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The Scrapbook Project

A 1914 Mae West publicity photo found in a scrapbook. She was just launching her career and had not, as yet, created her "character." 



Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves, and not anything else, and by the immobility of our conceptions of them.


Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: Volume I



In the midst of book culling, reported here in March ("The Books Inside Us") piles of old photo albums and two scrapbooks surfaced. I cannot remember the last time I printed a photograph, or created a photo album, or a scrapbook, and wonder how historians will gather documents from personal clouds. Most startling as I perused one particular album from a trip to Vienna, I found a photo of my maternal grandparents' marriage certificate with my mother's handwritten note: Marriage certificate of my parents. Therefore it was legitimate.


I wrote the two intriguing sentences down in a notebook and have been pondering them ever since. I also texted them to my sister; she also has no idea what they mean. And so it remains a mystery, an opportunity to untangle a family secret, or a prompt for a story, a story that has been buried and cannot be unearthed other than in a writer's imagination.


So it is with people in photographs that cannot be identified, erased by the passage of time and distance, or the contacts in my phone if I have neglected to annotate a connection in the notes. My daughter made a beautiful scrapbook for my 60th birthday, and as I flipped the pages, each one either a letter from a friend or relative, or an artistic collage of photographs, I marveled at both the familiarity and strangeness of the images and remembered stories. The process of looking and reading evoked some sadness at the passage of time, lives lost before, during and after Covid, or the interruption of connection after a move across the country, across the ocean, and back again. But I also marveled at the life I have lived thus far and the rendering of my personality and life's work through the eyes of others. This scrapbook, an objet d'art, is a gift in many respects. And to find it again, as if for the first time, as it surfaced in the culling, was an even greater gift. I took photos of the photos and the letters with my phone, and sent them out as texts. Most recipients were grateful for the memento, thanked me, and commented in a variety of ways, adding more story to the stories. One or two texts went unanswered. That sent me to Google and Facebook to find out if the person who had attended my intimate 60th birthday party was alive, dead, overseas, or in prison. Those stories for a future story here, or elsewhere.


When I was working on a short biography of Mae West for Chelsea House Publishers,  a source suggested that I go to the New York Public Library Lincoln Center  Branch to search for scrapbooks Mae West's family, friends and fans had donated. It was a treasure trove and took me nearly a month to pore over, every day pleasurable and immersive. I was witness to Mae West's childhood and fascinating career in real time. I could hear her authentic voice—not her stage voice—telling me her story as the photos and memorabilia accumulated. The collection has all been digitalized for the benefit of future biographers. And though it's unlikely that anyone will be writing my biography, my 60th birthday undigitalized scrapbook, and the photo albums, are valuable to me and my family, which is value enough.


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Push Back

"Interior," aka, "The Rape," by Edgar Degas 1868-9, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 


In the end, the courage of women can't be stamped out. And stories - the big ones, the true ones - can be caught but never killed.


 Ronan Farrow, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators



Of all the commentators pontificating after the first day that Stephanie A. Gregory Clifford—aka  Stormy Daniels—took the stand in a New York City courtroom, it was only Molly Jong Fast, daughter of Erica Jong, author of the iconic feminist novel, Fear of Flying, who, in my opinion, got it right: Ms. Clifford did okay, she stood up to a hectoring insulting cross examination, she's brave. In other words, let's reframe the reporting and the words we use to describe what we are witnessing here: Election interference, yes. But also an exploitative casting couch story reminiscent of Harvey Weinstein. A 20-something-year-old woman was hoping for a gig and the gangster who refused to use a condom and blocked the door, well that bully in the story is familiar by now. Think about how young Ms. Clifford was at the time, 30 years the bully's junior. Who has more power in that situation?  And, please, call her Stephanie Clifford, her given name, and stop using the now tiresome moniker "porn star." More accurately, she's a sex worker, and like every other American woman, she has rights, and is deserving of respect on the witness stand and in the media. If she cries, if she rants on, she's communicating. Listen to her.


By the second day on the witness stand, the pundits referred to Ms. Clifford as "impressive," "stalwart," and "admirable," her shoulders back, sitting up straight, or her body leaning forward attentively to counter aggressive questioning from the defense attorney. I consider her a heroine, and a beneficiary of the women's movement from the days of suffrage to #pro-choice to #metoo and beyond.


Let me affirm for the jury that I am not, nor ever have been, a sex worker, but like most women, I've had my share of inappropriate propositions over the years. Like Ms. Clifford's experience, the most egregious was firmly tied to a job offer, a job I coveted. I was called in to WNET—a PBS affiliate—for an interview with a well-known producer who insisted that we meet at a diner for breakfast, his go-to for "taking meetings," he told me. But we'd never met before and I thought the setting strange, and a bit too intimate. I don't like to eat when I am interviewing, or being interviewed. No chomping, no food dribbles, or worries about what to choose from the menu, or who will pay. A diner? Really? I ordered a cup of tea and watched the guy eat and ramble on about his life and his wife. I didn't care about any of it, but I didn't stop him, and I didn't walk away, which in retrospect, I should have once he started talking about his wife.  Once the meal was over—and  it seemed endless—too much friendly chitchat to the waiter slowed it down—we  headed across the street, up the elevator and into a secluded office, door shut. I was already worn down by the guy's self-aggrandizing chatter and felt intimidated and a bit woozy. He saw my weakness and started coming on to me with more pointed suggestive remarks. He asked about my marriage. Firmly, I told him it was none of his business and that I was leaving. For an instant I worried that the door was locked. It wasn't. Needless to say, I didn't get the job.


So, it isn't hard to imagine what a very young Stephanie Clifford felt like in that hotel room, or to identify with what she said to herself, "What did I get wrong to end up here?" Now she has had her day in court and did well, or well enough.


This post is dedicated to every woman in these United States who has been harassed, intimidated, gaslit, silenced, or refused an abortion. May we all get out to vote in November for the men and women—gay straight or trans—who  care about the future of this country, and the world.


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An Invitation


If you are afraid of the consequences of what you say, then you are not free.


An intimacy of strangers. That's a phrase I've sometimes used to express the joyful thing that happens in the act of reading, that happy union of the interior lives of author and reader.


-Salman Rushdie, Knife





I begin my blog post today with a tribute to Salman Rushdie, his fortitude and recovery from a near-death experience. I won't reiterate the particulars here of the brutal slashing; Rushdie refuses to name his assailant in his new memoir, Knife. He's just A.


It saddens me that the World Voices Festival, which Rushdie was instrumental in launching, has been cancelled this year. It's a testament to how fearful and unfree writers are feeling these days. How we are taking precautions we would never have considered before. How we are self-censoring. And all of this must stop.


It was Rushdie's new book, and his courage, which supported my decision to accept an invitation from the Woodstock Library Forum to read from and discuss my new book, Becoming a Writer.  I hadn't planned on yet another reading. But I think it's important to get onto the library steps, so to speak, as friends of Rushdie did at the New York Public Library to support his rehab at the Rusk Institute and honor his work. His injuries were beyond even his fertile imagination. He's back home now, writing, and publishing. 


I will be "standing up" for him and all writers at risk at the Woodstock Library Forum on Saturday, May 4 @ 5 p.m.  Bring a notebook and free flowing pen, or an electronic device. Let us read and write together in a spirit of peace, freedom and compassion.


This post is dedicated to all the writers at risk throughout the world. For more information:   https://pen.org/issue/writers-at-risk/








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Fear and Loathing

The underside of the wee brown bat we massacred on 4/23/24. RIP.


We can't stop here, this is bat country.


-Hunter J Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas


Do all men kill the things they do not love?


