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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Six



A Trip To the Moon



Magical thinking in desperate times, perhaps. I woke up thinking about a trip to the moon. Then I made a call and booked a flight. I did not hesitate.

The conflagration on earth continued unabated and the fire fighters had run out of equipment. We could afford to evacuate therefore we decided to evacuate. We stocked up on all the necessities and proceeded to the launch pad. We had to bribe the warden, no matter, we had plenty of money. The customs officer didn't ask any questions, therefore we didn't answer any questions. It was accepted, a given, that those of us who lived on the 88th floor would take a trip to the moon. But would it be temporary or permanent?

It was a cruel virus unlike any other we had experienced before. Our elders had been targeted but, as we were told by our esteemed leader, it was best to triage and leave them to their fate, which was certain death. We said our goodbyes through the glass canopy. We lied and said we were headed to the Canadian border and would be back soon. My mother shouted obscenities. I did not cry. I remained silent, but wonder if I will be able to forget her fracked face.

What I meant to say to her is already on this page. Why therefore must I record it? Please do not ask me to repeat myself again. You have asked our reasons for abandoning our responsibilities and obligations; the answer is on this page as I have said. How are we different from so many others? We march in lockstep. We wish to save ourselves.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Five


"Tracks & Rivulets," photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2020





When I mentioned to a friend that I wasn't sure if NYU would open for live classes in the fall, she said, "I'm not as pessimistic as you are." That is good news—for her—but not for me. I'm as pessimistic—if that's what she wants to call it—as I want or need to be in this moment, right now, today. Tomorrow I may feel differently, and that's my prerogative. I don't want to have to defend the way I am responding to the global tragedy to someone who feels differently. If I had a phlegmatic temperament I suppose I'd be grateful right now, but I'm not feeling grateful, and I can't respond to jokes, or kids playing the guitar on FB posts to entertain their beleaguered parents, or meditate myself into calmness. And when someone tells me that a yoga video class helps, I say, great, let's do it, but I'm not cheerful about it, not at all. I don't want to om myself into such a transcendant mood that I am not paying attention to what is going on, or tell myself that there are still so many beautiful things in the world to enjoy that I don't really have to be worried. That might be you, but it's not me. We may have very different families of origin, different cultural mores that inflect our emotional responses, different life experiences, different triggers. Viva!


As I have written here before: artists and writers are both blessed and afflicted with heightened sensitivity. Our sensitivity fuels our work; we can't just shut it off. Okay, so you're not worried. Hello, dear friend, I am. You should see what I wrote in my journal this morning and the blog post I'm working on. I use my worry in my work. So, please, don't disparage or judge me, or try to jolly me out of the way I feel, just give me a virtual hug and when you need an empathetic ear, try mine. And read what I write even if it's a bit raw and not yet transformed into art. Yes, of course, I know that spring is here. Didn't you notice the photos of buds on my FB page that got more hits than anything else? Now let's figure out how we can mitigate risk when we go to the grocery store.


Another friend traveled up to the city from Washington DC just last week and sent me a gorgeous wide-angle photo of a nearly empty Grand Central station at (what used to be) rush hour. I responded to the gorgeous photo, of course, then I asked, "Why are you traveling?" Isn't that the logical question in the circumstances? Well, not for him. He'd been a relief worker in war zones so what's a pandemic by comparison? Is that how his mind works? Meanwhile, he's on a train from one city to another risking infection for himself and others, maybe even spreading infection. Was this essential travel, or not? I didn't ask. He was entirely comfortable with his choice; I wasn't.


I suppose some people still believe they can defy the odds, that the lockdown is not serious and we only need to pay attention to Executive Orders when it doesn't inconovenience us in any way. This is America, right, and we are all free to do as we please. Individualism run amok. Or is it entitlement? Or arrogance? I wonder if I can justify the resentment I feel as the evacuees from the city arrive upstate to their getaway homes, emptying the stores and bringing more virus with them. When my daughter started a FB thread about overcrowding on a trail she runs, people shmoozing and not moving out of the way, socializing when they've been told to stop socializing, and we learned today that the Mohonk Preserve has been closed because of overcrowding, I was mad as hell. Be I ever so humble, dear reader, I'd do exactly the same if I still lived in the city and wanted to make sure that my family was safe.


