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Truth and Reconciliation on Historic Huguenot Street

A sideview of the Hasbrouck House on Historic Huguenot Street with a view of the windows venting the dirt floor cellar where the slaves worked and lived. photo © Carol Bergman 2024

 

 

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.


― George Orwell

 

 

 

I've often wondered what it must have been like to have lived in New Paltz, NY if I had been born enslaved, or emancipated in 1827 and remained indentured until the age of 25, or born free only to be out of work and forced to end my days in the Poor House.  I drove through the town for more than a decade to visit my daughter and son-in-law in Kerhonkson on the west side of the Minnewaska Ridge, famous for its rock face climbers call "The Gunks," short for the Munsee word Shawangunk, the language of the indigenous Esopus people. All those years I was oblivious to local history. I'd never stopped to read the signage in front of the library, or walked on Historic Huguenot Street past the old stone houses with their dirt floor cellars.  It was not until I moved to New Paltz in 2018 that I began to wander the town with intention and learn the history of its Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers, all of them enslavers. Once the indigenous Esopus people were killed, infected with European diseases, or fled north and west, the African slaves provided the town of New Paltz with a constant supply of labor for use in farms, mills, and homes during the town's first 150 years. Indeed, most families in Colonial America, including our Founding Fathers, succumbed to the temptation of free labor, rationalized it, and participated in slavery's long sordid history. All of this is well documented. Yet the signage in the town and the tours I went on before Covid hardly mentioned its enslaved population. I also began to ask, "Where were the descendants of those enslaved people? Why is this town so White?" According to the latest census, less than 7% of  a population of 15,000 are Black, and they are mostly migrants from other areas or students and professors on the SUNY college campus. "Jim Crow," my friend Jerrie Stewart mumbled one day at lunch. Jerrie is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. She runs a blog about her family's history, and is active in the ongoing efforts at Monticello, together with the Martha Jefferson descendants, to update the narration of the tours and protect The Burial Ground for Enslaved People on the property, among other projects.

 

 

But it was the day I met Jennifer DuBois Bruntil in the women's locker room at the pool where we both swim that I began my local education in earnest. Jennifer lives in New Paltz with her family, not in the original farmhouse—they  were dairy farmers—but  in a house her grandfather built when he retired. However, to say she "lives," in New Paltz is not accurate; her family has been anchored here for generations. The DuBois name is everywhere in town, as are the names of  the twelve "patentees," from the seven Huguenot settler families who arrived after the Dutch and the English during the colonial period.

 

Jennifer Dubois Bruntil was working at Historic Huguenot Street in 2018 and had written a sweet children's book called Hugo the Huguenot which depicts the Esopus People, but does not mention enslavement. I wondered why not, but didn't ask as Jennifer is as sweet-natured as the Hugo she created for her book. But it was around this time that the campus began a process of self-examination: some of the dormitories were named after the colonial settler families. After several months of "testimony," the names were changed.  Facebook exploded with vituperative comments.

 

I wrote an article about this "dormitory controversy," for the Poughkeepsie Journal as the decision making process and its backlash reminded me of the International Center for Transitional Justice's truth and reconciliation work in South Africa and Bosnia which I had studied when I was working on my book—Another Day in Paradise—about  humanitarian workers. It occurred to me that the Town of New Paltz, and probably many other towns across America, north and south, might benefit from a similar process.

 

I do not claim to be an historian but rather a journalist and educator.  I have studied what others have researched about the town's history and opined on my blog and for local newspapers. More than once I have received emails prevailing upon me not to tell lies about the town; one demanded a public apology. What this would entail I dared not ask.  I have kept in touch with the programming on Historic Huguenot Street and  been impressed with ongoing efforts to make changes, including exhibitions researched and designed by Josephine Bloodgood, the Director of Curatorial and Preservation Affairs. She has been expanding and deepening the work of two previous onsite historians, Eric Roth and Susan Stessin-Cohn—currently  the Town of New Paltz Historian.  I am certain that not all the patentee families, who still live in the town, would be pleased with these ongoing efforts to intensify research and correct narration. Nonetheless, and to their credit, the Board of Historic Huguenot Street hired Eddie Moran in 2022 as another, more visible bridge from past obfuscation to present-day reinterpretation and redemption. Tall and lean with bright attentive eyes, a steady gaze, and a well enunciated speaking voice, Moran is a 25-year-old colonial settler descendant who knows his history and has the generous and patient persona of a seasoned professor to convey it. His official title is Tour and Interpretation Manager, but he's also an enthusiastic tour guide, and intrepid researcher.

