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Exiled From Gaza; An Artist Under Siege

My Grandparents © copyright by Malak Mattar 2019. Doves of peace are ever-present in Malak's paintings.

 

 

Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be in exile in your homeland, in your own house, in your room.

 

        Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet, (1941-2008)

 

 

Malak Mattar, now just nineteen years old, is still what many would call a "naive artist," mostly untrained desipite the mentorship of her uncle, Mohammed Musallum, who teaches art in the only art school in Gaza. So I will begin there, in Gaza, during a 51-day Israeli bombing siege, in a household where a girl of 14 who has never drawn or painted before, is trying to stay sane during the Second Intifada against the brutal Israeli occupation. Watercolor and paper on the kitchen table, Malak starts to paint, mostly portraits of the women in her family and her community. She is gifted.

 

I had the good fortune to hear about Malak through a Palestinian friend who went to see her recent art show in New York. Sponsored by the Palestine Museum in Woodbridge, Ct., Malak was granted a two-week visa to attend three shows—one  at the museum, one in Washington, DC, and the last in New York before her return to Istanbul to continue her studies on a full scholarship in political science and international relations at the Istanbul Aydin University. She misses her family in Gaza but cannot return during holidays as there is no guarantee she can get out in time to travel back to Turkey before classes begin. Though Gaza has been administered by Hamas since 2007, it is still under "indirect" Israeli occupation; Israel controls its electricity, telecommunications and borders.

 

I try to imagine this pressure, not as an ordinary American student worried about grades and financing, but as a student in exile from her beleaguered homeland, worried about her family and friends. How brave she has been, truly exemplary. She has had to learn both Turkish and English as her classes are in English, and struggles to maintain her bank account and her grade point average. She travels wherever she is invited to show her work. "I will never stop painting," she told me with confidence. "Life is not easy in Gaza. This is what I portray in my work. I want the world to understand."

 

 

 

For more of Malak's story:

 

https://wearenotnumbers.org/home/Contributor/Malak_Mattar

 

Malak on Facebook:

 

https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004339966663

 

For more about Palestine and Israel:

 

Human Rights Watch Report

 

https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/israel/palestine

 

Yousef Bashir, "Words of My Father" 

 

https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062917324/the-words-of-my-father/

 

Mahmoud Darwish Poems

 

https://www.google.com/search?q=darwish+poems+on+amazon&source=univ&tbm=shop&tbo=u&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjKlffslorkAhUqwlkKHax7CuUQsxgIMA&biw=1024&bih=710#spd=13109659742047301644

 

Palestine Museum, Woodbridge, Ct.

 

https://www.google.com/search?q=darwish+poems+on+amazon&source=univ&tbm=shop&tbo=u&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjKlffslorkAhUqwlkKHax7CuUQsxgIMA&biw=1024&bih=710#spd=13109659742047301644


 

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Travel Advisory

 

 

We work to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth, and dignity are denied.    

      

              --Amnesty International's Mission Statement

 

 

Iain Levine was the Amnesty Representative to the United Nations when I met him nearly 20-years-ago now. It was his story about working as a nurse in the Sudan that got me started on "Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories" with a foreword by the human rights activist, John Le Carré. In between his travels to war-torn countries, Iain had taken a one-day workshop at Gotham Writers Workshop and pulled together his journal notes from his months in Sudan. Iain is an avid reader and compelling talker. His finished narrative became one of the chapters in the book proposal, which we sold easily, and then the lead chapter in the book itself. It is still in print, more relevant today than ever before. It did well on four continents--North America, Australia and Europe--and recently was also published for a second time in China.

 

When I saw the Amnesty Travel Advisory about the United States this morning on Facebook, I decided to contact Iain to corroborate my intuition that this advisory, echoing the State Department's travel advisories for other countries, was unprecedented and real. Though he is in the UK for a family reunion, and has just resigned from his more recent position as the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch to teach at Columbia, Iain wrote back to me right away. He confirmed that the advisory is unprecedented and it is real. As soon as Donald Trump was elected, Amnesty mobilized their 2.2 million activists in 150 countries to monitor the new president, and hold him accountable for his so-called policies and executive orders.

