The Power of Education

March 23, 2017

Tags: Simeon's House, Riverside Park Conservancy, New York City Board of Education

I first met Hakim Constantine in Sakura Park near Columbia University in Manhattan. He was a gardener for the Riverside Park Conservancy; I was a volunteer. Once a week, until Hurricane Sandy hit and the cherry trees toppled closing the park for months, we raked and weeded and talked. It was always just the two of us so we talked a lot. Hakim had just lost his grandfather and his college education had been interrupted. I was struggling with some life changes also. Our age difference evaporated with the fresh air and physical work; we mentored and supported each other, sharing family stories, and philosophical musings. I encouraged Hakim to get back to school to finish his degree. His dream was to mentor young people, perhaps become a teacher or a counsellor. Soon after we parted ways, he started Empire State College. He had a lot of credits and I knew it wouldn’t take him long to get his degree. He was already smart, but with each course, each book he read, every paper he wrote, he became smarter and smarter. His mind clicked over so rapidly that before very long, while he was studying and working full time at Prospect Park, he had started Simeon’s House. Still young, he has arrived at his life’s work.

I cannot tell you, dear reader, how proud I am of Hakim. He was profiled in The Amsterdam News this week, my pride amplified. The trajectory of Hakim’s education and achievement is a reminder of what we all are working for: public, fully-funded education for our children, no matter background or economic circumstances, and the end to white flight into private schools, charter schools and elite city schools—Hunter, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science—that, still, after all these years— discriminate against our underprivileged children. The educational system may still be at Ground Zero, utterly misguided in its test-based curriculum, but men and women like Hakim press on despite their challenges and compromised opportunities. That gives me hope.

Bloomsbury in New York

March 16, 2017

This is our origin story: We started Mediacs, our independent publishing company, in the early 90’s. We were journalists, fiction writers, screen writers, editors and artists immersed in our creative work that sometimes sold, but often did not. We had young children and had to make a living. We sat down at our dining room table with a former graffiti artist turned graphic designer, thought up a name for our new full-service publishing company, registered the name and got to work.

At first we wrote, designed, and edited newsletters, brochures and annual reports, print and electronic. But what about books? What about my less commercial books? My favorite fiction form is the novella, a hard sell in the United States. And the time it took for an agent to assess and submit, and a publisher to publish, was becoming longer and longer. Worse, the mega-advances for blockbuster books was changing the industry. Suddenly, most writers, including yours truly, were “B” writers desperate to get their books into print in the margins of an overcrowded highly commercialized marketplace.

I thought of Virginia and Leonard Woolf . They had bought a printing press in 1917 as a diversion for Virginia. She suffered from mental illness and was very anxious as she was writing. But the printing press—which the Woolfs taught themselves how to use—distracted Virginia in a positive way and enabled her to bring her work to concrete fruition. Once the press arrived, she participated in the editing and type-setting of many books by other authors in the Bloomsbury circle—John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, TS Eliot, and EM Forster among them. Between 1917 and 1946 the Hogarth Press published 527 titles.

Be I ever so humble, I am not comparing myself to an author from the Bloomsbury Group, but the genesis of Mediacs is an echo of the the Woolf’s family-run Hogarth Press. Much of their list are now classics and we cannot make such a claim. We publish workaday writers with good stories to tell who are willing to invest in their books. Whether they become classics beyond our lifetime is not for us to predict. But as our list accumulates, we feel pride in our authors—their efforts in making a work, and their trust in us as mentors, editors and publishers.

The Peace Poets

March 7, 2017

Tags: criminal justice reform, beyond the prison paradigm, weather underground

First you hear our lyrics, then your hear our rhymes
No one can take your spirit
No one can take your mind


I see me in you and you in me


Only you can write that song
So write those words down strong

-- Lyrics by The Peace Poets

I was invited to an annual justice conference at Columbia University last Friday: “Beyond the Bars; Transcending the Punishment Paradigm.” I was sitting in the fourth row of a huge auditorium in a VIP seat surrounded by former prisoners, their families and friends, most of them black. I had been escorted to the seat and then helped into the seat with enormous respect, perhaps as an elder, perhaps as a professor, perhaps as a white person, perhaps all three. Not that I should be respected for any of these "identities." Not at all. But there was something about the gentle manners of my escorts that touched me.

