Monday Morning Musings:
“There is not present or future—only the past, happening over and over again—now.”
–Eugene O’Neill, A Moon for the Misbegotten
I attended an academic conference–
for the first time in many years.
It was a conference about the past,
well, it was a history conference, after all,
the history of the early American republic,
and I was there to comment at a session.
I was prepared to talk about the past
well, perhaps the present and the past,
(The past happening over and over again, now.)
but I also found my own past there,
past and present crashing into each other
strolling out from amongst the scholarly papers
to say hello,
Do you remember me?
“Do we do the awkward hugs,” I say to her,
my friend from graduate school days.
We haven’t seen each other for–
What is two decades? Three?–
So we sat and talked
over New Haven thin-crust pizza and wine,
and the years melted away.
We were two old friends,
well not that old,
but without the self-consciousness of youth.
We didn’t have to impress anyone at this conference,
we weren’t looking for jobs or tenure,
people either knew our names,
We talked of our children and spouses,
we talked of those we had both known who have died
we talked of work and play
of current events and cats.
It was so good to talk to her again
I hope we keep in touch.
I think we will.
The sessions I attended were stimulating,
so much so,
as to make me inarticulate when I got up to present,
my thoughts flowing and churning in my brain so fast,
faster than I could get them out in spoken words
(Sorry about that)
perhaps I made a fool of myself
but there are worse things,
at least I didn’t spill food on my dress
or vomit at the podium
and people were kind.
The past, present, and future all running together,
rape, rape culture, the subjugation of women
a crime of the past
a crime of the present
and what of the future?
Rape cultures exist all around us.
The term can describe the situation of enslaved people
in the nineteenth-century
(“Let’s just call that baby ugly,” said someone in the audience.)
it can be seen in the misogyny of the recent RNC convention,
in the power of celebrities and politicians and on college campuses.
My husband and I hear a NPR report on the car radio
on women in Brazil
where women are raped, battered, and murdered,
a “woman killed every two hours” there
and “assaulted every 15 seconds.”*
Taught and expected to be submissive
the property of men
like the women of the session I commented on,
the enslaved women of the south,
the women depicted in nineteenth-century pornography
the women in the literature and pamphlets of the time
those who speak out, those who don’t marry
those who are “ruined” by rape or seduction,
forced to become prostitutes, slaves, or they die
a cautionary tale
to marry, to obey,
the past, happening over and over again, now.
But I make a new acquaintance
to share ideas and experiences with over lunch,
to come out of a session on such horrors.
As she eats her salad, and I drink my smoothie,
I gaze at the poster
saying refugees are welcome.
We have a history of welcoming and denigrating refugees,
the past happening over and over again, now.
Then on to another session
honoring a historian who was beloved
by friends, students, and colleagues
but who tragically died too soon,
a moving session to attend,
although I had only met her once or twice
I wished I had known her.
Her legacy lives on in her writing
and in the students she inspired.
They are the future.**
Perhaps they are rare, these inspiring teachers,
yet, we read about them throughout history,
the past happening over and over again, now.
My husband and I have dinner,
Ethiopian food in a restaurant across from the hotel.
There is only one server,
a cheerful woman who managed to be friendly and helpful
though she had to serve, seat, and clean all the tables by herself.
Brain and stomach full
we settle down for the night
I think of the past, how it happens again and again, now,
*”For Brazil’s Women, Laws are Not Enough to Deter Rampant Violence,”
–Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Weekend Edition Sunday
Your post caught me at a good time, Merril. I was right there in New Haven with you at this conference, back again reminiscing with an old friend I hadn’t seen in — my how time does fly. I was there also feeling inarticulate and unprepared; and there once again pondering the old and the new, past and future. And now I am depressed, saddened really. We are indeed surrounded, as Pogo once told us, with insurmountable opportunities.
A valuable post, written with your usual elan.
Thank you so much, Janet. I’m glad I was able to take you on this journey. Thank you for your comment. 🙂
What a lovely interlude to meet up with an ‘old’ friend Merril. Though the topic was dark indeed. And continues. Here in SA a woman high court judge, highly esteemed, was recently suspended ?or de-frocked? for saying that rape culture is embedded in our society (or rather it was leaked by a friend of hers) … it was deemed to be a racist comment. Heaven help us all, for speaking the truth. Freud got it right when he said that we don’t learn from history – hence the repetition compulsion, where we continue the pattern until such time as the lesson is learned …
Thank you, Susan. I had not heard of the SA judge. Did she mention race at all? Otherwise, it seems to me that the people who think it was a racist comment are the racists. It scares me, too, that the people who tend to follow the demagogues are the people who do not know or do not care about history, and if they do, it is only in the most general “soundbite” sort of way.
she was a white woman judge speaking of ongoing cases she faced daily – and of how most are not brought to court, or charges are not laid –
It’s sadly so embedded that often even well-meaning people don’t notice it, or acknowledge it. I guess it’s like racism in that way. It’s not just the big things, all those little comments, looks, etc. are so important. Advertising. Just look at how all those women at Fox News were afraid to speak up, when one did, the dam broke.
I love that sign about refugees. Our local library has one posted right when you come in. (K)
A thoughtful comment, Kerfe. Thank you.
This post is filled with insight, empathy, and vulnerability. I caught the lines: “my thoughts flowing and churning in my brain so fast, faster than I could get them out in spoken words,” a familiar feeling when I present at confabs.
And the gentle notice: the server at an Ethiopian restaurant coping cheerfully with overload. Her natural disposition? or the result of female conditioning?
Note: At the moment, attending a conference would feel better than filling boxes of which I am weary.
Thank you for your very kind words, Marian. You make an astute observation about the female server. Of course, waitstaff want to get good tips, but she seemed to have an outgoing and cheerful personality. There was only one other occupied table when we came in, so I think she was fine at first. As more people came in, she seemed to be getting more stressed. We left her a good tip. 🙂
I am certain you are VERY weary of the whole packing process, and I know you will be very happy to have it all over with. Is the moving date coming soon?
Sometime in August. We’ve made two U-Haul mini-moves already.
Good for you! 👍
So much here in this poem! I see it through my lens of observing aging. As decades accumulate in our lives, we have our own “herstory” to deal with in every encounter. The processes of becoming wise and of becoming invisible can’t be separated from each other. Congrats on staying connected to your profession and for continuing to contribute to it. Your voice here and in your scholarship matters!
Thank you for your comment, Shirley. I know you’ve been to many conferences over the years. I appreciate your kind and wise words.
Very profound, philosophical, piece; nicely stitching together quote and conference. Well done, Merril
Thank you very much, Derrick!
A very interesting thought about how the past is not as far as we would think…especially without awareness we are blind to what is present (eg rape culture in North America). I enjoyed reading about your conference and am glad you didn’t have the worst case scenario on the podium (I am sure I saw that in a movie 🙂
Thanks so much, Janice. I am also glad I didn’t have that worse case scenario at the podium. 🙂
WOW! What an action-packed conference! Your observations on women’s rights in the world are exactly why I love Hillary as well as Jimmy Carter. They’ve both done so much to empower women around the world. And kudos to you as well! ❤
Thanks so much, Rachel! There was a lot at this conference that I didn’t do, but it was packed with interesting papers and activities.
I admire Clinton and Carter, as well. 🙂