 

I met him on a grey Saturday afternoon on one of his newly designed Black History Month tours. We were standing in the living quarters of the Deyo house refurbished and expanded in the 1890s to demonstrate the Deyo family's "ascendancy" as prosperous citizens of New Paltz. "Ascendancy," is Moran's word and I had never heard a settler descendant utter it before. The Deyo family's enslaved workers lived in the attic or the cellar of the house, Moran told us, but their history—where they were from, who their ancestors were—is  mostly lost. "Unlike my history," Moran says ruefully. "Mine is not lost."  That's because he has access to family trees  and learned early in life that he is descended from settler colonial families.  He often refers to them as relatives while, at the same time, and almost in the same paragraph, he introduces damning information about the treatment of their chattel property and the intentional erasure of the enslaved's history by "my organization," meaning Historic Huguenot Street.  Moran brought copies of documents, laminated in plastic, to be passed around.  The audience was rapt. It was as if the Deyo family's enslaved laborers were within proximity, standing as shadows behind us, waiting to be understood, and acknowledged.

 

 "We just don't know about so much," Moran says, and continues with the admission that "my organization contributed to the historical erasure."  By "my organization" he means Historic Huguenot Street, his employer. This is an unequivocal admission, and a turning point for Historic Huguenot Street and the town. Some of the elliptical signage is now also amplified by explanatory paper "markers," he explained, and some of it will be replaced, an expensive and slow process.

 

Moran also volunteers for the History Committee at the Margaret Wade-Lewis Center, founded to preserve the  Black experience in the Hudson Valley through the lens of free and enslaved lives. It's currently running offsite programming while a donated historic building, the Ann Oliver House, begins renovation this summer. Moran hopes that the tours of both organizations will inform one another, and that all the historians and curators will work together—in a process of truth and reconciliation—to  build a complete and unedited history of New Paltz.
 

Historic Huguenot Street will re-open 5-days a week for tours after Memorial Day:

 

https://www.huguenotstreet.org/programming

 

The Margaret Wade-Lewis Center will be celebrating Juneteenth on June 19th:

 

https://mwlcenter.org/about

 

 


 

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The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword

Illustration © Alex Baer 2024 with permission

 

For all of us in that packed room, Aleksei made it feel not only that a free Russia was possible but also that we could get there with joy, laughter and camaraderie.

 

- Nadya Tolokonnikova,  founder of Pussy Riot.  NY Times 2/24/24

 

This is what a tyrant looks like: small, and full of tedious resentments.

 

-Masha Gessen, The New Yorker, 2/10/24, reporting on Tucker Carlson's interview with Putin.

 

 

Lawyers for the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rock band, came to the Law School at NYU  on September 21, 2012 to discuss their clients' legal predicament, as well as the political climate in Russia. I cannot believe this was more than a decade ago and that when I left I  felt heartened by the spirit of dissent and freedom. I was certain that after years of KGB despotism, that these brave performance artists would be released from the penal colony. I was ignorant and deluded, as were so many in the audience that day. Why were the Russian lawyers there if not for support, I thought, and to taste American freedoms which were not under threat in 2012 as they are today.

 

It was only when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 and I realized that I had a broadcaster acquaintance in Kyiv that I began to read and read and read, thus deeping my knowledge and understanding of Russia and Ukraine. As my TBR history stack grew exponentially every week, I abandoned delusion. I am now reading two books by Masha Gessen, both riveting, and a collection of Chekov short stories. The fear of authority is embedded in the stories which were written in the late 19th century during the reign of Alexander III.

 

We must go to the past to understand the present. Have we learned this truism here in America? The past is past you say? No, not exactly. 2016 is upon us yet again, and more dangerous.