 

We may never know whether or not the president and his cohorts care about this censure from a highly respected international organization, but, at the very least, the story has now been told and broadcast : The United States of America is no longer a safe haven for refugees, asylees, immigrants, tourists, or ordinary citizens trapped in a new American nightmare.

 

 

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Two More Shootings

Photo © Andrew Caballero-Reynolds, AFP/Getty Images

 

I needed a break from Facebook, or so I thought. I don't have any "friends" on Facebook I'd be ashamed of, or wouldn't want to meet for a coffee. There are one or two people I have not met and my impression of their lives is only what they choose to present—in photos and text—on the social media platform. For all of those I have not met, I hope one day to meet them. This is an open invitation. Still, I felt oddly disgusted the other day—not with political conversation—it wasn't that. All my FB friends are civil, or they would not be my friends. It was something else: the unending coldness of a medium—à la Marshall McLuhan—that fools us into thinking it is "warm," concerned and intimate. Because we enter the portal at a whim, according to our own timetable, we may or may not connect or converse. What we see and read is static, unlike a dynamic real-time conversation. The comments usually are quick, short and shallow. And I am a writer; I like to talk, to spin out ideas. So, from the start of FB, whenever that was, I have written long posts and I also post my blog. There is plenty of space to comment; there are no word restrictions. Indeed, I suggest to my students to take their time, to use Facebook as an opportunity to practice their writing. Readers can click off or scroll away; it's up to them.


So I was off Facebook for a day or so, maybe not even that long—and not entirely—as I kept lurking. A friend in Florida had a terrible car accident and how would I have known about this if I hadn't been checking-in? I wrote to her on Messenger and also sent her an email. She's not someone I've seen a lot over the years, but I care about her, of course I do. Our kids were toddlers in London together. We saw each other again in California years later, our kids grown, and we've kept in touch via FB. Pretty nice, I'd say. I wish we could talk on the phone, see each other, write more long, discursive emails like correspondents of yester-years because I don't want FB to become a substitute for deep, human connection. That is not sustainable for me. A writer, solitary so much of the time, requires more than sound-byte micro-connections. Well, we all do, I suppose. In fact, I am sure of it. More so in these hard times than ever. That's why I decided to go off FB for a while, to think about a rehabilitation of strong, close human connection and the uses and abuses of social media.


Here is my FB post of August 2:


Dear Friends,
I have decided to go off FB for a while. If you would like to have a real time, voice conversation, please call, or come to visit. You know where I am and I know where you are. You will be hearing from me, but not on FB. In other words, let us stay in touch with actual F2F or voice communication. Please text only to arrange or confirm, or if you need to get my attention quickly, but not to converse. Converse, as in conversation.
FB is a deceptively "warm" medium I plan to write about. I think it is because of the photos, but I am going to think more about this. (Back to my grad school subject.) We also know how it's being used politically—positively and negatively—so of great interest.
I will continue to post blog (notes )on my professional page, but I won't share them here.
Have a good rest of the summer— in reality, not virtually. Local friends, let's meet for a coffee—and talk.
All best,
Carol


A few dear friends responded, said they understood, said they'd miss my posts. I didn't thank them on FB, so I thank them now. Thank you.


Best laid plans. I am back. It was because of the shootings on Saturday, August 3rd, one day after I had decided to take a break. I had a terrible night's sleep, as did my husband. First thing in the morning, I read a 2012 Jill Lepore article about guns in America on the New Yorker Today feed, and decided to post it on FB:


https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/04/23/battleground-america?fbclid=IwAR0Zs5L19_2aU9e6EaazB7vXokIFP3P4adzHPiD8sgYgnJyI2RdeQfqhzYM


The commentary from friends started to come in, and it was long, narrative commentary. I was grateful and felt a sense of community, a sense of purpose, even a sense of safety, illusory as that might be. Any one of us can find ourselves in the line of fire. In fact, there was a shooting in the mall in New Paltz a few weeks ago: a son shot his father in front of the diner. No one else was hurt, thank goodness. I arrived a few minutes later during the stop action, everyone frozen in their cars and shoes. I parked far away from the huddle of law enforcement –it's a huge lot—and chatted to my real-time friends in the health store, a human-size store where it is easy to have a conversation. We all hypothesized about what had happened. And it was odd, we all agreed, that life—or shopping—was already back to "normal."


