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.



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.




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.


What’s in a name?

Many societies privilege particular ways of referring to individuals and share unspoken laws about which terms are proper for referring to men, women, and children as well as specific members of one’s own family. I came across an article today that addresses how women’s names are NOT spoken in Afghanistan, a practice  stemming from a tribal tradition that doing so exposes a wife or mother to visibility by other men. The same underlying logic influences conventions for dress. A body exposed, like a name revealed, dishonors a woman–but perhaps more importantly, the man/men to whom she belongs.

I’m of two minds on the perspective presented in Mashal’s article. On one hand, I would be appalled to be called “My Goat” or “The Household” rather than by my given name, “Cynthia.” I like to think that people who speak or see my name recognize the things I have accomplished and the person I have striven to become through my beliefs and actions.

On the other hand, I acknowledge the ethical barriers to intervening in the practices of another culture, of assuming that our Western perspective and attitudes are the best and should be the lens through which we judge others.  For example, I have taught many women over the years who cover their heads with a hijab and just about every inch of their bodies, few of whom I would describe as oppressed or diminished by the practice.

25 Things to do on Sunday

While perusing headlines on my phone this morning, I came across a story called “25 things to do on Sunday to lose weight all week”:


Given the amount of food and wine I’ve been shoveling in of late to address the stress of caring for my ailing parents and spending so much time away from my husband and daughters, I thought the article might be instructive. The idea behind the piece is a good one. Rather than waiting until Monday morning to get a fresh start, it’s wise to lay the groundwork on Sunday.

Many of the tips offered, not specifically those that are food-related, are applicable to other weekly goals. Like writing.

Since I came to Illinois on April 24, my work schedule has been anything but productive. Two to three days a week, Dad and I sit in the infusion room for eight hours at St. Mary’s in Decatur or in one or another doctor’s office. Back at my parents’ house, most of my time is spent tending to Dad’s needs and the business of running a farm or making trips to the nursing home to see Mom. Many days, I turn on my laptop for the first time no earlier than 8 or 9 p.m. and find myself drifting off by midnight. Simply put, it’s hard to get any of the numerous tasks that I have on my plate done.

So, today, being a Sunday, I’m adopting some of the tips in the article–a few related to food and exercise (equally important for making the most of the week) and some that could just as well be about getting things done in the realm of work all week long.

In the week to come, I’ve made dates with myself to

  • compose an additional chapter for part II of my book-in-progress . . . while parts I and III are well underway, the second section focusing on my life growing up here in Illinois has been more difficult to put into words
  • finish and send article pitches to two editors
  • provide feedback on incoming student work

I’ll also stick to my plan to run on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, and complete the grocery shopping to make healthy meals to keep Dad and me well-fueled for the week.

Sundays have always been a day for reflection and rest. I’m thinking they could also be a day for planning and looking forward to a productive, happy week. Wherever I happen to be.


Innocence for some

The op-ed “Let Black Kids Just be Kids” appearing in today’s New York Times addresses the racialized notions of innocence and corruption and children that have dominated American culture since the mid-19th century:

According to the author, White children have been associated with purity and innocence whereas Black children are portrayed as more sexualized, violent, and adult-like. One result, according to Robin Bernstein, is that the appearance and behaviors of Black children are judged through a harsher lens in our society. That’s one of the reasons why a Black child wearing a hoodie is perceived as dangerous, while a White child in the same attire might not attract much attention at all.

Bernstein’s essay is solid and provides ample historical context to prove her point. I also think that (too) many African American children, like the little girls who regularly congregate in Edwina’s apartment, have a look of weariness and distrust in their eyes. They have felt racism, both direct and indirect, in their short life. Survivorship in such a setting requires donning an extra layer of guardedness.