Another generation

My op-ed about farm succession is in today’s LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-ryan-family-farm-20171119-story.html

These many months of driving between Alabama and Illinois to assist my parents and learn what I can about farming for another generation have been difficult, but also a blessing. I’ve learned more about my family–both the one that raised me and my husband and daughters–than I thought possible.

The print version of the essay, by the way, should feature an aerial view of our family farm!

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“I used to be cool.”

Today, I was following an SUV on I-65 when my eyes were drawn to a bumper sticker that read “I used to be cool.” The message was one of many on the tail end of the vehicle, others referring to kids’ sports teams and school allegiances, political slogans, tourist destinations.

The coolness claim made me laugh. I frequently joke with my girls, now 19 and 16 years of age, that I used to be pretty cool–and maybe still am. Their typical response? “Oh, Mommy. No.”

When I first began teaching college courses, I was just a few years older than my students. Now, I am several decades older than they, sometimes older than their parents. It’s a weird feeling when common points of reference that I once shared with my students can no longer be assumed or when language choices present a divide in how we think about and talk about issues of the day.

As the traffic slowed and I continued staring at the bumper sticker, I started thinking that maybe moms like the one in front of me actually become cooler as they/we age.  After all, with age comes experience and a more complicated perspective on the world.

That’s pretty cool.

 

Muddling through mania

Joe called my parents’ house last night. Dad was already asleep, so I picked up.

“Mary Ann?” the man on the other end of the line asked.

“No, this is her daughter,” I replied.

Within seconds, my brother had been handed the phone and began a 20-minute rant. He was manic, speaking at an extremely rapid pace, one thought blending into another:

“I’m in Colorado Springs, at a concert, he’s about ready to begin another set, I love you, how are the kids, are Mom and Dad ok, remember when we were kids, I haven’t touched drugs since 2014, I love you, September 16 I had a major heart attack, thought I was gonna die, I’m sorry everybody is disappointed in me, I never meant to do anything wrong, I love you, I never really hurt anybody, I hope I see Mom and Dad again before I die, . . . ”

The conversation went on and on, and I found myself attempting anything to end it.

At least half of what Joe uttered was untrue. Some was complete nonsense. The last bit was based loosely in reality.

As I’ve written before, my brother is mentally ill, bipolar with signs of schizophrenia. But he’s also a long-time addict, liar and abuser. It’s not easy to reconcile these many sides of Joe, or to forgive and forget.

I’ve spent 53 years trying to survive as his sister. I’m tired. I imagine Joe is tired, too.

Duane

This morning, Dad received a phone call from a family friend letting us know that another dear friend who’s been quite ill had passed away.

Duane was a member of my parents’ longtime “club” of six couples that started doing things together shortly after they all married. Mom and Dad sometimes refer to members of the group as “the girls” or “the boys,” even “the kids”–even though the youngest is nearing 80 years of age.

Growing up, my family spent many evenings with Duane and his wife Betty, along with the other couples in the group. My brother and I got to know their kids over the years, from the days when our parents slipped us into pajamas assuming that we’d fall asleep in the car on the way home until we were all well into high school.

Duane isn’t the first to pass from this tight group. In 1975, one of the other men, Ronnie, died suddenly from an aneurysm, and for some time, the couples stopped meeting out of concern that Ronnie’s widow would feel left out coming to get togethers alone. Over time, they resumed their gatherings.

Duane will be missed. His passing reminds me that all members of the friend group are aging, that life in my hometown as I’ve known it is changing. Friendships like those shared by these six couples are rare, and it will be difficult to see them drift into memories.

Torn

I’m sitting in the Birmingham International Airport waiting for my flight to Chicago. The past ten days have offered a break from caregiving in Illinois, tending to my dad’s needs since he was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure and handling the logistics of Mom’s stay at the nursing home. Bruce and the girls and I had a great time in B’ham, going to our favorite restaurants, traveling to the river with Helena and my friend Suzanne (whose brother kindly lets us stay at his river house when it’s not otherwise occupied), and cuddling on the couch.

