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Big Stories

Big stories are embedded in our childhood landscapes. This is Mount Tabor.

Big Story # 1: A locker-room acquaintance is grieving for her mother and feeling perplexed that they were not close. She never could understand why the mother-daughter connection was always acrimonious, why her mother was, at times, cruel. What had happened? The search for an answer to this question is the beginning of a very big story that, hopefully, will be integrated into Sally's memoir. Previously unknown details are surfacing as far-away family visits, photographs are scanned and shared, memories untangled.

 

There had been a smallpox outbreak in the city in 1947, mothers sent home, their newborns left in the hospital as they had no immunity and could not be vaccinated.  Bottle feeding was in high fashion after WW II and breast feeding frowned upon.  So the babies were left behind bereft of their mothers and breast-milk immunity if their mothers had been vaccinated. More than 6 million New Yorkers were vaccinated during that epidemic; twelve died. It was the last smallpox outbreak in the city, historic for that reason alone. Eventually all those newborns were released from the hospital but by then the mother-baby bond had been compromised, not for everyone, of course, but in some instances. And this unearthed not-so-small fact is illuminating, the beginning of a big story. Everyone has one buried somewhere,  either within our own families, the communities in which we were raised, or elsewhere. If we want to write, such material is a treasure trove. And it's our mandate, as writers, to reveal, reframe, offer a new perspective, encourage deep thinking, challenge convention and expectation, and enrich the written record.

 

Big Story # 2 today: If a small boy, merely five years old, wanders the mountains at the edge of the desert in Palestine and the desert is behind him, and he can see the olive grove in the distance, and his parents do not worry about him, but forever after in the dislocation of an occupied Palestine and exile in France, and then America, he dreams of mountains, that is the poignant beginning of a book. For many years I have encouraged Rashid to begin writing his big story. He comes from an oral storytelling tradition and it is wonderful to listen to him at the dinner table, or in front of  the wood burning stove on a winter's night, but I also want him to write his stories down, to enrich the written record.

 

Dear Reader,

 

Please do not keep your  big—or—small stories to yourself. Write them in your journal. Write to me. Caveat: Do not post all your stories on FB. Many writers, including yours truly, use FB as "practice." Indeed, captioning is a good discipline. But is it always wise? Be wary of giving away your work for free on the internet.

 

With all best wishes,

CB

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Brining

I noticed that the roads had been brined on my way to Kingston yesterday but hadn't read anything about snow. I had never heard of brining roads before, only turkeys, so was surprised when brining roads came up in conversation past the usual holiday celebrations. "Have you noticed the brining?" someone said to me one day. I didn't know how or what to answer as I am still learning mountain vocabulary. Then, it all clicked in:  those lovely even stripes on the road were brine: a mixture of salt and water. And they presaged snow and ice.

 

I rely on my weather app here in the mountains more than I ever did in the city and usually find it accurate. I check it first thing in the morning.  If the temp is in the 20s, I know our car will have a sheet of ice on it and has to be warmed up and scraped. When a new friend asked if we had a good scraper I didn't know what she was talking about. Until I had to use one. Luckily we had an old one on the floor in the back of the car. Emergency preparedness takes on new meaning here. And we have to be warmly dressed, nothing casual or matter-of-fact in the mountains. Layers, hats, gloves, new water-proof jackets with hoods, new boots, new hiking shoes.

 

Well, it hasn't been that cold yet and we've only had one storm so far. But it's only the first week in January. Like so much else in life, the weather, especially in this era of remarkable and visible climate change, remains unpredictable. And that keeps us alert to the environment in a more profound way, as I have written here often since we arrived in New Paltz last March.

 

New Yorkers are rarely homebound, snow days are few, snow events rare, subways running in most weathers, power outages occasional, vintage black and white photos of trolleys and blizzards charming. The city ticks over, it sucks energy, it buffers its citizens from the weather. But in the country, life slows and has to be managed differently. No oil-boiled constant hot running water or steam heat. Not only are we living in a colder weather system here, the narrative of our day-to-day lives has completely shifted. I find it both refreshing,  cozy and , literally, more sustainable. What else is there to do on a cold winter's night but read, write, play a game of Scrabble or binge on a Netflix series. The days, though shorter, feel longer no matter the season. I work out at a gym early in the morning and take a hiking break from the computer mid-afternoon to catch fresh air and light, or I swim in the morning at the university and then hike in the afternoon. I watch a flock of geese land in the corn field, I study a bear's scat on the trail, I take photos of a full moon in a star-lit sky, I eat a big meal at 4 in the afternoon and go to bed before 11 a.m. I write for two hours in my journal, double the time I spent in the city. I work on my novel into the night. I do not rush anywhere; I linger.

