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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Three

© photo copyright by Carol Bergman 2020
 
A flock of black vultures on the clock tower of the Dutch Reformed Church on Historic Huguenot Street, New Paltz, NY.

 

Sheltering in Place

 

 

It was as if he were in a place that the whole world had forgotten, as if it were snowing at the end of the world.

 

Orhan Pamuk, "Snow"

 

I broke into tears when my daughter called me on Facetime today. She's only thirty minutes away on the other side of the Minnewaska Ridge, but it felt like an ocean. I had planned a trip up to see her on Thursday, and to walk her older dog, Willow, who is now thirteen, and who is very special to me, but we decided—because of unknown exposure--that it is best if we all "shelter in place," and reassess at the end of the month. This is for the benefit of the family, of our immediate circle of friends and colleagues, and beyond that—our communities, especially those most at risk.


For those who still do not understand, or accept, the urgency of "flattening the curve," I suggest they listen to Michael Barbaro's March 17th "The Daily" podcast interview with an Italian doctor. Barbaro was close to tears, as was the doctor, as they talked about the 1000 bed hospital just outside of Milan, and the more than 400 nurses who are either out sick, or so burned they needed to take some rest days. The doctor, in his 40's, had not been home to see his family for three weeks.


I've been thinking about the new vocabulary and new concepts we've had to learn just in the past week, "flattening the curve" being the most recent. We have moved from simple phrases such as "self-isolation," and "quarantine," to "containment, "social distancing," "executive orders," "sheltering in place," and "lockdown," which implies coercion and the possible use of military or police powers, as has already happened in China and Italy. It does not matter that one is an autocratic regime with unquestioned coercive powers, and the other is a democracy that abhors such powers, because every time we leave our homes to go to the grocery store, for example, we are playing Russian Roulette, endangering ourselves and others. The role of government at such a time is clear: it must be forceful and it must be decisive. If our civil liberties are endangered, we must attend to that danger also, but we must be alive to do so.


I think it was my visit to the grocery store yesterday that triggered my tears when my daughter called. The word "hoarding" was in my head as I woke inside a nightmare. I reached for my journal to write it down.


I had chosen to go to Tops, a very large supermarket in the mall, rather than my favorite small health store, because I knew I wouldn't be able to stay 6ft. away from anyone in that intimate space. I had my list and whizzed through the long aisles with its nearly empty shelves. I only encountered three other customers, all wearing bandanas for masks, and a guy in an electronic wheelchair looking bewildered. No workers were in sight until I arrived at the checkout line. I had managed to find a few necessary items, but the whole experience shook me. Thus, the nightmare. And even though a psychologist friend at the University of Sheffield reassured me that hoarding is a survival instinct, especially when there is no leadership, I couldn't shake the image of the empty shelves and ordinary people like you and me filling huge shopping carts to the brim without concern for anyone else. It takes fortitude to remain altruistic in such difficult times and we cannot be expected to be strong and thoughtful every day. But thinking of others does help me, which is why I like teaching so much and miss my students. I wrote to all of them today and heard back from a few in eloquent emails, and then I went out for a much needed solitary walk. The fresh air and chirping birds also calmed my faltering spirit. I stopped to snap some pics of a flock of black vultures on the church tower. (I find them odd and oddly beautiful.) Once home, I made myself a nourishing meal, chit chatted to my husband, and sat down to write this post.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Two

 
Limestone houses on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY

 

We Take a Walk

 

 

After working most of the day on our computers, my husband and I decided to take a walk in town to get some air and light. I had already exercised early in the morning on our stationary bike while listening to Friday's New York Times "The Daily" podcast, a scary overview of the coronavirus. All my fears were confirmed and solidified; we are in for a long siege. This realization made me pedal really fast and stay on the bike until the end of the podcast. When my mind wandered away from accepting the pandemic reality, I fantasized a trip to Iceland. I've always wanted to go there.


I already miss the gym, which I had decided to forgo three days ago—machines close together, all that sweat. There's always chit chat at the gym and I missed that most of all. As a free lancer who works from home, micro-connections refuel me and are essential to my well being. Now everyone gets to work from home, so there's solace in that, I suppose, because we are in this together; we are not alone. Not surprisingly, I've been on the phone a lot as even conversations with my husband do not replace the daily conversations I so enjoy. Even worse, I do not get out to teach; all my workshops have been cancelled. And meeting friends for a meal or a coffee or a drink is not possible. No gatherings, no hugging. We must attend to this psychological and sensory deprivation and find ways of assuaging its effects. More voice than email or text, I'd say, more phone calls than posts on social media. Staying in touch means literally—staying in touch.


For every writer external and internal landscapes are interconnected. Like musicians, visual artists, and actors, we are blessed—or afflicted—with heightened sensitivity and have to take special care during historic, life-changing events. True, they can become an inspiration also, so we must keep working in some way or, at the very least, document our experience of the surreal world we are now living in.


Shortly after 9/11 a reporter from the LA Times called to ask me how long it would take for that atrocity to find its way into literary endeavors. The odd thing was, it already had. I was teaching at Gotham Writers Workshop and NYU at the time and writing fiction, nonfiction and poetry nonstop for all the spoken word events around town. This work was raw, most of it non-publishable, yet some have been collected into anthologies as "testimony." Even that kind of in-the-moment writing is valuable, both as writing practice, and as documentation for the historians who will write about our era in the decades to come.


We live but an instant on the timeline of history, one reason why our fascination with what is old and preserved never wanes. Walking Huguenot St., the 17th and 18th century landmarked buildings stir conversation and many questions. The Lenape settlement in New Paltz dates back more than 5,000 years; we walk their sacred land. Imagine an epidemic at that time, I said to my husband as we sat on a moss-covered bench in front of the Dutch Reformed Church. Many illnesses were untreatable, many deadly. The indigenous population suffered most grievously when the European settlers arrived; they were decimated by pathogens previously unknown in their world. And though there are many Huguenot descended families still living in New Paltz, there are no indigenous people anywhere nearby. The remnants of their bands migrated west and north, joining other tribes for survival.


A few months ago I spoke to one of the curators at Historic Huguenot Street about new findings, not just skeletons and burial sites, but adult-sized cradles found in the houses. The sick and dying were laid in them and rocked gently, she told me, usually by slaves.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter One

 
© photo copyright by Carol Bergman 2020
 
 

 

 A Visit to the Bank

 

 

Al Torquato is my very friendly, sweet-natured, engaging local banker. He's a city transplant, as am I, has raised a son and a daughter in New Paltz, and likes to walk to ease the pain in his bad back. When I first arrived at his desk just about two years ago, and told him I was an avid walker, he suggested a route up Plains Road past the Rural Cemetery, the route he likes to walk because there isn't much traffic. So he's local and I am local. We discuss our lives while doing business even when the business is not that interesting, or pleasurable, or perhaps because it is not particularly interesting or pleasurable. We sit, we talk, we sign papers, we get online, we make a phone call or two, we figure out a problem, all in the context of person-person connection and lots of stories. Al is a voluble storyteller. He tells stories about his childhood, his leisure pursuits, his long marriage, his children. I listen and then I tell my own stories. He listens and then tells more stories.


Al is known to hug his clients now and again, which is not a good idea these days. So when I sat down at his desk yesterday I kept my distance, as instructed, noted with enthusiasm the Purell on his desk, and proceeded to Lysol his desk, the arms of the chair, and the credit card machine. He burst out laughing. This is not unusual; Al smiles all the time and laughs easily. But then came a problem: he had to make a phone call to an off-site department of the bank on my behalf. He immediately introduced himself, and asked the woman's name—she was in Richmond, VA—introduced her to me, and started to hand me the phone he'd just been breathing into. I took out my Lysol wipes. "Just a minute, Hannah, she has to disinfect the phone." We both laughed. I was a bit hysterical, in fact. And laughed and laughed. Finally, I picked up the phone, disinfected it, and took care of my business with Hannah, who was also laughing and friendly, probably because Al had been laughing and is so friendly. Good business, of course, but also good people.


