Past, Present, and Future Meet at a Conference

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

 FullSizeRender 31

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,

or didn’t.

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)

But still,

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.

FullSizeRender 29

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

submissive, docile,

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,

such fun

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.

FullSizeRender 32

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,

the future.

IMG_4129 2

Vegetarian Sampler at Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant, New Haven, CT


*”For Brazil’s Women, Laws are Not Enough to Deter Rampant Violence,”

–Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Weekend Edition Sunday

**C. Dallett Hemphill Publication Fund

20 thoughts on “Past, Present, and Future Meet at a Conference

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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)

  4. 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?

  5. 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!

  6. 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 🙂

  7. 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. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.