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When a Soldier Becomes a Writer

 Photo of Robert, Veronica and Blue Macpherson © copyright Steve Robbins 2021, with permission.

 

 

WHEN A SOLDIER BECOMES A WRITER

 

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There's something happening here/ What it is ain't exactly clear/ There's a man with a gun over there /Telling me I got to beware

Lyrics by Stephen Stills, "For What It's Worth" 

 

   Performed by Buffalo Springfield, it was recorded on December 5, 1966, released as a single on Atco Records 

 

 

It's never a good idea, or even respectful, to ask a former soldier if he thinks a war has been worthwhile, or all for nothing, but after reading Robert Séamus Macpherson's gripping book, Stewards of Humanity; Lighting the Darkness in Humanitarian Crisis, I decided to take the chance. He hadn't been an ordinary soldier, he'd been a Colonel in the United States Marines for thirty years, and segued to humanitarian work with the agency CARE. Even more unusual, he'd become a writer, and a good one. So I asked about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, our most recent 20-year war. Colonel Macpherson had started his military career in Vietnam, and after a very bad day, he'd ended up in the hospital for a year. Had it been worth it? His own injuries, all those lives damaged and lost, comrades and civilians? We were on a Zoom call so I wasn't sure if he threw up his hands, shrugged his shoulders, or just quoted casualty and death statistics. Maybe both. Thousands, I thought I heard him say. And where are we now? Just this past weekend, the Taliban has taken three regions in that beleaguered country and families with means are scrambling to get out. It's reminiscent of the airlift out of Saigon when the People's Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong  entered the city on April 30 1975. The Fall of Saigon, as it became known, led to the reunification of the country. Not to detour too much here, but the future of Afghanistan, with its fundamentalist warlords, does not bode well for women, or future tourism.

 

I was talking with Bob, his wife Veronica, and Bob's service dog, Blue, while they were on vacation in Maine. At my request, Bob introduced me formally to Blue, trained by Southeastern Guide Dogs . And, yes, I was talking to this adorable 90-pound white Labrador, who is by Bob's side 24-7, an "empath," the trainers call him.

  

Though it is not easy to read at times, Stewards of Humanity is both a reminder and a warning. All those quagmires: Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Rwanda. Refugees. Genocide. Death everywhere. Danger constantly. Is it any wonder that soldiers and humanitarian workers return from the field with PTSD, and worse? It took a while for Bob to acknowledge his struggle, but he faced it, as he has all the other challenges in his life.

 

Empathy seems to expand inside the Zoom room as we talk, filling the virtual spaces with healthy, focused energy. Bob has read my blog and commented on my obsession with justice, like his own. It pleases me that he's noticed, though I am supposed to be interviewing him, and now the tables are turned, a bit disconcerting. Never mind, we have a lot in common, a lot to talk about.

 

Veronica is by Bob's side, also. They met in Atlanta at the CARE headquarters, second marriage for him, first for her. She's now a clinical social worker with a specialty in oncology, and helps Bob with his website and social media. Two children from Bob's first marriage are doing well: his daughter is a lawyer, his son a tattoo artist in Hawaii. "I'm proud of them both," Bob says. He has grandchildren now,too.

 

And then there's the writing, which all writers, including yours truly, know full well is therapeutic, albeit it is not therapy per se.

 

"Tell me about your writing process," I asked in an email exchange after our interview.

 

"My absolutely best writing day is to get up, take Blue for a long morning walk with Veronica, come home and have nothing in front of me for the morning except my writing. After three or four hours, I'm expended. Then, I go to the gym, come home, feed Blue and spend the evening with Veronica. Those days are perfection." 

 

"The book is very detailed. Did you keep notes or a journal all those years?"

 

"I did not keep notebooks. I believe the events I write about affected me deeply. I found that once I started writing about them, all the facts seemed to unfold like a movie. Every name, event and nuance seemed to appear in front of me—just when I needed it."

 

As I am always telling my students to keep a journal, I was disappointed. How else to retrieve stories when memory is usually so elusive? But for Bob, they've been etched into his brain, a permanent record to carry forward into his work.

 

After such an accomplishment—the book took five years to complete—I wondered if he would continue. I needn't have worried. He's already at work on a second—about his relationship with Blue.

