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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-Five


The Miles We've Walked



Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing. At the end of the day you don't think, "Hey, I did sixteen miles today," any more than you think, "Hey, I took eight-thousand breaths today." It's just what you do.


Bill Bryson, "A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail"


A car is a prosthetic device, according to Rebecca Solnit in her book, Wanderlust; A History of Walking, that confounds our bodily experience of the earth, its unfolding rhythms obscured by tarmac and painted lines. We usually drive to get somewhere, or to run an errand. Walking, on the other hand, is automatic, as natural as sleep or hunger, yet before the pandemic, many of us had forgotten its pleasures, or walked only for exercise, checking our mileage and steps on a Fitbit or an app. Then our daily routines unraveled, and we began walking without destination, without purpose. City or country dweller, we set out on foot to remain healthy, to get outside, to inhale fresh air after being inside for too many hours, or to walk and talk well-distanced with a friend. One of my city students wrote to say he left his apartment one day and before he knew it time had passed, he was daydreaming, and ten miles from home, on the other side of the park, ambling along the Hudson River. The bus ride back broke his reverie, but he has never forgotten the sensation of walking just to walk, without a goal, without clocking his miles, his thoughts unfolding like the road in front of him, or like the draft of a short story he was working on.


I am hopeful that we are re-discovering America on our rambles—what remains majestic and pristine, and what has been destroyed. If we continue the habit of walking into the landscape and using all our senses to experience it, we will most certainly become devoted conservationists, an unexpected yet welcome consequence of so many months of staying close to home.  


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-Four

A Writer'sThanksgiving Reflections in a Plague Year


 I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination.

   -John Keats


After another fierce storm, sunshine. I woke to light streaming through the blinds onto the wall graced by my daughter's painting, "Reflections." It was one of several in a series for a show in New York City some years ago. I open my eyes and there it is, evocative and inspiring. I close my eyes and there it stays as I sleep, protective and ethereal.  I suppose it is a totem of stability and hope in this plague year, a remembrance of an easier, connected time, ease taken for granted like so much else in our privileged pre-COVID lives. Perhaps this global trauma will sanctify necessary changes in the way we live and vote and spend our money and make friends and cherish loved ones. I look forward, as a writer and as a citizen of the troubled United States, to participate in and document these changes.


The holidays are beckoning and looming. We are not together, not in proximity just yet, we must stay the recommended course to remain safe. I carry this thought into the day: we won't be having a family Thanksgiving. How will we celebrate? What will we be celebrating? Survival, fortitude, good will, a new administration in the White House, ancestors and descendants, respect for one another, the Milky Way, scientists developing treatments and vaccines, educators, front line doctors and nurses, soldiers, diplomats, apples, lakes, clouds, windmills and solar panels.


In the supermarket early this morning I remembered a dream. It's not the first supermarket dream I've had since the pandemic began. It goes like this: It is early, and I am nearly alone. I run into my daughter and am surprised to see her there as this is the hour reserved for seniors. What is she buying? Why hasn't she told me she'd be here? Why is the frozen food rotten and dirty? Why are we talking without our masks?  We open a couple of folding chairs and sit distanced in front of the avocados to continue our unending conversation. Then she walks away, and I walk away to separate check-out counters, we wave good-bye, blow kisses, and wrap our arms around ourselves in symbolic, muted hugs.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-Three


The Surge


While New York's COVID positivity remains the third-lowest in the nation, we continue to see increases in both new positive cases and hospital admissions, demonstrating we are not immune to the surge we are seeing throughout the rest of the nation.


