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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Two

 
Limestone houses on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY

 

We Take a Walk

 

 

After working most of the day on our computers, my husband and I decided to take a walk in town to get some air and light. I had already exercised early in the morning on our stationary bike while listening to Friday's New York Times "The Daily" podcast, a scary overview of the coronavirus. All my fears were confirmed and solidified; we are in for a long siege. This realization made me pedal really fast and stay on the bike until the end of the podcast. When my mind wandered away from accepting the pandemic reality, I fantasized a trip to Iceland. I've always wanted to go there.


I already miss the gym, which I had decided to forgo three days ago—machines close together, all that sweat. There's always chit chat at the gym and I missed that most of all. As a free lancer who works from home, micro-connections refuel me and are essential to my well being. Now everyone gets to work from home, so there's solace in that, I suppose, because we are in this together; we are not alone. Not surprisingly, I've been on the phone a lot as even conversations with my husband do not replace the daily conversations I so enjoy. Even worse, I do not get out to teach; all my workshops have been cancelled. And meeting friends for a meal or a coffee or a drink is not possible. No gatherings, no hugging. We must attend to this psychological and sensory deprivation and find ways of assuaging its effects. More voice than email or text, I'd say, more phone calls than posts on social media. Staying in touch means literally—staying in touch.


For every writer external and internal landscapes are interconnected. Like musicians, visual artists, and actors, we are blessed—or afflicted—with heightened sensitivity and have to take special care during historic, life-changing events. True, they can become an inspiration also, so we must keep working in some way or, at the very least, document our experience of the surreal world we are now living in.


Shortly after 9/11 a reporter from the LA Times called to ask me how long it would take for that atrocity to find its way into literary endeavors. The odd thing was, it already had. I was teaching at Gotham Writers Workshop and NYU at the time and writing fiction, nonfiction and poetry nonstop for all the spoken word events around town. This work was raw, most of it non-publishable, yet some have been collected into anthologies as "testimony." Even that kind of in-the-moment writing is valuable, both as writing practice, and as documentation for the historians who will write about our era in the decades to come.


We live but an instant on the timeline of history, one reason why our fascination with what is old and preserved never wanes. Walking Huguenot St., the 17th and 18th century landmarked buildings stir conversation and many questions. The Lenape settlement in New Paltz dates back more than 5,000 years; we walk their sacred land. Imagine an epidemic at that time, I said to my husband as we sat on a moss-covered bench in front of the Dutch Reformed Church. Many illnesses were untreatable, many deadly. The indigenous population suffered most grievously when the European settlers arrived; they were decimated by pathogens previously unknown in their world. And though there are many Huguenot descended families still living in New Paltz, there are no indigenous people anywhere nearby. The remnants of their bands migrated west and north, joining other tribes for survival.


A few months ago I spoke to one of the curators at Historic Huguenot Street about new findings, not just skeletons and burial sites, but adult-sized cradles found in the houses. The sick and dying were laid in them and rocked gently, she told me, usually by slaves.

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When Language Dies

This 1930 photo is by Walker Evans.

 

But one may say very true things and apply them falsely. People can easily take the sacred word duty as  a name for what they desire any one else to do.

                                 

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, 1876

 

               

It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths.

 

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Propaganda Minister, January 9, 1928, Berlin at a training conference for Nazi party members.

 

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases... one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.

 

George Orwell, All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays, 1940

 

 

I thank George Orwell and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) for the inspiration to write a "critical" essay this morning, which hopefully will sustain my readers' interest and attention. In this sound-byte culture we are living in—and as a writer and educator—I despair at the loss of attention, curiosity, and language itself. I had wanted to write a humorous blog post this week, or to post some lovely holiday photos and mountain sunsets, which I am assured my friends will "like," but it feels impossible.


And with that preamble, I will proceed:


These past few tiresome weeks, we have been witness to an unprecedented political spectacle, aided and abetted by both the mainstream media and social media. No matter where we are on the political spectrum, or what market-driven channels we watch, we are consumers of this media, all of which delivers us to the advertisers. Books and commentary are proliferating; 45 is a media cash cow.


It is time to take a breath and think.


The outcome in the Senate is pre-ordained: Donald Trump will remain in the White House until the election, possibly beyond. We are at great risk and must prepare for such a result. I ask myself and my readers to consider this possiblity, and worse, and to initiate a process of self-questioning and problem solving.


What can we do in the short term? What can we do day-to-day to make our individual, too-short lives joyous and fulfilling while, at the same time, remain constant in our efforts to resist fascist impulses, retrograde laws, and constitutional challenges.


I cannot ask others to do what I must do to answer these questions. I will list a few suggestions here and ask you, dear reader, to add yours to the mix with your comments in this open forum:


1. Read more history to maintain persepective about the fault lines in the American Experiment that have led us to this dire moment. Resist escapist literature and series binging, at least some of the time. Each day, shut down electronic devices and read. Reading slows us down and exercises our cognitive muscles so that we can think deeply and precisely. We will need strengthened brain power in the months ahead.


2. Help a young person become educated. If you do not have children or grandchildren, and even if you do, volunteer some hours every week with the other 98% as well as the entitled 1 %. Both are important. Help deepen literacy in the broadest sense of the word. Encourage and participate in a content analysis of the media this young person relies on for information and entertainment. Study together. Talk constantly. Use evolved language to defeat propaganda.


I work in two disparate educational instituions—one privileged, one under-privileged—and I can attest to a stark similarity: Americans are under-educated. All of us need to raise our knowledge base.


3. Think global, work local. Wherever you are, in whataever town, village, hamlet, city or county--volunteer. Canvas. Meet and greet your local politicans, call them when you have a concern, write them emails, insist that they speak to you in full, considered sentences. Resist jargon, platforming and fund-raising pitches. Most are good people who want to serve until they get swept up into the "system." Insist on continuing accountability.


4. Get outside, away from the computer and television and news feeds, into the fresh air and sunshine. Walk with a friend, or wander and explore solo. Let your brain and spirit rest. Talk to everyone, do not assume anything, including a political point of view. People are more than one thing: they have struggles, they have stories. Listen to their stories. Remain open and compassionate. We owe it to the next generation. We owe it to ourselves.

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