I was looking forward to hearing about criminal justice reform; before the election it had been a bi-partisan initiative. Would it continue? These past months the statistic that has stayed with me most is this: There are more African-American men incarcerated in 2017 than there were enslaved in America in 1850.

The crowd were on their feet as soon as The Peace Poets bounced onto the stage. They are five young men from the Bronx, a collective of artists that celebrate and advocate for life and have traveled to more than 40 countries. I knew about their raps but had never seen them perform. The crowd was on their feet.

Then came the panel which included Bernadine Dohrn, formerly of the Weather Underground, a domestic terrorist group . Dohrn renounced violence, came out of hiding, raised a family, practiced and taught law at Northwestern and is now active in many criminal justice reform initiatives. I thought it odd, however, that her bio in the program does not mention her backstory, nor did she refer to it at all when she was asked to introduce herself. The renunciation of violence is important, especially at this volatile time. Yet she remained mute.

The panel discussion droned on, human suffering reduced to polemics and academic grand-standing until a former inmate began to speak and then a daughter whose father is in jail for murdering a family member. I missed The Peace Poets with their high energy, authentic voices, pithy lyrics and poetry of peace.

Crimes Against the American People

March 1, 2017

Tags: Education discrimination, Betsy Devos

From the SUNY Empire State College Website
Conscious that all peoples are united by common bonds, their cultures pieced together in a shared heritage, and concerned that this delicate mosaic may be shattered at any time.

--from the Preamble of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The Court investigates and prosecutes crimes against humanity and genocide.

A polemical post today, dear reader, as I am fired up after the State of the Union and troubled, troubled indeed by what I heard. I could hardly sleep. But I also know that it is the quotidian details of life—not well-crafted spun speeches—that remind us where our responsibility to one another lies. This morning it was in the civility and kindness of a young man who came to replace the battery in my car. When Jose called to say he was just blocks away, I noticed that his voice was calm and his manner respectful, unlike a gruff man or two in other AAA shops in my hood.

I’d been struggling with the battery problem for a week, knowing it was under warranty and I could not get the car upstate to my mechanic unless the battery held a charge. It didn’t; I needed a new one. I had to call AAA out a second time. And though it was raining, I got out of the car to chat to Jose and to watch him work.

He was more than understanding, he was empathetic. When I said that I appreciated his friendliness and patience, he said that having waited for three hours for service, he knew that my morning hadn’t been a good one. He didn’t want to make it worse.

Small and lithe, he was wearing a too-large baseball cap and sweats. His hands were as dexterous as a sculptor’s and he moved with precision, care and deep knowledge of the car’s innards. The ailing battery was soon out and loaded into my trunk. I asked Jose if he liked his job and he said it was okay but that he had wanted to go to college to complete his education. His grades weren’t brilliant and he’d given up. Then, of course, there was the cost.

That was my opening. I told him that I was a college professor and that he should not give up. It’s a crime against the American people, I thought, not to offer universal higher education—for free. Here is a man who wants to learn, who is eager to learn, who is a devoted son and brother, who grew up in my underprivileged hood, just minutes away from the most boasting affluence. It is not fair and it is not just.

I got into the cab of his truck out of the rain to pay my bill and told Jose about Empire State College, part of the State University of New York. Its tag line is: “College Built Around Your Life.” It’s designed for men and women who are already working and have family and other obligations, men and women who grow up in the neighborhoods of my divided city beyond the borders of affluence and privilege. And like other institutions in our now faltering democracy, its funding is constantly under threat.

Who will ensure the education of our future citizens if our public education collapses?

