In the early seventies, I was a victim of sexual harassment not unlike Anita Hill’s. I lost my job after refusing the demands of a man who was not only well-regarded in the industry, but the recipient of numerous manager-of-the-year awards. I didn’t share my story with anyone, barely admitting it to myself. There was no name for these things then. I continued on best I could, largely unaware of the unending ramifications. More to the point, I didn’t fully realize there were ramifications until I was forced to face those times while writing my most recent novel.
In fact, it wasn’t until I’d reached the end of the second or third draft that I realized, had the courage to realize – thanks in part to #metoo – that what had precipitated the novel’s story line wasn’t an unusual experience teaching in South Carolina, but the fact that losing my job for refusing my boss’s advances was the reason I was in South Carolina at all.
All these years later, I could not tell you the color of the carpet in the man’s office, or the names of others involved, or the name of the bar around the corner, or in what hotel one particularly alarming conference was held, but I remember the smell of the man’s cologne, the flash of his rings on his right hand, his wedding ring on his left, his disarming smile.
To survive, I walked away, but I now know that what I also did was assume the blame and shoulder the shame. I’d been fired. I’d failed. I did delicately mention the possibility there was a problem to the head of HR, a woman, but that was folly. I was shown the door.
I can’t recall the immediate aftermath. I do know I had a two-year gap in my resume, since I was forced to leave without a positive recommendation. To what extent losing that job interfered with all future job prospects and altered subsequent events in terms of employment and income and relationships is impossible to calculate. The toll it took on my self-esteem, my sense of self, my value in any circumstance, not only the work place, can only be guessed at.
Cut to today. I had finished the novel. I was finished with all the degradation, all the digging into the past for details, all the parsing of subsequent choices. I was done with the pain of mis-assigned guilt. Or so I thought.
#Metoo revelations are infuriating, but at last the problem is out in the open. At last, progress will be made. Damage can’t be undone, but women my age can come to terms with events, and younger women will be free from the humiliations, dented reputations, and hits to earning potential and career satisfaction.
Or so we thought. Enter Christine Blasey Ford. It’s not over. It’s never over. For victims, it’s never over. Not only does the abuse continue and continue to be dismissed, every time there is a mention of this event or any of those all-too similar events in our newsfeeds, we relive our own experiences, those of our friends, and the aftermaths that pursue us, decade after decade.
And now many of the same men who presided over Anita Hill’s testimony, the same men who went on to say okay to Clarence Thomas, are now poised to say okay to Brett Kavanaugh. This has prompted me to revisit my novel. Have I given my character full expression? Is her pain, her denial, the rocky path forced upon her sufficiently palpable? Or am I still protecting myself? After all, I wasn’t fifteen. I was twenty-two. I must have ‘let’ these things happen. Apparently, I wasn’t strong enough. Smart enough. Savvy enough. After all, not all women are abused – thank goodness. But I was, so it must be my fault.
Intellectually, I know this is wrong. But viscerally, the questions go on. Our story never ends.
Coimbra, always colorful, is especially vibrant during June and July. In addition to the annual feasts and fairs, just last week was the Festas de Rainha Santa Isabel, or Feast of Queen Saint Isabel, held every two years. It was truly extraordinary.
But first, the annual Costume Parade: neighborhoods, organizations, schools, and businesses spend months preparing costumes and floats. There is a fabric store with an entire room devoted to the very elaborate fabrics and ribbons needed to construct all of the costumes. Each group pauses before the Santa Cruz Cathedral to perform traditional songs and dances before continuing on through town. The community spirit is infectious. I love the boy in the first photo — somebody must have made a mistake!
Even the men dress up.
Every June welcomes a ten-day Craft and Wares Fair, set up along the beautiful Mondego river. The stalls spill over with gorgeous art and crafts, some a continuation of century-old traditions, some fresh art. One of our favorites was this woodworking booth. These bowls that seem struck by lightening are in fact made by applying 10,000 volts of electricity. The proprietor explained the process he had acquired over years of experimentation. Some of his bowls, vases, and platters do in fact take years to make, drying the wood, shaping it, and creating the patterns, which, he says, evolve as a surprise even to him.
Everything is handmade, intricate, and tempting.
Naturally, I gravitated to the booksellers. I found a wonderful bilingual book of T.S. Eliot poems, and the bookseller is keeping his eye out for a good Portuguese translation of Emily Dickinson! He also introduced me to Portuguese poets. I now own two volumes — that I can’t read. Yet.