 

It's a trade-off. I miss the cultural richness of urban life, I miss my friends, I miss the pizazz of the city and am grateful when I can be there for work or pleasure, but I have finished two books since I moved and I'm about to start two more projects—one fiction and one nonfiction—before the teaching term begins on January 21. As ever, I look forward to meeting my new students, both urban @ NYU and rural @ SUNY Ulster.

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Snowstorm Scrabble

Note the "DELUXE" board and interesting words. I can't remember who won.

Happy New Year, dear readers. In the interest of optimism, good cheer and a blog post about something other than our troubled world—there I have said it, the world is troubled—I am writing to you today from a snow-dusted, peaceful landscape. I fancy a game of Scrabble on this quiet evening but my husband is in the city working. Alas, I could challenge him or a friend to a virtual game, but I prefer F2F kibitzing and a three-dimensional board. Before our move, I had been playing virtual Scrabble with a high school friend, two games at a time, and had tired of it. I've written here that I didn't like words thrown down without the ballast of a challenge, or the ready acceptance of acronyms and abbreviations, or the constant advertising. And "Words With Friends," which I have also tried, upsets me even more: it's a copyright rip-off. Hasbro and Mattel jointly own the rights to Scrabble. How did the "Words With Friends" app owners get away with this? No writer approves of copyright rip-off. I hereby object. Objection noted, you say? Thank you.

 

The Scrabble I grew up with was much tougher than the virtual game. The rules were strictly enforced by my refugee parents. Scrabble honed and expanded their word usage; the dictionary was open all the time, challenges were constant. My step-father had studied Latin and was a language maven. His shelves were  heavy with Shakespeare, Goethe, the Bible, Galsworthy and law books, all in English, his second beloved language.  He was not as avid a reader as my mother but he was a better, more thoughtful Scrabble player. He took his time, no timer allowed, whereas my mother played quickly and became impatient easily. I think of them often as I sit down to play, a "madeleine" of childhood memory. I was allowed to play with them as soon as I could read. I sat by my stepfather's side and made suggestions. We discussed them all, seriously. He was the parent who most nurtured me as a writer and always wanted to know what I was working on. How fortunate I was. I know that he would be pleased that I cherish these early memories and that I still play Scrabble today.

 

We had our first storm a while back and took out our new Deluxe Scrabble purchased while we were still in the city and rarely cracked. City life is so much busier and demanding. To have more time to read, write, think and play Scrabble is a gift. Yet encoding words in isolation is not necessarily easy for a writer as we are always searching for meaning in context, spinning sentences, connecting words. I am more like my mother when I play—a bit impatient—eager to get onto the next move, to talk, to tell stories. My husband is more like my stepfather,  slow and thoughtful. I can read a chapter of my book, or even two, before he puts down his tiles. He goes for the long words and the points whereas I never care about winning. What would I be winning exactly? Scrabble is not a competitive game for me. Only the words matter. They always do.

 

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Happy Holidays

Dove of Peace by Pablo Picasso, 1949

It pleases me to wish all of you Happy Holidays, not Happy Christmas or Merry Christmas, which I had to endure for the decade I lived in England. I never thought I minded it until I returned to the United States; I thought it was quaint. I especially enjoyed the tradition of hand-delivering holiday cards and being invited in for tea. I've been doing the same in my new neighborhood—hand-delivering cards with thanks for warm welcomes into the community—but , sadly, have not been invited in for tea. I will have to do the inviting, which is fine by me.

 

We may be a dysfunctional nation right now, questioning our values, The Constitution—what it says and doesn't say—but one thing I know for certain: we are diverse, most of us respect and appreciate different traditions, and this respect is written into law. " Happy Holidays," embraces all traditions; I'm grateful we have evolved out of a primarily Christian season. Or, perhaps I should not use the word "grateful." We've worked hard to become a more tolerant nation.

