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Sundays in the Mountains; A Look Backwards & Forwards

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2020

 

Huguenot Street in New Paltz is a palimpsest, layers of history, some undisturbed, some excavated. It's my favorite walk in town, sheltered from the wind in winter, sun dappled but not fierce in the warm months. The Dutch Reformed Church anchors the street and it's bursting with parishoners on a Sunday. People pray here, people say, "Have a blessed day," when they open a door at a doctor's office, or the bank. They can also be stand-offish, guarded to the point of rudeness, suspicious, intimidated, afraid. This is the America I knew existed but never experienced first hand until I moved north of the city, beyond the suburbs, along the route of the mighty Hudson River. I'm still learning, I'm still reading, researching, and writing about what I discover here. Some days I am exhuasted by new insights, new projects, new people; on other days I am more relaxed than I ever was when I lived in the city. I had always thought, or assumed, that the competitive, ambitious, striving, assertive, materialistic pulse of the city was the only pulse that mattered. I was wrong.


I arrived here in the spring of 2018 in the midst of a "monuments" controversy on the SUNY New Paltz campus. Several dormitories were named after the slave-owning Huguenot families and the African American students wanted those names changed. Because it is a state university and the whole town is a monument to the Huguenot slave-owning families—whose descendants still live here—the university had to go through a laborious testimonial process; it took months. Any decision had to be approved by New York State, not the Huguenot descendants, and that was difficult for the families. Controversy writ large, bad feeling, hatred. The outcome, unlike the outcome in the Senate, was not pre-ordained, however. Indeed, the university fell on the right side of history; the names have been changed.


Because it touched on a subject that has always been one of my subjects—the way history is told, and for whom—I plowed right in. Within weeks I'd written a guest editorial for the Poughkeepsie Journal. Needless to say, I expected to be praised for my two cents, invited to seminars, consulted on my very important opinion. Instead, I experienced a kind of shunning. The shunning intensified when I was interviewed by the local paper about my book, "Say Nothing." Alas, my picture appeared next to the profile and I became instantly recognizable in this very small town where people refer to me, when I'm introduced, as a "newbie." My still urban, sophisticated, well-traveled self, did not anticipate any of this. Blind to life outside the New York City bubble, where I still happily commute to teach, see friends, and imbibe culture, I was humbled.


I have heard some New Yorkers say that New Paltz is a "'hick" town with only a handful of decent restaurants. This condescension now riles me so I guess I have adapted, finally, to living here. Who are we to say that a town we know so little about is a "hick" town, that the highly educated, privileged prism through which we view America and its conundrums is the only prism with which to view our beleaguered, divided country, much less solve its problems.


I needn't tell you, dear reader, where my politics reside—born and raised in a European democratic socialist family—I am on the "left" in the American political spectrum. But I have studied the politics of my new gun-toting, hunting, under-educated, semi-literate environs, as well as it's more privileged residents, and concluded that 45 is right in one important respect: the hinterland is another land, another country, decimated by cutbacks in educational opportunities, unemployment, outsourcing, and the opioid crisis, which has hit New York State hard. Any answers forthcoming must be local, grassroots, federally and state funded, and unstinting. I cannot count the number of young people I've met here who have had to quit school to work, whose loans are off the charts, and who cannot find a well-paying unionized job with benefits once they graduate. Even a day trip to New York City seems like Neverland to them.


Those of us who are educated, established in our careers, the owners of property and bank accounts, those of us who are altruistic, those of us who care, must help as much as we can and remain active and consistently empathetic, without condescension. Beyond the 2020 election, that is the only way we will take back America.

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Welcome To My Village

Canal Street, Ellenville, NY, is picture postcard perfect. It still looks this way, more or less.

 

I taught a writing workshop in the Ellenville Library yesterday about an hour west of New Paltz into the mountains and then south on Route 209 towards Sullivan County. It was a cool-to-cold day and the air was fresh. Strobic light bouncing through the nearly leaf-bare trees disturbed my vision. I have to drive everywhere here, keep our old car in good shape, and brave all weathers, which I find both annoying and challenging. But I eventually relaxed into the mellow day. Past the turning in Kerhonkson, past Shop Rite and Walmart, "The Sound of Life," sermon on the radio, I flicked the search button and found a country music station. The evangelical stations play good music, too, and the bible readings are sometimes literary, but I am struck by the amount of repetition and the pounding—almost abusive—exhortations. How close is belief to obedience, I wonder? At election time, for example.


Just past Walmart the cars were rubber- necked, two tall guys in neon vests with empty plastic paint pails in the middle of the road. Cops? Volunteer firemen? Accident? Escaped prisoners from the state prison? The clunky castle-like structure loomed over us, casting its shadow.