Merchants frequently line the Rua Ferreira Borges and Largo da Portagem with food and flowers and, although these particular women aren’t smiling, good cheer! Their bread was delicious. They also treated us to shots of their homemade, can’t find it anywhere else, liquor.
Each summer there’s a Renaissance Fair. This year it was held at the base of Se Velha, or Old Cathedral, built in the 1200’s. Despite visitors in shorts and flip-flops, the participants truly capture Renaissance atmosphere. I could have done without the roasting of a whole pig . . .
Add to all this the World Cup! Many gathered to watch on a HUGE screen set up in the Praca do Comercio. I was there when Portugal beat Spain! And, sadly, when PT was beat by Uruguay. I live at the top of a hill a ten-minute walk away, but could hear crowds cheering during matches.
Festas de Rainha Santa Isabel is held every two years, with main events occurring over four days. On the first night, fireworks at midnight above the Mondego River. On the next, a Candlelight Procession from the Santa Clara Monastery across the Santa Clara bridge and through town to the Santa Cruz Cathedral. The procession attracts hundreds of pilgrims. Some walk barefoot. A few crawl. Many carry roses. Hundreds more spectators line the streets in every direction. Truly remarkable is the respectful silence. I have never heard such a throng so quiet. Eight men dressed in black and gold ceremonial robes men carry the statue, and pause on the Santa Clara bridge for prayers and fireworks. The legend of Santa Isabel helps to explain the adoration, and especially Coimbra’s:
As Queen, she was devoted to caring for the poor, but the cruel King was opposed. He threatened to imprison her if she continued. One winter day, as she was leaving with bread hidden in her skirts, he demanded to see what she was carrying. “Roses,” she said. Impossible. “Show me.” When she opened her skirts, roses fell, not bread. She continued her work and later founded the Santa Clara monastery here in Coimbra.
And so, roses surround the base of her statue, and many participants dressed as the queen carry them in the procession.
Petals are strewn in her path.
Her statue rests in the Santa Cruz Cathedral for three days before being carried back to her monastery in another very solemn procession. Stores close. People are silent. For me, it wasn’t so much a religious ceremony as one showing reverence for the city and the thousand years of history at its core.
On the final night, more fireworks!
Things will seem quiet now, but there’s always more to explore. Tonight there’s a light show in the University courtyard. Later this week, music at the amphitheater. But first, back to that novel. Now, where was I?
To be honest, I’d been waiting for and a little worried about the let down I’d been told was an inevitable part of moving abroad, the point at which the novelty wears off and reality sets in. When there was no let down, I wondered what was wrong with me. Where was second-guessing? The culture shock? Even my doctor in the U.S., an expat himself, had gently warned me to be prepared.
But it didn’t come and didn’t come. I have been here the better part of a year. A couple of things went haywire in this apartment, quirks I just have to live with revealed themselves. And still, no regrets. The winter holidays came and went, and, yes, I missed seeing friends and family in person, but I got through. The winter rains came, some torrential, keeping me inside many days. I was still okay. There is very little central heat anywhere here, and nights were sometimes in the forties. Still, nothing. I ran into some confusion with the medical community during my concussion recovery. And still no.
I’d expected to travel a great deal here, to hop on planes to suddenly-close places, London, Amsterdam, Florence. But I never wake up restless, I never wake up with the urge.
There’s definitely something wrong with me. I’m hardhearted. Out of touch. In denial.
But, no. That’s not the case.
During conversations with visitors considering a move to Portugal or elsewhere in Europe, their questions sometime center on what place will embrace them, what place will make them feel at home. In conversations with those already here who are not adjusting, and even seem bored, the novelty has clearly vanished. What’s the difference?
I think I know.
I didn’t come here for adventure. I didn’t come here to find myself. I came here to be myself. I didn’t need Coimbra to be anything other than Coimbra.
Many thanks to Linda and Vince B for the photos. June is a very busy month here, with fairs and festivals nearly every day. I’ve gathered some of their photos and mine for a separate all picture post. Enjoy!
Although clearly recovering from my concussion, there’d been no sign of that delicious sense of well-being that usually washes through after an illness, producing energy. Energy wasn’t just out of reach. It was invisible. Maybe I’d lost the oomph, the impetus, to write. It’s so pleasant being lazy.
