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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Seven

The kelp forest off the coast of Capetown, South Africa.  Photo courtesy: Craig Foster, The Seachange Project. 

     

 Embedded in Nature

 

 

The oldest, easiest to swallow idea was that the earth was man's personal property, a combination of garden, zoo, bank vault, and energy source, placed at our disposal to be consumed, ornamented, or pulled apart as we wished."

 

             Lewis Thomas, "The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher" 

 

 

As outdoor swimming is over for 2020, and indoor pools are closed for the duration, I have—virtually—immersed myself in a nutrient-rich kelp forest off the coast of Capetown, South Africa, and the faux floating G gravity of actors on wires –the wires digitally removed—inside a space module catapulting to Mars in the Netflix series, Away. But it is the kelp forest in the award-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, that has imprinted on my dreams and daytime reveries.

 

The Atlantic off Capetown is known as the "Sea of Storms," so fierce is the ocean on the southwestern coast of the African continent, home to one of the biggest kelp forests on the planet. Craig Foster's family had a bungalow on that shore and his diver parents put him in the cold water when he was just three-days-old. Amid a successful career as a documentary filmmaker, and a period of burnout and depression, he decided to return to the site of his childhood pleasure and curiosity to immerse in the healing primordial waters. He'd just been filming the indigenous trackers in the Kalahari Desert and was inspired by their gifts and reverent relationship to habitat. He began to explore the kelp forest with a similar reverence, tracking its abundant life underwater, at first without his camera, and then with his camera. Years passed and he was diving every day, without a wetsuit, without scuba gear, to become more amphibious, he explains in the narration. Each dive in the shallow water lasts about two minutes—and  in 2015, on one of these daily forays, he discovered an octopus. His evolving relationship with this intelligent short-lived, "liquid" animal became a collaborative film project—his son and wife, his friends, professionals—culminating in a Netflix release, and The Sea Change Project, an environmental conservation group.

 

I was so smitten with this film, and all who worked on it, that I messaged Pippa Ehrlich, one of the directors and cinematographers. I woke up to her replies the following morning. The production company has been inundated with requests since the film was launched, and yet she took the time to answer my questions, for which I was grateful.

 

"Like all ecosystems the kelp forest is facing a myriad of threats including plastic and chemical pollution," Pippa told me in our email exchange when I asked about environmental degradation of the forest. Darwin did not mention pollutants in his reports from the Galapagos in 1835, but he gave us fair, passionate warning:

 

Amidst the leaves of this [kelp] plant numerous species of fish live, which nowhere else could find food or shelter; with their destruction the many cormorants and other fishing birds, and otters, seals, and porpoises, would soon perish also

 

What did Darwin know, what did he see, that some still refuse to know, see and understand? Everything. It seems incredible, almost tragic, that his scientific prediction went unheeded. Yet, it has. I am consoled, at least, that Craig Foster, Pippa Ehrlich and their friends and colleagues are looking after the kelp forest in their waters, a continent away from where I live, and that they have used their storytelling gifts to tell an enlightening, inspiring and entertaining personal story. Find more information and interviews on their website: https://seachangeproject.com/

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Six

 
Image of Kaete Brttin Shaw's "Prayer Flags" @ the Unison Sculpture Garden, New Paltz, NY © copyright Carol Bergman 2020

 

Prayer Flags

 

 

Do something. Start with pleasure. Make a list of all the things that are pleasurable in your life and then make an art form out of one of them. And if you're courageous, make a list of all the things that are difficult in your life and make an art form out of one of them. 

 

 --Paulus Berensohn, a dancer who "pivoted" to pottery. He was Kaete Brittin Shaw's mentor at Swarthmore, founded by the Quakers.

 

Never forget that we are artists, every one of us, creating and sustaining a life out of this pandemic wilderness, our connection to others, the new challenges we face every day—joys, sorrows, ups and downs. We digest and enjoy one another's stories, in whatever medium they are rendered: culinary, sculptural, written, or photographic. Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Water Dancer this week, a gift from my daughter, I am in another time and place, transported by Hiram, a first person intimate narrator. I've only known Coates as a polemicist and essayist, and now this novel, not quite arrived but of interest nonetheless. Perhaps his next book will be better. And I try to touch in with visual art and visual artists as often as I can, too, even if I can't get to museums and galleries these days. The "arts & culture" app on Google helps, so, too, the occasional interview with an artist when I have been inspired or consoled by the work. This week: the ceramicist and colorist, Kaete Brittin Shaw.


