Thirty-six hours in the ‘Ham

There’s a lot of fun to be had in my adopted city of Birmingham, Alabama. Today’s NYT highlights just a few of the places to visit:

Come on down to the ‘Ham, y’all!

Stolen Beauty

One of the highlights of my time in the Netherlands was the magnificent artwork. On our free days, the students who participated in the Study Away Program taking some time to explore the country on their own, my colleague from UAB and I often traveled to one or another art gallery. We saw mesmerizing works including “Girl with a Pearl Earring” in The Hague and “Starry Night” in Amsterdam. The Netherlands is home to many, many famous artists–Rembrandt, Vermeer, van Gogh, and Brugghen among them.

A story in today’s New York Times explores a very dark moment in Holland’s history generally and in the art world specifically. During World War II, numerous paintings by the Dutch Masters were stolen by the Nazis and, as the article posted here reports, are being returned by Holland’s authorities to their rightful owners in an untimely manner:

I hope that I will be able to return someday to the Netherlands to revisit the great works of art I saw on my visit in 2015. Perhaps some memorable pieces will have been relocated.

On a related note, a film called Woman in Gold featuring Helen Mirren as a Jewish Holocaust survivor seeking her family’s art that had been taken by the Nazis is supposedly a compelling portrayal of the beauty and riches stolen from Jews during the war. I’ve not seen it yet but just might after reading the story in the NYT.


A new life in Bangalore

One of my favorite destinations in India is the city of Bangalore. It’s a bustling place, and the streets are filled with young people, many of them the company representatives on the other end of the line when we Americans call Dell or another U.S.-based corporation.

Today’s New York Times features a story about how some of those working in industries in Bangalore make their way there and some of the difficulties they face:

The article tells the story of Prabhati and Shashi Das, among others, who travel from their small village in the Northeast portion of India to Bangalore, a southern city some 33 hours away by train, to work. Life in Bangalore is, unsurprisingly, quite different than life in a small Indian village, where young women are protected by their families from men so that they may remain chaste (and just as importantly, be perceived as chaste) until an arranged marriage to an eligible bachelor who agrees to the family’s dowry. In the city, village girls like the Das sisters are often vulnerable to temptations with which they have no prior experience.

I learned about women in Prabhati and Shashi’s shoes when I interviewed the publisher and editor of Woman’s Era, a women’s magazine published in New Delhi. The target audience includes women who often find themselves in temporary working environments in a city like Bangalore, women who might be exposed to modern ways, modern fashion, and modern relationships.

An underlying message conveyed to readers of Woman’s Era is to remember that their reputations must remain intact for the time when they return to their villages to marry.




Blessings from Ganesh

A festival honoring the Hindu god, Ganesh, recently filled the streets (and surrounding waters) of Mumbai:

In India and Nepal, Ganesh’s image appears everywhere–over doorways, in large temples and small shrines along the roadside, on clothing, handbags, and jewelry. I have numerous tributes to Ganesh in my house, too. Just in case he does bring blessings!

Visiting Kielce

The past few weeks have been full. Classes at UAB have begun, and my oldest daughter is now officially a college student living on campus. It’s strange to have her so near, yet not in the house with us.

As I get back into familiar routines, I’m also beginning to sort through my research this summer in Poland. While there, I visited a cancer center in Kielce, where I interviewed several cancer survivors, healthcare providers, and even the founder of the facility. By my side were three new Polish friends/colleagues: Joanna Bogusz and Dorota Dudek-Godeau from the National Institute of Public Health in Warsaw, and Ewa Brdak, a translator. Together, we examined how cancer care is delivered in this area and the ways in which survivors’ lives are affected as a result.

One of our specific visits was with members of The Amazon Group, a national organization for breast cancer survivors with chapters in several regions, including Kielce. Following my visit, an article was written by a journalist from the facility. Here it is, in Polish!,164467,1013.html



Papal Prayers in Poland

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind. Following a trip to Illinois to deliver The Alabama Project to Loyola’s Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, I embarked–along with my daughter Celia and 13 others from St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in Birmingham–on another journey to Poland for World Youth Day.

This week alone, we have experienced the horrors and hope of our world, from the bleak concentration camps of Auschwitz I and II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) to the blessings of Divine Mercy at the St. Faustina Chapel in Krakow.

The greatest moment was when Pope Francis arrived late yesterday afternoon as the rain came down to offer his welcome address amid thousands of WYD pilgrims at Blonia Park. As we stood along the streets awaiting the Popemobile (aka the Holy See’s fiat), Pope Francis flew by on public transportation. Most of us never considered that Pope Francis would opt for the tram, but that’s the kind of pope he’s proven to be time and time again.

The Pope’s message to the large group of youth from many countries, which we listened to intently through the assistance of handheld radios translating his words into multiple languages, was simple and moving: He told us that it disheartens him to see so many young people “retire” early in their lives, to give up hope and dreams before they reach their mid-20s. Apathy, drugs, desolation are among those evils affecting the world’s youth. To be merciful to others, he said, we must hold onto hope for our own lives. Only when we experience mercy and grace in our souls can we extend it to others.

In this post, I offer just a few glimpses of our journey thus far.


Inside the chapel at Niepokalonow, devoted to St. Maximilian Kolbe, who sacrificed his life for another prisoner at Auschwitz


Inside the chapel at Niepokalonow, devoted to St. Maximilian Kolbe, who sacrificed his life for another prisoner at Auschwitz


Inside the chapel at Niepokalonow, devoted to St. Maximilian Kolbe, who sacrificed his life for another prisoner at Auschwitz



Celia and I enjoying “pope cakes,” a favorite of John Paul II, in his hometown of Wadowice



Inside the chapel at Niepokalonow, devoted to St. Maximilian Kolbe, who sacrificed his life for another prisoner at Auschwitz


Inside the chapel at Niepokalonow, devoted to St. Maximilian Kolbe, who sacrificed his life for another prisoner at Auschwitz


Inside the chapel at Niepokalonow, devoted to St. Maximilian Kolbe, who sacrificed his life for another prisoner at Auschwitz

Surviving, in context

In August, I’ll be traveling to Poland to interview both urban and rural cancer survivors. Specifically, I’ll be examining how the environment in which Poles live and their ages (as in, did or didn’t they live through Communism) influence their responses to a cancer diagnosis and their expectations for treatment.

One of the places I’ll visit is Mielec. The city now has a population of more than 60,000 and is known for its aviation industry. The history of Mielec, though, is bleak.

During WWII, thousands of Jewish citizens in Mielec were enslaved in a factory building German bombers, while others were sent to concentration camps or massacred on the streets. By the conclusion of the war, few living Jews remained in Mielec, and none were left unscarred by the atrocities they witnessed. Today, there are monuments to those who suffered and markers designating mass graves where Jewish bodies were discarded by the Nazis.

As I’ve learned more about the history of this place, I’ve found myself questioning how much one’s history matters when diagnosed with cancer. Survivors whose lives are rooted in struggle surely face cancer from a different perspective than those whose existence pre-cancer is characterized by relative peacefulness.

Certainly, I have seen how Edwina’s lived experience of poverty, abuse and racism has made breast cancer one among many challenges she has endured. For me, the disease represents a dramatic turning point in my life, one of the first situations, at age 29, no less, in which I had no control to make things right.

I am anxious about visiting a place like Mielec, where so much pain and suffering has occurred. At the same time, I want to know more about how these experiences equip cancer survivors for another difficult journey.