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Swords Into Ploughshares

SWORDS INTO PLOUGHSHARES

 

 

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"

 

 

.

The war in Ukraine still raging, and now the shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde and, this morning, Tulsa, guns and gunfire are annealed into our psyches. As we sell weapons of war internationally, and simultaneously lobby to restrain and curb the use of these same weapons in America, have we gone mad, developed split personalities? We are certainly in the midst of a domestic humanitarian crisis. Weapons of war in our schools? In hospitals? It's unconscionable.

 

In the interest of sanity, I decided to reach out to Robert Séamus Macpherson, who wrote a prize-winning book about using his training as a soldier to heal broken lives, Stewards of Humanity; Lighting the Darkness in Humanitarian Crisis. He'd been a Colonel in the United States Marines for thirty years and was injured in Vietnam. After his rehabilitation, he segued to humanitarian work with the agency CARE where he coordinated and monitored safety and security for the agency's 15,000 staff in 72 global programs.

 

When we first connected, some months ago, I asked about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, our most recent 20-year war. Had it been worth it? All those lives lost? Soldiers and civilians injured beyond repair? Is it fair to ask a soldier that question?

 

We were on a Zoom call so I wasn't sure if he threw up his hands, shrugged his shoulders, or just quoted the numbers. Thousands of lives lost, military and civilian. And where are we now? Barely a year ago, the Taliban re-conquered Afghanistan, the scrambling to escape 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.

 

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. They should be provided free to every returning veteran, every retired and psychologically or physically wounded first responder. Just imagine the guilt all those officers in Uvalde have to live with now, and forever. Is it any wonder that soldiers, humanitarian workers and domestic front-line workers suffer from PTSD. It took a while for Bob to acknowledge his struggle, but he faced it, as he had all the other challenges in his life. 

 

"How does writing help with the PTSD?" I asked him.

 

"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."

 

The book took five years to complete. Was it cathartic, a healing exercise in itself? Absolutely, he says.

 

Will he write another?

 

"Yes, about my relationship with Blue."

 

But my main reason for getting back in touch: What does this decorated Marine and humanitarian worker think of gun control? This is his reply:

 

"I've been an advocate for gun control for decades. In 1994, I breathed a sigh when assault weapons were banned for ten years. I thought that was only a formality and the ban would continue. What troubles me the most is that behind the refusal of elected officials to act to mitigate gun violence is something sinister. I have always hesitated to say evil because I think that gives it a "religious " connotation. Now, I wonder? I'm angry, frustrated and disheartened about the continued violence…I believe we lack a coordinated effort to address and assist the common will of the American people to end this slaughter.

 

Sorry, to run on… 

 

Cheers.

Bob"

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 92

Would it help if we could itemize every lost or misbegotten soul,

Enter every name in vellum registry?

Would it summarize my life to list every object

I have touched with these two hands?

 

-Campbell McGrath from "The Mercy Supermarket"

 

 

Dedicated to the one million who have died from Covid, and to the friends, family, colleagues. spouses and significant others they have left behind.

 

 

It's been almost a month since I wrote a "Virus Without Borders" post, but yesterday my small town in upstate New York went on emergency alert. Numbers are up, masks are strongly suggested, and restaurants and bars will be allowed to set up outside tables in the coming weeks without special permits.

 

So here we are again, or still. Meanwhile, the long Covid cases accumulate, nearly 7 million Americans in all, including me, and research projects are underway. All this, my readers will undoubtedly already know. I am reiterating it here as a prelude to the ongoing discussion about individual responsibility as I was faced with a moral dilemma this week when a friend called to ask if an anti-vaxxer friend of hers, who finally caught Covid, and is still testing positive, should teach a weekly scheduled dance class in a local art center, a class which she attends.