 

Years ago, when our daughter was young and we lit the Chanukah candles and then went out to buy a tree, and played Santa on Christmas morning, a neighbor (from Germany) met us in the elevator as we were struggling with the tree and said, "Isn't your family Jewish? Why would you buy a tree?" Though I would have preferred to explain that our family is secular and intermarried, and that we enjoy all traditions in a non-religious way, and that I, especially, love sacred music and will go to a church on Christmas Eve any time, I could not resist a dig: "How Christian are you? Go to church often?, " or words to that effect. It was mean and un-necessary. This neighbor was a nice guy, we'd talked often, we liked each other. But he was philo-Semitic: aware of a Jew when he was, he imagined, in the presence of a Jew. Had I ever told him I was Jewish? I had not. So I'd been profiled, which is dangerous, to say the least, and often wrong. To imagine someone is one thing or another is an act of the imagination; it distorts reality. I could be Spanish, or Palestinian, or Moroccan, or Greek—originally or ancestrally—or whatever.

 

That was then, a while ago, this is now. All sorts of malignant sensations have been unleashed, including vicious racism, private hatreds expressed brazenly in the public sphere. And it's happened to me again, this time in a doctor's office, not a slur, not a smear, just philo-Semitism. Much more benign but troubling nonetheless.

 

New doctor, time for an annual exam. I got an earful. He'd had his DNA tested and was disappointed and somewhat relieved to learn that he was not one of the "tribe."  "Which tribe?," I asked him sotto voce, as he was whispering this earth-shattering information to me in the examining room. "You know, the Jewish tribe." Again, I could not resist throwing stereotypes and expectations to the wind: "I don't know. I wouldn't know. Part of my family is from North Africa, part of it is Cree."


"CreeK?"

"No, Cree, from Saskatchewan. Native American, First American, as the Canadians call them, as they call us."

 

Was I being ornery or self-protective? Probably a little of both. The poor man looked stunned. Role reversal, I offered to take his blood pressure.  I certainly didn't want him to take mine.

 

 

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What We Save, What We Toss Away

 Lily Sobotka, a cousin in what was once a large, extended family. She was murdered in Auschwitz. Her image, which I had thought was lost, surfaced in one of the photo albums I had stored and forgotten. 

I'm reading, skimming and sorting a cache of letters, photos and documents I'd forgotten I'd saved. They were stored in my daughter's house in a closet in her studio. "Time to liberate the shelves," she told me, gently. I had thought I was done with boxes for a while, but there they were.


Most of the letters, notes and drafts of articles and books date back to the 80's and 90's before I had started saving work and personal correspondence in folders on my computer and/or in emails in cyberspace. The shift from paper to cloud has been mostly exhilarating though I worry how biographers and historians will retrieve information. I remember—and how frail memory is—that I have reported --in this blog--throwing away two decades of journals when I moved out of the apartment where we raised our daughter. I am not a blockbuster writer and decided it was hubris to think that anyone would want to write my biography. That's how I justified the culling and, truthfully, I have never regretted it. Now the leftover cache caught me unawares. It did not hold any journals; I breathed a sigh.


"I need a glass of water," I said as my daughter plunked eight boxes in front of me. Eight!!! I sorted out a few things with her, loaded the car with what remained and woke this morning with the thought that I could toss it all away without looking at any of it. Or could I? What would I learn about my younger self? What, if anything, might I be able to use in a writing project—an essay, a short story, a book, a poem, a play? What joys might I find, or events that I mis-remembered, or friends who had passed away but remain vivid on the page?


Take it slow, I said to myself. Just a few items at a time.


Most difficult for me—emotionally—are the photo albums and papers belonging to my mother's first cousin, Renate. She and her husband, Arthur, migrated to California after many years of struggle as refugees in New York. They had no children so I was named as guardian when Renate was widowed and developed dementia. But California has strict laws and any relative living out of state has to relinquish custodial care to the state. I paid attention to Renate long distance, visited as often as I could, but not much was left of her estate or her possessions by the time she died. A box arrived and I stashed it away. Saturated with the pain of the Holocaust, I couldn't take any more. Another story, another reckoning. Would I still be sad? Or even more angry?


