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.


WALLS

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.

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