We cannot let this happen. We must not.

My American Passport

February 22, 2017

Tags: The American Constitution, immigration, deportation, citizenship, illegal immigration

Don't interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.

--Abraham Lincoln

I was in the laundromat piling my wet clothes into the dryer when Ricardo began to talk to me. I’ve changed his name to protect his identity because he is an undocumented immigrant who has lived in the United States for more than twenty years, married and raised his children here, and has rarely, if ever, missed a day of work. He deals with the neighborhood’s dirty laundry all day long, washing, drying and folding it neatly into multi-colored bags. His English is rudimentary. He is paid less than minimum wage. He doesn’t complain because he is undocumented. He hadn’t seen his parents in more than ten years when, in desperation, he snuck over the border last summer and spent all of his savings on a coyote to bring him back.

More than one of my neighbors help Ricardo with his English. He has a new workbook; between cycles, he studies. He has always wanted to better himself. He has always worked. His children are “dreamers,” and have all attended college. He calls me “Teacher.” “Teacher,” he began. “Teacher, I am afraid. What will happen with this new president?” I showed him the safety pin on my hat and tried to explain. I said, “This pin means you are safe with me.” I wrote down the words “sanctuary city” in my small pocket notebook, ripped out the page and handed it to him. How would this scrap of paper help? I told him about my refugee parents, but as soon as I began to speak, I knew that it was not an analogous story. Despite the traumas of war and the unconscionable losses of a genocide, my parents were granted immediate legal residency and became naturalized citizens. The disruption in their lives eased and their children were born Americans. To carry an American passport became an emblem of safety and opportunity. I am glad they are not alive to witness President Trump’s draconian, inhumane executive immigration orders .

I have not been everywhere with my American passport, but I have friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues from everywhere. Some have two passports or green cards and lead trans-national lives, yet they, too, now feel endangered. Overseas students at NYU with legal visas have been urged not to leave the country as they may not be granted entry upon return. It is not at all clear if our “dreamer” students will be harassed or their parents deported. Much as we would like to say we are a sanctuary campus, there are no guarantees. A Palestinian-American friend, who has been a citizen for a long time, is having strange dreams: “Carol, I had a dream last night. Hundreds of coyotes were running after Trump attacking him. He was crying furiously and I woke up shaking.” I was pleased he wrote the dream down because it became a story. The beginning of a memoir, perhaps. His family was displaced in 1948 by the formation of the State of Israel and he has a story to tell, a good story, an American-Palestinian story.

There is so much work to do for all of us: daily phone calls, marches, other political actions. But this is all good. We’ve come alive to our responsibilities as citizens and patriots.

My Avatar

February 13, 2017

Now that “The Nomads Trilogy” has launched and that project—so far as I know at this moment—is finished, and my post-election night terrors are more or less under control, I am going to have some fun with my Bitmoji app. I am in love with my avatar, meaning, I suppose, that I am in love with the idealized image of myself I have created—with the help of my artist daughter. We took some time choosing the shape of my face and eyes, the color of my hair and lipstick, and my skin tone. I hope those who know me agree that the likeness is accurate (and not too idealized) and that choosing a spiffy workout outfit was a good choice as there was no bathing suit, cap or goggles in the virtual fashion closet. (My avatar is a lap swimmer, as am I.) The eyeglasses and nose are the right shape, my daughter assures me, and I have to accept her skilled, artistic judgment, though the nose looks a bit off to me. Of course, we never imagine ourselves accurately, do we? And the persona/avatar we project both in real life and in our writing is, in fact, a fiction or, at the very least, a factoid, a word coined by Norman Mailer to describe the narrative choices he made to tell his Pulitzer-prize winning nonfiction novel, “The Executioner’s Song.” Nonfiction novel? How does that compute?