So what's the lesson here, I asked myself, as I said my good-byes. Take good care, follow all health protocols and directives, but do not stop telling stories. We need each other right now, all the time, all day long, as much connection as we can muster in all contexts, however challenging. Let the humanity and compassion in all of us shine. Assume the best of everyone. And listen to lots of music. With that in mind, I opened all my car windows and blasted some reggae on the way home. I had been worried—about everything—when I went into the bank, but my fears had eased.


I report this to you today, dear reader, as my first entry in the Virus Without Borders "witness to history" assignment. This is the assignment my NYU students are working on at the moment. I hereby now assign it to myself. We are living a profoundly difficult history. As peripheral narrators—in the action and observing the action—we have the tools to document this moment. Stay tuned for more chapters from this reporter/writer. Please share yours with friends, family, co-workers and neighbors.

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Disembodied Voices

 

Human echolocation is the ability of humans to detect objects in their environment by sensing echoes from those objects, by actively creating sounds: for example, by tapping their canes, lightly stomping their foot, snapping their fingers, or making clicking noises with their mouths.

--Wikipedia 

 

 

 

Last week, I taught both my NYU class and my private workshop remotely, from my desk in Ulster County, New York which, for the moment, has no cases of the coronavirus. In consideration of two members of my immediate family who are at risk, I decided not to increase their risk by inadvertently bringing the virus home. And though the Trailways bus company is responsibly following all CDC and NY State Dept. of Health protocols, they are not dis-infecting, nor is Port Authority or the New York City subways. Governor Cuomo declared a State of Emergency on Saturday. Perhaps all protocols will now change.


I have resisted teaching online for many years, and after this experience, I have not changed my mind. The wonderful, warm dynamic of the classroom was gone. So, too, the delicious paper overload as manuscripts are passed out, everyone standing up and chatting and moving around the classroom until everything is distributed. I missed the voices of my students most of all, their gestures, their body language, their funky outfits and over-filled briefases and backpacks, their recyclable water bottles on the desks, their laughter as I spilled yet more paper onto the floor as a thoughtful comment from one of them excited me.


I do think we are like dolphins and bats and whales, all of whom require physical proximity to echolocate communication. My echolocation apparatus was nearly entirely dismantled last week as we exchanged disembodied email communications for hours and then days.


So, too, with my private students. I have six in my advanced group at the moment, and as we all convened on a conference call, I was disoriented for a few minutes. Who was speaking? Who was not speaking? This was odd as I have worked with all of them for a while. I was expected to "chair" the discussion, of course, and because I was a bit late joining the call, I was even more disoriented. Finally, the only way I could anchor myself was to visualize them sitting around the conference table where we usually meet. Oh, so there is Max and Ed and Jenny and Judy and Sherry and Eric, I said to myself. And as I placed them visually at the table, I was able to connect the bodily "them" to their voices. Though the conversation went on for nearly two hours, I never felt entirely comfortable.


I can't wait to "see" my students again and to engage with them in the dynamic classroom. If we are forced to communicate remotely for the rest of the term because of THE VIRUS, I'll have to improve my listening skills, and find a way to echolocate, as blind people do every day.

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Take Me To Your Leader

 

Speechless, wordless, paralyzed, mentally exhausted after the weekend's political events and the threat of a pandemic. I'm in the middle of revising a book, which is diverting, and reading my students' manuscripts for class this week, which is diverting, and took two beautiful walks in the sunshine yesterday, and saw a spectacular art exhibition (more another time), but apart from that, what's a writer to write on her blog this week?


For some reason "take me to your leader," popped into my head as I was writing in my journal this morning. Now where did that come from? Is it a meme, or a trope, or a cliché, buried in our cultural unconscious, if Jung were to describe it, that I have somehow digested into my personal unconscious? When I looked the sentence up on the internet I discovered its actual origin: a 1953 Alex Graham cartoon in The New Yorker. It then turned up again in 1957—Season 5, Episode 12—of the TV Superman series.


