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EVOLUTION

 

EVOLUTION

 

 

An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive, abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others."

 

― Bryan Stevenson, "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption"

 

Falling down is not a failure. Falling comes when you stay where you have fallen.

 

-Socrates

 

 

A newcomer to New Paltz in the spring of 2018, I was still using my GPS to get around, and had rolled through a stop sign just north of the SUNY campus. I wrote a blog post about the encounter I had with a police officer at the time, and how unthreatening it was to me, a white, older woman. And though the officer stood behind my left shoulder as he asked for my license and registration, and had his hand on his holster, I wasn't afraid.

 

My daughter had a Black boyfriend when she was in college—his  dad worked for the court system and gave his son a badge to clip into his wallet—but I was a nervous mom every time they stepped into the car and drove from the city to Philadelphia, or Philadelphia to New York. In fact, there hasn't been Black male friend, acquaintance, or student I've had in my lifetime who hasn't had a problem, a scare, or worse, with law enforcement. Now the New York Times has just completed an investigative report on traffic stops, how they go down in various places in the country—more than 400 motorists killed in recent years—and I decided it was time for me to interview the Chief of Police in my small town to find out how the New York State mandate for reform is going. As everywhere, there have been incidents here, and a demand for transparency, more training, and systemic change;  a new oversight commission is forming. Unfortunately, the conversation thus far has often been irate, beleaguered and uncivil—evident  on the Town's YouTube Channel—more  so during our difficult Covid months.

 

"We're all hurting," Chief Robert Lucchesi told me about half-way into our long conversation in his office the other day, as he reflected on the vulnerability we are all feeling these days—personally, professionally, even politically. He's an educated and thoughtful man, with an MA in Public Administration, a love of nonfiction literature, and a devotion to New Paltz where he was born and raised, the first in his family to go to college. He still lives here with his doctor wife and three growing children.  The shift from warrior to guardian mentality has not been difficult for him; he has a nurturing persona. The wellness of his family, the community and his officers, concern him every day, he explains, ruefully.  Recently, he's approached the local clergy to offer pastoral care to his staff, if they request it.  "I wish we had more safe spaces for conversation," he says. "It's a difficult time, we are in the midst of a reckoning, everyone is guarded. And it's hard to find good officers, and not to lose them to higher paying localities. When we have a shortage of coverage, everyone works exhausting extra shifts."

 

I had first met Chief Lucchesi before Covid when he was still a Lieutenant. A friend of a friend had called when she heard I was a journalist. She'd found a white supremacist flyer—a blood libel screed—in  a Village Hall waste paper basket. It mentioned a recent synagogue shooting and she wanted to know what to do—anonymously. I went to the police station right away. I'd been feeling unsettled. As often as I've encountered anti-Semitism, it always shocks and frightens me. I thought I might have to explain blood libel, but I didn't; Lucchesi was both informed and compassionate.

 

"We see people at their most vulnerable and embarrassing," he says, "and some of what they tell us is protected by privacy laws." Therefore, total transparency is never possible, especially if there is an ongoing investigation. That was the case with the flyer, even after a detective was assigned. Still, I felt reassured.

 

Are there any similarities between reporters and detectives, protecting sources and informants? Probably, though this would be a long conversation involving lawyers and constitutional experts. What we do have in common, it seems to me,  is the sensation of  being on the outside looking in, both of the community and observing the community. It's not always comfortable. We have to understand our own backstories, life experience, and biases to work effectively.

 

I thought of a New York City transit cop I once knew who never left his gun behind, even on his days off, and saw perps everywhere. He was on high alert, constantly vigilant, and more than likely suffering from PTSD. How can such a person change without struggle, without re-education, without psychological support? The question is rhetorical, of course. Much needs to be done.  If only I could clone Chief Lucchesi and send him to every town and city in the country to hire, train and retrain a cadre of 21st century guardians. If this were at all possible, police departments everywhere—even the most militaristic, rigid, systemically racist, and terrified of change—would be on the path to evolution and redemption.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 81

A Spatial Awakening

 

 

What is design's role in times of crisis? Communities and individuals come together to aid each other, push for change, and create new spaces, objects, and services. Epidemics—both in the past and in the present—have triggered the discovery of new ways to treat and prevent disease while exposing systemic gaps and failures. 