 

To pre-order Stewards of Humanity, go to Robert Macpherson's website:

 

https://www.robertseamusmacpherson.com/

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy Six

A graffiti Happy Birthday in honor of Jim Bergman's and Gerard Brown's screenplay, "Graffiti Warriors."

Writing Our Own Headlines

 

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,

And the nursling of the sky:

I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;

I change but I cannot die.

 

-from "The Cloud" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

 

It's my husband, Jim's, birthday this week, a big one. We're having three celebrations, though we've had to postpone the live city gathering with his table tennis friends, and will have it on Zoom—an abundance of caution—until boosters, probably.

 

Jim is a tournament table tennis player and has been commuting to the city to play since he got vaccinated. An entrepreneurial coach opened ping "pods,"  limited in size, hepa filters, vaccination required. It feels safe enough for right now. Who knows when the abundance of caution will not be necessary? No one. Or, maybe it will continue to be necessary for a good long while and we'll just get used to it. Adaptation.

 

First headline of the day: Humans are adaptable.

 

I'm reminded that Jim, with one leg shorter than the other, is an (undetected) polio survivor. The left side of his body is smaller than the right, and despite a delayed diagnosis, numerous orthopedic problems over the years, and numerous surgeries, he's always been an active athlete. Needless to say, remembering the blessed advent of the polio vaccines, which came too late for him, he was first in line for the Covid vaccine. No anti-vaxxers in this house.

 

When he was a boy, Jim played the hoops at the local playground in San Francisco, and when I met him at UC Berkeley, he was into touch football.  I taught him how to play tennis and never got a game off him since. In London, he learned squash, then racquetball when we returned to New York, and now it's table tennis. He's watching the Olympic TT finals as I write. Table Tennis is an Olympic sport that amateurs play at tournaments into their 90's and beyond. 

 

Second headline of the day: Hit that ball right and feel joy.

 

Last night we went out to eat at a local restaurant with a scenic view of the Minnewaska Ridge. The sunsets are glorious up here in New Paltz, NY, and I caught a magnificent one on my iPhone. Jim complimented me on the composition, said I was a good photographer, but I demurred and said, "It's the iPhone camera."  I didn't know the scientific name for the clouds, but there was something about them that was familiar. I put a pic up on Instagram and FB and got a reply or two, then looked them up in my "cloud book" when we got home. I get swept away by new knowledge, never stop reading, or studying, or writing. Nor does Jim. Ours is a long marriage and I'm grateful I have a partner who enjoys sport, beautiful landscapes, the acquisition of knowledge, and writing as much as I do. He's a pretty terrific guy, gentle in nature, smart as all get out, and funny.

 

Last headline of the day: Happy Birthday to Jim. This Virus Without Borders chapter is dedicated to you.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy-Five

Minnewaska Long Distance Swimmers Beach, copyrignt Carol Bergman 2021. The solace of open spaces and sport, much needed at this time.

 

Whiplash; Some Thoughts

 

 

 

The American political system has come down with a case of long Covid.

           

 -Alexander Burns, Political Memo, The New York Times, 7/31/21

 

 

 

How are we doing this week, how are we feeling? Not so good. The parking lot of my apartment complex is empty, everyone traveling and visiting and hugging and breaking bread together in faraway locations, and no mechanism to mandate vaccination or masks in the private sector. But my son-in-law's parents are not traveling from the UK, nor is his sister and her family. A reminder that this is still a global pandemic. On we go.

 

We're all exhausted by the restrictions, of course, and skeptical of the dangers of Delta if we don't know anyone who is afflicted. Nothing to do with me.  Really? Fully vaccinated friends headed for Boulder to see a new grandchild are navigating the conundrums with care. Do we wear a mask to protect this baby, or not? How will babies grow up only recognizing their grandparents' eyes and eyebrows? Though seemingly humorous, this is not a joke. Remember those experiments with motherless monkeys? They became attached to mannequins. What does this tell us? That attachment is vital and always possible, but can be odd and sad. We—humans and apes and other sentient beings—will  grab onto anything, anything at all to survive.

 

Am I supposed to applaud the ingenuity of mannequins and robots? My own personal Bank of America robot, Erica, just wrote me a very personal email suggesting we get together for a heart-to-heart talk about my finances. Not interested.  This writer insists on real-time connection. Mask-free real-time connection. Not telehealth. Not labyrinthian customer service, dial 1 or dial 2. Dial? Who dials anymore?