It’s strange, I always tell my students, that when we write fiction, whether in first or third person, we can hide behind a narrative persona (an avatar), but when we write nonfiction, we are the narrator, it is us, and we must be credible. But is the narrator really “us,” or have we invented a nonfiction storyteller’s avatar? And is an avatar the same as a voice? I would suggest that our writing voice is a component of our narrative avatar. My avatar, as seen above, has a bold, mezzo voice. And I am using it here.


February 2, 2017

Tags: Robert Frost, Twitter

Photo by Carol Bergman
As 1775 began, a great many British subjects on both sides of the Atlantic asked themselves, how had it come to this? What had led to such polarization? In truth, the drumbeats of dissension had been increasing in intensity for more than a decade."

--Walter R. Borneman in "American Spring"

I was walking on a country road with my daughter and her two dogs when we passed a stone wall. The first line of Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Wall," came to me: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." When I got back to the house, I looked it up and wrote out the first six lines into my journal. I've decided to memorize it. It's a long poem so I'll work it slowly, two lines a day. I've also pasted a link on a Facebook status together with a couple of photos: the pellet stove ablaze and light snow falling outside the window at 7 a .m. this morning. In the distance, a flock of turkeys and the black barn cat chasing them is barely visible in the dawning light. This landscape seemed the perfect antidote to the news that a nursing mother had been turned away at the airport and separated from her baby.

I was visiting for three days, not long enough to restore my troubled soul, but welcome nonetheless. My daughter is as immersed as I in the tragedy of the election. We talk and text and email and "like" and "share" our posts on Facebook. The conversation is intense, exhausting and necessary, we both agree.

I've been thinking a lot about the Facebook posts, as well as the emails I have received, since November 8th. Some of these writings are eloquent, even poetic. In our shared cyber-space, many who are not professional writers have become prolix. It's an interesting human phenomena. After all, we are blessed with language, and language we must use to express our deepest fears, concerns, observations and hopes. Rather than repeat ourselves endlessly, we search for new ways to say things. And our use of language elevates as we read more extensively and write more thoughtfully. Even our vocabulary expands. This new preference for narrative descriptive prose represents, I believe, a resistance to a sound-byte culture of rants and lies. It bodes well for our future as a more educated, tolerant nation.

My Night Terrors Solution

January 24, 2017

When so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.

President Obama in a NY Times interview with Michiko Kakutani, January 16, 2017

Since the election and the inauguration of our new president, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night feeling hungry for all the classics on my bookshelves, or verses from my favorite poems, or a banana. This is called my night terrors solution. In order to get back to sleep, I have to make some chamomile tea, eat the banana very slowly, and read paragraphs from a Graham Greene anthology, an Edith Wharton novel, or a Raymond Carver short story. The choice of reading material varies. I might browse for a while, take one book out, put another back. I never open my Kindle which usually holds at least three books I am reading in the daylight hours. No, the night terrors solution requires the printed word. I might open my journal and write for a while. Finally, my nerves settle.

This week has been somewhat different, however. I marched in New York on Saturday with five friends. I say marched but, in fact, we never made it past 47th street; we stood, we sang, we chanted, we held up signs.

Afterwards, all in my small group agreed that our despair at the outcome of the election had been lifted with this one national-- and international--act of peaceful resistance to a new regime--not an administration, a regime-- in Washington. The effects are already being felt with fast-moving executive orders targeting the Affordable Care Act, Women's Right to Choose, and the Keystone Pipeline. The pink hats will be on for a while. The marches will continue.

Like most writers, I have been both inside the event of recent weeks and months, and observing the events. On Saturday, I took some photos for my Facebook page, but I also sent text back to myself whenever I spotted a pithy sign or overheard some dialogue. In other words, I was already collecting shared stories, telling my own stories, and writing this blog post. And I had the strange sensation--probably because I already miss him-- that President Obama was doing something similar. He has always kept a journal and is poised to write his next book.

Although President Clinton was also a voracious reader, President Obama is both a reader and a good writer, probably the greatest literary president since Abraham Lincoln. While in the Oval Office, these three imperfect, empathetic presidents found both anchor and inspiration in books.

