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History is Sudden, Poetry is Kind

Pages from my personal poetry anthology: handwritten, printed, clipped.
Oh, how the mind wanders, connects, obfuscates and clarifies. Not necessarily in that order and mostly when I am moving, usually in the water, sometimes on dry land. This strange juxtaposition of thoughts occurred to me on the A train yesterday. I had been reading Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” a prescient and disturbing book. It’s my second Roth in several months. First up during the election was “The Plot Against America,” also prescient and disturbing.

Though Roth overwrites and his machismo grates, I have never put down one of his books. His most recent—shorter—books, “Indignation” and “Nemesis” are masterpieces.

Page 87 of “American Pastoral”: “People think of history in the long term, but history , in fact, is a very sudden thing.”

That thought has stayed with me all week. But how did it connect to “poetry is kind?”

The progressives among my readers will understand: we’ve been hit by a 2x4, e.g. “history is sudden.” And even those more centrist will agree, we’re headed for a bumpy ride. Every day there is more bad news about an inappropriate, dare I say—cruel-- appointment to head a government agency. Worse, this election, like the 2000 election, may have been stolen. As I write this morning, President Obama has announced an investigation into Russian cyber interference. The accusation is no longer “notional.” It is certain.

Now for the second phrase: poetry is kind. What do I mean to say? That poetry is consoling, most probably, particularly in a confusing moment in history or our personal lives.

I have been collecting poetry in a designated notebook ever since I joined a writer’s group with three poets. I had been working as a free lance writer for Holt Rinehart & Winston and one of my editors there was trying to write fiction. So was I. She was starting a writer’s group and asked if I’d like to join. “What about a couple of poets?,” she asked. I think my only thought was: why not? I was in for some big surprises.

Unconcerned with linear narrative, poets think in images and connect ideas as, yes, juxtapositions, just as I have here today. My linear narrative prose illusions were shattered and I began to write more freely. It was grand. Since then, I’ve returned to reading and writing poetry regularly, sometimes daily. I have a poetry app on my electronic devices and continue to build a personal anthology. But when I mention the word “poetry,” to my students, they often glaze over.

They are mostly young, eager and thoughtful. To a person, they were hit hard by the election, hope shattered. They were shocked one week, angry the next, a predictable cycle of grief. Then came depression, a subdued entry to the classroom, nearly catatonic. So, this week, I brought in some poetry and read a selection for thirty minutes before we got to “work” critiquing their manuscripts. “Let your mind drift. Relax,” I said. I assigned prompts from lines in the poems—two minutes each. “Try not to ‘think,’ I said as you read what you’ve written aloud.”

I don’t know if the poetry and the prompt exercises helped. I hope they did because I care so much about my students and their progress as writers. And I feel strongly that older adults—parents, educators—have an obligation to be supportive guides in grave and challenging moments. We have more perspective, more experience. But if my students needed reassurance, I did, too, of course. By encouraging them I was lifting my own spirits. In the end, we shared our wisdom, our resilience, and the life-affirming poetry I had brought to class.  Read More 
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An Encounter With a Hunter on Thanksgiving Day

A peaceful country road on Thanksgiving Day. Photo by Carol Bergman
Thanksgiving Day in Ulster County, NY. Because all the “Crooked Hillary” election signage was down, the “STOP” signs at the intersections suddenly stood out in high relief: stop, move on, they seemed to say.

I had left the ten-year-old German Pointer at the house and was walking my daughter and son-in-law’s adorable new rescue—part Husky, part German Sheperd we think--when I spotted a small blue car parked alongside the road up ahead. A man in full camouflage was storing his gear in the back seat. I heard gunshots in the distance and slowed my pace. As we were on the road, not in the woods, I hadn’t thought to put on neon colors and was wearing a black Gortex. Hunting season, oh dear. I had forgotten and so had everyone else in the house! All that cooking amd savory aroma was distracting.

Thank goodness the new puppy has light fur, I thought. He is learning to be obedient and stayed close to my left side. I praised him and then stopped completely. I was now about 20 feet from the blue car. I hesitated and almost turned back. But why was I afraid? I was afraid because, since the election, there has been violence. I was afraid because there are venal racists who speak in tongues similar to Nazi tongues, venal racists who are taking power in Washington. I was afraid because my family is Jewish, I could easily be taken for Arab, and because most of my ancestral family was murdered in death camps. I was afraid because the KKK endorsed our president-elect.