My only busy time of day was worrying while typical “what if I’m not good enough, what’s the point” doubts entwined with concerns that I’d lost the need to produce. Day after day, my computer and books and notes sat here glaring. I swear they were whispering mean things.
But yesterday, and again this morning, that euphoria, fresh as day. I’m working again.
Other setbacks have had more to do with family or professional pressures, and have served to spur me forward, to sort things out, find answers. I was fortunate that this illness was relatively short-lived. As I get older, I’d better be prepared for more, long and short. But it’s a relief to know the compulsion to write isn’t something I’m likely to run out of any time soon. There’s still a lot to (try to) make sense of, and more no doubt coming.
For those of you wading through setbacks long and short, I pray for euphoria.
It was a typical Sunday here in Coimbra. Bright and sunny, I’d walked from the local train station through Choupal Park, to Centro Hipico de Coimbra – the stables – for my turn with a friend’s horse. I spent a lovely hour or so there, and walked back through the park to the station, as I have done several weeks in a row. It’s about four miles round trip. But I’ve become joyfully accustomed to walking long distances and up and down hills daily. No big deal.
I sat down for a moment to wait for the train. When I stood, my vision went all black at the edges. I fully expected it to clear, I was waiting for it to clear. Instead I came to up through a sea of concerned faces. I’d fainted. My first question was, “Did I miss the train?” I wanted to know how long I’d been out. None of my saviors spoke any English, however. I believe one of the older men was a physician; he was wonderfully calm, took my pulse, checked my eyes. He and his wife helped me to stand. He kept a hold of my hand, taking my pulse now and again, sort of folding my hand into his soft, strong, warm one.
I wanted to marry him.
The trip to the ER revealed nothing. Vital signs normal. Not enough water, perhaps. Or I hadn’t eaten enough breakfast. Or maybe the day was hotter than I was used to. There was nothing to be done. They sent me home with a package of biscuits and a container of milk.
I took a bus. An unfamiliar route. Got off too soon. Had to walk kind of far.
Belatedly, I noticed the back of my head was sore and realized I’d clunked it on the cement wall.
Over the next 48 hours I grew dizzier and dizzier. I recognized the sensations and symptoms. Several years ago I suffered a very bad concussion – a wicked fall off a horse. I was concussed again. And time is the only cure.
My being – and staying – in Portugal largely depends upon my staying healthy and independent. It has been a troubling two weeks. I haven’t been able to move my head, much less work. Or take walks. Or do errands. On one or two days, I was so dizzy and nauseous I couldn’t so much as listen to music. It made me sea sick.
In the middle of this, one of the two very young kittens I only recently adopted died.
Linda and Vince, the friends mentioned in earlier blogs, have brought in groceries and offered daily encouragement. So I am not alone.
But the specter of vulnerability, of dependence, of not being able to walk where I want, or where I need to, of not being able to work, has descended from an abstract place floating somewhere over my head to one sitting just there, in that chair.
I feel better today. I was able to write at least this. I’m encouraged. But will I ever leave my apartment with quite the same confidence? What caused the fainting in the first place? We don’t know. What if fainting is a permanent part of me?
Hannah Arendt wrote, “Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold your life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time.” I’m finding this to be true in ways I never would have expected, but I don’t believe we need radical departures to achieve something of this state of mind.
In her novel, Go Went Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck writes that Richard, newly released from an academic career, “. . . has time – plain and simple. Time to travel, people say. To read books. Time to listen to music. He doesn’t know how long it will take for him to get used to having time.” He’s uncomfortable. All those open days. But in those open hours he finds a self that has been waiting. Richard is more complex, more generous, and far more human and connected than he dreamed.
But waiting until retirement for life to feel true is as terrible as waiting for opportunities to be overseas. Yes, both gave me permission to allow all that was extraneous and distracting to fall away. What I didn’t know is that I didn’t need permission.
Gordon Mennega recently recounted the experience of a colleague who has found a way to balance professional duties with much more contemplative time. The result, in Gordon’s words, is that thinking feels almost new.
The thinking feels almost new. That’s exactly it. Grounded but fresh.
I’ve discovered that my work has been keeping secrets from me. Suddenly I see this novel draft clearly and what all those unfinished short stories are asking to become. If I’d fully understood the true cost of distraction and bedevilment prior to the major life changes I undertook last year, I like to think I would have taken advantage sooner.
But I celebrate. Loving life fully instead of only bits and pieces is better late than never.