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.


January 1, 2017

Tags: Freud, the unconscious, Patti Smith

I’ve been dreaming in threes, a trilogy of dreams every night for the past month or so. Dream 1 is a wishful dream, something I need or covet. Dream 2 is an anxiety dream that threatens my very being. Dream 3 is quotidian, a resolution of disparate destabilizing forces during which daily routines are re-established: chopping mushrooms for an omelet, scouring the tub, adding an item to my shopping list. After Dream 3, I open my eyes. The play of geometric shapes on the ceiling, reflections of the cityscape through the blinds, has vanished. It is morning. Sentences surface as I awake to light. I reach for my journal hoping to collect the dreams without being disturbed by my husband’s stirring. He may already be in the kitchen preparing coffee. I shut out the sound and all thoughts of obligations awaiting me. I begin to write.

Dreams are both the raw material for stories and information about my psychic and everyday life. It is part of my writing routine to record them whenever they are remembered, which can be rare, or often. I prefer to begin my day with a dream story in my head and sentences that recall the dream. I aim for precision as I evoke the sensation of the dream’s morphing elusive shape. This is a pleasurable discipline.

I know that many people do not believe that the unconscious exists, but I do. What else is a dream but evidence of it?

In her new memoir, “M Train,” Patti Smith says, “I lived in my own book.” A continuation of that thought might be: I lived in my own dream, or my book is my dream, or my dream became my book.

My Last Blog Post of 2016

December 19, 2016

May 2017 be a kinder and more peaceful year. May the war in Syria end.
President Obama had his last press conference of 2016 and this is my last blog post of 2016. Our President looks weary and so am I. But it’s the holidays and we are implored to make merry, to be grateful, to put all our worries aside. Not possible. According to my husband, an historian, the election just past was an American Tragedy. This from a man who rarely gets depressed.

Holidays. There will be presents, a sparkly tree, good food and good company (Canadian, British, American), a romp or two in the snow, a drive over a gorgeous mountain range. I will stop and snap some photos. The air will be fresh, good people will embrace us upon arrival. Our daughter’s dogs and cat will be happy to see us and vice versa. All good cheer, but not enough this year. I need more: a schemata, a plan, a writer's resolution.

Here it is:

I will write continuously and consistently about any threat to free speech, a woman’s right to choose, bigotry, deportation, hate crimes, threats to Social Security. Many areas of day to day life will be under siege. I cannot list all of them here. First up, already in draft and sent out to readers, an essay about my back room abortion before Roe v. Wade (1973) the law that is now under threat by a soon to be stacked Supreme Court. Dear Reader, I will let you know when it is published.

History is Sudden, Poetry is Kind

December 10, 2016

Tags: Philip Roth, 2016 Election

Pages from my personal poetry anthology: handwritten, printed, clipped.
Oh, how the mind wanders, connects, obfuscates and clarifies. Not necessarily in that order and mostly when I am moving, usually in the water, sometimes on dry land. This strange juxtaposition of thoughts occurred to me on the A train yesterday. I had been reading Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” a prescient and disturbing book. It’s my second Roth in several months. First up during the election was “The Plot Against America,” also prescient and disturbing.

Though Roth overwrites and his machismo grates, I have never put down one of his books. His most recent—shorter—books, “Indignation” and “Nemesis” are masterpieces.

Page 87 of “American Pastoral”: “People think of history in the long term, but history , in fact, is a very sudden thing.”

That thought has stayed with me all week. But how did it connect to “poetry is kind?”

The progressives among my readers will understand: we’ve been hit by a 2x4, e.g. “history is sudden.” And even those more centrist will agree, we’re headed for a bumpy ride. Every day there is more bad news about an inappropriate, dare I say—cruel-- appointment to head a government agency. Worse, this election, like the 2000 election, may have been stolen. As I write this morning, President Obama has announced an investigation into Russian cyber interference. The accusation is no longer “notional.” It is certain.

Now for the second phrase: poetry is kind. What do I mean to say? That poetry is consoling, most probably, particularly in a confusing moment in history or our personal lives.

I have been collecting poetry in a designated notebook ever since I joined a writer’s group with three poets. I had been working as a free lance writer for Holt Rinehart & Winston and one of my editors there was trying to write fiction. So was I. She was starting a writer’s group and asked if I’d like to join. “What about a couple of poets?,” she asked. I think my only thought was: why not? I was in for some big surprises.

Unconcerned with linear narrative, poets think in images and connect ideas as, yes, juxtapositions, just as I have here today. My linear narrative prose illusions were shattered and I began to write more freely. It was grand. Since then, I’ve returned to reading and writing poetry regularly, sometimes daily. I have a poetry app on my electronic devices and continue to build a personal anthology. But when I mention the word “poetry,” to my students, they often glaze over.

They are mostly young, eager and thoughtful. To a person, they were hit hard by the election, hope shattered. They were shocked one week, angry the next, a predictable cycle of grief. Then came depression, a subdued entry to the classroom, nearly catatonic. So, this week, I brought in some poetry and read a selection for thirty minutes before we got to “work” critiquing their manuscripts. “Let your mind drift. Relax,” I said. I assigned prompts from lines in the poems—two minutes each. “Try not to ‘think,’ I said as you read what you’ve written aloud.”

I don’t know if the poetry and the prompt exercises helped. I hope they did because I care so much about my students and their progress as writers. And I feel strongly that older adults—parents, educators—have an obligation to be supportive guides in grave and challenging moments. We have more perspective, more experience. But if my students needed reassurance, I did, too, of course. By encouraging them I was lifting my own spirits. In the end, we shared our wisdom, our resilience, and the life-affirming poetry I had brought to class.

Nomads 3 @ The Cornelia Street Café Tonight

December 6, 2016

We’re here to celebrate the publication of “Nomads 3,” the final volume of my Nomads Trilogy which will be published in one volume in the New Year. These writings began as an experiment and became a project. I’ve learned a lot, found joy and struggle in the writing, and stand before you tonight satisfied that the trilogy is complete.

It will be more necessary than ever in the coming months and years to find solace, empathy and insight from art. The Nomads Project is one writer’s modest contribution. As a writer, it’s my mandate to observe keenly, feel deeply and do my best to transform observations and feelings into artful prose. Just as importantly in the coming months and years, is a promise to remain active in the protection of a free and vibrant press. I am a child of refugees. The privilege of having been born here is an accident of history. I do not take that privilege lightly.

I have promised you a serene evening and to that end I have with me two professional theatrical friends—Stephanie Stone and Constance George (their bios are on back of the programs I have placed on the tables.) And though we designed the program together, and I wrote the pieces you will hear them read, and as they are artists in their own right, I have entrusted them completely with their own interpretations. Therefore, the evening is a collaboration with them and with you, the audience. Once they appear on this stage, my work no longer belongs to me. I dedicate it to everyone here tonight, to all my readers, and to the next generation. May they live in a kinder, safer and more peaceful world.