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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Four

Cicely Tyson: In Memoriam

 

 

I am indeed Cicely, the actress who has been blessed to grace the stage and screen for six decades. Yet I am also the church girl who once rarely spoke a word… And here in my ninth decade, I am a woman who, at long last, has something meaningful to say."

 

          From "Just As I Am" –Cicely Tyson's Memoir

 

The one-day memoir intensive at Gotham Writers' Workshop began early. I brought my breakfast, lunch and late day snack. I was dressed informally. Teaching is an aerobic activity for me and I sweat. It was spring, or maybe summer, sometime in the 1980's.  Please don't ask me the exact date; I'm not good with dates. Time passing, time immovable, a sense of time utterly distorted in the midst of this pandemic, impatience grating as the end approaches and then recedes with news of variants.

 

And then this morning, I read of Cicely Tyson's death, aged 96—when did she get that old? I was not surprised she had lived so long. I was not surprised she had finally published her memoir. Indeed, I was pleased she had finally conquered her resistance and found the right collaborator, Michelle Buford, a founding editor of The Oprah Magazine.

 

I had checked in with the admin at Gotham and was told that the room had been prepared for me—all of the chair desks in a circle. I remember that the room was bright, the light filtering through dirty schoolroom windows facing north. Gotham had not rented this space before so it was new to me. I left my belongings on a chair and went into the hallway to search for the bathroom. When I returned a woman was standing by the window gazing at the cityscape. I said hello, but she did not reply. Minutes later, as more students entered and settled, the woman remained standing by the window. I introduced myself, asked the students to introduce themselves, the usual routine, and I said to the standing woman, "Would you please take a seat." She turned to face me. A Black woman wearing over-sized sun glasses, a wig, a coat covering a slim, slight body on what would surely be a warm day. Camouflage.

 

"You will have to take a seat if you wish to participate," I said firmly.

 

So she finally took a seat but  still refused to introduce herself.

 

"I'll just listen," she said.

 

So I let her listen, but at the break, I went back to admin and asked about the woman.

 

"It's Cicely Tyson."

 

"I know who she is. She is disrupting the flow of the class. I have to insist that she participate."

 

"She's a celebrity."

 

"Today she is my student and that's all she is. I've interviewed a lot of celebrities. I get the attitude, I get the fear of exposure. But not in my class."

 

No, not possible. I had to ignore her reluctance—or  was it resistance—and let her stay, I couldn't ask her to leave, I was told.

 

Lots of prompts and read-backs. She didn't open a notebook, take out any loose paper, or participate in the discussions. I tried to pretend she wasn't there. I hoped she'd just leave, but when I returned from a break she was still there, arms crossed, coat on, behind her dark glasses. Then it was lunchtime. She walked out, took all her belongings. Good, I thought, she's gone.

 

I left the building to get some air, went to the park, and ate my sandwich. I got back to the room early having told the students I'd be available to chat informally. And there she was again staring out of the dirty window. This time I walked up to her and stood next to her, shoulder to shoulder. "What's going on?" I asked.

 

"My daughter gave me this class as a present. She wants me to write my memoir. I don't want to write my memoir."

 

"Okay, so look, if you are going to stay, you will have to participate. It makes the students uncomfortable, it's not right that you set yourself apart, and it's hard for me. Everyone knows who you are so you might as well take off those glasses. But when you are here, you are an aspiring writer and my student. You don't have to read anything aloud, but try to write to the prompt and say one or two things to the other students. I don't care if you leave, but if you stay, those are my rules."

 

I felt like a mom chastising a petulant daughter. I set the boundaries and she relaxed. I wished I had done it earlier.

 

Never too late. For the rest of the workshop, she wrote intensely and  spoke aloud ever so tentatively. That was enough for me. And I hope it was enough for her, too, that she had started her memoir, or that the idea and purpose of a memoir had been seeded in her.

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Three

The restored north wall of the Abraham Hasbrouck House on Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY. Note the two cellar windows venting the below-ground kitchen where the slaves worked and slept. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2021.