Racists with guns are on the loose in America abetted by racist politicians in Washington. As one of my FB friends said so succinctly this morning: It's a national emergency. Let us shout this loud and clear on every media platform at our disposal: It's a national emergency.



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Venom in the House

 

 

We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!


--Arthur Miller, "The Crucible," first performed in 1953

 

To have enslaved America with this hocuspocus! To have captured the mind of the world's greatest nation without uttering a single word of truth! Oh, the pleasure we must be affording the most malevolent man on earth!
           

--Philip Roth, "The Plot Against America," 2004

 

 

I have been struggling all morning to find a pithy quote to begin this blog post, one that describes the shredding of hope, expectation, good will, common sense, intelligence, and civility in Washington DC. I remembered a discussion of hot and cold mediums when I was in graduate school after I slogged my way through Marshall McLuhan's gnomic prose, but I have rejected several McLuhan quotes and present you, instead, dear reader, with Arthur Miller and Philip Roth. (More of McLuhan later.) "The Crucible" was written at the height of the McCarthy siege in Congress, not unlike the venomous hearing we witnessed yesterday. "The Plot Against America" was written in saner times, yet it is disturbingly prescient. It imagines Charles Lindbergh winning the presidency in 1944; Lindbergh was a neo-Nazi. Both "The Crucible" and "The Plot Against America" are literary masterpieces and I urge you to read them.
                                   

***

                               
Hot and cold. Text is cold, email a bit warmer, the human voice warmer still. Where was Mueller's voice yesterday? Where was his conscience? So obedient to "fairness," and the words of his own report, such as he remembered them, or scrambled to find them, that he could not stray into warmth, or intimacy, or opinion, or passionate concern. Only once did he manage to eke out a more forceful sentence about the dangers of continuing Russian interference in our upcoming election. Whether or not the Democrats in the House understood what might happen if they summoned Robert Mueller to a hearing is moot now. The deed is done.


"If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough," Robert Capa, the famous war photographer once said. The same is true for all story-telling, whether oral or written. I can can still feel the heat from our larger-than-life flat screen as Robert Mueller raised his hand to take the oath. Television, especially our huge, high definition close-up screens and crisp audio, is a hot medium. People may tell lies unabated and without remorse, but the digital image and audio do not lie. They flare into our consciousness, into our synapses and our bones, whether we will it or not.


If I had listened to Mueller on radio, his stammering and confusion would have been obvious. The image of his bewildered and exhausted face amplified his weak and faltering—nearly autistic—delivery. The Republican prosecutors—Mueller on trial—were as venomous as Joseph McCarthy and his cohorts. Mueller was pummeled and diminished, his report in tatters, or already forgotten.


"How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn't see it with my own eyes, I'd think I was having a hallucination," Roth writes in The Plot Against America.


I end this post today with Roth's question which has, as yet, no answer and no immediate remedy. I think that those of us who have been resisting the regime in Washington since it was installed more than two years ago, and who watched the Republican display of opportunism, righteousness and cruelty yesterday, will never forget it.

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Sanctuary

Photo courtesy Rough Draft Bar & Books, 82 John Street, Kingston, NY

 

I drove up to Kingston, NY to deliver "Say Nothing," to Rough Draft Bar & Books on John Street. I'll be one of the local authors signing books there on September 9th. It's a beautiful store; paper is making a comeback.


It was a hot day and I parked as close as I could. I poured quarters into the meter and set out. John Street is in the old "stockade" part of Kingston, the first capital of New York State. The landmarked stone houses were built as a fortress against the Munsee Esopus tribe who fought like crazy to push back the European colonial advance. No luck; the houses still stand, but the Native Munsees are gone. The tribe migrated—what was left of them—north and west, merging with other Algonquin-speaking tribes for safety and survival.


I can't get their fate—their story—out of my mind. I don't know why I think about it so much, maybe because I only recently arrived in upstate New York, and can't abide omissions in the history, maybe because my own family was displaced and killed.