I opened the photo album. There they were—my mother and Renate—lying stomach down on a beach somewhere in pre-Anschluss Austria, enjoying their youth, innocent of what is to come, doing acrobatics and posing in their sexy swimsuits. Documents continue the story: a visa to Bolivia, a boyfriend in the US Army, a twisted smile in a passport photo.


As for the copies of my letters and early drafts of articles and books, some is illuminating, some is familiar, some feels as though it was written by a stranger. How odd that the stranger is me.


Time collapsed, time unstoppable. How do writers let go and move on when the past is often the subject of our work? Do we need the memorabilia to remind us of what that subject is? Or is it enough to integrate the past into our consciousness and work from there? These are the questions I am asking myself this morning as I fill another recycle bin with shredded paper.

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A Writer's (Comical) Morning Routine

A la Edith Wharton, I remain in bed until the sun rises though I have no servants to bring me my tea on a silver platter. Still, it is a luxury to write in my journal propped up against the pillows. I begin the process of heating my brain in the quiet of these early morning hours. No phone, no obligation other than rousing myself into the day. I may read some of David Sedaris’ journals, the first volume recently published. Is there anyone who doesn’t love this guy? Does the much-and- unfairly-pilloried Jonathan Franzen wish he were David Sedaris? Meandering thoughts. Now it is 1999. My friend David is on an airplane to Germany sitting next to a very fat man. Ha! The guy is taking up two seats. The next day my friend David, currently living near Paris, is in his French class. His sardonic humor doesn’t quit even under pressure of acquiring a new language. Inspired, I continue my own comical morning routine and attempt to imitate David’s irreverent take on everything as I write my journal entry. I begin with the days just passed, already behind me and mulched into memory. For example, I cooked a turkey for the first time in a decade and because we are in a new apartment, and have only used the oven twice since we moved here last March, and the oven is electric, the manner of its heating and cooling is a mystery. The turkey cooked FAST and we had to rescue it before our guests arrived. Fortunately, they brought delicious side dishes so the dryness of the turkey did not matter, or was not even mentioned. Politeness! Gratitude for our hospitality! We toasted, several times, to old friends and new. Inevitably, we slid into politics or the programs we are bingeing on. Let’s make lists and pass them round, I suggested. Let’s not sully the day with you- know-what and you-know who. Let me distract you with a story about my work-out at the gym yesterday morning. Alas, it was closed today, I continued in a non-stop monologue. (I was the hostess and held the floor.) I went onto WiFi and listened to WBGO, my favorite station, and began to sing out loud as I pranced on the elliptical. No one noticed, or did they? I wasn’t sure. I kept on singing. A guy walked in and took the bike next to me and I said, “That’s your bike, make no mistake, I’ve seen you on it before, we all have our little routines and that is your bike.” His face broke into a huge smile. Why did I think until that moment that he was mute and sullen? Because it was still early in the morning, the sun just up, and we were both barely awake.
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A Few Thoughts on Veterans Day

One war's end: VJ Day in Times Square, August 14, 1945, an iconic photo by Alfred Eisenstadt. Sailors everywhere. I salute my sailor, Jim Bergman, today.

When I met my husband, Jim, in California he was still in the Navy Reserve. He’d signed up for six years and been on active duty in the Seventh Fleet for two. He still had his duffel, his pee coat, his buzz cut, his Navy “whites” and, thankfully, the GI Bill to finish his education. That’s one reason many young men and women from less than privileged backgrounds sign up. But when Jim was in the Navy, it was a peacetime Navy. These days, deployments to war zones are not the exception, they are the rule. Too many are returning maimed and traumatized. Dreams of a secure future are shattered. And is the world safer? I wonder.

I have many war stories in my arsenal of stories—family stories and stories from the field when I was working on “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories.” I attended war games in Geneva run by the International Red Cross—aid workers are soldiers, too—so let us celebrate them today. They learn the Geneva Conventions, go into the war zones unarmed, risk their lives every single day. My grandfather was in the Austrian army during World War I, returned to Vienna unscathed, then died of a massive heart attack before the Nazi round-up. The German army marched into Vienna, an occupying army. Shall we celebrate them? Of course not. Am I a pacifist? Absolutely not. I remember telling my mother many times that if I’d been in Vienna during the Nazi occupation, I would have fought in the resistance. A fantasy, of course.