 

And now Navalny, who like so many incarcerated Russians over the centuries wrote lyrical letters  miraculously delivered to his correspondents through a hard-to-understand electronic system which he was able to use until he arrived in the Arctic penal colony. Nothing stopped  him from writing and writing and writing. The humorous, compassionate voice strengthened with every missive. One would hope, or I hope, that the connection he felt as he wrote, imagining the recipient of each letter, was a comfort in his solitary frigid confinement. He was also an avid reader: 44 books a year, in English, and lobbied his keepers to allow him more than one book at a time. He liked to read more than one book at a time. And even that small detail is a wonder.

 

When I heard of his death, I was smitten, and joined the community of grief throughout the world. But it was when the NY Times published a handwritten letter that I felt most bereft. He was a writer until his last breath. He probably was given limited paper and pen, and made the most of it, writing small and tight. The words soared with each scratch of his pen, as did his spirit, and ours. May his fortitude inspire all of us to sustain the fight for freedom.

 

                                                                               Navalny's Letters from the Gulag

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Making Art

"Sunrise from the Deck" © by Michael Gold 2024 with permission.  Michael began his artistic career as a painter and became a well known documentary and portrait photographer. "I paint with my camera," he once told me. 

 

 

The world is a sphere. There is no East or West.

― Ai Weiwei, Weiwei-isms

 

Your life is already artful-waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art.

-Toni Morrison

 

I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught.

― Georgia O'Keeffe

 

 

 

 

At different times I've written in different genres, sometimes simultaneously. I might be writing a poem while finishing up an essay, or attempting my first murder mystery while on assignment for a magazine. Every genre and every subject stretches and inspires me. I never stop. Every day, I try to express ideas with the tools I have available—notebook and paper, my computer, my phone, my chatterbox brain struggling to make sense of my life, ordering it into sentences and stories.  In the  first scene of the Netflix documentary, American Symphony, about the musician and composer, Jon Batiste, the camera lingers on his sculptural hands hovering over the piano keyboard. His eyes are closed until a note or a melody surfaces, and he begins to play. He is patient and attentive, as is the filmmaker, whose tool is the camera. And the viewer must remain patient also. "Nothing that surrounds is object, all is subject," the surrealist poet André Breton wrote. Once we are engaged with a work, if we are open to receive it, it becomes ours.

 

All art making is experimentation, a challenge to conventional expectations in its singularity, more so when an artist has long experience and control of his/her/ their craft. I don't think for a moment that as professional, accomplished writers, photographers, visual artists or musicians we should repeat ourselves if we have found a winning money-making formula. Nor that we should impose new ideas on a devoted cohort of fans if they are unwilling. There might be appreciation, disdain, or confusion when new work is presented that departs radically from what we have done before. No matter. We press on with our muse and our purpose. Our creative impulse effloresces and a creation has reached fruition. Let it be shown, read, performed, or played without censorship or restraint.

 

This post is dedicated to all the exiled Russian writers and artists—and to Navalny whose defiance inside a despotic regime was a creative act. May his courage inspire all of us in our efforts to celebrate and protect life and freedom.

 

 

 

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The Long View

 

 

We'd taken a path not really knowing where it would lead, not knowing how long it was, and while still on our way, realizing we had taken the wrong road but that it was too late to turn back, every one of us, so as not to be swallowed up by the dark, had started slicing off pieces of our own flesh.


― Ismail Kadare, "Agamemnon's Daughter: A Novella & Stories"

 

 

#ceasefirenow  #standbyinternationalhumanitarianlaw

 

 

 

 

I am blessed to be living with a historian. "I take the long view," my husband, Jim, tells me whenever I recite the upshot of a recent article that has spun me into despair. In other words, he insists, humankind has become more "civilized" and the wars we are witnessing and/or experiencing are not the barbaric bloodbaths of the 12th century. Is that what he means? No, what he is referring to is the progress we've made against disease, poverty, inequality, etc.  I don't buy the argument that advances in science, technology and governance have made us more "civilized," or that there are fewer tyrants as heads of state. Take a breath, I say, look at the map of the world, all the wars and migration because of war, disease, poverty, intemperate government, repression of civil liberties, and climate change. Where, indeed, are we headed?