 

But we've got the Olympics to distract us. Simone Biles, for example. What an athlete, what a person, what a back story. Human to the core despite the intense sometimes robotic training and sacrifice of that training, despite the sexual assault, she has survived and thrived. And there  is even an announcement today that she will compete again this week. Bravas are not enough. I envy the editor or ghost who will mentor and shape her book. Or has she already written one? Oh, I just checked, she has. Well, maybe she'll write another in a few years' time.

 

Simone reminds me of myself—if that is possible. When I was about ten-years-old, I, too, reveled in the release and joy of athleticism; I told my parents I wanted to be a competitive ice skater. They obliged. My stepfather took me to Wollman rink early in the mornings before school for training. But books and school were just as important to me, and to my highly educated parents, so after falling asleep at my desk for a month or two, I quit, or they persuaded me to quit. I did have choices, however: I chose to not compete. In other words, I did not require--or latch onto--an athletic training to survive. I was not a baby monkey in search of surrogate parenting. Are Olympic athletes symbiotically attached to their trainers who push them and push them relentlessly? Just a question.

 

In order to do one thing, one often has to sacrifice another. I still had plenty of sport in my life—tennis, track, field hockey, basketball, softball, volleyball, swimming—and loved it all. To this day, I get up from my desk at regular intervals and move around athletically, if only for a hike, or to take the compost to the Village compost pile, or swim laps and laps and laps. I only know a few writers who can sit at their desks for hours and hours.

 

So what is happening today, as I write? I've got a Zoom call in a few minutes. I have read the headlines and await announcement of boosters, as do all of us who got our shots early. A mask is in the back pocket of my shorts again, and I look forward to hearing about any ingenious protocols my friends devise to bond with their new grandchild. How is it possible to remain distanced from a baby? Beats me.

 

 

 

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy-Four

With thanks to © Ehimetalor Akhere Ejadamie Unuabona, a documentary photographer living in East London, for this image of the National Covid Memorial Wall. Lest we forget how many have died in this global pandemic.

 

 

"Civilization" and Our Discontents

 

Homo homini lupus est.

  

      A man is a wolf to another man.

 

-Latin Proverb

 

 

The doctor from Montana tried to persuade me that the gentle, non- judgmental approach was best with anti-vaxxers. It was a Sunday, she'd just been to church with her ailing mother, they were so relieved to be meeting in person again, and I was on my morning walk when we stopped to talk.  Best to say, calmly, "I'm worried about you," she explained.  So I decided to try this approach with a young man who works at the gym. He was  behind plastic, wearing a mask again, and so was I. I'd seen him walking around talking to people without his mask so I never for a minute thought he wasn't vaccinated, yet somehow suspected he wasn't based on previous conversations. So this morning, with news of break-through infections, and my own instinct to get masked-up again, I asked him directly. After the confession, came a litany of, "I spoke to my doctor and we think I don't need to get vaccinated," etc.  Excuse me? Who is this doctor?  But I didn't say that. I  held my breath and tried the recommended gentle approach: "You're a very smart man. That decision surprises me."

 

I didn't wait  to hear a reply. I saw his face, though, and hope my disappointment in him hit home. He'd asked me for some mentoring help, which I provided willingly. Now I'm done.

 

The refusal to get vaccinated—not  the hesitancy, but the blatant, outright refusal—feels  passive-aggressive to me, an "I'm going to show you" attitude, a "fuck you," attitude. I hope I am wrong about this because the psychological implications are dire. The rageful behavior of some of our citizens, many of whom are armed, worries me. Gentle admonitions won't help with these folks. It's time for mandates everywhere. This is a public health emergency.

 

I can't believe I'm writing this post, that I've returned to Virus Without Borders, but I know two people in England who've had Covid recently after getting their second shots. Not breakthrough infections, exactly, as the Brits did a twelve-week wait period before the second shot, so more than likely antibodies had weakened, but bad enough. Entire families had to go into quarantine, trips to see loved ones were cancelled—my son-in-law's parents, his sister and her family. And here in the US of  A,  people are traveling everywhere, gathering. Much too soon. The CDC are standing by their recommended protocols—no masks  for the vaccinated needed indoors—and  not tracking breakthrough infections. What is going on?

