We think not only of people, but of ideas, cultures and institutions enduring.
Endurance is a word that evokes a sense of both strength and determination, though there are many shades of meaning. In this issue, a compelling essay by Rachel Monaco-Wilcox of Mount Mary University in Milwaukee reflects on a transformational writing project involving victims of sexual violence.
In this issue of On:
From the Director’s Desk
When Mark Livengood, the WHC’s Grant Program Director, suggested “endurance” as the theme for this issue of ON, dozens of stories and shades of meaning came to mind. With difficulty, I chose one story to feature.
I had the pleasure of meeting Rachel Monaco-Wilcox through the writing project she organized at Mount Mary University with grant-funding from the WHC. The project is an exceptional demonstration of the power of language and story, and of the humanities to uplift us. Project participants who experienced sexual violence turned to literature and writing to transform their private stories of endurance into public expression. Their stories speak to the question asked by all the humanities, “What does it mean to be human?”
We think not only of people, but of ideas, cultures, and institutions as enduring. Which do – or should – is the subject of many public humanities projects. Just in the past few months, WHC-funded programs brought people together
… in Green Bay to consider how Native American storytelling is evolving as tribal members and stories go cinematic,
… in Waunakee to ponder when, why and how people choose to rebel against the status quo,
… in Price county to explore Wisconsin history and local folk culture, and
… in Ashland to learn how ideas about our relationship to the land are changing.
In the coming months WHC grants will enable young women in Milwaukee to study Emily Dickenson and to connect her life as a poet to their own lives. In Janesville, the lasting influence of Irish immigration is the focus of a new exhibition. In Prairie du Chien, enter the Crawford County court house and you will learn how local justice has changed and how it has stayed the same since the 1800s.
Thank you to our donors who are helping the WHC endure. More than ever, your gifts are necessary to ensure that the humanities continue to enrich the lives of Wisconsinites in every corner of the state.
–Dena Wortzel | Executive Director | email@example.com
Essay: Durable Goods by Rachel Monaco-Wilcox
Are we durable like a dog’s toy, made of recycled firehose?
Do we have striped backs like Sicilian Cross donkeys, enduring as marked beasts of burden?
Do we endure as some do in childbirth, with a silver joy-lining; undergirded and thus made right by centuries of natural cycles?
Or do we endure like stars in the sky, winking by day unseen and by night in heaven’s bowl, while the minutiae and the agony of humanity unfolds beneath us. . .
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
What I know of endurance, as I reflect on the women and men I meet in our testimonial writing workshops for survivors and witnesses of sexual violence, is that endurance bears its own cruelty. People in general, and trauma survivors in particular, are made of durable material. Mostly, this is not by choice. Your body heals, sometimes against your will and perhaps only partially and with some scars. Your mind can still think, albeit, clouded by shadows. Your emotions, well, they too endure as the target of the endless game of whack-a-mole. Emotions are embodied, and they demand attention. How do I endure? Today, maybe I numb my emotions with the wide range of choices available—this seems like it would be an easy task. Tomorrow, despite my best efforts I am brought to my knees by emotional truth that won’t leave me, that, in some ways, IS me. It arises from that smell of a cigarette I did not expect, or that tone in someone’s voice on a sitcom in the background. It’s child’s size T-shirt in my closet at the very back, and also that plastic bag buried in a drawer that holds the evidence items returned to me. Some survivors share the endurance of the cycle of abuse that is passed from generation to generation in families. This type of endurance is perhaps most cruel. Cycles of abuse last until someone has the courage to change them, to break the maladaptive norm.
