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They Live Among Us

An open gate leads to a field. Animals do not see gates, fences, or borders.
Photo: © copyright Carol Bergman 2019

 

A deer crossed my path as I began my walk down Huguenot Street yesterday. I was not startled as I am used to them by now. We also have coyotes, bears and ground hogs in abundance in these mountains. Very few are hit on the road, which is gratifying. People are careful, respectful, even reverent. These creatures live among us, we live among them; we share the environment. And we are, presumably, stewards of this shared environment.

 


It was early morning and parishioners were arriving for a Sunday service at the Dutch Reformed Church. The sky was overcast and it was still a bit foggy. Then a squirrel joined me, and a white moth, and a couple of hawks, though one of them might have been an eagle.

 

Afterwards, I went to see an exhibition called "Tonalism: Pathway from the Hudson River School to Modern Art" at the Dorsky Museum on the SUNY campus. Though I am familiar with the Hudson River School and Whistler's work, I had never heard of Tonalism and I did not recognize the other painters. The canvases were luminous and as calming as my walk. All of them were landscapes without a human presence. Interestingly, Tonalism emerged after the chaos of the Civil War; it was contemporaneous with Impressionism in Europe.


I wondered what the analogy to a Tonalist's vision might be in writing. Perhaps lyrical landscape poetry. And then I wondered if a "school" of writers or painters will emerge as an antidote to the chaos and worry we are experiencing—the extreme storms, the droughts, the wars, the inhumane politicians at the helm of too many nations, including our own.


How can we restore our weary spirits? Is it possible to retain a contemplative, creative persona in the midst of chaos? If we stop to observe a deer crossing our path, metaphorically speaking, will our creative life flourish?


I was the only one in the gallery, and I could have stayed there all day, though the guards—all young women, all students, all dressed in black—followed me around. I surrendered to their human presence and asked them questions: Do you have a favorite painting here? What are you studying? And so on. It was my choice to connect—my journalist persona, or educator self, I suppose.


The beginning of the term is difficult for working writers who are also teachers as there is a lot to prepare. I have started two book projects—one fiction, one nonfiction—but did not make enough headway during the summer with either of them. Because I am the co-owner of a publishing business, and also have private students, there are manuscripts to read all year long. Therefore, I must intentionally carve out time and space to proceed with my own work. My students have the same struggle as most of them have demanding jobs. We discuss the challenge often, though I offer no remedy; everyone has to find their own rhythmn, their own antidote to chaos and the obligations of daily life if they/we are to remain committed to the writing life.

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Composed to Decompose

Wishin' & Hopin': A Living Quilt by Maria Lupo

 

 

Loss doesn't matter unless you care.

 

Andy Goldsworthy talking about his "Walking Wall"  at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO in an interview with Jeffrey Brown on the NEWSHOUR 8/30/2019

 

 

Our ideas about climate change are evolving rapidly; we are more knowledgeable. Or perhaps we've hit the tipping point and cascaded like a waterfall. In larger numbers, we've moved from acceptance to panic to action in just a few short months. Maybe it was the photos of Katrina, or Puerto Rico, or Haiti, or the Bahamas, that finally pierced the scrim of  complacency. Or the deepening sensation of constant threat, a clock ticking, or a loved one, or acquaintance, or a friend of a friend flooded and homeless. We join a rescue team, fill sandbags, cook soup, donate money, take in a family member, canvass for politicians who care about the future.

 

Because all writers  live in heightened awareness—whether  there is a crisis or not—we need only review the oeuvre of our favorite authors to find a roadmap from past to present, even to the future. Jonathan Franzen is a novelist but he is also a birder. Read his nonfiction pieces from three, four, five years ago, and weep. Read Dickens' descriptions of London blighted by coal, a fossil fuel. His stories were more than entertainments; they were warnings about industrialization and callous government.

 

All art is protest, all of it. We create because we care, we feel the losses, celebrate the accomplishments and joys. We may have agendas of one sort or another, or unconsciously tap into the political discourse, but our stories are documents, collectibles of a certain time and place. We know that polemical screeds are less affective and effective than stories even if they are angry or demanding, so we write in the active voice and always remember that we are telling fiction—or nonfiction—stories.

 

Art and writing about climate change and environmental conservation and degradation are all around us now,  everywhere and ever present. We need only step into it to remain in balance with ourselves and with nature as we decide what one small action we can do to help. At the "Composed to Decompose" site-specific installations at the Unison Arts Center in New Paltz, NY, I felt both elated and repulsed by the artists' visions, as I am sure they intended. I went late in the summer when the weather had cooled and was taken round by Helene and Stuart Bigley, co-founders of the center. Much had already shifted in the landscape, the leaves beginning to turn, the water drying in the stream. The sculptures were also transforming in their embedded locations, ruffled by wind, pelted by rain.

 

My favorite was a "living quilt" by Maria Lupo. Created from discarded tea bags and seeds, and being a tea drinker myself, I was drawn to this piece. It was just there, hanging from the branches of a tree, in the same way as we were just there standing on the wood chip path. I could walk up to the quilt and touch it, or turn to Helene and Stuart and ask a question or  two, or not. There was no barrier or guard rail, no instruction, just a contemplative space to think about our connection to the natural world and one another.

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Robots

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2019

Once I believed that the any expression of civility was only possible face to face, eyeball to eyeball, and voice to voice. And though I have not stopped believing that civility and kindness is best articulated in this way, like everyone else in our fast-moving, post-industrial, digital world, I've had to adapt to cold media—text, email—if I want to stay humanly and humanely interfaced with others of our species.


But I am not a robot, nor do I want to behave like a robot, or to continually answer insincere questions about my anti-robotic nature on security-enhanced medical portals, for example. Am I entering websites and portals, dear reader, or are they entering me, forever changing my neural pathways to resemble... robots? Are the decisions we are making amplified or diminished by the erosion of three-dimensional connections? A rhetorical question.


The other day I arrived at the small, human-scale gym where I work out only to discover that it/they/the franchise owner had decided to "go 24-7." The emergency pull cords were being tested while I was on the bike listening to Annie Lennox—deep, throaty Scottish voice—and I had to dis-mount the bike and hold my ears for the duration of the test. Having been interrupted, I decided to interview the owner. His explanation makes complete (financial) sense—to him. "I wouldn't be able to retire unless I did this," he said, meaning a gym run nearly remotely and robotically with only minimal managerial hours. "It's the "new business model for gyms," he said.


"No more SUNY students at the front desk?"


"They weren't that reliable. The gym can almost run itself."


"Robotically?"


"I wouldn't go so far."


"I found the students congenial and helpful," I said. "They smile, they speak. When this desk is empty, it feels strange. Strange and cold."


"You'll get used to it," he said.


I doubt it.


And there's more, all of it connected to the state of our economy, our education system, and our exploited labor force, a labor force that has little security, works more than one job, has no paid vacation, and is in debt. Every one of the half dozen or so student workers I have met at the gym are struggling to maintain their financial equilibrium while they are studying. Any job is important to them. Most are on scholarship or have loans. Their parents are often struggling. In a small town where opportunities are scarce, the gym once provided a few hours of employment for a handful of students, a contribution to their future, and ours.


Fake news. Fabricated stories. Fantasies. It is well documented by now that it is not immigrants who are threatening our jobs, it is robots. By definition, they have no social conscience.



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