I'm walking through the Munsee history slowly, absorbing whatever there is to read, preparing to write something, I'm not sure what. Once injustice takes hold of me, I can't let it go until I've written about it. It hasn't always been easy.


"Go back where you came from." I've heard that before, from an English Lord in the House of Lords where I'd been called to testify in front of a committee. The Lord didn't like an article I'd written for The Times Educational Supplement exposing the treatment of West Indian immigrant children in the London schools. He addressed me as "Mrs. Bergman," and continued, as follows: "We thank Mrs. Bergman for her article and ask that she return to America from whence she came." Fair enough. I wasn't a citizen, I was an "alien," working and living in London. But I was also a journalist exercising my freedom to write in a parliamentary democracy albeit without a Bill of Rights. Still, unless I was in contravention of the Official Secrets Act, I was free to write what I pleased, and what my editors commissioned me to investigate.


When we exercise our freedom to write, we cannot control our readers' response. I remember that when I received a death threat because of something I'd written, I was in shock. I had been naive and never anticipated rage, hatred, shunning, or threat of violence because of something I'd written. I have learned to accept it, but it's not pleasant, to say the least.


Insularity, parochial mentality, bigotry, racism, hate speech, incitement to violence. The escalation is obvious and—historically—well tested.


And now four elected United States representatives, women of color, have been deliberately, aggressively—verbally—attacked. Trump's rallies feel like lynch mobs, the border patrols like fugitive slave catchers. How will historians tell this story years from now? Honestly and thoroughly, I hope.


I ended my sojourn in Kingston with a pleasant, healthy Bento Box lunch at Yum Yum on Fair Street. It was quiet, well air-conditioned. A man at the counter greeted me warmly. It felt like a sanctuary.

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Over the Mountains and Into the Sea

A Pieta by Maria Izquierdo, a lesser known Mexican painter (1902-1955) but no less powerful than Diego, Tamayo, and Frida.

 

Their clothes were shredded and reeked from natural and chemical odors. They had drifted into an oil spill on a raft of logs. First it was warm, then bitterly cold. They would have preferred a trek across the desert if only for a few minutes. They encountered desperadoes. They made it to a chateau and were permitted to use the telephone. They could hardly speak. Thus has the story come down to us in fragments: their courage, for example.

 

This is not a film script; it is an account of one escape among many escapes. My own paternal grandparents.

 

They chose the wrong escape route. They did not make it.

 

I read the stories about America's atrocities on the southern border, and the ICE raids—they will also round up "collaterals"—and  it is as though the fascist reign of terror crushed by the Allies in WW II has become undead and infected our government, a contagion spreading around the world. Like a germ that has remained dormant for a few decades—supra-nationalism, white supremacy—it  is with us again, persistent and strengthened. I know that this rendering is apocraphyl—there are laws now we did not have before—yet  it feels true to me today as the American government, itself, is lawless, amoral, cruel. Are there enough words to describe what is happening? Can we find the right words to describe what is happening?

 

We are witnessing a reign of terror perpetrated by our government. Somehow, the voting booth does not seem an adequate response.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Slaves

A memorial @ The African Burial Ground on Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY. 
Photo: © copyright by Carol Bergman 2019

 

 

"Genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves."

 

Frederick  Douglass, 1855

 

 

"Such is the story that comes down to me."

 

Madison Hemings, son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, Pike County Ohio, 1873

 

 


I've been reading American Colonial History, interviewing people, and researching in historic archives non-stop since my arrival in New Paltz just over a year ago in preparation, I thought, for a long narrative nonfiction project about the legacy of slavery in one small Mid-Hudson Valley town. How is it coping with new revelations and interpretations? I arrived in the midst of a dormitory renaming controversy on the SUNY campus--an echo of the discourse we're having about monuments across the country--and published a guest column in the Poughkeepsie Journal in September, 2018. I was excited by the prospect of being a peripheral narrator in this story: both a participant/citizen and a reporter/observer. But I had heard that a prominent historian at the Historic Huguenot Street Archives had been released from her duties after conflict with the Board of Directors some years ago. This did not bode well. I was trying to provide a fresh perspective, ask interesting questions, but it didn't take long for me to become persona non grata, and to receive emails reminding me—a bona fide journalist—that I could not have press tickets to certain events. It was enough to question whether my project was viable.

