Am I woman?

Scrubbed and polished sky shone brightly overhead as Dan navigated the twisty coastal road into the City. “It’s carmageddon,” he said, and I translated it karma-geddon thinking my own private thoughts. I was unaware that the term referred to actual cars. Unaware, as well, that this weekend marked the grand finale of Fleet Week in San Francisco, that traffic would be snarly, that people would be out in droves.

Our destination: the Legion of Honor Museum.

I hadn’t Googled it, so when we pulled up to a structure resembling a Roman temple on a hilltop overlooking San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, I was surprised.  I’d assumed something more on the order of Frank Gehry architecture; edgy contemporary, in-your-face innovation.

Instead, the structure bore witness to what I’ve been taught to consider the ultimate in cultural refinement – the Roman era – art, poetry, literature, scientific breakthroughs, palatial homes with sumptuous furnishings. Power and privilege.

Perhaps I was off balance from the get-go. Perhaps two years of pandemic lockdown in Bali, isolated, uncertain of everything, stripped me of social resilience. There were people. Everywhere. And that was before we even entered the building.

Had I done my research I’d have been better prepared.

I’d have known that the brilliant work of a female artist, Wangechi Mutu, was being featured. But I didn’t know, and I wasn’t prepared.

The following quote appears on the Museum’s website and describes Mutu’s art:

Over the past two decades, Wangechi Mutu has created chimerical constellations of powerful female characters, hybrid beings, and fantastical landscapes. With a rare understanding of the power and need for new mythologies—the productive friction of opposites beyond simple binaries and stereotypes—Mutu breaches common distinctions among human, animal, plant, and machine. At once seductive and threatening, her figures and environments take the viewer on journeys of material, psychological, and sociopolitical transformation. 

Her bold interpretation of femininity, unrestrained, superimposed on a backdrop of paintings by male artists depicting women as we’ve been taught to be seen, assaulted my nervous system. Wild emotions churned through me and I could only identify one of them as I navigated the exhibits: anger. What was it that made me furious?

I’m not someone who processes quickly. I tend to go first into a state of overwhelm where I can’t think, can’t verbalize, I just absorb information. Then piece by piece, over hours and days, I bring it out and sift through the layers.

It slowly seeped into my consciousness that I was angry at myself for living small for so many years…

for buying into the lie that men hold all the cards and women’s role is subservient…

for judging my value based on how I was valued by the men in my life.

I was angry that Mutu was the ONLY female artist represented in that vast collection of paintings. And yet, perhaps that was intentional, the productive friction of opposites…

I was f***ing furious that the standards of beauty – sensuality – sexuality – purity – allure, all of it, all of what I was supposed to be, has always been dictated by men. F***ing furious.        

And there was Mutu’s art. Mutu’s depiction of the feminine going beyond simple binaries and stereotypes.

Feminine images, sleek, gritty, organic, metallic. Alien. Alien. We have alienated ourselves from our true selves by allowing patriarchy to define us.

I’d identified another emotion. Grief.

How do you eat an elephant?

First, the universe. Then, a galaxy. Within that galaxy, a solar system. Balanced in orbit, three planets away from the sun of that system: Earth. The northern and southern hemispheres. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Five degrees south of the Equator, the 17,000 islands of Indonesia. One of those: Bali. A dot a little off center on the map: Ubud.

You eat an elephant one bite at a time.

I wrote a mini Michener-esque intro to this post because it needed that perspective.

Jules Verne authored, Around the World in Eighty Days. There were very few books that captured my interest in the tiny library at Central School in northern Minnesota, where I attended grades K – 6.  By the time I was seven, I had blown through most of what those shelves had to offer, The Black Stallion, The Black Stallion Races, The Black Stallion and Flame, Sue Barton Student Nurse, and the like. I was hungry for some unnamed thing that was missing from my literary diet. So I browsed the stacks for thick bindings with frayed, cloth edges, hoping to find treasure. I discovered Jules Verne. My eyes were opened to LITERATURE. There was no going back.

Then I grew up and forgot what I loved.

Decades later, Bali lured me. The village of Ubud, bursting with life, felt right to my remembering self. Nobody told me I had found my way to the home of the largest annual literary event in Asia.

The Ubud Writers’ and Readers Festival has taken me around the world in five days. Two-hundred-thirty-five writers from thirty countries came, by invitation only, to present at this festival. Thirteen were from the U.S. Thousands of volunteers, worldwide, applied, were screened, and a few hundred were accepted. Can you imagine the cultural differences? The diverse belief systems? The political prejudices represented by so vast a gathering? But all came, peacefully, joyfully, for the love of words. They spoke their truths and were heard.

As one of the volunteers, the immense privilege I enjoyed simply by my birthright as a U.S., English speaking, citizen was drilled home at the closing ceremony last night. Three of my Indonesian teammates approached me, huge smiles, radiating sheer goodness. They thanked me repeatedly and wanted to have photos taken with me. It was a joyous moment. Then one of the group said something to his friend in Indonesian. The most authoritative of the three reprimanded him, “Speak English when we are with Sherry,” he said.

I choked on that bite of the elephant.

Privilege rose up and swallowed my heart. I am in Indonesia, but the entire festival was conducted in English. There were translators who turned every native tongue into my language. The volunteers must speak English. The local Balinese patrons and sponsors, who contribute generously to this event, are not all fluent in English. Much of the rich content of the festival was lost for them.

So I sit here with the elephant of entitlement facing me, and I bow in humility to that elephant. It is with me wherever I go, simply because I was born white, in America.

Balinese man reading the Festival Program

Man Reading the Festival Program Photo by Muda Sagala

Immeasurable Wealth

Every day…riches!

Whether it’s the wisdom of 2000 years of ancient tradition or the breathtaking landscape, there is an endless supply.

A trip to the beach, a waterfall, and an animal sanctuary is almost an overload of abundance for one day!

Black sand and crashing breakers

and nobody here but me.

It’s only 171 steps down to this waterfall. The killer is that it’s 171 steps back up again!

Some places just drip with green deliciousness!

Then superimpose brilliant colors…

and interesting patterns (nice kitties!)

and a bathing beauty…or two…and it adds up to immeasurable wealth.

Again today I feel the gratitude and the privilege of this journey.

I have been allowed to touch something that is unreachable in places where the din of progress drowns out the softer voice of soul.

%d bloggers like this: