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We were waiting for the ferry to Seattle in Victoria, BC. The weather was not cooperating and the ferry was delayed. Plans disrupted, family waiting, we were frustrated and annoyed. But what could we do about the weather? Nothing. I was traveling, in part, to promote a memoir I’d written about my mother’s family. It was a genocide story and not an easy one. My nerves were on edge and I needed my husband close by to calm me. I’d also had a series of counseling sessions before leaving New York.

Across the street from the harbor was the Grand Pacific Hotel, a Victorian hotel on a grand scale with gargoyles around its perimeter and dining rooms the size of cathedrals. We treated ourselves to an Indian buffet lunch which we savored until the weather cleared and the maître d’ announced that the ferry was running again. But the ugly gargoyles on the perimeter were a reminder that life takes unexpected turns and not all of them are pleasant. Some, in fact, can be difficult, even traumatic. Shall we write about them, or not?

Every term I have someone in my workshop who has had a particularly difficult or traumatic experience and is burning to write about it. I have had students who lost a dear one 9/11, or have been raped, or have witnessed atrocities in war zones. These unwanted, distorting experiences provide the passionate internal energy needed to begin work, but they also can re-trigger the trauma or, even worse, PTSD. All artists have heightened sensitivity and awareness. But we don’t want to become gargoyles.

As a writing mentor, I have to recognize demons when they surface and encourage their expression in an artful, disciplined form. I also have to protect the writer from more trauma by insisting s/he has psychological support as s/he works.

There is also another hazard: traumatic stories may obliterate all other stories within the writer and, sometimes, within the workshop. Those who have less dramatic narratives begin to wonder if they have anything worth telling. Of course they do.

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The benches on a rainy day. Photo by Carol Bergman
I needed a break from packing—we are moving next week—an iced coffee, and a breeze off the river to revive me. My husband wasn’t feeling well and we had to cancel a dinner plan which I had been looking forward to as an escape from boxes. “I can’t stay in this apartment another minute,” I said, and off I went, my backpack loaded with iPad, journal, a pen. No student papers yet as the summer term has just started, so I would be able to read for myself, a treat.

It’s foolish to anticipate solitude in New York City with its vibrant, verbal population. Settle down anywhere—even the subway—and stories pour out. On the #1 train the other day, a woman admired my bracelets and that was the beginning of her life story: she’s studying to be a vet tech, there is only one school in New York—La Guardia—that has this course, she doesn’t like children but loves animals. And so on. The iPad got closed and stored away. I am 300 pages in to Chernow’s biography of George Washington and the New Yorker for the week has already been read, so enough reading, I said to myself.

Storytelling. There’s no way to shut it down. We are hard wired to speak and to share our stories, the mortar that holds together our human family. That all said, I was looking forward to the ice coffee, the breeze, and a quiet read. Ah, benches.

I knew I’d seen some near Cafe Buunni—wonderful Ethiopian coffee—and there they were. And there was Rusty with his dog Angel, Nina (daughter at NYU) and the woman she is caring for (Parkinson’s), two women from Nyack recovering from their walk in Fort Tryon Park and various children, parents and dogs stopping to say hello. No one knew anyone else, introductions all round, neighborhood gossip, no reading to be done, especially when I learned that Rusty—short for Orestes—had been born in Turkey of Greek parents and has lived in the neighborhood—in the same building—since he was nine-years-old and was, unofficially, a neighborhood historian. Any subject that came up and he took off, any question I asked, he answered. “You know this street used to be Northern Blvd. and in the 70’s all the cars parked near the park were stripped very night,” he said, “and there were police everywhere, sirens and gunshots, but it was better than the pogroms against Greeks and Armenians in Turkey.”

“What about this little plot of city wonder where we are sitting right now?” I asked. “It’s like a village green, a magnet for people to sit safely and talk.”

“The tree and the benches are just six years old,” he said. “We got a grant from Greenstreets—there’s the sign.” And he pointed to a sign behind us. “It’s a citywide program that converts paved, vacant traffic islands and medians into green spaces filled with trees and shrubs. It’s administered by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. I used to work for the city, you know.”

“No, I didn’t.”

The crowd on the benches thinned, and Rusty’s dog Angel was restless. It was time to buy some ice cream for my ailing husband and head home.

“To be continued,” Rusty said.

“Until next time,” I said.
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