 

The Cooper Hewitt Museum announces "Design & Healing; Creative Responses to Epidemics," December 10, 2021-August 14, 2022    

 

 

Michael Murphy, Co-Founder of the not-for-profit firm MASS Design, made it onto 60 Minutes last night. Leslie Stahl was enthralled, and who can blame her? This young, competent, forward thinking, altruistic architect is an inspiration. When Covid hit—not long after his firm completed assignments in Haiti and Rwanda—he  offered the expertise and services of his company to address the structural violence of our most vulnerable built spaces such as hospitals, housing projects, tightly sealed office buildings, and nursing homes, among so many others in the United States, a so-called developed and enlightened country where only the affluent live well. Infrastructure issues? You aren't kidding. Look around at home, close to home, on your way to and from home. Do our shelters heal or hurt? Make a list of your observations. Then try to make some changes, or ask for changes, or vote for changes.

 

Within minutes of hearing Murphy speak, I became fixated on air flow and the inadequate ventilation in every indoor space I'd been in for the past week. Murphy calls this a "spatial awakening."  I'd gone to vote in the Student Union on the SUNY New Paltz campus, for example, a state university with limited endowment compared to the private universities, and found myself on line in a small, completely enclosed room, no ventilation ducts in sight. And though I was masked and boostered, I was still uncomfortable; this was not a safe space. When one of the poll workers rushed around sanitizing surfaces with a rag and spray, and then offered me a pair of gloves, I wanted to shout, "AIRBORNE!" or, alternatively, "ARE YOU INSANE?"

 

I remembered my doctor mother constantly opening windows in the winter months and in the summer, too, in air conditioned rooms where air does not circulate well. In medical school, she'd learned about the rampant transmission of both TB and influenza in the hospital wards where wounded WW I soldiers were recovering from their wounds. My mother never forgot that lesson. Windows remained open in our apartment even in the coldest weather. I wore layers and sat close to the steamy radiators running on gallons and gallons of fossil fuel. But I digress. So, here's a question: Why did it take such a long time for the experts to figure out that Covid was airborne? And why didn't the word "ventilation" come up in the conversation right away? Or did it?

 

Take a look at MASS Design's website, click the photo above. And then take a trip to the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York after December 10 for a special exhibition on creative responses to epidemics. Design has a role in a time of crisis, and so do we, each and every one of us.

 

 

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Let Sleeping Bones Lie

The refurbished sign, originally commissioned twenty years ago. In the background, the memorial bench by Craig Shankles. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2021

 

Let Sleeping Bones Lie

 

 

The question that remains in Boston, and across the country, is how we can amend the American story through our monuments without tearing them all down.  

       

                -W. Ralph Eubanks, "Monuments," in The New Yorker 10/24/21

 

 

It's been twenty years since a memorial sign and bench were installed in front of 174 Huguenot Street to commemorate the African American Burial Ground in New Paltz, NY, though it's more than likely that the African American Burial Ground is underneath the lawn of 176, and more a burial pit than a burial ground. The then owners of 176 refused to allow ground-penetrating radar and sent their lawyer to a African American Burial Ground Committee meeting to object to further excavation. According to Susan Stessin-Cohn, who was working at Historic Huguenot Street at the time, and is now the New Paltz Town Historian, a bulldozer had turned up human bones. Although it is not against the penal code of New York State to let sleeping bones lie, further investigation might have amplified the story of enslavement in New Paltz and the Mid-Hudson Valley.

 

Stessin-Cohn remained and remains undaunted. Years after this disappointment, she ceremoniously buried the skull of an African slave excavated from the perimeter of the Deyo House in 1894, and stored away in the Historic Huguenot Street archives ever since. Stessin-Cohn, along with the Board of Historic Huguenot Street, thought it was past time to memorialize at least one slave, thereby honoring all others who had lived and worked as chattel on the street.

 

The United States from 1619 onwards was a slave society. Until 1827 when slavery was outlawed in New York State, the Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers in New Paltz owned slaves: 302 by 1790, which was 13% of the population at that time, according  to the Register of Slaves unearthed at the Historic Huguenot Street archives by Stessin-Cohn and her colleague, Eric Roth.  "If anyone needs restitution, it's us here," Susan Stessin-Cohn has said often over the years.

 

The remains of indigenous people are protected by Federal law, but the remains of slaves are not. When the bi-partisan African American Burial Grounds legislation pending in Congress is finally signed into law, it will provide both grants and assistance to communities to discover and protect these burial grounds. But it is not a mandate; the aid has to be requested. As for reparations for the descendants of enslaved families, that will take much longer, though it will happen, eventually.

 

Meanwhile, small communities throughout the United States are reassessing their histories, their narratives, and their extant physical monuments. New Paltz is no exception. Historic Huguenot Street has done a lot of reinterpretation in the three years since I arrived in the town, the SUNY campus has taken down the names of the slave-owning families on their dormitories, and there are plans by the Village of New Paltz, with the assistance of the Historic Preservation Commission, to commemorate the Black history of the town by landmarking  a derelict house on Broadhead Ave., partially built by Jacob Wynkoop, a free Black man who fought in the Civil War and returned to New Paltz—where  he had been born and raised—to become a contractor and builder. Several of his houses are still standing. He is buried in the (formerly) segregated Rural Cemetery.   

 

No developer welcomes delay, no owner the stigma of a slave burial ground on their property, which may (or may not) affect the value of that property. Those are the rumblings I've heard as I researched this modest story. But denial and obfuscation will not make the physical remains of the enslaved population in New Paltz disappear. After years of meticulous research Susan Stessin-Cohn believes there are numerous African American burial grounds in New Paltz. With her annual stipend of $1000 and limited time, she does what she can, but there are no slave descendant Black residents that I know of in New Paltz—the result of a still under-reported Jim Crow culture— who will hasten what still needs to be done, or demand it. 

 

Apart from the students and faculty on the SUNY New Paltz campus, the whiteness of the town, which most consider liberal-progressive, is a story, too. How did this happen?  Where did the emancipated slaves go?  A few built a community on Pencil Hill Road, but they became destitute and left the area, or may have ended up in the Poor House, now covered over by the Ulster County Fairgrounds and Pool, and memorialized with a statue commissioned by Stessin-Cohn.

 

Down at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. , a committee of descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, in collaboration with descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha, are working to create a contemplative space in a slave burial ground discovered near the parking lot. The burial ground, which holds over forty graves analyzed by ground-penetrating radar, remains undisturbed. New paths and plantings will be installed, as well as seating and signs to "reinvigorate"  and protect the sacred space.

 

And closer to my home in New Paltz, the Pine Street African American Burial Ground in Kingston, NY is being restored and protected as a sacred space and educational benchmark by the Kingston Land Trust and Scenic Hudson in collaboration with Harambee, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to bring the community together through celebration and awareness of African-American Heritage. I look forward to participating in—and reporting on—a  similar project in New Paltz in the not too distant future.

 

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David Sedaris for One Day

 

 

That's the thing with a diary, though. In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it's so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it.

   

― David Sedaris, "Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002"

 

 

Writers observe, notate, wake with sentences in their head, draft stories and revise them until the moment they are submitted for publication. We keep journals, diaries and notebooks. This is our practice, our daily rumination, the warm-up that keeps the writer's muscle supple. New writers don't do this because they haven't practiced doing it. Writing seems easy because we all are taught to write in school, more or less, but writing to a professional level is a skill, a craft, an efflorescing gift, and it requires hard work. Successful writers are hard workers and sometimes unsuccessful and/or as yet unknown writers are also hard workers with ambition, discipline and talent. The difference between them and David Sedaris might be access to the right people and the caste and class into which you and I and they were born and raised. It's a market driven world out there, and a tough one.

 

I don't know how David Sedaris got started professionally exactly, but he's a a good writer and earned accolades with his first submissions. And then he improved and evolved until he became an iconic best-selling writer.

 

Another volume of his diaries has just been published and he's on tour. He even landed a gig at a theater in Poughkeepsie, across the river from where I'm living. I didn't make it, but I hear it was a great success. In addition to being a good writer, David Sedaris is funny; he's an entertainer and a satirist similar to Mark Twain. And boy do we need some entertainment right now as we enter the second Covid winter, albeit vaccinated and less fraught. (Mandate: please do not continue reading this post unless you are vaccinated.)

 

As I've been on a publicity tour myself, I'd have to say that it's tiring, has nothing to do with writing per se, and may or may not sell many books, the primary reason that publishers send writers out on tours in tandem with a social media blitz. It can be fun, but isn't always fun. Like writing itself, it's mostly hard work in between blissful moments.