I had first met Kaete at the Unison Arts gallery in New Paltz where I have taught a couple of workshops, but it was an acquaintanceship in passing until this summer when a mutual friend suggested I contact her to ask if I could buddy up for a long distance swim at Lake Minnewaska at the non-life-guarded beach, exclusively for those who have passed a test. Much as I would normally--and in normal times-- resist an exclusive club, mea culpa, I joined this one. I was already on Kaete's mailing list and was paying attention to her work. Then about ten-days ago, exhausted from a hack on my dedicated Virus Without Borders blog book site-- the realization that we'd have to take it down, the sadness of that-- I went up to the Unison Arts sculpture garden for respite.


It was a beautiful, soft, mellow day. The light dappled through the trees onto a simple wooden stage that had recently been built for outdoor, distanced performances. Interesting installations all around, weather ready, solid yet ethereal. I turned to my right and there were Kaete's prayer flags strung between the trees. I hadn't expected to see them there catching the light. My agitated spirit stilled.


I am always interested in an artist's choice of medium, analogous to a writer's choice of genre. Kaete only works with porcelain. Why porcelain? "Because of its whiteness," she explained during a telephone interview. "I'm a colorist and other clays absorb the color too much." For the prayer flags, she's added a layered screen. I'm not sure what this is exactly and look forward to examining them more closely when I'm next in the sculpture garden, or visiting Kaete's studio. That day will be a celebration.


When I asked Kaete about the inspiration for the flags, I assumed she was Buddhist, or had a meditation practice of some sort, but her inspiration was unexpected: she was raised Quaker. I have attended Quaker meetings and know that the long silences, though strange at times, nurture self-reflection and the solitude of artistic endeavor, not unlike Buddhist meditation practice. Indeed, silence is good for artists and writers, whenever and however we can find it. It allows the work to surface. Oddly, we've had too much silence and isolation during the pandemic, the gesture of touching expunged, our voices muffled by masks. Life out of balance.


"I have stalled on a major work," Kaete told me. I could relate as my plan to begin a new book project this summer never happened. I don't think anyone I know anticipated the long haul, the months of struggle, containment, uncertainty and anxiety for ourselves, our friends, our colleagues. our families, the world, an election looming. Who will have a job at the end of all this? When will we be able to travel, or walk into the grocery store without masks?


What has raised your spirits during this difficult time? I asked Kaete. "Biking and swimming," she said without hesitation. "Just floating on the lake, looking at the clouds and the cliffs. That helps." I know the feeling. All troubles drift away.



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Five

 
Image of 9/11, a day that disrupted and reconfigured the definition of America: "Devil's Inferno" © copyright Peggy Weis 

 

 

What is America to Me?

 

 


Amid expanding global conflicts, 79.5 million people are now displaced worldwide… UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)

 

 

Have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? 

 

Jenny Erpenbeck,  "Go Went Gone"

 

 

 

 


I met an acquaintance as I was walking in New Paltz this morning. Masks on, we stopped to talk, always a pleasure in these more isolated times. I'd heard from a mutual friend that she'd had a rough time, lost a good friend to COVID, and taken a fall some weeks ago, her knees and back slow to heal. Now she was out on the trail again, but her partner was feeling frustrated, she said, because they wouldn't be able to travel anytime soon and get away from what will surely be a harsh winter, especially if the virus spikes. I thought about the word frustration after we said goodbye, about the privilege it implies, and I tried to feel sympathetic, but couldn't. This is a family with money, a beautiful house, a pantry brimming with delectable food, access to the best medical care. How dare they complain, I thought to myself, when so many people are suffering here and all over the world? What is wrong with this country? What is wrong with us?


