Tag Archives: 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.

Lord, Ask me anything except to be treasurer of the church

For twenty-five years I was a member or a medium-sized Lutheran church along with my wife and kids. Over the years I served many roles, including teacher for both Middle and High School student Sunday School classes, singing in multiple choirs and holiday cantatas. Ultimately I wound up playing rhythm guitar in the Praise Band until the leaders left the church. Then I led the group for a while as well as chairing the committee to select a new full-time leader.

During that process, I assertively kept committee meetings to an hour. As anyone that has served on a church committee can tell you, that is nearly impossible to do. The pastor emeritus serving on the committee, a veteran of 45+ years in the both campus and congregational ministry, took me aside and thanked me for the efficient use of time. “I wish more of my meetings over the years had been this clear.”

That said, the decision itself still required a series of “side meetings” by committee members who thought we were moving too fast. Three months passed before they made up their minds, ultimately choosing the candidate we’d originally decided upon. Such is life in a church bureaucracy.

Years later, ordained as a minister to serve as an officiant at the wedding of a friend. An honor I never imagined, but willingly embraced.

After that term of service I was elected to the Church Board as a Member-At-Large. That role came along at an interesting and difficult period of decision in that 100-year old congregation. There was a building expansion on the table, and a band of extremely dedicated volunteers worked with architects to come up with a wise and efficient plan for growing the narthex and re-organizing space upstairs and down.

I’d been through a vote or two of approval in congregational meetings when I was asked to join the board. It appeared the decision was already made to go ahead with construction. There were a few glitches to solve that might have added pennies on the dollar, and the Board President wanted to take it back to the congregation for one more vote.

Frustrations

This took place over a matter of weeks. I could sense our Pastor’s frustration at the continuing fussiness and fear involved in the decision. I waited a few weeks to actually offer much of an opinion, which was much out of character for me. But I felt that listening was an important part of playing the role of Member-At-Large.

Painting of Easter Lilies by Christopher Cudworth

But as a meeting wore on one late winter night, and the arguments for and against the changes repeated themselves yet again, I sort of ran out of patience. Pounding my fist firmly on the table, I said out loud, “This has already been voted on twice. The congregation wants to move ahead. No more discussion is necessary. No more votes either. Let’s vote right now and get this moving forward.”

Gratitude and grace

That’s what we did. On the way out of the building that night, our 6’5″ pastor, thin like a stretched out crow in his all-black outfit, reached his arms around to wrap me in a hug. Then he leaned back and said, “Thank you.”

Sure, I was kind of an asshole about how that was handled. But it did move the project forward after weeks of what felt like self-righteous hand-wringing about fiscal responsibility and conservative ideals.

High and mighty

I’d been in other situations where people got all high and mighty about their roles while projects faltered and budgets overflowed their banks. One was a Chamber of Commerce in which the Board consisted of twenty people. Our meetings were held in a giant City Hall chambers where people sat thirty feet apart. There were no budgets for any of the events or activities of the organization and people felt no compulsion to require them. The chamber was finishing in the red every year.

We fixed all of that in a year. Cut the board to eleven people. Required budgets for every single line item. And issued all new marketing materials. The changes didn’t win me friends, but they proved effective. There’s beauty in discretion. The structure of that organization is still in place thirty years later, and it is thriving. Before that, it was directionless and struggling. That’s the type of change you call a success.

Poorly suited for the job

But there are some jobs for which I am poorly suited in life. While I understand the need for a budget, I have none of the skills needed to build or outline one. Those talents I have always left to actual accountants and other people that love to work with numbers. Then we can discuss the meaning of those numbers, and the needs they dictate.

Windmill by Christopher Cudworth

Yet a couple years after serving on the church board I received a call from a church committee leader asking if I’d be interested in being placed into the election as Treasurer for the congregation. I am embarrassed to this day to admit that I laughed out loud at the prospect of that. “I’m the last person to consider for that job,” I told her.

