The hole in my heart…that provides comfort in the storm

I’m sitting on my parent’s couch that they purchased 13 years ago – it barely shows any sign of wear.  My father passed away in June of 2001, just a few months after they had redecorated their home in a retirement community in Mesa, Arizona.  My mother had a stroke 4 years later and had to be placed in a skilled nursing facility until she passed away in May of 2010. I’ve written before about losing my mother, but there are days when it hits harder than others.

After my mother passed away, I was able to take most of her living room furniture and use it in our lake house near Austin.  It’s a bit formal for a lake house, but it’s a link to the life that my parents had made for themselves in retirement, and I’m sure they are glad that I’m able to use it. It’s hard to believe that it has been 13 years since my father passed away and 4 years since my mother passed away. There are still times when I want to pick up the phone and tell them how their grandsons are growing, or about the latest book I published.

As I sit on my mother’s couch, I think about the dreams they must have had for us.  As I look at turning 50 in October, I reflect on a life that has been blessed with a close-knit family, good friends and a world that is looking crazy at the moment, but that can’t even come close to the uncertainty that my parents had to live with, growing up during the depression, World War II, the Jim Crow South, and an America that considered them less than human. It’s during times like these that I have to kick myself in the rear and remember that my parents sacrificed so that their children would have amazing opportunities like I have been able to take advantage of in my life (and for a nice profile, see my friend Anne Boyd’s blog).

The passing of my parents and others close to me, including my niece Melissa, has left a hole in my heart, but as I sit here on my mother’s couch, I know that they are here with me, enjoying the evening with a laugh and a smile. Although they have passed from this world, their love lives on, in those they left behind and it helps to fill in some of the emptiness that is that hole in my heart — it won’t ever go away, but as my boys grow it will be filled with their achievements and most of all, their love. ♥

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One crisis passes at UT – what lies ahead?

If you have been following the news about the University of Texas, where I am a professor in the Department of Government, you will understand my previous post about stress.  I was very concerned about the developments with our President Bill Powers, and the impact it could have on the university. In the end, cooler heads prevailed, and Bill will step down at the end of this academic year rather than be fired immediately.  I had been asked by the Faculty Council to speak on Bill’s behalf at the emergency faculty meeting that was scheduled for Wednesday.  The surprise announcement that the Chancellor had backed down led to a quick end to the meeting, but I will share the thoughts I had prepared here:

When I became vice provost in 2006 it was an amazing time at the university. Bill Powers reached out and sought my advice on a variety of issues, something that I will always remember, even though I was newly-tenured and new to the Provost’s office. One of the things that I admire most about Bill is his willingness to listen and the respect that he shows to people, regardless of whether they are a student, a newly-tenured faculty member or a high school student considering coming to UT. I had the opportunity to travel with Bill to several high schools around the state for a diversity program called Longhorn Scholars. Bill took the time out of his busy schedule to meet with students from low-income neighborhoods to encourage them to go to UT. Bill’s commitment to diversity is unparalleled, from his support of affirmative action to his push for gender equality within the university. We didn’t always agree, but I always knew that Bill respected me, and he deserves the respect that the faculty is here to show today. I hope that Chancellor Cigarroa and the Regents will show their respect for Bill, this faculty and this university and allow Bill to stay on through this academic year.

Many articles have been written about the situation at UT, and on a personal level I hope that all parties will take a step back and focus on what is best for our students, faculty and staff as we try to move forward and choose new leaders.

My Happy Place – or how I deal with stress

Whenever I’m feeling stressed, I like to think of a place I’ve been that helps me to breathe and relax. During our recent trip to Belize, there were many great places, but after being home for a couple of weeks, I have to say that my favorite place was the Split on Caye Caulker. It was a great place to swim, enjoy a drink at the bar, watch the sunset and watch some soccer. Just thinking about it makes my stress levels drop a few notches.

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Belize: The Forgotten Country?

Belize
Let’s Make Belize A Place We Can Be Proud To Call Home!!!

I took this picture during our last evening in Belize, near the light house in Belize City. This sign epitomized the feeling I got as we drove around Belize – a country that clearly has a problem of low self-esteem. As a social scientist, I couldn’t help but observe the class and race divides in the country.  One evening while we were in San Ignacio we had a discussion with the proprietors of our jungle lodge.  I asked them about the divides in the country and they noted that many of the hardest workers came from Guatemala, and the women favored these men as husbands.  The Belize of San Pedro and Ambergris Caye was very different from that of the Cayo District or Belize City.  Our hosts also noted that the people who lived in Belize City looked down on the people in rural areas, although it wasn’t apparent that the poverty in the rural areas was any worse than in Belize City.  In fact, we found it much harder to navigate Belize City without being set upon by children or disabled people begging for change.