 

For a while, I worked around resistance, and even drafted an article, but I stopped after I attended a meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission to advocate for the landmarking of the Jacob Wynkoop houses—more below. I was no longer an observer/reporter; I had become an activist.


When a profile of me appeared in the local paper about my new murder mystery, "Say Nothing," a two-page spread with a photo, and only those near and dear turned up at the reading at a local independent bookstore, despite a lot of publicity, I knew that the gate had closed, that I was done. What had happened? It would take an investigative reporter with the clout and resources of a major newspaper to get the full story, but I have my hypothesis: I'm an outsider, a newcomer. Who am I, therefore, to remind the settled population here, many descended from the original settlers—to "lecture" them, as one vicious FB post said—that the legacy of slavery is visible, extant and troubling; Dutch, English, and French Huguenots all owned slaves.


One day in the late spring of 2019, surfacing from the dusty archive at Historic Huguenot Street, a tour bus parked in the visitor's lot. I stopped to watch what looked like a high school group and their teacher saunter toward Bevier House. For some reason they began to roam around on their own, without the assistance of a docent. The teacher was talking as I approached, but I didn't hear what he said; he was peering into the cellar window. I had done the same in recent weeks and found it haunting. I imagined the slaves sleeping on pallets on the dirt floor, spinning wool, or cooking, and struggling up and down the steep stairs leading to the outside entrance to the house--more steps--as they carried food, or laundry to their "master," Abraham Bevier, and his family. The 1790 census confirms that Abraham Bevier owned seven slaves. Did they all live in the cellar? And even if there was an interior staircase as an empathetic and charming Huguenot descendant recently explained to me--by way of softening the slaves'travail, perhaps--would that have made any difference?


I went up to the teacher and asked if he knew what he was looking at. "A cellar," he said. "A slave dwelling," I corrected him, wishing there had been a plaque to explain the dwelling and its relationship to the house, but the teacher seemed less than interested and quickly moved away to gather his students around the well, an educational opportunity lost. I was, at least, pleased that I had mentioned something.


Juneteenth, 2019, a holiday commemorating Emancipation after the Civil War. I went on a tour--to which I did get a press pass because it pertained to my project, presumably--of the Jacob Wynkoop houses in New Paltz with Kara Augustine, Director of Public Programming at Historic Huguenot Street. The story of Jacob Wynkoop, a prominent African American citizen of New Paltz, a Union soldier, born free to a slave mother in 1829, one year after New York State emancipated its slaves, has been known since the 1980's. He died in 1912 and is buried in the New Paltz Rural Cemetery in Plot A-74/82. And though he was a member of the New Paltz (interracial) Grand Army of the Republic's fraternal organization, there are no streets named after him, nor did SUNY New Paltz, to my knowledge, consider naming one of their dorms after him. He was a builder, contractor, and carpenter. Several of his compact, well-made houses—with their signature attic windows—are still standing here; one was an investment property. Today we might call him an architect and real estate developer, two occupations revered in this burgeoning valley.


Where are his descendants? Possibly in Poughkeepsie, New York City and points beyond, I have learned. Why did they leave New Paltz? Was the town unwelcoming, or worse? Why haven't his houses been landmarked, or marked with a simple plaque? Why is this ostensibly progressive town so ethnically homogeneous? Apart from the SUNY New Paltz Campus, with its diversity outreach initiatives and faculty from all over the world, the 14,000 plus citizens are mostly white, with a smattering of Latinos.


In this era of transformation, as we reckon with our fraught past and complex political present, the failure of Reconstruction in the South and integration in the North, the redress of African American slave descendants (HR-40) is gaining traction again in Congress. The removal of monuments is one thing, the acknowledgement of contributions by the survivors of enslavement another. Both are important.


https://www.newpaltz.edu/media/diversity/Hasbrouck%20Renaming%20Report-Web.pdf\


http://images.burrellesluce.com/image/6322C/6322C_5605


The author wishes to thank: Carol Johnson, David & Susanna Lent, Jennifer Dubois Bruntil, Kara Augustine, Josephine Bloodgood, Albert Williams-Myers, Susan Stessin-Cohn, Eric Roth, Alan Kraus, and Michael Groth for their scholarship and insights.