America. God Bless. When I received an offer of Austrian citizenship recently it suddenly dawned that I could go "home," that "home" was somewhere else, the country of my parents' birth, and childhood, and education. I fantasized the last quadrant of my life—if I am fortunate enough to have a quadrant—with an EU passport, universal health care, daily writing sessions at my favorite Viennese café, and nightly indulgence in the opera. My mother grew up standing room only; I'd treat myself to a loge seat.


I filled out the preliminary Austrian citizenship application. I sent it back and had a return email from the Austrian Consulate in New York. Oddly, I couldn't remember my father's birthday and had to look it up on the internet. I'd blanked. It was not surprising considering the fugue state I was in. What about my daughter? What about my husband? Was I planning to escape to Europe on my own? Never mind that I cannot speak German and have always refused to speak German even during and after I took a (free for me) German class at NYU. English is the lingua franca all over the world, I told myself, extending the fantasy to every detail of an imagined life in Vienna or, with an EU passport, Paris or Madrid.


I called my sensible cousin, Peggy, the creator of the American flag illustrating this blog post. But she was angry with me. I paraphrase and extrapolate: Have you forgotten what they did? Have you forgotten about the right wing surge in the EU right now? Have you forgotten what America meant to our parents? A bit late, nicht? Didn't the Germans offer repatriation to survivors and descendants a long time ago. And so on.


I woke up. And let the application slide.


I don't think I would have even been tempted if I wasn't feeling worried about the election, the crypto-fascist in the White House, and what will happen to all the people I know who have been laid off, and all the undocumented students I've had and what will happen to them, and how the migrant workers in the orchard will survive the winter, and whether or not those near and dear and near and far will survive the winter. COVID crazy. I laugh hysterically when I hear all the suggestions for grounding and breath counting and goodness knows what to manage our grief, our anxiety, our day-to- day coping, the necessity of continuing vigilance to stay safe. Always the words, "stay safe," at the end of every email, every conversation. Bizarre, indeed. But amidst all this bizarreness and uncertainty, I do know this: If artists and writers lose connection to pain as well as joy, we'd might as well quit working.



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Four

Photo of Andrew Geher and Tiernan McCarthy-Kenney © copyright Jack Hyland 2020, with permission.

 

                         

What We Choose to See

 

 

I suppose the shock of recognition is one of the nastiest shocks of all.
                 

                         Donna Tartt, The Secret History

        

Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, "Grow, Grow."

                                       

The Talmud

 

 

Andrew Geher and friends are cleaning up a dead zone, as deep and dark as a pit, cavernous and hidden, behind the local MacDonald's on Main Street in the small town where I live, New Paltz, NY.   It's an unofficial dumping ground and, possibly, a homeless encampment. In the past that would have been hard to believe in this affluent town, less so now that the pandemic has decimated so many jobs.  Andrew was walking by the site with his friends, a walk he's made often, but this time he saw the mess. This shock of recognition—the realization that our landscapes as well as our bodies can be compromised, trashed, or destroyed—stayed with him.

 

"I'd had a quiet, introspective few weeks when classes were suspended in the spring," Andrew told me in a phone conversation. A performer specializing in musical theater, going silent could have been especially difficult, but Andrew relished it. Both his dad and his sister had come down with COVID-19 and had to be quarantined in their respective rooms, both were very ill, though not hospitalized. They recovered, but it wasn't an easy time.

 

Still in his junior year of high school, Andrew didn't have his driver's license yet so he made plans with friends to walk masked and distanced around town, a safe way to get out and hang out.  Teenagers talking and walking. And then, one day, they passed the site and Andrew decided he'd organize a clean-up and posted an invitation on the community Facebook page. In addition to a cohort of personal friends, about a dozen of the local citizenry showed up, young and old, including Andrew's dad who was hauling a couch up a steep embankment when I arrived on a warm day in August.

 

Life for all of us has changed beyond all our imaginings; we all have been afflicted and challenged in particular ways.  Andrew and his friends will be entering their senior year of high school on Zoom, so the initial clean-up and a spin-off project is a give-back to the community, a broader, ambitious activism, and a way to stay sane and connected during the still difficult months ahead.  

 

On his new website,  donthurthearth.com,  Andrew says that he hopes to inspire his generation to be part of the solution, not the problem.  He deserves encouragement, support and applause.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Three

With thanks to Hailey Mohland Kopf for permission to use this adorable photo of her son, Griffin, reading to his fur-bro, Cairo.

