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Let The Good Times Roll

Kyiv on a winter's night in 2022. © copyright Peter Zalmayev


I am a prayer of smoke wandering the broken houses, the littered ground looking for a white flag of reason…


-from "I Am a Prayer," by Joy Harjo,


23rd United States Poet Laureate




I hesitate to use the plural pronoun here, to extrapolate from my own experience; I'll just speak for myself as witness, participant, peripheral observer, narrator, protagonist. But I'm also a journalist and have gathered stories, not evidence, but stories. Therefore, I make no claim to knowledge beyond my own experience and reporting. I offer no solution. But the sense of loss, real and metaphoric, is profound. I had hoped, as have so many, that the world would be at peace in my lifetime.


Is there anyone you know, dear reader, who has not been touched by the conflagrations in Ukraine and the Middle East. Is there anyone you know who does not have an opinion about these wars, about what should and should not be done?


Speaking for myself, then, and only for myself, as a child of war, there's a sense that I've lost –not everything, but far too much. This loss, or confusion, surfaces in dreams which have intensified since I realized I knew someone—Peter Zalmayev—in  Kyiv and intensified again after the massacre in Israel on October 7. I have cousins in Israel and an acquaintance, a young artist—Malak  Mattar—from  Gaza. I follow her on Facebook and connect with her on FB Messenger. Meanwhile, here in the United States, I received a request from a once dear  Palestinian friend to remove him from my blog blast. I do not think he wrote it as it seemed to be copied and pasted from a printed document, but it is eloquent nonetheless:


How can you explain that you are no longer fit for superficial daily conversation, and that you are so drained that you need some solitude in order to repair what the war destroyed within you.


A simple reply from me: I understand.


An email to one of my Israeli cousins was answered almost immediately. He is in New York on sabbatical from Tel Aviv University, his son is in the IDF reserves and has been called up, and that was it. Two sentences. No plans to get together as yet, no reply to a follow-up email, no What's App conversation. Solitude heals. Solitude protects.


In the past, therapists have asked me, "What do you feel as you awaken from the dream? Describe the sensation, describe the emotion."  And if I were asked to reply this week, I'd say, "Incomparable loss, irrefutable loss, isn't it obvious?"


Lord Byron might have called this dream image of nothingness ahead, white as a sun-spattered cloud—death awaiting. There is no grounding in that image, no ledge on which to sit and watch the sky or sea. The only antidote to such a free fall dream is to weight myself in hiking boots and march full throttle into the mountains away from war, and then to stay connected to those in war zones with messages and interviews and articles, to give them voice in my blog posts and articles.


I'm reminded of the days following 9/11. I was in the city and had to force myself back onto the subway to teach after roaming for weeks on foot. Long past the Civil War, with no warfare in North America, most Americans can't imagine war, or famine or terrible contagious disease, or the kind of poverty that grinds and breaks a family open with fear. We—and I'll use the plural pronoun here—we Americans, are eager to let the good times roll. If the dreams become too portentous, we push them aside; we don't admit to having such dreams.


Even though I've got food, shelter, work, a significant other, and objectively can't complain, or mustn't complain, I sometimes judge a friend who's just been to Telluride on a skiing holiday, or another who's boarded a plane to run a marathon in Florida, or another who's been to Spain and toured around as though these wars never happened and life is as it was—for  them—joyous and everlasting.


This post is dedicated to the Israeli and Palestinian people. May they find a lasting way to peace and reconciliation.



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Why I Write to (Living) Writers

     I realized it was about the section of the book that's about my mother's suicide, where she killed herself in a bathtub. ..There's nothing there that could possibly titillate. Even if you're a sadist, you wouldn't go to that one for the picture, to see a dead body. And so I was offended just like they were, but I was offended by describing a naked corpse as a nude woman.


-Art Spiegelman in conversation with Lisa Tolin, Editorial Director of PEN America after the banning of "Maus: A Survivor's Tale," his Pulitzer Prize winning graphic memoir.




I've been facilitating a Banned Book Club at a local library, one book a month since September, and though it has been poorly attended, it's been good for me, a reminder that books matter and so do writers in a free society.  And as I am a writer in this free society, I figure I matter too, as do all readers, and all three libraries I belong to in the Mid-Hudson Valley; I've taught writing workshops in two of them. A beacon of civilization, may all libraries everywhere on Planet Earth prosper forever. May we #standupforlibraries  and #standupforwriters no matter the pressures brought upon us.


