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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twelve



Birds of a Feather



"Hope" is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul /And sings the tune without the words /And never stops at all


The first vcrse of "Hope Is The Thing With Feathers" by Emily Dickinson circa 1861, published posthumously in 1891



I've always loved this poem by Emily Dickinson, and even memorized it a few years ago, but today I wanted to write my own version, a departure from the original: Hope is the thing with feathers/We're all #inthistogther/ No matter the weather. This little ditty gave me much pleasure, inconsequential as it is. There's probably a fourth line to complete the verse, but it's eluding me right now. Feathers, bellweathers, flocking together, I don't know. I often wake in the morning with sentences in my head. Today this poem wouldn't stop. Maybe it was "hope" that kept it going. Maybe it was the snow flurries; snow flurries in April always loosen my writer's brain. Or maybe it was the movement of the car. I was driving up the mountain on the way to my daughter's homestead to get some fresh eggs, home-made sour-dough bread (my son-in-law is cookin'), honey (from last year's hive) and apples, and to walk the dogs around the property, and indulge in some virtual hugs and long distance 6 ft.-apart-with-masks-conversation, when I thought of Emily Dickinson's poem and how it rhymes with #inthistogether.

And do the feathers in Dickinson's poem refer to birds? No, of course not, it's a metaphor, it isn't literal. Literal is me out on the deck watching the birds of prey—black vultures and turkey vultures, hawks, falcons and eagles—soar on the wind off the ridge and descend for a luscious meal. The pickings are plentiful round here: groundhogs, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and other species I have not, as yet, identified. I've only been living free of concrete and embedded in nature for a couple of years. I'm learning, for example, that on some days the competition is fierce—eagles chasing off turkey vultures from their kill—other days it feels more peaceful, but that's only from my vantage. I'm not a bird so how could I know?

So engrossed was I the other day watching the display of these magnificent creatures that I missed my friend Norma's birthday, and by the time I remembered it was too late to call London. Happy Birthday, Norma. When I told her why I had missed her birthday, that I too was flying on the wind, out of the apartment and enjoying the fresh air and light, she asked if I was safe watching all those birds of prey. Of course, I explained. They aren't going to eat me.

Then I wondered. Would they? Maybe if I was road kill, which I am not planning to be anytime soon. And as I have deep respect for these powerful birds, I won't ever get in their way, I will just silently observe. I don't even need binoculars, though maybe I should pull them out now and again to get closer, though I wouldn't want to be too close.

A while ago, when I was at my daughter's for the weekend, looking after the animals, I took the compost out in the early morning, let the chickens out, started to spill the compost for them, and whoosh, a red-tailed hawk swooped down for breakfast right over my left shoulder. It was as though a tornado had suddenly come up without warning. I threw the pail in the air and screamed so loud the neighbors heard me. The hawk got clean away albeit without her breakfast, leaving a wake of terror, among chickens and human alike.



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Eleven

What We Have



Sometimes we don't know what we have until we've lost it.

Governor Cuomo, at his press conference, 4/17/2020



Our Governor, our leader-in-chief right now, our emotional intelligence mentor, our protector and kindred spirit, someone I'd like to invite to a dinner party, or take with me on a long walk and talk, not alone necessarily, though I know some of my single friends wouldn't mind. (They will have to stand in line.) He was talking about his mother, how he's beginning to realize what is most important, how being busy is no excuse for cancelling a date with her, or postponing a date with her. He is never going to do that again.

So we're learning, right? And not just about pathogens and pandemics, but about the goodness coursing through all of us and, more importantly, perhaps, intentional goodness, the act of kindness, paying attention to what we have, reaching out, volunteering, meeting our responsibilities, leaning out the window and singing in an ensemble of community spirit. The possibilities are endless, they will never end, even when this particular pandemic is over.

I understand all this, I see it clearly. But to be the recipient of someone else's kindness is harder for me. I don't know why. Maybe because I'm always observing, recording in my journalist's brain, peripheral to the action, on the outside looking in. Then, suddenly, I'm on the inside looking out, and it's #inthistogether.

I was at the mall waiting for my young volunteer writer friend, Sara, to load my groceries into the trunk. I waved goodbye from inside the car, window up, my new isolation chamber, and whammo, my battery was dead. I called AAA but they never came. Desperate, I called a friend, and then my mechanic, and when my friend arrived quickly, I called the mechanic to say not to come, but they both arrived at the same time. My friend, Alan, my mechanic, Billy. The battery charged immediately so we chatted in the sun for a bit, six feet apart, and then they were gone. My heart was full. I was grateful.

Days later, when I took the car in for an oil change and battery check, Billy's wife, Rose, who works in the office, refused to charge me for Billy's trip to the mall. So let me, at least, give Franz Auto, named after Billy Franz, a much deserved bump here: Route 32 North, New Paltz, NY. If you get there, say hello to everyone for me, especially their adorable black lab, Remy.