 

Dear Readers, the euphoria of early vaccination has worn off as I await announcement of a third shot, or a booster.

 

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War is Not Good for the Environment. Our Cultural Heritage, or Any Sentient Being

Armed conflict zones result in endless suffering of innocent civilians, permanent refugee camps , invalidism of injured combatants, destruction of cultural heritage sites and dismembered families and communities.  Photo © copyright Unicef 2021

 

By the time active military engagement ended, the United States dropped three times as many tons of bombs on North Vietnam, a country the size of Illinois, as were dropped by the Allies in all of the Second World War...Three million Americans served in Vietnam: 58,000 died there. The United States got nothing for it.   

 

-Louis Menad, "The Free World"

 

I was reading Menand's chapter on Vietnam in The Free World the very week that most of the American troops in Afghanistan came home. The bases that fed and employed the local populations, bases as large as cities, were abandoned in a middle-of-the-night clandestine operation to prevent Taliban attacks during retreat.

 

The United States got nothing for that 20-year war either. Osama was bivouacked in Pakistan so why, exactly, did we go in?

 

The women of Afghanistan benefited greatly from the American occupation, however. A short-lived gift. What will happen to them now?

 

I've known a few war reporters, and to a person they are addicted to the adrenalin rush of war. They then feel remorse, and often cannot wind down, sleep or eat for months, or years. Like soldiers and humanitarian relief workers, reporters often suffer from PTSD. They witness cruelty, barbarism, murder, famine, loss. Sometimes, like some humanitarian workers, soldiers and reporters disappear from civilian life entirely, re-enlist ad infinitum, volunteer to cover stories ad infinitum, and stay in the field for the rest of their lives following the footprints of war across the continents. There are plenty to keep them busy.

 

And then there are the soldiers who become humanitarian workers—swords into ploughshares. I am always honored to meet them. This week I received an email from Robert Macpherson's publicist asking if I'd blurb his debut book, Stewards of Humanity; Lighting the Darkness in Humanitarian Crisis.  Macpherson is a former infantry officer in the U.S. Marines with service in Vietnam, Iraq, and Somalia. After retiring as a Colonel, he enjoyed a second career with the humanitarian aid agency, CARE. He lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife, Veronica and service dog, Blue.

 

A service dog. That says a lot, enough for me to consider saying yes to the publicist, that I'm happy to read the book and write a blurb. The only caveat is the prose: it has to be strong. I wasn't disappointed. Here's an excerpt, by permission:

 

Upon leaving the clinic, I thought about how sheltered I had been. Although I experienced war and conflict, I traveled within a bubble. If I were injured, the Marine Corps would find and rescue me. When I went to a rest area away from combat, there were cans of Coca-Cola and other staples of American life. Wherever we were assigned, we brought our culture, language, and as much of our lifestyle with us as logistically possible. In Somalia, though, I was pushed outside my psychological comfort zone. Combat was horrendous, but I was trained for it. This was the first time I directly encountered the long-term results of armed conflict on the innocent.

 

Some statistics: According to Unicef and Save the Children , 426 million children are living in conflict zones, 1/5th of the world's children. 27 million children will be born into conflict zones this year.

 

 

It's hard these days to imagine a planet without war, or the environmental and human degradation that war amplifies, or causes. Armed conflict impacts all of us, even if we live protected lives far away from the battlefield.  What can we do here, from the relative safety of our homes? At the very least, we can monitor the foreign policy initiatives and arms sales of our government. After all, we are the only nation on earth that unleashed an atomic weapon to "end" a war.

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When Writers Lose Their Freedom

"That Tumbling Passage," © copyright Mary Louise Long 2021. A painter who always surprises me with her inventive and beautifully rendered images, Mary Louise, a dear friend from college, continually inspires and encourages my own creative process. With thanks for permission to use this image.

 

If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today. If he is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear. If we are not confident of our freedom, then we are not free. 

 

-Salman Rushdie  from the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture 5/12/2012, Pen World Voices Festival.

 

Dedicated to Jimmy Lia, the founder of Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper, and the courageous reporters who kept working at constant risk to their lives and freedom.