William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice





The credentialed journalists in the courtroom were writing furiously with pen and paper. Clearly, they hadn't lost the skill.  But it seemed quaint nonetheless, and telling in its retro ordinariness. The basic tools of reporting were engaged: listen, record, remain skeptical. But once in the studio these scribes let it rip with gleeful analysis and sounded almost righteous at times. Who could blame them? Who can blame any of us? We're all wrung out, waiting for the day that the man who has created such havoc in our body politic is taken away in shackles. Back in the 18th century, not that long ago in many respects, he would have been hung or drawn and quartered. Now, we are "civilized," evolved, and the rule of law presses on, albeit slow as molasses.


Then there is the fear factor.  A journalist on MSNBC and a juror or two expressed dismay at feeling uneasy. Let us applaud their courage and, yes, thank them for their service.


And I wasn't even planning to write about this today. Not at all. I was thinking of something else entirely: a bat in our apartment. The day had already been permeated with fear and loathing in the courtroom, in the Middle East, on the college campuses, and as we sat down to relax in front of the last episode of Astrid,  a delightful French detective series on Netflix, I spotted a strange swiftly moving black shape scurry into my office from the living room. It looked like a tarantula and I shrieked, a damsel in distress, my husband the knight in shining armor as he wielded a broom and I held my phone's flashlight aloft in the closet. Yikes! What was that? How did it get in here? Will it harm us?


We attacked it ruthlessly.


Then it was over. The creature was dead. We scooped it up and put it into a plastic bag without touching it. "I think it's a bat," my nature-savvy husband said. We looked up "bats," we read the word "rabies," got more freaked out. And then, remorse. We wanted to apologize to the endangered creature we had killed, a wee brown bat, so essential to our ecosystem. And the more existential question:  Why do we so mindlessly kill what we fear?


Self-preservation and survival is a reflex action when we are attacked or threatened unexpectedly, our sense of safety shattered, that's a given.  But why respond with obliterating force when such force is not necessary. The metaphor is obvious, I am sure. Do I have to spell it out? What would happen if we resisted animal instinct and gazed at the life form that has become our—real or imagined—enemy, in all its nakedness and vulnerability? Dear reader, can you answer this question?


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The Fight to Vote



In 1964, the Ku Klux Klan murdered Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner while working to register Black American voters during Mississippi's Freedom Summer. Their bodies were found 44 days later buried in an earthen dam; it took 41 years to bring the main perpetrator, Edgar Ray Killen, to justice. Their deaths were a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, catalyzing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


--from the press releases of the Andrew Goodman Foundation and

NY State Senate Resolution 2157




My Walden School alumni email chain was busy this week with news of a resolution that has been passed in the New York State Senate to honor Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner 60 years after their murder. Walden was a small, progressive school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, one class per grade, the students moving up together K-12, and families interconnected personally and politically. I got there in the 11th grade after I'd been beaten up by a gang of girls in a public school and my refugee parents, in desperation, and knowing little of the city private school landscape, secured me a scholarship. I was two years younger than everyone, felt undereducated and lost, but also inspired by exceptional teachers and the kinetic activist culture of the school.


Walden remained a close community until the school merged with New Lincoln in 1988. Andrew Goodman's murder was a communal galvanizing tragedy, as it still is today. Many of my classmates knew the Goodman family; I did not. And when news arrived of the resolution, the email chain got hot. I was mostly touched by a few shared reminisces. A future historian may appreciate these stories, and make good use of them.


With everyone's permission, I'll share three memories that appeared on the email chain here:


From Judy (Fischman) Johnson:


Note: Andy is Andrew Goodman, Carolyn and Bobby are his parents, David and Johnny his brothers, Bernie is Judy's father, a well known attorney, and Mickey is Michael Schwerner.



 I often think of Andy. June 21-August 4. My parents, brother, and I spent every evening at Carolyn and Bobby's apartment with many family friends holding a vigil. On the evening of August 4th, someone had given Carolyn and Bobby tickets to the NY Philharmonic and insisted that they go. I don't remember where Johnny was, but David was home alone. The phone rang. David answered. It was Lyndon Johnson. He told David that the bodies had been found. David called my father. Bernie said that he would go to Lincoln Center and get Carolyn and Bobby. 