 

 

Slow Reading

 

It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.

― George Orwell, 1984

 

 

I have two friends and a NY Times celebrity "friend" (Michelle Goldberg) who are all reading Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light. I treated myself to a hardback edition for my birthday at Inquiring Minds, an independent bookstore in town where I'd had my "Say Nothing" reading. I went there on the Monday of the very week in March—March 9th—we went into lockdown. By Wednesday I was teaching my NYU class remotely and awkwardly. I didn't start the book until many weeks later. There was too much to do, too much to think about; I couldn't settle to fiction. And Mantel's devices and language are difficult; she's an innovative writer. I manage about five pages a day at the end of the day, usually on the deck in the fading light. I take up my chair, some water, my phone and my exhaustion, not only from a day of work, but from all the bits and pieces of life's challenges we must sift and organize every day during this pandemic, intensified again since the SUNY students are back on campus and many are walking around unmasked. I watch the vultures, eagles and hawks hunt in the orchard, set the Pandora to medieval music, and begin to read the odd words and unfamiliar syntax at a painstaking pace, savoring every phrase and sentence. The book is over 700 pages. Yesterday I hit Page 413. The Machiavellian Thomas Cromwell has organized a marriage for his son, Gregory. The woman in question thought she was going to marry Thomas Cromwell himself, a wishful misunderstanding. Several pages ensue of embarrassment and Cromwellian charm and manipulation. It's riveting. And though I am sure that an actor reading this sequence would bring it to life in his or her own way, I relish the voices surfacing in my imagination without the mediation of a professional reader. The connection between an author's words on the page and another writer reading these words is instantaneous. It enables us to reflect on how a book is made, and what choices the writer has made to tell the story.


I am usually a fast reader—I can even speed read—but have not always been a fast reader, much less a reader. I don't think my parents ever had time or inclination to read to me when I was a child. I do remember reading Nancy Drew mysteries to my baby sister and enjoying that experience, but it wasn't really until my first boyfriend started throwing books at me during the summer before I started college that I took the purpose of reading seriously. His name was Steve, and if he's out there somewhere, I thank him, both for the love affair and for the books. The glove compartment of his rickety Renault was overflowing with paperbacks. The usual conversation between teens in love, whatever that might be, didn't interest him, and it didn't interest me. His parents were chicken farmers—educated, political chicken farmers. I didn't get them then; I do now. They were blacklisted and were hiding out in Tom's River, NJ. Alongside Dickens and Dostoevsky, the books in the glove compartment had titles I'd never heard of before, such as The Ugly American, a political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer that depicts the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia. That book led me to Graham Greene's The Quiet American, and beyond. That is what books do: they lead us from one subject to another, from one thinker to another. Knowledge accrues, curiosity is stimulated, our world widens.


Recently, a high school senior told me that he doesn't read very much, and he doesn't listen to audio books, either. Even some of my NYU students confess that they only read articles online; they rarely hold a book in their hands. I am troubled by the dearth of knowledge implied in this revelation, especially at a moment in our history when propaganda rather than fact and considered opinion floods our media. A functioning democracy requires an educated, deep-thinking population, as well as educators who demand commitment and rigor in the classroom, whether it is virtual or real.



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Two

 
Dr. Jonas Salk vaccinating a young child in 1955. When he refused to patent his vaccine, he was dubbed "the people's scientist."

 

The Anti-Vaxxers

 

  

Smallpox inarguably shaped the course of human history by killing countless millions in both the Old World and the New World. Dr. Edward Jenner's discovery of vaccination in the late 18th century, and the global eradication of smallpox in the 1970s, rank among the greatest achievements in human history.

US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health

 


I had never met an anti-vaxxer until I moved to upstate New York. I know they are everywhere in the interstices of our lives, but I had never met any. I think I was at a July 4th party when I heard a parent of young children complain that she'd have to home-school her children rather than give them vaccines. There had been a serious measles outbreak in New York State, and the legislature had acted decisively. No vaccines, no return to school. When I asked this parent why she refused to vaccinate her children, she told me, definitively, that vaccines cause autism, a debunked theory. She was an educated woman. What had she been reading? Moreover, as a parent, she continued, it was her "right" not to vaccinate her children. That gave me pause. What if every parent refused to vaccinate their child? The answer is not complicated: we'd have a resurgence of all sorts of diseases that have not been entirely eradicated, including polio.