 

During the long months of lockdown, I could not read or write any fiction. I read poems but the muse for writing  poetry had fled. I abandoned a collection of novellas—two written before the pandemic—and a collection of prose poems—ten written before the pandemic. Daily life had become surreal. Time slowed, but it was a mobius loop, a tunnel, with no end in sight, a constant barrage of statistics, importunities, and logistics. How will we get food in the house? How will we do our laundry, visit a doctor, stay safe? We concluded emails, texts and phone calls with those very words: "stay safe." I began a dedicated blog book, Virus Without Borders, and this seemed to be enough to keep my writer's muscle supple. I didn't want to do much more. But no one was telling me what to write about and what I couldn't write about. As a writer, no matter the illusion of incarceration during the pandemic, I remained free. Without the censorship of the marketplace, I was even more free. My goal was not to sell Virus Without Borders, but to witness the event and create a well-written document for a post-pandemic digital archive.

 

After vaccination, the muse loosened and I began working on a new short story idea set in the colonial past. It moved slowly and I could not figure out why; once I begin to write, I usually write rapidly. What was different? Why was I hesitating, and worse—self-censoring? The answer is unsettling: Given the mood in the country right now and all the unpleasant –often  uncalled for—white shaming, I was concerned that the story may not be well received by Black readers.

 

Of mixed heritage, I do not consider myself "white," unless that is also a synonym for "privilege," but there it is: according to some who choose to label me with racial epithet, I am "white." Even an Asian American college friend refers to me as "Caucasian" these days. How sad is that, not to mention genetically and biologically mistaken.

 

Nonetheless, as I was drafting the first few paragraphs of my new story, I asked myself: What right do I have to imagine what it felt like to be an enslaved child, to tell a story from that child's POV when I am so utterly removed from that experience?

 

The muse ground to a halt. And no matter how many times I told myself that every writer and artist must feel absolutely free to create compassionate, empathetic work, without restraint, I could not continue, not for a while anyway.

 

Years ago, when Robert Olen Butler, a Vietnam veteran, received the Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain: Stories, I devoured them all in one sitting. They are beautifully written. But I was in a post-Vietnam politically correct outrage, and wondered why he had "appropriated," these stories, rather than encouraged the Vietnamese immigrants he had befriended in New Orleans to write the stories themselves. Well, they couldn't, or not yet, not at that time. Olen Butler had served as a translator during his stint as a soldier in Vietnam, he loved the people he encountered, and cared about their fate. The collection was an act of empathy, what the Europeans, in their greater wisdom and maturity, would call un homage.

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What Photographs Can Do

Half-plate daguerreotype of the Rutgers Female Institute, Class of 1848, located at that time on Madison Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Vintage slip of paper attached to case mat reads "Carrie Hubbell's Graduating Class at Rutgers–Carrie is in upper row–2nd from left hand with fan. Henrietta Piercy with long curls in right hand corner on floor." 
 
"Reading" the photograph, it is interesting that there are no Black females. The school was the first institution of higher learning for women in New York City. Black women would have still been enslaved. CB
 
 
With thanks to Jeffrey Kraus for permission to use this image.
 

 

What Photographs Can Do

 

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt. -Susan Sontag, On Photography

 

A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away. -Eudora Welty

 

It's easy to like Jeff Kraus when you first meet him. He wears a ponytail, his features are soft, and his smile welcoming. And even though he lives at the end of a hidden, almost secret driveway, his house is light-filled and open. One of the pre-eminent collectors of antique photography, I had originally met him during a pandemic walk as we shouted our hellos from opposite sides of the road. He was sometimes alone, sometimes with his wife, Jo Ann. And, one day, as I was walking with my friend, Helene, who knows everyone in town and insisted on an introduction, we stopped to talk. Jeff's voice and gestures seemed familiar; I suddenly realized that I know his brother. Over these past difficult months, we continued to talk now and again, and got to know each other, as one does in passing.

 

I had studied the history of photography in graduate school and when Jeff told me about his collection, I couldn't wait to see it. We agreed that a post-pandemic visit to his house would be a day of celebration. Fully vaccinated, we made the plan. And there he was, and there I was, and there Jo Ann was, all of us unmasked.