My turn to roll down a window. How about a few dollars for the Ellenville Little League? Was this a question or a demand? These guys, who may well be volunteer firemen, were in the middle of the road stopping traffic, a bit coercive, I'd say. I popped a $5 bill into the pail and asked for $2 back. There's a limit to my generosity on a Saturday when I am trying to get somewhere, I thought. Isn't it enough that we have to endure lockdown drills nearly every week around here? Felled trees? Ice storms? Tail-gating? Gun shops?


Welcome to the Other America, not the urban, ghetto Other America that Michael Harrington wrote about in his iconic book, but the current, rural other America.


One thing that 45—or his oligarch handlers—got right: there is more than one America and that Other America is right outside the borders of our cities. Unexpectedly, I am living in it. Thankfully there are good schools, the roads are kept well, and everyone cares about the environment. Equally important for this writer is the interconnected library system; I can get any book I want quickly.


The new librarian at the Ellenville Library, Kristin Fowler, is wry, warm and energetic. When I first went out to meet her a few months ago, she booked me for two workshops and a reading of "Say Nothing," which is set in these mountains. Miraculously, the library has a budget beyond book purchase, and Kristin, a woman who cares about her job and her constituency, has made sure she uses it to develop free programs, services, workshops, and more. People are smiling when they walk into the library, and smiling when they walk out.


Six aspiring writers signed up for my workshop, four turned up. Three are avid readers, two have fascinating life stories they are eager to write, the fourth was there to listen and explore, a mom with three kids who still works night-shift to support her family and never made it to college, or at least not yet. I could not help but encourage her. "Your turn," I said. She is a John Grisham fan for the same reasons I am: He writes page turners and he has a social conscience. Who would have thought we have so much in common?


I still expect huge crowds at my workshops and readings and am surprised, even disappointed, when only a handful of people turn up. Entitlement syndrome: Am I not a well-known professor with a sterling reputation, reams of publications, and a CV five pages long? But Ellenville, like other hamlets and towns in Ulster County, is just a small village—population 4,000 and change—with a long, rich history and complex culture all its own and I am an outsider, a stranger, a traveler, passing through, not yet of the community. I am often met with skeptical expressions, even hostility, until I've got the room in my grip. It's a good thing I am experienced because it's not always easy. As I have written here in a recent post entitled, "Lockdown," I've even encountered anti-Semitism and shunning in Ulster County. I try not to take any reactions to my gentrified, educated persona personally, if that makes sense, and to meet everyone I encounter with curiosity and an open heart. After all, I'm still a free-thinking city girl. 

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They Live Among Us

An open gate leads to a field. Animals do not see gates, fences, or borders.
Photo: © copyright Carol Bergman 2019

 

A deer crossed my path as I began my walk down Huguenot Street yesterday. I was not startled as I am used to them by now. We also have coyotes, bears and ground hogs in abundance in these mountains. Very few are hit on the road, which is gratifying. People are careful, respectful, even reverent. These creatures live among us, we live among them; we share the environment. And we are, presumably, stewards of this shared environment.

 


It was early morning and parishioners were arriving for a Sunday service at the Dutch Reformed Church. The sky was overcast and it was still a bit foggy. Then a squirrel joined me, and a white moth, and a couple of hawks, though one of them might have been an eagle.

 

Afterwards, I went to see an exhibition called "Tonalism: Pathway from the Hudson River School to Modern Art" at the Dorsky Museum on the SUNY campus. Though I am familiar with the Hudson River School and Whistler's work, I had never heard of Tonalism and I did not recognize the other painters. The canvases were luminous and as calming as my walk. All of them were landscapes without a human presence. Interestingly, Tonalism emerged after the chaos of the Civil War; it was contemporaneous with Impressionism in Europe.


I wondered what the analogy to a Tonalist's vision might be in writing. Perhaps lyrical landscape poetry. And then I wondered if a "school" of writers or painters will emerge as an antidote to the chaos and worry we are experiencing—the extreme storms, the droughts, the wars, the inhumane politicians at the helm of too many nations, including our own.


How can we restore our weary spirits? Is it possible to retain a contemplative, creative persona in the midst of chaos? If we stop to observe a deer crossing our path, metaphorically speaking, will our creative life flourish?


I was the only one in the gallery, and I could have stayed there all day, though the guards—all young women, all students, all dressed in black—followed me around. I surrendered to their human presence and asked them questions: Do you have a favorite painting here? What are you studying? And so on. It was my choice to connect—my journalist persona, or educator self, I suppose.


The beginning of the term is difficult for working writers who are also teachers as there is a lot to prepare. I have started two book projects—one fiction, one nonfiction—but did not make enough headway during the summer with either of them. Because I am the co-owner of a publishing business, and also have private students, there are manuscripts to read all year long. Therefore, I must intentionally carve out time and space to proceed with my own work. My students have the same struggle as most of them have demanding jobs. We discuss the challenge often, though I offer no remedy; everyone has to find their own rhythmn, their own antidote to chaos and the obligations of daily life if they/we are to remain committed to the writing life.