Sadly, I've had to stop walking with a friend as there's no way we can keep our 6ft. separation as we chatter away. Sadly, I had to find a solitary walk far away from the maddening crowd. I'm keeping the location to myself, which is selfish, I admit, but I, too, have to maintain my equilibrium, and a sense of safety, no matter how delusional.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Four


Sound of Gunshot, Sound of Crows


What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for."

"When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don't see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy."

                                --Joseph Heller, Catch 22


This is the second day in a row that birdsong, even the harsh caw of crows, has been disturbed by gunshot as I walked down Huguenot Street. I'm assuming that a nearby gun club is open so that the survivalists among us can practice their aim for the apocalypse they'd always known was coming. Or, maybe, they are just hunters getting ready for the season. For hunting enthusiasts interested in shooting and eating squirrels, the season in New York State begins September 1. If you would prefer shooting, skinning, de-feathering and masticating wild turkey when the supermarkets run out of perishables, turkey hunting season in New York State begins October 1. For "bag limits," and dates for deer, bear and other wild creatures living free of fear until hunters stalk them, please consult the New York Department of Environmental Conservation website. It's a government agency that does it's taxpayer-funded job: regulation, information, and policing.

Out in the big wide revved-up dystopian world, we should be so lucky to have all—and not just some—of our elected officials looking after us. My dear Canadian cousin, Sherry, has been steaming towards the United States from the South Seas for several days on the Massdam, a gigunda cruise ship. (Discussion of the environmental degradation that cruise ships perpetrate some other time.) David Ige, the Governor of Hawaii, allowed the ship to dock, to refuel, to take on some food and supplies, but only passengers with medical conditions and those who live in Hawaii were permitted to disembark. Sherry had hoped to fly back to Toronto from Honolulu and was concerned. She sent me a series of emails asking what I knew beyond what the captain had been telling the passengers. At sea for a while, they had not experienced the intensifying protocols on our borders, nor were they informed about the struggles between our state governments and federal government. I tried to explain and said I'd make some phone calls.

I put on my journalist's hat, took out my reporter's notebook, and got to work. First port of call, Hawaii's Department of Transportation, the agency responsible for landing ships. They sent me a press release. Here's the essential paragraph:

The health and safety of all people in Hawaii is always at the forefront of operational decisions. Presently, all state resources are focused and directed towards containing the spread of COVID-19. Allowing more than 2,500 passengers and crew to disembark will further strain these resources," said Director Jade Butay, Hawaii Department of Transportation. "HDOT and the State are allowing the ships to dock at Honolulu Harbor so they may refuel and restock. Neither ship had originally planned to make Hawaii its final port and both will carry on to mainland destinations, where more resources can be marshalled to handle the passengers and crew properly.

Every well-trained reporter knows how to work a story. The sound of gunshot does not stop us. We make one phone call, and then another, and another. We hope we will get the story. This press release was not the whole story.

I called Gavin Newsom's office, I called the Port of San Diego, I called the Coast Guard. The cruise ships are being tossed around like political footballs until/if/when the President decides to over-ride every Governors' decision with an Executive Order. The Governors are saying they have no resources to process passengers off cruise ships, they need federal assistance, which is not forthcoming. As we all know by now, there is a lacuna in the White House, zilch leadership, not even the thinnest notion of a Greater Good. All of us are caught at sea, riding the waves of the pandemic and the political turmoil that is America right now.

The Massdam is heading towards San Diego, due to dock on March 27. Hopefully all passengers will disembark, get processed, tested, or quarantined, gratis the Great State of California and its Governor, Gavin Newsom. If the repatriating flights into Canada are able to take off, Sherry will be flying over a closed international border. I'm sure she will be relieved to self-isolate at home.


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Three

© photo copyright by Carol Bergman 2020
A flock of black vultures on the clock tower of the Dutch Reformed Church on Historic Huguenot Street, New Paltz, NY.


Sheltering in Place



It was as if he were in a place that the whole world had forgotten, as if it were snowing at the end of the world.


Orhan Pamuk, "Snow"


I broke into tears when my daughter called me on Facetime today. She's only thirty minutes away on the other side of the Minnewaska Ridge, but it felt like an ocean. I had planned a trip up to see her on Thursday, and to walk her older dog, Willow, who is now thirteen, and who is very special to me, but we decided—because of unknown exposure--that it is best if we all "shelter in place," and reassess at the end of the month. This is for the benefit of the family, of our immediate circle of friends and colleagues, and beyond that—our communities, especially those most at risk.