 

I concede that protocols and instructions are confusing these days, but this was a no-brainer for me: Don't let me near that person, please. I don't want to get Covid again. And keep her away from others, if at all possible, until she tests negative. This is what I told my friend, who passed it along to her friend, who passed it along to her friend, and so on.  It was just an opinion, my opinion, not a mandate, not a law, no enforcement possible.

 

I still had a moral conundrum, though. Now that I know there is a woman walking around town positive, going to work, and threatening to teach a class in a public space, what do I do? What can I do? If I do nothing, I am complicit. At least that is how it feels to me. So I called the Chief of Police for advice. He's a thoughtful and empathic man who grew up in the community and still lives here. At first he said that it was up to me whether or not I exposed myself to someone positive, which I had no intention of doing. And then he suggested a call to the Ulster County Department of Health, to what end I am not sure, perhaps for more advice. But that was the day everyone had gone home early because of a tornado watch. So, there was no answer. By the next morning, I'd slipped the knowledge of the super spreader person to the back of my mind and slowly, painstakingly, repotted my rescued basil plant. Someone had left it on the front lawn, maybe for the deer, I wasn't sure. It's doing well, which I can attribute to giving it lots of light, water and tender loving care. If only we could do the same for one another.

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Basquiat

BASQUIAT

 

 

In our all-or-nothing culture, creative work is too often either apotheosized or ignored. You're a rock star or you're nothing. The public has little appetite for nuance.

 

                 -Jed Perl in the New York Review of Books 11/4/21

 

All I could think of as I walked through the narrow, packed gallery was that this adorable, talented boy died of an overdose at 27, that the narrative of his tormented inner life has been lost in the exploitation of his work, and that both his mentally ill abusive Latino mother, who nurtured his artistic inclinations before she succumbed to her own demons, and his abusive Haitian father, have escaped responsibility for their son's short life in the hagiography of this exhibition. Basquiat ended up homeless on the streets of New York, became addicted to cocaine and heroin, suffered greatly as he tried to get sober, and then was gone. And despite this awful backstory, or perhaps because of it, he created a lasting body of work now worth millions, $110.5 million just recently.

 

The work is intentional, energetic, mysterious, uplifting, sometimes crass, usually profound and inspiring, especially to young artists today, by all accounts. But in the years since his death, it has been sold at auction for profit by his family;  his two sisters, with the help of their step-mother, mounted this immersive exhibition. Is any of this profit going to rehab programs, or research about trauma and addiction? I have found no evidence of this in the Basquiat family's internet footprint, and my query to the media relations department was answered anonymously: the pricing is "commensurate" with other New York City attractions such as the Van Gogh immersive exhibtion, which had no original art at all. 

 

How do the artifacts, scraps of paper, and re-created living spaces illuminate Basquiat's life and his artistic process? I am not sure they do. Indeed, at times, it feels voyeuristic, rather than informative, to be looking inside the cleansed, pristine living spaces of the dysfunctional Basquiat household. Not to mention that there is no place for the voyeurs-- aka audience-- to rest and contemplate, and no backtracking once one gets to the end.  Is there accommodation for those with a disability? I hope so.

 

I had entered on a press pass, but my cousin, a well known print-maker who adores Basquiat's work, had bought a $45 ticket without flinching. I pondered that price, and the opportunity to skip the line with me if she had paid $65. Price for seniors, students and military: $42 and for children under 13: $40. That's a whopping lot of money for a family, say. No surprise that on the day I was there, just about everyone in the gallery was an older lighter-skinned person, commensurate with where most of the privilege resides in the United States. The irony of this would not have been lost on Basquiat who railed articulately against economic and racial injustice. 

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Forever Free

Forever Free

 

 

We try to be free and try to be more free over time.

 

-Jill Lepore

 

 

I drove up to the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church in Kerhonkson, NY on an overcast spring day. Tucked away on a mountainous, long, quiet road, I made a wrong turn and texted Father Ivan. "It's the building with the crosses on the top," he replied. I had already experienced his wry humor during our first telephone conversation. And there he was waiting for me in the parking lot in the cool drizzle, a one-person rescue party.

