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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-Nine

Photo copyright by Carol Bergman 2020

 

Snowshoeing in a Plague Year

 

People didn't march sobbing, they marched singing.

 

-Sharon Salzberg,"Real Change"

 

 

Dedicated to all who have lost loved ones to COVID in 2020.

 

I went snowshoeing for the first time in the Unison Sculpture Garden with my friend, Helene Bigley, a few days after the big storm. We'd been walking and talking once a week during the pandemic, all these months, regular and steady, a solace. Then we had the snow and the combination of sun and snow brought me back to my childhood ski trips. I needed to get out into Unison's fourteen magnificent acres, albeit on borrowed snowshoes. I loved it so much I know I'll get a pair of my own soon.

 

Unlike the smooth motion of cross country or downhill skiing, snowshoeing is more of a plodding experience, one oversized foot and pole at a time It seemed a metaphor for the year we've just experienced, how we moved through it and into it and, hopefully very soon, beyond it, one day, one week at a time. Early on, I decided that as a writer, it was my mandate to document the pandemic from my small corner of the world and to use my Authors Guild blog as a platform. "Virus Without Borders" has helped me to keep pace with unfolding events, and to process these events. As always, literature is my medicine.

 

And what have I learned as my blog book has reached forty-nine chapters? So many things: That I can make do with less. That solitude is an opportunity to self-reflect and reassess. That friendship, family and community are the mortar that holds us together. That technology is a friend when it is secure. That many are suffering more than I am suffering. That a pandemic in a war zone is more than a disaster, it is apocalyptic. That I will never stop caring about people beyond the borders of my nation-state and my life. That I love to teach as much as I love to write. That the distance between continents is miniscule compared to the distance between our beliefs and posited solutions. That art and artists, music and performance, must be cherished, encouraged and supported because the arts support and nurture us. That enjoying virtual events is a stopgap, but not a sustaining diet. That we need a more humane health care system and  an equitable economy, reforms in policing, criminal justice, education and energy sources. That we have awakened to these necessary changes and cannot retreat to life as it was before the pandemic, or before the fascist regime in Washington threatened our very being. America has changed irrevocably, the world has changed, and so have we all.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-Eight

Book Cover photo © copyright James Nachtwey 2003

 

John le Carré : In Memoriam

 

 

 At a time when so many have lost their moral compass, I turn to authors who are grounded in ethical and humane storytelling, writers such as John le Carré, whose genre fiction reads like poetry, or philosophy. Though I never met him personally, I have a connection to him I hold dear. He wrote the foreword to my book, Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories.

 

Both my agent and publisher had mentioned that we needed a "name" to platform the book. They were searching for someone suitably high-profile while I was still gathering and editing the stories, not nearly finished by the time I was scheduled to attend training and war games at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. It had been arranged by the ICRC publicist, a Brit. He explained that I was expected to converse in French while on the campus, the diplomatic lingua franca, and I was rusty. So, when he picked me up from the airport, I prevailed upon him to speak English for the duration of our drive. "But you'll have to introduce yourself in French." he said, "and explain why you are here." Indeed, I was hoping to find an ICRC worker's story for the book and went on to explain the search for someone who would write a foreword. The publicist knew John le Carré's agent in London, Curtis Brown, which—stroke of luck, I thought—had also been my agent in London before I moved back to the United States.

 

In retrospect, these six degrees of separation made no difference, as David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, was not a man who seemed to care about networking, inner circles, and privileged connections. He had been active in humanitarian and human rights initiatives for a long time, an outspoken advocate, and as soon as he saw the proposal for my book, he agreed to write the foreword. It arrived to deadline, not a comma out of place. Together with a cover photo by the revered war photographer, James Nachtwey, the book was off and running on every continent. Neither man asked for much money. Their contributions to the project, which took two years of my life, were a gift. Perhaps they understood, before I did, its potential value and longevity.

 

When John le Carré died, I felt a great loss. I had read his autobiography, The Pigeon Tunnel, not so long ago, and had been thinking about his elegant acceptance of the prestigious Olof Palme prize just last year. He had donated the $100,000 prize money to Doctors Without Borders and, aged 88, gave a heartbreaking speech at the ceremony in Stockholm. What a piece of writing, what a beautiful man.

 

I was disappointed when he didn't attend the launch of the book in London in October 2003. So many years ago, now, yet it feels like yesterday that I awaited his arrival, the press in attendance. His agent came instead, with apologies. David was in the field researching his next book.

 

Scroll to the bottom of the press release for a link to the acceptance speech:

 

 https://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/news/john-le-carre-accepts-olof-palme-prize

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-Seven

The long uphill road to COVID pandemic recovery as we wait for vaccine distribution and a functioning federal government. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2020 

 

Where Have All The Elders Gone?

 

 

Where have all the flowers gone?

Long time passing…

 

-Pete Seeger

 

 

I woke up thinking about three friends of mine who said similar things to me in the days leading up to vaccine approval. It seems that thoughts of "it's almost over," sent them into paroxysms of anxiety. All of them have been coping well, working, making the best of isolation. Now they've hit quicksand and started to sink. "It was a shock to realize we were in the vulnerable population," Eliza said. "I have never thought of myself that way before until I heard I'd qualify for a vaccine before my younger friends and colleagues. Then the New York Times published the calculator chart, and I was in the middle of the line. My confidence collapsed and I started to think about mortality. How much time will I have left when the pandemic is over? After all these months of hanging in, that was bizarre."

