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The Force of Truth

Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, Marion, Indiana, August 7, 1930

Detail of photo by Lawrence Beitler, Fair use image


The Force of Truth


I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.

-Martin Luther King Jr. Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Oslo, Norway, 1964.


Walking on the rail trail in New Paltz, NY several days a week, I wondered if the town, post- Civil War, had been divided — east of the tracks and west of the tracks, rich and poor, emancipated slaves and White colonial settlers — as it still is in so many small towns across America. I also thought about Betsy, and wondered what happened to her.


Betsy and I met at the UC Berkeley housing office when the woman behind the desk introduced us to each other and said there was a furnished two-bedroom apartment available for a reasonable rent at 2441 Haste St. with its front windows overlooking Telegraph Avenue. Neither of us hesitated; we were both desperate to find affordable accommodation before the term started. We moved in later that day.


It wasn't until we sat down to a take-out dinner in our new apartment that we introduced ourselves properly. I had recently arrived from New York to make up some credits in summer school and decided to stay and finish my degree at UC Berkeley. Betsy had a more complex story. She'd been attending a school in Florida and returned from her junior year abroad pregnant with a biracial baby. There was no question of an abortion. Her parents were pro-life, stalwart members of a conservative church-going community. So they whisked Betsy out of town to a "home" where she gave the baby up for adoption.


"Where are you from exactly?" I asked.

"Muncie, Indiana," she replied, tears cascading down her cheeks.


In 1929, two married sociologists, the Lynds, published a study about Muncie. They renamed the town Middletown U.S.A. and completely ignored the Black population on the east side of town. The study was — excuse  the expression —a whitewash. Muncie was still de facto segregated when Betsy was growing up. It was also the headquarters of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan.


A year later, in 1930, three Black boys were lynched and then incinerated in the nearby town of Marion in front of a large crowd of onlookers. Like many other lynchings of that era, photographs of hanging and burning were sold as postcards.


The bodies of the two boys were retrieved by the pastor of the AME Zion Church in Muncie because there were no Black undertakers in Marion. The congregation gave them a Christian burial in Muncie.


This history of racial terrorism in Indiana, just a year after the publication of Middletown U.S.A., gave me pause.


I remember Betsy's mother coming to visit her daughter. She spent her entire visit sitting in our living room, refusing to venture outside because of what she called the "weird looking students" of all sizes, shapes and colors walking on Telegraph Avenue. I think she truly believed she'd landed in Sodom or Gomorrah, and that her daughter would end up in hell.


I wondered who had chosen Berkeley—of all places—for Betsy to complete her degree. It was, of course, Betsy, who'd studied abroad for her junior year, a tradition that has a purpose: to broaden. Betsy would be okay, I told myself, as I made plans to move into my boyfriend's apartment and searched for a suitable replacement flat mate for Betsy.


Memories of Betsy and the town of Muncie resurfaced recently while I was watching Strangers at the Gate, an Academy Award nominated New Yorker  documentary about a U.S. Marine who built an IED to bomb his "enemies" at the Islamic Center of Muncie, rose out of hatred thanks to the welcoming Muslim community, many of them Afghan refugees, and became a Muslim himself. It's a beautiful film about personal transformation, but incomplete in its depiction of the town.


Muncie today has a population of 63,000. Thirty percent live in poverty, about 10.5% are Black, 2.5% are refugees, only 25% of the population is college educated, and the median family income is $36,000.


When I asked Yvonne Thompson, born and raised in Muncie, and now Executive Director of the Muncie Human Rights Commission, how the Black community is doing today, her answer was unequivocal. "Ever since the automotive industry left, we've been sliding backwards," she told me. The General Motors Chevrolet Plant closed in 2006, and the Borg Warner Plant—they made clutches-- closed in 2009. Suddenly, 20,000 people in Muncie were unemployed, a catastrophe for many families, Black and White . Thus, the recent Census poverty stats from Muncie, the appearance of gangs in the Black community, the intensifying of a housing crisis, and uninterrupted red-lining. Oddly, the opioid crisis, raging everywhere in the United States, is mostly hitting the poor White community in Muncie.


Why did the resettlement agencies choose Muncie for the Afghan refugees? The interviews in the documentary with members of the Mosque are upbeat and hopeful. And when I talked to Bibi Bahrani, who is featured in the film, she expressed only gratitude for the Governor of Indiana, the Mayor of Muncie, and the warm welcome refugees have received. The Bahranis have lived in Muncie for 36 years, having arrived after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and are now helping new  refugees find jobs and homes.


"They keep to themselves," Thompson explains. "They look after each other. They are a tight, quiet community."


A community which is still de facto segregated despite the many years of Civil Rights activism and Civil Rights legislation.



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Self-portrait ©copyright Maedeh Ojaghlou 2023 by permission. The calligraphy,#womanlifefreedom, in the colors of the Iranian flag--without the Islamic symbol--has become the emblem of the 2023 Iranian resistance/revolution.





How many deaths?
How many are enough?
Should the list include everyone? Can it?
How can a list be complete when it cannot account for the ones who disappeared without a trace…


-Poupeh Missaghi, "trans(re)lating house one,"   Coffee House Press



Throughout recent history, Iranian women of all ages, genders, income levels and education have participated in national uprisings. In 2023, they are not only participating, they are organizing a resistance which is now massive in scale. The Iranian government is reacting with lethal force, escalating arrests and executions.


More than 500 people have already been killed in the current protests including four public executions. Taraneh Alidoosti, a well-known Iranian actress, and one of the most high-profile targets in Iran's campaign against celebrities who have expressed solidarity with the demonstrators, was arrested on Dec. 18th. Though she has since been released, many others haven't. Neda Naji, a labor activist, was sentenced to 8 months in prison, 60 lashes, and fined.


There are about 500,000 Iranians and Iranian-Americans in the United States right now and none of them, I am certain, are sleeping well. Maedeh Ojaghlou, 28-years-old, arrived in New York City via Dubai from Tehran on an F1 student visa in August 2022. We connected on the New Paltz Community Facebook page and then met for the first time last week for an in-person conversation at a Dunkin Donuts, a dystopian experience, as it was very crowded and we were both masked up. Maedeh (pr. MAH-eh-day)  was wearing a sweatshirt with the slogan of the Iranian resistance: #womanlifefreedom, a reverberating echo of women all over the world who have struggled for voting rights, abortion rights, the right to be educated, the right to choose a life partner, the right to equal pay, the right to surface from the hijab into air and light, or to remain veiled—in other words, the right to choose.


Maedeh and I had a lot to talk about and fell into conversation easily. Since the  444-day siege of the American Embassy in Tehran, there has been no official American consulate presence there. When Maedeh received her acceptance for the MFA program in photography at SUNY New Paltz, she was desperate to accept, but didn't know how her modest, middle-class family—her father is an accountant, her mother a housewife—could afford the funds for travel to Dubai to obtain a visa, and then living expenses once she arrived on campus. Somehow, the family found the money.


Maedeh's sister had already emigrated to the United States where she works as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company, so the family was accustomed to departures of their loved ones, and resigned to the financial sacrifice necessary to educate their children, especially their daughters. 


Many wealthy Iranian families had fled when the mullahs came to power in 1979 after the fall of the Shah, leaving the less affluent to navigate the new theocracy on their own, in the same way ordinary Afghan families now have to navigate the evisceration of freedoms and opportunities by the Taliban after the American evacuation which privileged those working for the American government or military. The religious fundamentalism of both regimes has been life changing for everyone, especially the women. And Iranians and Afghanis even share related languages: a Farsi-speaking Iranian can probably understand a Dari-speaking Afghani, and vice versa.


Maedeh has been an activist for many years. She had volunteered for a charity helping child laborers, some as young as five-years-old, and her parents knew she would have been on the streets demonstrating every day after Mhasa Amini's death. "But my parents  weren't just worried about me," Maedeh says. "They were worried about me and everyone else. We all worry about each other in Iran."  


Before long, Maedeh was on a plane to Dubai, her MFA acceptance in hand, applying for a visa. Soon after she landed in New York City, she joined demonstrations with friends and started posting photos on her Instagram account.


It might be difficult for Americans to understand that the demonstrators may, or may not, have an argument with Islam itself, one of the world's great religions. Maedeh's mother is devout, she does wear a hijab, but she supports and encourages the evolution of a new forward-looking generation. And her father, whose father was killed in the Iran-Iraq war, encourages his children to fight for freedom in a sanctioned country where there is no separation of church and state, and taxes go to advancing nuclear power and building drones for Russia's war against Ukraine.


Life in the United States is calm by comparison to Iran, Maedeh says. She misses her family, but she is safe for now, and feels free to study and demonstrate without fear of arrest, solitary confinement, floggings, or death. 


Dedicated to the brave women of Iran and Afghanistan.


For more information about incarcerated writers in Iran:




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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 99

My avatar unmasked.


Do You See Me?


      Sky People cannot learn, you do not See.


-Neyteri to Jake in "Avatar"


As if one needed eyes in order to see.


-Ralph Waldo Emerson


I am usually the only athlete in the gym wearing a mask, and one of the oldest, white-haired women. There's another woman in my demographic, but she does not wear a mask. Kudos  as she fast-walks for more than an hour on the treadmill listening to something or other on her headset, oblivious to everyone huffing and puffing around her. Once the guy next to her did interval training, got off the treadmill, huffed and puffed and spewed. No one said anything about his lack of consideration even though the Ulster County Department of Health had just sent out another "high" Covid alert about a new variant.