Strong Words

January 17, 2017

Tags: Apollo Uptown Hall, WNYC, Brian Lehrer, MLK

Staceyann Chin and her daughter, Zuni, declaiming poetry.
I went to the Apollo Theater on Sunday for a panel discussion, “Where Do We Go From Here?; MLK and the Future of Inclusion.” January 15 would have been the Reverend’s actual birthday: 88- years-old. How wonderful that his birthday fell during this week of marches and civil disobedience. “Where Do We Go From Here?,” was the title of Dr. King’s last book. It’s still a good question.

The Apollo has been renovated since my last visit there, a gorgeous, welcoming space, and I was looking forward to the afternoon. Sadly, I felt stuck in my seat, sorely disappointed. Solid, incisive questions posed by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer and Jami Floyd went unanswered or evaded. Instead, there were lots of stale ideas, some pontificating, a good bit of posturing. I learned nothing new, nor did I feel hopeful until Jamaican-born, bi-racial, lesbian Staceyann Chin bounced onto the stage. As I rarely frequent poetry slams, I had never heard of her. Whoa!!

Suddenly the audience was upright, all impatient sighs silenced. Even her get-up—patterned tights, a flared mid-thigh dress—declared: PAY ATTENTION.

If agit-prop/polemical poetry is good, it wakes us out of our comfort zones, juxtaposes unexpectedly, and changes the air we breathe. Chin is good. This one-word-after another prose I am writing here can only approximate her performance on the stage.

“I am holding my own sorrow,” she said. That was just one line I caught as she thrashed and flailed her lithe body into her poem stories, aphorisms and tragic truths. “A system sworn to protect us owes us something when it fails.” That one seared. So, too, another which I will have to paraphrase here as it flew by so fast. It was something about white liberal/progressives taking responsibility for white supremacists, their hate speech. Something about finding a way to answer the hate with our own liberal/progressive words.

That’s quite a challenge, something I’ll have to think about in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, I plan to read Staceyann’s memoir:


January 10, 2017

Tags: humanitarian workers, President Trump, refugees, soldiers

...and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

--From the Book of Isaiah

I had wanted to tell his story or to help him tell his story. He had approached me after a seminar and said he was in transition from the military into humanitarian work and had recently returned from a stint in a refugee camp.

He’d been in Afghanistan, he’d been in Iraq, he still had all his limbs, he spoke English and Arabic and Dari, which is related to Farsi, the language of Iran. He had a very American name—Bryan—and had grown up in a very American middle-class military family in a suddenly—one year to the next, it seemed—impoverished textile down in Northern New England. Many of the young men and women had enlisted or gone to seek their fortunes in the cities across America and the world leaving their bereft extended families behind. He had lost many comrades.

This is Donald Trump’s America. We would do well to pay attention.

For several months I tried to fashion a book proposal about veterans like Bryan, young men and women who had enlisted for economic or patriotic reasons, or both, men and women who were deployed and then re-deployed, brutalized by war and witness to war. Men and women who had decided to become healers and helpers. But they had trouble talking about their experiences in war zones, they had moved on, and the stories never took shape, so I moved on, too, into my next project.

Since then, several impressive anthologies have been published but none, so far as I can tell, celebrate the soldiers who have become humanitarian workers:

Maybe I am thinking about these particular vets again today because there is still so much terrible conflict in the world with no end in sight; or because the promise of peaceful resolutions and solid diplomacy seems even more remote as Donald Trump enters the White House.

There are no golf courses or business opportunities in refugee camps.

We are asked by some to “give our new president a chance,” and to forgive his egregious transgressions and hate speech thus far. Many professionals are trying to rein him in, to educate him. I wonder if this would be easier, or even necessary, if his own sons had been drafted, or enlisted, or lost comrades overseas. I know that Bryan and his decimated unit, deployed and re-deployed, would have a lot to teach our new president about altruism, civility, and world peace.