For those who still do not understand, or accept, the urgency of "flattening the curve," I suggest they listen to Michael Barbaro's March 17th "The Daily" podcast interview with an Italian doctor. Barbaro was close to tears, as was the doctor, as they talked about the 1000 bed hospital just outside of Milan, and the more than 400 nurses who are either out sick, or so burned they needed to take some rest days. The doctor, in his 40's, had not been home to see his family for three weeks.

I've been thinking about the new vocabulary and new concepts we've had to learn just in the past week, "flattening the curve" being the most recent. We have moved from simple phrases such as "self-isolation," and "quarantine," to "containment, "social distancing," "executive orders," "sheltering in place," and "lockdown," which implies coercion and the possible use of military or police powers, as has already happened in China and Italy. It does not matter that one is an autocratic regime with unquestioned coercive powers, and the other is a democracy that abhors such powers, because every time we leave our homes to go to the grocery store, for example, we are playing Russian Roulette, endangering ourselves and others. The role of government at such a time is clear: it must be forceful and it must be decisive. If our civil liberties are endangered, we must attend to that danger also, but we must be alive to do so.

I think it was my visit to the grocery store yesterday that triggered my tears when my daughter called. The word "hoarding" was in my head as I woke inside a nightmare. I reached for my journal to write it down.

I had chosen to go to Tops, a very large supermarket in the mall, rather than my favorite small health store, because I knew I wouldn't be able to stay 6ft. away from anyone in that intimate space. I had my list and whizzed through the long aisles with its nearly empty shelves. I only encountered three other customers, all wearing bandanas for masks, and a guy in an electronic wheelchair looking bewildered. No workers were in sight until I arrived at the checkout line. I had managed to find a few necessary items, but the whole experience shook me. Thus, the nightmare. And even though a psychologist friend at the University of Sheffield reassured me that hoarding is a survival instinct, especially when there is no leadership, I couldn't shake the image of the empty shelves and ordinary people like you and me filling huge shopping carts to the brim without concern for anyone else. It takes fortitude to remain altruistic in such difficult times and we cannot be expected to be strong and thoughtful every day. But thinking of others does help me, which is why I like teaching so much and miss my students. I wrote to all of them today and heard back from a few in eloquent emails, and then I went out for a much needed solitary walk. The fresh air and chirping birds also calmed my faltering spirit. I stopped to snap some pics of a flock of black vultures on the church tower. (I find them odd and oddly beautiful.) Once home, I made myself a nourishing meal, chit chatted to my husband, and sat down to write this post.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Two


We Take a Walk



After working most of the day on our computers, my husband and I decided to take a walk in town to get some air and light. I had already exercised early in the morning on our stationary bike while listening to Friday's New York Times "The Daily" podcast, a scary overview of the coronavirus. All my fears were confirmed and solidified; we are in for a long siege. This realization made me pedal really fast and stay on the bike until the end of the podcast. When my mind wandered away from accepting the pandemic reality, I fantasized a trip to Iceland. I've always wanted to go there.

I already miss the gym, which I had decided to forgo three days ago—machines close together, all that sweat. There's always chit chat at the gym and I missed that most of all. As a free lancer who works from home, micro-connections refuel me and are essential to my well being. Now everyone gets to work from home, so there's solace in that, I suppose, because we are in this together; we are not alone. Not surprisingly, I've been on the phone a lot as even conversations with my husband do not replace the daily conversations I so enjoy. Even worse, I do not get out to teach; all my workshops have been cancelled. And meeting friends for a meal or a coffee or a drink is not possible. No gatherings, no hugging. We must attend to this psychological and sensory deprivation and find ways of assuaging its effects. More voice than email or text, I'd say, more phone calls than posts on social media. Staying in touch means literally—staying in touch.

For every writer external and internal landscapes are interconnected. Like musicians, visual artists, and actors, we are blessed—or afflicted—with heightened sensitivity and have to take special care during historic, life-changing events. True, they can become an inspiration also, so we must keep working in some way or, at the very least, document our experience of the surreal world we are now living in.

Shortly after 9/11 a reporter from the LA Times called to ask me how long it would take for that atrocity to find its way into literary endeavors. The odd thing was, it already had. I was teaching at Gotham Writers Workshop and NYU at the time and writing fiction, nonfiction and poetry nonstop for all the spoken word events around town. This work was raw, most of it non-publishable, yet some have been collected into anthologies as "testimony." Even that kind of in-the-moment writing is valuable, both as writing practice, and as documentation for the historians who will write about our era in the decades to come.

We live but an instant on the timeline of history, one reason why our fascination with what is old and preserved never wanes. Walking Huguenot St., the 17th and 18th century landmarked buildings stir conversation and many questions. The Lenape settlement in New Paltz dates back more than 5,000 years; we walk their sacred land. Imagine an epidemic at that time, I said to my husband as we sat on a moss-covered bench in front of the Dutch Reformed Church. Many illnesses were untreatable, many deadly. The indigenous population suffered most grievously when the European settlers arrived; they were decimated by pathogens previously unknown in their world. And though there are many Huguenot descended families still living in New Paltz, there are no indigenous people anywhere nearby. The remnants of their bands migrated west and north, joining other tribes for survival.

A few months ago I spoke to one of the curators at Historic Huguenot Street about new findings, not just skeletons and burial sites, but adult-sized cradles found in the houses. The sick and dying were laid in them and rocked gently, she told me, usually by slaves.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter One

© photo copyright by Carol Bergman 2020


 A Visit to the Bank



Al Torquato is my very friendly, sweet-natured, engaging local banker. He's a city transplant, as am I, has raised a son and a daughter in New Paltz, and likes to walk to ease the pain in his bad back. When I first arrived at his desk just about two years ago, and told him I was an avid walker, he suggested a route up Plains Road past the Rural Cemetery, the route he likes to walk because there isn't much traffic. So he's local and I am local. We discuss our lives while doing business even when the business is not that interesting, or pleasurable, or perhaps because it is not particularly interesting or pleasurable. We sit, we talk, we sign papers, we get online, we make a phone call or two, we figure out a problem, all in the context of person-person connection and lots of stories. Al is a voluble storyteller. He tells stories about his childhood, his leisure pursuits, his long marriage, his children. I listen and then I tell my own stories. He listens and then tells more stories.

Al is known to hug his clients now and again, which is not a good idea these days. So when I sat down at his desk yesterday I kept my distance, as instructed, noted with enthusiasm the Purell on his desk, and proceeded to Lysol his desk, the arms of the chair, and the credit card machine. He burst out laughing. This is not unusual; Al smiles all the time and laughs easily. But then came a problem: he had to make a phone call to an off-site department of the bank on my behalf. He immediately introduced himself, and asked the woman's name—she was in Richmond, VA—introduced her to me, and started to hand me the phone he'd just been breathing into. I took out my Lysol wipes. "Just a minute, Hannah, she has to disinfect the phone." We both laughed. I was a bit hysterical, in fact. And laughed and laughed. Finally, I picked up the phone, disinfected it, and took care of my business with Hannah, who was also laughing and friendly, probably because Al had been laughing and is so friendly. Good business, of course, but also good people.

So what's the lesson here, I asked myself, as I said my good-byes. Take good care, follow all health protocols and directives, but do not stop telling stories. We need each other right now, all the time, all day long, as much connection as we can muster in all contexts, however challenging. Let the humanity and compassion in all of us shine. Assume the best of everyone. And listen to lots of music. With that in mind, I opened all my car windows and blasted some reggae on the way home. I had been worried—about everything—when I went into the bank, but my fears had eased.

I report this to you today, dear reader, as my first entry in the Virus Without Borders "witness to history" assignment. This is the assignment my NYU students are working on at the moment. I hereby now assign it to myself. We are living a profoundly difficult history. As peripheral narrators—in the action and observing the action—we have the tools to document this moment. Stay tuned for more chapters from this reporter/writer. Please share yours with friends, family, co-workers and neighbors.

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Disembodied Voices


Human echolocation is the ability of humans to detect objects in their environment by sensing echoes from those objects, by actively creating sounds: for example, by tapping their canes, lightly stomping their foot, snapping their fingers, or making clicking noises with their mouths.





Last week, I taught both my NYU class and my private workshop remotely, from my desk in Ulster County, New York which, for the moment, has no cases of the coronavirus. In consideration of two members of my immediate family who are at risk, I decided not to increase their risk by inadvertently bringing the virus home. And though the Trailways bus company is responsibly following all CDC and NY State Dept. of Health protocols, they are not dis-infecting, nor is Port Authority or the New York City subways. Governor Cuomo declared a State of Emergency on Saturday. Perhaps all protocols will now change.