A few years after that, my late wife and I left that church over differences in theological emphasis. We met with the pastor to wish him well and say goodbye. He’d visited us in the hospital during my late wife’s treatments for cancer. He’d prayed with us for her healing and strength. So we were not ungrateful for his ministerial care.

But some of the beliefs that Lutherans of that synod abide we ultimately found intolerant and shortsighted. So despite the many friends we’d enjoyed and years we’d spent raising our children in that church, some of its teachings had become more intolerant and toxic over time. So we moved to a new church where I volunteered first as a confirmation mentor and then a high school assistant after my wife passed away from cancer.

No one-size-fits all

It’s clear to me after all these years that the Lord may ask us to do many things in this life. But just because the church asks you to do something does not mean you have to do it. It’s not like we’re all just a bunch of power cords waiting to be plugged into some role that God chooses for us.

And just because the church tells you to believe something does not mean you have to accept it. Neither is the Bible a literal instruction manual of any sort, or a “one-size-fits-all” garment to wrap around your body and claim protection against all misdeeds or evil.

There’s no such thing as Magic Underwear or even any sort of spiritual armor we can squeeze ourselves into in hopes of protecting us against bad things happening. We all live in the moment. We are called to make decisions based on our sense of morality and conscience. Those are quite different than assuming that “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

We can learn from those people and events we read about in the Bible, but they aren’t direct extension cords leading from God to our souls. Every word of the Bible, whether some want to admit it or not, is a working symbol. That’s why the Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Why is that so hard to understand? The words of the Bible are a connection to God, but not a literal one.

Finding our paths

The Lord wants us to find the sources of power and paths that best suit us. We all have different skills, outlooks and circumstances. Beware those who tell you there’s only one way to think about life, or who project upon you unrealistic or misguided expectations, or who want to plug you into something for which you’re clearly not suited at all. I no more belonged in the role of Treasurer than John the Baptist deserved to clean the platter on which his own head would be served.

If that’s shocking to you, then you really haven’t read or understood the Bible at all. When it comes to faith in this world, it’s great to have faith in God, but you also need to learn to have faith in yourself. And that’s the right kind of pride.

No masking these emotions

 

Mask picWhen my stepdaughter set to work a month ago making masks for those of us in the household and her friends, the sound of her sewing machine was a constant presence in the front room from the moment she got home until she fell exhausted into bed. This went on for a week or so. Then she distributed the masks and soon set about making even more.

At first, I took the mask she made for granted. The Stay-At-Home order here in Illinois made them almost superfluous. But as pressure grew to wear masks more in public, I took to wearing her creation to the grocery store, Walgreens and Pet Supplies Plus. I figured it was my social responsibility. Not that hard to do.

I kept the mask in the car so that I would not forget during these small travels. It didn’t bother me much to have it on my face for fifteen minutes at a time.

The real deal

But today I’m staged at a premier medical facility to tend to a friend going through a crucial procedure. It is a requirement to wear a mask during the whole time you’re in the facility.

Having a mask on your face for ten or fifteen minutes in a grocery store is easy. Wearing one for eight or so hours at a time is not so easy. While the mask I own is well-made, it is not some custom deal. It has elastic that binds the ears a bit after a few hours. So I discreetly pulled off the mask to take a break while eating lunch. No harm done. No one here complained. I kept far apart from everyone and ate in peace. Then went back to wearing the mask.

Sharp glances

I did get a sharp glance this morning when approaching the door to the hospital without my mask on yet. It was raining like crazy and I hadn’t pulled it out of my coat pocket after parking the car and running down the street. That’s when a tired-looking physician was headed out the door to get some air or wrap up his day. Who knows the work he’d just done? We can only imagine in these times.

There are likely Covid-19 patients here for sure. But there are also necessary heart surgeries going on and procedures being done to help patients back to health. That sharp glance at the door was justified. Get with the program, it said.

