New digs

Edwina has moved.

The rent for her old apartment, the only residence she’d ever called her own, went up and she couldn’t make the payments. Plus, once management at the place shifted, Edwina discovered that not much got fixed. As a case in point, she spent much of the summer without a front window after the wind shattered the glass during a particularly forceful storm.

Last week, Edwina and I decided to meet up. She wanted me to see her place and catch up on things since the last time we’d seen each other.

I had an hour or so between a scheduled appointment and the time I hit carpool to pick up the girls from school, so I checked out my Google map directions and headed off towards Edwina’s new digs.

But the closer I got to my destination, the more out of place I felt. Block after block revealed dilapidated buildings, abandoned cars, street dwellers hanging out on corners and propped up against store fronts and benches in the middle of the afternoon. Perhaps my discomfort stemmed from an unclear sense of direction–I’d never been in this particular part of Birmingham before–but whatever the reason, my gut told me to turn around and head back towards my own side of town.

When I got home following carpool, I couldn’t help feeling guilty. My friend had moved to what seemed like a more dangerous area because she had no choice. Shouldn’t I be willing to move outside my comfort zone for an hour to pay her a visit? I’d never turned away from Edwina before, not because of a decision she’d made that I disagreed with or because I didn’t completely understand her perspective on something. What made this situation any different?

I was scared. Driving through Edwina’s new neighborhood, I felt like I stood out. I was dressed up for work, driving a car that looked newer and in better condition than any other means of transport I saw in the area. I hadn’t come across another white person as I drove block to block looking for Edwina’s address. Despite years of knowing Edwina, her family and her friends, I didn’t feel safe in her new surroundings. And I felt terrible for admitting that I felt the way I did because of what I saw when I looked out my car window.

Edwina and I did meet up the next day when she stopped by my office. We chatted for a while and then she headed for home when I told her it was time for me to leave for class.

Ignorance is bliss?

A story in today’s New York Times caught my eye: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/24/opinion/the-case-for-teaching-ignorance.html?emc=edit_th_20150824&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

The author claims that overstating the certainty of knowledge is a problem. When we convey the message that we know everything there is to know about just about anything–climate change, the common cold, characterization in Winnie the Pooh–we’re apt to 1) be wrong, and 2) ignore the questions yet to be asked and answers yet to be given. Curiosity, Jamie Homes claims, is fueled by uncertainty.

I run into the discussion of what scientific understandings are more and less certain every semester when I teach a writing class to college freshman enrolled in UAB’s Science and Technology Honors Program. While many students have learned to appreciate those ideas that are backed by stacks and stacks of evidence, fewer are eager to share the complexities that confound researchers.

It’s my task as a teacher to encourage students to view research gaps, questions, and puzzles as opportunities to keep on looking. As I tell my students, that’s where the fun lies.

First days

Today marks my oldest’s last first day of high school and my youngest’s first first day of high school. As I snapped their picture this morning, I wondered (like most parents, I imagine) how we got to this point so quickly.

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I sometimes tell new moms who express disbelief that my daughters are so grown up that once the girls started school, time seemed to move at record speed. Perhaps it’s because my husband and I are both academics and we measure our time largely around semesters. Or, maybe it feels the same for every parent.

While I’m waxing nostalgic, I want to gush a tad, too. Despite the many questions and uncertainties Bruce and I have faced as parents, I’m proud to say that my daughters are wonderful people–smart, funny, and kind. I couldn’t ask for more.

About Alice

While in Oxford, England, Celia and I visited Alice’s Shop. It’s a quaint establishment devoted to all things pertaining to Alice in Wonderland, and is located at a site frequented by the real-life Alice Liddell on whom Lewis Carroll based his famous heroine. Celia was thrilled to visit a place with a connection to one of her favorite characters in print and film.

Celia outside Alice's Shop in Oxford, England.

Celia outside Alice’s Shop in Oxford, England.

Since returning to the U.S., I’ve come across a couple of stories about what many consider to be Carroll’s most famous characters–Alice, the Mad Hatter, a grinning Cheshire Cat, the Red Queen, and so on.

The first was a story in The New York Times about an exhibit featuring the beginnings of Alice’s adventures soon to travel from England to Philadelphia:
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/26/arts/design/looking-at-the-birth-of-lewis-carrolls-alice-150-years-old.html?emc=edit_th_20150626&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=1

And then I came across a story on Salon.com written by Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi:
http://www.salon.com/2015/07/12/azar_nafisi_over_the_years_i_have_often_thought_of_alice_as_my_ideal_reader/

Nafisi shares her life-long love of Alice, whom she imagines to represent the epitome of curiosity. She claims that the hookah-smoking caterpillar’s question “Who are you?” directed towards a disoriented Alice who finds herself in a new land is powerful in many ways. According to Nafisi, the question prompts us to probe our own position in the world and to be open to the ways in which our values and beliefs grow throughout our lives. Plus, the author adds, Alice’s misadventures in Wonderland flew against the grain of strict conventions for proper thinking and doing in Victorian England. Perhaps that’s what makes Alice’s wanderings so much fun!

A writer’s voice

A writer’s voice is as distinctive as a fingerprint.

One of the challenges I often face as a writer is deciding which voice I should turn to when writing something for a popular audience. Through years and years of institutional training, my default voice has become an academic one. And when the subject matter is particularly sensitive, like in my memoir about the friendship between Edwina and me and the circumstances that brought us together, I oftentimes find myself theorizing ideas rather than jumping into experiences and exchanges we’ve shared.

Speaking as an academic isn’t usually intentional in these instances. It’s simply easier, and far less painful, to write about matters like abuse and addiction and illness from a distance.

Since starting work on my memoir, I’ve taken some breaks to read work by authors whose default voice is a less academic one. People like Heidi Julavits, author of The Folded Clock, and Marina Keegan, whose posthumous book The Opposite of Loneliness speaks without pretense to readers.

The kind of pain and insight and wonder I’ve experienced as a breast cancer survivor and in my relationship with Edwina is the sort that’s felt first. I just wish that I could resist the urge to push down those feelings by over-thinking what it is they mean. Sometimes, it’s what we sense deep inside that matters most. It is enough.