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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-One


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

The Vagaries of Life in a Plague Year


The vagaries of life,

Though painful

Teach us

Not to cling

To this floating world.





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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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:




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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


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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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-Five


The Miles We've Walked



Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing. At the end of the day you don't think, "Hey, I did sixteen miles today," any more than you think, "Hey, I took eight-thousand breaths today." It's just what you do.


Bill Bryson, "A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail"


A car is a prosthetic device, according to Rebecca Solnit in her book, Wanderlust; A History of Walking, that confounds our bodily experience of the earth, its unfolding rhythms obscured by tarmac and painted lines. We usually drive to get somewhere, or to run an errand. Walking, on the other hand, is automatic, as natural as sleep or hunger, yet before the pandemic, many of us had forgotten its pleasures, or walked only for exercise, checking our mileage and steps on a Fitbit or an app. Then our daily routines unraveled, and we began walking without destination, without purpose. City or country dweller, we set out on foot to remain healthy, to get outside, to inhale fresh air after being inside for too many hours, or to walk and talk well-distanced with a friend. One of my city students wrote to say he left his apartment one day and before he knew it time had passed, he was daydreaming, and ten miles from home, on the other side of the park, ambling along the Hudson River. The bus ride back broke his reverie, but he has never forgotten the sensation of walking just to walk, without a goal, without clocking his miles, his thoughts unfolding like the road in front of him, or like the draft of a short story he was working on.


I am hopeful that we are re-discovering America on our rambles—what remains majestic and pristine, and what has been destroyed. If we continue the habit of walking into the landscape and using all our senses to experience it, we will most certainly become devoted conservationists, an unexpected yet welcome consequence of so many months of staying close to home.  


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-Four

A Writer'sThanksgiving Reflections in a Plague Year


 I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination.

   -John Keats


After another fierce storm, sunshine. I woke to light streaming through the blinds onto the wall graced by my daughter's painting, "Reflections." It was one of several in a series for a show in New York City some years ago. I open my eyes and there it is, evocative and inspiring. I close my eyes and there it stays as I sleep, protective and ethereal.  I suppose it is a totem of stability and hope in this plague year, a remembrance of an easier, connected time, ease taken for granted like so much else in our privileged pre-COVID lives. Perhaps this global trauma will sanctify necessary changes in the way we live and vote and spend our money and make friends and cherish loved ones. I look forward, as a writer and as a citizen of the troubled United States, to participate in and document these changes.


The holidays are beckoning and looming. We are not together, not in proximity just yet, we must stay the recommended course to remain safe. I carry this thought into the day: we won't be having a family Thanksgiving. How will we celebrate? What will we be celebrating? Survival, fortitude, good will, a new administration in the White House, ancestors and descendants, respect for one another, the Milky Way, scientists developing treatments and vaccines, educators, front line doctors and nurses, soldiers, diplomats, apples, lakes, clouds, windmills and solar panels.


In the supermarket early this morning I remembered a dream. It's not the first supermarket dream I've had since the pandemic began. It goes like this: It is early, and I am nearly alone. I run into my daughter and am surprised to see her there as this is the hour reserved for seniors. What is she buying? Why hasn't she told me she'd be here? Why is the frozen food rotten and dirty? Why are we talking without our masks?  We open a couple of folding chairs and sit distanced in front of the avocados to continue our unending conversation. Then she walks away, and I walk away to separate check-out counters, we wave good-bye, blow kisses, and wrap our arms around ourselves in symbolic, muted hugs.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-Three


The Surge


While New York's COVID positivity remains the third-lowest in the nation, we continue to see increases in both new positive cases and hospital admissions, demonstrating we are not immune to the surge we are seeing throughout the rest of the nation.