When Bernie got to Philharmonic Hall, he found the house manager and explained the situation. The manager let my father into the Hall while the concert was in progress. As my father searched one of the aisles, a scream rang out. Carolyn recognized Bernie's physique and knew there was only one reason why he was there. 


When Andy went to Mississippi, he was required to fill in a bail bond card with a contact person. My father was his contact. My family was also close to the Schwerners. They had been friends for over 20 years. When Mickey Schwerner was deciding who to take with him on that fateful night, my father was convinced that Mickey chose Andy because he saw Bernie's name on his bail bond card. Mickey would be riding with a young man who also knew Bernie. They had a friend in common. 


My father was also a point person arranging the payoff to the informant. I wish I remembered more about that. I only remember that he told me he was involved in the payoff. There was also a payment to a psychic who predicted that the boys' bodies would be found in a ditch. 


From Jane (Nisselson) Assimakopoulos:


I was pretty close to Andy in school. We used to have play dates after class and play with his electric trains; then we were camp-mates for a few summers at Camp Regis in the Adirondacks, and even boyfriend and girlfriend when we were too young for that to mean much. In my senior year (his junior year) at Walden I coached him for learning his lines, in French, for a production of Sartre's Les Mains Sales, and the last time I saw him was the summer after our freshman year in college when he and Carolyn drove out to my mom's place in Poundridge, NY and we talked mostly about his interest in theater and his budding actor aspirations. Then, the summer after my senior year, I was in Boston doing a make-up course at BU so I could get enough credits to graduate and go off to Greece. I spent that summer glued to the radio every afternoon until I finally learned, from my mother, not the radio, that Andy had been found. I missed the funeral because my class was not quite over, but mom and I drove to Carolyn's summer place somewhere in Westchester, I think, so I could see her before I left. I remember her  hugging me in pain and in desperation as if I was the last thing left to her of Andy. I wrote her and Bobby a long letter from Greece in which I talked about my own feelings of loss and how Andy's death was a piece of my own future forever cut off.

From Gabrielle (Schupf) Spiegel:


It is hard to think it has been 60 years. I still consider the worst day of my life the day I sat with Carolyn at her house waiting for them to bring Andy's body back.



I don't recall much of what we said, other than the fact that we talked about him as a wonderful classmate and good and brave friend dedicated to improving  society by promoting civil rights, the right to vote and other rights, for which he was killed. As I recall his father was especially upset—to  the extent that it was even possible to be more upset than Carolyn—perhaps  because he had not been in favor of Andy participating in the mission to the South to begin with.






Source: NY State Senate Resolution 2157 and  the Andrew Goodman Foundation



The family members of the three murdered young people who risked their lives that summer continue to be an inspiration. Andrew's brother, and Stephen Schwerner, Michael's brother, continued the fight for civil rights in the decades that followed. David and his family created the Andrew Goodman Foundation that supports youth leadership development, voting accessibility, and social justice initiatives in campuses across the country. Reverend Julia Chaney-Moss honors her brother's memory through continuing civil rights advocacy and through her ministry. Andrew Goodman was a student at Queens College at the time of his murder and Stephen A. Schwerner, Michael's brother, was director of counseling at Queens College for many years and chair of the academic senate. Queens College President Frank H. Wu is presenting President's Medals, the college's highest administrative honor, on Thursday, May 30, 2024, at the college's 100th Commencement to Julia Chaney-Moss, David Goodman, and Stephen A. Schwerner. 


To learn more visit    www.andrewgoodman.org



This post is dedicated to all the disenfranchised and reluctant voters in the United States.

May we all work tirelessly to register their vote.



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What in my life had ever prepared me for such a moment? Strong skepticism, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetry. And poetry, a great enthusiasm since I was a teenager, helped me through the reign of terror. The strength of the poetic images gave me solace during those hard days in Rwanda.