 

Restoration

 

 

This may be the most important proposition revealed by history: "At the time, no one knew what was coming." 

 

        -Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

 

On Inauguration Day 2021 we learned that Seamus Heaney is one of President Biden's favorite poets and that he recited poetry in front of a mirror to tame his stammer. Every inauguration within my memory has featured a poet's perspective, a poet's sensibility, song and dance. In a time deadened by a pandemic, recovering ever so slowly from four years of toxic waste in Washington, pomp, ceremony, ritual and poetry was solace for our aching souls. But now it's over and the restoration of our lives continues in tandem with the restoration of our nation state's democratic first principles. To whit it is now incumbent upon us to look backward into the fault lines of our history—slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacy and the genocide of the indigenous tribes—to  understand how we almost lost our democracy.

 

Many historians were not surprised by the rise of Donald Trump. We need only return to the candidacy of Sarah Palin, not very long ago, as described in President Obama's  book, to understand what happened: "Hers was  a biography tailor made for working class white voters who hated Washington and harbored the not entirely unjustified suspicion that big-city elite—whether in business, politics, or the media—looked down on their way of life," he writes in "A Promised Land," the first volume of his presidential autobiography. It is a fascinating read, a reminder that President Obama thought of himself as a writer long before he went into politics. It's also a plea for continuing historical study, re-interpretation of that history, vigilance in the present, and activism.

 

***

 

At a webinar at Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY this week, I heard the now standard disclaimer—which also appears on their website—about living on Munsee Lenape land: Historic Huguenot Street acknowledges that it is located on lands of indigenous peoples. These lands have been home to Esopus Munsee people for thousands of years, and are still culturally significant to Native Nations today. This disclaimer was amplified with a reference by Kara Augustine, the Director of Public Programming, to the enslaved laborers in the Huguenot settlement, four of whom lived in the 1760 Abraham Hasbrouck House, which is undergoing extensive restoration, a now twenty-year project paid for by the extant Hasbrouck family. Like other Huguenot descendants, they have a Family Association. Though their historical roots in France are modest, and they were persecuted and massacred as Protestants in a Catholic country, by 1760 the settlers were already wealthy and prominent. Their property ledgers included slaves. Centuries later they have what seems to be a fabricated coat of arms, an emblem of status we associate more with the Old World than the New.  

 

"Museums are fundamentally conservative," Kate Eagen Johnson, a history consultant, told us at the webinar. She specializes in material artifacts, all of which tell a story. She investigates, reconstructs, sometimes commissions replicas. All such restoration is a very long process requiring patience, she says. "The past is past and they [the museums that hire her] want it to stay that way." She went on to explain that the slaves, who lived in the cellar kitchens, were referred to as "the kitchen family," a historic euphemism, best abandoned in this era of racial justice reckoning.

 

Neil Larson, an architectural historian well known in Ulster County for the documentation and restoration of stone houses, revealed that the doors leading from the main house to the kitchen cellars were often kept locked. "Much that is said about how humanely white families treated their slaves, there still was a need for security…Kitchens were a space of isolation." Slave uprisings and slave runaways were feared by the enslavers for good reason; there were many precedents—in  Haiti, in Jamaica, in New York City in 1741. Indeed, enslavers trembled in the shadow of their self-inflicted turpitude.

 

We must ask: Is the Abraham Hasbrouck house being restored, renovated, stripped down to its essence, or re-examined and re-interpreted? Perhaps all of the above. How shall we consider the lives of those who lived and died there when it is reopened to the public? What words will the tour guides use to explain the lives of the Hasbrouck household in 1760? How will the signage change to reflect the re-interpretation?

 

Descendants of the enslaved population in New Paltz are hard to find and therefore cannot participate in this discussion. Before emancipation they were thrown into an unmarked pit, now known as the "African American Burial Ground," on the edge of town.  (See my blog post, "Chattel," of October 26, 2020).  After emancipation, a small settlement, including a church, formed south of New Paltz, some residents buried in the segregated cemetery nearby. At least the graves there were marked. But most former slaves fled New Paltz in search of work and more welcoming communities. Who could blame them?