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Sanctuary

Photo courtesy Rough Draft Bar & Books, 82 John Street, Kingston, NY

 

I drove up to Kingston, NY to deliver "Say Nothing," to Rough Draft Bar & Books on John Street. I'll be one of the local authors signing books there on September 9th. It's a beautiful store; paper is making a comeback.


It was a hot day and I parked as close as I could. I poured quarters into the meter and set out. John Street is in the old "stockade" part of Kingston, the first capital of New York State. The landmarked stone houses were built as a fortress against the Munsee Esopus tribe who fought like crazy to push back the European colonial advance. No luck; the houses still stand, but the Native Munsees are gone. The tribe migrated—what was left of them—north and west, merging with other Algonquin-speaking tribes for safety and survival.


I can't get their fate—their story—out of my mind. I don't know why I think about it so much, maybe because I only recently arrived in upstate New York, and can't abide omissions in the history, maybe because my own family was displaced and killed.


I'm walking through the Munsee history slowly, absorbing whatever there is to read, preparing to write something, I'm not sure what. Once injustice takes hold of me, I can't let it go until I've written about it. It hasn't always been easy.


"Go back where you came from." I've heard that before, from an English Lord in the House of Lords where I'd been called to testify in front of a committee. The Lord didn't like an article I'd written for The Times Educational Supplement exposing the treatment of West Indian immigrant children in the London schools. He addressed me as "Mrs. Bergman," and continued, as follows: "We thank Mrs. Bergman for her article and ask that she return to America from whence she came." Fair enough. I wasn't a citizen, I was an "alien," working and living in London. But I was also a journalist exercising my freedom to write in a parliamentary democracy albeit without a Bill of Rights. Still, unless I was in contravention of the Official Secrets Act, I was free to write what I pleased, and what my editors commissioned me to investigate.


When we exercise our freedom to write, we cannot control our readers' response. I remember that when I received a death threat because of something I'd written, I was in shock. I had been naive and never anticipated rage, hatred, shunning, or threat of violence because of something I'd written. I have learned to accept it, but it's not pleasant, to say the least.


Insularity, parochial mentality, bigotry, racism, hate speech, incitement to violence. The escalation is obvious and—historically—well tested.


And now four elected United States representatives, women of color, have been deliberately, aggressively—verbally—attacked. Trump's rallies feel like lynch mobs, the border patrols like fugitive slave catchers. How will historians tell this story years from now? Honestly and thoroughly, I hope.


I ended my sojourn in Kingston with a pleasant, healthy Bento Box lunch at Yum Yum on Fair Street. It was quiet, well air-conditioned. A man at the counter greeted me warmly. It felt like a sanctuary.

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Good Morning Sparrow


My city Facebook friends are posting photos of spring blossoms in Central Park, Prospect Park and Fort Tryon Park. But it is still in the 30’s in the mornings in the Lower Catskills and spring has not yet fully arrived. On one of our first mornings here, I found a steep road into an apple orchard, and snapped photos of buds, but they have not opened. Red tailed hawks, falcons, and an eagle or two sail on the updrafts searching for prey. The crows and sparrows stay closer to ground level, the groundhogs scamper in and out of their dens. There is abundant visible wildlife whenever I step outside; earth day is every day in this mountainous region. Plastic bags are not permitted in the shops, the local antique barn has a solar roof, the Wallkill Alliance is working with Riverkeeper to clean up the Wallkill River that flows through the town, a reminder of how improvements in the environment—and in the political landscape—can be achieved on the local level. Soon, I will see flaws, I know that, and feel the challenge of small-town living, but for right now I’m living in an idyll or, maybe, I’m just on vacation!

A slower pace, no delays to consider as we board the subway, less socializing in noisy upscale venues. Our forays into the city to work continue, but they are circumscribed and carefully planned. I’ve written two blog posts and completed a short story in the three weeks we have been here. I am reading in a more concentrated way, I am watching the sun set over the mountains, I am sleeping soundly.

As I was walking into the orchard last weekend, I realized that it was a private road and I’d better ask permission. There weren’t any signs and I didn’t want to be surprised by a shotgun or a police car. So I penned a warm note explaining who I was—an urban transplant, a new neighbor in love with the orchard, a writer—and would it be okay if I walked the road? In return for this privilege , I would clean up debris—many plastic containers, beer cans, tires!! I’d already done a lot of this. Had they spotted me and decided to leave me alone? Did they think I was a mad woman?

I walked my well-crafted note to the top of the rise to a house, which I assumed belonged to the owner of the orchard. I went round the back—kids toys, a swing set, dishes in the sink—and rang the bell. It was a tenant, not the owner, and yes, of course, she’d pass my note along. She wasn’t sure if it would be okay, there have been problems in the past. Oh, dear.

As of today, I haven’t heard anything from the owner. But it was so gorgeous this morning that I walked into the orchard anyway.  Read More 
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