 

The Sedaris diary entries often feel scant and leave us wanting more. Why did he decide--or his agent and/or publisher--decide to sell excerpts from his diaries right now? Is it to keep the brand alive while Sedaris is still in his prime? Will he release them to an archive in their entirety when he's on his deathbed, or before?  Do his readers and fans understand that these entries are expurgated and edited, that they explain nothing about the struggle to write a pithy sentence? Is this a David Sedaris joke? When we peruse these diary entries do we access his inner life in ways we hadn't expected? Or is the author a puppet master pulling our strings, hidden behind the scrim of the stage, peeking out at us with a big grin on his face?

 

That all said, I'd give a gazillion dollars to be David Sedaris for just one day, to have his wry humor, his perspective, his acceptance of human frailty, and tolerance for endless human ignorance, and his confidence in the fundamental goodness of all the people he encounters in his life, more or less. At times, I've tried to write like David Sedaris. In fact, he's looking over my shoulder right now as I emulate his life-affirming spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When People Tell Me Things

 

WHEN PEOPLE TELL ME THINGS

 


 Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless. 


 Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public's business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all. 

 

-from the Society of Professional Journalist's Code of Ethics

 

From time to time, when a new acquaintance or a complete stranger hears, or learns from me directly, that I am a journalist, they tell me stories or facts I did not know. Suddenly, I am the custodian of information to write about, pass along to the appropriate authorities, or, if the story is too big, feed to a news organization with the resources to investigate. I steer the investigative reporter, or team of reporters, to my sources, who will become their sources. I might continue with some reporting myself, take good notes, and share them. I enjoy behind-the-scenes reporting without the responsibility of crafting a story that has to be fact checked ad infinitum before it is published. I've done my bit and can get back to my own work. The imperative of exposing what I have learned is satisfied. My byline may or may not appear, which is of no consequence; the story has been told.

 

Some stories and facts are more startling than others and demand instant and dedicated attention. When a friend of a friend heard I was a journalist, she called to tell me she'd found a white supremacist flyer in a wastebasket near the copy machine in her office. For obvious reasons, she wanted to remain anonymous; she was frightened. She took a photo of the flyer and sent it to me. It was a  "blood libel" screed,  a centuries-old allegation that Jews murder Christians to use their blood for ritual purposes. Blood libels have frequently led to violence, including the 2018  Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, which was mentioned in the flyer. I didn't waste any time; I went straight to the police. They sent out an investigator who confirmed that the screed had arrived by fax. The result of the investigation, in its entirety, was then forwarded to the FBI domestic terrorism unit. 

 

And then there are the times when the person I am talking to or interviewing forgets that I am a journalist. Just this week, a member of the Town Board in the very town where I live, inadvertently revealed a conflict of interest. Maybe she didn't realize the conflict of interest, or didn't know how to tell a reporter that she was talking to me off the record; or maybe she thought that because I live in the town, I would accept the conflict of interest as "normal."

 

Now what am I supposed to do? Bury the revelation? Not likely.

 

It's no surprise that some people don't understand a reporter's ethical obligations. We've been laughed at, ignored, doubted, undermined, and laid off during these past difficult false-news years. The local press is dying, which means that there aren't many reporters around in small communities any more. At least 1,800 communities that had a local news outlet in 2004 were without one at the beginning of 2020. Thus the proliferation of blogs, such as this one.

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When My Fitbit Talks to Me

 

We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

 

-Marshall McLuhan

 

 

My husband bought me my second  Fitbit for our anniversary. The first one died just out of warranty several years ago and I didn't replace it. And though, in general, I resist tracking, and don't need incentive to exercise, I'm enjoying my new and improved Fitbit.

 

Does it matter that I am being surveilled from afar? Yes and no. I find it interesting that, except for the step counter, most of  the functions stop working when I am indoors, hidden from the eyes of various satellites; they click in again when I am outside. Therefore, it follows, that when the GPS is fully engaged, Fitbit, despite disclaimers and promises, knows exactly where I am a lot of the time, and is selling this information to someone or other somewhere. Does this matter? Not to me. Not one whit. I'm not a rapacious consumer and really don't care.

 

I have a cousin who keeps her Fitbit on at night. It lets her know how she is sleeping and if she still has a heartbeat. Of course, she has to wake up in the morning to find her pulse underneath her Fitbit, which has already recorded her spectral data. Let sleeping bones lie, I say, without the intrusion of yet another electronic device.