 

So that's my retort to "I take the long view," not optimistic, I know, but there it is. I appreciate Jim's optimism; it's one reason among many that I married him. He says I'm a pessimist. Not exactly, more a realist, I'd say. I applaud all progress, I stay connected, I keep my eye on good things that are happening among and between people in my neighborhood, and the larger world, and report on them. But Jim's family secured their safety in America after the pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. One of the first Jewish families who settled in Seattle, the Bergmans owned salmon fisheries in Alaska, and also a luggage store in town, "Bergman Luggage."  The store and the sign are still there, though owned by another family. His family has long roots in America by now, whereas mine are just one generation away from war, displacement and atrocity. It makes a difference; my perspective is short, from here to there is not far. Once again the eruption of vengeance and unimaginable violence disturbs my sleep. Though far away in miles, perhaps, and safe or safe enough in America, I feel the conflagrations in my bones. It's also because I know people there. I have an acquaintance in Ukraine, a broadcaster, and Israeli and Palestinian relatives and friends. I stay in touch with all of them as best I can from my safe enclave.

 

Fanatics in the Middle East—Muslim, Jew—who read and obey the scriptures written millennia ago—revere a God who sanctions rape, slavery, and the execution of nonconformists and infidels. This, the present-day warring tribes have in common, and much else, including a rapacious insistence on a God-given homeland.  How can we who live in relative privilege and enlightenment, safe from  the day to day siege, quiet these ignorant voices and murderous actions?  How will our polarized, enraged conversations on social media and zoom calls and college campuses help? Is it not time to walk in concert with one another towards peace as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi once did for the benefit of us all? Have we forgotten their courageous example?

 

The words injustice, genocide, equality, reparations, and Geneva Conventions do not appear in ancient parchments or on the lips of dictators. Nonetheless, they are enshrined in international humanitarian law. Though tender in its application as contemporary wars effloresce, this  law deserves attention and celebration every day. It saved what is left of my family. One day, it may save yours.

 

This post is dedicated to my physician parents who fled to Paris and worked for the Red Cross there until boarding a British convoy to New York. They risked their lives to escape a genocidal war zone, became front line workers, and helped many refugees heal, physically and psychologically, once they landed in America.  #ceasefirenow  #standbyinternationalhumanitarianlaw

 

 

 

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A Writer's Intentions

Cover photo © Carol Bergman. Cover Design by Matthew Frederick & Chloe Annetts

 

 

 

Maybe the true purpose of my life is for my body, my sensations and my thoughts to become writing, in other words, something intelligible and universal, causing my existence to merge into the lives and heads of other people.

 

     -from "Happening," by Annie Ernaux, 2022 Nobel Laureate

 

 

I've had a lot of congratulations and some interesting responses to my new book, Becoming a Writer; A Memoir and Workbook. "Your book has arrived and I am reading it," a colleague wrote. I wonder if reading it from beginning to end was my intention. Books are usually read cover to cover, of course, but this book has slipped out of my psyche not from beginning to end, but incrementally over the years; it's a distillation, a compendium, a philosophy.

 

Forgive me, if I continue to ruminate about my effort to convey what I hold dear: staying present in the world through writing, whether it is my immediate surroundings, or the world beyond the circumscribed borders of my life. If I have not expressed this intention well, I must continue to write about it …intentionally. Indeed, I am reminded every day that the discipline of daily writing, as well as its satisfactions and joys, keeps the pen in my  hand and that "procrastination" a self-flagellating word I abhor, does not exist for me. If I hear a student voice that word, I stop him/her/they immediately. I also do not entertain the words "writers block." If we are not writing, we are mulching, and when the compost pail is full-up, we only have to sit down and start writing, even if what we are writing feels like nonsense, at first, or we fear that it is not good enough.

 

In a Sam Fragoso, "Talk Easy"  podcast interview with David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, the German word Sitzfleisch, was mentioned amidst laughter as a characteristic most successful writers possess or, I'd  prefer to say, cultivate. In short: keep your bottom in the chair, do not move, as I am doing right now so that I can lay down a draft of this blog post before I get onto a Zoom call. I did not mention Sitzfleisch in my book, but Becoming a Writer is not a finite entity, so I will mention it now. Becoming a writer is a fluid state, an evolution, ever expanding, like the universe.  Or, is that to grand a concept?
 

