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Welcome To My Village

Canal Street, Ellenville, NY, is picture postcard perfect. It still looks this way, more or less.

 

I taught a writing workshop in the Ellenville Library yesterday about an hour west of New Paltz into the mountains and then south on Route 209 towards Sullivan County. It was a cool-to-cold day and the air was fresh. Strobic light bouncing through the nearly leaf-bare trees disturbed my vision. I have to drive everywhere here, keep our old car in good shape, and brave all weathers, which I find both annoying and challenging. But I eventually relaxed into the mellow day. Past the turning in Kerhonkson, past Shop Rite and Walmart, "The Sound of Life," sermon on the radio, I flicked the search button and found a country music station. The evangelical stations play good music, too, and the bible readings are sometimes literary, but I am struck by the amount of repetition and the pounding—almost abusive—exhortations. How close is belief to obedience, I wonder? At election time, for example.


Just past Walmart the cars were rubber- necked, two tall guys in neon vests with empty plastic paint pails in the middle of the road. Cops? Volunteer firemen? Accident? Escaped prisoners from the state prison? The clunky castle-like structure loomed over us, casting its shadow.


My turn to roll down a window. How about a few dollars for the Ellenville Little League? Was this a question or a demand? These guys, who may well be volunteer firemen, were in the middle of the road stopping traffic, a bit coercive, I'd say. I popped a $5 bill into the pail and asked for $2 back. There's a limit to my generosity on a Saturday when I am trying to get somewhere, I thought. Isn't it enough that we have to endure lockdown drills nearly every week around here? Felled trees? Ice storms? Tail-gating? Gun shops?


Welcome to the Other America, not the urban, ghetto Other America that Michael Harrington wrote about in his iconic book, but the current, rural other America.


One thing that 45—or his oligarch handlers—got right: there is more than one America and that Other America is right outside the borders of our cities. Unexpectedly, I am living in it. Thankfully there are good schools, the roads are kept well, and everyone cares about the environment. Equally important for this writer is the interconnected library system; I can get any book I want quickly.


The new librarian at the Ellenville Library, Kristin Fowler, is wry, warm and energetic. When I first went out to meet her a few months ago, she booked me for two workshops and a reading of "Say Nothing," which is set in these mountains. Miraculously, the library has a budget beyond book purchase, and Kristin, a woman who cares about her job and her constituency, has made sure she uses it to develop free programs, services, workshops, and more. People are smiling when they walk into the library, and smiling when they walk out.


Six aspiring writers signed up for my workshop, four turned up. Three are avid readers, two have fascinating life stories they are eager to write, the fourth was there to listen and explore, a mom with three kids who still works night-shift to support her family and never made it to college, or at least not yet. I could not help but encourage her. "Your turn," I said. She is a John Grisham fan for the same reasons I am: He writes page turners and he has a social conscience. Who would have thought we have so much in common?


I still expect huge crowds at my workshops and readings and am surprised, even disappointed, when only a handful of people turn up. Entitlement syndrome: Am I not a well-known professor with a sterling reputation, reams of publications, and a CV five pages long? But Ellenville, like other hamlets and towns in Ulster County, is just a small village—population 4,000 and change—with a long, rich history and complex culture all its own and I am an outsider, a stranger, a traveler, passing through, not yet of the community. I am often met with skeptical expressions, even hostility, until I've got the room in my grip. It's a good thing I am experienced because it's not always easy. As I have written here in a recent post entitled, "Lockdown," I've even encountered anti-Semitism and shunning in Ulster County. I try not to take any reactions to my gentrified, educated persona personally, if that makes sense, and to meet everyone I encounter with curiosity and an open heart. After all, I'm still a free-thinking city girl. 

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Getting the Story Right

The presentation of the flag of the Mohican Nation to Historic Huguenot Street on September 20, 2019. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman

 

 

 

Listen to us and the great good spirit will reward your goodness. If you should finally shut your ears may that great spirit forgive you.

 

Hendrik Aupaumut in a letter to the New York State Legislature, 1790

 

 

We were sitting under a big white tent on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY on land that many still believe belongs to the descendants of the indigenous people who settled here more than 7,000 years before the Europeans arrived. It was an historic occasion, and an emotional one. Henrick Aupaumut's letter had been presented to the historic site as a gift, and it tells a complicated story within and between it's formal, diplomatic words. Written after the American Revolution, it argues for the restoration of land stolen by the Dutch, British, and French Huguenot colonists from the indigenous inhabitants of upstate New York and beyond. Hendrik Aupaumut  had fought on the American side during the war; he expected to be heard.
 
So vast and diverse was the land on which the indigenous population once roamed, that historians can define swaths of settlements, but no clear borders. Nomadic, intermarried, culturally and linguistically connected, the suvivors of war, disease and even enslavement, migrations and diplomatic councils were constant, more so after the Europeans arrived. Once eracinated and dispossesed, there was little hope of return to sacred land, a concept the tribes still hold dear. Their rich history is still not properly taught in our schools. 
 
Mary Etta Schneider, President and Board Chair of Historic Huguenot Street, and a French Huguenot descendant herself, got up to speak. I have heard her speak before, but never with so much feeling. "We are on a journey," she said. "We are learning. And we want to get the story right."  The audience went silent. Perhaps they were expecting a sterile academic lecture and nothing more. Indeed, there was a lecture, eventually—and a fascinating one—by  scholar Lisa Brooks, but first there was a ceremony. Two councilmen from the Stockbridge-Munsee band of the Mohican Nation were in attendance—they had traveled from Wisconsin—as well as the tribe's Preservation Officer, Bonney Hartley, who sits on the HHS Board.
 
As in times of old, Algonquin was spoken and translated by the speakers themselves, which in itself was startling, that this language is still extant and used.

 

Mary Etta Schneider's hand went over her heart as she returned to her seat after the gifts were exchanged. This is a continuing and permanent partnership, she had promised. The flag of the Munsee-Stockbridge Band will now fly on a pole on Huguenot Street.
 
It was an important gathering—truth and reconciliation—and one I will remember for a long time. I congratulate Historic Huguenot Street for their continuing efforts at re-interpretation of the fault lines in our history that haunt our historic sites, and this particular site in the town I now call home.

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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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