I have resisted teaching online for many years, and after this experience, I have not changed my mind. The wonderful, warm dynamic of the classroom was gone. So, too, the delicious paper overload as manuscripts are passed out, everyone standing up and chatting and moving around the classroom until everything is distributed. I missed the voices of my students most of all, their gestures, their body language, their funky outfits and over-filled briefases and backpacks, their recyclable water bottles on the desks, their laughter as I spilled yet more paper onto the floor as a thoughtful comment from one of them excited me.

I do think we are like dolphins and bats and whales, all of whom require physical proximity to echolocate communication. My echolocation apparatus was nearly entirely dismantled last week as we exchanged disembodied email communications for hours and then days.

So, too, with my private students. I have six in my advanced group at the moment, and as we all convened on a conference call, I was disoriented for a few minutes. Who was speaking? Who was not speaking? This was odd as I have worked with all of them for a while. I was expected to "chair" the discussion, of course, and because I was a bit late joining the call, I was even more disoriented. Finally, the only way I could anchor myself was to visualize them sitting around the conference table where we usually meet. Oh, so there is Max and Ed and Jenny and Judy and Sherry and Eric, I said to myself. And as I placed them visually at the table, I was able to connect the bodily "them" to their voices. Though the conversation went on for nearly two hours, I never felt entirely comfortable.

I can't wait to "see" my students again and to engage with them in the dynamic classroom. If we are forced to communicate remotely for the rest of the term because of THE VIRUS, I'll have to improve my listening skills, and find a way to echolocate, as blind people do every day.

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Take Me To Your Leader


Speechless, wordless, paralyzed, mentally exhausted after the weekend's political events and the threat of a pandemic. I'm in the middle of revising a book, which is diverting, and reading my students' manuscripts for class this week, which is diverting, and took two beautiful walks in the sunshine yesterday, and saw a spectacular art exhibition (more another time), but apart from that, what's a writer to write on her blog this week?

For some reason "take me to your leader," popped into my head as I was writing in my journal this morning. Now where did that come from? Is it a meme, or a trope, or a cliché, buried in our cultural unconscious, if Jung were to describe it, that I have somehow digested into my personal unconscious? When I looked the sentence up on the internet I discovered its actual origin: a 1953 Alex Graham cartoon in The New Yorker. It then turned up again in 1957—Season 5, Episode 12—of the TV Superman series.

It was probably the vision of 45 at the Press Conference, his faux tan, comb-over, strange top lip wrinkles and too-small mouth that looks like the entrance to a straw that began my saga. I started spinning a story out of the apparition, a man without a moral rudder who purports to be a leader of the American People. Good grief, what a strange story/allegory emerged. I offer it to you here, dear reader:

ALIENS have landed on Planet Earth, their platter-shaped ship tossed by high seas has now landfalled on Greenland's moss green permafrost. Greta Thunberg is in their craft's contact list. They wish to speak to her. And though the ALIENS don't completely understand the words "climate activist" or "democracy," as these concepts are inbred in their DNA (yes, even ALIENS have DNA), they do understand exactly what Greta is doing: saving, or trying to save, or hoping to save the small world—Planet Earth—among so many other worlds in our shared Universe.

They have landed in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, population 16,800 humans, Danish humans, Inuit humans, and Danish-Inuit humans. They are kind people who love children as much as they do. They request an airlift to Washington DC. Will Greta be there? Or is she still on Trevor Noah's late night television show? The ALIENS like him too. He has a child-face, and though he speaks English a bit funny, they can understand all he says. Remember when he took his crew to Soweto to visit his 91-year-old grandmother? How can one not love such a person as Trevor Noah, a sweet man who calls his grandmother Coco?

Love. Children. Family. An inter-planetary lingua franca.

The ALIENS are fast learning the conditional tense, however. They have sent a message to the President of the United States, as follows: We would hope that you might appreciate our contention that war—domestic or international—is not good for the environment. Kindly confirm. It is because they did not receive a reply that they compiled a mission to Earth. They request an airlift to Washington DC from the kindly Greenlanders.

Helmets off, the ALIENS are in compatibility mode, breathing the heavily oxygenated albeit polluted air. They board a vehicle that spews big smoke and vibrates on take off, unlike their smooth-floating craft. Sadly, their transport is not permitted to land in Washington DC; the president is in self-preservation germaphobic lockdown and refuses diplomacy with all ALIENS, who he considers a HOAX. They are forced to retreat to Nuuk where they are consoled by the locals over a hearty home-cooked meal and bed down for the night in a warm inn. Their mission has failed. They will return to Planet Earth when there is a new leader.

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