I didn’t even know the Venus of Willendorf inhabited Vienna’s Natural History Museum when deciding to spend our last afternoon in the city there. My son was weary of paintings, so while Madeleine and Chris headed to the Leopold Museum, Cam and I staggered through flocks of taxidermied rare and extinct animals. The museum was mostly non-air-conditioned so we were dizzy and wilting, fascinated and sad. I’m attracted to natural history dioramas but find them gruesome, too–all those creatures killed and stilled in the name of learning. I don’t know why Venus was among the early human life exhibits rather than in an art museum, but I was awed to meet her there.
I’m still jet-lagged and processing, but the whole trip was like that: lucky and wonderful, tiring and tricky. The intense itinerary was arrived at by family negotiation. I don’t love Vienna and argued to go elsewhere, but then decided to go with the flow–museums, beer, and pastries in any European capital are pretty great, after all, for tourists with Euros. Earlier in the trip, seeing Prague through our daughter’s eyes was especially amazing. She’d been studying there for months and planned itineraries that included not only the obvious sites but her favorite vistas and gardens, banh mi and coffee houses. Then, during the middle 3 nights of our 10-day holiday, we visited Chris’ second cousins in Slovakia, driving from Bratislava to the eastern village of Hranovnica, where Chris’ grandparents grew up before moving to Pennsylvania coal-mining country. Everyone was kind and generous, toasting the Americans with shots of brandy before large meals, walking us round to the graveyard and then to more relatives’ houses for more brandy and sweets (sour cherry and cinnamon pancakes–a religious experience). The next day, we hiked to a lake at the foot of the High Tatras–some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen.
There were stresses, too, and not just from having a headcold and being tired and itchy (Chris and I had bad rashes, probably allergic reactions to Virginia creeper, and still have them, despite rounds of cortisone and prescription creams). I have about ten words of Slovak now, and two of them are “black” and “white,” because of a racist joke at dinner about the Roma people and Obama that led to a long, irresolveable conversation in halting language. The US is notorious for a wide variety of human rights violations, but so is Slovakia, where the chiefest involve the Roma population: segregated education, forced sterilizations. Madeleine has been studying the crisis and knows way more than I do about its complexities, but trying to talk from that schoolwork just dropped us into an all-too-familiar education vs. life experience quagmire argument, deepened by tensions among the Slovak relatives themselves. It was hard to talk across our cultural and linguistic gaps, many of them springing from our relative wealth.
Even as we disagreed, I was feeling or imagining some hard-to-articulate connections. I was watching middle-aged and older women, most of whom spoke little or no English, work incredibly hard at making up clean beds in village houses without clothes driers, and feeding us elaborate meals cooked from scratch in small kitchens, although they, like the men, have demanding jobs. I was attending to them so closely that a couple of times, when someone said something in Slovak, I responded correctly in English and got accused of telepathy. There was lots of emotional eye contact, some of which I thought I could translate, although much is surely beyond my understanding: a mixture of pride, watchfulness, resignation to the hard work women do, and sadness at how family disperses further and further by the year, generations less and less intelligible to one another–perhaps a common frame of mind among postmenopausal Venuses.
In other words, I was thinking about race and gender the whole trip, just as I was before I left. I was also struggling with complicated emotions about a colleague’s angry reaction to my last blog post, particularly my sympathy with a commission‘s recommendation that changing the name of Washington and Lee, my university, was not as urgent as other transformations. After I caught up on that Facebook thread, I was kept awake by surges of horror that I’d hurt a friend who is undergoing difficult transitions. I also felt misread by him, suspicious that my defensiveness was an eruption of privilege, hurt at the harsh and public way he’d called me out, and a host of other messy things.
This is not a digression but the bedrock of my response to my friend, and my feelings about art and work and travel: I often wonder if I’ve wasted my life at Washington and Lee. I’ve been told by a wide range of people, in ways that are always demoralizing but occasionally frightening, that I’m not allowed to refer to my experiences at this university as harassment and discrimination, but I know how seriously I’ve been damaged by 24 years of employment here. I’ve done good work, too, and used my income to support two brilliant kids who are going to make the world a better place, when some of us old people finally go extinct. Complicity/ struggle, privilege/ damage–I’m riding the slash-mark, uncertain of the value of my work and the costs of my choices, undecided about everything except that talking, and writing, are hard but worth attempting.
Well, given how my private apology to that upset friend was received, and that it was followed up by a thinly-veiled and soul-crushing Facebook post criticizing white women who center conversations about race around themselves, I guess some of those attempts have failed and one friendship is toast. But to anyone who reads this blog who thinks I’ve been a dodo but perhaps one with redeeming qualities, please know I’m sorry for all obtuseness and bad translation. Also know that I’m listening, always. And writing hard, because I decided long ago that I’d rather fail by speaking than fail by silence.
As I reread that last blog, for instance, what seems most blameworthy is not what I wrote but the unspoken understory, how other oppressions surround but do not surface in the report and my response to it. The Commission focuses on cruel exploitations of black Americans and, to a lesser extent, the undervaluing of women, and begins to reckon the reparations due. Almost no one is talking about the Monacans and other area tribes whose lands and livelihoods were stolen, who were also segregated and sterilized and otherwise profoundly harmed, to my institution’s benefit. What reparations are due in that quarter? Or how about the Latinx population doing so much of the domestic and construction work in Lexington, on and off campus, often ignored but also frequently threatened by omnipresent right-wingers who think all recent immigrants should be deported?
Again, not a digression: there’s a theory that the Venus of Willendorf was carved from limestone and tinted with ocher by a woman artist, based on how the proportions and facelessness suggest a woman looking down at her own body. My delight at the notion doubtless springs from my identity as an obscure woman artist, increasingly pudgy and trying not to be depressed about it, looking down at my flawed self and wondering how to make something good from my life. That ringing question implies an ongoing journey rather than a destination, I suppose. Best take a few deep breaths and get some sleep before the next leg.
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