-Philippe Gaillard, "Surviving Genocide," in Another Day in Paradise; Frontline Stories From International Aid Workers




This week marks the 30th anniversary of the onset of the Rwandan genocide, a low-tech massacre of 800,000 men, women and children. Low-tech because the "tools" of the genocide were machetes and screwdrivers. No aerial bombardment, no tanks, no cell phones or GPS, just humans at their most bestial carrying weapons from village fields.


Rwanda is at peace today thanks to its National Unity and Reconciliation Commission which began its work in 2002. It was the most ambitious transitional justice process ever attempted until then. Nearly one-fifth of the surviving adult population testified before these courts, including some high-ranking officers who were eventually re-integrated into the new military. In 1999, an international court sentenced George Rutaganda, one of the most prominent leaders of the genocide, to life in prison. Across the nation, there has been accountability, testimony, even "reconciliation villages." Internationally there have been mea culpas for not stepping in to stop the genocide as it began; France and the US were well informed. But that is another long story.


Transitional justice, also known as truth and reconciliation, is a complex process, and a promising one, though what it might offer Israel and Palestine in their present iterations is questionable. The Rwandan tribal conflict took place within a nation-state, not between a nation-state and a terrorist organization intent on abolishing that nation-state. Once the killing fields of Gaza are cleared and rebuilt, the Jewish settlers on the West Bank are pushed back, and reformed Israeli and Palestinian governments are in place, a Palestinian state established, well maybe. But it's hard to say from the vantage of a still active brutal and brutalizing war zone what could happen. The future for now is in the conditional tense, certainly after so much collateral damage, the almost certain death of the remaining hostages, and the so-called mistaken targeting of the World Central Kitchen humanitarian convoy.


Rwanda remains a lesson. Its history is a reminder that it doesn't take much to kill, just a few tools: a history of racism and colonialism, incendiary language, fear, mob hysteria, the decimation of the rule of law, and simple or sophisticated weapons supplied by arms dealers, including the United States. Indeed, this beloved country of mine is so awash in arms manufacture, citizen-owned assault rifles, racial hatred and domestic divisiveness, that international students are becoming wary of studying here.


Every year, the International Committee of the Red Cross warns in its annual report that the human consequences of local wars and forced immigrations are becoming more and more serious. At any one time more than fifty conflicts are raging around the world and some 21 million people are being forced to leave their homes as a result; 17 million become refugees. Another 300 million people are affected by disasters unrelated to war, such as earthquakes, floods and famine. Always, children are most at risk, especially those under five, and their mothers who are trying to protect them. Of the remaining population in Gaza, how many women and children have survived? We know approximately how many are dead—but how many have survived to seed the next generation and work for peace? The sad procession of Gazans walking from south to north through the pulverized landscape they once called home will retain their near-death experiences in a collective memory for generations.



This post is dedicated to all humanitarian workers, past, present, and future in celebration of their altruism, and courage.


To learn more about transitional justice, watch this video: https://www.ictj.org/media/5424

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What We Talk About When We Talk About the Weather

Photo of the Ashokan Reservoir © Carol Bergman 2024



Pray don't talk to me about the weather, Mr. Worthing. Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me quite nervous.


 Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest



I called my friend Barbara who lives in Bath, UK, for a catch-up chat the other day, and without missing a beat we began to talk about the weather. It had been a sunny day after too much rain, she told me, and she'd been working in her allotment getting it ready for planting. When she circled back later in the afternoon to admire what she'd done and decided to dig a bit more, she cut her finger which was bleeding profusely as we were talking. But the weather was more important. "How has it been there? " she asked, meaning where I am in the Mid-Hudson Valley. "No blossoms as yet, grey and wet today, more like English weather," I said. And though, like everywhere else, even English weather is changing, chatting about it has remained a constant, for which I am grateful. It's the perfect lubricant and warm-up after a hiatus in communication, and it's safe: no domestic politics or Middle-East wars, for example. We need to feel safe with one another to get into all that, and there's a lot to get into these days. Even old friends and relations are cautious with one another, I find, in an effort not to harm, to remain respectful, and to maintain a friendship. Israel-Palestine has been particularly challenging for me. Thus am I thankful for the decade I spent in London learning how to sustain a conversation about the weather before embarking on in-depth "serious" conversation. It's a skill I still find useful before an interview with a stranger as my directness often pierces privacy too quickly. Warm-ups are essential.