 

The church is an architectural masterpiece set in a wooded enclave that must feel both safe and welcoming to its parishioners, about one hundred in all, more on holidays when relatives and friends attend services. When the war in Ukraine started, the community mobilized. Many still have family in Ukraine, or family and friends escaping Ukraine, or family and friends who are fighting in the resistance. Stacked in the corner of the undercroft are cardboard boxes and donated medical supplies to be packed up and shipped to Poland. It is a continuous operation, almost military in its intensity and precision. "And after the war is over, there will be reconstruction," Fr. Ivan said as I commented on the floor-to-ceiling boxes. Parents and children work together tirelessly in the relief effort based at the church. They hope to eventually host up to fifty refugee families.

 

The Rev. Dr. Ivan Kaszczak is an historian and within minutes we were discussing the history of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, before, during and after Stalin, its persecution under communism, its long and proud history of resistance, and the first wave of refugees that arrived in America in the 1950's. Fr. Ivan still speaks Ukrainian to his parents. He has served the church in Kerhonkson for eleven years now; before that he was an Air Force chaplain.

 

"I saw how the military works," he told me.  "Professional soldiers don't want to fight; they want to retire." In other words, they don't want to come home maimed or in body bags. I thought of the volunteer Ukrainian freedom fighters, the Russian soldiers—cannon fodder—our  own war of independence, my family's flight from Europe. I still have days when I don't think I am meant to be an American, then I stop myself and ask, Unless we are indigenous, survivors of colonial genocide, what is an American anyway? We are either descendants of immigrants, refugees, brutal enslavement, or brutal wars. This one feels like the Thirty Years War, back to the Dark Ages or, in more recent history, the atrocity of Bosnia.

 

 Fr. Ivan took me up to the chapel, a repository of shared memory and preserved ancestral culture. A local  artist, Jacques Hnizdovsky, who died in 1985, used parishioners as models and, according to Halyna Shepko, one of the parishioners, a few were a bit uncomfortable when they saw their features rendered in the icons—the hands, a nose, the expression in the eyes—a bit of wry trivia, it made me smile. In my experience, like many persecuted peoples, Ukrainians have a highly evolved sense of humor. "Think of Billy Crystal," Fr. Ivan reminds me. One of Crystal's grandmothers was from Kyiv, the other from Odesa.  As I write, the runway at that port city's airport has been destroyed. And there is more to come, alas, before Ukraine is at peace.

 

Donations of medical supplies are accepted at the church drop off box. Monetary donations may be sent to the Ukrainian American Youth Association PO Box 35, Napanoch NY 12458 or at the following Go Fund Me link: Donations for Ukraine   The UAYA have already raised $100,000 worth of supplies.

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The Vibrating String

 

 

THE VIBRATING STRING

 

 

There's no money in poetry, but there's no poetry in money either.

 

-Robert Graves

 

 

I went to the Dorksy Gallery on the SUNY New Paltz campus to see the Mary Frank retrospective. That sounds important and intentional but, in fact, I'd never heard of Mary Frank or, to my knowledge, seen any of her work. She seems to be an artist's artist, much appreciated and admired for many years, a drawing teacher, but little known until later in her life as an artist who sells. "She didn't play the game," I heard someone say as I meandered the gallery. I might have added: and she was a woman coming of age in the 1950's when the New York School—mostly white men—became the center of the art market's attention.

 

My father was a collector (Vienna Secession) and my daughter is an artist and I am an art aficionado and an artist groupie. By this I mean that art and artists have been in my life since I was a child when I went to galleries with my father in New York City and stood next to him as he discussed  a work with either enthusiasm or disdain. If his sentence began with words such as, "Look how that house just sits there. How did s/he do that?" I knew he was considering a purchase. He was an eye surgeon, with elegant long-fingered hands, and he drew well himself. I could not draw well and became a writer instead, drawing with words as best I can.