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Ten

On The Road Again




On the road again/I just can't wait to get on the road again/The life I love is makin'music with my friends/And I can't wait to get on the road again.


-Willie Nelson



Nous avancions à l'aveuglette sans savoir où nous allions.


We were blindly moving forward without knowing where we were going.


French Sentence of the Day




I moved blindly the very first day I passed my driver's test, feeling the forward motion, not knowing where I was going, though I had traveled the roads so many times with grown-ups at the wheel. I announced to my parents that I was going to the movies in the nearby town with two friends. I didn't ask to borrow the car, which was a second car, so why should I ask? I told them. I was an arrogant teenager and the car made me even more arrogant. I was the only girl in my circle that had passed the test. The road was mine. I wanted the car and I took it.

It was still light when I left to pick up my friends. And then, suddenly, it was dark, and all those familiar roads were no longer familiar. I was lost. I took out the map and a flashlight and figured out where I'd gone wrong. I was late picking up my friends but didn't admit what had happened. They were crazy to trust me, a brand new driver, at the wheel at night for the first time. I can't believe I did that, that my parents were so sanguine and casual. Maybe they thought I'd calm down, that my restlessness would abate.

I was sixteen, the age children were allowed to take the wheel in New Jersey. My step-father had told me unequivocally it was time I learned to drive. Wasn't I already a very capable back-seat driver? Joke, of course. But he understood my fierce independence and honored it.

We were alone the day he took the risk. He pulled the car into a parking lot, got out, told me to scoot over and get going, he'd stay by my side. This we did without even the requisite Learner's Permit, and for several days thereafter, until I was ready for the test. We lived in New York. I could not drive into the city from our weekend home until I was eighteen. But the freedom of the roads in the small lake community was now mine, and I grabbed it.

I had an unexpected hiatus from driving for the ten years I lived in London. We didn't have a car for most of that time, and only my husband took the very rigorous test, which he didn't pass until the third round. And though I decided I couldn't be bothered, by relinquishing the wheel to him, I'd given up a piece of my emancipated youth. We bought a right-hand drive Volvo and set out on adventures everywhere, which was compensation enough, I suppose.

Strange that this memory of learning to drive has returned to me in the midst of this pandemic, that it surfaced in my journal like a dream, and is now being expanded here to the beat of Willie Nelson's song. I think it is because we are in stasis and that the pleasure of getting into the car to go someplace is so restricted—gas, an oil change, groceries. So it's a fantasy of flight, and a pleasant one.

The other day we got into the car and drove up the mountain, desperate for air and light. I drove and my husband rode shotgun on the way up, and then we switched and I drove on the way down. We had surfaced from our incarceration, if only for a moment, and were wind-whipped and happy for the rest of the day.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Nine



Where Nature Could Be




This is the first thing/I have understood:
Time is the echo of an axe/within a wood

–Philip Larkin



Wildness matters more now than it ever has. We're urbanizing at a pace unprecedented in human history...We have to look at the landscapes we live in as places where nature could be.

              –Thomas Rainer, "Planting in a Post-Wild World."



The car is an isolation chamber, the car is a portal to the outer world, the car is a companion, the car is a storage space for Clorox wipes and alcohol and surgical gloves. I travel up the mountain to my daughter's homestead to collect eggs and the masks she has been sewing in her solitary sweatshop, two for Jim and me, another six for the restaurant workers at our favorite cafe who are still doing takeaway. Time passing, time unstoppable, blossoms on the trees in the orchard and the first round of spraying has begun. Fungicides. Pesticides.

The car radio is tuned to funky music that segues into a prayer. By mistake, I've hit an evangelical station. No matter, I'll take anyone's blessing these days. Holy week, and as I write, it's the first night of Passover. No man or woman is an island, no man or woman is more exceptional than any other. The plague does not passeth over.

At Passover seders in what seems like a long-ago life, my favorites were those that modernized the text, that took into account contemporary life and challenges by introducing poetry and current events. People of the Book revising the book. But tonight, as I write, I've been thinking about my friend Liz Simonson, a landscape gardener based in Woodstock, NY. I called her to ask some questions, a mini interview. She's back at work, she told me, designing and maintaining native gardens.

I envy her daily commune with nature. If we all—globally and historically speaking—had shared an intimacy with the morsels of plant life, and a reverence for the earth to which it is bound, as she does, maybe, just maybe, we might have avoided the impasse of this lockdown, a life form running rampant on every continent.

Liz grew up in suburban New Jersey, majored in psychology in college, and did not begin to study plants until she moved upstate in the late 1980's. The property where she lived at the time was overgrown; she began to clear it out. Eventually, she owned her own nursery. "When I read about a plant, I don't forget about it," she says. Plants are magical to me. They are exquisite. They last through storms and seasonal change. Their root systems survive the winter." And they will survive this winter of our discontent, also.

