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Incarcerated Children; An Urgent Message

“Crimes against humanity are certain acts that are deliberately committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack or individual attack directed against any civilian or an identifiable part of a civilian population. The first prosecution for crimes against humanity took place at the Nuremberg trials.” Source: Wikipedia

I was on a bike at the gym trying to ignore the horrific news on multiple TV screens and searching my New Yorker Today for a good article to read when I found one I’d missed on April 3, 2017 by Rachel Aviv, an outstanding reporter. It’s about the epidemic of comatose children in Sweden whose parents have not been granted asylum after many years of exile, adaptation to new surroundings, and years of waiting for an asylum application to be processed. The children of these families are analogous to our Dreamers; though most have not been born in Sweden, they have spent most of their childhoods in Sweden. Children being children, they learn a language quickly, make friends quickly, and soak up their host culture like sponges—the clothes, the music, sport fandom. More than 400 have fallen ill when asylym has been denied. They become sick for the family, they cannot move. “They fall away from the world,” one psychiatrist said. "They willingly die," said another.

Sweden had been the most beneficent country, taking in more refugees than any other European nation. This beneficence is an expression of the moral center of a humane, previously homogeneous society. But there had been a retrenchment, a right-wing surge, and more deportations if the country of origin was not at war. These deportations, Aviv explains, had become an “affront” to the country’s national character.

Even the Swedish king was alarmed, petitions were signed, the deportations eased, asylum was granted to the families of the comatose children and they began to recover as soon as they “heard” the news.

What can we learn from this astounding story? A great deal, I would say. Most importantly that it is our mandate as citizens to pay attention to the dangerous erosion of our moral center as a nation. Secondly, that we must continue to protest and give voice, as writers, as citizens, to those who are incarcerated and cannot speak. Thus my urgent message today, dear readers.

I find it telling the United States is not a party to the International Criminal Court founded in 2002 as a permanent international criminal court to "bring to justice the perpetrators of the worst crimes known to humankind – war crimes and crimes against humanity,” nor, more surprisingly, is it party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Indeed, the United States is the only United Nations member state that has signed but does not participate in the conventions all civilized—and even some uncivilized nations—have recognized as fundamental to the protection of the world’s children and world peace. And who can say that the United States is a civilized nation these days? I cannot.

Please read Rachel Aviv’s original article for full details about the “apathetic” children in Sweden:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/03/the-trauma-of-facing-deportation

And join me on June 30th wherever you are, in whatever country, city or state you reside to demonstrate against the horrific, inhumane actions of the current administration. Please vote in the primaries and get out the vote in November.

Support the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law:

http://www.centerforhumanrights.org/Staff.html

and the American Civil Liberties Union:

https://www.aclu.org/  Read More 
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Finding the Story

Crimson Crisp Certified Organic Apples at Westwind Orchards in Accord, New York
I’ve never worked in a deadline newsroom but I’ve always had feature editors who glaze over during a pitch and insist upon finding the story fast. Where’s the story? they ask skeptically, which is their job. In workshop, I call “finding the story” the armature, which is more than the theme or motif; it’s the infrastructure, the deep meaning of the work. Even a longer narrative has an armature, though there may be more than one. Still, all armatures must be linked if the work is to be viable and coherent.

Not a segue exactly, but I’ve been following the story of apples in New York State, and trying to find the story so that I can write something about them. I love apples, eat at least one a day as my physician mother taught me, and have been known to eat them top to bottom, core included. No more. If the apple is not organic, please note: the core is a receptacle for pesticide.

I thought this was going to be a benign and happy topic for me, a respite from all the terrible news, but it’s not; it’s connected to all the callous disregard we are experiencing right now—for the environment, for world peace, for desperate immigrants and their children spilling over our borders.

Already, I digress from my stated armature. The mind wanders. Let me begin again here:

The euphoria of living opposite an apple orchard in a converted apple cooler has worn off. When we first arrived in late March there was still snow on the ground and a couple of mornings a week I got out my ski poles and walked a road into the orchard, around the orchard, and through the orchard. Because I spotted a house on top of the rise, a house with swings and two cars, I penned a heartfelt letter asking permission to walk into the orchard and left it with the tenants to give to the owner. I never heard back; perhaps they knew my request would be moot once I found the armature of my apple story. (Please see my still innocent blog post of April 23rd.)

I kept walking into the orchard for a while, without permission. I carried a plastic bag and picked up debris. I found a hawk’s feather, said good morning to the ground hogs and crows.(I even love the crows, I have decided.) And then the snow melted and it was spring and no sooner was it spring than I heard a roaring sound and saw a spray truck spitting pesticide or fungicide into the trees. Several evenings a week.

I contacted the farmer:

“What kind of chemicals are you using?” No reply.

I contacted the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (Region 3):

“Are farmers allowed to spray conventional pesticide or fungicide in their orchards?”

“Yes. They are controlled. We inspect, but yes.”