I am old enough to remember polio epidemics every summer. Like other privileged New Yorkers, my parents made certain that their children were not in the city during the hot months. Polio is primarily spread through contaminated water or food (fecal-oral transmission), thus the terror of public swimming pools.

 

And then there were vaccines. My physician mother said, "My children will be first in line." The Salk vaccine arrived, then the Sabin oral vaccine. I recall standing online in the school cafeteria with my best Brownie girlfriend. We were in our uniforms, lots of badges. The vaccine was given to us little tykes as a special treat on cherry-flavored sugar cubes. No more polio.


My husband had undetected polio. He was robust and he survived—one of the lucky ones—but the entire left side of his body is smaller than the right. It was only years later that a doctor measured his uneven legs and figured out he'd probably had polio.

 

Lack of compliance to state government mandates has become a theme during the COVID-19 pandemic in America. It portends trouble when a new vaccine is available, possibly as early as November, just in time for the results of the election. If we don't all take it, COVID-19 will not be eradicated. It's a deadly disease, a terrible disease. And the pandemic is global. How can a parent justify endangering their child for years to come? How can any of us justify endangering our neighbors, national and international?
Conspiracy theories effloresce among under-educated populations. The check-out woman at the supermarket the other day said, deadpan, "I don't want them to put anything into me. It's alive. It will make me get it." I didn't dare ask if she was registered to vote, or if she planned to get the regular flu shot, though I should have. She was fearful and I felt bad for her; she is an essential worker, exposed to COVID more than I, a good reason to get the vaccine, I said. She asked me more questions about live vs. dead vaccines. At least she was thinking, I told myself, processing the way a vaccine works. "Just get it," I said. "Protect yourself and your loved ones. Try not to worry." But I have no ready reply to the seemingly more educated anti-vaxxers, and no illusions that I can persuade anyone with rational, scientific ideas, or with this blog post. I defer to the legislators to pass laws that mandate vaccines for the safety of all citizens. Like it or not, that is the role of government.


People 18 years of age and older who are interested in participating in a clinical trial can visit https://www.coronaviruspreventionnetwork.org (link is external)or ClinicalTrials.gov and search identifier NCT04470427 for details.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-One

In 2017, construction workers in Copenhagen found ruins of an ancient Roman kitchen--mosaics and menus--during the renovation of a restaurant on the same site. Roman oven-baked flat-bread was served with a variety of toppings.

 

 

Conversations About Pizza in a Plague Year

 

 

We're here because this moment demands an explanation.

 

Michael Barbaro, The NY Times Daily

 


It's not often I have an opportunity to converse about pizza while ordering a curbside pick-up from the pharmacy. I didn't tell the man who was gathering my order that I was eager to have a conversation even though I am on the phone a lot and have a shelter-in-place partner. I love to talk and to ask lots of questions. Connection is my occupation; I'm a curious journalist. The pandemic has slowed me down. I don't like it. No wonder I've become addicted to M&Ms. I always include two bags with my order, a staple since #covidcurbsidepickup began. I wanted to make sure the M&Ms were in the bag. Had I forgotten to mention them? "No, you didn't," he said. "They're right here." Of course, pharmacy guy also knows my name as I'm a regular and he has to take my credit card. And his name, well I know it, but won't mention it here, I'm too distracted. Please note, dear reader: there is nothing unusual about distraction during a pandemic.


The conversation about pizza began because I had a torn green bag--a giveaway from a local pizza parlor-- on the front seat, and long ago, in another life, I'd had a conversation with this selfsame man gathering my pharmacy order about pizza and how pizza always arrives in a cardboard box, which is environmentally correct. The "no plastic bag law" had gone into effect in our town before the pandemic, but it is now all but forgotten. Plastic bags everywhere. The proprietor of my favorite pizza parlor had bought a bunch of green canvas bags logo-ed in big white letters with his personal name, which is also the name of the pizza parlor: Rino's. Rino's is in the same mall as Ignite, the gym we can no longer enter. I know Rino—we both preferred the same bike at the gym when the word "gym" was still in our morning lexicon—and sometimes he was using it when I arrived for a work-out, and sometimes I was using it when he arrived. He made good pizza. I liked his pizza. And even though the new canvas bags were thin and ripped easily, I didn't complain.