Recently, Liz has started to draw plants, an ancient art known as "botanical illustration." Does she learn more about plants by observing them in minute detail? Absolutely. Might a writer do the same? Is there an analogy between drawing a plant and writing a plant? Can we transpose what we see or experience onto the page so that it comes alive and the self that writes is felt and known?

Rhetorical questions answered only by continuing practice and discipline.

I thank my friend, Liz, for her inspiration this evening, and for her devotion to preserving, healing and amplifying the environment in which we all must live.


Whether we are urban, suburban or rural, we can join Liz Simonson in the creation of landscapes where nature could be: www.pollinator-pathway.org/about

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Eight

Photo © copyright by Jim Bergman 2020


Greetings from This Week's Epicenter



 If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.    


                                       --Fred Rogers



I prepare to take down the garbage wearing gloves and my hijab. I make certain no-one is on the walkway or the two flights of stairs, that I have the pathway to the dumpster and recycle bins to myself. I spray the lid of the bin with alcohol and make sure no neighbors are in close proxmity. This is shared space; everyone touches what I will be touching.


I have never avoided neighbors before, on the contrary. A New Yorker born and bred, I'm chatty and outgoing. I miss chatting to the postal worker (from Haiti), the SUNY students who work in the local health store, the lifeguards at the SUNY pool. I miss learning their names, hearing their stories. I cannot satisfy my journalist's curiosity, either. It's like someone has pressed a mute button in my life.


I'm grateful, of course, for long walks in a revelatory landscape, the hawks and falcons flying overhead like spirit birds watching over us. And I'm grateful for all social media, Zoom, etc. etc. etc. and my dear friends who suggest Zimmer parties, more FT calls, WhatsApp calls all around the world, etc.etc.etc. and so forth, as the King of Siam once said. And I'm grateful for all the students on my NYU roster who have hung in and are still writing.


Will you be my neighbor? Of course. Will you be my neighbor forever and ever, metaphorically speaking, virtually speaking? Of course. Despite our sometimes Heavenly, sometimes Hellish Isolation, let us not ever forget this. We will return to three-dimensional neighborliness and daily connection, I am sure of it. And I know those connections will be richer and deeper when we get there.


But now that we have a time-line of sorts from our scientists—and it's a long one—is it more helpful to project ourselves into the future beyond the pandemic, or to live day by day, moment by moment? What is your preference, dear reader? I seem to toggle between the two, and sometimes I get it wrong; I haven't paid attention to my mood or my equilibrium. I take a walk and start the day again, or I call a friend, or interrupt my husband who is trying to make progress on a media kit he is writing for a client.


The complex where we live, opposite what's left of the subdivided Apple Hill Farm, used to be an apple cooler. A clever architect re-purposed its design so that it still looks rustic and integrated into the landscape. The sunsets over the ridge to the west are magnificent. There's a gazebo on a lawn out front, communal space, now abandoned. And the outdoor bank of metal mail boxes are contiguous, inviting conversation. I see a neighbor opening a box and wave hello, then pull up my hijab, and wait my turn.








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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seven


Music to Our Ears



 Keep the mind cold and the heart warm.


Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Director, Philadelphia Orchestra

in a conversation with Terry Gross on Fresh Air




Many of my friends and family are glued to Govenor Cuomo's press conferences, and for good reason: they are music to our ears. Not only are they sober and informative, they are personal, warm and caring. First we get the facts, well scripted and projected onto easy-to-understand charts, and then an anecdote, often about the Governor's own family. Yesterday, the anecdote was about his younger brother, Chris Cuomo, a CNN anchor, who tested positive, and is now quarantined in the basement of his home. "Not even the dogs want to come down here," Chris told his brother, the Governor. Even worse, Chris and Andrew's elderly mother, Matilda, had been in Chris's house just two weeks before. She was feeling lonely so Chris had invited her over. Not a good idea, the Governor said, returning to his stern expression and strong delivery. But we could all hear the love and concern bubbling under the surface of his sonorous voice.


To be able to selflessly convey complex and disturbing information every day, to stay on point while folding in illustrative, personal stories is a great gift, the gift of a natural storyteller and a mature political leader. It is also the perfect, necessary antidote to the dangerous regime in Washington. It is, therefore, no suprise that there is a "Draft Cuomo for President" movement gathering steam. Whether it has any viability is moot right now. For those of us who live in New York State--the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States this week--Cuomo is our President.


My other thought this morning is about storytelling itself. The Cuomos are Italian-American, a sub-culture that has maintained its oral story-telling traditions. This cultural legacy has served the Governor well at his press conferences, which are mostly written by his staff. But the personal stories do not sound scripted; they sound improvised, conversational and heartfelt. Most importantly, even the anecdotes never veer away from a responsible government official's singular purpose: to both serve and protect us.



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