But what happens when all we talk about is the weather, when the conversation remains insipid and shallow? When we surmise, or even know, that something remains unspoken, hidden, and inaccessible? When there's no there there as Gertrude Stein once said? What then? Do we continue talking, stop talking, walk away, ask even more confrontational questions to "get the story?" It's a hard call for a journalist, an easier one for a friend, I'd say.


Once upon a time, I was ghosting a memoir for a once-married celebrity and had found out that he'd had an affair with his assistant when he was still married. I'd been tasked with doing a lot of background reporting to develop the content for the book, and corroborated my findings before broaching the subject. The celebrity in question was shocked by my suggestion that the "episode," as he called it, when he finally began talking about it, should become a chapter in his book. "It will sell the book," I said. But he refused. I'd pierced his privacy, or was it secrecy—the line is thin—and he had crawled back into his shell. Next time we met for our interview session, I began our conversation with the weather.


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The Banality of Evil Redux

My cousin, Lily Sobotka, murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was a performer.



Who somebody really was. That was the Zone of interest.

― Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest




I woke in the night in the midst of a seminar inside a dream about The Zone of Interest, not the award-winning movie, but the 2014 book by the British writer, Martin Amis. In this dream, the participants were gathered around a large circular table in The Hague, and we had an assigned task: to determine if the film was a viable book-to-film adaptation, and to assess its impact on our deadened psyches as we teetered towards fascism in the United States and tolerated atrocity in Gaza, one atrocity compounding another. There was no food, no water, in the wasteland of my dream, only men and women of varying ages, sizes and nationalities taking turns in an unknown pecking order to expound their theories. But the discussion was not theoretical; our lives were at stake.


I was not surprised to have had a complex dream about the movie, which continues to haunt me in the daylight hours as I sit down to write about it. The opening sequence—a black screen with the hum of the crematoria revving up, screams, clattering shovels and guns, is so unsettling that I almost stopped breathing. When an image finally emerged, I could hardly concentrate. Was this a garden? A walled-in garden with children playing and flowers in abundance?  But once "the Commandant" appeared, I knew what I was looking at: his home behind the wall of the death camp, killing on an industrial scale, the graveyard of my grandparents and many other relatives.


For years, whenever I saw the grainy photos or newsreels of Auschwitz, I feared recognizing my grandmother Nanette's face. I imagined that I heard her screams. Now I am certain that I did hear them in the soundtrack of Glazer's astounding film.


Sometimes a friend or relative will mention they are going to visit Auschwitz on the way to or from somewhere else, perhaps Paris, the city of light, or Rome, or Barcelona, equally beautiful. I can't say, "Have an enjoyable journey," or "I hope the sun shines brightly on the day you are at Auschwitz."  I might think, silently, "Please don't show me any photographs when you return." And, these days, "Please don't post anything on Facebook or Instagram." And, now, this film in my living room, piercing my heart.


My husband had suggested we watch it early in the evening to create a buffer before bedtime with something lighthearted—a comedy, perhaps? But as the film wound down and we were left with the echo of the crematoria's efficient engines in our ears, we were both distraught. I made some tea and we talked. I had already decided that the film was a masterpiece, an evocation of the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt described it. I was therefore surprised when my husband did not agree. His reaction was visceral and strong: "We should not be shown murderous monsters as normal or happy without juxtaposing them with images of the horrors inside the death camp."


This assessment gave me pause; it has merit. But, for me, the smoke, the rooftops, the gunshots, the screams and the dissonant blue summer sky was enough. More than enough. As Naomi Klein wrote in a review of the film for The Guardian, "The concentration camp and the family home are not separate entities; they are conjoined." Indeed, it is their historic fate. So, too, Israel and Palestine; they are conjoined.