Reading the history of WWI is illuminating and depressing. Was it necessary? Why does diplomacy fail? What have we learned? What is the true nature of patriotism? What is the purpose of sovereign nations? Do they guarantee peace and prosperity? These are the questions I am asking myself this Veterans Day. There is a belligerent neo-fascist in the White House. He could easily get us into terrible trouble overseas; he already has. As for domestic challenges, consider the conflagration in California and his threat to withdraw federal aid. Soldiers are brilliant in disaster zones; they know what to do. Deploy in California instead of on the Mexican border. Let the caravan in, for goodness sake. Put the refugees to work on the disaster clean-up alongside our well-trained soldiers instead of at the point of a gun. Give these refugees citizenship in return for their service. Protect their children. Act with compassion. Become a humanitarian soldier, Mr. President. A fantasy, of course.

Not long ago, during a book signing, a young man came up to me and said he was a former soldier, that he’d been on two tours, one to Afghanistan, the other to Iraq –lost many of his buddies--and was getting a Masters degree before signing up for an NGO in Afghanistan. We are Facebook friends and I follow him—in Kabul and during his travels. Guns into Ploughshares. I salute him. Read More 

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A Week Called VOTE

In the midst of a tough news cycle that seems, at times, endless, the vox populi, hopefully a good number of us, are poised to VOTE. I write this on the eve—solicitations pouring in, canvassers at the door, phone bankers leaving messages, yours truly among them. I live in the 19th Congressional District where voter allegiance is not obvious: blue enclaves in a red county. The stories we tell as the door opens matter. Yes, the current sheriff is a racist. No, the young man running against Congressman Faso is a Harvard-trained lawyer. Does it really matter to you that his skin is chocolate? The answer, sadly, is often “yes,” and not sotto voce these days. And why Latin phrases this morning? Thinking of the fall of Rome, perhaps.

Last Wednesday, after my NYU workshop, standing on line at Port Authority waiting for my bus back upstate, I talked again with the lovely Sarah, from Haiti, employed by Trailways to steer the confused hordes to the correct gates. She was reading the New York Post, a strange mix of scandalous semi-news and political savvy. Those old enough will remember Jimmy Breslin and his Runyonesque columns. Breslin would have loved Sarah. She has a big story—she is an immigrant from a beleaguered nation—but she also has the oomph and drive of a typical New Yorker. She’s incensed: how dare 45 say that her 27-year-old son has no “birthright.” On she goes into the discourse, 1/3rd French, 1/3rd Creole, 1/3rd English. Regardless, we understand each other perfectly. Eavesdropping on our conversation—Gulin, from Turkey—a graduate of SUNY New Paltz, working now for an international company in Istanbul. She's been living with despotism and round-ups of journalists for fifteen years, so she gets what is going on here right now-- the warning signs, the slow, incremental, despotic rhetoric. But what she doesn’t understand is the low voter turn-out. How can anyone justify or explain abstention in what is still a “free” country?

Two security guards at the building where I teach—one an immigrant, the other a Native New Yorker—are not even registered to vote. What is their story? Their explanation? I am an educator and patiently I attempt to educate. But I am interrupted by another security guard, this one with a holster on her hip and a mouth like a big gun,who cannot abide ignorance or abstention. She lets these two younger security guards have it and stomps off.

We are on high alert, all of us. How to relax? One of my students suggests some Jane Austen this week (consoling sentences), another some junk on Netflix or Prime. My husband and I are glued to the well-plotted “Bodyguard,” a British production. During an interview with the police, a sleazy politician, suspected of passing along a bomb to the Home Secretary’s aide says, insouciantly, “We are not murderers, we are politicians.” That sentence haunted me in my sleep last night. I was so restless that this blog post surfaced as soon as I opened my eyes. “We are not murderers, we are politicians.” It’s a brilliant metaphor because, of course, the opportunistic, inhumane policies of some of our politicians kill people. All the time.  Read More 

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Birds & Leaves

Photo: © Carol Bergman, 2018. The River-to-Ridge Trail in New Paltz, NY, funded by the Open Space Institute and the Mohonk Preserve with additional support from the Butler Conservation Fund.

