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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 98

This photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2020, before N95s, includes some home-sewn "original" masks.


The disparity between the circumstances and fates of different people offended  Dickens in the Christmas season. For him, it as a time to think about what we owe one another, how we live with one another…


-Maureen Dowd, "Why Dickens Haunts Us," The New York Times, 12/25/22



We decided to mask-up for our first "live" movie experience since the pandemic began. We are six-months away from the bivalent booster and have not gotten any younger. In other words, we are still in the (triaged) vulnerable population. Ironically, my husband is more protected than I am having had a 2nd bout with Covid just before Thanksgiving, as reported here. Despite optimal exposure, I did not get it, which is a good sign of something—the miracle vaccines, my own health, perhaps. Jim was put on Paxlovid, did well, and now has a load of new antibodies. 


Driving thirty minutes on dark, country roads, the GPS in and out of satellite connection, we did okay, but then got lost in the Hudson Valley Mall, a ghost mall, one empty store after another. I remembered that the movie complex was at the back somewhere next to what is now an abandoned SEARS, its sign stripped naked to a shadow. How desolate the mall looked, a dystopian remnant of a bustling hub. So much has changed since the pandemic began: where and how we work, where and how we shop, how we socialize, friends, family, co-workers, partners who have died either from Covid, or because of Covid.


The lobby of the complex—more than a dozen cinemas—was busy, the smell of popcorn welcoming. Our daughter and son-in-law arrived and we headed into the theater. I put on my mask, but no one else in our small party did, not even my husband, though we had discussed protocol. He's always been more casual than I, but he's also had Covid 2x, and now he was more protected, he reiterated. Was I being careful, overly fearful, or foolish? I suddenly felt hidden, outcast, more so when I realized that our assigned seats were next to unmasked strangers. We juggled our seating until I was at the end near the aisle and settled in to watch Avatar, a three-hour war movie masquerading as a fantasy. I decided to unmask, hope for the best, cross fingers, breathe in one direction only, and think about Charles Dickens' moral compass.


This post is dedicated to Ed's Jody and Rachel's Morgan.

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Ready for the Holidays

Picasso's "Dove of Peace"


Ready For The Holidays



Everyone I encounter in my small, upstate New York town is asking if I am ready for the holidays. They don't ask if I'm ready for Santa, or ready for Christmas. This was not the case during the decade I lived in London; everyone asked if I was ready for Christmas. My Jewish and Muslim and Christian friends all had secular, festive Christmas dinners and sent out Christmas cards, as opposed to holiday cards. And it was always "Happy Christmas," not "Happy Holidays," and certainly not "Merry Christmas." I had one (Jewish)  friend who delivered her Christmas cards around the neighborhood by hand. I must ask her when next we speak if she has reverted to that delightful Trollopian tradition during the current postal strike.


It took decades, but here, in America, we are finally using the word "holiday" in a generic sense. In this way we can celebrate an ecumenical season: Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, Ramadan, and much else. Certainly, in many schools there is an effort to acknowledge every child's ethnic background. This feels right. This feels like the America we know and try desperately to love. Hopefully, this existential progress will not be corroded by enraged nativist school boards.


My mother grew up in Vienna in a mixed family (Jewish and Catholic) and always had a Christmas tree. But when she married my more observant step-father, no signs of Christmas were allowed in the house; we only celebrated Hannukah. Then when our daughter was born, in celebration of her arrival on earth, my husband and I decided to celebrate everything we could celebrate,: Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, Ramadan, July 4th and Juneteenth. If we were deeply religious, or ethnically chauvinistic to an extreme, this wouldn't be possible. But we are not deeply religious or ethnically chauvinistic. Do I care about my ancestry, of course I do, it is interesting, part of who I am, but I am not here on earth to defend it with a sword; I am here to share it in a loving way.


It is the holiday season, the season of generosity and good will. May we have a moment, at least, of healing and peace--personally, nationally and internationally-- as we bring in the new year.


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Let Us Not Forget Navalny

"The Most Magical Corner in Kyiv," © Peter Zalmayev 2022 by permission. The snowy scene reminds Peter of Italo Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler." 


Let Us Not Forget Navalny


And if they dare to keep me like an animal
And fling my food on the floor,
I won't fall silent or deaden the agony,
But shall write what I am free to write…


-Osip Mandelstam who died in Stalin's Gulag, 12/27/38


The Soviet regime robbed people not only of their ability to live freely but also of the ability to understand fully what had been taken from them, and how."