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Two

With thanks to the CDC for this sticker.

 

AND THEN, ONE DAY, THEY WERE VACCINATED

 

Dedicated to all the front line workers, particularly Dr. Stephen Goodman in San Francisco, and the caring employees of the Institute of Family Health in New Paltz, NY

 

  

A friend just wrote to say she'd lost her best friend to COVID. Another (scientist) friend—let  me call him G in the Kafaesque manner—that  he'd had the virus in the spring, tested positive after his physical trainer called to say he was positive and another client was positive. G never had a symptom, "not even a sniffle," he said.  He quarantined for ten days, re-tested negative, and continued his shut-down life.  But he was left with a lot of questions, the kind of questions scientists treasure. He is both fascinated and horrified at the "success" of this virus, he told me. More than 50% of the spread is asymptomatic, therefore the rapid spread. The results of research into this phenomena will teach us a lot more, more perhaps then civilians need to know, or want to know, about deadly pathogens.  And now there is the new, virulent, more transmissible strain. "It's a footrace," Governor Cuomo tells us. Get the vaccine into our arms, stay vigilant. Well, we're trying. This week, an inauguration, and hopefully the start of muscular federal guidance and distribution of vaccine. Why the shortages? Why the scramble?

 

Meanwhile, still healthy, or recovered,  or asymptomatic Americans are queuing up for appointments to get the vaccine. If we can work the system, without gaming the system and jumping the queue, we'll be okay, our consciences will be okay. But what about the people who don't have computers  and can't work the system? Illness and death are great equalizers, but healthcare in the U.S. is not a great equalizer. Have we finally learned this lesson? Biden has already announced he wants to ensure "equitable" distribution, including prisons. It's a breath of fresh air.

 

These were my thoughts as I waited to get my first Moderna shot yesterday, together with ten other "eligible" citizens, including my husband.  

 

A nurse explained the protocol. By our side on the floor, a lengthy print out about the vaccine, its possible side effects, a timer, and a card with a return date on the back, one month hence. "And we have all the vaccine in house," the nurse explained, to offset concern about shortages.  We received the vaccine in our upper forearm, all very simple and familiar except for those of us with allergies: we had to stay an extra fifteen minutes to make certain we had no reactions.

 

I perused the surroundings. "That huge black thing, is that the refrigerator?" I asked the nurse. She laughed. Was it the first laugh of her long, complex day? "That's a vending machine," she said.

 

I don't know why I was fixated on the vending machine, or why I would have preferred that it was a refrigerator. A better story, perhaps? More so, if it had broken down. My writer's brain was winging away.

 

I tried to relax. The thirty minutes "eyes on" monitoring for allergies passed without incident.

 

In the parking lot, I heard, "Carol, is that you?" It was my friendly neighborhood banker, Al. Fitting that I should meet him on VACCINE DAY!  If memory serves, and goodness it seems an eon, I began Virus Without Borders more than fifty chapters ago with Al as the central character.

 

I didn't recognize him at first. His hair was long, and he was out of context, or maybe I was out of context.  He pulled up his pelt so I could see his forehead, his eyes spread wide over his mask.

 

"That's not helping," I said.  

 

Then, finally, I recognized his Queens accent.

 

"Al!" I shouted.

 

He inched towards me. My impulse was the same. I wanted to hug him. 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-One

A cardinal on Huguenot Street waiting for spring. Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2021

 

While We're Waiting

 

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passion and intensity.

 

-the first verse of "The Second Coming," by William Butler Yeats (1919)

 

 

There are days for this writer when only poetry will suffice. This week, these days of this week, only poetry calmed me. My parents and many others in what was once a European extended family witnessed Nazi terrorism in 1938. America was their refuge. I was relieved they were not alive on January 6th, another historic day of infamy.