 

I find discussions with artists about their process—usually  in their studios in the presence of their work or works-in-progress—inspiring.  I go to shows and galleries and sometimes write about artists. I do not "follow" contemporary art per se, but I remain curious and open to everything. My one criteria for writing about an artist and/or an exhibition is my emotion as I enter the gallery or studio. How do I feel? What is this work evoking in me?  I was blown away by Mary Frank's sculptures, in particular, and could not believe I hadn't seen any of these breathtaking works before. Why all these broken bodies?

 

Well, of course, a tragedy, a trauma in her life, not that she refers directly to this tragedy when she is interviewed. But her daughter died in a plane crash in Guatemala at the age of 21 and her son—who had a mental illness— died just a short time after. I did not know this until later, but the broken bodies built out of clay in separate pieces immediately felt like a dismemberment, flesh and bone scattered in an explosion, the explosion internalized in the artist. Like a violin's vibrating string, it immediately activated my own wartime losses, and the eviscerating bombardments and atrocities now happening in Ukraine.

 

It is artists—and writers, too, of course—who help us process pain and atrocity, as they set to work creating metaphors to assuage universal human suffering.  I thank Mary Frank for her prescient and prophetic work.

 

"Mary Frank: The Observing Heart" will be at The Dorsky until July 17, Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. -5 p.m.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 91

Still Life With Masks © copyright Carol Bergman 2022

Sixty percent of Americans, including 75 percent of children, had been infected with the coronavirus by February, federal health officials reported on Tuesday — another remarkable milestone in a pandemic that continues to confound expectations.

 

-Apoorva Mandavilli, The New York Times. 4/27/2022

 

I just returned from a walk in the beautiful sunshine to the Trailways station in town to buy a ticket for a trip to the city. LOL! I forgot my mask, not that it is required; it is not. It's a dank and dirty station at the best of times, small and fetid, shut down during the height of the pandemic and not cleaned since re-opening from what I can see and smell. There were two people at the counter and because of new protocols—booking an exact time of the trip, absolutely no changes and no refunds—the line was slow. I decided to wait outside. That is when Sally arrived, soon to become a neighbor and friend. She was wearing an N95 and when I explained that I was waiting outside because I'd forgotten my mask and—most probably because, being young and kind, she saw my white hair—she offered me a fresh wrapped mask she had in her pocket. "It's my first trip into the city since Covid and I'm not sure of the protocols," she said. So, I explained and we started chatting. "There will surely be some people on the bus not wearing a mask," I said. And she agreed.

 

How do we navigate these new challenges? The pandemic is not over, far from, and there is no guarantee that it will not continue to mutate and confound all expectations. Sure, we may not end up in the hospital or dead, but both my husband and I—who had mild cases in January, most probably BA 1 or BA 2—have strange residual symptoms, and we sure as hell don't want to get the bug again. It is clear that as immunity wanes, we could get it again, and that there will be yet another jab in the autumn. So, when two students and two friends in the city tell me they are down with colds, I am skeptical. According to Apoorva Mandavilli today in the NY Times Daily Podcast, the virus has once again slipped under the radar: many people are testing negative with symptoms until about ten days after onset of symptoms. And, like my friends, not feeling terribly sick, they are walking around, getting onto airplanes, going to the theater, etc. etc.  And, of course, the mask mandate has been lifted by a Trump appointed federal judge in Florida. Thank you.

 

What's the upshot? The lesson? There are still tens of millions of Americans with no immunity to the virus, and they remain vulnerable to both the short- and long-term consequences of infection. Taking individual responsibility for not spreading the virus is as important as the government taking its responsibility to provide protective executive orders, free, easily accessible vaccines, tests, and antivirals. But the government—local, state, federal—is so politicized that it often lets us down, and will continue to let us down at crucial moments, fortunate as we are compared to much of the world. Don't tempt me to say more or I will become less pleasant and more vociferous as the mid-term elections approach.