 

My husband wisely chose a fashionable black Fitbit. It's very thin and light, and goes well with everything I wear, which is mostly work-out clothes now that I live far away from glamorous urban streets. And it talks to me, or sends me messages, white letters on the black screen. Forgive the paraphrases as I barely read them, though I know they are designed and written to affirm and reinforce my efforts:

 

           Time to get ready for bed.

           You've really accomplished something. Give yourself a hug.

           Don't forget to breathe.

           Take a break.

           

The first time I took my new Fitbit into the pool I forgot to start the swim function. That's what I told myself. In truth, my glasses were packed away and I couldn't see it. No worries! When I checked the app on my phone, the app and the Fitbit  perfectly synched, Mr./Ms/Mrs. Fitbit told me, in so many words, that it/they/him/her/he noticed I'd been swimming. Well done!  

 

We all need reinforcement, so they say. Not me. I'm reinforced enough. Mostly I am enjoying my Fitbit because I can see the time, albeit only when I am indoors, I can praise myself for reaching my "goals," which are more or less the same every day, and I can admire the way the really cool wearable electronic device looks on my wrist.

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 80

Early in the pandemic, before masks, long before vaccinations, the author ventures out in her home-made hijab. Photo © copyright Jim Bergman 2020.

 

DEFIANCE

 

What am I describing?
I am describing a dream
in which nobody has died...

 

from "Small Talk"

by Eleanor Lerman

 

  

I thought she was a nice woman, a woman who might become a friend. I'd given her my card, chatted poolside, but when I met her in the locker room this past Saturday, a small space, and asked her to put on her mask, she refused.  "Well I don't know, Carol, I've been vaccinated," she said. 

 

I tried to explain what I'd heard, what I knew about breakthrough infections, the refusal of our gym to institute a mask mandate for everyone, vaccinated or unvaccinated, as Mayor De Blasio has smartly ordered in the city.  I tried to calm down. At least she's vaccinated, I thought. It had taken her a while, but she'd done it, finally.

 

Still, I decided right then and there that we couldn't be friends. It was the defiance. Her brother-in-law was visiting, they had been partying the night before. "So you've had exposure to someone outside the area," I said. "As has my husband. He was in the city yesterday. So I'll keep my mask on to protect you." 

 

"Well I don't know, Carol, I'm vaccinated," she repeated, sarcastically this time. The definition of sarcasm is "tearing flesh." That's what her retort felt like.

 

"Have you heard of asymptomatic exponential contagion?" I asked, ever the professor.  I tried not to condescend, but I was upset.

 

"You seem to have the inside scoop. You've always had the inside scoop." 

 

No sarcasm this time, just impatience. She must have been referring to our brief conversations before she got vaccinated. She was a resister, a defiant ill-informed skeptic. How did that get broken down, I wondered?  It wasn't me that had done it.

 

"No inside scoop. I just read," I said.  "I listen. I pay attention. So many stories. We're not done with this pandemic yet."

 

She left in a huff, a trail of disappointment and frustration behind her; my disappointment, my frustration.

 

It's the first time in my life I've not been able to persuade, or inform, or educate. The defiance has become a wall, deeper, stronger and more insistent than simple resistance to the facts, or an ignorance of the facts.  It's aggressive, confrontational, the battlefield of our divided country.

 

Those who care and those who don't. Is that a place to begin to understand this unpleasant moment? Maybe this woman, who I had thought might be a friend, doesn't know anyone who died, or lost her job, or couldn't travel to visit her family three-thousand miles away and then missed her father's last days. Maybe she's been living in a snug pod all these months oblivious to the suffering of her neighbors, her town, her county, her country, and the world. 

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It Was Like a Dream

"An Afghan Girl" © copyright Steve McCurry 2002, before the American occupation.

IT WAS LIKE A DREAM

 

 

Awakening, basically, is a reversal of this: the patient ceases to feel the presence of illness and the absence of the world, and comes to feel the absence of his illness and the full presence of the world.

 

-Oliver Sacks, "Awakenings" 

 

 

Before the Taliban's victory in Afghanistan, there were:  248  TV Networks, 438  Radio Stations, 1669 Print Outlets, and 119 News Agencies throughout the country.  A mass media renaissance, rural and urban.  Women reporters. Women with microphones and notebooks in their hands. Men and women working together to get the story.