 

I brought my two precious daguerreotypes with me to begin our conversation. Jeff opened them with the precision of a surgeon, his hands as long-fingered and elegant as an artist's. Separating the plated image from the matting and the case, both of which are significant to a collector, appraiser, or curator, he began to talk. Underneath the image there is often a browned piece of paper, he explained, which can sometimes identify the sitter or the photographer. More research then has to be done. "Circa 1850," Jeff said, about halfway through the daguerreotypes' 1840-1860  lifespan. 1850. Now that was a year, the year of the Fugitive Slave Act, ten years prior to the Civil War. My imagination and curiosity clicked. Who were these people who sat for their photograph, a vice-like device holding their heads still for the long minutes it took to achieve an exposure?

 

We moved on to his formidable collection filling drawers and blanketing the walls. It includes daguerreotypes in various sizes, tintypes, ambrotypes, cartes de visite, and stereoviews.

 

I was curious about his collecting impulse as my father was also a collector, albeit of paintings. Is it obsession, passion, greed? Is it a way to enter into a past life, a past world, to document historical moments, continue the process of gathering history into accessible stories? I suppose the answers are different for everyone. But what most collectors seem to have in common is the origin story of their collecting; it often begins by accident.

 

In Jeff's case, his father owned an antiquarian book selling business when he was growing up. Like all kids, he hung out, and was also asked to help out. If photographs arrived in the boxes of books, he asked if he could take them home. That was  the beginning of his fascination, and his personal collection, which continued during his years as an Executive Director of an HIV/AIDS service organization. Retired, he has been able to devote himself full-time to his avocation. He buys and sells, lends items from his collection to museums and film companies, and keeps a well-written blog.

 

I could have stayed for hours asking questions and perusing numerous files of photographs, each with its singular back story, all of them portals into another time and place. Historians savor such collections as amplifications of the written record; they "read" a photograph's nuances. But what if that historical record disappears? How will scholarship change, how has it already changed now that we only save our writing and photos to the cloud—or  hardware—that  soon becomes obsolete? How will historians retrieve our past?

 

I asked Jeff this question in a follow-up email; it's been troubling me for years. His answer was not consoling: "It will be basically unretrievable," he wrote. "History will be written as it was before the advent of photography. Whatever degree of objectivity we think exists will diminish, although of course photography is not objective, either in intent or content." 

 

I hope he is wrong, that a technology will surface to ensure that our private collections—manuscripts, emails, photographs—are available to future historians to document, interpret and reinterpret our lives.

 

 

 Jeff Kraus has two websites. For sale items, click here:  www.antiquephotographics.com 

 

 To view his personal collection, click here:  Jeffrey Kraus's collection site

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Maids, Mothers, Partners & Wives

 Detroit Photography Company 

Public Domain

Maids, Mothers, Partners & Wives

 

 

During the last two years the wealthiest 14 Americans saw their wealth increase by $157 billion. This is truly unbelievable. This $157 billion INCREASE in wealth among 14 individuals is more wealth that is owned, collectively, by 130 million Americans. This country does not survive morally, economically or politically when so few have so much, and so many have so little."

-Senator Bernie Sanders

 

 

When I was a child, I never did my own laundry and my doctor mother never did our laundry, never mind my stepfather. No, we had maids to do the laundry. Once or twice I descended in the elevator to the basement of our well-appointed Manhattan apartment building to "help" do the laundry.  It was hot down there and the smell of sweat mingled with bleach was overwhelming. I was the only kid and it was weird, though at the time I felt more fascinated than weird. The maids were chattering to each other as they worked and they were laughing. Some were Black and some were white, some were Russian and some were from the Caribbean; it made no difference, they were maids. Yes, perhaps, in retrospect I understand that the white maids were more privileged, by virtue of being white, and their children probably had a better education and more opportunity than the children of the Black maids, but none of this made any difference to me because I was only in the basement as a voyeur, to be entertained. "I helped Lucille do the laundry," I told my mother. Which was not true, of course. I suppose I folded a towel or two, but mostly I just stood and gaped. These people were so different from anything I had experienced in my day to day life. They seemed happy, somehow. Or connected. Yes, in retrospect, that was the energy: shared labor, a feeling of connectedness, one I envied, and still do today, though even that observation feels condescending. If there was grievance, I would not have decoded a grievance; I did not have the education, as yet, or the tools.

 

In other words, most of my life I have owned thoroughbred horses, metaphorically speaking, but now I am riding on a donkey. (I thank Orhan Pamuk, another privileged writer, albeit Turkish, for  that image.) Not only am I maid-less these days, I don't have a washer and dryer in my new gorgeous apartment.  I take my laundry to one of three local laundromats where I mingle with what my class-caste-conscious European parents would call the hoi polloi. And let me tell you, Dear Reader, it is illuminating and humbling.  