 

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Hope in a Stamp

Photo © copyright Peter Zalmayev 2022 by permission

 

HOPE IN A STAMP

 

There should be tears. There should be a reason.

 

-Ocean Vuong, "Hope, Fire Escapes and Visible Desperation"

in The Rumpus, 8/ 8/14

 

 

Peter Zalmayev is standing at a post office in Kyiv taking a selfie for his Facebook page. "This masterpiece was worth every hour in line," he writes in the caption. Behind him, other customers are waiting to buy the commemorative stamp. It is an image of a Ukrainian soldier making an obscene gesture at the sunken Russian Black Sea flagship Moskva designed by Boris Groh from Lviv, the winning entry of a competition launched by the post office. The proceeds will go to support the Ukrainian army.

 

As soon as the final printing was announced, customers began lining up, in itself a testament to the grit of the Ukrainian people. The lines became an emblem of survival as well as celebration.  Marble floors, large windows in the background, no debris or unidentified dead bodies. What else might be on the agenda for this imaginary almost normal day? Shopping, picking up children from school, reading a story to these children at bedtime, a quiet meal, a glass of wine.

 

The disruptions of war, and this war in particular right now, continues unabated.  A cousin wrote me over the weekend: "I cannot even believe this is happening." Nor can we all. My European friends in proximity are skittish. Many are helping with relief efforts. The Israelis have set up a field hospital in Lviv and the doctor niece of an Arab Israeli friend is there while, at the same time, the Israelis continue to bomb Gaza. Good people everywhere are mobilized while horrific wars continue unabated. I have had many conversations with exasperated relief workers: There is no international "community." The United Nations is useless.

 

Strange, that I have become so fixated on Peter Zalmayev. I hope he doesn't mind. Peter, do you mind? He's become a living metaphor of survival, articulate journalistic skill, and determination.  This war now has a human face for me, a human connection, as all wars must. During a long ago genocide, when so many of my relatives were murdered, I became obsessed by a photograph of one ancestor who looked like me, or vice versa. Her name was Lily. That name and that image became embedded in me, and I carried her into my life and my work.

 

I am convinced that Peter and his colleagues will survive the Russian military atrocity, and I will be here, at my desk. cheering him on, and supporting his efforts as best I can. It's the least this one journalist on the other side of the world can do.

 

This blog post is dedicated to all the civilians, soldiers, and sailors who have been killed in recent weeks.   May we all live in peace.

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Walking in the Rain

 

We who have touched war have a duty to bring the truth about war to those who have had no direct experience of it…Working for peace in  the future is to work for peace in the present moment.

 

-Thich Nhat Hanh

 

 

 

 

"Walking in the April rain is a luxury our friends in Ukraine will miss this year," I wrote on my Facebook page this week. I had taken photos on my morning walk: a budding tree, a moss-covered rock, a cottontail, daffodils in bloom. And then I thought of Peter Zalmayev broadcasting from his bunker in Kyiv and wrote the caption.

 

As usual, there were "likes" on the photos, and nil to none on the idea expressed in words, except for one:   "I  can't take it. So true. ," my friend Suzy Borget replied. Altruism fatigue has set in. First the pandemic, then the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, and now this terrifying, awful war, not to mention bad news in the paper every day about extreme climate events, Covid surges, and all else.

 

Do we know too much? Or not enough?  In America, we are insulated from wars spilling over our borders. Not so the Europeans. And, as a nation, we have low attention spans and an inadequate knowledge base of certain key subjects: geopolitics, non-Euro-centric world history, political science, international law, the Geneva Conventions.

 

Last night, I went for a coffee with my husband to our favorite café in town and it was so crowded we almost turned away. There was a party going on in the back room and a long line for service. There'd been another storm and flooding, and the waters were finally receding. Had we all surfaced from the safety of our homes to celebrate? I wondered about the conversation between the revelers. What was everyone talking about? Normal things, most probably: food and family, maybe some upcoming travel, a recent series on Netflix, the controversy about a fourth vaccination. Are we spoiled? Insouciant by nature? Careless or carefree? Are we allowed to relax? Must we feel guilty if we relax?  Are these rhetorical questions?