The guy at the pharmacy had never agreed about the quality of Rino's pizza. He reiterated this critique during our #covidcurbsidepickup conversation, and I replied with compliments: "Rino has been doing a great job with deliveries during the pandemic, albeit he's using plastic bags." I said. But the pharmacy guy grew up in Brooklyn. "The only good pizza is made in Brooklyn," he said, yet again, not referring to the backslide into plastic bags.


"The crust is too thin," the pharmacy guy continued.


"Oh, you still only like thick crust?" I asked. "You haven't changed your mind?"


"Thin crust is okay when there is a lot of stuff on it," he reminded me.


"But what if you don't want a lot of stuff on it? Just cheese? Or just veggies?"


"Well, then, I guess a thin crust is okay."


"So, you agree with me after all?" I said.


"I don't eat veggie pizza," the guy said.


I was prolonging the conversation. I didn't want to get back to work or find out what volcano had erupted in the Senate that day. But the guy was eager to get on with his next order. I was taking too much of his time and it was all on the phone, whereas our previous conversation about pizza had taken place F2F. It's easy to linger F2F and delay a good-bye. Now there was a line of cars behind me at the curb waiting for their pick-ups, so I said, "Okay, I don't have anything else to say about pizza right now." Some conversations don't last long. A conversation about pizza during a pandemic is one of them.



 

 

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty

With thanks to Marika Cinque Condos for permission to use her photo, "Birds Awaiting the Storm @ Montauk."

  

Storms

 

 

 

A new Cold War-like atmosphere is engulfing science. The science we need to solve world problems like pandemics and challenges from climate change cannot be achieved without politically neutral agendas where the global public good is paramount.

 

– Helle Porsdam, Professor of Law and Humanities and UNESCO Chair in Cultural Rights at the University of Copenhagen

 

 

   

We have just recovered from a fast-moving, fierce, too-early- in- the-season hurricane, Hurricane Isaias. It ripped down trees and wires, knocked out power and cable. Like the arrival of a dread, still mysterious virus, our 21st century digital lives were upended. If we are poor, our lives continue to upend. Hardship on top of hardship.


When I was a kid in New York City, I always wanted to watch the hurricanes arriving. All up and down West End Avenue, canopies were taken down and, on Broadway, protections raised on plate glass windows. I could hardly contain my excitement that I'd have a day off school. Weather drama. Hurricane Holiday. But storms have worsened, and drama is not what we want or need any more, especially during a pandemic. The two events are scientifically connected; it's long past time to pay attention.


The U.S. National Hurricane Center started naming hurricanes in the early 1950s. Now, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a UN agency with 193 member countries, generates the list of hurricane names--male and female these days-- and oversees the global response to climate change and the effects of climate change.


"Still no internet here," I wrote on my FB page the morning after the storm as I answered posts from near and far. Like COVID, everyone's experience was different, on a spectrum of "sheltering in a basement with two cats" to "not much, a mild case." It's a reminder that every human life and circumstance is of concern, no story to be disregarded. When a storm or a pandemic hits one country and one family, it hits us all.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Nine


Photo of a sunset © copyright by Carol Bergman 2020

 

 

Sunsets & Flowers

 

 

The human spirit creates freedom.

 

 -Ben Okri

 

 

And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

 

                                        -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

 

 

When most news is still bad news, I notice that sunsets and flowers get the most FB and Instagram hits, whereas more serious posts do not. It is as though, by reading them, we risk defeat, we risk unremitting sorrow. Sufferation, the Jamaicans call it. Best not allow the bad news to saturate our spirits. Take a road trip, break bubbles and pods to visit family across state lines, why not? Settle into a big book and read slowly contemplating every word, savoring each phrase. Inside the book there is no danger, no denial. Stay very still. Shut the pundits down. Go for a walk. Admire the sunsets and flowers.