Lastly, some gratitude:  I wrote back to everyone who sent me congratulations or annotations about their own work. Recording our stories, either for pleasure, or for the historical record, is a worthy vocation or avocation for everyone. And a special thanks to those who took the time to read the book in PDF and write endorsements, as follows:

 

 

An engaging tour d'horizon, employing Bergman's varied experiences to render a compelling guide to writing as art and calling. Practical recommendations for thriving as a writer—both creatively and professionally—are rendered with clear examples from the author's long career; the book will appeal especially to those whose creative writing strengths are always open to change.

 

MacKay Wolff is an international humanitarian aid worker.

 

***

 

Carol Bergman offers a rich pathway into the writing world.  She shares a lifetime's cache of personal experiences spanning all aspects of the writing experience, as well as concrete steps for the aspiring writer. This is a book that will encourage as well guide all who are seeking a way in to writing.

 

Ellen Taussig

Co-founder, The Northwest School

Seattle, Washington

 ***

 

Carol Bergman provides helpful guidance to those wishing to become writers, or to enhance their writing skills. Based on her personal experiences as a writer and mentor, she covers many topics critical in developing writing skills. She includes specific exercises and suggestions for incorporating her advice into one's own work, a particularly practical and helpful feature of this book.

 

Sherry Deren 

Author of  Not Done Yet: The Humor of Aging

 

 ***

 

Carol's writing advice, in a creative nonfiction workshop and now in Becoming a Writer, has been invaluable to me as I tackle a difficult memoir. Through a combination of group critiques, written comments, astute questions, and reading discussions, Carol shared her wisdom with our intimate group, helping us to refine our perspectives as well as our sentences. Her book offers insights into many writing genres and the challenges they bring, extended through personal examples of her journey to become a writer. I need only open this generous book to regain my sense of direction when out of balance.

 

Betty Leigh Hutcheson, Grant Writer and Literary Enthusiast

 

 ***

 

In Becoming a Writer writing Carol Bergman shares a treasure trove of memories and a lifetime of experience as a writing mentor.This is a generous welcome to writing, a beckoning.

.

Nancy Caputi, retired ESL teacher

 

***

 

 As a professional writer and an educator of many decades, I thought I knew all the tricks. Happily, Bergman's book has proven me wrong. A deceptively chatty tone belies the formidable skills required of the craft, imparting a lifetime's worth of knowledge and experience. Old pros will learn new approaches and young writers will especially benefit from Bergman's emphasis on the psychological challenges of the trade. I will surely use entire sections from this book in the next writing course I teach.

 

Dr. William L Gibson is a writer, researcher and educator based in Southeast Asia

 

***

 

Carol Bergman has been all kinds of writer. She has produced texts sometimes elegant, sometimes necessary. She knows how to address many a reading audience and her new guide, Becoming a Writer, distills her knowledge, her wisdom and her cleverness for any who want to learn the many facets of this frustrating, satisfying business.

 

George Szanto, author of Bog Tender and Whatever Lola Wants

 

***

 

Becoming a Writer reminds me of an elegant set of Matryoshka nesting dolls—in tightly fitting sequences, Bergman shows (never tells) us how to both craft a meaningful life as a writer and how to shape the "armature" of that life into art. This book is a treasure, one doll opening our imaginations to the next, with generosity and kinship to those who follow.

 

—Martha Greenwald, Writer, Educator, Founder/Curator of The WhoWeLost Project, and editor of Who We Lost: A Portable COVID Memorial.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Here We Are

Lev Rubinstein in Moscow. photo © Kartochki

 

#82

...here I am! I will not tire you, my reader, by describing the hardships I encountered on my journey…

 

-Lev Rubinstein,  from one of  his  "Catalog Poems"

   

-Translated by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky

 

 

I read a touching essay by Masha Gessen on the New Yorker feed about Lev Rubinstein's life and unexpected death, age 76, as I was headed to bed on Saturday night. Rubinstein was hit by a drunken driver on a Moscow street, which seems implausible, if not suspicious. The incident is "under investigation." By whom?

 

Gessen and Rubinstein were friends, colleagues and survivors of the Soviet and Putin regimes. Both were outspoken opponents of Putin's repression and the war in Ukraine. Masha lives in the US now, but Rubinstein, unlike other endangered artists and dissidents, did not leave Moscow. He was a supporter of Navalny and  eloquent in his antagonism to the "internal imperialism," of the Putin regime. Now he is dead. Masha is in New York. And so on and so on, as Kurt Vonnegut might have said.