I am a long-standing member of the Authors Guild, PEN America and International PEN, all organizations working to staunch the book banners disruptive rhetoric and fascistic actions, to protect the authors of the books thus banned, and internationally, to free incarcerated writers all over the world. I think of this struggle as both personal and political, and hope, dear reader, that you will also. As Joyce Vance so eloquently said in a recent Substack newsletter, we cannot rest, it is a moral imperative not to rest. She signs her newsletters "in this together."


I began the process of choosing the banned books for the club last summer and read about twenty of the 1,000 plus on American PEN's list. One book a month seemed a very small sampling, but it was an important gesture,  and Nicole Lane, the librarian at the Gardiner Library, agreed to put the Banned Book Club on the  library's calendar of events. She even published a "manifesto" that she distributed to the library's members. It reads, in part: "Individuals should be trusted to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. Further, parents should not be making decisions for other parents' children about what they read. We are united against book bans."


My syllabus included a similar manifesto, which reads in part: "Book banning impacts the education of our children and the livelihoods and reputations of authors, illustrators, and other creators. It corrodes the trust, civility and freedoms we must sustain in a working democracy."


Four Thursdays @ 6:30 p.m.


September 14: Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

October 12: Ashley Hope Perez, Out of Darkness

November 9; Art Spiegelman, Maus

December 14: George Johnson, All Boys Aren't Blue


Of these four writers, three are living writers. I decided to write to all of them to bolster their courage and determination, and my own. I told them I'd assigned their books, that their books are worthy of assigning.


Writing to thank (living) writers I admire is a practice I began many years ago. I contact them through their website, publisher, agent, or Facebook page. More often than not, I receive a reply, sometimes formulaic, sometimes personal. And if a book has been banned this "right action," as the Buddhists  call it, has its own reward; it's a contribution to the struggle against the persecution of writers and their work.


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A Brief Incomplete History of Aerial Bombing

The fashionable Ginza neighborhood in Tokyo pulverized by American bombs on March 9-10, 1945. All bombed-out neighborhoods look the same from the bombardier's POV. S/he can't see the people down there.


The peoples of this world must unite or they will perish.


-J. Robert Oppenheimer


Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."


-Dwight D. Eisenhower


Before unleashing the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Americans fire-bombed Tokyo. It was March 9-10, 1945 and my cousin, Fritzi Burger Nishikawa, was living just outside Tokyo with her husband, Shinichi and son, Yoshi, in what was considered a "safe" zone near the pearl farms of their Mikimoto relatives. In 1999 I outed her as a collaborator in my memoir, Searching for Fritzi. An Olympic silver medalist, she had entertained the German and Japanese High Command with her ice dancing throughout the war years, and had done nothing to save her family—my  family—most  of whom were killed in the Nazi death camps.


The images of bombed-out buildings and bodies in shrouds and body bags in Israel, Gaza and Ukraine, brought back a memory of those long-ago bombings, and the civilian deaths in Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When is such bombing "justified?" When is "collateral damage" acceptable? With or without a nuclear conflagration, body counts are high after bombing. A conservative estimate is 80,000 deaths in Tokyo alone.  It's a crude tool of warfare despite modern technology to improve "targeting." There are children down there. Think of  all the movies you've seen of London during the Blitz.


It is my hope that the moral questions raised by even targeted bombing will plague us after the current wars are over and inspire conferences, seminars, some sort of international détente. But I dream. Many of the IDF soldiers in "the strip," as it is so charmingly referred to now, will return to civilian life, maybe even to renewed and more vociferous demonstrations against the right-wing Israeli government. Many will have nightmares as well as memories of heroism and historical necessity.  Many will  undoubtedly have regrets. Many will have to serve in the occupation of Gaza; occupation never goes well long-term. Think of the West Bank. Remember the intifadas, tame compared to the massacre of October 7.  Vengeance, massacres, occupation, refugees, displaced persons, suffering morphed into rage.


Soon after I  published Searching for Fritzi, I received an email from Mike Ramsey, a soldier in General MacArthur's occupying army in Japan. He was sent to Tokyo about fifteen months after the occupation began, one of two thousand soldiers managing the day-to-day needs of the army and the rebirth of a "democratic" Japan. There wasn't much left of Tokyo and there won't be much left of Gaza when the Israelis are done either. As for the hostages, praying for them may make us feel righteous, but it won't save them. Wild guess: they are in the tunnels underneath the hospital that is under siege as I write.