 

The pundits have spoken, I have nothing to add, I will let this sorry event rest in my writer's brain and heart for now, though I am sure it will surface in my writing in the coming months. Today, I will go for a walk, study French, chat on What's App, prepare my syllabus, listen to opera, watch a documentary about the mayor of Ramallah and then set up a ZOOM conversation with friends. I will wait for a new administration to take hold, wait to be called for the vaccine. I will remain engaged and alert and hopeful while waiting.

 

And I have a dream. I have a dream that by my birthday—March  10—I  will be gathering with friends at Main Course in New Paltz, my new hometown, to celebrate. That day will mark a year, almost to the day, that the pandemic lockdown began. We weren't wearing masks, but I did bring Lysol to disinfect the table. That seemed quaint at the time, a bit eccentric. My friends were bemused, but also grateful. I made no apologies for my weird precautions; I was frightened. Just days later we were told that masks and distancing were more important than cleaning surfaces. 

 

We've learned a lot since then, some of us more quickly than others. I still get chills when friends and family tell me about their protocols, especially if they are much more lax than mine. Hanging out indoors, gathering, traveling to see family, chatting in the supermarket for too long, on and on it goes. And, by now, I really don't want to hear about what others have done, I only care about what I have done, and my immediate family has done—to stay healthy, to stay alive—and I still say, "say safe," at the end of every conversation with everyone I talk to, including my insurance broker, my students and my colleagues, the check-out woman at the supermarket and the mechanic who replaced the battery in my car.Life goes on, and though distanced, we are all in this together, we are connected, perhaps more than ever.

 

I remember my panic and bewilderment when Dr. Fauci said that all of us would know at least one person who had died  or recovered from COVID, or that the one person might be us, or someone close to us. This was not a serendipitous prediction, it was an informed prediction. The scientists saw what was happening—clearly.

 

I'm hoping this is the last pandemic my husband and I will have to endure in our lifetime. But I am almost certain it won't be the last pandemic in my daughter's lifetime.  She, her husband, and their smart circle of friends will know what to do when and if such a tragedy descends on Planet Earth again. They will have less fear, they will be more informed, they will remain steadfast, they will overcome.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty

A magical winter morning in the author's new abode.  Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2021

The Vagaries of Life in a Plague Year

 

The vagaries of life,

Though painful

Teach us

Not to cling

To this floating world.

 

-Ikkyu

 

 

We were lost in that apartment; we couldn't entirely settle. It wasn't only that we had moved too quickly out of the city into a small town in a rural area with a very different culture, it was more than that: the wind off the ridge, the car covered in ice some mornings, charming at first, then the sale and resale of the building twice in three years, the town failing/or refusing to opt-in to the new state rent regulation law, and the rent rise each year upwards of 10%, then 16%, water out of the complex's two wells tasting of chlorine, the apple orchard owners across the road spraying and spraying and spraying, refusing to answer questions about what spray they are using. We knew we had to get out and had started looking before COVID, anticipating the end of our lease in December. Should we buy, should we rent? Prices were escalating after the pandemic hit, the entire swathe of Ulster County suddenly "gentrified." Of course, we were gentry, too, outsiders, newcomers, city transplants. Now we understood what exactly that meant for the "native" population: immediate escalating prices, nil rental vacancy, and rapacious landlords. Four families with children moved out of our complex within months of the last resale.

 

So, we had a long discussion: two writers with a small publishing business, trying to keep expenses down. Should we consider returning to the city where some buildings are reporting a 40% vacancy and de-escalating prices? Should we consider moving at all during COVID? What would it feel like to depart from these beautiful mountains, and our daughter just forty minutes instead of two hours away? Not good. We decided to stay. My husband promised he'd find us something, and he did.

 

COVID protocols were rigorous and we were exhausted just from packing up everything ourselves, no movers in the rooms while we were in the rooms, our daughter a double-masked interface between us and the movers, windows open, distance maintained. Moving day was December 29. I finished unpacking the books yesterday and promised myself a day of rest today—reading, writing, thinking, catching up with my students, writing this blog post. Then, last night, a magnificent snowfall decked the trees for a belated holiday celebration.

 

 

 

 

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