Operational kindness

While sitting in the waiting area, I overheard a surgeon talking to a man about his wife’s operation this morning. The woman surgeon described the process of implanting an artificial valve or a vein stint of some kind in his wife. He listened carefully to her patient words. She was eager to let him know that things had gone well.

Her operational kindness made me think about a sign I’d seen in the lobby while entering this facility. It said something about the fact that any kind of aggressive behavior would not be tolerated.

We must suppose that happens occasionally here at the hospital or the sign would not be posted. Some people have no patience while waiting for patients. I’ve seen that firsthand, including the day that my father was having quadruple bypass surgery. While sitting in the waiting room, I witnessed the moment a surgeon came out of the operation room to tell a woman that her husband had come through bypass operation well. But there had been challenges. From the description he gave her, things were quite serious with her husband’s heart condition. The surgeon spoke softly and slowly so that she would understand the gravity of her husband’s condition. Yet her first reaction after the surgeon finished talking was indignation: “What took you so long?” she demanded.

I was sitting next to my mother at the moment, who was a naturally nervous wreck waiting for my dad to come of surgery. Watching that exchange did not help her feel any better. How was dad doing in there?

Ingratitude redux

Fortunately, my father’s surgery went well. The next day while visiting my father in his hospital room during recovery, I saw the woman we’d seen the night before sitting with her husband in the same room with my father. The curtain was mostly drawn, but I overheard him ask her, “Can I have a cigarette soon?”

I thought to myself, “Seriously? The day after heart surgery all you can think about is smoking?” Then I glanced at my mother and she just shook her head.

Clearly, there are many people in this world who appreciate the work and skill of medical professionals such as that surgeon. Yet there are many who do not. Some are so self-absorbed they can only see a situation through the lens of their personal priorities and their selfish notion of what constitutes their “rights” as a patient or a caregiver.

And many of those people are distrusting or losing patience with medical professionals at the highest levels of our country. They’re turning to conspiracy theories and a wide array of alternative narratives to justify the worldview that people charged with protecting lives are somehow trying to ruin their own.

The painful gap

Perhaps this painful gap between gross indignation and gratitude is the product of a willing ignorance about what it takes to perform medicine––or science for that matter–– of any kind. Medicine is not an entirely predictable occupation in many ways. It’s admittedly an art, but dependent on science to inform the recommended treatments and actions. It is also true that because it depends on testing and evidence to arrive at those conclusions, science and medicine take time. And Americans, as a rule, hate waiting for anything.

We all know that diseases and medical conditions of many kinds can appear to go away only to come raging back later on. I’ve experienced that with several types of infections over the last eight years. One “bug” got into my left-hand middle finger from a seemingly innocent encounter with a sliver picked up while gardening. At first the oral medicine seemed to work. But then the infection flared up and the finger swelled. The doctors told me that if it “went osteo…”, meaning if it entered the bone, I’d likely lose the digit. That meant surgery followed by weeks of treatment with self-administered antibiotics. Then came many more weeks of hand therapy to reclaim relatively full use of my middle finger. And we all know how important that finger is to displaying public sentiment at times.

Cellulitis and a bad tooth

Three years later I contracted cellulitis from a cat that nipped me on the back of the hand while playing with her at home. That diagnosis led to antibiotics that wiped out my good gut bacteria and gave me a dangerous condition called c.diff in which you suffer intense gastrointestinal stress (I did) that if left untreated can actually kill you.

And finally, late last summer I had a tooth go bad from some less-than-optimal dental work performed by a mall-front practice when our insurance options were limited due to my late’s wife’s condition and a crappy plan offered by the small business where I worked. The infected tooth suddenly leaked through to my jaw and my entire face blew up with a sublingual infection. The oral surgeon sat me down in the chair and said, “If we don’t fix this you could die.”

I’m glad that happened last year. If it had happened this spring, I might indeed be dead.

Infectious diseases

So I know what it’s like to deal with infections. This Coronavirus pandemic that is causing Covid-19 illness is a serious infectious disease. It drowns the lungs and is deadly for those with pre-existing conditions.