It was probably the vision of 45 at the Press Conference, his faux tan, comb-over, strange top lip wrinkles and too-small mouth that looks like the entrance to a straw that began my saga. I started spinning a story out of the apparition, a man without a moral rudder who purports to be a leader of the American People. Good grief, what a strange story/allegory emerged. I offer it to you here, dear reader:


ALIENS have landed on Planet Earth, their platter-shaped ship tossed by high seas has now landfalled on Greenland's moss green permafrost. Greta Thunberg is in their craft's contact list. They wish to speak to her. And though the ALIENS don't completely understand the words "climate activist" or "democracy," as these concepts are inbred in their DNA (yes, even ALIENS have DNA), they do understand exactly what Greta is doing: saving, or trying to save, or hoping to save the small world—Planet Earth—among so many other worlds in our shared Universe.


They have landed in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, population 16,800 humans, Danish humans, Inuit humans, and Danish-Inuit humans. They are kind people who love children as much as they do. They request an airlift to Washington DC. Will Greta be there? Or is she still on Trevor Noah's late night television show? The ALIENS like him too. He has a child-face, and though he speaks English a bit funny, they can understand all he says. Remember when he took his crew to Soweto to visit his 91-year-old grandmother? How can one not love such a person as Trevor Noah, a sweet man who calls his grandmother Coco?


Love. Children. Family. An inter-planetary lingua franca.


The ALIENS are fast learning the conditional tense, however. They have sent a message to the President of the United States, as follows: We would hope that you might appreciate our contention that war—domestic or international—is not good for the environment. Kindly confirm. It is because they did not receive a reply that they compiled a mission to Earth. They request an airlift to Washington DC from the kindly Greenlanders.


Helmets off, the ALIENS are in compatibility mode, breathing the heavily oxygenated albeit polluted air. They board a vehicle that spews big smoke and vibrates on take off, unlike their smooth-floating craft. Sadly, their transport is not permitted to land in Washington DC; the president is in self-preservation germaphobic lockdown and refuses diplomacy with all ALIENS, who he considers a HOAX. They are forced to retreat to Nuuk where they are consoled by the locals over a hearty home-cooked meal and bed down for the night in a warm inn. Their mission has failed. They will return to Planet Earth when there is a new leader.

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When Friends Make Us Proud

 
 
 

In 1942, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were incarcerated during World War II.

             --from the Manzanar National Historic Site website

 

I met Carol Shinoda and John Tateishi in a Chaucer class at UC Berkeley. I didn't know their backstory, nor did they know mine. As young, carefree college students the words camps, incarceration, round-ups, detentions and reparations were not mentioned, or even fully known. They were buried deep in our families' histories and in our psyches, only to surface many years later when we were married and about to start our families. We were all living and working in London, simultaneously by design—John & Carol, Jim and I. And once we had our first born children, we all began to think about returning to America.


"I had always thought we'd be expats forever," John told me recently. "I imagined we'd live in France eventually because the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese American unit, many of their parents interned in camps during the war, fought with courage and patriotism in the bloodiest and fierecest campaigns in Europe. The French have never forgotten that; their gratitude is still palpable. But we thought it was important for our children to know what had happened to the Japanese-American community inside America after Pearl Harbor. So we returned to America to become a part of that community."


Five years after they returned to California, John and Carol not only found a community, they became active in that community. They joined a civil rights group, the Japanese American Citizens League. John eventually became the Chair of the Regional Redress Program and, in 1978, he became National Chair. He also gathered and edited a book of oral histories called, And Justice for All, and became a lobbyist in Washington for the Redress Campaign.


Now John has published Redress: The Inside Story of the Successful Campaign for Japanese American Reparations (Heyday Books) about the day to day, week to week, year by year travails and successes of the movement that culminated in reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned. It granted each surviving internee $20,000 in compensation. A total of 82,219 received redress checks.


The United States has a long history of racism, xenophobia, and violence against immigrants and minority groups. The World War II Japanese American chapter is only one chapter in our sordid story, a fault line as shameful as the Native American genocide and enslavement. We must continue to expose these stories, resist false narratives, and write about them with courage. I am proud of my tenacious friend--the book was not easy to write-- and wish him fortitude as he embarks upon his publicity tour. Check out John's website for a schedule of appearances: https://www.johntateishi.com/

 

 

Photo: Out of focus but poignant nonetheless. This is Manzanar where John Tateishi was incarcerated as a toddler. Like most interned families, his family lost everything--or it was stolen-- the day they were shipped out. It was cold in these mountains. Japanese American Californians, accustomed to a warm climate, did not even have the right clothes.