 

Rubinstein  began his writing life working in a library in Moscow. Using discarded catalog cards, he wrote a sentence on each one and numbered them in an order that made narrative sense, such as #82 in the quotation above. Later he "performed" these prose poems to live audiences. His courage is a lesson for silenced writers in "free" societies, such as ours, silenced for fear of dunning, shunning, death threats, or cancellation. We corrode our moral center by remaining silent when we hear about censorship, or self-censorship, and do not object.

 

Authoritarian constraint creeps slowly in unyielding increments. Let us call it the "creeping disease." First a book banning, then the cancellation of a lecture at a university, police everywhere, arrests. Friendships ended, or compromised by "disagreements," about what "side" we are on, or not, as if atrocity, seen and acknowledged, had a "side."

 

Some of us are so profoundly implicated in the war in the Middle East, for example, either by ancestry or direct connection, that we do not have the luxury of not paying attention, of not discussing, of not being concerned about our loved ones and the future of Palestine and Israel.

 

Lev Rubinstein drew solace from history and all he had endured. For many years he was certain that Soviet "slime" would never dissipate, and then it did.  Glasnost, an opening into heart and light as a vigorous opposition surfaced in Russia, the Berlin Wall came down, and the arts and artists burst open. And then the clamp down, another round of trouble: Putin's repression and war mongering in Chechnya and Ukraine.

 

Though most of us are protected from its effects, America is not immune to slime. It is in our face and on our screens every day. We may live in privileged enclaves blind to troubles that impact others far away, or those near and dear, but the slime will eventually swallow us all if we do not resist. Indeed, we cannot take anything for granted this election year, including our very American sense of entitlement to a sense of safety, and prosperity.

 

 

Lev Rubinstein, Moscow, 1947-2024, RIP

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An Interesting Encounter in a Public Space

An old graveyard, dating back to the 17th century, on Historic Huguenot Street.

photo © Carol Bergman

 

 

I think the thing that is so special about folk music is that it is a reaffirmation of the celebration of the human spirit and human life.

 

-Mary Travers, in a 1983 NPR Interview

 

 

I was sitting in a public space reading The New York Times, my once-a-week paper paper treat. I read slowly, contemplatively, sometimes with a pen and paper to hand. I choose a different day each week to buy the paper paper and read electronically the rest of the time. I don't like to be interrupted. Slow reads, the hum of conversation around me, are my meditation. But the man sitting next to me turned and said, "Any good news today?" White haired, his glasses slipping off his nose, I was surprised by the friendly greeting.

 

An interlude here to explain that extended conversation between strangers in the small upstate NY town where I live are rare. The mores here are different: people cherish their privacy and seem more wary of strangers. Urban for most of my life, I have never not had conversations in public spaces, so I welcome them. Indeed, I cherish them. Who was this friendly guy? "Good news. Not so much these days," I said, answering his initial question. Then I showed him a digital photo of a tree from the bottom up. The botanists are studying the survival mechanisms of trees, I told him. "The trees need this, and so do we."

 

"That's a Republican newspaper," he said.

 

I took a breath. "You must be very left of center to say that," I said. But his statement made me smile.  I wasn't sure if he was joking, or not.

 

"Are you wearing patchouli?" he asked, without missing a beat. "That scent brings me back to the 60s. We all wore patchouli."

 

This comment was a bit too personal, but I rolled with it. In fact, I was relieved. I wasn't up for defending the newspaper of record or its 1700 dedicated reporters all over the world, or its editorial stance, or anything else. The origins of patchouli were a diversion and I launched into them. I sounded like a wiki entry.

 

"I only read the paper electronically," he interrupted. "And the news is hard to take. These wars."

 

"Heartbreaking," I said, relieved that we had quickly found common ground.

 

"I'm 88-years-old, I remember WW II, I remember when there was no Thruway and it took three hours to get to the city. My family has been living here since 1638."

 

Just imagine. 1638. "What did you say your name was?" I asked, knowing that I was in the presence of a descendant of one of the colonial settler families, all of them slave owners.  But I didn't want to get into that, not right away.  