The years slowed during lockdown, and now have accelerated.  Based on my own unprofessional survey, those in their 20s, 30s, even 40s, don't feel the acceleration as much as older people. They have more time ahead of them, so they are getting on with their lives, as well they should. But in my immediate circle, friends and family are developing ailments they never anticipated, some are dropping away into eternity wherever that is. Covid deaths and Covid related deaths—cascades of organ failure in the ICUs—are commonplace now as they have been during the pandemic, even among immuno-compromised young people, but when they first happened they were a shock, now they are not. We hear about these losses first or second hand, we sigh with compassion, we attend funerals and memorials and continue living our self-absorbed lives afflicted with the "fox-hole" syndrome: the guy next to me is dead but I've survived Covid.


A long article in the New York Times last weekend in the "Well" section suggests we recover from pandemic isolation with intention, socialize as much as possible, connect, reach out, make phone calls, cultivate micro-connections in our daily lives. But how to navigate this as a Covid-vulnerable older person wearing a mask? Thus my question today to you, dear reader: I see you, but do you see me?


Feminist that I am, I dismissed laments of invisibility from older women… when I was young. No longer. Not only is the lament real, the experience universal, it is now exacerbated by THE MASK.  There is a caveat, of course: American culture is particularly ageist. And this ageism is amplified by our driven, material culture. The woman as object has not disappeared from the male psyche, which is why a not so young guy at the gym cruises and stares at younger women as his eyes glide over me, the invisible older woman, yet more invisible behind a mask. Younger women are also in a glissade when confronted with an older woman. It's more nuanced but it's palpable.


By temperament I am outgoing, by profession deeply interested in everyone's stories. Masking is a torture for me, an incarceration. And I cannot find a solution other than to talk through it, a kind of piercing cri de coeur: I see you, but do you see me? As an experiment, I'm going to write these words on a surgical mask in thick black ink and wear the mask to the gym. Who will respond and how? I will report my findings in the comments to this blog post. I anticipate a few laughs, at least.


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Memorabilia; A Writer's Reflections


Memorabilia; A Writer's Reflections



Literature is the messenger of freedom at the price of insecurity.


-Carlos Fuentes


My cousin, Ellen, in Seattle called to say she'd saved a letter I wrote to her at a "trifecta" in her life: her mother had a recurrence of breast cancer, she was pregnant, and starting a school with her husband, Paul, the now famous Northwest School. It was a pleasant surprise to hear she'd saved a letter from me. I was relieved it had provided some solace; her mother, who had suffered so much, was a favorite aunt. But it still felt creepy that an artifact of my psyche from decades ago was extant, on the page, and that someone had preserved it.


This is what writers must experience when an (unauthorized) biographer gets to work poring through letters, diaries and emails while they are still alive, I thought. Ugh.


It's not unusual for most writers I know to feel this way. It's even difficult to return to published work and feel satisfaction, or total satisfaction; or it feels like a stranger wrote the work. A detachment sets in as we quickly move on to the next project. This is why readings in public spaces in front of strangers often becomes a burden to a writer, unless you are David Sedaris. He's more like a stand-up comic—a  performer—who  happens to write really well.


I have moved so frequently in my life, across a continent 2x and an ocean 2x, that it's been necessary to cull books, clothes, furniture, and memorabilia. It's not easy to discern value in the moment, unfortunately, and the culling must be done before the moving truck arrives. And I've never felt regret. But when Ellen's square blue greeting-card envelope arrived, and I saw my mother's handwriting, I did feel a soupçon of regret. In addition to my typewritten letter on thin brown paper, there were two scrawled messages from my mother.


Suddenly a surge of vulnerability set in. What have I done throwing so much away? Why did I do this? Why have I moved so much?  Why are my suitcases always at the ready and boxes left unpacked in the closet? These are not rhetorical questions: they have an answer.


And there it is, the genocide again. One must be unencumbered and fleet of foot to escape and survive, then flexible enough to reconstitute a life in a new country. Think of the refugees amassed at the border, what they have carried besides water bottles and their children, and what they have left behind.


Ellen is a child of Holocaust survivors also, but she's a musician, and was a school administrator, more grounding, perhaps, than being a writer, though that may be my imagination. I must ask her, I  decided. In the meantime, I returned to the computer to write her a thank you email:


Mostly I'm left with: this fleeting life. How to hang on to precious moments? Remain sentient? Thus, the writing for me, among other things…I can well remember the enjoyment I felt scrolling paper into a typewriter and feeling the words unfold on the page. Did I write that long ago letter? I guess so.







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