 

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Ask the Hard Questions

photo: courtesy Netflix

 

Several friends suggested I watch "Cheer," a Netflix-produced documentary series. It's a real-time portrayl of a cheerleading team from Navarro College, a small, publicly-funded, under-funded community college in Corsicana, Texas, county population 48,000, known best for its fruitcake and its 73% turnout for Donald Trump. It's an America many of us never experience, a picture-perfect town of upended devotion—religious and athletic—that conceals exploitation and cruelty.


Within minutes of the camera rolling in a bare-bones gymnasium, we hear one of the female "flyers" say that she's had five concussions. Despite this guileless confession from a young woman clearly eager to please her silent behind-the-camera interlocutor, and her hard-driving coach, there are no follow-up questions. In fact, there aren't any questions at all. And it is only once at the end of the six-part series that the viewer hears a reporter's voice. It seems to be an accident. Perhaps the footage was too valuable to cut.


There are many situations where cinema verité (fly-on-the-wall) film-making is useful. This series is not one of them. These still young, extreme athletes, many from troubled backgrounds, on scholarship, desperate for an education, require protection as they are filmed in the gymnasium, and in their personal lives. And though the strong, female coach, Monica Aldana, presents herself as a parental, caring force, her self-promotion pervades the series without respite. She is an emblem of the dark culture of American sports that exploits its talent and demands athletic prowess for the glory of the school, the team, and the final competition at Daytona. We watch breathless and expectant as the vulnerable athletes fall onto hard wooden floors, nearly break ribs, bruise muscles, damage their backs, sob and groan, cheer despite their pain, get into trouble, leave school, head for the hospital emergency room, return to practice. Navarro College only has a 21% graduation rate. That fact is never revealed; it requires explanation.


Does the series' director, Greg Whitely, have a point of view? Does he imagine that he's created an exposé, a raw record, and that we'll come away both admiring and disgusted, able to make our own decision? I found it interesting that he was a missionary for The Church of Latter Day Saints and had made a film about Mitt Romney. Is that relevant to his ominiscient style of film-making? Are the athlete's fates in the hands of the gods? In an interview with Mashable, an online magazine, Whitely said, "I tried as best I can to remain agnostic on different themes or issues, being generous with my subjects, while also documenting in cold detail who they are and what they are going through. And I trust that by doing that correctly, themes will just naturally emerge. They'll organically come out." Well, they do. But without a reporter's commentary and hard questions, the series has no ethical center.


We're in the midst of an election year, challenging beyond our imaginations. Credible reporters asking difficult questions has never been more important. I expect such rigor from my students, from myself, and from every working writer, reporter and documentary film-maker, no matter the social media hoopla and revenue value of an entertaining subject.

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Reading to Dogs

My favorite photo of Willow. We are both lap swimmers.
©copyright Chloe Annetts 2020

 

 

Saturday morning, the roads quiet, the temperature mild, no car to dig out, so off I went to meet Fletcher, a therapy dog, at the Gardiner Library. The blurb in the newsletter said:


Beginning and struggling readers sign up for a 15 minute time slot to read to certified therapy dogs.Come read to "Fletcher"! A fun, relaxed, stress free environment supports children's learning. Please sign up ahead of time. Spaces are limited.


Gardiner is a small town with an outstanding library, helpful librarians, events, donated books for sale for $1 (dangerous), a shelf of local authors ("Say Nothing is there), and peaceful nooks to read, get onto a computer, contemplate. Large windows bring in the light and a vista of the Minnewaska Ridge.


Alas, no one signed up; Fletcher had a day off. I was disappointed. I had never witnessed children reading to dogs in a formal setting and I was curious. Though the domesticated wolves we call dogs don't have language, their gestures, facial expressions and sounds convey to their co-dependent owners/companions all they need to know about their needs, feelings and the status of the environment. They warn of intruders more accurately than any electronic surveillance. They are protective of their territory and of us.