In the dream I had after watching the movie, we had  entered the infamous gate to the death camp, a windswept, gray day, ashes underfoot swirling around us. And my parents were forcing me to stand in the ashes and to look at the barracks and the crematoria in the distance, the barbed wire around us. In this dream, as in life, unless I witnessed what my family had endured and survived, I would no longer exist myself, I would be worthless to them, and to myself. 




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The Books Inside Us

 My Bookworm is having a grand time protecting some of my publications. He has an appetite for books but refuses to cull or devour any of them. He likes the way they look on the shelf. It's cozy there.  photo © Carol Bergman 2024




Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves.

 Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader


Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It's like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture's books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.


― Susan Orlean,  The Library Book





Once again, I have been culling books. I'm not moving again, but over the years I have stored books on my daughter's shelves for safe keeping, or to pass them along. "This is a good one," I'd say, usually about a novel. But I also have enjoyed reading biographies of writers and artists, and I read a lot of history. Some of the books are in hard cover, some in paper, the pages of many browned and brittle with age, others in good condition. The books I have stored on my Kindle are safe in cyberspace, but they are only a miniscule sampling of what I have read over many years. My libraries—electronic and paper—are a personal canon, which is no more than a list of preferences and judgments about a book's value—to me. I follow my interests and curiosity, keep wish lists and read all the time, mostly to deepen and expand my knowledge base, to experience a fiction writer's gifts, or a poet's narrative voice. But books—the tangible objects—are heavy, too, and require culling, especially when one moves overseas, or from one side of the United States to the other. No move this time but my daughter has been renovating her house and asked if I would oblige.


I had not expected so many piles, but there they were, accumulated, dusty, sticky, awaiting my decisions about where each book should go: to the dump, to a library, to a friend, but hopefully not to my still overflowing shelves and TBR stacks. Fortunately, three libraries in my 'hood accept donations and host celebratory book sales once a year to raise revenue. But some books are ready for the recycle bin. And that's hard. I turn them round and round, flip the pages, and say goodbye. It's strange to be so attached in this way, to feel aggrieved at a book's departure, and to savor those still lined up neatly by subject and author at home as I sit down at my long table to write early each morning. Every book I have kept is worthy of rereading, I tell myself.


Oddly, I was not a reader as a child or even a young teen. I have no memories of being read to at bedtime—my mother was always working. Maybe I was drawing, or practicing dance steps to music on the radio. And, of course, there was television, street games with friends, and homework; I always did my homework.  I never understand how boring homework had anything to do with the books on my mother and stepfather's shelves—some in English, some in French and some in German. They were refugees having arrived in the United States without material possessions except a few photographs, clothes, bits and pieces of memorabilia if it could fit into their suitcases—and  their lives, the most precious possession of all. My mother's books became a synecdoche of her survival and she became anxious whenever I borrowed one and forgot to tell her. The space of the missing book felt like an amputation—or  even worse—a death. Maybe books were so weighted with emotion in our household that I avoided them.


So, I've answered my own question, I suppose:  Why did it take so long for me to become a reader? Books and what they contained—the whole world, an ancestry, and a future, a sense of safety and belonging—came into my life so late, beyond high school and into my first year of college, or the summer before to be precise. My first boyfriend was smart, musical, politically engaged, and read constantly. His family owned a chicken farm in Tom's River, NJ and I'd go down there to see him, or he would travel to see me. To my surprise, he read books, lots of them. Books spilled onto my lap and the floor whenever I climbed into the puttering, orange tin can he called a car. It was his car; he'd worked for it, earning money as a troubadour at café's and clubs. The proceeds were putting him through college and buying his books. They became my first library, a portal beyond the borders of my nuclear family.


He did a laisser tomber, as the French say—a dump—and I never could find out what happened to him after college. But, Steve, I have to thank you here for sharing your books at a formative time in my life. They live inside me.










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War Child

Kyiv on a quiet night in wartime.  Photo © Peter Zalmayev 2024 with permission.