I contacted the Ulster County Department of Health:

“Is there any evidence that the pesticides from this apple orchard have leached into the ground water? We have two wells on this property and the apple orchard has been spraying for decades."

“Absolutely not. That well water is clean as a whistle.”

A whistle? Really?

Now here’s the dilemma, one among many: I am both a citizen and a reporter, an observer and a participant. I have to get the facts, digest the facts, and respond to them. And one of the facts is this: the apple business is big business in New York State. The growers may want to “go organic,” but it’s difficult; it takes seven years to be certified once the going organic process starts. What’s more, except for crab apples, other varieties are not indigenous to North America ; they were brought in by immigrants, by settlers. And with their arrival came disease. There are natural defenses against these diseases, but pesticides are more “efficient.” More than likely, the apple you are eating right now is loaded with them. Peel the skin. Don’t eat the core.

Most upsetting is the realization that the degradation of our environment is self-inflicted, that it continues apace, and that our efforts to respond to climate change and the use of harmful chemicals must also continue apace so that all the apples our descendants eat will be as clean as a whistle.

That’s the story.  Read More 
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Sunsets

Sunset over the Shawangunks © copyright by Carol Bergman 2018
I needed a long, solitary walk to clear thoughts of mental illness and suicide from my writer’s brain. Writers are sponges and the news of Anthony Bourdain’s death, the eulogies, the news loop; I had to turn off the TV. These two high-profile suicides—Spade and Bourdain-- were reminders of the daunting challenge of trying to help those near and dear who are suffering. We all know someone. We may be that someone.

I walked past a horse farm where a stallion and a donkey share a shed. I called to them and they came up to the fence. Though I had no hay to offer, they allowed me to pet them. I immediately felt better.

Years ago, in London, a gifted Israeli playwright we knew, Naftali Yavin, “suffocated” in his sleep at the age of 36. That was the official report. As in the deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Yavin had abused drugs and alcohol. Were they used to medicate his despair, or did they exacerbate his despair, or did they cause his despair? And if he was overcome with melancholy, rage, or existential angst, why wasn’t his art enough to exorcise his demons? Why isn’t art ever enough to heal drug and alcohol induced brain changes? Because it isn’t. That is why addicts use the present tense, or the continuous present tense, when they refer to themselves in twelve-step meetings: I am an alcoholic, or I am a recovering addict. They never say: I’ve recovered.

Where was Bourdain in his recovery? Had he slipped? What will the autopsy reveal? How can we deter young artists—or chefs, who are artists—from using drugs? Is it realistic to hope that this is possible?  Read More 
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The Summertime Novelist

Photo of the Lower Catskills © copyright by Carol Bergman, 2018
Once upon a time, a writing group friend told me I probably wasn’t a novelist. The qualifier “probably” didn’t help; it felt like a curse, one I was determined to defy, exorcise, or ignore. It was not a nice thing to say to a writer trying something new. It wasn’t a nice thing to say, period.

I have just finished reading a profile of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the current fiction issue of The New Yorker, and I am reminded that my experience was not unique. Adichie does not enjoy hanging out with other writers. And I paraphrase her strong words: the knives eventually come out. I don’t know if this is competitiveness, jealousy, or what it is. It’s certainly not helpful to tear a writer down in this way. Surely there are always passages of interest to discuss, something in the submitted pages that illuminates the writing process and the choices the writer has made to tell the story. The choices may have failed, but we all can learn from those failures and make constructive suggestions for improvements.

Since the curse befell me, I have written two novels—“Say Nothing & “What Returns to Us”, and two books of novellas—“Water Baby” & “Sitting for Klimt”—and though they have not sold in the quadruple digits, they were satisfying to me in the writing, publishing and modest sales. Now I am working on a third novel, one I drafted more than ten years ago and abandoned. Was it because of the curse? I am not sure. I am determined to make it work—by the end of the summer. That’s my goal. And though this may sound somewhat dilettantish—I do not work full time on fiction—I am primarily a nonfiction writer/journalist, it is not. I have been researching and attempting this novel for a very long time.

I don’t know if I’ll succeed and some days are hard, very hard. I don’t know how full-time novelists do it, in fact. Adichie likes to be in the place she is writing about and has homes in Nigeria and America. She’s married and has a new baby and has had to find time to write. I became a more disciplined writer once I had my daughter; necessity is the mother of re-inventing daily routines. Writers who don’t have children but work full-time have a similar challenge: how to carve out space in their lives to write.

Like many writers, Adichie also teaches, not to earn money—Adichie does not need to earn money from teaching—but to mentor. Mentoring is a valuable reminder to the more practiced and published writer that writing is effort and that effort is rewarded.

Wish me luck, dear reader, luck and fortitude, as I return to the pages of my abandoned historical novel set in colonial New York. Now that I have moved out of the city I have a different landscape to inspire me. And there’s the hawk feather I found in the apple orchard soon after I arrived. In days past, it might have been a quill pen. Now it sits in my pen jar as a talisman, silently encouraging me.  Read More 
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