I have a particularly close relationship with my daughter and son-in-law's eldest dog—Willow—and I'd have to say, though many doubt me, that we completely understand each other. She is smarter and more abundantly caring than quite a few people I know. Although I am thinking and writing and reading all day long, when I am with Willow, I am, literally, entirely in the moment—her moment.


The younger rescue in the family—Nucky—is a comical, sweet-natured dog who I enjoy just as much as Willow, but because Willow is older and frailer, I take special walks with her these days. Sometimes we walk quietly, sometimes I talk to her and she looks up at me in acknowledgment of my chattering. The other day we witnessed an eagle with a squirrel in its talons being chased by a crow. Willow is a German Pointer with a strong prey instinct and I expected her to bark furiously, but she remained reverently silent, as did I. A van stopped; the driver had seen the eagle, and we chatted amicably about the sighting.

 

Eagles are no longer endangered, but bald and golden eagles—their feathers, nests and roost sites—are still protected under multiple federal laws and regulations. These regulations work, the eagles are back.

 

I had forgotten that The Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Nixon on December 28, 1973. The Supreme Court called it "the most comprehensive legislation for the preservation of endangered species enacted by any nation." Memories of that important day sustain my hope, if not my belief, that we will surface from our present political conundrums with courage and gusto.

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Our House of Mirth

"Pure Joy" ©copyright by Peggy Weis 2020

 

"He taught me to be hopeful, to be optimistic, to never get lost in despair, to
neverbecome bitter, and never to hate."


--Congressman John Lewis about Martin Luther King Jr.

 

"When and where will this end? What is a republic taking sides against itself?"

 

--Amos Bronson Alcott, progressive educator, father of Louisa May Alcott

"Don't ask whether you need an umbrella. Go outside and stop the rain."

 

--Jill Lepore, "In Every Dark Hour," The New Yorker, 2/3/2020

 

written for the Future of Democracy Series.

 


As if the sham trial and the sociopathic cowardice of most of the Republican senators was not enough this week, a colleague handed me a book by Adam P. Frankel called "The Survivors." I haven't read any Holocaust literature for a long time, but I could not refuse a well-meaning gift. And it was, after all, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz where the ashes of three of my grandparents and countless other relatives are what—buried? scattered? What verb shall we use?


I had flipped the book open at the table while my colleague was eating a scrumptious turkey, cheese and avocado sandwich and I was sipping on Sencha tea and eating an apple. I had not heard of the book. Frankel was a speechwriter for Obama, but I had never heard of him either. My comment in that moment was simply, "Oh, he must be a good writer," as the one speechwriter I have known well—for Kofi Annnan at the UN—is a good writer. Nonetheless, I wanted the book to disappear. I tucked it into my briefcase and continued to enjoy my apple, my tea and my friend. We had a wonderful conversation; it was good to see her.


The next morning, I emptied my briefcase and there was "The Survivors." It's a beautifully produced book with an inviting albeit simple cover. I opened it and started to read. This was a grave mistake. And we are talking about graves here, and not just graves but mass graves. I finished the book in a couple of hours. I skimmed a bit and read it backwards a bit, as I did with Daniel Deronda. And that got me through it, and through the agony of the history that is my history, that I cannot shirk or bury or ignore, a history that obsesses me some days, and enrages me on other days, more so recently as I have watched the regime in Washington do its calculated, autocratic dance.


I have a dear artist cousin I call when Holocaust angst, agony and despair overtakes me. Years ago, after the birth of her second grandchild, a therapist suggested she visualize joy and resist repeating Holocaust themes in her work. So she thought about her grandchildren and started creating adorable, fascinating, life-affirming work. I have three out-takes on my walls: a stone forest, a teepee, and a comical figure. I looked at them a lot this week as a reminder that there is life beyond children in cages, and Iranian students with operative visas turned away at the borders, beyond a fascist president humiliating a respected radio reporter, beyond a tell-all book and a voice vote on the floor of the Senate, and a regime—not an administration, a regime—that in three years has never governed anything but its own self-interest.



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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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