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The Great American Dream Story

If you visit, you will get a free Dr. Pepper. The museum is not-for-profit, which made me smile.

 

I've been watching reruns of "Fixer Upper." I didn't intend to watch this program, nor did I know anything about it just a few months ago when I started working out at Ignite Gym in New Paltz. It's a small, friendly, well-run gym open just about all the time, which suits my unconventional teaching and writing schedule, and it is not owned by a chain, but by an entrepreneurial person, in The Great American Dream Story tradition.


There are four mega screens, all tuned to different stations, facing the work-out machines, and much to my suprise, I always choose the elliptical facing HGTV. Or maybe it is not really a suprise. I listen to music on the elliptical, I can't read, the televisions are silent, captions on, and no way do I want to watch CNN while I am trying to relax. Hyperkinetic breaking news all day long is not good for writers or, perhaps, for any of us.


So there they were, this absolutely adorable and gorgeous inter-ethnic, long- married couple, Chip and Joanna Gaines, chatting away about smashing walls, decorative decisions, room re-configurations, landscaping and children—all in their adopted hometown of Waco, Texas. Waco? Really? Back in 1916 there was a terrible lynching of a 16-year old boy, Jesse Washington, in Waco, still known as the "Waco Horror," and in 1993, federal agents raided the Branch Davidian compound. A shootout—lots of guns—tear gas, 75 Davidians (a Christian cult) and four agents dead, and "Waco" is still a rallying cry for Second Amendment alt-right groups. As elsewhere, the demographics of the town have changed, and on the centenary of the lynching, May 15, 2016, the mayor apologized in a ceremony to some of Jesse Washington's descendants. A historical marker is being erected. The KKK may still be lurking in the backwoods of Waco, but the local government seems to have achieved—enlightenment. Joanna and Chip Gaines have raised the profile of the town—they are megastars—wealthy beyond even their own imaginations. Apparently, they are also philanthropic. That is always good news.


As we well know by now, reality television stars segue easily into politics. The transition is smooth, to say the least. They have our attention, we adore them, we want to be them. (Well, usually.) Will Chip or Joanna, or one of their children run for public office? Am I inadvertently and unintentionally becoming one among thousands of this adorable couple's fan base? Because even though "Fixer Upper" has ended, this couple is not done; they are going to have their own TV station, they've opened a restaurant, published a cookbook.


Does it matter that this power couple attend an evangelical church? Does it matter to me? Yes, it does, especially as the Evangelicals lobby constantly to end Roe v. Wade, among other atrocities. Joanna is devout, which is her privilege, her right, but if she uses her wealth to end the right to choose, I will terminate my tenuous fandom. And I have some questions about those flipped fixer upper houses that the Gaines Empire is built on. Were they foreclosures? If so, what happened to the people who were forced out? Did they lose their jobs? Declare a medical bankruptcy? What are the Chip and Joanna's thoughts about Medicare for all, for example, now that they can well afford to feed, clothe, educate and entertain their own brood of five children?


These are the questions that are never answered on HGTV, or most of American TV, which exists to deliver us—the viewer—to the advertiser. Such questions threaten every chapter of The Great American Dream Story we all covet for ourselves, which is why the press is deemed "enemy" by the current resident of the Oval Office.

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The Game of Telephone

Photo © copyright Chloe Annetts 2019 @ the June 13th reading, Inquiring Minds Bookstore in New Paltz. With thanks to Jane Liddle, the events coordinator, and all who attended and asked interesting questions during the Q & A.

In the place in my brain that handles moves, there is now a sign that says: END OF STORY. I have lived in over twenty apartments in three states and two continents. Every time I arrived at a new location, I tried to make friends, find new doctors, find work, or a school for our daughter, as fast as I could. As soon as the books and artwork were up, I felt at home. But I'd always lived in a city. Now, for the first time, I am a resident of a small town. It's different.


The metaphor that best describes the experience is the game of telephone. I played it a lot at birthday parties when I was a kid. Chairs are lined up and a word or sentence is whispered from one ear to another. By the time it arrives and is spoken aloud, it's completely distorted, just plain wrong. Everyone laughs.