Mid-October has arrived and we await a vivid autumn. Leaves are dry and falling. The migrating birds are gone. Only the hawks, kestrels, falcons and sparrows remain. And the crows and the turkey vultures. The other day, as I was getting into my car, one such turkey vulture flew low overhead, circling and circling. The wind and scent (can birds smell?) had carried it towards our garbage area, I think. Perhaps all the decaying apples in the orchard across the street had been eaten by the deer who are thin and hungry. It’s bear and deer hunting season. We all wear bright colors, dogs their neon vests. Last weekend on the new River-to- Ridge Trail, a man stopped to tell me about a local bear who had lumbered across his path. They had met before, knew each other so to speak. His dog went tense, he said, otherwise the encounter was a peaceful one.

Living so close to nature these days, I am more aware of the environment, its continuing joys and struggles. Conflicting narratives disturb me greatly as there is no argument that we are, as Al Gore says, in a global environmental emergency. My last post admonished my readers—and myself—not to despair and quoted Rebecca Solnit’s positive article. I reiterate her message, and mine: not to despair. But I have moved into a different enivronmental space and my awareness and concern has shifted. So, too, the subjects I want to write about.

Two days in the city this week, rides on the crowded subways with all its rich diversity, and my NYU class, was a different kind of stimulation, a different kind of mulching and gathering of ideas, thoughts and emotions. My students are doing well, as expected, working on interesting stories. They are all interesting people. And the drama on the subways often makes me smile, from a bit of a distance, perhaps, as I am no longer a New Yorker, or maybe I always will be in my heart and soul. Thursday morning on the way to meet my cousin for an art crawl at MOMA, I was on a #1 train when a crowd of boisterous women, one carrying a huge trophy, entered. “I’ve never won anything,” she said as she plopped next to me. “Megyn Kelly gave me a trophy.” I don’t watch the TODAY show so I couldn’t parse the context, but the woman was gloriously happy, beautifully made-up, oh so very happy. She got out of her seat and burst into a gospel song, joined by her entourage, and then blessed the whole train—everyone—rich and poor, black and white, indigenous and immigrant—and asked us to join in because Jesus is good and protecting all of us and wishing all of us the best. And though I am not a Christian, I accept all blessings from anyone who wants to bestow them on me, and thanked her.

We all have our own cathedrals, material and spiritual, secular and religious. We all await a vivid autumn.  Read More 

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Don't Despair, Vote

“They want us to believe there’s no chance of success. But whether or not there’s hope for change is not the question. If you want to be a free person, you don’t stand up for human rights because it will work, but because it is right. We must continue living as decent people.”

--Attributed to Natan Sharansky, a Soviet dissident

With thanks to Rebecca Solnit for the Sharansky quote in her article in The Guardian on 10/14/2018:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/14/climate-change-taking-action-rebecca-solnit


I don’t often begin my blog posts with an admonition or a polemic, but it’s mid-October, we’ve got a fascist regime in the White House, the mid-term elections are nearly here, and to say nothing is to be complicit. Dear reader, whether Democrat or Moderate Republican, get out there and canvas, get out there and vote. Our freedoms as citizens and writers have never been more at risk.

Even more importantly, perhaps, encourage the next generation not to despair, but to resist and remain active. I say this with a full and open heart because I am an educator, because I am a citizen, I have a responsibility to young people especially. A dear friend and former colleague, now teaching in Jakarta, who has a young daughter, sent me an email the other night full of apocalyptic thoughts. I could hardly sleep. Then the next morning, he sent me the Solnit article. Thank you, William!

He’s been watching the stateside struggle from afar, which makes it harder, of course. But what has happened here and abroad —the resurgence of the supra nationalists—is global and has global implications. We cannot rest.

This weekend I’ll be canvassing for Antonio Delgado who is running to unseat Congressman Faso in the 19th Congressional District where I now live. This is not easy and it is not even absolutely safe. We are an armed nation. But I will be with friends and we'll have a list of Independents to persuade to vote for Delgado.
He is Latino, a Harvard educated lawyer, a Rhodes scholar, tall, lean, smart and warm like President Obama. The racist venom against him that has been unleashed is unprecedented. Let us tame this monster and return to the evolution of a civilized democracy.

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