Most Americans can only imagine what it must be like to try to survive in a pulverized landscape. Residents of New York during 9/11 may have some idea, but even this tragic event does not compare in most significant respects, including the scale of destruction. When Warrant Officer Mike Ramsey arrived in Tokyo there were  beggars everywhere and very little shelter. The American soldiers and their Japanese employees did not starve, however. Food was flown in and the American PX was well stocked at all times.


Mike's official title was Medical Inspector but like other soldiers in MacArthur's army, he had authority when he was out in the field, beyond his specified duties, and beyond his assigned rank. If MacArthur was the American emperor, Mike and his fellow officers were MacArthur's viceroys. Free-floating oversight was encouraged. If Mike didn't like something he saw, he made  a report to his commanding officer. He could even call the MP's to make an arrest. Few complained about this undemocratic arrangement  at the time, least of all Members of Congress, the defeated Japanese people, or the bankrupted Allied Powers who were relieved America was taking on the job of reconstructing Japan. Who will reconstruct Gaza after the war with Hamas is already under discussion, and it's a contentious one, less so the discussions about Ukraine. Wars and post-war reconstruction are economic windfalls.




Mike's assigned task was to make sure the water supply in the city was sanitary and the buildings habitable. Electricity and much else was on strict ration and when Mike went around in a jeep with his Japanese driver/translator he made sure no one was cheating. The translator, Chui, was a former officer in the Imperial Army, wearing a haisen fuku—a "defeat suit," stripped of its insignia.  


It was a beautiful late afternoon when the two men set out for a hospital. There had been reports that the building was collapsing, and Mike was instructed to verify and recommend. It was a desolate part of the city where they were headed, far away from General Headquarters which was in the once fashionable part of town. Many of the buildings there had been left standing after the bombings. Elsewhere, some construction was going on, but not much.  The infrastructure of the city had to be stabilized first.

Mike spotted a strange light up ahead. It seemed unnatural, almost surreal, so he detoured towards it. The translator pointed to a partially bombed-out brick structure but did not reply when Mike asked what it was. As they drew closer, the vista beyond the brick looked flat and white. Incredibly, it was a good-sized ice rink and swirling around at the center in a graceful pirouette, there was a lone figure in a dark ice-dancing dress, the bottom flared out in a spin just above her knees.


Mike was more than perplexed, he was dumbfounded. It was summer, temperature in the mid-70's and humid, the ice of questionable consistency, and the rink was not an "approved installation." That meant someone was using rationed electricity which gave Mike "probable cause" to ask some questions. Who was this woman for goodness sake? Even from a distance she didn't look Japanese. She was short, true, but her hair was blond. More importantly, she looked robust. Clearly, despite the famine, she was eating well. How else would she have had the energy to skate?


Mike and the translator alighted from the jeep, stood at the barrier looking into the oasis of ice and beckoned, then shouted, to the woman. Slowly, she drifted over.

Mike's first impression was not complimentary. With her blond hair, blue eyes, and European features, this woman could only be a "Fraulein," the wife or girlfriend of a soldier or engineer sent to Japan to share technology and weapons. Surely the soldier or engineer was already in custody, perhaps returned to Germany for war crimes interrogation. Or—hypothesis  again—he might have been hiding out and only recently arrested, his wife or girlfriend left to fare on her own. Recently, Mike and his buddies had liberated a holiday cabin on Mt. Fuji decorated with alpine scenes. A young Fraulein had appeared during their visit and asked to collect her belongings. They allowed her this privilege, but also questioned her before letting her go. There was enough to do without holding someone who would be of no use to them.


His mind clicking over with all the possibilities, Mike said, in English: "Fraulein, who the hell are you?"


He purposely did not speak in German at first, though this would have been easy for him. He wanted the message to be: I am a representative of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan and you must obey my orders.


The woman clearly understood what Mike had said, but remained mute. When he spoke in German, however, she looked alarmed. Then she turned towards the translator and stared knowingly at him, waiting for him to speak. What was going on? Mike had no idea but he asked the translator to tell him. "And that's an order," he said impatiently. Reluctantly, it seemed, the translator said, "Mikimoto," but that was all.


          "Mikimoto pearls?"