Gossip in a small town can work in the same way. A story begins and is passed from one person to another until, days and weeks later, it no longer resembles the real story. Sometimes the pass-alongs are well-meaning; sometimes they are malicious; sometimes they become entertainment. None of the process feels deliberate; it feels accidental, almost improvised, as though our story-telling brains take over, often against our better judgment. If I repeat what I know of a store owner's disability, for example, and the word gets round the community that he was once-upon-a-time an addict, that feels more like a smear than neighborly concern. What are people saying about me, I wonder? And have I inadvertently participated in gossip? If so, I regret it, even if it was well-meaning. I even resist gossip within my family; I find it uncomfortable. I concede that gossip may serve a psychological, biological, or anthropological purpose I don't fully understand. If so, please enlighten me, dear reader.


Recently, with a two page profile in the local newspaper with a photo, and a reading at a local bookstore, I've become more visible in New Paltz and a bit skittish about this game of telephone. I've had some positive reactions and some strange reactions. Indeed, my own reactions to everyone's reactions worry me. If I start thinking about what people are thinking or saying about me, or if they've read the article about me, or read my book, or attended the reading when they said they would, or didn't attend the reading when they said they would, I won't be able to write freely. Certainly, I'll need a more supple tolerance for the exigencies of small town life and more anonymous city days to stay in balance.

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A Mormon Visitation

 

It was a quiet Sunday. I'd just returned from a hike and had stepped out of the shower, barely dressed, hair dripping, Jim watching the French Open, when there was a loud bang on the door. We have no doorbells here which, in itself, is anomalous. There is a small peephole, however, but I usually have to wait until my heart stops pounding to use it. That takes a breath or two.


Jim, under the headset, tennis balls cracking away, hadn't heard much. "Who's there?" was all he managed. I looked through the peephole at the distorted image of two individuals, probably male, I decided, dressed in white shirts and dark pants. For some reason—maybe remnants of my still functioning urban self—I intuited these individuals had no intent to harm. I opened the door.


"Oh, Mormons," I said.


"That's what some people call us," the young man on the left said. He did not seem pleased and his partner was not pleased with him. I assumed he was in training; this was a training session. He slunk back as the bigger, older guy took the lead.


I think he called me "Ma'am." He clutched a Bible, rich with uncorroborated stories from my journalistic point of view. "Written by man or God?" I asked.


No answer.


Mormon #2 was also carrying an iPad. I think they'd found their way to our somewhat isolated apartment complex using Google Maps. They hadn't come far—there's a Mormon church less than half a mile away, but they'd already been in the mid-Hudson valley for nine months and surely knew their way around, knew that holding out a Bible, metaphorically speaking, half a mile from the university wasn't going to play too well.


"How's the proselytizing going?" I asked.


I really wanted to know. Was it going well, or not well?


"Could you recommend a place for us to go in town where folks might be more receptive," the younger one asked.


"I think you'll find the citizens of this town hard work," I told him. "There are some religious folks, of course, but mostly I think you'll find it hard work."


I wanted to spare him disappointment. He was so young, so eager. After nine months in the vicinity he was still struggling, it seemed.


"I worked in Newark before I came up here," the older one said. "I loved the city. Brazilian community. Portuguese. That's why my tag says Jesus Cristo." And he pointed to the tag that sat right over his heart, white lettering on a black background to match his Sunday church and proselytize—after—church outfit.


I enjoy gentility and evangelical gentility is no exception. These young men were polite—misguided, sheltered, hopelessly naive, barely educated, but polite. Those are the judgmental thoughts that ran through my head. I wondered where they stood on abortion rights, on polygamy, police brutality. I wondered how they voted, or if they voted, or if they noticed or cared that the Wallkill River is polluted. Answers to my questions would have taken hours; they had to move on. Strangely, I thought, they hadn't asked any questions about me. I guess they knew from my slightly disheveled appearance and teasing sarcasm that I was past redemption.


"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," I said, determined to correct myself before their departure. "Apologies for calling you Mormons. What we call ourselves as opposed to what others choose to call us is important." Then I remembered that their presence on my doorstep was, truly, a blessing. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Our much beleaguered Constitution is still alive.

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