 

"Dewitt Jansen," he said. "There's a road named after us here."

 

"Dutch," I said, and that was enough for the moment.

 

Dewitt got up out of his seat, maybe to stretch, and I could see that he was very thin, almost emaciated. He looked like he'd surfaced from one of the old graves in town, a ghostly presence. The town is haunted with them. Then he sat down again and we talked some more.

 

"What did you do when you were working?" I asked.

 

"I was a pick-up jazz pianist, traveled all over the world, played with many bands. I once dated Mary Travers, remember her? Peter, Paul and Mary. She's dead now."

 

"She sang jazz before her folk music career?"

 

"She was an artist."

 

More than an artist, she devoted her musical career to social justice, I remembered. The group had 12 hit singles. One of them, If I Had A Hammer, became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. She died of leukemia in 1989.

 

"Do you still play?"

 

"Look at these fingers. All curled up," he said.

 

"But you've been blessed with an interesting life," I said. "I think the gods have smiled upon you."

 

"Not entirely," he said, facing me straight on now. "My youngest daughter is dying of cancer. They can't seem to stop the spread."

 

I thought he would burst into tears. I wanted to hug him. Instead, I gave him my card and said, "You're talking to a journalist. If you ever want to write or tell your story, give me a call."

 

"A lot on my plate right now," he said, disconsolately.

 

"I understand."

 

Retreating into my journalist's persona, I had needed distance to recover from his revelation, not about Mary Travers, but about his daughter.

 


 

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Karma

photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2024

 

 

Every past has a future.

 

-Anonymous

 

The best way to resolve any problem in the human world is for all sides to sit down and talk.

 

-The Dalai Lama

 

 

A humanitarian aid worker friend wrote to say he's looking forward to "moving through" 2024 with me. I knew what he meant, of course, as the challenges of the year we are entering are manifold and obvious, both nationally and internationally. Unspoken in the text is a worry about his colleagues still in the field. However well trained they are, the work they do is more dangerous than ever before, and hundreds will not return home, or return home in body bags, or as wounded as soldiers and innocent civilians in body and spirit.

 

The wars on Planet Earth will not quit, natural disasters abound, more so with climate change. A quake in Japan this morning, as I write. And I write about all of it for this blog, for the local paper when they have revenue to pay me, and in essays for various journals. Every writer has a subject, or more than one subject, and as a child of war myself, these are mine—war and social justice, mainly. My attempts to write more "light-heartedly," as one or two well-meaning friends have suggested, have failed. Even if an item in the paper makes me smile, that smile is Brechtian in its absurdity; it's a smile with clouds hovering. The other day, for example, I read that an opera singer lost her voice while she was pregnant. I don't know why I thought that was funny, because it really isn't, but I laughed anyway. Even more hilarious was the news that a drone has been invented to capture pathogens in the plumes of Orcas, diagnose their ailments, and treat them underwater. PS There are only about 75 Orcas left in the hemisphere where I reside. Or, the news that a man on death row who refused to die by lethal injection will now be executed by nitrogen gas and has asked his pastor to keep him company in the death chamber. His pastor has agreed to sacrifice his life, if necessary.

 

No writer can make any of this up.  Or maybe they can.

 

Today, the first day of 2024, I am back at my desk working. One of the three books I wrote during Covid is in galley and I have had to make corrections, which I do not enjoy. The process is pernickety as the Brits would say, though not a cause for complaint, or even a minor lamentation. And I'm waiting for a text from a friend. We're walking up into the Minnewaska Ridge to celebrate the New Year in a wintry sunshine.

 

This blog is dedicated to the Hand-in-Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, a utopian experiment now 2000 Arab and Jewish children strong.   This is their website:  https://www.handinhandk12.org/

 

 

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Deep in Our Bones

Something there is that doesn't love a wall... Photo © Carol Bergman

 

 

Deep in our bones lies an intuition that we arrive here carrying a bundle of gifts to offer to the community.

 

-Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow

 

 

If you come again, don't throw a grenade, knock on the door.

 

-Chem Goldstein-Almog, a released Israeli hostage kidnapped by Hamas 10/7/23

 

 

We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace.