In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.


-Bertolt Brecht




Judging a poetry competition in 1927, a time, like ours, of ascendant fascism, Bertolt Brecht  decided not to award a prize, considering all the entries "useless." This is exactly how I felt watching the Oscars on Sunday night. How is it possible that songs about dolls amuse us? How is it possible that a story about Oppenheimer's afflicted conscience is subsumed in cinematic tricks without accurate dialogue to contextualize the powerful images? Protected, at the moment, from the specter of war, those of us living in North America are free to indulge in such decadent chicanery, and may even find it entertaining and transformative.  I do not.  I am a child of war, raised in what my parents assumed would always be a safe haven. They are roiling in their graves.


A few years ago I went back to the same street where I lived alone with my mother from the ages of 1-4 years old. Even though she had casually mentioned the address to me during one of our oral history sessions, I had suppressed it. I wrote it down and kept the notation but there was only a blank space in my mind; I could not remember that I had lived there, only that I  had been told I had lived there. Also, there was a photograph of an empty room; all the walls were blank and the furniture was nondescript and minimal. A small couch, a small easy chair, a side table, one lamp. The photograph was an artifact, nothing more; it meant nothing to me. Now, for some reason, perhaps because I was preparing to move out of the city again, I decided to visit the street and record my findings, or observations. I pretended I was a detective researching the scene of a crime which gave me the emotional distance I required.


The apartment building dated back to the Art Deco period and the exterior was ornate. It was on 84th Street between West End Avenue and Broadway in Manhattan on the south side of the street. The entrance was on 84th Street and it had a red canopy and a doorman in a uniform standing outside. I wondered if there had always been a doorman, or if the building had "gone co-op" and therefore had become gentrified and exclusive. It was certainly not exclusive when I lived there with my mother. She was a refugee, a single parent, and her resources were limited. She held a low paying job as a nurse's aide having arrived in the United States without any English and a foreign medical license; her specialty was obstetrics and gynecology. An only child from what was once a large extended family before they were murdered in the Nazi genocide, she loved babies, and she loved me. During the day she worked with babies and old people. Though she was overqualified, she did not complain. Refugees become adept at new complex identities and these become characteristics known and understood by all who encounter them, especially their children—when their children grow into awareness. My mother did not complain, she worked hard, and expected me to do the same in school. That I knew from an early age.


Leaning against a low wall, I took out my phone to check my emails, a distraction from my unsettled mood. Whatever upset me was buried deep in my psyche, what the Buddhists call "store consciousness." On that particular day, I left it there. But I have been thinking about my mother a lot these past months as the war in the Middle East has intensified, and the war in Ukraine grinds on with no end in sight. And I have been thinking about the children in those particular war zones, and other war zones, how they are endangered from morning to night and even at night, and how I was spared bombs, flight, famine, murderous gangs, kidnapping, and death camps because I was born in America.


It is said that we walk behind our mothers, not in their shadows exactly, but in their wake. Recently I dreamt I was walking up a long stone staircase behind my mother and her small dog. She had on a taupe silk suit that matched her permed gray hair and the dog's fur. Someone said, "She likes dogs." I knew that was correct, but it wasn't me that said it. I remained silent.  Slowly, I followed my mother up the stairs. She did not know I was there because I had not as yet been born. 


In daylight I have continuing rhetorical questions: On what day did my mother receive news of our murdered relatives? What year was it? Did she receive a telegram, a letter, or a knock on the door from the International Red Cross? Did she collapse? Was she stoical? Did she go to work the next day, and the one after that? Did her English falter whenever she tried to ask a question? How did my mother hold her grief, or express it? Who was there when she opened the telegram from the International Red Cross, or was it a letter, or was she called into their office?  If so, who did she talk to? Did she recognize anyone in the waiting room? Did she talk to anyone in the waiting room? Or was it an ante room where they served coffee? Did she have a coffee but have difficulty swallowing the coffee? Who was there to console her?


    Dedicated to all the children in war zones. May they survive and prosper.

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