 

I was reminded of several soldiers I have met as they became civilians again and the difficulty they endured: they could not lower the adrenalin rush of battle quickly, or forget what they had done, seen and experienced. And they often felt alone no matter how many times they were told, "Your experience is not unique." That sounds comparable to the mantra, "We're all in this together."  Is that true? Yes and no. Together alone, maybe, or alone together.

 

Like soldiers, we've all been on alert for many months. We've become logisticians and strategists, plotting our visits to the supermarket and testing sites, ordering in supplies. But unlike UN logisticians, for example, we haven't been able to escape the site of the disaster, not that escape helps. A real-life logistician friend went into Haiti for a UN agency after a recent earthquake, set up his chair and satellite phone, studied and recorded the damage as far as the eye could see, and made a list of all the supplies necessary. Then he folded his chair, re-boarded the helicopter that dropped him in, and traveled back to New York. And though he slept in his own bed that night, assured that all he had ordered would be delivered within 72 hours, he was still shaky. That was the beginning of PTSD for him, or maybe a continuation, as he'd been in the field for many years.

 

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We all have it now to some degree. But I also think that when those in the "vulnerable" population—and I am one of them—recover from this ordeal, our recovery will be different than those in their 30s, say, who hopefully have many decades of life in front of them.

 

"It erodes my trust in whatever time I have left," Marie told me. "I've lost touch, and I mean that literally. I haven't seen my kids. I haven't seen my grandkids. There'll be no Christmas this year. We live 3,000 miles away from each other. I feel as though I've lost a year of my life. Something is not right."

 

We don't hear many of the pundits talking about "elders" who live within the general population, and what our particular emotional challenges have been. Why not? Blinkered vision, I'd say, or ageism. We've been siphoned off, protected physically, yet segregated in an unexpected way. The truth is, if we are really honest, that elders disappeared a long time ago, or were left behind, dumped in nursing homes or simply abandoned as young people relocated to make new lives in other towns and cities, even transnationally, in search of opportunity, adventure and job stability, as we did ourselves when we were young, without consideration for anyone but ourselves. "We didn't raise our kids to stay close to home," my French friend Michel told me. His son lives in America; there won't be any visits this year.

 

Long before the pandemic, contact with relatives had often become virtual, which is useful, but also wasteful of generation to generation wisdom, not to mention the sensory experience of staying close. So far have we drifted from a sustaining multi-generational, interconnected society that I am not sure if such a utopian idea is still viable except in ersatz communities for the very rich, or in purpose-built pods on Mars.

 

Names have been changed to protect those who may be embarrassed by their vulnerability. I thank my friends for talking with me freely, knowing I am a writer who may use their stories in my work.

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-Six

Anne Frank at her desk before the family went into hiding. She was already a writer at twelve and would not be silenced. We hear her voice loud and clear.

 

The Human Voice

 

There's no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice and that interests me… I feel I can go ahead without praise.  –Virginia Woolf

 

She sang as if she was saving the life of every person in the room. –Ann  Patchett, "Bel Canto"

 

 

In the midst of the pandemic, I started listening to opera, whereas in the beginning of the pandemic, back in March, I preferred mellow instrumental jazz. Though I grew up steeped in opera in a Viennese refugee household, I have always preferred pop, rock & roll, folk music and jazz. My mother's Saturday afternoons were spent listening to the Metropolitan Opera on WQXR, libretto on her lap. She did not sing along, but I could sometimes hear a thrumming in her chest. Was that her heart? Or the melody of her youth?

 

My parents had a subscription to the MET for evening performances and I occasionally went with my mother, even on a school night, if my stepfather was busy or wanted to stay home and read the paper. Was this coercion, obligation, or a gift? From the vantage of my maturity, I'd say it was a gift. The soaring voices, disciplined but transcendent, is what I remember when an opera is over. 

 

In the silence that descended on us as the pandemic began, like many others, I fell into the vortex of social media, constant phone conversations, and ultimately, Zoom, but I missed the voices of my friends and family close up, in my ear, floating on the air in invisible waves. Who would have ever thought that these soundings could be dangerous, releasing droplets into the air and into us? Mandated masks soon muffled us, as they will for a while longer.

 

Most artists and writers I know resist silence, or perceive that they have been silenced. This perception, sensation or experience, is gender neutral. We may have been silenced by expectation and conformity, humiliation, abuse or neglect, self-loathing, hurtful criticism, exclusion or bullying. Not long ago, it was considered unseemly for a woman to speak up and speak her mind, or dangerous for a gay man to say, "I do," to another gay man. Finding our voices as writers is also a long process, even a struggle. What we write on the page—fiction, nonfiction or poetry—is the interface between our interior thoughts and the world. It takes courage to recover from the exposure that requires. Yet we continue to write, to sing, to paint and to sculpt.

 

Who is entitled to speak? Who is entitled to voice their dissenting opinion? To vote freely without restraint, to publish their writing without censorship or consideration for the marketplace? Whether we live in North Korea or the United States, silence is ubiquitous and must be broken. Thus, do we have the human voice—the embodiment of our freedom—that speaks and sings.

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