Governor Cuomo, November 10. 2020



The election is over, the virus is still here, I am still writing this blog book, no end in sight. So today, I return to the pandemic itself, the surge, the responsibility, or carelessness, or foolishness of people I hold near and dear, of the risks they take, and the risks I take to make life a bit more pleasant. And I am curious about the psychological mechanism that allows us, or tempts us, to take such risks and then to rationalize them away. One friend tells me she is being "very careful, very strict," and then admits she has traveled to see her grandchildren in another state and hugged them. But she's okay, she says, because she doesn't go into stores at all. Another friend has a dinner party on his deck, beautiful food, a forever gracious host, and drops his mask as he puts a plate in front of me, chatting all the while. Four colleagues meet in a restaurant in New York City where they sit in close quarters, masks off as they are eating, chatting away, and send a photo on text to commemorate the occasion. Another colleague reports that she has taken a vacation with her husband, driving all the way to the Canadian border, which is still closed. A friend in Virginia travels to see his girlfriend in New York and says, "I'm not worried at all, why should I quarantine?" And did you know, dear reader, that the enlightened practice of quarantine began in Venice in the 15th century, when ships were kept off-shore for 40 days –quaranta giorni—to try to control the spread of plague? Even then, so long ago, it was known that quarantine works.


Boredom makes us do crazy things. So does deprivation. But there is also defiance, there is also denial, there is also entitlement. A new neighbor meets me on the stairs and wants to chat. Sure, we are outdoors, but six feet quickly becomes four and then three. Humans draw close, we love and need the contact, the connection. "Happy to chat," I say, "but you'll have to be wearing a mask. If you don't have one, I have spares in my apartment." He looks at me oddly and quickly walks away. I can't tell you what his expression means exactly, because we have not, as yet, had a sustained conversation, but I read it as, "Who is this crazy woman telling me what to do?"  And when I remind a beloved cousin that she must stay masked when she talks to her children, even six feet apart and outside, she says, "Don't lecture me."


Dear Friends, please forgive me, but Governor Cuomo is my guru. If he says the positivity rate its going up, it is going up. If he says that we still must be cautious, we must still be cautious. If he says it is our civic duty to be cautious—as much as voting is a civic duty—that we must wear masks,  distance, wash our hands often, then we must wear masks, distance and wash our hands often. If he suggests that we do not travel out of state, and as little as possible within the state, there is a reason for this suggestion. It's based on science.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-Two





Until, in the end, it seems that he has heard our laughter, and all at once his stupidity turns to wickedness…  

Jenny Erpenbeck, " My Favorite Fairy Tale," an essay in "Not a Novel; A Memoir in Pieces."


The ending of a catastrophe does not remove from the human repertoire the underlying motivations that gave rise to these sentiments. 

Dr. Robert N. Kraft, "Love Letters to Hitler," Psychology Today, 6/22/2020



Day 3 after the Another Historic Election and for some reason I am thinking about Struwwelpeter, the 1845 German children's book by Heinrich Hoffman. Why did my father have this book on his shelf? It was terrifying. In one story, a girl plays with matches, sets herself on fire, and burns to death. In another, a naughty child is dipped in black ink. But the story about Konrad was the worst for me.  That once sweet child sucked his thumb, as did I. His mother warns him, but he can't stop. Along comes a tailor who cuts off his thumbs with giant scissors.


This book was never intended for me, gifted to me, or read to me; it was a relic of my father's European childhood. He must have brought it to America with him. I found it one morning when I was up early, snuck it off the shelf, and read it furtively before anyone was awake. And I never said a word about my transgression, if that is what it was, to anyone, least of all my father, a collector of Egon Schiele's pornographic images, some of them of underage girls. Fortunately for me, I did not live with my father full-time and he didn't have joint custody, just visitation rights. Every hour in his presence was an agony for me. Every "moral" instruction I received from his wife was an agony for me. She had red hair just like Struwwelpeter—a Struwwelpeter  Family writ large. Yet this cruel book, and the characters in the book, are still considered "classic" today, a precursor of the comic book and the graphic novel.


Is it my imagination or does Donald Trump resemble Struwwelpeter, the naughty boy-child of an abusive father who becomes a teenaged delinquent, and an adult criminal in constant need of "correction?" This may be true, or not true, it is of no consequence; it is only a thought passing through this writer's head. In any event, we've reached the denouement of an amoral, demented man's regime in Washington, the end of a catastrophe, which does not mean we are relieved of the responsibility for what has happened, or the work of restoring sanity to a more just society.


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