Although Belize has gang violence, it is nowhere near the scale of that in Guatemala or Honduras which is leading to the flow of children and families to the U.S. (see http://www.immigrationtexas.org/2014/07/unaccompanied-minors-and-refugees-from.html).  A very small country, with a population of only ~325,000, and having only gotten independence from Great Britain in 1981, Belize seems to be struggling to develop a middle class.  There are expats from the U.S. and other countries who buy land and even develop businesses that employ many people, but poverty seems to be a persistent problem.

Flag of Belize
Flag of Belize

I was struck by a story from one of our guides who wanted to come to the U.S., just as a tourist. He had to save up the $250 needed for the application form, and then hope that it would be approved which it was.  Still he had to save up the money to actually make the trip, and he said it would be a couple of years before he would be able to make the trip, even though his visa had been approved.

When we visited the Belize Zoo, all of the signs were clearly written to encourage Belizeans to preserve and support their wildlife. Tourism has had a positive impact, for example, people realize they can make more money by helping breeders find iguanas for their preservation program rather than hunting them for food.

I plan to read more about the history of Belize, but given the current state of the country, the British had to have left the country in a very impoverished and under-developed state, and the country has had to work very hard to build an economy that seems to rely primarily on tourism. I felt very safe in Belize, and the people were very friendly and grateful for the tourists who came from the U.S., Europe, and even Australia. However, the border with Guatemala will be a concern as well as general economic development that can help the country build a middle class.  I am no expert on Central America, but I feel like I learned a great deal from our trip to Belize and I hope to learn more as I observe from afar.

Belize: CAVES! Barton Creek Cave, Cave Tubing & ATM

We are back in Austin and I wanted to take a little time to process our trip before writing this post on Belize.  Belize’s geology includes lots of limestone which leads to the development of caves.  They have many cave systems that were also used by the Maya as long as 1300 years ago. I hadn’t read much on the caves, and our guidebook didn’t give much detail on them.  I was very glad that we had a guide with us who could explain some of the reasons the Maya were thought to have used the caves.  We started this lesson during our trip to Xunantunich, where our guide Edgar explained that in Mayan mythology the caves were the underworld and where water came from.  When drought hit, the Mayans headed to the caves to try appeal to their gods for relief, and toward the end of the Mayans habitation of the sites like Xunantunich, they appeared to become more desperate and offered human sacrifices along with food and prayers.

We began our cave exploration with Barton Creek Cave, near San Ignacio.

IMG_2050 IMG_2083They have found evidence that the Maya used this cave for ceremonial purposes, and there are still some shards of pottery on ledges where they may have performed ceremonial rites.  There were lots of interesting formations in the cave:

IMG_2091 IMG_2068 IMG_2058 IMG_2051After the canoe trip through the cave, we went to the nearby butterfly “ranch” where the owner gave us a tour and talked about the various species that they breed and a “walking stick” that likes to hang out around the butterflies:IMG_2103 IMG_2107 IMG_2108 IMG_2112 IMG_2125

There was also a great variety of hummingbirds who would come to the feeders and even sit on branches for their portraits!IMG_2142 IMG_2137 IMG_2136The next day was dedicated to cave tubing, but the boys couldn’t resist trying out the zipline first:IMG_2150 IMG_2147After the thrill of zip-lining we had a long hike through the jungle with our inner tubes to get to the mouth of the cave:

IMG_2167 IMG_2177 IMG_2174The water was fairly low, so we often had to follow the rule of “butts up” to avoid hitting rocks, but we had a great float through the caves. Our guide told us stories about Mayan culture and history, and how they revered the caves as the underworld.  Lots of great formations, like in Barton Creek Cave. At the end, we had a nice float in the open, through a few small rapids – it was great fun:

IMG_2179 IMG_2185 IMG_2184That day ended with a visit to the Mayan site Cahal Pech. This site is currently being excavated so there were a few archeologists there who could answer some of our questions – they are working to fix some of the damage done in the 1990s by previous archeologists who tried to reconstruct parts of the site using bad methods.

IMG_2192The next day, however, was truly the most magnificient cave – we definitely saved the best for last.  Aktun Tinichil Muknal (aka, ATM Cave) was discovered in the late 1980s and has remained untouched (for the most part) and unexcavated so that visitors could enjoy the site as it was originally found, with artifacts left by the Maya exactly as they were 1000 years ago.  It is also known as the cave of the “Crystal Maiden” for the skeleton that lies at the end of the tour, at the to of a grotto.  They actually aren’t sure if it is male or female, but the presumption is that this body and several others whose bones you can see were ritual sacrifices.  We weren’t able to take any pictures, but check out this video to get an idea of what the interior of the cave is like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MW9bdBVPeDQ

It was a pretty strenuous hike to get to the cave, then we started by swimming into the entrance and hiking through several narrow passages, in an out of the water.  To get to the main site of the artifacts, we had to climb a ladder, and then scramble on our knees through a narrow slippery area.  I still have a bruise or two and skinned knees to show for the effort, but it was totally worth it.  I would do it again for sure! This was definitely the highlight of our stay in the Cayo district.