 

I returned home to find an email from Chris Rzonca, a colleague at NYU. His wife is Polish and they have an apartment in Warsaw now home to a Ukrainian family. Everyone Chris knows in Poland is hosting a Ukrainian family, everyone he knows has stepped up to help. He's running a GoFundMe for the family he and his wife are hosting. These are more than gestures and/or donations; these are heart-stopping commitments. Consider the migrants on the EU borders, and our borders. How have they been received? What is our moral and ethical responsibility? Are these questions rhetorical?

 

I don't really know what I am writing about today because I feel unsettled. What if Putin uses chemical and biological warfare as he did in Syria? He's already created havoc at Chernobyl, his own soldiers—cannon fodder—taking  respite in a radioactive forest. One atrocity on top of another.  My husband, whose maternal family is from Kyiv—when  it was still Kiev—has studied both Russian history and the Russian language. "I hope the diplomats are considering every option to stop the bloodshed even if it means some concessions," he said to me this morning for the first time. "Surely they know what Putin is capable of."  Think Grozny and the calculated speech Putin gave in fluent German to the German Parliament when the wall came down. He'd been a KGB officer in Dresden.

 

Are the Ukrainians prepared for concessions to stop the bloodshed? They are fierce patriotic fighters, and have taken on the global war, for themselves and for us: democracy and freedom vs. autocracy and despotism. Will the sacrifice be too great, too dire for the survival of the Ukrainian people? 

 

These are terrible questions to ask and I am  tempted to delete this post and start again, but there is something here I want to convey, which is this:  How and when this dreadful war will end is not in our control, so I prevail upon my readers to continue to lobby, write, give voice to, donate, collect medical supplies, and pay attention to those who have been killed and displaced —most especially the children—and  their future. If Ukrainian or Afghani refugees arrive in our cities and towns, let us commit to do anything and everything to help them settle and build new lives. My parents were refugees. I know of what I speak.

 

It's Passover-Easter week here on the well protected North American Continent and throughout the Judeo-Christian world. If so inclined, please say a prayer, or just meditate for peace. I'm a skeptic, as you all know, but I'm willing to try anything, even if it's an act of desperation.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 90

 

God Talk

 

 

And Lo, for the Earth was empty of Form, and void. And Darkness was all over the Face of the Deep. And We said: "Look at that fucker Dance."

 

― David Foster Wallace, "Infinite Jest"

 

 

 

No one, no person, no magical or religious entity conceived by man or descended from Heaven, takes us aside and tells us what is coming, not definitively or specifically, David Foster Wallace wrote. A plague? Did we see that coming? Have we deserved to be so smitten these past two years? What are the gods trying to tell us? I don't know, do you, dear reader? I live in doubt. I am perplexed.

 

No matter how many times I listen to the repetition and analysis of the scriptures on the evangelical radio stations in the mountains of upstate New York, I cannot fathom a loving god/God/or gods and find all belief "systems" and organized religion alienating. More so now than ever as we behold atrocities all over Planet Earth. Let us have a few moments of rest as I abstain from enumerating these atrocities, yet again. And what a luxury that is, to abstain and rest. For the record, I am not reporting from a bunker.

 

I grew up in a household of one believer and one agnostic/atheist. When my mother was in her 90's, near the end of her life, when she was nearly blind and deaf, she asked to see a Rabbi or a Priest or Imam—it didn't matter so long as it was a man and an ordained "professional," and when the Rabbi came, all she wanted to discuss was the fate of the State of Israel and the persecution of the Palestinian People, and Obama, and she asked the Rabbi  to read the headlines of the newspaper that day as I, her writer daughter, insisted on reading her poetry instead, and she found poetry boring. "If only I could pray," she had said to me often. "If only I believed. If only I enjoyed poetry."