That is why I’ve kept my mask on all day while waiting in the lounge of this amazing hospital. If I’m not the one at risk, I would never want to infect someone else. That hardly seems like it needs to be a point of pride for most of us. It’s the humane thing to do. But some people are so selfish or politically stubborn they take offense at even the smallest favors extended to the rest of humanity.

Granted, the backs of my ears may hurt a bit from wearing the mask all day. But let’s be pragmatic: no matter what you believe in these times, it’s still critical to do what you can to block the spread of Covid-19. That’s true even if you’re asymptomatic. I heard someone say that a friend in Florida was approached by a man who said hello and tried to shake their hand. When they declined, the man blurted, “Oh, you’re one of those Covid people.”

As if that were the real disease: protecting others by protecting yourself. Yet that’s what America has come to in many quarters. Such selfishness is a disease that infects the mind and quite possibly the soul as well. If anything, the Coronavirus epidemic has provided some clear delineation of how so many Americans think. And it’s nothing to be proud of.

Social distancing

img_4405

Here in the waiting room, we’re all sitting far apart but the hospital is not crowded. In fact, many hospitals across the country are actually hurting for business during this pandemic because Shelter-in-Place orders canceled many forms of medical procedures. Even dentists aren’t able to practice because they can’t find enough PPE to cover their practices. That’s ironic in my eyes because I’ve seen firsthand what neglected dental issues can do to your health. Gum inflammation is even associated with health problems such as heart disease and other internal problems.

We live in a world twisted apart by the threat of death from a disease that afflicts relatively few but conducts itself with consistently deadly properties. And we don’t yet know whether it can ever be prevented or cured with a vaccine. So we’re living with the unknown while people are literally forced to die alone.

Taking a deep breath

Our entire economy has been sort of breathing in with anticipation that the Stay-At-Home orders might relent sooner than later. That led to a nation holding its breath for weeks on end. The start of the exhale finally began with businesses shedding millions of employees that they can no longer afford to pay. That exhale blew away the employment prospects and income for millions, and millions more are likely hanging by a thread. People are afraid. Most of us, in fact. Are afraid.

That means there is anger brewing in the hinterlands. Predictably, the aggressive behavior of armed protesters in Michigan flared up again today. This time it caused the legislature to shut down in order to protect the safety of all those involved. One of the protesters displayed a naked brunette doll hanging from a noose. It was obviously a dog-whistle threat against the female governor. Such displays signify a willing intention of violence. Militias across the nation have been complaining for decades about supposed government overreach. Now they have a keen illustration that suits their narrative, so they marched into town with guns displayed as if they were itching for a fight. They are hoping to bully the nation into opening up the economy to satisfy their personal belief that there is no real threat from the virus. To quote an old McDonald’s campaign, they want to “have it their way.”

And unfortunately, if they are successful, that may be exactly what they get. Coronavirus, their way.

We’re all hopeful that America can find a middle ground as other countries have done. But that will require a cooperative spirit and intelligent consideration. And it can’t be politically or even economically motivated, as the original denial of the threat of the disease most certainly was. Real Americans really are hurting. There are proposals on the table to send everyday people $3T in aid to help the population through what threatens to be a major Depression if not commitment is made to the nation’s citizens rather than the money sponge of corporate welfare and stock buybacks that help no one.

Freedoms and pride

The complaints of those militia types are thus misguided. For they are largely griping about being told what to do by the government. As a tradition, Americans have long taken “pride” in their freedoms. The nation is founded on an escape from tyranny under English royalty. Over the centuries it has become popular to claim that America represents freedom worldwide. But that claim is ironic when the most we seem to have gained from that freedom is a terminal brand of impatience and ignoble immaturity that manifests itself as ingratitude toward the law of the land, and the land itself. That’s not freedom. That’s victimhood and selfishness disguised as patriotism. There’s nothing to be proud of there, because it makes us weak.

