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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Eight

The slave pit, known as the "African American Burial Ground," in New Paltz, NY, is marked only with a sign on the private property of the house next door. Epidemics of yellow fever, cholera and smallpox must have spread like wild fire in the below ground slave dwellings of the now historic stone houses.
 
                                     photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2021

 

In a Slow Moving Year

  

 

We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

 

-Marshall McLuhan

  

 

In other words, the medium becomes the message and/or the medium is the message. When I first read McLuhan in graduate school, I pondered this statement for a long time. In truth, I didn't get it. I do now, more so since we have become still more dependent on media technology in our pandemic world. We say we are grateful, we enthuse about platforms and apps, the collapse of time zones—the  collapse of time itself—in  a slow moving year. I have students this term across three time zones in the United States and another who just returned to New York from Bogota but had been zooming in from there. And that is grand, consoling, and stimulating, an unexpected benefit of Zoom. But as I walk along Huguenot St. wearing through a second pair of hiking shoes since the pandemic began, and I pass the pit where enslaved men, women and children are buried, or where they were thrown, if their cadavers were not taken for medical dissection, I visualize the killing fields at Auschwitz centuries later, another genocide, where so many in my family were executed, and it is as if no time has passed. I snap a photograph of the wintry expanse of lawn, breathe fresh mountain air, and write to a friend in Singapore, so far away, to tell him about the sensation of collapsed space and time. I wonder: when will I next see him in person? Will I ever? Will our lives continue in tandem—as I am so much older—or will our life spans diverge? Have they already? Is the answer in the questions? Do our time zones overlap or is time a mobius loop, Planet Earth floating unattended in space? Is email communication enough to satisfy a deep, long friendship? Can we continue to sustain friendship through media alone? Are social media platforms portals or labyrinths in which we'll ultimately become lost to others and to ourselves?

 

If we consider all the media at our disposal to stay connected in a disconnected year, anything that amplifies the human voice is the warmest, McLuhan probably  would say: Facetime, Zoom, a writer's voice in an email or  book. And sound bite text is the coldest, without intonation, devoid of nuance even with the enhancement of emojis which are one-dimensional, barren of real feeling, shortcuts, the same for everyone. Yet, among the generations upcoming, long before COVID-19, text and emojis had become the conduit of incessant "conversation," beyond emergencies or simply confirming plans, and that has only intensified. Do texters realize they are not talking? Or do we insert the person's voice in our brain as we are reading? Can you hear my voice as you read my words here? Because I am talking to you, dear reader, and when I hear your voice, your voice warms me.

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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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