so many young people) I was grappling with the meaning of my faith, and whether it existed at all….

Now troubles are many
They’re as
Deep as a well
I can swear there ain’t no Heaven
But I pray there ain’t no hell
Swear there ain’t no Heaven
And I’ll pray there ain’t no hell
But I’ll never know by livin’
Only my dyin’ will tell, yes only my
Dyin’ will tell, oh yeah
Only my dyin’ will tell

I had my own brush with possible death as early as my freshman year in college. Someone made a punch for the cross country team party and it nearly cancelled my liver that night. I could easily have died of alcohol poisoning. And what a waste that might have been. So much life left to live…

Give me my freedom
For as long as I be
All I ask of livin’
Is to have no chains on me
All I ask of livin’
Is to have no chains on me
And all I ask of dyin’ is to
Go natrually, only wanna
Go naturally

Through the mists of the years I learned that sadness and anxiety and depression could be scary things, but not as scary as giving up. On the few occasions when I felt like life was too much to bear, my mind considered what it would be like to end it all. But there was no motivation to do so. Perhaps my personal faith really did have a purpose.
Here I go!
Hey hey
Here come the devil
Right behind
Look out children, here he come
Here he come, heyyy

Don’t wanna go by the devil
Don’t wanna go by the demon
Don’t wanna go by satan
Don’t wann die uneasy
Just let me go
Naturally

Then came middle age, and the challenge of managing a parent through the final year of her life. My mother died at age 80 in 2005. I was there when she passed away. Sitting inches from her bed, I could see that the week she spent in hospice was the right thing to do. She had experienced a stroke after a try at chemotherapy and her body was done with this world. That was so clear that my mourning was rich with that knowledge. It strengthened me to know that dying is in many ways not the end we all dread. It is a part of life.

And when I die, and when I’m dead
Dead and gone
There’ll be
One child born, in our world
To carry on, to carry on

That same year my wife was diagnosed with cancer, and I can tell you that scared the ever living daylights out of me. More than dying, cancer was a ghost of dastardly proportion. And yet we helped her survive through bout after bout of chemo, and our personal faith delivered small miracles that added up to one big miracle. She was still here. She had not yet died.

But after eight years her body was also through dealing with the rolling effects of chemo and surgeries and stress. I was sitting with my two children in our living room when she passed away. And days later, an astronomy student friend of my daughter staying over at our house to keep us company awoke in the middle of the living room in the middle to the sight of three floating orbs of light right at the spot where my wife had lay when she died.

There was nothing frightening about this to us. This was no hooky spooky ghost or something imagined by my daughter’s friend out of fear of death. This was a person with the mind of a scientist witnessing something beautiful and wondrous being the sphere of human imagination.

You can doubt us if you like. Or you can wonder aloud to yourself if what we see day by day is everything we can possibly know. There’s more than one way to go naturally, you see.

A few months before my wife died her own father died in a hospital bed. My wife raised herself from a cancer surgery two days after recovery and we made the trek to visit her father. The look they exchanged upon greeting each other was beyond the realm of language to describe. It was an eternal connection, something made from the fabric of time itself. A few days later, having seen that his own daughter had survived her surgery, her father passed into eternity itself.

And this past week my father died of ultimately natural causes. He was a stroke survivor for thirteen years. His four sons all visited him the last week of his life, and when his youngest had made a visit to the hospital one more time, my father passed quietly into death that afternoon.

The hospital called to tell me the news and I made the trip up to sit with my father in his room. I had a good, long cry at his bedside before kneeling down to say the Lord’s Prayer. He was no longer a praying man himself, I think he would have told you. But he said many prayers in other ways over the years.

Which leaves more than one more child to carry on. To go naturally is the greatest gift of all. Even if there are bumps and sways and difficult operations along the way, in the end we all go naturally. Death is part of life. It teaches and it cajoles. It offers us an ending to consider, one that we may try to write a little differently, and delay indefinitely, but it will come eventually.

Let’s admit this is not a bad thing. The enigmatic lead character in the movie the Green Mile is both blessed and cursed to live on, perhaps into eternity, watching his loved ones and found ones all pass away before him. He cannot go naturally into the night. He is given a glimpse of the burden of God and Christ himself. There is great love in that, but also a burden to care.

Which is why people speak of going to their final resting place. A good rest will often do you good. We may not know what comes in the great beyond, but what we know of getting there is enhanced by the fact of our very ephemeral being. It is ours to go naturally through our days, and love life in every way we can along the way.

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.