Endurance in isolation can be the deepest experience of human suffering. We know this from testimonial writer Primo Levi’s insights on the concentration camps of World War II, and we know it from Charlotte Pierce-Baker’s accounts of black women’s experience of sexual abuse. Survivors of violent experiences tend to take our secrets, our trauma, and endure with it; we encapsulate it, a troubled grain of sand in an oyster, forming our pearl. Memory in each individual’s particular form glows within us and we bond with it like the fusion of elements—identity bound to trauma—because it is so true, in contrast to our survivor’s unsettling world of wearing “normal” at the dinner table or the movies. In a culture where sex sells nearly everything, from fried chicken to yoga pants, survivors face triggers of trauma everywhere, and endurance is just a trait of default survival. Tabitha Suzuma says “At the end of the day it’s about how much you can bear, how much you can endure. Being together, we harm nobody; being apart, we extinguish ourselves.” Isolation fans the flames of shame arising from a culture where we do not talk openly about sexual violence. Furthermore, isolation perpetuates the feeling of survivors that “no one else will understand” the post-trauma, lived experience of daily life. I endure in my silence and separation—it is a half life.
Yet this is only one face of endurance. Another face of endurance arises in connection, shared story, and the active practice of eroding silence. For you to come to me, to say “I am that,” and to lay your secret down in story, in verse, and in your own voice. And for me to listen to you with my whole heart—not solving, not “healing,” but witnessing—this act alone is why testimonial writers (perhaps most writers) are a face of endurance we should embrace. We bear witness to each other. I have endured for a reason. When I discover it, there is something I may find I now must do.
Once I have told you my true things, not by a court transcript or police report, but as I have known them and brought shape to my experience, only then will I pick up my truth again to go on. Like the travelers to the Hasidic Tree of Sorrows, we find we would not choose another’s burden over the known shape of our own. But we have endured to see that we are not pearl-hoarders anymore, but instead, pearl bearers. There is some honor in this; a worthy anchor for our durability. For me, maybe it transforms what has always seemed a trite myth of martyrdom into an act of deeply empowered choice.
Our workshop writers have found tremendous courage and meaning in sharing their work with District Attorneys, public audiences, and advocates for victims of crime. But the process starts with each other on a most intimate level. Bearing and sharing our traumatic experiences, the good that we forge far outweighs the negative experiences that brought us together. For this purpose, we find we can persevere on new terms. In the words of Mikhail Naimy, from the Buddhist Book of Mirdad, “Often you shall think your road impassable, sombre and companionless. Have will and plod along; and round each curve you shall find a new companion.” In coming together in community, we equip ourselves with new tools. Beyond the act of witness, we create the space for further acts of hope, growth, and greatness. We foster resilience—this is the point, at least it seems to me, of endurance—to live again with new eyes.
Rachel Monaco-Wilcox is an attorney, chair of the Justice Department at Mount Mary University, and was the project director for the WHC-grant funded project “Untold Stories,” a partnership between Mount Mary University and Voices and Visions.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Enduring Legacies: Historian, WHC board member and donor, Paul Boyer
When Paul passed away last year, he left us with so much. He was known as an historian for brilliant, highly original work on the Salem witch trials, American apocalyptic movements, and the effects of the nuclear era on American society and culture. On the board of the Wisconsin Humanities Council for six years, he brought the deeply reflective approach to our discussionsthat epitomizes what engagement with the humanities nurtures in all of us. And when he passed away, his legacy continued with a generous bequest to the WHC. We are so grateful that he was, and still is, a part of what we do here.
The WHC is able to accept estate bequests. If you would like more information about including the WHC in your will, please talk with your attorney, or contact Dena Wortzel at the Wisconsin Humanities Council (608) 265-5593.
About the Photos
The images of ships are courtesy of the Kewaunee Public Library. Kewaunee, Wisconsin has a strong history of shipbuilding. With a grant from the WHC, the Kewaunee Public Library is collaborating with the Kewaunee County Historical Society, the Kewaunee School District, and the Outagamie Waupaca Library System to provide online access to photographs of ships built at the Kewaunee Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, including the USS Pueblo. These photographs will be used as part of a presentation held on October 2, 2013 at the Kewaunee Public High School that educates local high school students and the community about Kewaunee shipbuilding and its impact on WWII and the Cold War.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