This time was different than my last visit home roughly four weeks ago. I’m no longer sure that I’m making the right choice, being away from my husband and kids for such long periods of time. On the surface, everything seems nicely orchestrated. I’ve taken Family Medical Leave from my job, and I’ll be back to my “real life” come January when the Spring semester gets underway. But that time is looking (and feeling) further and further away. I miss Bruce, Celia and Helena desperately, and seeing them for a week to ten days once a month no longer seems enough.

It’s funny how we’re led to believe that we can make the right choices in life, one at a time. Going with your heart–or gut–doesn’t really work when you’re feeling two conflicting ways at once. I am terribly torn. Dad is very, very sick and his prognosis is uncertain. I’ve become his go-to person for vetting medical advice, ensuring that he isn’t retaining too much fluid or exhibiting signs of trouble that might necessitate a trip to the emergency room.

Simply put, there is no one else who can do what I’m doing. My brother, Joe, is living in a homeless shelter in Colorado Springs, where he is slated to stay until a space opens up at yet another rehab facility in the state. I know this because five voicemail messages awaited me when I went into my office this past week.

“Hi Sis,” he said. “I wanted to let you know that I’m in Colorado to make a fresh start.”

Maybe that’s Joe’s intention at the moment, but I’ve seen his plans fall through again and again since trying drugs for the first time at age 13. I wanted to shout into the phone: “Good luck! Thanks to you, I’m the sole caregiver for Mom and Dad! I don’t give a damn about your ‘fresh start’!”

I know this time will pass. I will, God-willing, have many years to spend with my husband and daughters–to travel, take long walks, share our dreams. But right now, that future seems much too far away. At least 600 miles–the distance that separates Birmingham from my hometown.

 

 

Romania

For some time, I’ve wanted to visit Romania. According to a travel story in The New York Times, it’s a good choice: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/24/travel/romania-europe-bargain-family-travel.html?emc=edit_th_20170827&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038

When I co-led a Study Away Program to the Netherlands, I had the good fortune to meet two women from Romania, Cornelia and Anna, who served as our guides to sustainability efforts in the country. By the time our group left, we were all good friends.

Anna, especially, told me about her life growing up in Romania and sent me some pictures when she visited and attended a wedding of a close friend. Ever since, I’ve wanted to see the country for myself.

The city of Transylvania and Vlad the Impaler, inspiration for the tale of Count Dracula, are big draws. But so is the beauty of the landscape and the richness of Romanian traditions. Maybe one day, I’ll get the chance to go there.

Misunderstanding “Darwinists”

An op-ed in The Guardian reminded me once again of the dangers of dichotomous thinking–and of unfairly accusing others of such an approach to seeing the world: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/08/attack-darwin-evolution-science-an-wilson

Written by Jules Howard, the argument is that while many in the public realm remain engaged in a debate over evolution and creationism (parents, pastors and their congregations, school boards, and so on), most scientists are less interested in choosing a side. Rather, they are engaged in the ongoing pursuit of knowledge about  the complexities of life–how it began, how it has and hasn’t changed, the ways in which it continues to amaze and surprise. Of lesser concern is promoting or defending Darwin, who was actually one of many scientists thinking and writing about evolution and natural selection in the mid-19th century.

One thing that I love about the academic life is being constantly reminded about how much I and other scholars DON’T KNOW. When you read and think and question and engage for a living there’s often little time (or interest, for that matter) in declaring that one idea is RIGHT and anything contrary to that idea is WRONG. Ideas are far too interesting and perspective-driven to waste time in either/or wars.

I’ve been teaching college students since my early 20s, and I know that the surest sign of success in the classroom is when my students leave dichotomous thinking at the door. Better yet, when they lose interest in reclaiming that kind of thinking as they leave my course. Life is so much more exciting when we dwell in the grey areas.