 

Disregard the public relations gambit as Kabul fell; the veil has dropped again in Afghanistan. Women are walking around in burqas and men are growing beards to protect themselves from abuse, and worse. And there is much transpiring in other cities and the countryside that is not being reported.

 

According to Reporters Without Borders (RWB), the new government, or re-instated government, depending on one's politics and point-of-view, is already imposing  harsh constraints on the news media (100 outlets have suspended operation entirely), harassing reporters, and threatening them.

 

"Two journalists working for the privately-owned TV channel Shamshad were prevented by a Taliban guard from doing a report outside the French embassy because they lacked a permit signed by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," says an RWB press release.  "But when they asked the guard where they should go or who they should ask for such a permit, he said, "I don't know."

 

As of today, foreign correspondents are still able to work, but they are all asking, "For how much longer?" And they are few in number so cannot report everything.

 

When the international news cycle tires of the chaotic and mis-managed American withdrawal, ordinary citizens will still be trying to survive in Afghanistan. But they will have no information or news to guide them that is not tainted by Sharia dictates of "good" and "evil."  

 

Any nation-state that slips back into fundamentalist feudalism, or reignites a former despotic regime, threatens global equilibrium. War, the degradation of the environment, migration. and yet more terrorism, will continually challenge our well-being and safety; disequilibrium will reach our shores. Sitting comfortably in our  western enclaves is an illusion; we are not protected from the repercussions of what has transpired in Afghanistan. We cannot just change the channel and hope for the best. A smart, humane foreign policy is essential going forward; no sitting president gets a pass.

 

I still have reporter friends and aid worker friends in Afghanistan. For this reason, I have not mentioned anyone by name here, or interviewed anyone I could mention by name, though the reporting I have done to write this blog post has been corroborated.  I urge my readers to continue monitoring the unfolding Afghanistan story, and to offer help to the refugees seeking asylum.

 

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 79

A Meditation on Socializing in a Plague Year

 

 

We instinctively protected our friends from the knowledge we possessed…We were sure that they didn't want to know what we knew; we didn't want to know it, either.

 

       -Alexsander Hemon, "The Aquarium"

 

He can contain the fears of other men, and give them a sense of solidity in a quaking world.  

 

-Hilary Mantel, "Wolf Hall"

 

 

Labor Day Weekend. We had planned to eat outside with friends but the weather turned cool under a louring sky, as Charlotte Bronte described it. We almost cancelled but then went ahead. We drove up the Thruway to Saugerties to a renovated farm house set on ten acres. Horse country, a getaway home of two city friends. They had wanted to celebrate my husband's birthday in mid-August but couldn't make it to the barbecue. So, this was yet another celebration with a balloon and a cake, sumptuous food, and wine, held-in stories spilling rapidly, breathlessly, even though we'd kept in touch on phone and zoom and email.

 

So, we were indoors with the windows wide open, six of us in a small space, all vaccinated, but there'd  been recent travel beyond the borders of the state and the nation state, much needed travel to see family after the long Covid hiatus. Had anyone brought the Delta variant home with them? We didn't voice this concern, and for the moment, we didn't care about any potential danger. Was there any? Were we being care—less? Is the protective vaccine waning? Of a certain age, shall we say—and how can we ignore it these days, a target on our backs—only  my husband and I had landed boosters; we encouraged our friends to do the same.

 

It seemed as though every few paragraphs of shared stories, we'd redound to the pandemic, and to the logistics of staying safe in the months ahead as we move around, carry on regardless. The numbers of breakthroughs don't look good; 80 active cases this week in our small town, the SUNY students back on campus, and all the other schools starting, kids under twelve still unvaccinated, a FB photo from a friend of a Covid infected baby girl in the ICU and an admonition to pray for her.  I wish prayer would help. I wish everything and anything would help persuade those who are unvaccinated, especially, to get it done. No soft landings for anyone during a pandemic, a democratizing experience in some ways depending on individual circumstance—money, shelter, access to medical care. Yet, among all strata, classes and castes, there are many heartbreaking stories.