I recalled my first visit a decade ago to this “Trumpland” rural area, long before Michael Moore might have dubbed it “Trumpland.” My daughter and son-in-law’s house is next to a fire station. It’s an all-volunteer fire department and there are regular pancake breakfasts to raise money. We went to our first one, tried to strike up conversation, and were completely ignored. What was going on? City invasion was going on, the city/country divide more like a chasm since the construction of the Ashokan reservoir flooded twelve towns at the turn of the 20th century to satisfy the water supply of "city people.” That was bitter and long lasting, communities displaced and eracinated, graveyards unearthed and shifted.

At first, the locals did not know that my daughter and son-in-law were here to stay, that they were not city snobs. Thankfully, they would not be outsiders for long though the political divide, at times, is still stark. Nonetheless, they don’t argue or confront; they behave as good neighbors behave, helping out in a hurricane, coming to the rescue of a neighbor who fell down some concrete steps, becoming anti-fracking activists for the benefit of everyone’s water supply.

Now I could see that the man was young and that his camouflage was crisp and new. That was reassuring in some way. This was not a man breaking the law. Everything about his movements as he stashed the gear into his car and took off his jacket seemed sane and careful. But he was obviously not huting alone as I could still hear shots in the distance. I walked closer and wished him a Happy Thanksgiving. He turned to me and wished me the same. He had a cherubic face, a face that I could not imagine killing anything. And though I do not eat meat myself, and object strenuously to raising meat to be killed for food, I with-held my judgment. Hunting in New York State is strictly controlled by the Department of Environmental Protection. One turkey of either sex between November 19 and December 2. That’s it. These were wild turkeys, after all, I told myself, in a mostly poor, rural area, the very American heartland that East Coast intellectuals ignored in the recent election to their/our peril. Since then, like so many other democrats—small d and big D—I have been on a personal crusade to close the divides and understand what has happened.

As an experienced journalist I am accustomed to getting into the thick of everything, to ask questions and listen with grave attention to the answers. Why should Thanksgiving Day be any different? “Did you manage to catch a wild turkey for the Thanksgiving table?” I asked. The young man said, “yes,” and smiled. Could his family afford a store-bought turkey, I wondered. Were they relying on his prowess like the original 17th century Dutch settlers? Like the Cayugas or Onondagas who were here before them?

Those thoughts—stretching back into our colonial history—humbled me. And humbled I shall try to remain.  Read More 
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Words Matter; A Demagogue Speaks

“How Does a Nation Turn to Hate?” That’s a tag line on the New York Historical Society website this month. I went to see their small exhibition, “Antisemitism 1919-1939,” and took lots of notes. It was the only way I could concentrate without becoming very upset.

First of all, as many of my readers know, my parents were genocide survivors. Secondly, the Nazi propaganda displayed in the vitrines felt eerily familiar in this 2016 election year. At first, Hitler was dismissed as a fringe crank. It didn’t take him long to become Chancellor.

So I’m weighing in on the “Trump Phenomena.” His campaign is not at all funny or entertaining. It’s terrifying. Like Hitler and his cohorts, he is a master of media manipulation and inflammatory, subliminal messages, nuanced enough to avoid accusations of “hate speech" yet remain within the realm of “free speech” protected by the First Amendment. It's incendiary nonetheless. Trump is the voice of bigotry and has given bigotry a voice. And if he now claims—cynically—that he’s just a regular guy and is going to calm down, that’s even worse. The damage has been done.

In Nazi Germany, Hitler had many “willing executioners,” as Harvard scholar Daniel Goldhagen wrote in a 1995 book of that title. Men and women who were acquiescent, men and women who obeyed. The Nazi killing machine revved up incrementally. It began by endlessly repeating words and images of dirty money-grabbing Jews who were “repulsive parasites,” the cause of all Germany’s problems since the beginning of time. There were even children’s books written to reinforce these messages and a couple of them are on display at the NY Historical Society exhibition. I had never seen them before. They are shocking.

The indoctrination of ordinary citizens ended in The Nuremberg Laws—the legal foundation of Hitler’s Holocaust—and the death camps. Where will Trump’s campaign lead us as a nation? His anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim epithets deny our citizens, asylees, refugees and applicants for American citizenship, the fundamental right to live without threat of violence. His language inflames those who hate, those who may carry guns; we are a well-armed nation. Hate crimes against Muslims have spiked in recent months. And no wonder.

We have had other demagogues running for office in the past, but that fact does not make Donald Trump any less dangerous. We must stop him for the sake of our children and our democracy.  Read More 
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