 

Why this sardonic prologue today rather than a story or an interview? Because, dear reader, I have two beloved friends in nursing homes, and the autistic son of another is in an institution, and I am full of unremitting sorrow for them and their families. On a drive up the mountain for a distance swim with my daughter in her pond the other day, I missed these friends who have unwittingly become "inmates," and thought, "When will I ever see them again? And will they survive this pandemic?" The radio was tuned to 94.3, "light" FM. I wailed:  I'm never gonna let you go/ I'm gonna hold you in my arms forever,,,

 

There is something here, as I write, that feels helpful as I surface from these dark thoughts, as well as two difficult encounters, one with a neighbor, the other at the pool—masks, distance, protocols, compliance—endless conversations. Both incidents were verging on violence, the one physical, the other verbal, though there was threat in both. And though I consider myself a citizen journalist, I never expect disrespect, or worse; incivility and hatred always take me by surprise. But America is aflame with rage and accusation.

 

What would my observant, kind friend Harmer have said as I recounted these incidents? What would my astute no nonsense friend Josephine have said? I remember the last time I saw them both and cherish those penultimate, or ultimate, face-to-face conversations, over lunch, over dinner, arms around one another in a warm good-bye.

 

I lament the callous disregard of the regime in Washington that has prolonged the separation of friends and family and endangered all of us. Only a vaccine and a vigorous and protected election will set us free.

 

 

This post is dedicated to Harmer Johnson, Josephine Feagley and Gerard's TJ.

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Eight

Photo: Margaret Sanger


The Take-Down; Margaret Sanger, My Mother & Me

 

 

I plan to be a mother some day. 'Til then I'm using the Pill.

Planned Parenthood Poster

 

The removal of Margaret Sanger's name from our building is both a necessary and overdue step to reckon with our legacy and acknowledge Planned Parenthood's contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color.

                   -Karen Seltzer, CEO Planned Parenthood, New York City

 

 

My mother worked pro bono at least one day a week at the Margaret Sanger clinic in Manhattan in the 1950's and 1960's. She was an obstetrician-gynecologist responsible for exams, pap smears, birth control information, fitting diaphragms and, eventually, artificial inseminations for women unable to become pregnant. The clinic served all women—it was a clinic--and women of all colors, ethnicities, immigrant status, and economic status waited their turn to be seen by the medical staff. I went there as a college student, age 17, for my first diaphragm. I didn't need anyone's permission; I went on my own on a day my mother was not there. My memory is that the clinic had a sliding scale and that I paid $10. I sat in the waiting room feeling proud and free. Then I told my mother I'd been for my first gynecological check-up and she was proud of me.


Margaret Sanger—born in 1897—was already living in Tucson when my mother began to work at the flagship clinic, but occasionally came to visit, introduced herself to the staff, attended a meeting, and disappeared. She was a heroine to my emancipated, European doctor mother whose uncle Arnold, a socialist in the tradition of European Democratic Socialism, was a doctor for the trolley union in Vienna. Sanger was also a socialist. She believed, as did my mother, that clinics serving women of all backgrounds are mandated to deliver medical care fairly and indiscriminately. The concept of "concierge" medicine would have horrified my mother, though a privileged upper-middle class lifestyle supported by a private practice, did not horrify her. No person is all one thing. Nor was Margaret Sanger. Layered through her courageous feminist activism are ideas about selective breeding; she was a eugenicist. We cannot revise or erase the words she wrote or spoke over many years. Nor is it enough to say that these ideas were common at the time they were expressed; or that they were heedless. Racist ideas are dangerous. They incite violence; they legitimate genocide. I do not know if my mother or the other workers in the clinic were aware of Sanger's eugenicist ideas or discussed them. As a refugee from genocide, and a trained physician, I doubt my mother would have entertained them in any way, or given them scientific credence.


The decision to change the name of the Manhattan clinic, and to remove a Margaret Sanger street name, arrives amid an unrelenting right-wing campaign against a woman's right to choose and the essential medical services offered by Planned Parenthood. I understand its' necessity at this profound moment of correction in American historical narratives, but removing monuments is always fraught, and this one feels personal to me.

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