― Masha Gessen, "The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia"




We celebrate Britney Griner's return to the United States. This talented young woman is home—such a sweet, innocent  smile as she boarded the plane not knowing where she was going. The geopolitics of her release are fascinating to contemplate: Maybe our intelligence personnel turned Bout.  After 11 years in prison, Bout may have already revealed all they wanted him to reveal, a rag dog sent home to be feted by the despot, and now a double agent? Maybe the United States and Allies wanted to throw Putin a bone so he feels he has a"win" and therefore won't unleash his nuclear arsenal, or he'll resist other atrocities, including his deals with Iran for yet more weaponry.


On and on it goes. Peter Zalmayev, my broadcaster friend in Kyiv, continues broadcasting uninterrupted in Ukrainian, Russian and English, albeit he may be wearing a winter coat, his  beard growing a bit longer than usual. 


So far as I can tell, nothing, absolutely nothing, will stop the Ukrainians.  They are intrepid, freedom fighters to the core.


Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, and now The Russian Federation has a long history of torturing and incarcerating its writers, artists, journalists and political dissidents. The word "defection" was coined during the Soviet period, and now we have "exiled dissidents," as opposed to defectors, many hoping and planning to return home. Much will depend upon how the conflict ends in Ukraine, whether Putin stays or goes, whether or not it is safe to return, whether or not Navalny surfaces unscathed  from Putin's gulag and becomes President.  


Meanwhile, writers will continue to write, artists to paint and sculpt, journalists to report the news, wherever they are and no matter the hardship. Let us not forget them, or Navalny, or the exiled dissidents, as we enter the holiday season. 


Dedicated to the dissident artists, writers and journalists who have fled Putin's Russia and others who struggle to survive his gulag, now known as penal colonies.



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You Are Safe With Me

"The Trail of Golden Grasses" © copyright Michael Gold 2022 by permission.



You Are Safe With Me



Must living in peace - so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world - inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?


-Jenny Erpenbeck,  "Go, Went, Gone" 



The Russian marine scientist, Chakilev, has been tracking the walrus population "hauling out" on a remote island in the Siberian Arctic for a decade. The melting ice floes—which they need to rest, mate and give birth—have created a desperate, tragic situation for the walruses.


Two filmmakers have documented Chakilev's work in a short film for the New Yorker documentary series. If you don't have a subscription to the New Yorker, it's also on their YouTube site. (The title of the video is "Haulout.")


I have been haunted by this documentary for several days. It's a visceral testament to climate change as we are all beginning to experience it—even  in  the "developed" often callous, entitled world—and it's a metaphor for the migration of desperate men, women and children from poor, beleaguered, and war-torn nations collapsing onto our shores, pressing against our man-made borders. What is a border anyway if not man-made?


Comparing the 90,000 walruses scrambling for space on a small beach in the Arctic with the millions of  desperate humans who have died at sea or live in tents in refugee camps may seem far-fetched, but I do not believe it is. Many climatologists and migration experts argue that war and forced migration are both climate change events—food shortages, drought—and that we can do something about both, if we are willing, and have not entirely lost our moral compass. The doing something can be the smallest of efforts, I find, as simple as the compost bin on my counter, leaving my car behind whenever possible, or voting for politicians with a social conscience. But the doing something for migrants and refugees within our communities takes a more conscious action, a right action, as the Buddhists would say. It is a choice not to look away, a choice to engage, and it is not always easy; it can be troubling and time consuming. And so it is with a courageous and determined young woman I met recently. Like the walruses washed up on the shore in the Arctic, her travails haunt me.


I will call her S to protect her identity. She arrived here as a child,  is undocumented, wants to be a lawyer, works for low-pay off the books, and is trying to finish her GED so she can attempt a college application. "How are you feeling?" I ask whenever we meet. "How are your classes going?" Usually, she is hopeful, but she is also scared and—by  necessity—vigilant. ICE  agents are hovering, and I am not even certain, as yet, if my young friend is registered as a (DACA) Dreamer which costs $495 according to the DACA website. That must seem a formidable sum to her.


I met S by chance. Her story has surfaced in short chapters, and only after she trusted me. One day when we were talking, she noticed a safety pin on the lapel of my "professional" suit jacket, the one I wear when I interview someone for this blog or a publication. It's been there since the day ICE threatened a raid on the NYU campus. Professors, students, admin, support staff all began wearing safety pins on hats, coats, dresses and backpacks.


"The safety pin  symbolizes that you are safe with me," I told S. Later, feeling less vigilant, she shared her full name with me and we exchanged emails and phone #s.  


I do not take my American citizenship for granted. I am a child of refugees. I could have ended up in a tent city in Jordan, or a homeless shelter in Manhattan, or I could have died at sea, or never been born. Altruistic men and women took my family ashore and wrapped them in blankets. They helped my parents and many others settle, learn English, and find work. They helped them live a life of prosperity and dignity in the America of our hopes and dreams.



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