 

"Let's listen to the opera," I suggested as I was usually visiting on a Saturday afternoon when the Metropolitan Opera was broadcasting on WQXR. Out came the libretto, much more engaging than the scriptures, we both agreed.

 

These days, my favorite radio station as I am driving is "Sounds of Life," because the preachers are articulate, dramatic and forthright, and the music has rhythm and bounce. I came upon it by accident, which I am sure is intentional; the music drew me there and I stayed. Even stranger for a non-believer, I enjoy the aesthetic grandeur of cathedrals, the peaceful silence of graveyards, and the blessings of believers when they grace me with their blessings. And I believe in angels, spirits in human form who arrive without fanfare into our lives to console, humor and befriend.

 

The other day, my allergist asked if I'd had a breakthrough Covid and when I said, "yes," and he asked me how I did with it and I said, "okay," he blessed me. He said that God—capital G for this one—is looking after me, absolutely and positively looking after me, and my husband, who also has had "mild" Covid. I should never doubt, he repeated several times, that God is looking after us, I should put my doubt aside. If only, I said to him, as I gathered my belongings and thanked him for his blessing. If only.

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Saying Goodbye to Our Mothers

My bona fide, the UK edition.

Cover photo from Afghanistan © James Nachtwey

"Let my photographs bear witness."

by permission

 

 

You who are living, live the best life you can.

Don't count on the earth to preserve memory.

 

--Ai Qing

 

Home is not where you were born; home is where all your attempts to escape cease.

 

--Naguib Mahfouz

 

 

Reporters are interviewing refugees, mostly women holding their young children, who have escaped over the borders from Ukraine to Poland, Hungary and Romania. Responsible reporters and photographers try their best not to be pandering, salaciously entertaining, or exploitatively graphic. But the tears flow, the anger surfaces, the television ratings effloresce. I prefer to get my news from print, internet, radio and podcast. It's easier to digest in small doses. I often listen in the car, yesterday to a BBC World News Service podcast as I was driving to the swimming pool. The reporter was interviewing a young woman who had left her elderly mother behind. Thinking of my own refugee mother leaving her mother behind, I began to cry, then swam a few extra laps, had a scalding hot shower, dressed slowly,  put on some make-up, drove home. Finally, it was lunchtime and I could eat my lunch in the safety of my apartment overlooking the peaceful, majestic Minnewaska Ridge. Most evenings, the sunsets are glorious, undisturbed by tracer fire.

 

Activist friends—Black, Palestinian, others—have criticized me recently for my singular and focused attention on Ukraine, as though it were an extension of the opportunistic news cycle and nothing more. Or, they have said, "It's because they are European that the world cares. Have we forgotten the Afghan refugees already?" Or, they have called me hypocritical for ignoring and abandoning other occupations, other war crimes, other atrocities. I try to remain calm, diplomatic, compassionate and informed. Many of these aggrieved people are my friends; I love them, they hail from all over the world. But when there is pain, argument and defensiveness don't work. Best to step away and let the waters find their level.

 

Conflict resolution and mediation training has taught me never to compare atrocities; they are all bad. Bad. That word doesn't say very much. Egregious maybe? As a writer, I try to find the best words, to stay connected to what I write, emotionally as well as intellectually. The war in Ukraine did hit me especially hard, I admit, but not because of my refugee parents. After all, "my" people, North African and European Jews, have been refugees for millennia. I've written about them and so many others, but all I can manage right now, this week, is Ukraine. And I know someone in Kyiv, Peter Zalmayev, who is broadcasting live from the beleaguered, still standing city. So, I am paying undivided attention to Peter's dispatches from Kyiv. In this way, I am supporting him as best I can from afar and contemplating the implications of Putin's KGB "playbook," for what remains of civil society, not only in Ukraine, but on Planet Earth.

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