Disgustingly, some of that selfish ire is even being aimed at the heroic works of medical professionals and government officials trying to work together to protect lives. But let’s be straight about our situation: Fixing this pandemic stuff isn’t easy, and it isn’t a question of counting on miracles or religious faith to set things straight. And for all we know, God thinks America has been behaving like a pack of selfish brutes and it’s time to clean house. That’s what scripture warns us about. God does not abide by the selfishness of men. Or women. Or anyone for that matter.

The love of money

But scripture says that God is particularly disgusted when the covetous love of money drives all decisions. Yet economic fear is a special type of awful emotion to most Americans, and some just can’t mask it. We are a nation quite accustomed to having most of what w want, when we want it. Everything about our culture seems to scream “Gimme gimme” from guns to fast food to contestants on reality TV competing for someone else’s goddamned attention.

So I think back to that woman in the heart operation waiting room who stood before that exhausted heart surgeon demanding to know, “What took you so long?”

Our nation may represent liberty in some fashion, but portions of the American public are cut from the most ungrateful kind of cloth. Now those people want to protest putting a little cloth across their faces, and the President claims that it might make him look ridiculous. It goes to show you that no sacrifice is too small to use as fodder for selfish pride.

And that’s not the right kind of pride.

 

Earth Day and the human insult to God’s creation

August Sundown

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

Cause and Effect

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

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

Dust Bowl Image

Climate change

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

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

Erosion

The Earth groans

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

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

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

Friday night calls for ZOOM

Zoom art

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

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

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

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

Working through loss

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

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

Stay-At-Home

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

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

Dining and defining local

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

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

Nothing’s perfect

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

The seed of a lifetime’s work

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

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

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

Environs

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

New directions

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

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

Big impression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda and Chris
Our early dating years.

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

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

LInda and Chris
All dressed up and going somewhere.

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

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

LindaAtGlacier.300x300
On our honeymoon at Waterton-Glacier

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

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

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

LindaWithFirework
Enjoying our festive 4th of July traditions.

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

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

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

Emmy in Garden

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

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

CudMuesPhotos-61
At 7 Mile Pinecrest

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

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

CudMuesPhotos-55
Linda and Evan reading together.

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

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

CudMuesPhotos-35

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

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

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

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

 

Six years on and beyond

Linda and Chris.jpgDuring eight years of cancer caregiving for my late wife Linda, who passed away six years ago this day on March 26, 2013, I grew to understand many things about other people. How some have such a heart for others. How giving they could be. How friends willingly took on chores too difficult to imagine. All of it done without judgment. These things came true in our lives.

There were also mysteries that were beyond explanation and should remain that way. During one period of time when I was out of work to take care of her needs, we sat together at our dining room table and added up the money needed to cover our bills. We’d already paid the $2000 COBRA monthly premium for health insurance. That was absolutely vital or we’d be broke in a minute from a running list of medical bills that came our way. These included chemotherapy treatments and surgeries that cost tens of thousands of dollars. In the days before the Affordable Care Act and protection from  pre-existing conditions, clinging to your health care was a life or death matter.

Somehow we made it week-to-week, month-to-month and year-to-year. But sometimes we just turned to prayer for help. So it was that we determined the need for $3500 to cover the rest of our bills. During periods when I had to be out of work to take care of her, I’d hustle up freelance work to cover our bills and more.

LInda and Chris.pngBut it was stressful. Sometimes we’d be pressed financially, and it was on one of those nights that we added up the bills, said our prayer and got her into bed to rest.

The next morning I came out to the kitchen to make her oatmeal and heard the front door mail slot creak open and shut. Whatever fell through the door made a solid thump on the floor. I walked out to check on the delivery because people were often bringing us food and other requests made through our caregiving website.

This package was different. The envelope was thick and bulging. I picked it up and opened the tab. Inside was a wad of money. $3700 worth.