 

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

 

The persecuting spirit is running rampant this holiday season, boobytraps in the most innocent expression of an idea or point of view among friends, relations, or colleagues, and the presumed safety of a home, a campus and a homeland shattered. War overseas and warring among ourselves. We are all both witness and  unintended participant in this devolution of civilized society.

 

Where is it safe to reside these days without the menace of guns, famine, death threat, climate changed flooding, or bombs, cancellation or intimidation? A spectrum of catastrophe to be sure as I sit here safe, or safe enough, in my apartment. My musings are for next year, the immediate future, and beyond: How can we protect and sustain our children and educate them with depth and compassion? What tools will they require to protect and sustain themselves and their children? As I am an educator as well as a writer, I think about these questions often, more so when I am in the presence of educators and attempt to pry open their "apertures of compassion," as psychotherapist Francis Weller calls them.

 

There is work to be done—within ourselves, our communities, our body politic, our schools, and the world.  Do not tarry, do not rest. Is that how the saying goes? We must not shirk our responsibilities. The possibility of a fascist entering the White House is real, among many other horrors. What can we do from the limited space in which we reside?

 

Consider yourself a co-author of this blog post, dear reader, as I solicit your suggestions at the end of 2023. Please share your ideas in a comment in which you explain—or  summarize—your effort to staunch the tide of despair so many are feeling, and to remain active, and stay in balance. Concretely, what is your new year's resolution as a peace activist, a climate activist, a political activist, a hard working parent, a  voter, or an educator? What small action towards peace and stability—national or international—are  you taking?

 

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The Kindness of Strangers

 ©copyright Carol Bergman 2023

 

 

The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self.

 

― Fred Rogers, "The World According to Fred Rogers"

 

 

 

I spent a couple of hours today delivering chocolates, cookies and cards to the workers in my small upstate New York town, workers who have eased my life immeasurably this past year with their kindness. I want them to know that they are appreciated, that I am grateful for them. New Paltz has a population of about 7,000, and apart from a more diverse State University of New York college population, they/we are mostly white and affluent. Not so the workers in the supermarket, my mechanics, the woman who takes care of the laundromat, the young employees at Spectrum in the mall, the men and women behind the desk at my gym. Most do not live in the town, they come here to work, to serve us, and they are easily forgotten once we are out the door, our business done. Indeed, in a town that is a monument to enslavement and Jim Crow, these contemporary demographics are hardly surprising. Yet, cosmopolitan and urban to the bone, I find myself here, and I observe, I ponder, and I write.

 

Gifting those who have been special to me, strangers who have entrusted me with their stories either as a reporter or a consumer in fleeting encounters, this gifting has become my own ecumenical holiday tradition: Julie, at the supermarket had a small stroke and had to return to work after her sick leave ran out, which was too soon. Stefan at Spectrum is starting school in September, and Pat at the car body shop has COPD and recommends his new doctor to anyone with COPD; the doctor saved his life. Dylan checks my tires and chats to me about his five-year-old daughter. Because of these soul warming micro-connections, separate and distinct from the friends I have made since arriving here in 2018, the town's smallness expands into a capacious home, the barriers of class and caste broken.

 

Maybe I learned this holiday tradition during my decade in London, a class conscious society top to bottom, so smitten with royalty in the modern age that Hilary Mantel once compared the kings and queens—even  in their contemporary iterations—to  precious pandas who are both hard to conserve and expensive to maintain.  But class and caste can break down there, too, especially if you are an American, or an irreverent artist, like a friend of mine who lived in Hackney in the East End of London.  Her home was in a row of small attached "terraced" houses, a working class neighborhood fast becoming gentrified, and every Christmas Eve this irreverent and courageous friend of mine wrote out a load of cards and went door to door to wish her neighbors a Happy Christmas. There is more crime in London now, but in those days—if Norma's neighbors were home—they all opened their doors at the first knock. I went with her on one or two occasions and what a treat it was to feel such surprise and joy in others, and in ourselves.

 

There are many kinds of giving, of course—donations, presents, food—and each of us have our particular "language of love" and "language of concern." Small tokens of appreciation are my personal contribution to the continuing effort to remain compassionate and attentive close to home.

 

This blog post is dedicated to all the children in countries at war,  and all the migrant children living in shelters and tent cities.

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