 

Fortunately, I'm a curious journalist and I have an open, friendly face, I have been told, so people tell me stories, ask me questions about this and that, and complain. I am empathetic, but always at an emotional distance. Even today, as I write, I set myself apart and above. If someone at the laundromat talks to me, I am interested, but also wary. I think to myself, if only one or two of my rich friends could see this, then they would understand what the politicians mean when they refer to "The Great Divide."

 

***

 

My encounter this week was typical: I was shoving my clothes into a machine when a white  woman with blonde frizzy hair started to talk to me. She hadn't realized that $10 is charged to the credit card even though the machine costs $4.75.  Eventually, the excess money is refunded, but not right away. "I now have zero balance in my bank account," she said. "I'm wiped out."

 

Was she asking for money? Was this a scam? Was she a professional grifter? Had she targeted me? No way to know and not important to this story. It was my own hesitation, more than her demanding presence that upset me. I shook my head, commiserated, and finished loading up the machine. By the time I had decided to retrieve some of my stashed meter quarters from my car to give to her, she was gone.

 

Then. as I was stuffing my bag with dry laundry, I saw her again. She was steps away doing the same, and my goodness did she have a load of laundry.

 

"I'm going to get my kids to fold this when I get home. I've had enough of this place," she said, in the same exasperated voice she'd had when she first approached me.

 

Nothing in the past half hour or so had alleviated her distress.

 

"How many kids do you have?" I asked, patiently.

 

"Three. And my mother has dementia, she's in Florida, and I have to get down there to take care of her.  I'm fifty-eight and I feel like I'm seventy. What about you?"

 

"One kid, no mom any more, just me and my husband, small load. He's usually with me to help but is working today."

 

I didn't mention my age. She looked older than her years, older than me.

 

We started to laugh about my husband usually being with me. It was also the contrast between us, the serendipity of our meeting that amused and drew us together into an instant pod: mothers, wives, children. The domestic work that has to get done, the domestic work that in poor families is still relegated to the over-worked, exhausted, overwhelmed trying-to make-ends-meet women in this town, and everywhere.

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Juneteenth In New Paltz, New York

Photo of Hasbrouck House on Huguenot Street, New Paltz NY, © copyright by Carol Bergman 2021. The two windows on either side of the chimney vented the cellar where the enslaved worked and slept. The door to the upstairs was padlocked from the inside every night by the slave-owners.

 

Juneteenth in New Paltz, NY

 

 

When we know and accept the unvarnished truth — in all of its complexity, conflict and context — it can change how we view things, including ourselves.

 

    -Kevin Young, the NY Times, June 18, 2021. Mr. Young is the Andrew W. Mellon director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 

The choice of slavery was deliberate, and that reality is hard to square with a desire to present a pristine and heroic origin story about the settlement of Texas…Origin stories matter, for individuals, groups of people, and for nations. They inform our sense of self; telling us what kind of people we believe we are, what kind of nation we believe we live in.

 

      -Harvard Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, from her book, "On Juneteenth"

 

 

 

Soon after I arrived in New Paltz, NY, in the spring of 2018, I heard about a great upheaval on the SUNY (State University of New York) campus just down the road from where we had rented an apartment. Why were the Black students so upset about the names on their dormitory complexes? What was going on?

 

I decided to find out. After all, I was now a citizen of this town, albeit a citizen journalist with research and interviewing skills. It didn't take long to discover that the town so many have called "charming," "idyllic" and "liberal," is a monument to the Dutch, English and French Huguenot slave-owning settlers. The 17th and 18th century stone houses they built are extant, the slave dwellings unmarked by any accurate signage. And the dormitories were named after French Huguenot families; their descendants still live in the town. After a whole year of testimony, these dormitories were renamed, and I wrote an article for The Poughkeepsie Journal.

 

Then the pandemic hit and the process of re-constituting the narrative history of New Paltz slowed. Nonetheless, various re-interpretation projects proceeded at Historic Huguenot Street, in the Village by the Historic Preservation Commission, and with the tenacious work of Town Historian, Susan Stessin-Cohn, who had, among other finds, unearthed a Poor House under the Ulster County Fair Grounds; she commissioned a statue to memorialize it.