          "Yes. She's married to Nishikawa and Mikimoto is his grandfather."    


 The pearls were valuable commodities, easily transportable, and there was concern in the early days of the occupation that they would find their way onto the black market. Memorandums went out to all occupation personnel alerting then to this possibility. New regulations had made it clear that all pearls could only be bought and sold through the newly-established Army Exchange Service.  Proceeds of all sales were used as reparations.


"She's an Olympic ice skating champion," the translator continued and then, in Japanese, he asked the little Fraulein to identify herself to the American officer. Finally, she did so—in  fluent, impeccable Japanese.


Back at General Headquarters, Mike reported the incident to Lt. Colonel Schellenberger, his commanding officer, and was told to leave the matter alone, he knew who the woman was, and would take care of it. Mike was a bit annoyed. Why was this Fraulein on the loose ? He felt like a fool when he recalled what he had said to her: "You'll be hearing from us."  Obviously, this wasn't going to happen.


Fritzi Burger survived. She eventually divorced Nishikawa and married an American who worked for Citibank in Tokyo. They probably met at her tennis club. I found Fritzi living in Gorham, Me. with her new husband  as I was researching my book. When I asked her about the fire-bombing of Tokyo she was insouciant and said it hadn't changed her life at all.  


Dedicated to all veterans including my husband, Jim, who served in the 7th Fleet out of Treasure Island, SF.


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Only Connect

photo © copyright Carol Bergman

The sign says, "Arms are for Hugging."


My daughter and husband on a peace march in Central Park, too many years ago.




Our ability to connect with others is innate, wired into our nervous systems, and we need connection as much as we need physical nourishment.


― Sharon Salzberg, "Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection"


The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes

Till beauty shines in all that we can see.

War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,

And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.


-From "Absolution" by Siegfried Sassoon, 1917



I thought I was taking a break from the horrifying spectacle of our living room wars in the Middle East, Ukraine, and Nagorno-Karabakh. I immersed myself in a Miranda Seymour biography of Lady Ottoline Morrell, a pacifist during World War I, doyen of the Bloomsbury community. She was an inspiring activist, and I required inspiration last week. Biographies of artists and writers are my favorite genre when I am trying to recover and rest. And there  are so many inspiring, emancipated, brave people. Some are living, some are dead, some are famous, some infamous, some ordinary in the sense that I meet them in my daily life and am astounded by their good sense and goodness, fortitude, courage, and wisdom. They may be subjects of an interview for the local paper I write for occasionally, or they may be someone I meet in the locker room at the pool, or at one of the cafés I frequent, or standing in a long line at the supermarket, or they may be one of my students.


Everyone is struggling in one way or another, it seems to me, we have all been through so much these past few years, and it is best to be kind to everyone, kind and patient, interested and non-judgmental. How difficult it is to remain kind in these polarized angry times, so much of the world at war, and warring among ourselves. So, I am taking a deep breath this week and reminding myself to talk less and listen more. With years of interviewing experience, I sense when a stranger has a story, or is bursting with story. They may begin by commenting on the weather, or what they have chosen to eat or—as  happened this morning—the  shade of lipstick I am wearing. I had mixed two shades, in fact, I explained to a 50-something woman I met in the laundromat. Her name was  unusual—I won't divulge it here without her permission—and  she was soft-spoken, and hurting. She'd recently lost a son to Fentanyl, had just recovered from a ten-day bout with Covid, and she'd lost her job. Her plight, her desire and need to connect through her story, was as worthy of my attention as the soldiers in the trenches. And so I paid attention:


She has always wanted to write; she has always kept journals. Her husband is disapproving, even a bit denigrating of her ambition. "If you are keeping journals, you are writing," I said, "You are a writer." Then I gave her my card and asked her to stay in touch.


I came home to the news that an artist from Gaza is safe in London and posting on FB from there, but that she can't get in touch with her family. I came home to the news that an Atlantic reporter I admire has interviewed a water engineer in Gaza and that we can hear his voice on a podcast and that he is sick and exhausted. I came home to the news that an Israeli friend in England has been to a vigil for the hostages, and that another has been to a vigil for all the children in Israel and Gaza. And I came home to a warm apartment with running water and food in the fridge as the wars rage on. I came home to write this post.


Dedicated to the writers and artists at risk in all the war zones on earth, and to all the children in war zones.





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