I broke into quiet tears and stood there looking out the door. Whoever dropped off that envelope and collected that money was already gone. To this day I have inklings about who might have gathered that cash but in many respects prefer to leave it as a mystery. That’s what the folks who gave us the money apparently wanted. We used it wisely and gave a prayer of gratitude in response.

Yes, it’s been six years since my late wife passed away. But the kindness and grace of others that sustained us has never left my mind. I know it never left her mind either. In so many ways the support of others kept her alive during all those years in and out of remission after her initial diagnosis. We drew on that support for strength and hope during periods of both sickness and health. Our children felt that support, and in the ensuing years that remains an important part of our collective grieving process. Last year we held a memorial gathering in her honor. Rightfully so.

She and I met in 1981 and were married for twenty-eight years. Yet in many ways, we were also married to the world around us. It was that bond of vulnerability and hope that drew on the strength of others and became our main source of pride. The Right Kind of Pride. 

 

 

 

Wild too

Prairie HillI just finished reading the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Many times I’ve watched the ending of the movie made from the book. I liked Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of the author. The thrills and the sex and drugs. The pain at losing her mother, portrayed by Laura Dern. The lost feeling that followed. Her divorce that was more like two boats drifting apart.

And then the hike up the trail from California to Oregon. Recovering, what? She did not know going in how difficult it would be. The pain of hiking. The busted up feet. The callouses on her lower back that felt like leather.

I’ve read other “journey” books and really liked them. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson chronicled his hike up the Appalachian Trail. His journey was more about the doing than the catharsis. But it wound up being a catharsis just the same.

In every journey book there is a similar dynamic. Isolated from everyday life, the lead characters wonder, sometimes with guilt, sometimes not, what might be going on back where life is normal.

For Cheryl Strayed, it was getting away that mattered. It was everyday life that had trapped her with its sorrow and its temptations. She’d done heroin and slept with a bunch of men. Ached for her mother, but it did not bring her back.

The point here is that life itself is a trail. That’s what Strayed discovered in the end. That the trail is wild, and that life is wild too. We can’t see around the next bend. Sometimes can’t see the next step we take.

I recall a moment in church when our pastor spoke plainly about the fact that not every service or moment will seem sacred or religious. It’s like there are mountains or peak experiences in our lives, and sometimes we get to feel them. Be there. Raise our consciousness. Yet there are a lot of days putting one foot in front of the other.

The year gets marked that way at church. There are days when the Youth Group sets out geraniums to purchase in spring. Then here are long strands of pine boughs to buy and hang on my white fence out front of the house in November.

Holidays come along like that too. They add up too quickly. My late father used to joke every January that the year was almost done. “You’ve got Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day. Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day. Then Thanksgiving and Christmas. Yup, the year’s almost over.”

And of course, he was always right. But some of us add in a few more days than that. Mother’s Day just passed. That’s the day when all the mothers I know take quiet stock of their children and their own moms. They stand between these two worlds in hope that someone notices. Fortunately, many do. There are not many holidays as poignant as Mother’s Day. So what if it is a Hallmark occasion. Whether you spell Hallmark with a capital H or a small h does not matter. We need our hallmarks. Otherwise, the years go by and we do not know where we are.

There were several moments in the book Wild when Cheryl Strayed wandered off the Pacific Coast Trail. At other times, the path was covered with snow, or littered with the debris of forest clearcuts. She had to make decisions in those moments. Where to turn. How far to go even when you know you are lost.

Years ago I went out for what was supposed to be a short run during a stay in the north woods. I took off in just shorts and shoes and a thin tee shirt, like I always do. I ran a familiar trail and it turned into another familiar trail and then suddenly it was no longer familiar. I’d missed a turn somewhere. The sky was flat and gray. No sun to mark the direction south. And as I continued running I’m sure there were trails I missed that would have brought me back home. But I ran for nearly two hours that day, stopping to get some bearings and realizing it was somewhat hopeless.

Finally, I noticed my own footprints back the familiar path, and things shifted. The world was coming into focus as if seen through a projector. Then I ran the two miles back to the lakeside resort where we were staying.