 

The conversation at the converted farmhouse was kinetic, joyful, suffused with laughter. The vegetable garden was overgrown, lots of kale and basil to pick, some homemade ice cream with blueberries, avocado, honey, the end of summer's bounty folded into the menu. How much we'd missed the physicality of connection, bodies in three dimension, hair a bit grayer, bodies bulging from Covid indulgence in home-cooked meals. How privileged we all were to have survived this ordeal, we agreed. None in this immediate cohort were in mourning for a loved one, though we all had suffered losses—of time, of income, of insularity from a troubled world. No such thing anymore, surely this has now clarified: Virus Without Borders. The New York Times reports this morning that we won't feel respite until next summer, that the worst of the pandemic will not be in the rear-view mirror until then.

 

Best to steel ourselves, stiff upper lips, remain calm and carry on, as the Brits would say, and how I do love them for that. It's not always an appropriate response, but I think it is at this moment of disappointment, the euphoria of vaccination evaporated.

 

Did we bring this plague on ourselves? Or the exacerbation of the plague, at least? Are we in any way responsible? And where does our individual responsibility reside? Are we so enamored of our post-modern digital lives that we've forgotten we are made of organic material, embedded in nature, susceptible to fires and floods, collapsing infrastructure, a corrupt and decrepit health care system that is not a system at all, desperate migrants pushing against our borders, mega corporations continuing to exploit labor, the rich getting richer, Mother Earth under siege? What can we do right now, this very day, to contribute to the end of this pandemic? Dear Reader, all suggestions are welcome in the comments.

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Why It Matters When Writers Are Tortured and Killed

 

WHY IT MATTERS WHEN WRITERS ARE TORTURED AND KILLED

 

  

A society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated...
 

― Khaled Hosseini, "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

 

If policy makers know little about Afghanistan, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan."

 

― Rory Stewart, "The Places in Between"

 

  

On August 4, in Uruzgan province's Chora District, where there was fierce fighting, and media outlets were looted and shut down, the Taliban targeted and murdered two PEN International members: poet and historian Abdullah Atefi, and journalist and spokesperson Dawa Khan Menapal. Please note that these killings took place before the Taliban over-ran Kabul, and before the American surrender. The world was not yet paying attention. In the ensuing rapacious takeover in Kabul, the news cycle focused on the evacuation and the airport, not on the notable Afghanis who had already been targeted and killed in the provinces outside Kabul.  

 

The swift, deliberate murders of Atefi and Menapal does not bode well for the future of writers and journalists in Afghanistan, especially women. The consequences of such evisceration of dissent are dire:  If reporters, writers, and broadcasters are silenced, or killed, it is tantamount to a news blackout. We will not know what is going on, and the Afghan people will not know what is going on, whether good news or bad news.

 

Who will hold the new government in Kabul to account? Who will speak out, demonstrate, remonstrate and petition if not the writers and journalists in the world that is still free? I call upon my students and colleagues to continue to provide whatever sustenance is possible to the beleaguered, terrified, hungry and suffering civilians in Afghanistan, and the refugees who have landed on our shores. Please do not switch the channel to more comforting news, or start binging on another Netflix program, or go to your refrigerator for yet another snack just yet. Please know that members of the international mother ship of  PEN (an acronym for Poets, Editors, Essayists & Novelists), the writers you know and love, authors of the books you read and then discuss in your book groups, or donate to your local library—and be grateful for that library—are  in mourning over the assassination of two of its members. They have faces, they have names, they have families:

 

Abdullah Atefi, was a member of Afghanistan PEN since 2008. He was a renowned poet and highly educated economist and  historian who had published a history of Pashto literature and culture. He made his living cultivating his land and teaching literature at a local secondary school. (I've been searching for his poems online, hopefully in translation, but haven't been able to find any as yet.)

 

Journalist Dawa Khan Menapal  worked as the chief of the now-collapsed media and information center. The day before his murder, he spoke out against the killing of Abdullah Atefi.

 

It was the Americans who created a free press and open space for dissent in Afghanistan, and it is the Americans who bear responsibility for its extinction. Yet another miscalculation.

 

***

 Sunday is my day for deep reading of the paper copy of  The New York Times. Home delivery is erratic in my area so I pick it up at a local Stewart's after my morning hike. The smell of the newsprint calms me, even if I know that the news reports won't. Last Sunday, I put the paper down and started an inventory of my published short stories, then made a decision to add a PDF Bookstore tab to this site. All proceeds will go to PEN America. Founded in 1921, PEN was one of the first international human rights organizations. I am proud to be a member of the PEN America branch in long standing.

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