The ambit of ambition

A former student, visiting campus for her 20th reunion, was telling me about deciding to remarry, as we shared glasses of wine by the window in a local bar. She recounted how the man she was dating said apologetically, as they started to get serious, “But I’m just not ambitious.” Her face brightened as she described her delighted reply: “That’s fine! I’m ambitious enough for the both of us!”

I love hearing about my students’ ambitions–may they change the world, because it needs changing!–especially when I once knew them as brilliant but underconfident young women. This former student is happily working long hours, while her husband has happily shortened his to care for their two young children. If I helped model that for anyone now building the life she wants, veering from the inherited scripts to do work that lights her up, that would be AWESOME. I felt so guilty about my own choices for so long, but I’ve reached a moment, with my kids aged 18 and 22, when most of that guilt feels quaint. Yes, I failed as a parent sometimes, but never because I had an intense job or wrote poems in my scant spare time. The things I was stupid about, I would have been stupid about regardless of occupational and vocational status, because then, and now, I’m still learning how to be a decent human being. In fact, teaching and writing help me be a better person. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self some things.

After that glass of wine, I walked home through a small town under construction and swarming with alumnae/i, pondering ambition. It was very much on my mind in my mid-forties, when I started writing the poems in my forthcoming collection. My current working title for the latter is The State She’s In, but whether or not my editor ultimately agrees about that, I’m polishing the ms now and the book will be out in March or April 2020. The collection, in fact, contains a sequence of five list-poems called “Ambitions,” and I considered whether I could or should incorporate the word in my book title. I guess I was asking common midlife questions: what is all this striving for? Am I on a path towards something good, goals I genuinely care about? Am I fulfilling my responsibilities to other people, to my work, and as a citizen–not the trivial stuff, but the deep obligations? Then an ambitious woman ran for office, and a man who despises women trumped her, and some of my struggle over that episode is in the book, too.

As I veered off Main St. onto the smaller road that leads home, I realized I may have turned a corner where ambition is concerned. I’m not sure how much of the change comes from turning fifty, or other revolutions in my life, or even just the fact that three books I worked on for years all have contracts now, so I can afford to be less anxious! Maybe my state of relative equilibrium is temporary. But while I still think many kinds of ambition are good and important, and anyone who’s nervous about ambition in women is a sexist jerk, I find I’m not fretting about productivity this summer, for once. I can’t even drum up worry about the reception my poetry book will eventually meet (the novel’s a bit different–still feel like an imposter there). I have a number of writing projects percolating, and I’ll be helping my kids launch into college and the working world, but I’m mainly grateful that a summer slow-down is allowing me to strengthen these mss and plan for how I can help them find audiences. My chief ambition, I’m realizing, is to make the books as moving and crafty and complicated and inspiring as possible.

After this trio (poetry and a novel in 2020, an essay collection in 2021), I may have a few more books in me, but my writing years no longer feel limitless. The lightning of major post-publication attention doesn’t strike most people and probably won’t strike me; I can live with that. I can’t control the luck, but I can make each book deserve readers and find at least some of the people who would enjoy them, and that’s what I’m really striving for. Well, deep down. I’m sure I’ll keep getting distracted by the other stuff, but the kind of ambition that ties a person up in unproductive knots seems to have less of a stranglehold on me than once upon a time.

Is this a Mother’s Day post? Maybe; work and motherhood have been tangled up with each other for my whole adult life, both logistically and emotionally. Plus, on Mother’s Day itself I’ll be reading at the Ox-Eye Vineyards Tasting Room in Staunton with Lauren Camp and Susan Facknitz, thanks to Cliff Garstang’s organizational genius, and then bringing Lauren back down to W&L for a reading on Monday, all of which is right after launching the new issue of Shenandoah this Friday–in other words, there won’t be much blogging time. I will be leafing through poems, though, trying to find the best pieces I’ve written on being a mother and a daughter, and maybe pondering whether I have any other important things to say on the subject. Because, you know, if it matters, I could find a couple of hours.

Venus/ dodo

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.