 

But questions remain about the slaves in New Paltz, their owners, and the emancipated slaves—where they went, how they fared. Why did so many end their lives in the Poor House? Where are their descendants today? Is there any evidence of Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, segregated schools, indentured servitude, rape, or lynching? Why is this idyllic, liberal town so white? How do we approach the lacunas and myths in local history today? How do we shift and amplify the narrative? What is our responsibility as citizens and neighbors?  How do we move forward?

 

These are some of the questions I am pondering as I plan a series of restorative justice workshops—to begin in the Fall—at  the Unison Arts Center in New Paltz. I'll be speaking there tomorrow night as they launch their "Prejudice Project." Dear Reader, I hope  if you are local, you will join me:  

 

https://www.unisonarts.org/prejudice-project

 

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy-Three

Coda

 

I had read online about an observation that women were remaining pregnant longer during the pandemic. The theory was that we were holding our babies inside because of anxiety about safe delivery and the hazardous and uncertain state of the world.  

 

- Lucy Jones, in The American Scholar

 

I lost a good friend this year and when he was gone and our writing connection was mentioned twice during the memorial, a trip to the city just for the memorial, I began thinking about endings and decided that this blog book/or book blog (I never could decide) was coming to an end also. I tried to write an ending, but then I decided there was more to say and it was a false ending like the false ending in a movie that tries to intensify the suspense and keeps us engaged and watching until the final credits. But then, if we were fortunate and willing, we were vaccinated, and with new guidelines from the CDC, we began to enjoy an unanticipated freedom.

 

The weeks were fuller and passed more quickly as we started to visit with one another and participated in activities that had been on hiatus. I made dates with friends for lunch and coffee and we sat face to face and talked, words spilling out of unmasked mouths like a rush of fresh spring water. We had been living in a desert and we were parched. So all this was changing, shifting, bringing us back to ourselves, our colleagues, our families, our friends. And for those who had lost loved ones, a slower respectful mournful hesitant reopening, each at their own pace, each in their own time.

 

Until the pandemic began in March of 2020, writing and the writing life had been the subject of this Authors Guild hosted blog; I began it in 2008. It's a good discipline for a writer, much like a weekly column in a newspaper, and I have always enjoyed it. Like other published work, it has led me to people and places I would not have experienced otherwise. Then the pandemic descended, and like many artists, I felt compelled to witness and then document my observations and experience. I created a dedicated blog called Virus Without Borders, and Chloe Annetts, my talented daughter, offered to design the site. It was up and running for a few weeks when it got badly hacked. The text appeared in Turkish, or Russian, and everyone's email addresses on Mail Chimp was more than likely stolen. It would have been too expensive and time consuming to fix, so I sent out a notice to my subscribers suggesting they change their passwords quickly, and started using the Authors Guild site for Virus Without Borders. The IT back-up staff at the Guild are efficient and competent. Whenever anything goes wrong, they take care of it right away. The blog has been running smoothly, and will continue, but it won't be Virus Without Borders after today.

 

My city writers group meets this week, still virtually, and I have asked them to read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast for our warm-up discussion. I have an old Penguin copy published  posthumously in 1964 from notebooks and an original manuscript by his fourth wife, Mary, and criticized in later years for what she edited out. One of Hemingway's sons, Sean, published another version in 2009. But the original is still a very good book, especially for writers. I read from it this morning, its pages brown and brittle. I must have bought it when I lived in London; it has traveled far, and often. I could not part with this copy when I moved back to the United States.

 

Hemingway's sentences are inspiring. He used a device called parataxis, the atomization of action: and then and then and then. I was also reminded that he stopped writing when he knew where he was going to begin the next day. That is a valuable practice, one that resonates as I write this Coda which also invites renewal, change, a turning of the page, another path forward into my work. Dear Reader, it's time for me to move on: a short story idea and a series of restorative justice workshops both require my full attention.

 

A few final words: Our interconnectedness this past difficult year has been sustaining and life affirming for me and I hope that it continues, that we will never forget the reality of our interdependence—local , national and global. Please stay in touch on FB, Twitter, or this Authors Guild site, and rest assured that I will always reply to comments on my posts, personal emails, texts and phone messages.

 

All very best, as ever,

Carol

 

 

 

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