I had been lost, and was found on my own. Not through any grand effort or intellect. Nor was there any discernibly divine intervention. I was not in desperate straits. Just a little tired.

Sitting by the lake that afternoon with my children playing in the water below my feet, I looked out at the water and up at the trees. An osprey flapped past carrying a big fat fish. It all seemed wild, yet tame at the same time. That’s sometimes all we want from life. That life be somewhat predictable. But a little wild, too.

 

 

I talk to people

It used to drive my wife and children nuts. My propensity for talking to people. Yet I’ve done it so long and learned so much by talking with people that I refuse to stop.

Just last week I talked with a guy that sat down across from me in an airport. His vest had an interesting logo on it. I struck up a conversation and learned that he represented an organization that protects wild lands out west. I’m scheduled to interview the Executive Director to do an article and pitch it to a magazine.

So I talk to people for networking reasons. But I also talk to people just because it makes life more interesting. I talk to people in elevators. I talk to people that are nothing like me on the surface. I talk to people of different races and genders.

I especially talk to people who are out walking their dogs. I will stop during a run and pet their dog, asking permission first. I’ve met a lot of nice people this way. And talked to a lot of dogs. Generally, they appreciate the butt scratch I give them. I do not try to scratch the butt of their owners.

I talk to people while I’m out shopping for groceries. Obviously, I talk with people at church too. One feeds the belly. The other feeds the soul.

We talk to each other in new ways these days. Facebook. Twitter. GMail. Linkedin. Met a lot of interesting people these ways too.

There are days I talk to friends out of need. But sometimes that applies to strangers too. It’s amazing how consoling a conversation with a stranger can be sometimes. Then they’re no longer a stranger. I’ve helped people get jobs this way. Referred them to people they might like to meet. And learned about interesting opportunities along the way.

I talked with a woman in the swimming pool at the health club a couple months ago. She swam with her head above water and wore a modest suit. Her son was whaling away in the other lane, happy to be swimming hard. I learned that her husband was recently admitted to a facility where his health issues could be watched closely. They were making the best of things, but it was hard. After I got out of the pool, the mother and son showed up outside the locker room and we talked some more. I encouraged her son in his swimming. He was only in eighth grade, a bit soft in face and body. We all go through that phase. I told him that his swimming was really good. He smiled. In loco parentis. We do what we can. It’s a form of caregiving for the world.

I talk to people sometimes out of anxiety. It’s a release of sorts. Worry eats at you. So does fear. Talking to other people can keep those vexations at bay. Until you gain control.

I try to make people laugh if I can. Find something in common in line at Starbucks. Make a joke about the bananas getting too cozy. I take pride in trying to make people laugh. That’s the right kind of pride.

When people share concerns I try to listen rather than talk. And if they seek advice I try to relate, but not replace their worries with mine. But I’m not perfect. Sometimes flaws show through. Yet nothing makes me happier than when someone says, “Thanks for listening” or “Thanks for talking.”

I talk to people because I need to talk to people. For sure I’m a total loner at times and don’t want to talk with anyone. I can be happy out in the fields watching birds with no one around. Or riding my bike in windstorm. Don’t want to talk with anyone then.

I’ve talked with teammates during long runs and tried to figure out life along the way. It’s a fact: Every new day is a puzzle, and we only have this part of the puzzle to consider while we’re awake. That entire scenario is a puzzle to me. So I try to puzzle it out by talking with other people.

Sometimes you get rebuffed. People don’t want to talk. Think you’re an idiot. Don’t give a damn what you think. Disagree with your religion or politics. Hate you for being a man, or a woman, or some type of either. When you try to breach those barriers you become a problem in their life. Fuck off. Don’t try to change my thinking. You get the message. No more talking. You move on.

But still I keep talking to people. It’s worth it no matter what. It’s the only way I can hear myself think sometimes. Funny how that works. And why.