Governor Cuomo, November 10. 2020



The election is over, the virus is still here, I am still writing this blog book, no end in sight. So today, I return to the pandemic itself, the surge, the responsibility, or carelessness, or foolishness of people I hold near and dear, of the risks they take, and the risks I take to make life a bit more pleasant. And I am curious about the psychological mechanism that allows us, or tempts us, to take such risks and then to rationalize them away. One friend tells me she is being "very careful, very strict," and then admits she has traveled to see her grandchildren in another state and hugged them. But she's okay, she says, because she doesn't go into stores at all. Another friend has a dinner party on his deck, beautiful food, a forever gracious host, and drops his mask as he puts a plate in front of me, chatting all the while. Four colleagues meet in a restaurant in New York City where they sit in close quarters, masks off as they are eating, chatting away, and send a photo on text to commemorate the occasion. Another colleague reports that she has taken a vacation with her husband, driving all the way to the Canadian border, which is still closed. A friend in Virginia travels to see his girlfriend in New York and says, "I'm not worried at all, why should I quarantine?" And did you know, dear reader, that the enlightened practice of quarantine began in Venice in the 15th century, when ships were kept off-shore for 40 days –quaranta giorni—to try to control the spread of plague? Even then, so long ago, it was known that quarantine works.


Boredom makes us do crazy things. So does deprivation. But there is also defiance, there is also denial, there is also entitlement. A new neighbor meets me on the stairs and wants to chat. Sure, we are outdoors, but six feet quickly becomes four and then three. Humans draw close, we love and need the contact, the connection. "Happy to chat," I say, "but you'll have to be wearing a mask. If you don't have one, I have spares in my apartment." He looks at me oddly and quickly walks away. I can't tell you what his expression means exactly, because we have not, as yet, had a sustained conversation, but I read it as, "Who is this crazy woman telling me what to do?"  And when I remind a beloved cousin that she must stay masked when she talks to her children, even six feet apart and outside, she says, "Don't lecture me."


Dear Friends, please forgive me, but Governor Cuomo is my guru. If he says the positivity rate its going up, it is going up. If he says that we still must be cautious, we must still be cautious. If he says it is our civic duty to be cautious—as much as voting is a civic duty—that we must wear masks,  distance, wash our hands often, then we must wear masks, distance and wash our hands often. If he suggests that we do not travel out of state, and as little as possible within the state, there is a reason for this suggestion. It's based on science.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-Two





Until, in the end, it seems that he has heard our laughter, and all at once his stupidity turns to wickedness…  

Jenny Erpenbeck, " My Favorite Fairy Tale," an essay in "Not a Novel; A Memoir in Pieces."


The ending of a catastrophe does not remove from the human repertoire the underlying motivations that gave rise to these sentiments. 

Dr. Robert N. Kraft, "Love Letters to Hitler," Psychology Today, 6/22/2020



Day 3 after the Another Historic Election and for some reason I am thinking about Struwwelpeter, the 1845 German children's book by Heinrich Hoffman. Why did my father have this book on his shelf? It was terrifying. In one story, a girl plays with matches, sets herself on fire, and burns to death. In another, a naughty child is dipped in black ink. But the story about Konrad was the worst for me.  That once sweet child sucked his thumb, as did I. His mother warns him, but he can't stop. Along comes a tailor who cuts off his thumbs with giant scissors.


This book was never intended for me, gifted to me, or read to me; it was a relic of my father's European childhood. He must have brought it to America with him. I found it one morning when I was up early, snuck it off the shelf, and read it furtively before anyone was awake. And I never said a word about my transgression, if that is what it was, to anyone, least of all my father, a collector of Egon Schiele's pornographic images, some of them of underage girls. Fortunately for me, I did not live with my father full-time and he didn't have joint custody, just visitation rights. Every hour in his presence was an agony for me. Every "moral" instruction I received from his wife was an agony for me. She had red hair just like Struwwelpeter—a Struwwelpeter  Family writ large. Yet this cruel book, and the characters in the book, are still considered "classic" today, a precursor of the comic book and the graphic novel.


Is it my imagination or does Donald Trump resemble Struwwelpeter, the naughty boy-child of an abusive father who becomes a teenaged delinquent, and an adult criminal in constant need of "correction?" This may be true, or not true, it is of no consequence; it is only a thought passing through this writer's head. In any event, we've reached the denouement of an amoral, demented man's regime in Washington, the end of a catastrophe, which does not mean we are relieved of the responsibility for what has happened, or the work of restoring sanity to a more just society.


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